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Happier in Her Friends Than Relations

Chapter Text

  

Prologue

 

 

 

          The several hours Elizabeth Bennet had to wait between learning of her elder sister’s engagement, and finding the opportunity to speak with her privately felt like an eternity. The house had been in uproar since breakfast, when their odious cousin Mr. Collins, a dubiously welcome guest in their home these two weeks, had requested a private audience with Jane. Mr. Bennet had scowled and gravely retreated to his study while the younger girls giggled between themselves, their whispers drowned out by the effusive ramblings of Mrs. Bennet; Lizzy could only exchange a look of horror with their middle sister, Mary.

     While Jane acquiesced to Mr. Collins’ request with forbearance, Elizabeth had no idea that her sister truly meant to accept his proposal, and was shocked when Mrs. Bennet fluttered into the drawing room less than an hour later, rejoicing over their good fortune. Jane and her intended had barely made an appearance, to receive the bewildered congratulations of her younger sisters, before Jane was promptly whisked away by her mother to make the requisite calls around the neighborhood, announcing the news.

     Mr. Collins was quite content being unceremoniously left behind by his future mother in-law, and remained in the drawing room to extoll, at length, on the anticipated virtues of his future life to his young cousins. Claiming the excuse of a very real headache, Elizabeth was the first of them to flee the uncomfortable interlude, and she remained out of doors, alone with her agitated thoughts, until her elder sister had returned to the house.

     Elizabeth entered the room she shared with Jane and found her sister seated at the vanity, staring blankly at her own reflection; the sight of it tore at Elizabeth’s heart. She sat down on the bench next to her sister, covering Jane’s hand with her own. “Are you all right, Jane?”

     Jane nodded absently, offering a thin smile. “Indeed, Lizzy, I am quite content.”

     “Dear Jane, you cannot be serious. You cannot really do this, tie yourself to that awful man!”

     Jane’s expression was one of innocent shock. “Of course I am serious. It has been announced all over the neighborhood. And, truly, he is not so very bad, though I know you dislike him. He has made me an honorable offer.”

     Elizabeth let out a derisive snort. “Honorable indeed! As if he isn’t pompous enough already, he seeks to puff himself up even more by securing a wife who is far too good for him. And Mama is so eager to see one of us settled that she does not care if it is to a foolish, servile toad! No, Jane, you deserve better than that.”

     Jane recoiled from Lizzy, visibly distraught. “Lizzy, that is unkind. It was very generous of Mr. Collins to select a wife from amongst us, when there was no obligation for him to do so.”

     Her sister might have said more, but Elizabeth was quick to cut her off. “He likely knows that no other woman would have him! At least with us, in his mind, he has some chance of success, as he seems to think us so indebted to him. But you needn’t be, Jane, for you are five times too lovely to be wasted on such a man as him when you could do so much better!”

     At this, Jane’s expression hardened, and she launched herself up from the bench beside Elizabeth, to pace the room. “Could I? I am twenty-two years old, I have hardly any dowry to speak of, and no other prospects. That northern gentleman who was rumored to be leasing Netherfield never came, and who knows what other opportunities may ever come our way. I cannot take any more chances, Lizzy. The truth is, none of us may ever receive a better offer.”

     “You might! Tell Mr. Collins you need some time to think on it. You could go to London, stay with our aunt and uncle. Attend the theatre, the assemblies, and I am sure you should find some gentleman more worthy of you.”

     “NO, LIZZY!” Jane inhaled deeply before continuing, “I have given my word, I shall not go back on it. Would you have me gamble the fate of our family? We are entirely at Mr. Collin’s mercy when Papa dies, for he shall have this house! Would you turn away a chance to ensure our security?”

     Elizabeth shook her head emphatically. “No, Jane, I cannot believe this is the only way. And I would certainly never bind myself to such a man, no matter the cost! I should do anything else to avoid it – work as a governess, even, but never would I marry such a man.”

     “Then you are selfish, Lizzy!” Jane rounded on Elizabeth, her eyes full of fury as she drew closer to her sister. “Our mother has always said so, and I never wanted to believe it, but you are a selfish, stupid girl! You are no better than Lydia, with her head full of love and officers, romantic notions that will do this family no good whatsoever! One of us must be practical.”

      Elizabeth stood and reached out pleadingly to Jane. “The rest of us, indeed, but not you. If anyone deserves to marry for love, Jane, it is you.”

     Jane swatted her sister’s hand away, bringing her own hands up to her face in an expression of sheer torment. “Stop this! You and Mama must let go of this delusion that some rich gentleman will come along and sweep me off my feet. That my good looks will somehow save us all.  That is not the way the world works, in all the years I have been waiting for Mama’s fantasies to come true. This, this is reality. Mr. Collins. This is my chance to really save our family, and you would have me throw it away for some dream. I will not!”

     “So instead you will throw yourself away? You truly believe you have no other options, that there is no one out there that will see your worth? You are too good –”

     Jane interrupted before her sister could finish. “Why, because I smile, and embroider pretty little nothings?” Jane’s scowl grew deeper as her voice rose, and her temper spiraled out of control.

     “I am not special, Lizzy, I am sick of hearing it! I am simply the only one in this house with any sense of reality, with any sense of what is right! Perhaps I merely seem like such a good catch because of the company I keep! Our younger sisters run wild, unchecked – they are a scandal waiting to happen. Mary moralizes and lectures us more than our own parents, and is just as soon disregarded. You, Lizzy, are impertinent and headstrong, and downright rude! You care more about having your own way than you do about your sisters, and it shows. You somehow manage to have Papa wrapped around your little finger, for you are the only person in this house he takes seriously and treats with the slightest bit of respect, in private or in public! And Mama! She has been chasing away suitors since I came out! Mr. Purvis, who wrote me all those poems when I was fifteen, might very well have done more, if not for her humiliating determination to catch him for me. And every year it gets worse; the older I get, the more desperate she grows, and it only damages my already slim chances. I have had enough!”

     Silent tears streamed down Elizabeth’s face as she helplessly watched her beloved sister come unraveled. Jane, who had always been so gentle and serene – it was as if she had never known her sister. “I did not know you felt this way,” Elizabeth whispered weakly.

     Jane took a deep breath before she responded, but though she had lowered her voice, the steel was not gone from it. “You only see what you care to see. Perhaps if you took your head out of your books, if you spent less time idling away in Papa’s study, or wandering about the countryside, you might have seen it. But then, you are so very private yourself, I suppose it may never have occurred to you that some of us might actually wish to confide our feelings sometimes.”

     Elizabeth stammered, unable to formulate a response before Jane pressed on, her voice filling with bile once again, until she was nearly shouting.

     “Perhaps you do not care what I think, or what I feel – I daresay no one in this family does. It is enough that I am placid and tractable, and willing to go along with whatever is decided for me, but this decision is my own, it is what is needed, and I expect all my sisters to be grateful. You in particular, Lizzy. You should be thanking your lucky stars that northern gentleman backed out of the lease of Netherfield, for Mama meant for me to have him, and then it would be you wed to Mr. Collins, if he would have you. If any eligible gentleman comes to Netherfield now, you shall not have my good looks and pleasant manners to rely on, you shall have to make do with your sharp tongue and clever opinions, for you know you are not half so pretty as I am.”

     Elizabeth stared numbly, scarcely recognizing the raging harpy before her.

     “I will do what I must to save our family and secure our future, and I will have your respect.  I deserve no less. I am doing what none of my sisters would, my duty, and all of you owe me a debt of gratitude, do you understand? One day I shall become mistress of this house, and you ought to pray, Lizzy, that day does not come soon, for I daresay my husband and I shall not be so forbearing as Papa. I strongly advise you to be long gone by the time that day comes, or it shall not go well for you. Indeed, you had better hope some single gentleman finally does let Netherfield, for I daresay it is your only chance, if you can curb your offensive behavior and not snub your nose at any respectable offer that comes along! When I am wed and gone off to Kent, it will be you who Mama shall thrust at any gentleman she can, and you shall have no sympathy from me, Lizzy!”

     Disbelief washed over Elizabeth as she wept softly, Jane’s disparagements stinging her deeply. As Jane continued to pace the room, Elizabeth sat still on the bench, hugging her knees to her chest.

     Jane rounded on her again, her ire rising at Elizabeth’s stunned silence. “You sneer at my choice, when you have no prospects of your own! Perhaps you shall end a governess after all, as you say. It would serve you right Lizzy, for you have done nothing to deserve any better. Papa indulges you, and you expect the rest of the world to do so as well, but I will not! And when he is gone….”

     Elizabeth could listen no longer. It was one thing to bear the brunt of her sister’s unexpected vitriol, but she would not let Jane, or anyone else, speak against her beloved father. “That is enough,” Elizabeth shouted, standing up and stepping toward her sister. Though the shorter of the two, Elizabeth tipped her chin up and brought her face to within inches of Jane’s.

     “I know not what has come over you, or if I have ever known you at all, but from this day you are a stranger to me, Jane. Say what you will of me, I care not, but I shall not hear another word against our father. Do not dare to judge that man, for soon it shall be you, just like him, shackled to a partner you cannot respect, and what escape shall you have? You shall be well and truly trapped, Jane, and I dare say you will deserve every bit of the misery you will have brought upon yourself. Perhaps being mistress of this house and lording over your sisters will bring you some comfort in your wretchedness, but I shall certainly not be here to see it, I promise you that.”

     Elizabeth fixed one final glare on her sister, until Jane looked away, folding her arms in front of her chest. Without another word, she spun on her heel and stormed out of the room. The slam of the door was followed by a chilling silence.

 

1.

  

     Elizabeth hummed softly to herself, running her fingers pensively against the frosty carriage window as Hertfordshire disappeared in the distance. She had never been so relieved to leave a place in her entire life. Beside her, Madeline Gardiner took Elizabeth’s hand in her own, giving it a gentle squeeze.

     “Oh come now, Lizzy,” her uncle cried. “Why the brooding, my dear? Off to London, to adventure, to the start of a new year, eh? What better way to lift your spirits?” He smiled indulgently at his niece, his eyes crinkling with good-humored affection. Edward Gardiner was a portly, genial man of five and thirty, possessed of engaging manners, high spirits, and an active disposition. Being nearly ten years younger than his sisters, and sharing little of their temperaments, Edward Gardiner was more of a brother figure to his two eldest nieces. His good fortune both in business and in marriage had allowed him to indulge them much as an older brother would do, and his intellect and compassion had long endeared him to Elizabeth.

     Mrs. Gardiner nodded in agreement with her husband. “Truly, Lizzy, a couple of months away from home, and you will have put this whole sad business with Jane behind you. All will be well, my love.”

     Elizabeth could only shake her head, refusing to believe it, too stubborn to even desire reconciliation. “I think not.” She turned her face away, glaring out at the snowy countryside.

     “I know it hurt, Lizzy, but Jane is a good girl at heart. She cannot have meant the awful things she said. She was likely feeling quite overcome, for it is a difficult situation. Ever since she was fifteen, your mother has told anyone who will listen that Jane’s beauty will be the salvation of your family, that she is destined to marry well, thus providing for her younger sisters – or else, you will all starve in the hedgerows. After all that, it must have been a disappointment for her to accept, at two-and-twenty, that she will not make such a brilliant marriage after all, and that to save her family means to bind herself to a man whom she has, at one time or another, heard abused by her mother, father, and nearly all of her sisters.”

     A dozen bitter retorts were ready to spill from her tongue, but her aunt was poised to cut her off. “This cannot have been easy for her.”

     Elizabeth could only stare blankly at her aunt’s vindication of Jane. Their falling out had been nothing short of devastating, exacerbated by their mother’s strident support of her eldest daughter. Of course, Mama would have sided with anyone against me, Elizabeth thought bitterly. But Jane, I had thought better of her. Perhaps she deserves Mr. Collins, after all. Elizabeth looked pleadingly at her uncle, silently begging him to take her side. It was all she asked for, some modicum of absolution when it seemed that everyone was set against her.

     Her uncle leaned forward and patted her on the knee. “Now Lizzy, I will tell you something that may shock you greatly. When I married your aunt, nearly ten years ago, your mother was quite determined that I should give the connection up.” When Elizabeth gasped, Mr. Gardiner nodded his head gravely. “Oh, she was vastly displeased with me. She had married a landed gentleman, you see, so she considered it a right thing to raise her standards for all the family after that. She had it in her head that I ought to set my sights on a gentleman’s daughter, and preferably one with brothers of the right age to someday have their heads turned by you girls. So when I married a beautiful, penniless shopkeeper’s daughter… well, suffice it to say we had words.”

     “Oh! I never knew!” Elizabeth clasped Mrs. Gardiner’s hands in her own, overcome with mortification at the thought of her mother disparaging a woman she held in such his esteem.  

     “But of course you didn’t,” her uncle cried, a twinkle in his eye. “You were only ten years old!” He smiled a moment longer at Lizzy, before his countenance grew serious. “But you see, Lizzy, it may be entirely possible that your mother is of the same opinion to this very day. Not likely, of course, else we should know about it. But at some point, I imagine, there was a time in between her fervent disapproval, and her present state of mind, which is that she has most probably very conveniently forgotten she ever disapproved at all. Somewhere along the way, she came to realize that she had to accept what she could not change, and that if she cared for me at all, she would have to simply learn to like my dear Madeline, or at least to cease disparaging her so openly.”

     Elizabeth let out an indignant huff at the highly unpalatable comparison to her mother. “I see what you are about, Uncle. But you have married the most lovable creature on this earth, while Jane has married the most repellent!”

     Mr. Gardiner suppressed a smile. “Either way, my dear, Mrs. Collins has made her choice. You can despise her for not choosing a life more like what you had imagined for her, or you can accept her choice and make your peace with it. Is that not the very reason you come to London with us? You shall put this whole dreadful mess behind you. You are the Miss Bennet now, and you must look to your own future.”

     Her uncle watched her with bemused affection as she considered his words. Elizabeth was not ready to forgive Jane, neither for throwing herself away on a fatuous toad of a man, nor for the horrible things Jane had said when Elizabeth had begged her to reconsider. It should have been Jane going to London, where she would be the loveliest lady in any ballroom, where she might find a man she could truly esteem.

          Of course, Elizabeth had begun to doubt that her sister had ever been such an angel at all. In the weeks leading up to the wedding, she had felt utterly staggered by Jane’s drastic alteration. Had she ever truly known her sister? Would this new dynamic of their relationship last forever? While Elizabeth could hardly imagine herself entirely forgetting there had been a disagreement; still, she hoped it would not take ten years for the bitterness to dissipate.

     She looked between her aunt and her uncle, who both stared expectantly at her, as if awaiting the next round of argument. Elizabeth arched an eyebrow and said, “Well, if she and I have to make our peace with what’s happened, as you say, at least I will be doing so amongst the diversions of London, and not in some remote parsonage in Kent with illustrious dowagers inspecting the very shelves in the closets!”

     Her uncle threw his head back and laughed. ‘That’s my Lizzy. Well now, it seems you’re of a mind to make the best of your journey, which is a very good thing indeed.  Your mother has told us in no uncertain terms what she shall think of our talents as proper guardians if we return you home in the spring unmarried still, and it has given your aunt and me a terrible fright.”

     It was Elizabeth’s turn to laugh, and she did so easily, though she knew her uncle’s jest was probably not far from the truth. As pleased as her mother had been by Jane’s marriage to the heir to Longbourn, she had not wasted anytime in transferring her expectations – marriage to a wealthy gentleman – to Elizabeth as soon as her travels to London had been arranged.

     “I am sorry to say, you certainly have your work cut out for you with such an obstinate, headstrong girl. I shall do my best, though, for I should not like Mama to cast me out of the house before Jane has the pleasure of doing so herself.”

     Elizabeth could see the trace of a reproof in her aunt’s eye, but laughter got the better of her. “Indeed we are quite prepared for the arduous task at hand, Lizzy. Your uncle and I are acquainted with several gentlemen in possession of large fortunes, who must be in want of a wife.”

***

     The rest of the journey to London was pleasant enough, though both Elizabeth and the Gardiners were eager to retire early when they reached the comfort of their home on Gracechurch Street. Elizabeth was grateful for the pains her aunt and uncle had taken to lift her spirits, and assured them she should not mind in the least if they all withdrew upstairs. Her aunt squeezed her hand affectionately. “We shall send the maid up to get you settled into your usual room here, Lizzy, and we shall have a plate of food sent up as well. I will ask Cook for something simple tonight.”

     “That sounds quite perfect,” Elizabeth replied, smiling at her aunt and uncle as they divested themselves of their coats in the front hall. She bade them each a good evening with a kiss on the cheek before retreating upstairs with a welcome sense of serenity washing over her.

     The upstairs maid, Maggie, was quick in freshening up Elizabeth’s favorite bedroom on the third floor, and assisted her in changing into her nightdress and loosening her thick chestnut curls from the elaborate hairstyle her mother had insisted she don for Jane’s wedding that morning. Elizabeth dismissed the maid, vowing to unpack her own trunks later, and once alone she shook out her newly liberated tresses, much as wished she could shake off the entire memory of that morning, and in fact the entire month preceding it.

     Elizabeth was sensible of her own good fortune in having relations who had shown such concern for her well-being as to remove her from Longbourn, where even after Jane’s wedding and subsequent removal, the residual hostility still hung about the air like a suffocating fog. No sooner had Mr. Collins departed with his bride after the wedding breakfast than Mrs. Bennet had redirected her attention to Elizabeth. Her mother had spent the remainder of the morning alternately scolding her for “nearly ruining Jane’s chances” with Mr. Collins, lamenting that Elizabeth did not show as much interest in the handsome militiamen encamped in Meryton as her youngest sisters did, and mourning the fact that that mysterious gentleman from the north never followed through with his plan to lease Netherfield in the autumn, for surely one of her girls would have got him – not that Lizzy would have been much help in that quarter, either.

     It was around the time that Mrs. Bennet had convicted her second daughter of the imaginary crime of repulsing the attentions of an unknown gentleman who had never actually joined their neighborhood that Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner were obliged to intervene on their niece’s behalf. The invitation to return to London with them was issued and accepted, and Mrs. Bennet’s outlook so drastically improved that Elizabeth almost wondered if such a scheme had been her mother’s intention all along. In the time it had taken Elizabeth to retire upstairs and begin packing a trunk, Mrs. Bennet had come to the conclusion that Elizabeth must return home an engaged woman by the end of the winter, and would certainly send word of any prospects for her sisters as well.

     Through all of her mother’s hysteria, her father had remained aloof. While it was not uncommon for him to retreat to his study when his wife had worked herself up into such a state, this typically occurred only after a sufficient amount of sardonic teasing. However, Mr. Bennet had hardly spoken a word to anyone on the day of his eldest daughter’s wedding. Indeed, he had been more than usually reticent since Mr. Collin’s, and for the first time in her life, Elizabeth not been able to cajole a confidence out of him. Though never one to hold back from extolling the folly of others, he was a closed book to his favorite daughter on the subject of Mr. Collins, as well as Elizabeth’s dispute with Jane.

     Elizabeth had noticed the strain in his countenance as he accepted the congratulations and good wishes of their neighbors at the wedding breakfast. Though she had felt her father’s emotional abandonment almost as keenly as Jane’s cruelty, it broke Elizabeth’s heart all over again to realize that her father was just as disappointed as she was by Jane’s choice to marry Mr. Collins. That afternoon, as the Bennets bid farewell to the Gardiners and Elizabeth, her father had looked ten years older. He had bade her farewell with tears in his eyes.

     Still seated at the antique vanity, Elizabeth peered at her own reflection, recognizing the changes that the last few emotionally taxing weeks had wrought upon her countenance. Her face was thinner, her skin pale and sallow, and there were dark circles under her eyes. Jane’s word’s echoed in her mind as she stared at the mirror. This vicious, spiteful side of her sister had wounded Elizabeth deeply. More than the ugly things Jane said, Elizabeth felt the loss of her dearest friend, whom she feared was gone forever, leaving a permanent rift in the dynamic at Longbourn.

     Not that she would be at Longbourn much longer herself, Elizabeth reminded herself, pulling her mind back to the present. She had always known Jane would marry someday – true, she had not imagined it would happen like this, to a man their family could neither respect nor refuse – yet Elizabeth had never considered that after Jane wed, she would be expected to do the same. Of course she knew that it was her mother’s primary objective in life to see all her daughters settled, yet for so long it had seemed little more than a joke, too far-off in the distant future to be given any real consideration. But it was a reality, now. Jane was married, and it was not the fairy tale their Mama had promised. Elizabeth was sent to London, ostensibly to recover her spirits and enjoy herself, but her mother’s expectations rang out in her mind, the real reason she was here.

     A bitter laugh escaped her lips as she turned away from the mirror, unable to bear the sight of herself so altered. How cavalier she had been. Only a few weeks before Mr. Collins had come to Longbourn and ruined everything, she had teased Jane for being their family’s best hope. “One of us at least will have to marry very well,” she had said. “As you are quite five times prettier than the rest of us, I fear the task will fall you to raise our fortunes.” It seemed a hundred years away, when she had so comfortably dismissed their situation with jokes, and Jane placidly allowed it. She had echoed Elizabeth’s desire to marry for love, and Elizabeth had quipped, “Take care that you fall in love with a man of fortune.” Would that she had known just how soon Jane would face such a situation.

     “Mrs. Collins has made her choice,” Elizabeth whispered, repeating her aunt’s reprimand. She fell asleep wondering how long it would be before she was faced with a similar decision.

 

Chapter Text

 

     Elizabeth’s first few days in London were full and refreshing, orchestrated by her aunt with the purpose of keeping her mind off of that which she had left behind in Hertfordshire. In addition to daily walks with her aunt and cousins, Elizabeth enjoyed several shopping trips, and morning calls to her aunt and uncle’s wide circle of friends and acquaintances.

     Foremost among these was Mrs. Carmichael, Mrs. Gardiner’s younger half-sister, who had married exceedingly well and now enjoyed a comfortable widowhood in Mayfair. She had given her late husband an heir and a spare, and her sons were of an age to play well with their three rambunctious Gardiner cousins. Without a natural daughter of her own, Mrs. Carmichael was content to dote upon her late husband’s daughter from his first marriage, who was embarking on her first season out in society.

     Mrs. Carmichael and Mrs. Gardiner were gratified to unite their young ladies one fine morning, almost a week into Elizabeth’s visit. It had been some years since they last met, and Elizabeth recalled Emily Carmichael as being much like her own younger sisters at thirteen. Now seventeen, plumper and in possession of fewer freckles spattered across her milky skin, Miss Carmichael’s exuberance had been tempered with just enough grace and decorum to make her a very agreeable companion for Elizabeth, who found herself perfectly at ease with the young lady’s overtures of friendship. A mere ten minutes into the visit, they had agreed that as they were nearly cousins themselves, they might dispense with formality and use one another’s Christian names.

     “Do tell me you shall be in attendance at the Banfields’ ball tomorrow,” Emily entreated, glancing at her distracted stepmother as she snuck another lemon tart from the tea tray.

     Elizabeth felt a momentary blush sweep across her face as she answered in the affirmative. “I daresay I could not avoid it, even if I wished to. For you see, I have heard my aunt’s recital of the innumerable single gentlemen likely to be in attendance, and I am to understand my absence would result in at least half of them pining over the acute loss of a penniless country girl with negligible accomplishments to recommend her.”

     Emily gaped at her for a moment, alarm in her eyes, until she suddenly broke into a toothy, genuine smile. “Oh, Lizzy, you are very droll! But pray, you mustn’t speak so unkindly of yourself.”

     “You are probably right; I suppose there are only too many ladies I have yet to meet who will be quite willing to do it for me, once they get to know me.” Despite the mirth in Elizabeth’s eyes, her companion frowned seriously.

     “Oh dear, I hadn’t thought of it that way. I know the ladies of the ton have made it quite an art to be rather cutting. I confess it is a terrifying prospect. My mother has such high hopes for my first season, but I rather fear I shall be laughed out of the first ballroom I set foot in.” She wrung her hands in her lap, giving Elizabeth a beseeching look.

     Elizabeth felt a stab of guilt at Emily’s reaction to her quip, and had to remind herself that her new friend was not used to her own manner of teasing. “Dearest Emily, I beg you would not give my foolish jest more credit than it deserves. It is merely my nature to make such observations for my own amusement, but I would have you know I never intend any harm by it. If I have alarmed you, I am truly sorry.” Emily nodded shyly, and Elizabeth was relieved by how easily her apology had been accepted. “And for what it’s worth,” Elizabeth added, “I think you will do wonderfully. You shall have me by your side at the Twelfth Night ball tomorrow, and we shall face the world down together.”

     Miss Carmichael’s smile returned, rendering her face almost pretty. “It is to be such a fine affair. The Banfields know everyone.”

     Elizabeth tipped her chin up in a mock display of haughtiness. “Fear not, Emily. There is a stubbornness about me that can never bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me. I shall teach you all about it, and then we shall both be quite invincible. Now, tell me about the gown you shall wear….”

     Having succeeded in putting her new friend at ease, Elizabeth steered the discussion of the ball in a safer direction. She was pleased to continue the rest of the visit in an animated conversation with Emily, with occasional interjections from Mrs. Gardiner and Mrs. Carmichael, who had just as much to say on the subject. Elizabeth found much to look forward to in Emily Carmichael’s companionship. Though not so clever nor so well read as herself, she conversed easily and expressed herself well, and shared Elizabeth’s enthusiasm for all the entertainments a season in London promised.

     The visit lasted longer than was proper for a morning call, and yet they were all loath to part when Mrs. Gardiner finally suggested they take their leave.

     “Well, Lizzy,” her aunt said as their carriage pulled away. “You seemed to get on well with Miss Emily.”

     “Indeed, I did. I think I shall be glad to see more of her. And to own the truth, it is a relief to know that I will have some acquaintance beyond yourself and my uncle at the Banfields’ ball tomorrow. I understand from Miss Carmichael that it is to be rather a grander affair than you originally let on.” Elizabeth arched an eyebrow provokingly at her aunt.

     Mrs. Gardiner smiled back at her niece, enjoying the joke. “Yes, well, perhaps I did not sufficiently elaborate, Lizzy, but I know how easily intimidated you are.”

     Elizabeth screwed her face up at her aunt’s admission of eavesdropping, and laughed heartily. “Truly, aunt, I am not terribly frightened. But shall it be dreadfully grand?”

     Mrs. Gardiner laughed, launching into aadetailed description of Sir Bertrand and Lady Helen Banfield, and their delight in hosting elaborate entertainments at their luxurious home in Cavendish Square. She likened Sir Bertrand Banfield to Elizabeth’s neighbor, Sir William Lucas, a jovial tradesman elevated to the station of knighthood for services – of an undoubtedly pecuniary nature – to the crown. Prior to this event, Mr. Banfield had been an associate of Mr. Gardiner’s when they had worked for old Mr. Bingley in the north of England. Both men had been instrumental in assisting their mentor in establishing his business in London, and he had likewise supported their own endeavors. Sir Bertrand and Mr. Gardiner’s success had been largely due to the counsel and support of Mr. Bingley, and though Sir Bertrand was no longer engaged in trade, he and Mr. Gardiner had remained the best of friends. Both were of such a sociable and easy disposition that they shared a number of common acquaintances, and as Sir Bertrand was the kind of man who should find himself quite welcome in just about any drawing room in London, his friendship had opened many doors for the Gardiners.

     Sir Bertrand’s marriage to Lady Helen, the cousin of an earl, had only done more to assist him in society, and she was one of the few people of their acquaintance whose delight in society exceeded his own. Though the couple had yet to have any children, their home was always full of laughter and activity, and over the years of their marriage, the entertainments they hosted had only grown more lavish and imaginative. Invitations to their soirees had become quite sought after, even by some who would ordinarily never lower themselves to enter the home of a man formerly in trade. And though there were still plenty amongst the ton who were still disposed to think ill of them – despite, or perhaps because of their renown – the Banfields were far too content with their own lives to notice those who were not.

     Elizabeth was filled with wonderment at all her aunt had related. “They sound absolutely enchanting,” she exclaimed. “That is my ideal of what a marriage ought to be. It sounds as though Sir Bertrand and Lady Helen are so deeply enamored of one another, that they cannot help but spread cheer into the lives of all who know them. They exist in a state of complete and incandescent happiness that cannot be broken by those in this world who would seek to disparage them out of spite and jealousy. That is exactly what I would wish for.”

     Her aunt smiled at her with affectionate bemusement. “It certainly does sound like a fairy tale when you put it that way, Lizzy. But I am sure that as in every marriage, there are quarrels and vexation, and disappointments that are not made common knowledge or put on display for the world to see. It is only their triumphs, their wealth and hospitality, which have cultivated their public image, though we cannot know what goes on behind closed doors.”

     “Do you suppose they are not truly as happy as they wish to be considered?”

     “I daresay no one is truly happy all the time; that is simply not possible for anyone. I only wish to advise you not to give so much credence to appearances that you lose sight of reality, and raise your expectations beyond the realm of possibility. No marriage is a fairy tale, not even mine, and I love your uncle dearly. I do not doubt the Banfields share a very deep regard for one another as well, but I am also fairly certain that were their circumstances different – if they did not enjoy the conveniences of a large home and an even larger income – well, perhaps they should not always exhibit such perfect harmony. So for any casual observer to take them for a model of marital bliss would be the surest guarantee of disappointment, you see. Some unions take a great deal less of money or even love, in order to flourish, and some are more happy than they appear to the rest of the world, not less so.”

     Elizabeth eyed her aunt suspiciously, unsure of how their discussion had turned into a lecture on the perils of the marriage state. Nor was she certain of whether her aunt’s remarks were a warning for her own situation, or a veiled reference to Jane’s chances of happiness with the ludicrous parson. Certainly neither of them would be bringing much in the way of money into their marriages, though of affection Elizabeth still hoped for more than she imagined her sister would enjoy. And despite her aunt’s warning that perception was not always reality, Elizabeth felt certain that in Jane’s case, they were one and the same.

     As Elizabeth sat in silent contemplation, her aunt seemed to sense her niece’s feelings, and steered the conversation elsewhere. A few minutes more saw them arrived home at Gracechurch Street, and Elizabeth’s relief was evident as she hastened from the carriage and into the house, where she could retreat to her room for solitary contemplation.

***

     When Mrs. Gardiner entered her niece’s bedroom to remind her of the approaching dinner hour, she found Elizabeth curled up in the window seat that overlooked the street, wrapped in a blanket, her cousins’ fat orange cat curled up in her lap. Half a dozen sheets up crumpled paper lay at her feet, and her pen lay broken on the desk. Where Mrs. Bennet might have thought only of the waste of paper, Mrs. Gardiner’s heart nearly broke in compassion. “Oh, Lizzy.” She crossed the room and took her niece’s hand, and Elizabeth looked up at her with a tear-streaked face.

     “I am sorry, aunt, I can hardly account for myself. I had thought to write Jane a letter, but as you can see it proved too difficult for me. I am at odds with myself, being simultaneously wounded, angry, and frightened for my own future, and it pains me to admit it.”

     Her aunt drew up a chair, and sat down beside her. “I understand your feelings, Lizzy. And if you should like to speak of them to me, I will listen.”

     Elizabeth’s bottom lip quivered for a moment as she fought away tears. Between her mother’s ignorance and hysteria, her father’s sardonic inattention, and her younger sister’s indiscretion, Elizabeth had always been of a very private nature. Despite being known for speaking her mind, she kept her deepest feelings to herself, unwilling to share any vulnerability with those who she did not believe would understand. With her aunt, Lizzy considered that finally she might share her feelings, if only she knew how. But the words eluded her, and she felt utterly inept.

     “No doubt Jane’s marriage has brought on a great deal of mixed emotions for you,” her aunt prompted, “And it is only natural that you may have some difficulty in sorting them out all by yourself. But you are not alone. Your uncle and I have brought you here so that you can take the time you need to sort it out.”

     Elizabeth sniffed and nodded as her aunt waited patiently for a response. “So I am not here to be paraded about the marriage mart as Mama said?”

     Mrs. Gardiner gave a small chuckle. “Your mother was not exactly circumspect, was she?” Elizabeth attempted a smile in response, as her aunt continued, “You needn’t worry, my dear. Your uncle and I do agree that the marriage of your elder sister is an appropriate time for you to begin considering your own future, but nothing needs to be decided before you are ready, and we will certainly not force you into anything you are not comfortable with. While we would be delighted if some young man caught your eye while you were here, we will not blame you if you return home to Longbourn unattached, as it will by no means be your only opportunity to meet someone you like.”

     Again, Lizzy could only nod, her fears not completely allayed. Her aunt and uncle might be understanding, but her mother would not be, and she would have to return home eventually. If she could not find someone she liked in the booming metropolis of London, she would certainly fare no better in her own quiet corner of Hertfordshire. Even Jane, the beauty of the family, had had to settle for the portly, greasy, beady-eyed Mr. Collins.

     “Do you think Jane is happy? Really, truly happy?”

     Mrs. Gardiner knew not how to answer. Having met Mr. Collins herself, she had reservations almost equal to Elizabeth’s regarding the match, which only her superior wisdom and experience had kept under better regulation than her niece’s flagrant protestations. As much as she wished to be honest with her niece, she felt all the necessity of setting the example of propriety for the younger girl, and chose her words carefully. “If you wish to know Lizzy, you must ask her yourself, instead up crumpling up every attempt at correspondence. When we spoke of the Banfields this afternoon, what I meant to tell you is that theirs is but one form of happiness, and we live in a world where one might find contentment with a variety of circumstances. It is possible that a young lady of tranquil disposition may find herself perfectly at ease, simply by being mistress of her own home, however modest it may be, with a husband who can provide for her, and a respectable standing in the neighborhood as will allow her acceptance from any of the families she may wish to visit. Some might find such a situation preferable to living at home with so many sisters of different temperaments, facing the prospect of spinsterhood with each passing year, constantly tiptoeing around the nerves of one parent and the cynicism of the other.”

     Elizabeth wiped away another tear, shifting her position in the window seat until the fat orange cat jumped off of her lap. “I hardly know what to think. I fear that will be my fate, and yet I am still angry at Jane. I find myself at once hoping she can be happy, and yet wishing her the worst for all the cruel things she said to me. I am not ready to forgive her, and I think that perhaps I only hope happiness is possible for her because I am so worried about myself. There now, am I not selfish indeed?”

     Mrs. Gardiner smiled to see some of Elizabeth’s usual self coming back. “Perhaps a little,” she teased, “But no more than is perfectly excusable for a young lady on holiday. I have not any other answers for you my dear. You will let go of your fear and anger when the time is right. We know not what the future holds, beyond a supper this evening that I hope you will come down and join us for. I can at least promise no further discussion of any Collinses or Bennets, or of the marriage mart.”

     Elizabeth nodded her assent. “If I might have a few minutes to make myself presentable, I shall be down directly. And, thank you.” She squeezed her aunt’s hand for a moment before looking away in embarrassment.  

     “Of course, my dear. I shall see you downstairs,” Mrs. Gardiner said, before hastening away to make sure her husband was warned off of saying anything indelicate.

***

     As it happened, no such warning was necessary, for the residents of both Longbourn and Hunsford were the furthest things from Mr. Gardiner’s mind on the eve of the Banfields’ ball. In his anticipation of the grand event, Elizabeth thought his relation to her mother more evident than ever before. It was truly diverting. While her mother’s prattle tended to revolve around lace and fripperies, eligible men, and the superiority of her own daughters to those of her friends and neighbors, Mr. Gardiner’s effusions were expressed in the form of his delight with his hosts, the grandeur of their home, and all of the expected guests.  Throughout their simple family dinner he expounded at length over the probable deliciousness of the meal to be expected tomorrow, the excellence of every dish he had ever had at Banfield House, the extravagance of the cakes and pastries they might enjoy, and the vastly superior taste of Lady Helen.

     Sir Bertrand was too good a friend to be given any credit whatsoever, for such was their relationship that each of them was prone to tease and vex the other. And yet Elizabeth supposed there must be a real brotherly affection between the former associates, and was eager to see them in action together. She imagined Sir Bertrand as a younger, richer version of her father – jovial and witty, but benign and loyal, with kind eyes, a droll smile, and eccentrically wispy hair.  

     As her uncle reminisced at length about his previous exploits with Sir Bertrand back in Scarborough, he spoke somewhat of his former mentor, Benjamin Bingley. “Such a good man, he was. Like a father to me, and an absolute genius besides,” Mr. Gardiner exclaimed into his wine glass, to the amusement of his wife and niece. “And by the bye, Madeline, you shall never believe who I saw at Milner’s yesterday – little Charlie!”

     Mrs. Gardiner arched an eyebrow. “I daresay ‘little Charlie’ is quite grown up now, for indeed I can’t imagine he was more than ten years your junior, my dear.”

     ‘No indeed, no indeed,” Mr. Gardiner rejoined. “Nearly ten years to the day, I recall. Now, let me tell you, Lizzy – for your aunt already knows, and I daresay she must find it all terribly boring now, but let me tell you about little Charlie.” Though not quite in his cups, her uncle had grown quite animated as he began to discuss his formative years, before he had come to London to establish his own successful business.

     He had first gone to work for old Mr. Bingley at the age of sixteen, and at that time had met Mr. Banfield as well. Mr. Bingley was an affable sort of man, kind and generous despite his shrewd business acumen. His house was often open to the clerks from his warehouses, and as Mr. Gardiner had quickly climbed their ranks, he became a frequent guest in the Bingleys’ modest home. The Bingley children were quite young then, still in the nursery, but as he was kind to the children, they quickly became fond of him.

     “As with you girls,” he told Elizabeth, “I became sort of an elder brother figure to them, which was rather a novelty for me, being the youngest child in my own family. I took quite a fancy to the role, and would always have sweets and little trinkets for them when I came to visit. For some folks, it might have seemed as though I was trying to ingratiate myself with my employer, but he could see this was not the case. I had recently become an uncle, and was not yet sure how to act around you and Jane on the rare occasions I came to visit, so this was a manner of practice for me, and old Mr. Bingley found it rather diverting. Why, I recall one afternoon, when Banfield and I came for supper, and little Caroline – that’s Charlie’s twin sister – had her favorite doll stolen by Louisa, the elder sister, and she pitched such a fit that I would swear they could have heard her all the way down at the docks! The two of them got to brawling right there in the dining room. There was so much hair-pulling and shrieking, I thought I should have to flee the house, it was all in uproar.”

     Mr. Gardiner guffawed loudly, his eyes misting over at the recollection. “And poor Charlie, ever the little gentleman, was trying so hard to intercede, though he was nearly a casualty of the fray himself. All the while Mrs. Bingley was squawking louder than anything. She was always a bit of a scold, and particularly hard on the girls. Perhaps that is why they turned out so formidable themselves.”

     Elizabeth urged her uncle to go on, for she found the subject of her uncle’s youth far more amusing than any other subject that had been canvassed that day.

     “Well, they were all three almost grown up by the time Mr. Bingley expanded the business to London, some ten years ago. Charlie and the girls went off to school, though Charlie would often include a little note for me when he wrote his parents. He was always looked up to Banfield and me, though I suspect I was his favorite, for I was just a few years closer in age. When he would come home for visits, he always had some great boast to share, for as much as he wanted to make his father proud, I daresay he wanted to impress me just as much. Of course, having never had such a fine gentleman’s education, it did not take much. By the time his father passed, not long after I married, he finally started seeing me as more of an equal, and though we don’t meet so often any more, I daresay we are very fond of one another indeed.”

     “And what of his sisters?”

     Mr. Gardiner laughed. “Oh my, I have not seen the superior sisters in many years. You must understand my dear, when I first came to work for old Ben Bingley, he was a modest tradesman, more so even than myself at the present, and yet they grew so rich so quickly that under the guidance of their mother, their humble beginnings were soon quite forgotten. Though Charlie – Charles, I suppose I should get used to calling him – though Charles retained much of his father’s happy manners, his sisters grew very proud by the time they finished school.”

     “Louisa,” he chortled, nudging his wife with his elbow, “The elder sister once had a tendre for your uncle, Lizzy, when she first had her coming out, but thank the Lord her mother soon put paid to that! She married a few years ago, I believe. Caroline, Charles’ twin, is by all accounts still single, for I’ve not heard otherwise. She and her brother reside here in London for the most part, though I hear the pair of them are often travelling to some county or other for house parties and the like. They have done rather well in society, just as their father wished. Now if only the man would settle down somewhere and take an estate, for that was his father’s dearest wish, and God knows he can certainly afford it!”

     Elizabeth grinned as she often did before saying something pert. “Perhaps he ought to take Netherfield, for I daresay Mama would be delighted to have a rich bachelor in the neighborhood, particularly one already acquainted with our family, as it would give her quite the advantage to lord over Lady Lucas and Mrs. Long!”

     Her uncle stammered and glanced at his wife, who gave him a stern look, to which he responded with a little shrug. Elizabeth stared at them expectantly for a moment. “Oh dear. I think I understand. Might he be the very same gentleman from the north who very nearly let Netherfield three months past?”

     It was her aunt who answered, as her uncle could only give a sheepish scowl. “Mr. Bingley spoke of his desire to let an estate when last we met, this past summer. Your uncle mentioned that he knew of an estate in Hertfordshire, and Mr. Bingley seemed quite pleased by its proximity to London, as well as our description of the place, though it has been quite some time since we last visited, when the Marlowes were in residence there. By all accounts we thought it would be a wonderful surprise for you all to have such a neighbor as Mr. Bingley, and we were most shocked when we learned that he never went through with the plan. By then your mother was so disappointed, we could not bring ourselves to own to being partially responsible for it.”

     Elizabeth could scarcely conceal her astonishment as she recalled her mother’s lamentations over the matter, and later Jane’s words hurled in anger at her. “How very unfortunate,” she said flatly. “Jane was meant to marry the gentleman who settled there, Mama was quite sure of it. And then she would not have had to wed Mr. Collins, leaving him available for me.”

     Her aunt drew back in surprise, but her uncle roared with laughter, even as Elizabeth succumbed to the hilarity herself. Still wide-eyed, Mrs. Gardiner sighed with relief and gave a slight smile.

     Mr. Gardiner patted his wife’s hand reassuringly as he rounded back at his niece, “’Tis kind of you, Lizzy, to think of your sister, but if Charlie had gone to Netherfield at Michaelmas, you would not have the pleasure of dancing with him at the Banfields’ ball tomorrow night.”

     Mrs. Gardiner smiled and cried, “Oho! All this time and now you come to the point. You might have mentioned this above an hour ago, you teasing man.”

     “What, and deprive you both the pleasure of my youthful anecdotes? No indeed, my dear. I fear you have no notion of how to set up such a juicy bit of news, none at all.”

     Elizabeth’s curiosity redoubled, having learned that the man she had spent the last hour hearing about was to make an appearance at what would likely be the most lavish event she had ever attended, and yet despite her uncle’s lengthy account she had not nearly enough information on the man himself. Afraid of revealing too much of her own thoughts, she tried to ask in as disinterested a fashion as possible whether Mr. Bingley was quite certain to be in attendance.

     “Indeed he is,” her uncle said, “And you do not fool me for a minute young lady. I see what you are about, and next you will be asking me if he is handsome or if he likes to dance. Aha, and now you blush and look away, for you do not wish to own it. How quickly she goes from wanting him for her sister to an entirely different scheme.” He winked at his wife, and took a sip of wine as if to punctuate his point.

     “Pish posh,” her aunt cried, quick to her niece’s defense. “A little natural inquisitiveness is hardly scheming, husband. You can hardly suggest she dance with the man if you are not going to tell her anything beyond his behavior as a child.”

     “Indeed,” Elizabeth rejoined, having overcome her embarrassment. “For I must be allowed to make an informed decision on the matter, and your determination to be mysterious amuses no one but yourself.”

     “Very well, I surrender," he uncle laughed, holding his hands up. “It seems I am quite outnumbered, and must give in to your demands. Indeed I must own I fully expect you to be very well pleased with him.”

     Her uncle paused, unsure what more to say, and Elizabeth looked to her aunt. “I quite agree,” Mrs. Gardiner added. “I have always been fond of Mr. Bingley, though we do not see him as often as I would wish.”

     Elizabeth crossed her arms and gave her aunt an arch look, clearly not yet satisfied. “And? What is it about him that shall have me so well pleased? I must beg you end my suspense, else I may work myself into such as state as I may not recover from in time for the ball tomorrow. Perchance, have you a handkerchief I might flutter about, that I may express my dismay?”

     Mrs. Gardiner smiled, pleased to see her niece’s spirits recovered enough to tease them back. “Very well Lizzy, I will tell you. Mr. Bingley is just what a young gentleman ought to be – sensible, good humored, lively, and with such happy manners that I daresay you will be quite smitten when you meet him.”

     “I might be,” replied Elizabeth, “If he is all this, and also handsome, which a young man ought likewise to be, if he possibly can. I can see you mean to suggest that he is, and I must believe you for now, until I am able to judge for myself tomorrow. His character will then be complete.”

     “Well, Lizzy,” her aunt replied with satisfaction as they rose from the dinner table to retire, “He is certainly agreeable, and I give you leave to like him, which I believe you shall, for you have liked many a stupider person.”

     Elizabeth could only gasp with feigned indignation at her aunt’s jest, for Mrs. Gardiner quickly swept from the room before her niece could reply.

Chapter Text

 

     Elizabeth shivered against the evening chill, and drew her shawl tighter about her shoulders as the footman handed her down from the Carmichaels’ carriage. She was glad that she and her aunt and uncle had been asked to join Mrs. Carmichael and Emily in their conveyance that evening. From a practical standpoint, it saved the Gardiners the trouble of queuing with the numerous other guests arriving at the Banfields’ home in Cavendish Square. Lydia and Kitty no doubt would have gushed the whole way there about arriving in such a stylish equipage, but Elizabeth was simply pleased to reach her destination in the company of a friend as overcome by the general splendor as she herself was.

     While the Gardiners and Mrs. Carmichael appeared unperturbed by their environs as they led the young ladies into the large candlelit foyer, Elizabeth could sense that Emily shared her anxiety and awe in the surroundings as they navigated the throng of people already assembled in the large entryway. Dozens of voices carried across the opulent marble floor as other groups of guests moved about the space, greeting friends and watching the new arrivals. Elizabeth and her young friend silently took it all in as Mr. Gardiner led them toward the back of the hall, where the Banfields were positioned to greet their friends.

     Emily drew in a shaky breath and exhaled with a sigh. “Oh Lizzy, there are so many people here,” she whispered, her voice a mixture of panic and exhilaration. She tightened her grip on Elizabeth’s arm as they moved closer to the receiving line.

     Greetings were exchanged, the Banfields were found to be every bit as delightful as Elizabeth had expected, and then they were on the move again. Led by an energetic Mr. Gardiner, they passed into the ballroom and Elizabeth was enthralled all over again. Though in a private residence, the ballroom was nearly twice the size of the assembly rooms in Meryton. Ornate chandeliers with glimmering crystals hung from the vaulted frescoed ceiling. At the back of the ballroom, the largest fireplace Elizabeth had ever seen was lit with a roaring fire, burning the last of the holiday garlands and greens, as was the custom, to avoid bad luck. To one side of the fireplace, a pair of gilded golden chairs had been set on a platform, thrones for the king and queen of the night. To the other side, a larger platform had been erected for the musicians, who were playing cheerful holiday tunes. All around the room, gauzy gold and silver fabric had been draped over the existing tapestries, shimmering in the light of what seemed like a thousand candles. The shimmering fabric pooled along the floor at intervals, and along the wall in corners of the room, downy white fluff had been strewn about to give the illusion of snow. Though Elizabeth had been determined she should not be intimidated, she was. It was simply beyond anything she could have imagined.

     Beyond the ballroom were several parlors, the doors thrown open and attended by footmen in immaculate livery. A crowd had already gathered in what appeared to be the ladies’ retiring room, and beyond that smoke curled out of the doorway of what Elizabeth imagined must be the gentlemen’s’ card room. In between those was a larger parlor, through which she could spy two large wooden trunks thrown open and overflowing with colorful costumes, which several guests had begun to curiously inspect. On the other side of the ballroom, the entrance to the dining room was dominated by a sideboard laden with decorative crystal punch bowls full of wassail and elaborate pastries topped with intricate spun sugar designs.

     Though Elizabeth had left her uncle’s house feeling tremendously confident in the new gown her aunt had ordered especially for this night, she now felt her self-assurance falter in the presence of so much wealth and finery. Beside her, Emily, though just beginning her first season, looked at least as though she belonged in such a setting. Her mousy brown hair had been arranged to frame her face in a most flattering style, with elegant pearl combs tucked in on either side. Her dress of primrose velvet fit her body well, with ivory lace along the bodice and a gentle flare of the skirts that produced a very flattering effect. Though the girl was clearly nervous, her natural poise made her appear quite at home amongst so much luxury.

     Elizabeth, on the other hand, felt as though it was evident to everyone in the room that this was the nicest gown she had ever owned. The emerald silk clung to her curves, and the silver mesh overlay of the skirts caught the light as the fabric flowed about her with each movement she made. Her deep auburn curls had been tamed and arranged very fashionably, augmented by the loan of her aunt’s diamond hair pins. Her soft silver cashmere shawl, detailed with deep red and blue flowers and trimmed with intricate silver beading, a gift from the Gardiners, completed the outfit, along with dark blue dancing slippers that peeked out from her dress as she stepped through the crowd. An ensemble such as this would have been the talk of Meryton for weeks, but here Elizabeth could scarcely fight the feeling that she would somehow be identified as an impostor, an interloper in this glittery realm to which she clearly did not belong.

     The ballroom was already beginning to fill up with several dozen other guests, many of whom turned to watch with curiosity as the new guests filtered in. Mr. Gardiner led his wife and her sister along the side of the ballroom, seeking out some acquaintance, while Emily and Elizabeth trailed after. “What do you think, Lizzy,” Emily whispered to Elizabeth, barely audible over the hum of activity around them. “Is this not resplendent?”

     “Magnificent, indeed,” Elizabeth cried, hoping her volume might encourage her friend to speak up. Nearby, an ostentatiously dressed young dandy seemed to take her voluble praise as a personal complement, and nodded his head with gawping smile as he moved passed them.

     Emily sniggered, and clung tighter to Elizabeth’s arm. “I believe you have your first admirer,” she teased.

     Elizabeth was incredulous, but recalled her promise to Emily. She must not succumb to her own apprehension, for she was determined to make it her mission that night to improve her new friend’s confidence instead. “I am sure his smile was for you, Emily, though I did not like the look of it. A man ought not to leer at a lady in such a manner. It was most unbecoming! You, on the other hand, are quite becoming indeed tonight. If I do not presume too much, I must recruit you to select my gown for me, next time we attend such an auspicious event.”

     Emily straightened her posture, her shoulders seeming to relax from their stressful entrance after Elizabeth’s praise. “Do you really think so? I believe you would not say such a thing because you suppose it is expected. You really think I look well?”

     “Indeed I do!”

     Emily gave a small smile of relief. “Thank you, Lizzy. Oh, I know my mother means well, but she has the craftiest way of infusing every complement with criticism that I do not notice until later, and then I am not sure whether I have pleased her or not.”

     Elizabeth couldn’t help but laugh. “I believe it is the way of all mothers, for mine is quite the same, though with perhaps less subtlety. She does not hesitate to tell me which of my sisters are looking prettier than myself, and as I have four sisters, it can be rather daunting even preparing for something as simple as church on Sunday.”

     Emily’s eyes grew large. “I suppose I am glad to be the only daughter, and not have to bear such comparisons.  But Lizzy, you are so beautiful! I am sure your sisters must be pretty too, if they are related to you, but surely they cannot be so far beyond you in looks as to make you look deficient. It hardly seems possible, when the whole room is practically mooning over you right now.”

     An acrimonious comment about her sister Jane froze on Elizabeth’s tongue as she realized that Emily was correct about the attention Elizabeth seemed to be receiving. A pair of gentleman walking by swept their eyes over Elizabeth in open admiration, while the young lady accompanying them shot her a look of haughty petulance before turning away. As the three of them, all immaculately attired, moved languorously across the ballroom, Mrs. Carmichael’s attention was caught by the older couple Elizabeth’s admirers seemed to be approaching. Fanning herself with excitement, Mrs. Carmichael called out to them, and she broke off from the Gardiners, tugging at Emily’s elbow to join her.

     “Madeline, darling, I must greet my dear friend Mrs. Audley,” Mrs. Carmichael told her sister before rounding on her daughter. “Come with me, Emily, let us go speak with the Audleys and their friends.”

     Emily looked back at Elizabeth, who was turning to follow her aunt and uncle toward the back of the room, which seemed to be their meandering destination. Emily latched back on to Elizabeth’s arm and gestured helplessly for her to follow as they approached the posh looking group Mrs. Carmichael claimed an acquaintance with. “Selina, dearest,” she cried, “I am so delighted to see you here. How well you look! Mr. Audley, it is a pleasure, of course. You remember my daughter, Emily. She is just come out into society.” Oh! And Miss Eliza Bennet, her friend, is a guest of my sister  Madeline’s, though I do not know where she has got to.” Mrs. Carmichael halted her chatter to look about for her sister, but the Gardiners had disappeared from view into the growing crowd in the ballroom.

     “How good to see you,” Mrs. Audley said with a placid smile. Her calm indifference was a stark contrast to Mrs. Carmichael’s excitement, and Elizabeth could not discern how well the two women were acquainted. Mrs. Audley was several years younger than her eager friend, impeccably attired, and visibly with child. Her husband appeared to have no recollection of ever meeting Mrs. Carmichael or her daughter, though his manners never faltered. “Yes, capital indeed. You seem well disposed to enjoy yourselves tonight, as does your friend. It is a pleasure, Miss Bennet.”

     Elizabeth returned his bow with a graceful curtsy as the introductions continued. “This is my younger brother Henry, come to stay with us for the winter, and my wife’s brother and sister as well.” The two gentlemen who had so openly admired Elizabeth and her friend were introduced as Mr. Henry Audley and Mr. Samuel Sutton, and the young lady so evidently displeased by their distraction was presented as Miss Cynthia Sutton, visiting from her father’s estate in Kent. Emily and Elizabeth curtsied again, and as the first strains of a quadrille began, their hands were solicited by the gentlemen for the opening dance.

     As Elizabeth and Emily were escorted to the dance floor by their partners, Miss Sutton could be heard letting out a huff of indignation, prompting her brother by marriage to lead her out to the first set, while his wife settled into a chair, apparently stuck with Mrs. Carmichael’s abundant conversation for the next half hour.

     As Elizabeth silently reveled in the good luck of being partnered with the more handsome of the two gentlemen, she looked about for her aunt and uncle, hoping they weren’t worried at being separated from her. She finally spotted them across the room; they were speaking with a younger gentleman, gesturing in her direction as they approached the place where she had been conversing with the Audleys’ party. Her aunt caught sight of her and raised an eyebrow, clearly piqued that Elizabeth had already secured a partner for the first set, while the good-looking gentleman walking alongside her uncle looked positively crestfallen at the failure of his attempted introduction.

     Elizabeth smirked and turned her attention to her pleasant partner as they began the steps of the dance, and he asked, “Might you consider telling me what amuses you so?”

     Elizabeth suppressed another wave of anxiety as she met his eye. “Merely my own ability to thwart the intentions of so many others with very little effort.”

     Mr. Henry Audley laughed gently, assuming her comment was directed at him. “I think I see what you mean. Miss Sutton is quite determined, but no more than myself, and I mean to enjoy myself this evening. I suppose it was not right to slight her, as she is family in a roundabout sort of way, but I could not help myself.”

     “’Tis not prudent, either,” Elizabeth chided, her courage returning as she caught a glimpse of Emily smiling brightly at her over her partner’s shoulder. “You could have fulfilled your duty to dance with the lady early on, and then passed the rest of the night free of any further obligation. However, you now face the daunting possibility that she will claim you later, perhaps after you have partaken of some of the wassail, and your defenses may not hold up so well.”

     They moved through the dance, turning elegantly in time with the other dancers, and Elizabeth smiled at Emily, whose pleasure in being asked for the first set was fairly radiating from her face, making her look lovelier than ever. As Elizabeth turned back to Mr. Audley, he leaned in to catch her eye. “Do you suggest, madam, that a man of my stature could be so easily felled by a few glasses of punch, as to make me fall prey to such feminine wiles?” Elizabeth was silent for a moment, fearing she had offended her partner, before he waggled his eyebrows mirthfully at her. “I daresay you are quite right, Miss Bennet.”

     The rest of their dance with passed in cheerful conversation on both sides, and the two couples converged at the refreshment table after their dance had ended. “How wondrous it is to be reunited at last with one’s friends, after so arduous a separation,” Mr. Audley drawled with a wink at his companions.

     Emily and Elizabeth had unconsciously drawn close to one another after accepting glasses of wassail from the gentleman, and Elizabeth laughed with chagrin at Mr. Audley’s observation. Mr. Sutton guffawed with feigned indignation. “Do not regard him at all, ladies, he does not know what he is about!”

     “Indeed, I know exactly what I am about,” Mr. Audley countered, raising his glass in mock toast toward Elizabeth. “I have received some excellent advice from a beautiful woman, which I intend to disregard completely, for I prefer to live dangerously.” He placed one hand on his heart as he tipped his head back and gulped the punch dramatically. “There now, I am sufficiently fortified and most willing to return to the fray. What say you, ladies, to an exchange of partners?”

     Emily eagerly accepted his arm, her face lit with joy and astonishment at the prospect of such a handsome partner, while Mr. Sutton squared his shoulders, determined to make himself equally agreeable to Elizabeth. Though not as vivacious as his friend, Mr. Sutton was a fine dancer, if somewhat shy. His occasional sidelong glances at Emily might have been unpleasant to any other lady, but Elizabeth was pleased by his apparent interest in her friend, and no less diverted to observe Emily’s quandary as she struggled to at once gaze at Mr. Sutton from afar, while also drinking in Mr. Audley’s dashing appearance. The second dance passed as pleasantly as the first for Elizabeth, though she was quite ready to seek out her aunt and uncle at the end of it.

     The Gardiners and their young friend, whom Elizabeth was fairly certain was indeed the mysterious Mr. Bingley, had joined Mrs. Carmichael and the Audleys where they sat near the great fireplace. Mrs. Gardiner waved Elizabeth over, and Mr. Sutton guided her through the crowd, which seemed to have doubled in size since the dancing began. Mr. Audley fell into step beside her, Emily still blissfully clinging to his arm. He nudged Elizabeth slightly and tipped his head in the direction of Miss Sutton, who was being escorted from the dance floor by a portly older man who had just trod on her frock and torn the hem, to her screeching dismay. Elizabeth glanced up at Mr. Audley, whose attempt at suppressing laughter was no more successful that her own. “Sir, you are quite dreadful, and I daresay this is merely a glimpse into your own future. Disregard my warning at your own peril!”

     The ladies were presently reunited with their party, and the gentlemen introduced to Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner. Mrs. Carmichael’s satisfaction at the sight of her daughter on the arm of the handsome Mr. Henry Audley was no less evident than Miss Sutton’s dissatisfaction with his neglect as she was returned to her sister. Mr. Gardiner beamed as he was finally able to introduce his dear friend Charles Bingley to his nieces.

     Though not so rakishly alluring or self-assured as Mr. Henry Audley, Mr. Bingley was as handsome as Elizabeth had hoped he would be. His features were pleasant, his complexion fair, and his manners easy and open. His face conveyed all of the liveliness and affability her aunt had promised, and his obvious attraction to her person only improved Elizabeth’s opinion of his. Elizabeth realized that a long moment of silence had passed as she and Mr. Bingley had mutely drunk one another in, and she finally gave the obligatory curtsy with a blush.

     Mr. Bingley took Elizabeth’s gloved hand in his and had bent over to kiss it, when a great commotion caught everyone’s attention; the music had stopped, and their host Sir Bertrand Banfield had clambered up onto the little stage, wine glass in hand. “Esteemed guests,” he cried merrily, his lanky frame dipping into an exaggerated bow. “Welcome, one and all, to our Twelfth Night celebration! Lady Helen and I are honored to welcome you all into our humble abode.”

     “Humble, my arse,” came a shout from the assembled guests, and laughter rippled across the room. Elizabeth glanced over at Mr. Bingley, realizing he still held her hand in his, and the two shared a more private laugh together.

     “Your arse indeed,” Sir Bertram agreed with a nod in the direction of his kindly heckler. “My lovely wife and I have a variety of treats and entertainments in store for you all this evening, beginning with the crowning of a King and Queen of Revels. After the unfortunate incident with the pea and the bean last year – I am looking at you, Mr. Langdon,” laughter again erupted in the crowd, as Sir Bertrand continued, “We shall simply draw our characters out of a hat after the meal. If you wish to participate, we have costumes available in the rose parlor, and I urge you, do not be shy!  But first, we dine!” He leapt from the stage with great flair, and there was applause from the multitude of revelers making their way to the dining room, as the musicians struck up a merry tune.

     Elizabeth watched the throng of people begin to disperse, wondering how they could all possibly fit in one dining room at once. Her attention was quickly reclaimed by Mr. Henry Audley. “Miss Elizabeth, I get the distinct impression you are not attending a word I have said.”

     Mr. Bingley inched closer to Elizabeth, clearly displeased with Audley’s claim on her interest. Amused and unapologetic, she replied, “Indeed, you have caught me wool-gathering, Mr. Audley. I was wondering whether the Banfields have a particularly large dining room, or if the late arriving guests shall be obliged to eat underneath the table.” At this, Elizabeth turned back to Mr. Bingley, who clearly wished to have his share in the conversation. “What do you suppose, sir?”

     Mr. Bingley grinned at Elizabeth, happy to have regained her attention. “I cannot say, for it has been many years since I have dined with the Banfields, and even longer still since I have dined beneath a table. Perhaps you would care to join me in discovering the arrangements?”

     Elizabeth shot a quick glance at Mr. Sutton, her partner for the last dance, who ought to have been her escort in to the meal. His attention was focused on Emily, who was all blushes and smiles, and Elizabeth had no wish to deprive her friend of such obvious pleasure for the sake of mere formality. Instead she nodded to Mr. Bingley and accepted his proffered arm, noticing not only the glance of triumph he shot Mr. Henry Audley, but the look of satisfaction Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner exchanged as they led Elizabeth and Mr. Bingley toward the dining room.

***

     The dining room, Elizabeth soon discovered, was indeed spacious enough to accommodate the multitude of guests, though it meant sitting in rather close proximity to one’s neighbor, a condition to which few present felt any objection. Mr. Bingley seemed particularly pleased to seat himself so near Elizabeth after he brought her a glass of wine and a plate of food from the abundant buffet. She looked about for her aunt and uncle, expecting them to join her, but they had been whisked away to the Banfields’ table, at the head of the room. Realizing she was alone with Mr. Bingley, or alone as one could be in so crowded a room, Elizabeth shot her aunt an anxious look across the room as the Banfields ushered them away, which Mrs. Gardiner could only answer with a little shrug and a reassuring smile before her attention was claimed by Lady Helen.

     A little further down the head table, Mrs. Carmichael and her daughter had obtained seats near the Audleys’ party. Emily, who Elizabeth belatedly chastised herself for losing track of, was now engaged in animated whispers with Mr. Sutton; she caught Elizabeth’s eye and waved happily at her, clearly holding her own with more ease than she had previously predicted herself capable of. Beside Emily, Mr. Audley looked up, giving Elizabeth a smirk and rolling his eyes in the direction of Miss Sutton, who sat preening at his side. Elizabeth smiled at her friends across the room before turning her attention back to Mr. Bingley. It was clear her aunt and uncle wished for her to like him, and she was far from averse to becoming better acquainted with the handsome man beside her.

     There was a companionable silence between the two for a few minutes as they enjoyed the exquisite fare before them. The customary minced meat pie was as tasty as it looked, as was the rest of the meal. Though quiet, Mr. Bingley watched Elizabeth intently, until at last she could no longer abide the silence and gave in to nervous laughter. “Do I eat strangely, Mr. Bingley?” Or is there perhaps something amiss with my appearance?”

     He was taken aback, and stammered awkwardly. “No – no, indeed!”

     She arched an eyebrow expectantly, and when no answer followed, she asked, “Why, then, do you not speak to me?”

     Mr. Bingley frowned and took a deep drink of wine and Elizabeth, unknowingly mirroring the gentleman, did the same. “I am a bit overcome,” he murmured at last. Mr. Bingley looked up at her bashfully, his cheeks flushed as he searched for a better means of explaining himself. “You are the most beautiful woman here,” he exclaimed. Unfortunately for Mr. Bingley, the ambient noise, which had been quite loud just a minute before, had hit a momentary lull, causing his comment to be heard by more than half of the dining room.

     Elizabeth felt her face grow warm as dozens of pair of eyes alighted on her from all around. There was an agonizing moment of absolute silence before the whispers and murmurs began to swell around them, and another minute later the chatter had resumed its previous volume. Elizabeth felt frozen in place until the moment passed and she was no longer the recipient so much attention all at once. She let out a shaky breath and at last, her heart beating wildly in her chest, she brought herself to meet Mr. Bingley’s gaze.

     “I’m sorry,” he whispered earnestly, leaning in towards her, though they were already quite close. His fingers slid across the table toward her hand, stopping just short of making contact, and his expression intensified.

     Elizabeth was far from unaffected by his apology, or perhaps it was his proximity. Despite her fleeting alarm, his compliment was very gratifying, all the more so because of the air of sincerity about him. She had never been the recipient of such admiration before, nor had she experienced the satisfaction of pleasing and being pleased by such a fine gentleman. She was determined to suppress her embarrassment and make herself agreeable. “You are forgiven, Mr. Bingley,” she said with a smirk, unconsciously drawing her face closer to her companion. She briefly wondered what it would be like to kiss him.

     Mr. Bingley’s thoughts were obviously running a similar course as he stared intensely at her, the previous awkwardness of their silence replaced with a more enjoyable form of tension. He inched his fingers closer to hers, brushing them softly and slowly, all the while watching for Elizabeth’s reaction to his daring flirtation. She glanced down at his fingers as they swiftly slid between hers before retreating across the table, and bit her lip to suppress a smile. “Mr. Bingley….”

     Though there was no rebuke in her breathless voice, Mr. Bingley dared not push the boundaries of propriety any further, and withdrew his hand to the other side of the table, where he reached for his wine glass and took another sip.

     The spell of the moment thus broken, Elizabeth found herself at last able to meet his eyes with some measure of equanimity. “I believe we must have some conversation, sir, though your company has been far from dull so far.” She fixed him with a pert glance, daring him to introduce a topic.

     “I must agree with you Miss Bennet, else you shall find me a very stupid fellow, I fear,” he said laughingly. “Tell me, what think you of London in winter? I confess it is my favorite time of year to be in town!”

     “I like it very well,” Elizabeth replied. “My previous visits have been in spring or summer, but there are some entertainments, such as tonight’s, which can only be had in winter, and I look forward to enjoying as many of them as I can. My aunt and uncle have already been so very accommodating.”

     “The Gardiners are such wonderful people,” Mr. Bingley agreed emphatically. “You are quite fortunate to have them as family. Though they are rather like family to me, as well. I have known your uncle since I was a small child.”

     “Oh, I am aware, sir,” Elizabeth teased.

     Mr. Bingley looked quizzically at her. “Please tell me your uncle hasn’t told you anything too embarrassing about me. I had hoped to pass myself off with some credit this evening.”

     “And indeed you have, Mr. Bingley, whatever my uncle may have said. But that puts me in mind to ask – as you escorted me in to dinner, you said that it had been many years since you had dined beneath a table, and I must ask you to clarify, exactly how many years has it been since you have done such a thing?”

     Mr. Bingley colored at his own faux pas. “You know, I have not given it up forever. I daresay it will come back into fashion any day now, and then my previous experience may be of use. I am merely biding my time, Miss Bennet.”

     Elizabeth grinned mirthfully at him. “And what of brawling in the dining room, sir? Have you or your sisters given that up forever?”

     He feigned indignation. “Good Heavens, I shall certainly have to have my revenge on your uncle! What can he have told you about me?”

     “He and my aunt painted a very colorful picture, I assure you. You must think of some mischievous way to thank them.” Elizabeth caught herself reflexively scanning the room for the subjects of her jest, and she discovered them watching her conversation intently. Realizing they had been found out, Mrs. Gardiner attempted to appear suddenly interested in inspecting one of her bracelets, while Mr. Gardiner unabashedly raised a glass in their direction.

     Mr. Bingley noticed the gesture and returned it, to Elizabeth’s amusement, only to discover that he had run out of wine. He set out to retrieve more, leaving Elizabeth a brief moment to gather her thoughts. Though they had conversed but little, she liked Mr. Bingley very much already. Surprised as she was by her reaction to him, she was even more amazed at his reaction to her. The most beautiful woman in the room?! Such a thing had been said of Jane before, but never of herself. And yet it had not been insincere flattery – from a man such as Henry Audley it would not be surprising, but Mr. Bingley seemed far too earnest. He liked her, she was sure of it.

     With a sigh of contentment, she scanned the room to check on her friend, and caught a glimpse of Emily twirling a loose wisp of hair idly around one finger as she nearly slumped across the table, staring doe-eyed up at Mr. Henry Audley. On Emily’s other side, Mr. Sutton leaned in closer, seeming quite desperate for an opening to join their conversation. Nearby, Mrs. Carmichael looked on in satisfaction at her daughter’s success. Elizabeth was delighting in the amusing tableau they created when Mr. Bingley reappeared, squeezing past several other guests, somehow managing to carry their glasses of wine and two plates of cake, which he swiftly divested himself of as he took his seat.

     “You are most impressive, Mr. Bingley,” Elizabeth cried, accepting the dessert with eager anticipation.

     “So are the pastries, I assure you, Miss Bennet! I hope my selections please you – it was a difficult decision, I assure you, in the face of such a spectacle.”

     “I have every faith in your good judgement, sir, only, speaking of spectacles,” Elizabeth leaned in conspiratorially and tipped her head in Emily’s direction. “What do you think of my cousin Miss Carmichael there? She seems quite unaware of her own allure, and I find it most diverting to behold!”

     Without neglecting his cake, which was truly a confectionary marvel, Mr. Bingley leaned in towards Elizabeth to share her view, his shoulder brushing hers. “I see,” he mused, affecting an exaggerated tone of contemplation. “How happily grouped they are, you see – like a painting.” He extended his arms in front of them, his thumbs and index fingers connecting to make a frame between his hands, and Elizabeth tilted her head to peer through the rectangle he had made.

     “Ha! You are right. Like a renaissance painting, with so many layers of activity. And dear Emily at the center of it, with all surrounding her, unique in their own reactions. There is certainty merit to the idea. I wish I had some manner of artistic talent, for I should dearly like to immortalize such a perfect moment.”

     Mr. Bingley lowered his hands and turned back to Elizabeth. “I can certainly relate to such a sentiment, Miss Bennet.”

     Elizabeth blushed, averting her gaze as she tried to think of a sensible reply, but was spared the effort as some commotion across the dining room caught their attention. Sir Bertrand was standing near her aunt, and had lifted her hand up triumphantly in the air. “Ladies and gentlemen, raise a glass to your Queen of Revels for the evening!” Though she was unsure for a moment what was happening, Elizabeth clapped her hands along with the rest of the partygoers and toasted to her aunt, who stood and gave an extravagant curtsy.

     “This is my favorite part,” Mr. Bingley exclaimed, rubbing his hands together for emphasis. “I love the playing at characters, and I hear the Banfields provide wonderful costumes. What fun we shall have now, Miss Bennet!”

     The aforementioned hat was brought round to each table, and soon it was Elizabeth and Mr. Bingley’s turn to draw slips of paper which would assign them each a character for the evening. Mr. Bingley unraveled the tiny scroll eagerly, and chuckled as he read it. “Mrs. Candor! Oh my! What is yours?”

     Elizabeth unfolded her slip of paper and laughed with bemusement. “Oh no, this will never do! We must negotiate a trade between us, Mr. Bingley.”

     He tilted his head towards her to read her character. “Sir Tumbelly Clumsy! Ha! You would do the role great credit, I am sure, Miss Bennet.”

     “Fie, fie! I am no sir at all, sir, nor have I any inclination to become one. You must take the part for me, and give me the role of Miss Candor, for then you shall have the honor of hearing exactly what I think!”

     Mr. Bingley grinned at her, for he really preferred the exchange just as much as she did, and he switched their slips of paper with a great flourish. “That is a promise I shall hold you to, my lady.”

     “If you can keep hold of anything at all, clumsy fellow!” Elizabeth gave him a look of triumph before taking a final draught of wine and rising from the table, indicating her intention of following the other guests now milling back toward the ballroom.

***

     Mr. Bingley and Elizabeth caught up to her aunt and uncle as they made their way across the ballroom, toward the rose parlor, where the trunks of costumes were now being perused by revelers eager to assume their chosen characters. The room was a flurry of activity; the whirl of colorful fabrics being passed around and examined by the guests, and the chaotic cacophony of laughter and merry chatter were overpowering sensations as Elizabeth entered the room on Mr. Bingley’s arm.

     Her uncle hailed Mr. Bingley over to where he and several other gentlemen were rifling through one of the large trunks of costumes and Elizabeth waved him on, content to observe the general frivolity of the scene for a few minutes before joining in. Screens had been set up at the back corners of the room for guests to duck behind as they arranged their garish garb and emerged to exclamations of hilarity from their friends and fellow partygoers.

     Mrs. Gardiner appeared from behind one such screen, having donned an outdated French mantua gown over her party dress. Panniers created a very queenly sweeping effect, and a white powdered wig with a golden crown stuck on top completed the ensemble. Elizabeth joined some of the other guests standing nearby in offering a cheeky curtsy, which Mrs. Gardiner received with over-acted grandeur before approaching her niece.

     “Well, Lizzy, what do you think?”

     Elizabeth giggled indecorously. “You look like you are about to lose your head for suggesting we all eat cake!”

     “Elizabeth,” her aunt exclaimed, pretending to be quite aghast. Elizabeth laughingly held up her character name, to which her aunt gave an exaggerated eye roll. “What a challenge that shall be for you, I am sure.”

     “What will be a challenge?” Emily Carmichael had materialized at their side, attired as a shepherdess.

     “Dressing up as Miss Candor,” Mrs. Gardiner answered, eliciting a thoughtful frown from Emily.

     “Well, it is perfect role for you. Only, how are you to dress up for it? It seems to me you are already candid enough the way you are dressed now.”

     “Yo ho, I heartily agree,” Mr. Gardiner cried as he approached them, clad from head to toe in the regalia of a pirate. He strutted proudly, giving a fearsome grimace, which revealed that he had managed to somehow black out several of his teeth. Emily dissolved in giggles, leaning on Elizabeth for support, and despite her own amusement, Elizabeth began to feel a small bit jealous her given character was not one that called for a comical costume.

     Behind her uncle followed Mr. Bingley and Mr. Sutton. The latter was a shepherd, a happy coincidence for Emily, Elizabeth thought with affection. Mr. Bingley had donned a strangely fitting, elaborate and vaguely medieval tunic of sorts. It was heavily padded, giving him the illusion of having rather rotund proportions. A cape sweeping off the shoulders completed the outfit, which promised to lend itself to a variety of clumsy calamities. Elizabeth laughed vigorously at the sight of him, and the gentleman seemed very well pleased by her reaction.

     “I must hear what you all think of my get-up,” Mr. Bingley declared, striking a ludicrous pose. “Miss Bennet, you must begin, for I know you shall be most candid.”

     Elizabeth was struck by the sheer absurdity of her present situation, surrounded by such overwhelming luxury and yet such buffoonery, and she burst out laughing all over again as she blurted, “You look completely preposterous, sir! I absolutely love it.” She broke off abruptly, her face quickly growing flushed with embarrassment at her wording, but the others paid this no notice as they laughed along with her.

     They were joined presently by their host and hostess; Lady Helen, flamboyantly adorned as a gypsy, was eager to ascertain whether they had all found the supper to their liking, and if they were all enjoying the present entertainments. While her queries were answered with a resounding affirmative, her husband, the evening’s King of Revels, was diverted to see his wife so quickly forget to play her character. “Ever the consummate hostess,” Sir Bertrand chided, “but severely lacking when it comes to the telling of fortunes!”

     Lady Helen took her husband’s banter in good humor, making a valiant attempt to read Mr. Gardiner’s palm and pronouncing her absolute certainty that he should fare much better targeting French vessels than English ones. Mr. Gardiner robustly agreed, and asked if she foresaw a jig or a reel in her own future, while the King of Revels likewise escorted his Queen for the evening back to the ballroom.

     Mr. Bingley was quick to solicit Elizabeth’s hand for the next set, and was discovered to be a very fine dancer, though this proficiency seemed at odds with his desire to portray his character for the evening with diligence. Elizabeth, as Miss Candor, experienced no such dilemma, and therefore the conversation remained as invigorating as the country dance itself. They returned to the subject of winter in London, and the many diversions to be had therein. Sleigh rides and snowball fights shared their mutual approbation, and the finer points of hot cocoa versus elder wine were lightly debated without either party revising their view in the end.

     When the wintery share of their topic had been exhausted, London itself provided ample source of discourse. From Drury Lane to Picadilly, Mr. Bingley found his partner a receptive audience for all his warm acclamations, and Elizabeth expressed an increasingly fervent desire to see all the attractions she had yet to experience of the city. “Do you know, sir, I have never been to Vauxhall,” Elizabeth lamented, “How I should like to see the fireworks! And I have not been to Hatchard’s these three years at least!”

     “That is tragic, my dear Miss Bennet,” her partner commiserated. “We shall go to Hatchard’s and have some fireworks as soon as the dance is quite over!”

     This proved quite impossible, however, for Elizabeth was soon rejoined by Emily Carmichael as she and Mr. Bingley moved through the crowd toward the refreshment table. Mr. Bingley had offered them each an arm, when suddenly his attention was caught by a something across the room, and he abruptly excused himself, hastening away. Elizabeth merely laughed off his oddity, scanning the room for her aunt and uncle. Emily seemed to be doing the same, for she pointed out the Gardiners engaged in animated conversation with the Banfields at the back of the room, near the fireplace.

     “Aren’t they simply adorable,” Emily gushed. “She is not even jealous that another lady is his queen – for any one can see how he looks at her! You know, she originally drew Shepherdess, and when she saw that I was frightened to be a fortune teller, she offered to switch. They are so kind and delightful, I wish they would have a ball every day!”

     Elizabeth grinned indulgently at her friend, whose romanticized opinion so closely matched her own. Enjoying the slight buzz from the wine, which had done wonders to alleviate her anxiety, she intercepted two glasses of champagne from a masked highwayman passing by. This earned her a huff of indignant surprise from that gentleman, and a titter from Emily, who accepted the proffered glass with relish. “Let us toast to our hosts, and to our former selves, who were only yesterday quite petrified at the prospect of such a fete.”

     “You were not scared, Lizzy! You said so! You said ‘My courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me.’” Emily giggled into her glass as she mimicked her friend.

     “Quite right, Miss Carmichael. A toast to social ferocity, then, in all its fine forms!” She clinked her glass against her friend’s and then downed its contents before turning around to set her empty glass on the sideboard. With a little giggle at everything and nothing, she noticed Mr. Bingley making his way back to them, accompanied by a taller gentleman who might have been quite handsome were it not for his somber mien, which seemed almost comically out of place at such an occasion.

     Elizabeth could not help but return his intense gaze; the candle lit ballroom created a flickering amber glow behind him, an enchantingly ethereal effect – or perhaps it was only the wine. Emboldened, she threw back her shoulders and tipped her chin up with a saucy squint. The corners of the gentleman’s mouth turned up in the slightest of smiles, and he gave a little nod. Mr. Bingley turned a deep shade of red but continued to approach her, when he suddenly tripped on his cape and tumbled to the ground.

     Elizabeth froze with momentary alarm before realizing he was playing at his character, but Emily reacted instantly, rushing toward him with superfluous concern. “Oh, Mr. Bingley!” They had begun to draw attention from the nearby crush of people entering the dance floor, and Elizabeth felt it necessary to quiet her cousin.

     “He is only playing at Sir Tumbelly Clumsy, Emily!” Mr. Bingley sat up, laughing and nodding in confirmation. He quickly hopped up to his feet and gave a bow, moving awkwardly in the padded suit.

     Emily gave a snorting laugh, and in an almost Lydia-like voice she cried, “La! I thought he was Henry the Eighth!”

     Mr. Bingley pressed a hand to his heart, gasping in pretend dismay, while Elizabeth succumbed to another fit of giggles. “I must agree with you, Emily, though I daresay I enjoy it so much I may never acclimate myself to seeing him attired any other way.”

     Mr. Bingley colored and laughed. “Your candor does you great credit, Miss Bennet. What say you, Darcy?”

Chapter Text

 

         Mr. Darcy was startled at being called upon to speak before his friend had even made any introductions. He was happily saved the embarrassment of remaining speechless by the stunning brunette who had caught him watching her before Bingley’s ill-timed tumble. She turned to him, her dark, expressive eyes locked on his as she dipped into a graceful curtsy, discretely placing one hand on Bingley’s arm for balance. “It is a pleasure to meet you Mr. Darcy.” Rosy cheeked, she turned to Mr. Bingley, who belatedly realized his gaffe.

     “Oh, of course! Mr. Darcy, may I present Miss Elizabeth Bennet of Hertfordshire, and her cousin, Miss Emily Carmichael. Ladies, this is my dearest friend, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley in Derbyshire.” Miss Carmichael now gave a demure curtsy, though Miss Bennet, having done so once already, did not appear inclined to repeat the gesture and merely continued to gaze at them all with a look of cheerful defiance.

     Darcy gave a very correct bow to the ladies before falling awkwardly silent once more. Darcy suspected, as he commonly did in crowded social situations, that his arrival had put a damper on the spirits of those around him, that his mere presence somehow diminished the merriment in which he was unsure of how to participate. He let out an exasperated sigh. “Your sisters are well, Bingley?”

     “Indeed they are, Darcy, and very well-to-do tonight! They have both garnered an invitation to the Granthams’ affair tonight, rather than joining me here.”

     Darcy nodded absently, hoping the relief was not apparent on his face.

     Bingley continued, “They accompany your cousins Fitzwilliam, conveying my best regards, of course.”

     Darcy gave another uncomfortable nod, still relying on his friend to carry the conversation, which Bingley seemed quite content to do.

     “I wonder at your not attending them there yourself, old boy. Still, it is good to see you. It has been too long.” Bingley clapped Darcy on the shoulder, perfectly at ease, and oblivious to the awkwardness that seemed to Darcy to be permeating the very air around them.

     “I plan to be in Town for but a few days – a week at most. I did not wish to give rise to any expectations in that quarter – that is….” Darcy stammered, feeling increasingly foolish. “That is, I’m sure to see Richard before I leave, but beyond that, my coming for a little while tonight may be my only indulgence while I remain in Town. I would thank you to forget to mention my presence to anyone.”

     In fact, he had not intended to go out at all; with so many pressing concerns weighing on him, he did not think it even right to engage in such frivolity. Since his arrival in London, the inevitable influx of various social invitations had gone largely ignored. Even Richard’s note, full of the usual raillery about Darcy’s undiminished popularity amongst the ladies of the ton, had been easily disregarded. Darcy was simply in no humor to bear his extended family at present, not even his favorite cousin. But Bingley – the man was so cheerful and uncomplicated, a balm to Darcy’s own somber spirits. He had spent half the evening in his library, brooding into a glass of brandy and staring down at Bingley’s hastily written invitation before finally deciding to accept it. And so, here he was, clearly interrupting Bingley’s fun. 

     Bingley was all smiles, as usual. “Of my secrecy, you may be assured. Now come, Darcy, I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about in such a stupid manner. You had much better dance.”

     While the prospect might have tempted him, under other circumstances, in his current state of mind, Darcy could only reply, “I certainly shall not – you know how I detest it!”

     At this, Miss Bennet burst into unrestrained laughter. Her cousin flinched, and Bingley eyed her nervously as she offered Darcy a wide, impertinent smile. “You say your one indulgence whilst in town is to attend an event based largely around a pastime you detest? If this is your idea of indulgence, sir, I should hate to hear what you consider a punishment.”

     Darcy regarded Miss Bennet in sheer astonishment; no one, especially a beautiful woman, had ever spoken to him thus. She continued to smile with unabashed satisfaction, and Darcy felt compelled to speak sensibly, but knew not how. “I am not like Bingley, here, Miss Bennet. Dancing and conversing with strangers rather is a punishment, for me.”

     Miss Bennet continued to regard him with a steady, confident expression. "And yet, here you are."

     Bingley furrowed his brow, keen to salvage the conversation somehow. “I say, Darce, perhaps you would play at some games with us? I know you do not care for cards, but there shall be other games – Snapdragon, Bullet Pudding….”

     Before Darcy could answer, Miss Bennet’s face lit up with delight, and Darcy found himself anticipating her next impertinent remark. “Impossible, Mr. Bingley! Mr. Darcy certainly shall not. Is it not enough for you that he has donned a costume for the festivities?”

     Bingley gave her a quixotic look. “A costume? I don’t see how….”

     “He is the Dour Duke, deeply displeased with us all. Can you not see it?” Miss Bennet shot him a mocking scowl, as realization dawned on Bingley’s face.

     Darcy suppressed a smile. How on earth has Bingley found such a lady? She is nothing like his usual type. If only I were free to…. He shook his head as if to dispel his own private musings, and hailed a nearby waiter bearing a tray of champagne. He passed a glass to Miss Bennet and then to her timid cousin, who declined and quietly excused herself. Bingley accepted his drink with alacrity, and Darcy took one as well, sipping it thoughtfully before saying at last, “Pray, what is your costume, madam?”

     Miss Bennet’s eyes sparkled with amusement. “Indeed Mr. Darcy, I require no costume, much to my regret, for I am Miss Candour this night, and must therefore appear much as I ever am. And, as such, I must observe that it is particularly clever of me to have figured you out so soon, for I see what you are about, sir. Furthermore, as Miss Candour, I am obliged to abuse you as best I can, and I can most unequivocally tell you that your refusal to dance has made my task all the easier.” Miss Bennet saluted him with the champagne glass he’d handed her before drinking deeply, as if to punctuate her own impudence.

     “You would have me dance, then, Miss Bennet?”

     “Whether I would have you, Mr. Darcy, and whether you ought dance with someone, seem to me to be two different questions, sir. However, it is of little matter. Mr. Darcy wishes our secrecy regarding his presence here tonight, Mr. Bingley,” Miss Bennet turned her smile toward Bingley with a feigned whisper. “But I daresay we shall not comply. Perhaps we shall see him about town one day, and we shall remark to our companions, ‘Oh, there goes Mr. Darcy, who cut such a fine figure dancing at the Banfields’ Twelfth Night ball, how well I remember it!’”

     Darcy took another drink of champagne, finally gathering his wits about him enough to match her repartee. “You do me a great service, madam. I needn’t even trouble myself to dance, and yet I am to receive all the praise of having done so with great skill.”

     “Ah, yes, but you forfeit the secrecy, sir. Perhaps you ought don some manner of disguise, at the very least. Then you maintain the anonymity, and may dance as well, or as ill, as you choose. I offer you my services in selecting such a mask, for I am confident I can accomplish it with very little effort, if you now find yourself inclined to wear one, having seen the wisdom of my advice.”

     “You drive a hard bargain, Miss Bennet. I am neither inclined to dance nor to don a costume of any kind, and yet you would have me do both.”

     “As would our kind hosts, unless the Dour Duke means to insult them in the gravest possible way.”

     Darcy was utterly beguiled. He had been pursued for years by the fine ladies of the ton, and importuned to dance in every possible way, so he had thought. But Miss Bennet, for all her insistence, seemed to enjoy the thrill of the argument far more than the prospect of securing his attention or being seen with him on the dance floor. “I should just as soon like to fence with you as dance with you, Miss Bennet, for you are a worthy opponent indeed,” Darcy found himself thinking aloud. And I would very much like to dance with you.

     Bingley, who had been looking back and forth between them as if it was a fencing match, chuckled merrily. “I wager the Banfields must have some toy swords amongst all their props and accoutrements, Darcy, but I had much rather you dance. And I am most eager to see what manner of disguise you select for him, Miss Bennet. You are so very clever.”

     Miss Bennet tapped her chin thoughtfully before responding, “A mask, to be sure, and perhaps a cape – for the Dour Duke must preserve his dignity. We shall see, gentlemen.” She gave a little curtsy before turning away, heading in the direction of the rose parlor to seek out a costume.

     Both gentlemen let out a wistful sigh as they watched her go, before turning toward the refreshment table. It was Bingley who finally broke the silence, turning to his friend with a wide, exultant smile. “I am going to marry that girl, Darcy.”

     “Indeed? I was not aware congratulations were in order.” Darcy took a deep draught of port. He had not meant to imbibe any more than he had meant to dance, or to even venture out at all. And yet, here I am.  

     “You know what I mean, Darcy. Tell me, what do you think of her? Is she not a –”

     “An angel?”

     “I would not say that – there is too much fire in her, and I find I quite like it. No, I was going to say, a goddess.”

     “This I might agree with, Bingley, for she is far too good for you. Wherever did you find her?”

     Bingley laughed at himself and gave a little roll of his eyes. “Here.”

     Darcy could only gape at his friend. “You mean you have just met her, tonight?”

     “Indeed, though I have heard much of her. She is the niece of Mr. Edward Gardiner, an associate of my father’s and a very dear friend.”

     “He is in trade? Really, I don’t think –”

     “I know what you're thinking. Her father owns a small country estate, from which she is visiting. Not that such things matter to me. I was eager to make her acquaintance tonight, if only because of my esteem for Mr. Gardiner, and I will own I am far from disappointed. If anything, her uncle did not praise her enough, for she is absolutely bewitching, is she not?”

     Bewitching indeed. Darcy had never seen much appeal in any other lady Bingley had ever shown interest in, and there had been many “angels” over the years, all of them slender, diffident blondes who had been quickly forgotten when a prettier girl came along. Miss Bennet was certainly different, and not just physically. She was witty and intelligent, but utterly artless. He had to give Bingley credit for refining his taste at last. “She seems a very admirable young lady.”

     “Admirable? I would not be as fastidious as you are for a kingdom! Admit it, Darcy, she is perfection personified! She dances so beautifully, and she makes me laugh.”

     Darcy scowled. “She is too clever for you, you know.”

     Bingley chuckled and gave a nod. “I daresay you are right about that. She would be rather formidable, if she weren’t so very pretty.”

     That makes her all the more frightening, Darcy thought. He began to grow nervous again, wondering if he ought not dance with her after all. It would not do for him to have such thoughts.

     “I am glad you will dance with her,” Bingley said, oblivious to Darcy’s wince as they sipped at their drinks. “Perhaps you could, ah, help me on a little, eh Darce? Tell her what a fine fellow I am!”

     Darcy couldn’t help but smile indulgently at his friend. Bingley’s enthusiasm had always tempered his own natural stoicism. How Bingley managed to make friends with everyone he met, and fall in and out of love so quickly, Darcy would never understand, but he found it endearing, and usually amusing to behold. “You seem to doing well enough on your own; my interference would more likely be a detriment.”

     “Well, don’t be too honest,” Bingley cried, laughing again.

     “I shall do my best,” Darcy said absently, his attention caught by Miss Bennet’s return. Her cheeks were rosy from the warmth of the room and her eyes alight with mischief as she made her way towards them.

     “I hope your lordship approves of my humble selections, sir,” Miss Bennet said, offering him a simple black woolen cape, and a beaked Venetian opera mask. “It would seem all the better costumes had already been claimed by guests who deigned to arrive in time for the supper.” She smiled saucily at them both, taking the edge off of her harsh teasing.

     Darcy accepted the cape and mask, putting them on with what he hoped was good humor as his companions laughed merrily. He felt ridiculous participating in such frivolity, for such was not his way, and yet it was strangely gratifying to inspire such a pleasant reaction. He gave Miss Bennet a deep bow before leading her to join the set.

     The lively scotch reel was invigorating, though not ideal for conversing. Darcy endeavored to speak highly of Bingley to Miss Bennet, and found it was truly no difficulty to do so. She opened the subject herself, asking how the two gentlemen had met and observing their drastically different temperaments. Darcy described their meeting at Cambridge, during what was Bingley’s first year and Darcy’s last.

     “It seems an odd friendship to many people,” Darcy said. “But, in truth, it makes perfect sense to me.”

     “I quite agree with you. Mr. Bingley’s lively disposition and affability must surely make him friends wherever he goes, and I suppose you could not resist! Besides, you are more formal and reserved. You complement each other well in that respect. I daresay the world must see it as an advantageous friendship for him, but in truth Mr. Bingley’s vivacity is just what you need, for if you had only friends of a similar nature to yourself, you should never converse with anybody!”

     The steps of the dance led them apart for long enough for Darcy to conceal his laughter, and as they came back together he said, “That was a very candid observation, Miss Bennet, and quite on the mark. I will own I consider myself fortunate indeed to call Charles Bingley my friend. I do not converse easily with others, Miss Bennet, as it seems you have observed. Others have called me proud and arrogant for this, but Bingley simply disregards my reserve, and treats me the same as he would anyone else. No little similarity to your own manners, I am sure.”

     Miss Bennet laughed heartily at this. “I confess I did suspect you of some haughtiness when you first came upon us; however you shall not find me unwilling to own a mistake.” She spun with the other dancers before turning back to him again. “I would even venture to say, Mr. Darcy, that you must never change your ways, for Mr. Bingley is everything amiable to be sure, but two such gentlemen together would be most overpowering. You do much better as the silent, mysterious companion.”

     Darcy was grateful the mask hid his expression, for he was certain his face was quite red. How did this woman, this slip of a girl, see through him so easily? Like Bingley, she had the ability to put him enough at ease that he found himself speaking much more than was his wont in a ballroom. And yet, Bingley’s conversation, though affable, now seemed decidedly lacking compared to Miss Bennet’s playful, combative comments. He was torn between the sheer pleasure of her company, and the increasing sense of guilt her felt at such enjoyment. He searched for something more to say about Bingley, hoping to distract himself from her alluring figure and beguiling mind.

     Before either had another chance to speak, the dance came to an end. Darcy turned to escort her back to Bingley, but before she could take his arm they were suddenly accosted by the masked bandit whom he had witnessed Miss Bennet divest of his champagne, just before they were introduced. The man was clearly quite foxed, and lurched toward Miss Bennet with a menacing leer at her bosom. “Isss you,” he slurred, reaching out to grab at her.

     Without thinking, Darcy immediately stepped between them and stared the man down. “I do not believe you have been properly introduced to this lady, sir, nor does your behavior recommend you for any such introduction. You will kindly be on your way, or there will be trouble.” Darcy pulled off his mask to fix a severe glare on the miscreant, which thankfully had the intended effect. The drunkard grimaced at him for a moment before stalking away, muttering oaths under his breath.

     After the scoundrel had moved on, Darcy turned to Miss Bennet, who was clinging to his arm with an expression of alarm. “Thank you, Mr. Darcy,” she said breathlessly.

     “Think nothing of it. Let us get you back to Mr. Bingley, Miss Bennet. I believe I must be departing soon.”

     She peered up at him with a trace of disappointment. “Must you?”

     The look in her eyes tore at Darcy’s heart, but he knew that to stay, as he dearly wished to, would be much, much worse. He led her to the edge of the room, where Bingley was engrossed in conversation with Miss Carmichael, the Queen of Revels, and a jovial pirate who regarded them with some curiosity.

     Before Bingley could introduce Darcy to his friends, Darcy gave a deep, formal bow, bade Bingley and Miss Bennet farewell, and turned to leave, forcing himself to take each step that carried him away.

***

     It was with great effort that Elizabeth tore her gaze away from the departing figure of Mr. Darcy, and focused her attention on Mr. Bingley, Emily, and the Gardiners. Her aunt and uncle had been speaking with Mrs. Carmichael and had not seen the incident on the dance floor, though both Emily and Mr. Bingley shot her matching glances of unspoken concern. Elizabeth merely gave a slight shake of her head; she did not wish to alarm her aunt and uncle, so she made an effort not to appear flustered by the experience.

     As she tuned back into the conversation, her aunt was proposing they all join the Banfields for games in the rose parlor, to which Elizabeth happily agreed. Both Emily and Mr. Bingley remained protectively close to her as they followed Mrs. Gardiner through the throng of people; like a true queen, her aunt navigated the crowd gracefully, though Elizabeth herself was rather overcome by the blur of activity all around. She began to feel the effects of so much drink – how much had she consumed, three, four glasses? Silly Lizzy! Half amused and half ashamed of herself, she felt her hands reach out and clasp Emily’s on one side, and Mr. Bingley’s on the other as they entered the parlor. Mr. Bingley seemed momentarily surprised at her impropriety, but smiled as he gave her hand a reassuring squeeze.

          The large wooden trunks that had been the focal point of the room early that evening had been moved aside to make way for any of the revelers who wished to leave the dance floor and indulge in parlor games. A lively crowd had assembled in the parlor for seasonal games, though most of the partygoers remained in the ballroom. Elizabeth and Emily cheerfully played along as the Queen of Revels commanded, each receiving rowdy cheers for around the room as they bobbed for apples, a feat made far more difficult by the amount of drink each had consumed since dinner. After that came a boisterous round of blind man’s bluff, in which a great deal of hilarity, as well as no little amount of cheating, were involved. The amusement revolved around a blindfold and a great deal of touching, under the guise of an innocent guessing game. Emboldened by the wine and caught up in the festivity around them, Elizabeth and her new friends enjoyed the game immensely, and she remained keenly aware of Mr. Bingley’s constant proximity.

     Next was Snapdragon, wherein guests plucked raisins and almonds from a flaming bowl of brandy, and Mr. Bingley very nearly caught his cape on fire. Even their host Sir Bertrand was caught up in the antics, and seemed almost disappointed at not having occasion to douse Mr. Bingley with a ready vase of water.

     The final game was bullet pudding, where to Emily’s supreme dismay, hers was the slice that caused the bullet to fall, compelling her to have to dig the bullet out of the flour “pudding” with her teeth. She emerged victorious, gracefully dusting most of the flour from her face and holding the bullet up triumphantly amid rancorous cheers of applause from the onlookers. The King and Queen of Revels toasted her success while Lady Helen, the fortune-teller, prognosticated that this was an omen of good fortune for all in the new year. Mr. Sutton hovered nearby, clearly besotted.

     Elizabeth swelled with pride and affection for her new friend, whose anxiety over the evening’s grandeur had proven to be totally unfounded. As had her own, she realized happily, as Mr. Bingley caught her eye from across the room before stumbling gaily into a sofa. Feeling suddenly dizzy, she fanned herself briskly and stepped out into the hallway to collect herself.

     Her solitary interlude was cut short by the approach of Mr. Henry Audley, dressed as a mystical maharajah. “No costume, Miss Bennet?”

     “That’s Miss Candor to you,” she replied, “Though it appears we are both sadly attired no differently than on any other occasion.”

     His mischievous eyes crinkled with laughter as he asked her for the next dance. Elizabeth was surprised at his asking her for a second set, but could not refuse without consigning herself to sit out the rest of the night. Though quite in his cups, as she had earlier predicted, Mr. Henry Audley was as pleasant a partner as he had been for their first dance; his lurid costume alone was massively entertaining to Elizabeth, and apparently the other dancers as well.

     At the conclusion of the set, Elizabeth noticed the approach of Mr. Sutton and his sister moving away from the dance floor. “Miss Sutton, I had quite forgotten about you,” she cried, suddenly filled with relish at her own devilish idea. Miss Sutton looked back at her as one might behold an insect that had learnt to speak and walk upright. “Mr. Henry Audley was scolding me, you see, for stealing him away when he had meant to ask you for a set. I can only atone for my wickedness by bringing him back to you now, if you will have him.”

     At this, Elizabeth relinquished her grip on that gentleman’s arm, giving him one impertinent glance before retreating to join the rest of her party. Though she would have to pay a forfeit for such a decidedly un-candid break in character, she was convinced it was well worth it, and happily sat the next dance out beside her aunt and Mrs. Carmichael so that she could rest and behold her own success. She was occasionally met with an exaggerated glance of despair from the gentleman she’d abandoned to Miss Sutton’s wiles, but each time she raised her glass in salute to them, and sipped her wine in silent self-satisfaction.

     Emily danced the next with Mr. Bingley, wishing to save the final set for Mr. Sutton. Elizabeth was happy to observe her friend with that gentleman, without any sensations of jealously. Mrs. Gardiner, seated beside her niece, looked over and smiled, her flamboyant wig tilting comically to the side. “I believe I can guess the subject of your reverie, Lizzy.”

     Elizabeth giggled, trying to fix her aunt with a haughty look that was difficult to manage in such a state of elevated spirits. “I should imagine not!”

     Mrs. Gardiner was more successful in adopting the feigned superiority in her tone. “You are considering how insupportable it shall be to return to Meryton after passing so many evening in such a manner – in such society; and indeed I am quite of your opinion. I have never been happier than the years I have lived in London since my marriage to your uncle. Though you shall only be with us for another six weeks, perhaps someday London may become a more permanent residence for you….”

     Elizabeth could only blush at her aunt’s allusion to Mr. Bingley, who she had learned kept a house in Grosvenor Square. “How rapid your imagination is, aunt. You jump from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment. I knew you would be wishing me joy.” Elizabeth shook her head with a mixture of mock disapproval and very genuine embarrassment.

     Mrs. Gardiner arched an eyebrow at her, “So you do admire him, then?”

     Elizabeth could scarcely reply, for Mr. Bingley was presently approaching to claim Elizabeth’s hand for the final dance, a spirited Boulanger. Elizabeth was at once delighted to be partnered with Mr. Bingley a second time, feeling all the honor of his claiming her for the final set of the night, and disappointed that the evening would soon end. Despite her initial inclination to bristle at her aunt and uncle’s desire that she like Mr. Bingley, she did indeed like him very much. He was amiable and handsome, he did not take himself overly seriously and delighted in making her laugh, and he was fond of dancing, which was certain step towards falling in love. She was also quite certain of his esteem for her, for it was evident in all of his looks, and in the reluctance with which he released her hand as the dance came to an end.

     All that was left was for those guests who had made forfeits to now endeavor to reclaim their surrendered articles, in the usual fashion. The forfeited items had been collected in a small box which Sir Bertrand brought ought and placed behind one of the gilded thrones at the end of the ballroom. Positioned behind the chair, out of Mrs. Gardiners’ sight, the King of Revels began the process of holding up one item at a time, while the Queen of Revels would then assign a task the object’s owner must complete in order to obtain their belongings.

     In this manner, Mr. Sutton was permitted to reclaim his great coat only after ascending the musicians’ platform and signing Here We Come A-Wassailing while hopping on one foot. Mrs. Carmichael got off somewhat easier, having her new gloves returned to her after she gave a rapid recital of the alphabet backwards. Mr. Bingley remained close to Elizabeth as they watched the revelers complete their feats, until it was Mr. Bingley’s turn to earn back his gold pocket watch by traversing the length of the ballroom and back on all fours, whilst barking like a dog. He approached the undertaking in good cheer, though he might have had more success had he removed the heavily padded tunic of Sir Tumbelly Clumsy.

     Elizabeth’s forfeited item was selected next – her new beaded shawl. She tried not to meet her aunt’s eye as the next feat was demanded. “The next item shall be restored to its owner,” Mrs. Gardiner decreed, “After they have met someone under the kissing bough! Whomever is closest shall suffice as a partner.”

     Elizabeth felt her cheeks grow red as she glanced toward her uncle, who suddenly seemed quite distracted in speaking with Sir Bertrand, and then toward the kissing bough hanging over the adjoining hallway. As Elizabeth made her way there, she realized that Mr. Henry Audley was technically the closet person to the kissing bough – and appeared to have been recently occupied there with Miss Sutton. He gave Elizabeth a roguish shrug and smirked as she caught his eye. Suddenly and with no little commotion, Mr. Bingley, still in character as Sir Tumbelly Clumsy, staggered into Mr. Audley, knocking him away from the kissing bough.

     Elizabeth raised a hand to her face to mask her laughter as she approached Mr. Bingley, stopping when their faces were just inches apart. Still flushed, Elizabeth felt warm all over, for she had never been kissed before, and she was suddenly quite nervous. Mr. Bingley looked at her with an intensely eager expression, and gently lifted her hand to his lips. For a moment Elizabeth’s heart sank with disappointment, but then, to her surprise, his lips pressed against hers, parting slightly, brushing softly across her mouth as he clasped her hand in his. And then, after what seemed like a both a mere second and yet also an eternity, he pulled away with a sigh and it was over.

     The crowd around them cheered, and the Gardiners continued to appear conveniently oblivious to the activity as Elizabeth drew away from Mr. Bingley, breathing in shakily as she struggled to regain her composure. When she was finally able to raise her eyes, she caught a smile and a cheeky wink from Emily, who was waving her over to where she stood with Mrs. Carmichael.  “Mama has called for her carriage, Lizzy. Come let us walk a little this way, Lizzy, for Mama says you must leave him wanting more,” she whispered.

     Elizabeth’s colored heightened once again and she drew her shawl tightly around her shoulders, sneaking a backward glance at Mr. Bingley, whose gaze had not wavered, before she was led away, her mind in blissful upheaval.

Chapter Text

     Charles Bingley was the sort of man who always woke in fine spirits, as to do otherwise was simply not in his nature. But that morning, after a night of such merriment, he was even cheerier than ever, if such a feat were possible. He gaily whistled a strain from a song he had particularly enjoyed dancing to the past evening, though the festivities had gone so late, he thought to himself, that it might well have been earlier that very morning. His whistling degenerated into a tuneless sort of humming as he seated himself at the breakfast table with a healthy helping of fruit and pastries – perhaps more pastries than usual given the amount of drink he had consumed at the Banfield’s ball. Grateful his headache was a mere trifle compared to his satisfaction with the evening as a whole, he reached for the morning paper his housekeeper had set out for him. A servant poured his coffee, adding the extra cream and sugar he preferred, before leaving him alone with his blissful meditations.  

     Though he lifted the paper to begin reading an article on the peninsular wars, he scarcely noticed the words before him fade away as his mind shifted its focus to a pair of fine eyes, and the face of a pretty woman. His smile reached new levels of absurdity as he recalled her laughter at his antics, her grace on the dance floor, and their kiss at the end of the celebration. Good God, that kiss. He hoped his old friend Gardiner wouldn’t be too angry with him for that, though how could he be, when his own wife had commanded it? 

     Bingley was startled from his pleasant reverie by the sudden entrance of his sister, whose air of haughty displeasure suggested her own celebration had been much less enjoyable. “Good morning, Caro, I hadn’t thought to see you here. Why did you not stay last night with the Hursts? I imagine you were all at the Granthams’ quite late.” 

     Caroline filled her plate at the sideboard and smiled at him with a sweetness that did not quite make it to her eyes. “I wanted to take breakfast with my dear brother, of course! After all, Louisa will have been to the same party as I last night, so we shall have little to say to one another about it this morning. We saw all the same people and partook of all the same amusements, after all. I wanted to hear how your evening was.” From the look of him, Caroline thought, her worst fears were about to be confirmed. No doubt he was mooning over some penniless nobody who had taken him in with her arts and allurements at that grasping tradesman’s pathetic excuse for a ball.  

     Bingley needed little encouragement to begin his exhortation of the night’s event, and was undaunted by his sister’s visible lack of interest as she seated herself beside him. He began acclaiming his delight at the elegance of the party and the all of the guests, the graciousness of the hosts, his exploits as Sir Tumbelly Clumsy, and his particular delight in renewing his friendship with Edward Gardiner. “It has been far too long since I have seen my old friend, nearly half a year indeed,” he exclaimed. “I am to call on them tomorrow, and I hope you shall join me.” 

     Caroline repressed the urge to roll her eyes. “Yes, well, I am sure it was lovely to be reunited with our father’s former employees, Charles, but I do so wish you had come with us to Lord and Lady Grantham’s instead. Your absence was noticed, and I hardly knew what excuse to give.” 

     Bingley shrugged. “I had a prior engagement, ‘tis no shame in saying so. Mr. Gardiner was most keen to have me there, and I am happy I went. Indeed, I do not wish it had been otherwise. And besides, I do not think that I even know Lord and Lady Grantham. I cannot account for how you and Louisa obtained the invitation.” 

     “Really, Charles,” Caroline huffed. “We have met the Granthams many times, I am sure. They are great friends of the Fitzwilliams, and Lady Rebecca and Viscount Hartley were very disappointed you did not come. Lady Rebecca looked quite divine last night, and she told me she had been saving a dance for you. I do not know what you are about, passing up such an opportunity with such a charming girl.” 

     “I will own Lady Rebecca is a lovely girl indeed, and I am happy that you have found a friend in her, Caro. But you know I am not quite comfortable around Darcy’s relations without him there, too. Besides, I was quite agreeably engaged with an abundance of beautiful dance partners at the Banfields’, and I was just as distressed by having to make excuses for why you did not join me.” 

     Caroline sighed. It was a shame that Darcy had not been in attendance, and even more of a shame that he was no longer available. But the silver lining was that his cousin, formerly a colonel with very little means to recommend himself, had been recently elevated to the status of Viscount after the death of his insalubrious elder brother, and he was still decidedly available; Caroline would simply have to make the best of it. Or perhaps Mrs. Darcy would die, and Caroline would have another chance at becoming mistress of not only Pemberley, but of Rosings as well.  

     Roused from her musings, Caroline realized her brother was still recounting, at length, the particular attractions of one or other of his dance partners. Irritated as she was, she had difficulty following his animated train of thought, and peevishly asked, “So which Flavinia Flirtmuch or Petunia Pertmouth caught your eye, Charles? Pray tell me she is at least a gentlewoman, if there were any in attendance.” 

     Bingley halted his ramblings for long enough to frown at his sister’s inattention. “It was Miss Candor – and Caro, she is such a jewel!” Caroline’s sigh of exasperation went unnoticed as he continued, “She is absolute perfection, Caroline. And indeed she is a gentleman’s daughter, but it is of little import to me, for I am rich enough already! If I could but hear her musical laughter and look upon her fine, sparkling eyes all day, I should be the happiest of men! I am sure you will like her, when you meet her. We are to call on the Gardiners in Gracechurch Street tomorrow.” 

     “Good Lord, is she a relation of these tradesmen? Residing in Cheapside? Charles, what are you thinking? Did I not tell you the daughter of an earl was asking after you last night?” 

     Bingley smiled at his sister, still too cheerful to be daunted in the least. “Well, I am sure it was only out of common courtesy, for I have never sensed any interest on her part, as much as you may wish it. The Earl would hardly approve, and anyhow, I should much prefer Miss Bennet’s playful conversation and pretty smiles, and I daresay you would agree with me, if you would only give her a chance.” 

     Caroline could see that her brother was in very serious danger of being well and truly caught this time; talking him out of it might be more than a simple morning’s work. She would have to adjust her tactics. “But of course I shall give her a chance, if it is so important to you. I shall accompany you tomorrow to behold this paragon of virtue for myself.”  

*** 

     Elizabeth Bennet, a habitual early riser with a hearty constitution, felt entirely out of sorts as she dragged herself downstairs to breakfast two hours later than was her usual custom. That her aunt and uncle appeared equally worse for wear was of little consolation to her, and she found herself no more able to meet their eyes than to face the blinding sunlight that poured in through the windows of the small breakfast parlor.  

     They all ate in silence for some time, before Mr. Gardiner poured himself another cup of coffee and addressed his niece. “Well, Lizzy, you are very dull this morning. I had thought you would be full of witty observations and girlish effusions. Have you nothing to say of last night, or do you merely wait for my departure, that you might confide in your aunt, woman to woman?” He uncle gave her a wink and a smile, but Elizabeth’s stomach lurched. 

     Snippets of recollections from the previous night flooded her mind; though much of it was a blur, what Elizabeth did recall she felt did her little credit. “I think the less said about the ball, the better,” she said curtly, still averting her gaze. 

     “Surely you were not disappointed, Lizzy,” her aunt cried. “You seemed to be having such fun!” 

     “Indeed,” he uncle rejoined. “Mr. Bingley was most attentive; I daresay he hardly left your side!’ 

     Elizabeth cringed. “Indeed, Mr. Bingley was unfortunately present to witness the vast majority of my folly last night. I am sure it made quite the impression.” 

     “Now Lizzy, I am sure the wine has you out of humor this morning, but you needn’t vex yourself, my dear. Mr. Bingley was very well pleased with you, which in turn pleases your uncle and I.” 

     “Mr. Bingley was just as much in his cups as I, and I daresay we were both a great deal too pleased with everything. In the light of day, I must look back on my own conduct with censure; I cannot imagine you or my uncle being pleased with my behavior. If Mr. Bingley is a sensible man, I am sure he must think very ill of me for imbibing so much. Indeed, if he is not dismayed, I should think him a very foolish sort of man.” 

     Mrs. Gardiner merely raised her eyebrows in an arch expression, and glanced at her husband, who gave an affectionate chuckle and patted Elizabeth’s hand. “I think you are too hard on yourself, my dear, and on poor Mr. Bingley, too! Such debauchery is to be expected at a Twelfth Night celebration. I would never bring your younger sisters to such an event, but your aunt and I trust you, Lizzy. I believe you conducted yourself very well, and made a favorable impression on all who met you.” 

     “I quite agree,” her aunt said with a reassuring glance at Elizabeth. “After all that you have been through, you deserved to enjoy yourself. Is this not why you came to London?” 

     “I did not come to London to make a fool of myself!” 

     Mrs. Gardiner sighed, pressing her hand to her temples, and closed her eyes. “If that is what you believe, Lizzy, I suppose your uncle and I have only ourselves to blame. Perhaps we were not the best of chaperones.” She shook her head slowly, opening her eyes to look wearily at her niece. “It has been many years now that we have felt you past the need of the kind of supervision that your younger sisters require. We kept watch over you from afar, and saw nothing to cause any alarm on our part. However, if you feel it necessary, we shall be more attentive to you in the future.” 

     She gave Elizabeth a weak smile before turning to her husband. “I feel my headache returning. I believe I will retire upstairs for some rest. If you could please send Maggie to the park with the children, I shall see you all for supper.” 

     Mr. Gardiner watched with concern as his wife quit the room before turning to Elizabeth with an expectant look. Clearly this conversation was not over, though Elizabeth felt herself begin to suffer the same malady as her aunt. 

     Elizabeth sighed. She had not meant to make her aunt feel worse, and now she felt guilt on top of her embarrassment. “Oh, Uncle,” she groaned. “I have made such a mess of everything.” 

     Her uncle smiled affectionately. “Now Lizzy, I have reached the advanced age of five and thirty; I am a very wise old man and I wish you would heed my advice, for you need not vex yourself over such a trifle. It speaks well to your character that you would wish your comportment to always be above reproach, and you are of an age where you are certainly capable of such. Your aunt and I watched over you last night, to the extent that we thought necessary, and were prepared to intervene if it became necessary at any point. As she said, we are happy to do whatever we can to provide you guidance, but I would not wish you to continue doubting yourself. I maintain my position that you did yourself and your family proud, for it seemed to me that everyone who met you came away with a positive impression. Would you not agree?” 

     Elizabeth tipped her head to one side as she considered. This was a trait that she loved about her uncle. Like her father, he possessed the ability to converse rationally with her, using logic to talk her down from heightened emotions, prompting her to look at situations in a different light. And, unlike her father, her uncle could put a more positive spin on things with a gentler, less sardonic manner of humor. Her father made no secret of his disinterestedness, his unwillingness to take any measures in situations of distress. Her uncle, on the other hand, could easily joke himself and others into a better mood, while still resolving to take action. Offering her uncle a smile, she nodded her assent. 

     “And now, dear girl,” her uncle continued with mock levity, “I can only surmise that it is not your behavior that really bothers you, but perhaps the impression you made on one person in particular.” 

     Averting her eyes, Elizabeth sighed again. “Perhaps.”  

     Her uncle leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers on the table as he looked at her with satisfaction. “Well, dear girl, I believe we have come to the crux of the issue. Now, what to do about it? You believe you have embarrassed yourself in front of Mr. Bingley, and wish never to meet with him again, as you cannot face him after last night’s little display. Have I got that right?” 

     Much as her aunt had roused Elizabeth’s guilt, her uncle now rankled her pride. She knew what they were about, and yet she couldn’t help herself. She squared her shoulders back and met her uncle’s gaze with steady confidence. “I am not afraid of him! I have no wish to avoid Mr. Bingley, sir. I merely find myself more skeptical about his character than I was last evening.” 

     “I cannot fault you that, Lizzy. Be cautious, by all means, but do not let your embarrassment sour such a promising acquaintance, that is all I ask.” 

     Elizabeth could protest no further. She required solitude to process her feelings, and hopefully make more sense out of her vague recollections from the night before. With any hope, she would find herself in finer spirits before she met with Mr. Bingley again, for it was clear that the connection was an important one to her aunt and uncle.  

*** 

     A day of introspection had given Elizabeth much time to think, and revise her opinions – many times over. Had she been at home in Hertfordshire, a walk about the countryside would have been just the restorative she needed. However, feeling as poorly as she did after the exertions of the ball, there was little appeal in the prospect of a walk through the bustling London streets, full of dirty melting snow and so much noisy activity. Cooped up in the Gardiner house instead, she had made several attempts at activities that could not hold her interest as she replayed her fuzzy memories of the ball over in her mind.  

     That there had been an attraction between Mr. Bingley and herself was undeniable. They had danced together as often as propriety would allow, and he had found many excuses to touch her throughout the night. She hazily recalled holding his hand at one point as they had moved through a crowded room. And that kiss! Good God! Though not as fanciful as her younger sisters, Elizabeth had naturally given some thought to what her first kiss would be like. Never had she imagined it would take place in a crowded room full of inebriated strangers, with a man she had only just met. It was a far cry from the romantic novels she secretly adored.  

     And yet, as improper as it all was, she was not alone in her culpability, for Mr. Bingley himself was equally complicit in that regard. She vacillated between feeling deeply embarrassed, and strangely flattered by such overt attentions. Perhaps he was half in love with her already! 

     But no, that was a foolish thought. Handsome, wealthy men did not throw themselves away on obscure country girls of little standing, middling beauty, and no fortune. Perhaps it had all been a great joke for him, a mere passing amusement, the whim of a moment. Perhaps he would not even bother to call on her. No. Elizabeth shook her head as if to rid herself of such thoughts, which began to parallel the awful things Jane had said. 

     It would not do. After all, Mr. Bingley looked up to her uncle. Surely he would not behave so frivolously with the affections of his older friend’s own niece! Affection? Had she affection for him already? He was certainly the most amiable gentleman she had ever met – she liked him very much – but could it grow into something more? Elizabeth had always resolved to marry for only the deepest love and respect, no matter what her elder sister or anyone else threatened. But could happiness be found with Mr. Bingley? She enjoyed his company, but she could not recall having a single sensible conversation with him at any point that night. They spoke of amusements and trifles, but what of his mind? Bah, one can hardly talk of books in a ballroom; one’s head is always full of something else. 

     And thus Elizabeth continued to torture herself for the remainder of the day. If her aunt and uncle had any idea of her internal agitation, they did not importune her again. 

*** 

     The following day, Elizabeth woke with a clearer mind and firmer resolve. Either Mr. Bingley would call, or he would not. Either they would get on as famously as they had before, or they would not. Still, she took extra care at her toilette, arranging her hair in a simple but flattering style that even Lydia had once conceded looked well on her. She wore one of the new dresses her aunt had purchased her, a pale blue morning gown of very fine sprigged muslin with a single cornflower blue ribbon as the only ornamentation.  

     With great focus, Elizabeth managed to apply herself to some embroidery as she sat in the front parlor with Mrs. Gardiner after breakfast. Her uncle had departed after the meal, but not before informing the ladies that they had received an invitation to attend the opera with the Banfields later that week. Elizabeth chatted happily with her aunt for some time, only half attending the conversation as she waited to hear a carriage arriving outside.  

     She drew in a deep breath, sat up straight, and folded her hands in her lap, hoping her expression was appropriately demure as Mrs. Gardiner looked on in amusement. A moment later, the footman entered to announce the arrival of Mrs. Carmichael and her daughter. Elizabeth exhaled with a nervous giggle, and her aunt rolled her eyes. 

     Emily Carmichael rushed to greet her, her skirts swishing in a flurry of excitement as she took her seat beside Elizabeth on the sofa. “It feels as if it has been ages since I saw you last!” 

     “Well, I’m glad you are come, Emily. At home in Meryton, it is the custom for all the young ladies of the neighborhood to meet their friends the morning after an assembly and compare their impressions of it.” 

     “That is just what I would wish,” Emily cried. “We would have come yesterday, only we had callers. Mrs. Audley and her sister Miss Sutton, and who do you think? Mr. Henry Audley.” Emily blushed crimson and snuck a glance at her mother, who was conversing across the room with Mrs. Gardiner. “Mama thinks he fancies Miss Sutton, but you and I know it is not so,” she whispered. 

     Elizabeth smiled incredulously at her friend, remembering the look on Mr. Henry Audley’s face as he moved away from Miss Sutton beneath the kissing bough. “What of Mr. Sutton? Was he not very attentive to you as well?” 

     “Oh, yes! He did not call with his sisters, but he did send me the loveliest bouquet of flowers. My stepmother says I did very well indeed at the ball, far beyond her expectations for me. She even said that I must order some more new gowns, as she now expects to have more callers than she had originally anticipated for my first season.” 

     Elizabeth merely raised a speculative eyebrow. Emily was already dressed in far finer a gown than Elizabeth could ever hope to own, notwithstanding her aunt and uncle’s generosity. She couldn’t help but feel bad for her friend, having to bear her stepmother’s seemingly exacting standards. And yet, there was always something so genuinely motherly about Mrs. Carmichael’s behavior. Perhaps, like Elizabeth’s own mother, it was simply a case of misplaced solicitude. 

     As no response seemed required to Emily’s raptures, Elizabeth simply smiled as her friend continued. “I suppose you were right, Lizzy, for after my first big event, I do not feel nearly so nervous as I did only a week ago. How silly I was to be so frightened. I shall resolve to listen to good counsel from my friends, and not allow anything to intimidate me!” 

     “Bravo, Emily! I am pleased to hear you have found your confidence. A lady should always know her own worth.” 

     Emily blushed. “Well, perhaps I ought not carry on so long about myself. I wouldn’t wish to let my confidence make me quite rude, and I haven’t even asked after you at all.  How have you been since last we met? Any callers or flowers?” 

     “No, none at all,” Elizabeth said with a good humored smile.  

     Emily gasped. “That is shocking! Oh Lizzy, I thought you were ever so charming, and twice as lovely as I!” 

     Elizabeth simply laughed. “You are very kind, my dear cousin. But you must tell me more, since I have so little to report for myself. I must live vicariously through your good fortune, else I should become quite desolate.” 

     “I have so much to tell, I hardly know where to start!” 

     “Tell me of your dance partners, for I long to know if any of them trod upon your lovely gown or missed their steps.” 

     “No indeed! Oh Lizzy, you are teasing me,” Emily giggled. 

     “Perhaps I am, but it cannot be helped. You are entirely too disposed to speak well of everyone you met, and therefore it is up to me to imagine all the little follies and foibles in others that you were sweet enough to overlook. And, as freely as the wine was flowing, I imagine there were a great many follies to be observed.” 

     “Oh! That reminds me – Lizzy, do you recall the gentleman in the highwayman costume? The one you stole some glasses of champagne from? You will never believe this, but he gave me quite the scolding for it! My stepmother was quite put out.” 

     Elizabeth furrowed her brow, trying to recollect why that sounded familiar. “Why yes, I think I remember that. He tried to accost me as well, and then, there was something…. Mr. Bingley told him off, I think.” She frowned, still angry at herself for drinking enough to cloud her memory of the evening. How embarrassing! 

     Emily grinned as she latched on to the last part. “Oh, your Mr. Bingley is quite perfect, Lizzy. I can well believe he would come to your rescue. It is strange that he has not sent you any flowers, though. Perhaps he could not find any that were beautiful enough for you, and has gone into hiding.” 

     “You flatter me, Emily, but he is not my Mr. Bingley.” 

     “Oh, but he is, or at least he very soon will be! I daresay everyone who saw you together could tell that he is half in love with you already!” 

     Elizabeth blushed again, and looked over at her aunt, who appeared unaware of their topic of conversation. “Please, Emily,” she whispered, “I would rather not speak of Mr. Bingley, if you do not mind.” 

     Before her friend could reply, the maid entered once again, this time announcing the arrival of Mr. Charles Bingley and Miss Caroline Bingley. Being positioned with her back to the door, Emily screwed up her face into a triumphant smirk and stuck her tongue out at Elizabeth. Across the room, Mrs. Carmichael hissed at her daughter, sending both the young ladies a motherly warning scowl. 

     Feeling her color heighten, Elizabeth struggled to maintain her composure as the two guests were shown into the room. Mrs. Gardiner rose to greet the newcomers and sent for tea. Introductions were made all around, giving Elizabeth a moment to calm herself, and observe the new arrivals. 

     Mr. Bingley appeared to be just as much at ease as ever, and completely undaunted by the presence of other callers. His sister, on the other hand, had made sweeping appraisal of the room and clearly found little to please her. She gave Mrs. Gardiner the barest of curtsies, schooling her sour expression into what she likely thought was a smile. Elizabeth watched with amusement, recalling her uncle’s description of the proud, unpleasant Bingley sisters.  

     Once past the civilities, Mr. Bingley immediately made his way to Elizabeth. “Miss Bennet, it is a delight to see you again. I hope you do not mind – that is, I hope you will enjoy these flowers I have brought you. I daresay they are nothing compared to your own beauty but – well, here you are.” He presented her with a very elegantly arranged bouquet. “My sister Caroline helped me select these – she knows more about such things.” 

     Elizabeth raised a brow at his sister’s knowing smile. Due to her enthusiasm for both reading as well as the natural world, Elizabeth had a substantial knowledge of fauna and flora, and knew the meaning of many common flowers. The roses for love were obviously Mr. Bingley’s contribution, but she had to wonder about the others. The snapdragon meant pretension, the columbine meant folly, the violet signified modest worth, and the pomegranate flower signified foolishness.  

     As Emily coughed to hide a giggle at her own prediction coming to pass, Elizabeth accepted the bouquet with gracious thanks. “Well done, indeed, Miss Bingley. You are obviously a lady who knows her flowers.” 

     Mrs. Gardiner stepped forward to take the blossoms, promising to have the maid arrange them in Elizabeth’s room. She offered the Bingleys their choice of seats as she began to serve the tea. Mr. Bingley quickly took the last space on the sofa, to Elizabeth’s other side. Miss Bingley, apparently perceiving the superiority of Miss Carmichael’s apparel, delicately seated herself in a chair near Emily, looking at the furniture as though it might bite her.  

     Mr. Bingley smiled eagerly at Elizabeth. “I trust you are well, Miss Bennet.” 

     “Indeed, thank you.” 

     “Of course she is well, Charles. Country life is very robust, is it not? This naturally leads to good health.” 

     “I believe you are right, Miss Bingley, although I am not in the country at present.” 

     Miss Bingley nodded. “Yes, obviously. And how long have you been in London?” 

     “A week, yesterday.” 

     “We are ever so glad Cousin Lizzy came to visit,” Emily chimed in, clearly wishing to help. “I have had such a pleasant time renewing our friendship.” 

     Miss Bingley gave another languid nod of her head. “I understand you hail from the wilds of Hertfordshire, Miss Bennet. How exciting that must be for you, and what a treat to visit London. You are very fortunate to have made such elevated acquaintances; I am sure it is an opportunity that many an obscure country miss can only dream of. And yet, here you are, moving so comfortably amongst your betters, despite your lack of society at home.” 

     Elizabeth calmly sipped her tea, her thoughts wavering between amusement and dismay. To be sure, Caroline Bingley was a fascinating character to sketch – her father would have been delighted at such a display of incivility. But for such a contemptible woman to be the sister of the man who wished to court her, well, that was not particularly encouraging. 

     Mr. Bingley shifted uncomfortably beside her. “I think the country is very pleasant. I have long been of a mind to find myself an estate somewhere and settle down. I should like it very much, indeed. And I have heard some very pleasant things about Hertfordshire, albeit from biased sources.” 

     “I should like to visit the country,” Emily said brightly. “When Lizzy returns home to her sisters, I shall write her unceasingly until she invites me to stay with her!” 

     “I certainly shall invite you,” Elizabeth quipped, sending Miss Bingley an arch look. “We shall partake in all the robust country activities that are so beneficial for one’s health.”  

     “And how many sisters have you, Miss Bennet?” 

     “I am the second of five daughters.” 

     Miss Bingley appeared aghast. “A family of five daughters! What a novelty, indeed. I have never heard of such a thing. I am sure Louisa and I would have gone quite mad in a house so full of ladies. But then, in such confined and unvarying society as to be had in the country, perhaps it is a small comfort. Are any other of your sisters out?” 

     Elizabeth smiled cheerily, preparing to give Miss Bingley further shock. “Yes, all of them.” 

     “All? The younger sisters out before the elder have married? Your younger sisters must be very young!” 

     “Yes, my youngest sister is not yet sixteen. Perhaps she is full young to be much in company. But really, I think it would be very hard upon younger sisters, that they should not have their share of amusement, because the elder may not have the means or inclination to marry early. My elder sister is just recently married; had we younger sisters waited to come out, we should only recently be enjoying society. And yet, my having experienced all the social activity our little neighborhood has to offer, and even several trips to London, must be to my advantage, do you not agree?” 

     “Well said, Miss Bennet,” Mr. Bingley cried, drawing the attention of Mrs. Gardiner and Mrs. Carmichael, who moved their seats closer to the rest of the group. “No one that has had the benefit of meeting you could find you to be wanting.” 

     Miss Bingley frowned at her brother’s praise of Miss Bennet, smoothing out her overly trimmed dress before launching her next assault. “You have a sister married, then? Well, that is certainly something. Your mother must be quite relieved to have at least one daughter settled. Is he a gentleman?” 

     Seeing Elizabeth visibly flinch, Mrs. Gardiner replied, “Indeed, Miss Bingley. He is a clergyman at present, but will someday inherit an estate. My sister was indeed pleased with the match, as was the bride, I believe.” 

     “What a comfort that must be to you all. I daresay eligible gentlemen are in short supply in that part of the country, especially for those… less fortunate in their dowries. But I suppose it was eminently sensible of your new brother to wed such a rustic sort of girl, for she must have the requisite level of experience in running a modest parsonage.” Miss Bingley paused to fidget with her bracelets, either unaware of the increasing awkwardness of all those around her, or perfectly satisfied by it. 

     Elizabeth had been bearing up well enough under Miss Bingley’s condescending inquisition until the subject had turned to that which she most wished to avoid. Sensing her discomfort, Mr. Bingley took advantage of his sister’s momentary ennui to turn the conversation in a more pleasant direction. 

     “Well, ladies,” said Mr. Bingley to Elizabeth and Emily, “I cannot recall ever in my whole life having such a pleasant time as I did at the Banfields’ ball! Was it not splendid?” 

     “It was certainly grand,” Elizabeth said, sensing that Emily’s effusions might spare herself from saying more. 

     “Oh, indeed,” Emily rejoined. “I have never enjoyed such pretty music or pleasant partners! I believe I danced every dance, and played all of the games.” 

     “And which did you like better?” 

     “I should think not the games,” Mrs. Carmichael interjected. “You had flour all over you after bullet pudding!” 

     Emily and Elizabeth exchanged a look of hilarity at the recollection, and Mr. Bingley chuckled affably. “I must have conveniently forgot all about that, I am sure, Miss Carmichael. I shall maintain that you were both visions of loveliness the entire evening, and very fine dancers as well.”  

     Here Mr. Bingley allowed his warm gaze to rest upon Elizabeth, who returned his smile in spite her mounting embarrassment. Out of the corner of her eye, she could spy her aunt giving her a knowing look, and Elizabeth scrambled for something to say, if only to break the inexplicable tension she felt. “One cannot be a fine dancer by one’s self, Mr. Bingley,” she observed. “You must accept half the compliment sir, for you make an excellent partner.” 

     “Indeed,” Mrs. Gardiner chimed in. “I can well attest to this myself. It is a pity that next time I shall have to wait for you to ask me, as I won’t be Queen, able to command you to dance with me.” 

     “I believe I shall remain under your command whenever there is dancing,” Mr. Bingley said, more to Elizabeth than her aunt.  

     Miss Bingley gave a simpering smile. “It sounds as though you were as popular as ever at the Banfields’ little party, Charles. Indeed he always is, wherever he goes in Town,” she added, as if confessing a great secret to the other ladies present. “He has such an easy disposition that he always does well in any manner of society, whether high or low. It is a shame he was not able to attend Lord and Lady Grantham’s ball with me, where I could have kept an eye on him, for I have often had to warn him about his affable ways, which leave him quite open to all manner of fortune hunters.” 

     Mr. Bingley scowled at his sister, who had rounded on Emily Carmichael while the others recovered from their astonishment at the derisive turn the conversation had taken. “I am sure you know what I mean, Miss Carmichael. I’ve no doubt a fashionable young lady such as yourself has just as much reason to be equally guarded. I take it you live here in London?” 

     “Yes, I live with my stepmother on Half Moon Street.” 

     Caroline turned to Mrs. Carmichael with an ingratiating smile. “Oh, you reside in Mayfair, Mrs. Carmichael? My, how fortunate for your relations to be able to visit such as prominent location, it must be such a privilege for them. I have several acquaintances that reside in that part of London. One cannot be too careful about the neighborhoods one frequents while in Town.” 

     Mrs. Carmichael’s astonishment at Miss Bingley’s speech was apparent, and though Mrs. Gardiner kept her countenance, Elizabeth could sense her aunt’s growing frustration as she replied, “Indeed, Miss Bingley. My husband and I are fortunate to have friends in many neighborhoods throughout the city. My sister has long tried to convince us to move closer to her, but my husband will not hear of it. We are quite content where we are, and have no desire to aggrandize ourselves.” 

     Mr. Bingley glanced nervously between Elizabeth and his sister before replying, “You are quite right, Mrs. Gardiner! You have an excellent home. Every time I have come to visit, I have found myself far too comfortable to have any wish to leave. I imagine you must feel quite the same.” 

     Mrs. Gardiner nodded her assent as Mrs. Carmichael tittered nervously. Miss Bingley glared at her brother and Elizabeth before continuing, “How happy your husband must be, Mrs. Gardiner, to have his own warehouses in sight of his snug little home. Of course you are very comfortable here indeed; I daresay it would never do for you to move to a more fashionable area. Good for you, I say. One ought not quit the environs to which one has become accustomed.” 

     Elizabeth tensed and let out a sharp exhale. The nerve of this woman! She began clenching at the fabric of her dress to restrain her temper, when Mr. Bingley gently laid a hand on top of hers, offering her an apologetic glance before removing his hand and addressing his sister. “I think the Gardiners would have a lovely home in any neighborhood. But it sounds as though the Carmichaels are our very near neighbors. We do not live in Mayfair, but very near by, in --- Street. You must all come to dinner some time soon.  What a merry party we shall make, I am sure. Perhaps we will even have the opportunity to all dance together again.” 

     Emily clapped her hands. “That sounds lovely, Mr. Bingley, Miss Bingley.” 

     Elizabeth sipped her tea slowly, trying to calm herself enough to make some reply. “I understand you act as hostess for your brother, Miss Bingley.” 

     “Oh yes, I do what I can for poor Charles. It is no trouble at all to keep house for him when we are in Town. I consider it good practice for when I am running a home of my own someday. With a dowry such as mine, I expect to settle at a very large estate, and I daresay I shall entertain just as much then as I do now, here in Town. Although, I had been thinking of staying for some weeks with my dear sister Mrs. Hurst, for she and I are often at the same social events, and it would be ever so convenient for me to simply reside with them, at least for a little while, until Charles has need of me to act as hostess for a suitable set of friends.” 

     Elizabeth bit back a caustic retort, but apparently Emily had had enough of Miss Bingley’s insolence as well. In her dulcet, innocent way, she observed, “Perhaps you ought make the most of the opportunity to practice, Miss Bingley, for certainly when Mr. Bingley marries, which may be soon, you will no longer have that option.” 

     Elizabeth struggled to keep her countenance, when she wished nothing more than to leap up and applaud her friend. Schooling her expression, she replied. “Indeed, I believe you are quite right, Emily. I am sure you have given Miss Bingley much to think on.”  

     Mr. Bingley smiled brightly as he caught Emily’s meaning. “Yes, quite so! Well, Caroline, I believe we must be off.” He rose to his feet and bowed to the ladies. “I was quite serious about that dinner, Mrs. Gardiner, Mrs. Carmichael. We shall send invitations round as soon as a date is fixed. And do give my regards to Mr. Gardiner.” Mr. Bingley approached Elizabeth one last time as his sister hastened toward the door. He took her hand in his as if to kiss it, but stopped just short of doing so, rather flustered. “Until we meet again, Miss Bennet.” 

     The Carmichaels took their leave shortly after the Bingleys, having stayed much longer than their original intent. Though the mother and daughter were both too polite to say so, Elizabeth could tell they were both wishing that the Bingleys had not intruded on what would have otherwise been a very pleasant, albeit much duller visit.  

     When Mrs. Gardiner and Elizabeth were at last left alone in the parlor, Mrs. Gardiner heaved a sigh of relief as she sank down onto the sofa beside her niece. “How those two siblings are related, I shall never understand. He is everything amiable, and she is....” 

     “Gone, at least,” Elizabeth burst, finally able to freely express her mirth. She and her aunt exchanged looks of silent understanding, struck speechless with astonishment at all that had happened, and relief that it was over. 

Chapter Text

     Several days passed without further word from either the Carmichaels or the Bingleys. Though Mrs. Gardiner was clearly attempting to moderate her vexation at their neglect, Elizabeth suffered no such struggle. That Emily had not called again gave Elizabeth hope that her new friend was more agreeably engaged with one of her new beaux, and supposed only that the longer she had to wait to see her, the more there would be for them to talk about. Mr. Bingley’s absence, though distressing to her aunt, was a source of benign amusement to her uncle, who mused that perhaps the young man was much distracted by making arrangements to have his sister installed in Bedlam.  

     “You are becoming much like your brother Bennet,” Mrs. Gardiner teased him at breakfast one morning, when the topic of Mr. Bingley had come up. “’Tis a fine joke for you now, but I am sure you had as great a hope as I that something would come of his interest in Lizzy. How perfect it would have been, for they are both so very dear to us!” 

     In truth, Elizabeth herself was agonizing very little over Mr. Bingley’s defection, if a mere four days’ absence constituted such a thing at all. The entire situation made her very wary. Under any other circumstances, she would have received Mr. Bingley’s attentions most eagerly, and been excited to see what might develop between them. But the thought that, were the Gardiners to get their wish, Miss Bingley would become another sister to Elizabeth – this was a rather alarming notion. And was that not the natural conclusion of a courtship? Why, then, would Elizabeth wish for further attention from a man who lacked the resolve to restrain the vitriol of his harridan sister? And furthermore, if his own sister was able to dominate him so entirely, was that not an indicator of other weaknesses in character? She had one vindictive sister in her life already, and the idea of taking on another nearly made her ill. 

     Such were Elizabeth’s thoughts as she sat in the front parlor, pretending to read a book, after having silently endured a breakfast full of her aunt and uncle’s speculation on Mr. Bingley. It was endearing, in a way; as much as she balked at the situation, Elizabeth did not wish to argue the point with her aunt and uncle. Not yet, at least.  

     After Mr. Gardiner departed for his offices, Mrs. Gardiner joined her niece in the cozy little parlor, where a roaring fire had been lit. “The post just came, Lizzy dear. Look, a letter from Longbourn and a letter from Jane!” 

     The letter from home was one Elizabeth had anticipated with relish, for she had written her father a very detailed description of Miss Bingley, and looked forward to hearing his remarks on the subject. Tucking away the first packet, thick enough that it likely contained notes from her mother and sisters as well, Elizabeth frowned at the other note. 

     Mrs. Gardiner looked at Elizabeth with feeling. “You must wish for some privacy to read your letters, my dear….” 

     “Not at all, aunt. Indeed, you must be far more eager to hear from Jane than I am. I shall read the letters from home, instead.” Elizabeth offered the letter from Jane to her aunt. 

     With a gentle smile, her aunt shook her head and return to her sewing. “Indeed I am eager to hear from Jane, but I am resolved to finish mending one of little Ben’s shirts this morning. Perhaps you might read Jane’s letter aloud to me before you open the packet from Longbourn? You have such a wonderful reading voice, so strong and steady.” 

     Elizabeth was sure it would be vexing in the extreme, but at least she could look forward to reading her dear papa’s letter afterward. She opened the letter and began reading aloud to her aunt, already annoyed at the sight of Jane’s flawlessly elegant penmanship. 

 

     Dearest Lizzy, 

     I hope that this letter finds you well, and that your trip to London has been pleasant and diverting. Our aunt informs me that you are to attend a very gra nd ball  – I daresay by the time you receive this letter, you will have already done so. I should so much like to hear your account of the experience , for the life of a parson’s wife  is one of more duty than frivoli ty .   have already had a little description of your new gown from our aunt, and I am sure you shall look  well  whenever you wear  it. Our aunt was very helpful to me in preparing my trousseau last month, so I can well imagine what delight she has taken in providing you a similar service. 

      Of balls and  gowns I have very little to report, for we live quietly and comfortably here at the parsonage. It is every bit as quaint and cozy as Mr. Collins had described it to be during his visit to Longbourn. Lady Catherine has been  very attentive neighbor. She has provided a great deal of advice and assistance  in  my getting settled in here. I believe we are most fortunate to  enjoy such condescension , and she certainly could not have bestowed her kindness on more  grateful  subjects . 

     My husband is most generous and  patient,  and I find that I am quite content here. Though I  have chosen to consider your apprehension  as kindly meant, I must assure you that there is truly no cause for alarm at my situation, which I  believe is better than many  can hope for. Indeed, Lizzy, I can, from my heart, wish you equal felicity in marriage someday.  

     The only thing missing to complete my own happiness is  my  dear est  sister. Following the excellent example of my dear husband, I wish to extend an olive branch to you, in hopes that we can heal the breach between us. Lady Catherine has even agreed that  a reconciliation  ought be attempted between us. She advised me that though you are younger  and  ought  follow my example , you are  also  now the eldest Miss Bennet, and  therefore  must prepare yourself for your own eventual marriage. I share her belief that you may benefit from a visit to  Hunsford , where you may witness for yourself how harmoniously we get on here. I confess I should like nothi ng better than to have you come stay with  us, not only to allay your fears about the marriage state, which is not  so  dreadful as you had anticipated, but also so that I may be of assistance in promoting your advancement to such a stage in life. Lady Catherine has promised that when you do visit, she will do everything in her power to put you in the way of suitably eligible gentlemen. Truly, Lizzy, Mr. Collins did not exaggerate her condescension and kind attention in all things.  

     Though I know that the comforts of the Gardiner’s home and the novelties of London must be enough to keep you there for many weeks to come  trust that you will see the wisdom in my offer, and  hope that you give  the matter  some thought .   Do  write to me of when you think you may wish to visit. I can add as additional inducement that if you come in the spring, I am told the extensive property of Rosings Park is quite beautiful at that time of year. This may be of particular interest to a certain young lady who is so fond of walking!  

      I hope to hear from you soon, not only to secure such plans as would give me great  satisfac tion , but also that I might hear of your adventures in London.  You may count on your tales being shared over the supper table at Rosings Park. 

      Yours Ever, 

     Jane Collins 

 

     Tears began to well up in Elizabeth’s eyes as she finished reading; she immediately returned to the beginning and silently read it again, as if there was something she had missed, some semblance of the Jane she had thought she knew. There was very little of that Jane in the letter – in fact, it struck Elizabeth as nauseatingly similar to what Mr. Collins had written to her father, with all the talk of olive branches. The whole missive had a self-congratulatory tone that, until recently, Elizabeth would never have believed her sister capable of. And yet, this certainly wasn’t the first crack in Jane’s angelic veneer. She began to wonder how much of the letter’s pomposity was a result of Mr. Collins’ influence, and how much was simply Jane’s true character coming to light at last. 

     Elizabeth sighed, sweeping her eyes over the letter again, but to no avail. Jane had truly written such a portentous note, and it left her with an empty, sinking feeling. “I do not understand, Aunt.” 

     Mrs. Gardiner put aside her mending and came to sit beside Elizabeth. “What do you not understand, my dear?” 

     Elizabeth merely gestured with the letter, unable to find the right words. Certainly Jane had not had any such difficulty – indeed, it seemed to Elizabeth that Jane had very carefully crafted her missive to insult her younger sister in every way possible, while still seeming deceptively generous and diplomatic in the eyes of the Gardiners, should they happen to read it. It was perfectly designed to leave Elizabeth with no tangible evidence of the true depth of Jane’s cruelty, and Elizabeth felt Jane’s victory complete as she gazed into the unsuspecting face of her aunt. 

     “I do not understand her. How could she have written such a letter? Have I truly never known her?” 

     “My goodness, Lizzy, how dramatic you are!” Mrs. Gardiner offered her a playful smile in an attempt to tease her out of her distress. She took the proffered letter and quickly read through it. “To be sure, Jane’s style is rather… different. It strikes me as more formal than I recall her letters being before – but it is only natural for one to alter somewhat after marriage. Perhaps her husband’s manner of expressing himself has had some effect on her, after all he does write and deliver sermons rather frequently, but is that truly so dreadful?” 

     “I suppose not. But that’s just it – I begin to wonder if it is not so much Jane that has changed, but my understanding of her. Perhaps I have deceived myself.” 

     Her aunt smiled indulgently. “That sounds entirely possible. You have had Jane on a pedestal for as long as I can recall. I have always believed it to be more a testament to your own good nature, that you should think so well of her. Not to say that she did not deserve your adoration, but until now that love has always been unconditional. I think this may be the first time in your life you have ever seen her as just as flawed and imperfect as the rest of us mere mortals.” 

     Elizabeth met her aunt’s contemplative gaze. “I had never thought of it that way.” 

     “Well, my goodness. I begin to feel as though I am indeed older and wiser, after all,” Mrs. Gardiner teased.  

     “You are perfectly wonderful,” Elizabeth said with feeling, and gave her aunt’s hand a squeeze. 

     “Oh, my dear girl. Shall I leave you now, so that you may write your reply?” 

     “My reply?” 

     Her aunt gave her an odd look. “Surely you mean to write her back.” 

     Elizabeth felt her shoulders stiffen involuntarily. “Indeed I do not.” 

     “Lizzy, can you not imagine how difficult it must have been for her to reach out to you, after all that has happened? You yourself made the attempt, and could not do it. Jane has, and she deserves at least some response from you. If you do not wish to set a date for your visit just yet, I understand, but you must at least acknowledge her overtures. She is trying, Lizzy.” 

     “Oh yes, she is trying to please Lady Catherine. She says as much herself, that it is all her noble patroness’s idea. I have no intention of being paraded around Rosings Park like some broken doll that needs mending.” 

     “Lizzy,” Mrs. Gardiner admonished, “that is unkind.” 

     Elizabeth closed her eyes and took a deep breath, remembering the last time Jane had made such an admonishment. “I must speak as I find. Jane mentions reconciliation without any trace of affection, nor any hint of apology for her own share of the blame. It is merely a means to an end in her attempt to secure Lady Catherine’s good opinion. I am the one blemish on her otherwise flawless façade, and I must be corrected.” 

     Mrs. Gardiner’s countenance wavered between confusion and concern. “Lizzy, really….” 

     “It is the truth, Aunt. I know you do not believe me, but it was more than just a stupid argument. Jane hurt me very deeply. She is not who I thought she was, and I do not think I wish to know her.” 

     “Lizzy, I am sorry that she hurt you, but this is a very serious decision, I hope you understand that. She is still your sister, ‘‘tis the bond of a lifetime. You should at least give her the chance to make things right between you, if that is her intention.” 

     Elizabeth sighed. Though she could not explain it to her aunt, she was not at all convinced that Jane’s intentions were good. Jane had clearly told Lady Catherine of their quarrel, and she did not doubt that Jane had presented herself as the injured party. An odd memory came to mind, one that she had never thought much of before – Lydia, at the age of nine or ten, had crept into Jane’s room and cut off a giant lock of her hair while she slept. Jane had been so distressed that even Lydia’s status as favorite daughter could not protect her from Mrs. Bennet’s wrath. What Jane neglected to tell their mother was that Lydia’s infraction had been an act of revenge for Jane destroying Lydia’s watercolor set after Lydia had painted a rather unflattering picture of her. It was one of those things that had seemed inconsequential at the time, for Elizabeth had then been at an age to find it all entirely diverting. Yet now it took on a different meaning, with implications of vanity and viciousness, and Elizabeth began to wonder if there had been other signs she had missed throughout the years. 

     “Well, Lizzy?” 

     Recalled from her reverie, Elizabeth scarcely knew how to answer her aunt. Though she had no wish to visit Jane and participate in her charade of domestic perfection, she knew her aunt would not understand her apprehension. She tried another approach. “She mentions wishing to introduce me to eligible gentlemen of Lady Catherine’s acquaintance – should I give up on Mr. Bingley so quickly, do you think?” Elizabeth forced a smirk. 

     A look of relief came over her aunt’s face. “Is that what this is really about, dearest? Here you have got me thinking you mean to cast off your dearest sister forever, when you simply do not wish to leave London without coming to an understanding with Mr. Bingley! I had thought you were not sure you liked him.” 

     Ashamed of her own deceit, Elizabeth gave a rueful nod. “I can honestly say I should prefer his attentions to any gentleman anyone in Kent may care to recommend.” 

     “To be sure, you had quite me convinced that you did not regard him at all, and it has been four days since he has called. No wonder you are out of sorts. Well, I shall have your uncle send round some invitations to dinner next week, how does that suit you?” 

     It was utterly awful. Elizabeth was simultaneously disappointed that she could not confide in her aunt, and keenly conscious of being something of a disappointment herself. Elizabeth’s romance with Mr. Bingley apparently meant a great deal to the Gardiners, and exaggerating her interest in the man was evidently the only way Elizabeth could spare herself the pain of belaboring Jane’s wretched letter any further. Her aunt was kind and sympathetic, but was clearly incapable of seeing the malice in Jane that Elizabeth had seen. And so, as much as it pained her to be so devious, she felt all the necessity of admitting a greater attachment than she was yet sure she felt. Pasting a smile on her face, she replied, “It suits me very well indeed.” 

     Her aunt appeared satisfied, and embraced her warmly. “Oh Lizzy, I am so glad you confided in me. Trust me, my dear, all shall be well – with Mr. Bingley and with Jane. Only you must not wait too long, once you have reached an understanding with your young man, for married women have not so much time to write letters and go on visits. You will both be mothers before you know it, and eventually you will both be settled at your own estates….” 

     As Mrs. Gardiner blanched at her own faux pas, Elizabeth’s stomach lurched at the thought of Jane settled at Longbourn, recalling what her sister’s cruel threat. ‘My husband and I shall not be so forbearing as Papa. I strongly advise you to be long gone by the time that day comes, or it shall not go well for you. Indeed, you had better hope some single gentleman finally does let Netherfield, for I daresay it is your only chance.’  

      Rising abruptly from the sofa, Elizabeth made a feeble excuse about needing fresh air before fleeing the room. She stopped in the corridor, exhaling through stifled sobs, relieved that her aunt had not pursued her. She wiped the tears from her face, wishing she was back in Hertfordshire, where she would be free to walk the countryside in solitude and reflection until she had regained her equanimity. With a dubious glance back at the parlor, she hastily resolved to walk out anyway, and selected her warmest pelisse from the coat rack before hastening from the house. 

     For the first several blocks she hardly knew where her feet had carried her. Elizabeth finally stopped and took a deep breath, trying to gain her bearings. She suddenly realized that she had unknowingly been walking in the direction of Green Park, a place they often passed in route to the Carmichael residence. As it was an unseasonably warm day, she continued in that direction, determined to take all the exercise she needed to clear her mind before returning home.  

     Elizabeth had always said that she was not formed for ill humor, and yet lately she had felt little else. Perhaps she should be pleased by her sister being given an opportunity to marry well and ensure their family’s future security. Jane had even asked her if she would not do the same, given the chance, and Elizabeth had insisted she would never lower her standards regarding a marriage partner. And yet, she knew their prospects were meager and that it was very likely have she would have to compromise in some way or other in order to marry at all.  

     And then there was Jane’s threat, that married or not, Elizabeth would no longer have a place at Longbourn when Mr. Collins inherited. She could not think of this as anything other than a distant possibility. Her father was hale and hearty – surely he would remain the master of Longbourn for many years to come.  

     Walking briskly into the park, she considered Mr. Bingley, who was her first, and likely only prospect. Her aunt and uncle were quite determined to promote the match; had her encounters with Mr. Bingley taken place in Hertfordshire, her mother would have already begun ordering wedding clothes. Even her father would have questioned her sanity for objecting to such an amiable man. And yet, she was determined to protest, though she scarcely puzzle out why.  

     Mr. Bingley would certainly make a better husband than Mr. Collins, though the same could be said for half the men in England, she supposed. She had enjoyed flirting with him dancing with him, and conversing with him in general – indeed the only unpleasant thing about him was his sister!  

     It was abundantly clear that Miss Bingley did not approve of her, and Elizabeth imagined that were things to progress with Mr. Bingley, his sister would only become more difficult. Elizabeth wondered if perhaps she was simply afraid that Mr. Bingley would abandon her if his sister persuaded him to do so. Was her determination to resist the attachment simply a defense against inevitable disappointment? It was an interesting thought to consider. Jane had accused her of being unable to attract such a gentleman at all, and though she had managed to gain Mr. Bingley’s interest, she was not especially confident that she would be able to hold it. How quick she had been to banish her sister’s cruel words, yet now they crept back into her mind, and she found herself wondering if there was any truth to them. 

     It was a complicated matter which would require much consideration, and possibly another attempt at sharing her feelings with her aunt. She had just resolved to turn around and return to Gracechurch Street when suddenly, to Elizabeth’s dismay, Mr. Bingley appeared before her. 

*** 

     Not ten yards distant, Mr. Bingley was seated on a bench beneath a sprawling oak, chatting happily with his sister and two other couples, both dressed in the height of fashion. Having no wish to encounter them, Elizabeth was about to turn around and head back, when Mr. Bingley turned his head and caught sight of her. It was too late to make her escape. Wanting nothing more than to flee, Elizabeth schooled her expression into some measure of geniality and prepared herself for another onslaught of Caroline Bingley’s scathing disapprobation.  

     “Miss Bennet! What a happy coincidence,” Mr. Bingley cried, coming forward to meet her. “You find us taking advantage of the fair weather to bask in some much-needed sunshine.” 

     Elizabeth returned his eager bow with a very proper curtsy, aware of his companions watching the greeting with varying degrees of interest. “I have set out with quite the same motive, sir,” she replied, hoping her tear-streaked face did not betray the truth, or prompt any questions she did not possess the equanimity to answer. 

     “Excellent, excellent!” Beaming, Mr. Bingley offered her his arm, and led her toward his friends. “You know my sister Caroline, of course. This is our older sister, Louisa Hurst, and her husband Mr. George Hurst. May I present Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”  

     Mr. Hurst gave Elizabeth a slight nod of acknowledgement, while his wife ventured a hesitant smile. “You are the niece of Mr. Edward Gardiner, are you not? Yes, I see some resemblance about the eyes. You must give him our regards, my dear. It has been too long since I have had the pleasure.” Mrs. Hurst looked as if she might say more, but upon perceiving the disapproving looks of her sister, she merely gave a tight-lipped smile and fell abruptly silent.  

     Miss Bingley dipped into a pretentious curtsy before fixing Elizabeth with a look of disgust. “Yes indeed, it has been many years since we have claimed any such acquaintance. And yet, here we are.” She tightened her grip on the arm of her companion, a haughty, false smile forming on her face.  

     Ignoring his sister’s barb, Charles continued with the introductions. “This is Viscount Hartley, Richard Fitzwilliam and his sister, Lady Rebecca Fitzwilliam.” 

     Elizabeth curtsied again, refusing to show any distress at Miss Bingley’s insult. “It is a pleasure to meet you both.” 

     Viscount Hartley, with a lady on each arm, gave as much of a bow as he was able. Though he was not a handsome man, at least not in the common way, the friendly, genuine smile he wore did help to render him a little less plain.  

     Detaching herself from the Viscount’s arm, Lady Rebecca stepped forward to shake hands with Elizabeth, cutting her brother off just as it seemed he would speak. “How delightful you have happened upon us here, Miss Bennet! Mr. Bingley has been speaking of little else this morning – it is as if he conjured you up through sheer force of will!” 

     Mr. Bingley laughed heartily. “Oh come now, what shall Miss Bennet think of me?” 

     “Nothing she would not have concluded eventually,” Viscount Hartley drawled wryly. 

     “On the contrary, Sir,” Elizabeth said in all solemnity. “I daresay the fault is all mine. A distant relation of mine was a genie, and I while I did not inherit the ability to grant wishes, I do appear whenever my name is spoken the requisite number of times. You must all consider yourselves forewarned.” Feeling her courage begin to rise, she hazarded a quick wink in Miss Bingley’s direction, earning a fearsome scowl. 

     Viscount Hartley laughed. “In that case, I fear you may never leave Mr. Bingley’s side, Miss Bennet.” 

     “My goodness, Viscount, how you do go on.” Miss Bingley gave a languid sigh. “I can think of a great many topics of more interest to speak of. I daresay we were having quite a lively conversation before…” 

     “Yes, Lady Bennington’s new Parisian rugs. Scintillating.” Lady Rebecca rolled her eyes, offering Elizabeth a private smile as she moved closer. “Would you care to join me in walking this way, Miss Bennet? There is a prettyish little sort of wilderness I should like to take a turn in.” 

     “It would be my pleasure,” Elizabeth agreed, and her arm was instantly seized by Lady Rebecca, who swiftly steered her away from the others. 

     “That is very kind of you to say, though I suppose politeness dictates that you must. More truthfully, it shall be my pleasure, for indeed I have been eagerly anticipating this interview since first I heard of you.” Elizabeth could only gape in astonishment, and Lady Rebecca continued. “Have no fear I am about to warn you off Mr. Bingley, though no doubt that is what his sisters are hoping for. You shall not find a true friend in either of them, whatever they dissemble.” 

     Finding her voice at last, Elizabeth replied, “I believe I am under no illusion as to where I stand with Miss Bingley.” 

     “Yes, I thought as much. Very good. Mr. Bingley said you were clever, but I must admit he is… easily impressed. I have seen others fooled by certain ladies’ insincerity, and I am glad you suffer no such delusions.” 

     “That is very forthright of you, Lady Rebecca. I wonder at your divulging as much to a complete stranger.” 

     “Pah! I am determined we are to be the best of friends, Miss Bennet, and I must advise you that it is in your best interest to let me have my way in this matter, for I would like to be of assistance to you if I can. And I must make this perfectly clear, whatever his sisters say, I am certainly not a rival to you for Mr. Bingley’s affections, which I can assure you he has described at length to us all.” Here Lady Rebecca rolled her eyes dramatically before giving Elizabeth a conspiratorial grin. “Does this please you, Miss Bennet?” 

     Elizabeth hesitated. “If we are to be friends, might I take the liberty of expressing equal candor with your ladyship?” 

     “I should like nothing better.” 

     “That is certainly a relief. What is celebrated as frankness in ladies of one station may be scorned as impertinence when exhibited by others of less importance.” 

     Lady Rebecca laughed heartily. “I do hope you shall pardon my rank, Miss Bennet.” 

     “Perhaps, in time, I shall forgive you for it,” Elizabeth quipped, pausing a moment before answering Lady Rebecca’s question. “To be honest, I have not yet decided the extent to which I welcome Mr. Bingley’s attention. My situation is complicated – recent events… I find I am not myself of late. And, if my assumption is correct, his sisters would prefer he marry a lady more like yourself, one who could offer the connections in society they desire.” 

     Lady Rebecca chuckled. “And I suppose I need not describe to you how very unlikely that event would be? Not merely because my family would disapprove of the match ten times as much as Miss Bingley objects to you – this would really be nothing to me if I believed we would suit, but we do not. I should drive him out of his wits, I am sure, if he did not drive me mad first.” 

     Elizabeth gasped, her eyes wide with astonishment at such a speech. The sisters were awful, truly, but certainly Mr. Bingley could not be so very bad.  

     “I see. Perhaps you like him more than you realize,” Lady Rebecca said with a gentle laugh. “He is a very affable gentleman, but he is not for me, and I would not have his dreadful sisters convince you I am a threat, when in fact you shall find me a most willing ally, should you desire any assistance in out-maneuvering those who would attempt to keep you apart. It would amuse me very much to thwart those two sour sisters, and if it would bring about Mr. Bingley’s happiness in the process, so much the better!” 

     Elizabeth could scarcely contain her astonishment at such a speech. “You are very kind, Lady Rebecca.” 

     “Well, Elizabeth, I shall hardly trespass on your privacy by demanding any further answer as to your feelings towards Mr. Bingley –  although, of course, should you care to venture any, I should be most willing to listen.” 

     “As I said, I am not yet sure.” 

     “I understand it is an acquaintance of short duration.” 

     “You might say that. I met him at a ball, and he has called but once since then.” 

      “I suspect his sisters will do everything in their power to prevent his calling as often as he may prefer, and he will remain entirely too good-natured to see through their machinations.” 

     “I can well believe it. Miss Bingley has made her sentiments quite clear.” 

     “’Tis strange when you think about,” Lady Rebecca mused. “You are the daughter of a gentleman, if Mr. Bingley’s account is correct, while his family comes from trade. Any alliance between you would be an elevation for him, whatever your fortune.” 

     “Yes, I suppose you are right,” Elizabeth agreed, wondering just how much her new friend already knew about her.  

     “You shall find that is often the case, Elizabeth. Now, I shall detain you no longer, for I can see Mr. Bingley is quite eager to have you returned to him, and my brother seems most interested in furthering the acquaintance well. Or perhaps he means to vex Miss Bingley! You will find him a closer match to your wit, I daresay.” 

     Elizabeth arched an eyebrow. “And is he your equal in frankness?” 

     “No indeed, he is far my superior in that respect! He has been a colonel in his Majesty’s army for many years, until this past twelvemonth, when our elder brother’s passing elevated him to the position of Viscount. He has retained many of the qualities of a military man, in spite of his new responsibilities.” 

     Lady Rebecca led Elizabeth back to where the rest of the group was walking along the bank of a little stream that ran through the park. Viscount Hartley smiled almost as broadly as Mr. Bingley on perceiving their approach. “Miss Bennet, I am delighted my sister has seen fit to return you to us. I trust you two are old friends by now.” 

     “Bosom sisters,” Elizabeth replied, hoping her cheer concealed her utter astonishment at all that had passed in their quarter hour of conversation.  

*** 

     Lady Rebecca Fitzwilliam watched with satisfaction as Elizabeth worked her magic on Richard and Mr. Bingley. There was no artifice in the girl’s manners – no, she was perfectly genuine, perhaps unaware of the full extent of her charms. After months of fending off Caroline Bingley’s determined overtures of friendship, Elizabeth Bennet was certainly a breath of fresh air.  

     Rebecca hung back from the rest of the group, more interested in observing on this occasion. The Hursts sat a little away from the others on a bench beside the stream, sharing what appeared to be as dull a conversation as one might expect from the two of them. Mr. Bingley had offered Elizabeth his arm, and seemed almost to be strutting with pride at having his lady at his side. Richard was walking nearby, speaking with great animation to Elizabeth despite Miss Bingley’s covetous grasp on his arm. The two gentlemen were obviously competing for the greater share of Elizabeth’s attention, and their increase in mirth correlated directly to Miss Bingley’s expression of mounting displeasure. 

     As Rebecca looked on, she felt certain she had made the right decision in offering Elizabeth her friendship. She was poised and graceful, her appearance genteel, without any of the airs that ladies such as Miss Bingley put on. Most importantly, Miss Elizabeth Bennet struck her as an honest, forthright sort of girl, and such a person was a rare gem in the fashionable but vicious social circle Rebecca had been born to. There were advantages to her position in the ton, to be sure, but having friends she could trust had never been one of them. 

     Too often, Rebecca had found the ladies she thought were her friends were simply using her to get to her brothers, or wooing her and her dowry on behalf of their own brothers. Caroline Bingley, guilty on both counts, was by no means the worst of them, though she was persistent.  

     Richard had finally extricated himself from her clutches, and seemed to be adorning himself with flowers from a nearby bush, while Elizabeth and Mr. Bingley offered laughing advice. Miss Bingley finally grew vexed enough at their neglect to retreat, seeking out Rebecca to voice her displeasure. 

     “Miss Bingley, I rather wonder at your deserting my brother in the midst of such folly,” Rebecca observed wryly.     Pursing her lips with displeasure, Miss Bingley replied with a haughty sniff. Rebecca smiled, enjoying the sight of Mr. Bingley offering a small crown of flowers to a very rapidly retreating goose. Richard shouted his encouragement as Elizabeth laughed and teased them both.  

     After a few minutes of strolling sedately behind the others, Miss Bingley observed, “How disappointed I am to have missed your little conversation with Miss Eliza Bennet. I am sure you must have delivered her one of your famous set-downs, for she looked entirely discomposed.” 

     “Indeed? Why ever would I do such a thing? Have I some tendency, of which I am unaware, towards rude behavior?”  

     “No indeed, it is only that – well….” 

     “Perhaps you believe that I may perceive her as a rival of sorts?” 

     “Oh no, there is simply no comparison! She is certainly nothing to your own natural grace and beauty.” 

     “That is very kind of you, I suppose. I am well aware of my being in possession of such qualities. However, I find them in Miss Bennet, as well, and in addition there is a kindness and sincerity about her that I find very pleasing.” 

     Miss Bingley blanched. “Oh! Well….” 

     “I am very glad to see that your brother has taken such interest in her. She would be a very fine match for him.”  

     “Oh Rebecca, surely you tease me!” 

     Rebecca could scarcely suppress her amusement. Perhaps it was wrong to needle Miss Bingley so, but the wretched harpy had brought it on herself. “I assure you, Miss Bingley, I am perfectly serious. Miss Bennet is the daughter of a gentleman, is she not? In this regard, she quite outranks your brother, for all his wealth, until such time as he purchases his own estate and joins the ranks of the landed gentry. I understand he was quite close to leasing an estate this past autumn. It is such a shame he did not follow through with the plan, for it would have been quite an elevation for him.” 

     Miss Bingley scowled. “I believe there were some serious objections to the property. The environs were quite remote, and the neighborhood entirely unrefined, the nearest village hardly deserving of the word.” 

     “And yet, it is often the case with large estates, that the surrounding townships are smaller and more parochial. It is up to the neighboring landowners to elevate these little villages through commerce and patronage. This is something you must learn, Miss Bingley, if you aspire to such a station yourself. The local village supplies the servants who come to work at the estate, the food and goods that are purchased by the landholders, and the services they often require. Should you like to have your carriage repaired by a craftsman who is bitterly aware that you hold him and all of his acquaintance in contempt? I think not.” Rebecca eyed Miss Bingley triumphantly, as the lady struggled for a reply before finally accepting her own defeat.  

     “What an edifying perspective, Lady Rebecca. I believe I shall collect my brothers and sister, for I find I am quite fatigued. I thank you for your company.” Miss Bingley, appearing a little flustered, dipped into a curtsy before making a hasty retreat. 

     Rebecca gave a slight nod. “The pleasure has been entirely mine.” 

     A few minutes later, the Bingleys and the Hursts had made their goodbyes, and Miss Elizabeth Bennet, eschewing the offer of her new friends’ carriage, set off on foot for her uncle’s home on Gracechurch Street. 

     “It is curious, is it not, that she declined the use of our carriage,” Rebecca observed to her brother as they made their own way home. “Miss Bingley would likely kill to be seen in our carriage –  and mark my words, I shall drop dead before I allow her the satisfaction – and yet Miss Bennet, a modest country girl with little but her charms to recommend her, actually declined the opportunity. Most remarkable!” 

     “Speaking of curiosity, and Miss Bingley….  I know she was annoyed with me before, but after speaking with you she looked positively murderous! Whatever you did to her, I wish you had done it sooner.” 

     Rebecca gave him a little shove. “You really are quite terrible, Richard. To own the truth, I almost feel bad for her. Perhaps I might have gone a little too far, but I simply could not help myself. As you say, it was long overdue.” 

     “Let me guess, she wishes to recruit you to her cause? It was all she could talk of, earlier – separating her poor brother from that delightful beauty. Of all the misguided malarkey!” 

     “Delightful beauty? I say, Richard, perhaps you wish me to join in Miss Bingley’s efforts after all, so that you can have her for yourself.” 

     “Nay, she is not for me, Rebecca. I am not entirely sure she is right for Bingley, either – to own the truth I am astonished to find that he is not utterly terrified of her. I am certainly am, and I have faced down Napoleon’s army!” 

     “Yes, arranging little flower crowns with her must have been a harrowing experience.” 

     Richard laughed. “I shall admit, she is refreshing. Intelligent, too. I have rarely met such a charming, artless lady. I hardly knew what I was about, and Bingley is clearly out of his wits over her. But, as it happens, I have very particular requirements when it comes to my future bride.” 

     Rebecca rolled her eyes. “Oh, yes. Fortune, rank….” 

     “Lord no!” 

     “What, then?” 

     Richard hesitated. “Perhaps I shall tell you another time Rebecca, when you have not that wicked glint in your eye. A man prefers not to be cut to pieces, you know, when baring his soul.” 

     Rebecca gave her brother a playful pinch, unnerved by the hint of melancholy in his words. For all her tough exterior, she did not enjoy talk of tender sentiments, nor did she wish to press her brother into any degree of solemnity about his feelings. Instead she gave a dismissive laugh and replied, “I suppose I shall have to disregard everything Lady Catherine has taught me.” 

Chapter Text

      By the end of her second week in London, Elizabeth had rallied herself into better spirits. Though little about her situation had changed, Elizabeth simply could not abide the despondent feelings that had overwhelmed her since receiving Jane’s disingenuous letter. She was thankful that the subsequent days brought ample sources of distraction and amusement. 

     The day following their chance meeting in Green Park, Mr. Bingley called after church. Thankfully, his sister did not accompany him. Knowing how much it meant to her aunt, Elizabeth had felt obliged to make a greater attempt than she might otherwise have done, and the result was that she had come to enjoy Mr. Bingley’s lively company exceedingly. Though her good cheer was the consequence of dedicated effort, Mr. Bingley’s was natural and rather contagious. With her aunt’s supervision and support, Elizabeth had felt content and comfortable by the end of his visit, so much so that she was able to assure her aunt in complete sincerity that she liked him very well indeed. 

     It was a convenient improvement, to be sure. Having no wish to journey into Kent, and unable to convince her aunt of her belief in Jane’s insincerity and selfish motives, Elizabeth had simply taken the easiest course and used Mr. Bingley as a reason to remain in London. She had not felt entirely right in engaging in such a ruse, for she had no wish to trifle with the affections of a respectable man, yet as she came to know him, her interest had become more genuine, much to her relief.  

     That Mrs. Gardiner had so eagerly accepted Elizabeth’s paltry excuse had been a disappointment, no less than her aunt’s determination to interpret Jane’s overtures in such a forgiving light. Elizabeth could not shake the conviction that she had long been deceived in Jane’s true character, and that her sister was in fact more concerned with maintaining an appearance of goodness, without actually practicing it. Yet who would believe her? Her aunt certainly would not, which made Elizabeth hesitant to approach to her uncle about it. Even her dearest friend Charlotte had taken Jane’s part when she had learned of their dispute. There was even a small, secret part of her own heart that whispered, perhaps Jane was right

     And so, Elizabeth had resolved to keep an open mind regarding Mr. Bingley, despite the newness of the acquaintance, his vicious sister, and all the other reasons for doubt that nagged at the back of her mind. Aside from being the best of dismal options, Mr. Bingley truly did have some very good qualities.  

     Elizabeth had taken extra care in dressing and arranging her hair for their excursion to the opera that evening, for she had reason to believe that Mr. Bingley would also be there, though not of their party. It was, in fact, Lady Rebecca Fitzwilliam who had mentioned as much when she had called in Gracechurch Street the day before. The Bingleys were to accompany her and her brother to the opera that very same night, and Lady Rebecca hoped to secure the company of her charming new friend. Both Elizabeth and her aunt were struck by the affability of Lady Rebecca in coming all that way to personally deliver the invitation, and Elizabeth eagerly assured her new friend that she would be happy to accept on any other night that the Gardiners were not already engaged elsewhere. In her usual sardonic manner, Lady Rebecca accepted the gracious refusal with wit and no little eccentricity, reminding Elizabeth as she departed that they were to be the best of friends, for there was no escaping her acquaintance now. 

     Mrs. Gardiner’s satisfaction with Elizabeth’s new friendship was almost as great as her pleasure in Bingley’s marked attentions. She was not a mercenary woman, but neither was she insensible to the advantages of such connections. That Elizabeth was respected and valued was her good enough for her, but that Elizabeth had charmed a wealthy man and befriended the daughter of an earl were hardly facts to be overlooked. Fortunately for Elizabeth’s equanimity, her aunt and uncle were sensible and genteel, capable of restraining their expressions of delight.  Elizabeth shuddered to imagine how differently her mother would react, feeling a renewed sense of gratitude towards her aunt and uncle for providing her the temporary reprieve. 

*** 

     The theatre was bustling with activity as the Gardiners arrived. Though not her first time attending an opera with her aunt and uncle, this was the first time Elizabeth had reason to look around for acquaintances as they made their entrance. The Fitzwilliams and the Bingleys would be about somewhere, and Lady Rebecca had expressed a wish to meet Mr. Gardiner, as he had been absent during her call at Gracechurch Street. Elizabeth was still not quite sure what to make of this new friendship. She was certain that a desire to vex Miss Bingley had been Lady Rebecca’s initial motive in befriending her, but her continued interest was harder to account for, and puzzled Elizabeth as much as it pleased her. 

     She was even eager to see Mr. Bingley, who had grown in her estimation, and more eager to be seen by him, for she knew she was in very fine looks that evening. She was wearing the last of her new dresses that he had not yet seen her in, a shimmering jonquil silk with ivory and cerulean embroidery across the bodice and along the rather daring neckline. A matching yellow ribbon wound through her dark chestnut curls, which were elegantly arranged with pearl pins her aunt had gifted her. Elizabeth was quite determined that her confidence would fail her no longer, for she was quite ready to be fallen in love with.  

     She scanned the room eagerly as she followed behind her aunt and uncle, who were focused on meeting up with the rest of their own party. They soon caught sight of Sir Bertrand Banfield, who had the advantage of height and waved them over when he noticed their entrance. “Aha, here they are, my dear,” he exclaimed with a gleeful clap of his hands, and gave his wife a wink. “Lady Helen was beginning to despair of your arrival – I was quite on the verge of hoisting her up on my shoulders so that she could have a look around herself.” 

     Lady Helen blushed and laughed, giving her husband a teasing swat on the arm with her fan as she greeted the Gardiners and Elizabeth.  

     “In that case, we shall have to be more evasive during the intermission,” Elizabeth said, offering Lady Helen a roguish wink. 

     “Oh, Heaven help me! I must keep you away from Bertie, I am sure, for with you both teasing me at once I shall scarcely be able to speak two words of sense together,” Lady Helen chided, her face even pinker than before. 

     “You shall do nothing of the kind, dearest,” her husband said drily, and bent down to kiss her hand. “For I enjoy seeing you flustered.” 

     Elizabeth looked away in sudden embarrassment as Sir Bertrand shamelessly flirted with his wife. Mrs. Gardiner caught her niece’s eye and leaned in towards her, whispering, “Absolutely enchanting, are they not?”  

     She gave her aunt a wry smile, recalling how she had once described the Banfields thus. “Indeed, you shall find me quite dedicated to my original opinion on the matter.”  

     They all soon made their way to the Banfields’ private box, which afforded them a wonderful view of the stage. By happy coincidence, it was situated next to the Audleys’ box, and as Elizabeth took her seat furthest to the right, she caught sight of Emily Carmichael entering the neighboring box on Mr. Sutton’s arm. Mrs. Carmichael lagged behind her with the Audleys.  

     “Ha! Lizzy!” Emily detached herself from Mr. Sutton, who trailed behind her as she made her way to the edge of the box to greet her friend. “You look so lovely tonight, Lizzy!” 

     Miss Sutton had entered the Audley’s box just then, with a possessive hold on Henry Audley’s arm. Hearing Emily’s comment, Miss Sutton made a supercilious face before nodding in Elizabeth’s direction. 

     Suppressing the urge to laugh, Elizabeth schooled her own countenance into something like civility as she returned the gesture. She recalled having said something, she knew not what, of great impertinence to Miss Sutton at the Twelfth Night ball, but felt little doubt that lady had deserved it. Clearly Miss Sutton had not forgiven the offence. Turning her attention back to Emily, Elizabeth replied, “If I am lovely, then you are perfection itself, my friend. It is fortunate you are in a different box than I, for if you were in the same as me, I am sure I should have to toss you out of it. I could hardly sit next to you for two whole hours while you are looking so very pretty.” 

     “You shall find that I have no such reservations, Miss Carmichael,” Mr. Sutton rejoined, seemingly ready to conclude their conversation and have Emily’s attention all to himself.  “Perhaps we should sit a little this way, so you will be able to see better.” 

     “Oh yes, I think you are right. If we sit on this side, I daresay I shall just talk to Lizzy the whole time, and you shall all think me very rude!” 

     Elizabeth smiled kindly at them, impressed by the gentleman’s subtle efforts to curb her friend’s enthusiasm. “You are very wise indeed, Mr. Sutton. It looks as if it is about to begin – we shall all speak later.”  

     Mr. Sutton gave a small bow and escorted Emily to the other side of the Audley’s box. As Elizabeth took her seat, her attention was suddenly claimed by Lady Helen, who took the seat between Elizabeth and her aunt in an effort to get to become better acquainted. “Fear not, Miss Bennet, I’ve no intention of talking through the opera,” she whispered conspiratorially. “But, I hear you share my penchant for people-watching. Perhaps by and by you might find something more shocking than that blue feathered turban just across the way there, and then it shall be my turn again to best your discovery.” 

     As her eyes alighted on the headwear in question, Elizabeth realized it adorned the person of Miss Caroline Bingley, who, dressed as showily as ever, accompanied her brother in the Fitzwilliams’ box directly opposite them. With a soft giggle, Elizabeth responded, “Would it shock you to learn where she procured such a remarkable item? I am unfortunately acquainted with the lady, and can easily inquire.” 

     Lady Helen raised her opera glasses to her eyes for a closer look. “Good Lord but she’s with Bingley! Is that one of his vile sisters? Oh, hello, look at the other handsome gentleman with them….” 

     They were promptly shushed by the other three members of their party, though Mrs. Gardiner winked at Elizabeth, clearly pleased by Lady Helen’s familiarity with her. Unable to resist the temptation, Elizabeth winked back before peering through her own opera glasses. There was a large party in the Fitzwilliam’s box – Mr. Bingley and his sister, Lady Rebecca and the Viscount (likely not the gentleman to which Lady Helen referred), and a portly older man she presumed to be their father. There was a younger woman at his side, and another gentleman, shorter than the Viscount but similarly featured, and then… there. Handsome indeed! Elizabeth indulged in drinking in his appearance for a long moment. He was tall, muscular and flawlessly attired, with dark, wavy locks and a magnificent jawline. Finally, Elizabeth lowered her opera glasses as though she had committed some sort of sin just by enjoying the sight of him. “Oh, my.” Lady Helen nudged her elbow with a cheeky smile and waggle of her eyebrows.  

     There was something almost familiar about the man, though Elizabeth could hardly account for it. Surely she would have recalled meeting such an attractive gentleman. Of course, the Twelfth Night ball was still a bit murky in her memory, but no – Lady Helen would surely have known him if he had been at her own event. Curious.  

     As much as Elizabeth wished for another look, she was determined not to be caught staring. Silently chastising herself for behaving no better than Kitty or Lydia, she devoted her focus to the opera, determined to wait until the intermission to see if any of that party would come speak to them. She passed much of the first half in rapt attention, and really began to enjoy it very much indeed. The arias were incredibly moving, and for a while she was content to allow the powerful emotion of the music to wash over her; it was a restorative balm she had not realized she needed. 

     Lady Helen broke her concentration some time later, with a gentle nudge and subtle gesture in the direction of the Fitzwilliams’ box. He was staring. At her. Elizabeth’s heart pounded a little faster, and she felt her color heighten as she held the handsome stranger’s gaze and, emboldened by the obvious interest in his expression, she folded her hands in front of her and dipped her head as though giving a curtsy, a playful smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. The gentleman scowled and abruptly turned away, though her gesture caught the attention of her acquaintance among that party. 

     Mr. Bingley’s face lit up as he recognized Elizabeth, apparently believing her to be flirting with himself, and Elizabeth was relieved that he seemed unaware of her faux pas. He gave her an indecorously enthusiastic wave, earning a rebuke from his sister, who glared first at him and then at Elizabeth before fanning herself in indignation. Behind them, the Fitzwilliam siblings wore matching mischievous grins; Lady Rebecca winked boldly at her. Her mortification complete, Elizabeth smiled plaintively at her friends before attempting, with little success, to direct her attention back to the opera. 

     At last came the entr’acte, and the Banfields and Gardiners rose to join the throng of people congregating and taking refreshments before the start of the second act. Elizabeth only had time to wave cheerfully at Emily and her mother, who were much engrossed with the Audleys, before Lady Helen took Elizabeth’s arm and steered her toward the grand white marble staircase. “Here comes your Mr. Bingley, Miss Lizzy,” she observed. “I do hope he will introduce us to all his friends, they seem a very merry party!” 

     As Mr. Bingley approached, Elizabeth observed that only Lady Rebecca and Viscount Hartley accompanied him. She was not surprised that Miss Bingley wished to avoid her, and likely the handsome gentleman did, too, for he had seemed heartily displeased by her notice. As to the others, she could only suppose they were Fitzwilliam relations who thought themselves above such company as her own party, and she could hardly fault them for it, much as it wounded her vanity. 

     While Elizabeth ruminated on the ways of the world and her aunt chatted with Lady Helen, the gentlemen walked ahead and intercepted Mr. Bingley and his friends. Lady Helen halted in her progress through the room and fanned herself elegantly. “Perhaps we would do better to hang back for a moment and let the gentlemen speak,” she whispered. “It would not do to seem too eager.” 

     “No indeed,” Mrs. Gardiner agreed. “With Mr. Bingley there is Lady Rebecca Fitzwilliam, a new friend of Lizzy’s, and I daresay that is her brother, the Viscount.” 

     Lady Helen looked at Elizabeth with some surprise. “Well done, Miss Bennet. Many a young lady would be all too eager to boast of such acquaintance – it speaks highly to your character that you have not.” 

     Mrs. Gardiner’s kindly countenance glowed with pride. “My Lizzy is certainly far from the ordinary – I suspect that is why Lady Rebecca has taken a liking to her. She called on us yesterday, and was very civil. I think she is perfectly suited to be a friend to Lizzy, though of course my niece Emily Carmichael is a lovely girl, too.” 

     While her aunt continued speaking to Lady Helen about her as if she was not even present, Elizabeth could only reflect that at least she was doing so at a reasonable more discreet volume than her mother was wont to do.  Though she knew it was wrong of her to think so unkindly, she smirked a little to herself and allowed her attention to wander back to Mr. Bingley, who appeared to be introducing the Fitzwilliams to her uncle and Sir Bertrand.  Her uncle gave a courteous bow, modest compared Sir Bertrand’s rather flamboyant brand of decorum. Catching her eye, Lady Rebecca made some manner of smiling excuse to the gentlemen before curtsying and making her way to Elizabeth, her brother trailing close behind.  

     As Mr. Bingley still seemed engaged in a rather animated discussion with her uncle and Sir Bertrand, Elizabeth was left to make the introductions, still somewhat in awe of her new friends.  

     “It is lovely to see you again, Mrs. Gardiner,” Lady Rebecca said with a genuine smile. “Lady Helen, I am very pleased to make your acquaintance at last. I have heard many tales of your legendary entertainments, most recently from Mr. Bingley, and I find myself quite longing for an invitation some time.” 

     Lady Helen smiled graciously. “Of course you shall be invited. It would be my honor.” 

     Viscount Hartley grinned waggishly. “I, for one, shall certainly look forward to the occasion, for it pains me greatly to rely solely on Bingley’s account of things, though he is certainly thorough in expounding upon some delights.” 

     Lady Helen faltered for a moment, unsure of how to respond to such a statement. “Yes, well – I believe my husband is expounding upon something rather less than fascinating – matters of business, I daresay. How odious. I do begin to wonder if we ought to go rescue Mr. Bingley.” 

     Mrs. Gardiner fanned herself, glancing idly in that direction. “Better let them have done with it. I should much rather find a glass of wine, what think you all?” 

     Lady Helen heartily agreed, and the two ladies turned their attention to obtaining refreshments. Elizabeth caught Mr. Bingley’s eye and he smiled brightly, clearly eager to join her. She began to wonder if her uncle had perversely distracted the young man for the amusement of seeing him squirm a bit.  

     Just then, Viscount Hartley took advantage of her aunt’s distraction to lean in close to Elizabeth, and teasingly whispered, “I daresay my friend will be wildly jealous at seeing me address you thus, Miss Bennet, but I felt obliged to do what I can to discomfit him a little, since he seemed rather oblivious to your apparent interest in another of our party.” 

     Though his comment was made in good humor, Elizabeth was utterly mortified, and felt herself blushing a deep shade of pink. Lady Rebecca, sensing her friend’s embarrassment, hissed at her brother, “Richard, really!” 

     The Viscount appeared chagrined, smiling ruefully at Elizabeth as he addressed his sister, “Truly, Rebecca, I am quite put out. I had hoped that once cousin Darcy married, I would get my fair share of attention from the ladies, and it breaks my heart to see that it is not so. Handsome devil, I cannot see how Bingley regards him so very well.” 

     Though Rebecca rolled her eyes and gave a great huff of exaggerated indignation, Elizabeth schooled her countenance and offered the Viscount what she hoped was a serene smile. He kindly meant to put her on her guard – the attractive gentleman was a married man, hence his dismay at her flirtatious gesture. Moreover, he was an intimate friend of Mr. Bingley, making her momentary interest in him even more inappropriate. It was clever and generous of the Viscount to disguise his admonishment so playfully, and Elizabeth felt all the gentility of his effort. “I certainly understand your sentiments, sir,” Elizabeth replied with a slight nod. 

     Lady Rebecca sighed. “Poor Darcy!” 

     Darcy, Elizabeth furrowed her brow at hearing the name repeated. It was vaguely familiar, just as his face had seemed. 

     “Miss Elizabeth!” Elizabeth turned to find Mr. Bingley finally approaching with Mr. Gardiner and Sir Bertrand, just as the Mrs. Gardiner and Lady Helen rejoined the conversation. “How are you ladies enjoying the performance this evening?” Mr. Bingley’s eyes never left Elizabeth’s as he took his place at her side, giving some semblance of a bow to the others.  

     Elizabeth flushed with pleasure as she watched him take in her appearance. It was clear he liked her very much. Is he in love with me? Is this what it is like to fall in love? She returned Mr. Bingley’s amorous gaze, trying to sort out what she was feeling, what she wanted to feel, and what she wanted from the man before her. Oblivious to her companions and the silence that had fallen over them, Elizabeth returned Mr. Bingley’s smile, until at last they both began to laugh.  

     Mrs. Gardiner softly cleared her throat. “I believe we are enjoying it very well, indeed,” she replied to Mr. Bingley’s unanswered question. 

     Elizabeth looked back at her aunt. “Oh, yes. I like it very much. The music is simply breathtaking.” 

     “Yes, yes indeed,” Mr. Bingley replied, still grinning at Elizabeth. “Caroline says it is far more refined than seeing a play - but I own much prefer plays. Saves me the trouble of reading them. Not that I should like to read music, either. That is – I cannot imagine how all you accomplished young ladies manage it.” 

     Lady Rebecca had pursed her lips to keep from laughing, and met Elizabeth’s eye with a playful wink. “And are you possessed of such accomplishments, Miss Elizabeth? I will own I comprehend a great deal in my idea of an accomplished woman.” 

    Elizabeth smirked saucily at her friend. “I do play and sing a little, but very ill, I assure you. Of reading plays I have had better success, for I am fond of reading everything my father’s library has to offer. Dare I ask if I have satisfied your requirements?” 

     “’Tis indeed an accomplishment to improve one’s mind through extensive reading,” Lady Rebecca observed with a tone of great mirth. “However, I find the greater accomplishment to be that of endeavoring to exert one’s influence over those who do not have a taste for such things.” Here she gave Mr. Bingley an arch look, and he responded with a jovial laugh. 

     Mr. Gardiner joined in the laughter, and clapped his young friend on the shoulder. “Come round for dinner some time, if ever you should like to be influenced, young man. I daresay my Lizzy shall make short work of it.” 

     Elizabeth turned away in sudden embarrassment at her uncle’s straightforwardness. She looked to her aunt for assistance, but Mrs. Gardiner merely gave her hand a gentle squeeze and smiled cheerfully at her. Before she knew it, Mr. Bingley had accepted her uncle’s invitation and settled on Saturday next. Her uncle seemed hesitant to presume too much in inviting the Fitzwilliams, but Mr. Bingley adroitly suggested that he should give a dinner for them all the week after that. Not to be outdone, nor to miss out on an opportunity for mischief, Lady Rebecca announced that she would be happy to hostess at her brother’s house in Belgrave Square, and would send round her invitations.  

     The conversation continued in such a manner until it was time to return to their box for the second act, and Elizabeth was equal parts relieved and disappointed when the time came to separate from Mr. Bingley and his friends. Was love supposed to be such a discomfiting mixture of embarrassment and delight?  

*** 

     Despite his intention of avoiding society, particularly that of his family, while in London, Darcy found himself nonetheless ensconced in the spacious Fitzwilliam box at the opera.  He was in no humor to be in company, though he loved them all dearly; their exuberance was more than usually overwhelming. 

     Robert, the youngest Fitzwilliam sibling, had recently returned to London, having received his ordination, and was on the lookout for a suitable position. The earl was blithely besotted with his new young bride, Lady Margaret, whom he had married as soon as the mourning period for his eldest son had passed. Rebecca was in fine form as ever, rolling her eyes at the step-mother three years her junior, as well as the lovesick puppy that Bingley had become of late.  

     It seemed Bingley had grown rather close with Darcy’s cousins, as he himself had begun to avoid them. And yet, Darcy was glad for it, for despite the difference in their circumstances, they were all of a similar disposition, though the same could not be said of Bingley’s sister. Her motives for pursuing the friendship were clear enough, despite her brother’s artless good nature. 

     At least Richard was showing some improvement in humor, for the Viscount had been in lower spirits even than Darcy for many months, but seemed to be returning back to his usual teasing self, with the help of his pert and irreverent sister, and the unswervingly chipper Charles Bingley. Even Caroline’s overstated fawning did not seem to bother Richard, as it always had Darcy, who found the woman positively exhausting. He had been enormously relieved when Richard’s elevation to Viscount had caused a drastic shift in Caroline’s attentions, though she was, unfortunately, still prone to the occasion flirtation. 

     Compared to the high spirits of his companions, Darcy felt even more ill at ease than usual. He sat to the far side of their box next to Robert, whose solemnity as a new member of the clergy rendered him vastly more tolerable than the rest of their party. Darcy spoke to no one as they all claimed their seats, knowing he must school himself into a greater measure of cordiality before he could be trusted to converse with his companions, whose invitation he had tried, with little success, to decline.  

     “Well, Cousin, you’ve picked a fine time to come out of hiding, eh?” Robert offered him a gentle smile. “You’ve managed to satisfy my father’s demand for your presence in a setting where you can acquit yourself quite easily of hardly speaking a word. Well done, I say.” Robert always had been the diplomat of the family, and Darcy was filled with a renewed sense of appreciation for his youngest cousin. Smiling slightly, he turned away, scanning the crowded theatre before him as he searched for something to say. And then he saw her

     At first Darcy was not entirely sure that she was indeed truly there, for she had been a near-constant presence in his thoughts since they had met. He knew not how she had made such an indelible mark upon his him. He would be reading in his library and there she was, peeking playfully up at him from behind a book. As he sat down to dinner in his lonely townhouse, she was right across from him with a teasing look. Even as Darcy lay down to bed at night, there she would be, her thick chestnut curls spilling down around her shoulders.  

     Darcy ran his hand through his hair, trying to keep his attention on the stage. Why did she discompose him so? He was Fitzwilliam Darcy, master of Pemberley, and she was a country nobody he had once deigned to dance with at a ball. She was the niece of a tradesman with no fortune and little but her charms to recommend her. Such as lively wit and vivacity. And incredibly fine eyes. And the figure of VenusGod, oh God. She was the lady his dearest friend admired and wished to court. And marry – he said marry.  

     Darcy knew he must master his thoughts before they betrayed him. And yet, he could not resist – he chanced one more glance in her direction, as if hoping she would somehow lose her allure and cease to torment him. But it was not so. No, she was magnificent, her well-fitted gown glowing gold in the dim candle light. Her eyes glistened with emotion as she watched the performance with rapt attention. 

     And then she turned, and her eyes locked with his. A rosy blush crept over her face, but she held his gaze, dipping into a coy little curtsey that completely shattered the remnants of his composure. A few seats over, Bingley had noticed her as well, and suddenly the pleasure he had felt at her subtle acknowledgement gave way to anger and disgust. How dare she flirt with him, and right in front of Bingley – the man was clearly besotted! 

     As Bingley waved eagerly at her, Darcy snuck one more glance at Miss Elizabeth, only to find he had been quite the fool. Whatever he had believed was in her gesture towards him was nothing compared to the broad, unabashed smile she offered his friend. And yet, that is as it should be. Darcy scowled and returned his attention to the performance, wishing himself anywhere else. 

     When the rest of his companions left the box to socialize during the intermission, Darcy declined to accompany them, knowing who Bingley would seek out. Both embarrassed that he has supposed her to be flirting with him, and jealous that she had not been, Darcy knew he had better not meet with her again. It was entirely wretched, for a multitude of reasons, and he began to wish he had never met her. What good did it do him now to know that there was such a woman in existence? 

     He would conquer this, he must. He would not let this peculiar, iniquitous infatuation distract him from the troubles that he had fled from, nor would he continue this miserable course of hiding from his responsibilities. Darcy’s mind was made up – he would return home at once, to Pemberley, to his wife. 

 

Chapter Text

     The drawing room was quiet. It was always quiet. Icy rain pattered against the window panes, and the occasional gust of wind rattled the glass. Every so often, the wood burning in the fireplace would crackle, or Anne would let out a little sigh as she shifted her position on the chaise lounge, where she was absorbed in a volume of poetry Darcy had brought her back from London. They had spoken very little in the weeks since Darcy’s return from London. There was no animosity between them, but they were each of a taciturn and unsociable disposition by nature, and six months of marriage had been insufficient time for them to grow completely comfortable in one another’s sole company. 

     It grieved Darcy to realize that in the fortnight he had been away, they had each missed one another very little, perhaps not at all. He had believed his return pleased her, for the first day or two – she had smiled more, spent a few hours in his company each day, but the silence still loomed over them.  Perhaps his return was naught but a break in the monotony for her. 

     She had grown paler since he went away, and though some color had returned to her face since he’d come home, she still looked weaker than he could ever recall seeing her. From his favorite chair beside the window, Darcy set down his book and observed his wife. Her cheeks were sallow, and there were dark circles under her eyes from lack of sleep. Her diminutive stature made her seem to disappear under the multitude of shawls she had wrapped about herself. She suddenly set her book aside and began to cough, the force of it wracking through her frail body. Bracing herself with one hand on her stomach and the other clinging to the side of the chaise, she turned her face away as if to hide from him. 

     Darcy rose from his chair and knelt at her side, taking her small, cold hand in his. “Anne, can I get you anything for your present relief? A glass of water, perhaps, or some wine?” 

     As her coughing fit died away, she shook her head and waved him away. “I am well enough, William. You need not be alarmed.” 

     He wished to protest, for she did not seem well at all, but they were interrupted by the entrance of a servant, bringing the day’s post. Darcy hesitantly rose and crossed the room to examine the letters that had arrived, knowing there was little he could for Anne if she did not wish for his help or concern. The stack of mail was a thick one, containing several letters of business from town, a couple of dinner invitations from nearby neighbors, and a few items of personal correspondence. 

     “Anything of interest?”  

     Darcy glanced back at Anne, who seemed determined to carry on as if nothing was amiss. “Your mother writes.” 

     Anne rolled her eyes. “Is that all?” 

     “No indeed. Invitations from the Breretons and the Culberts, but we needn’t accept if you are not up for visiting. Bingley writes, and there’s another one for you, from Georgiana.” Darcy frowned at the letters he handed his wife. While Lady Catherine could have little to say that would either interest or vex him now, it was Georgiana’s letter that distressed him. In the three months she had been away, she had written Anne faithfully every week, but never once to him. Darcy would always ask his wife to share her letters with him; often she would, though there had been several times she had suggested it would be better if she did not. He wondered which it was to be on this occasion. “Will you read it to me?” 

     “Perhaps I shall, but you know I read rather slowly. I shall read it once to myself before reading it aloud to you. In the meantime, you have your letter from Charles, if you can decipher it, unless perhaps you would care to see what my mother has to say?”  

     Darcy had once enjoyed the rare occasions when Anne would tease him, but of late her jests felt hollow – feeble attempts to pretend that all was well. He smiled weakly. “I believe I will forego that delight. I am curious what Charles has to say, for I saw him just before I left Town, and it is not like him to write so soon.” 

     He returned to his chair, bracing himself for the cheerfully insensible shambles he had come to expect from any letter Bingley sent. Instead, he was surprised at its unprecedented clarity. 

      

      Darcy, old boy, 

      What a fine joke departing so suddenly from London, but it is just what I would have expected of you. Old married men quite despise Town, and never wish to be away from their wives for long, I daresay. Perhaps I shall know more of the matter myself before long. You may recall meeting my beautiful, radiant goddess – Miss Elizabeth Bennet, with whom you danced at the Banfields’ ball. She has captured my heart as no other woman could, and I hope to be leading her to the altar ere long! 

      I know I shall be congratulating you  one  day soon as well, and I hope to visit Pemberley over the summer with my beautiful bride and find you bouncing a robust baby boy on your knee! (And I think Charles a very fine name, for what it’s worth.) Of course, I should very much like for you to stand up with me at the wedding, if you can get away. I hear Hertfordshire is very fine country, and I am of a mind to look there for a suitable property. I have  not yet mustered the courage to beg Miss Elizabeth to end my suffering and make me the happiest of men, but I think it shall be soon . Caroline says it is too soon, and though I often find that she is quite right whenever we disagree, in this matter I  think she will c ome round to my way of thinking, for I am certain it will add greatly to my happiness. 

      It will please you to know I have the  approval  of your Fitzwilliam relations, for they too have grown rather fond of Elizabeth in recent weeks. She is quite a favorite with Lady Rebecca – you may imagine how greatly this has vexed my  sister ! Even your cousin the Viscount is charmed by Miss Elizabeth, which caused me great consternation when he  first  met her, for I should certainly not wish to compete with him for the affections of a beautiful woman!  

      I jest, of course, yet I think it a fine thing to have won the heart of a lady worthy of such approbation, and hope that the residents of Pemberley will come to love her as much as I do, when next we all meet. When that may be, my dear friend, I leave to your superior discretion. All the best to dear Anne and Georgiana. 

      Your soon-to-be-leg-shackled friend, 

      Charles Bingley 

 

      PS – Do you not think my writing much improved? I daresay you expected this missive to contain such nonsense as I have often put to paper, but I think it a very fine letter, very few ink blots, and vastly legible. Elizabeth is a great reader, and I have lately taken to reading the books in my library, in the hopes of reciting a poem or saying something very clever for her. Have a care, for if she has any degree of influence over me, I shall  soon advance to  match ing  wits with you !   

 

     Darcy stared down at the letter until the words began to swim before his eyes. His first inclination was to tear it to shreds, or hurl it into the fire. Instead, he calmly refolded it and tucked into his pocket, much as he wished he could tuck away this new knowledge and ignore the tumult of emotions it brought on. I shall conquer this. He knew he must inure himself to the idea, though it was a bitter pill to swallow. How often had Charles flitted from one lady-love to another, his head perpetually turned by the newest pretty face? And yet he was determined to have her, a woman of inferior fortune and vastly superior personal charms, whose wit and vibrancy would be totally wasted on Charles, for all his attempts at self-improvement. 

     He wanted to be happy for Charles, truly, but he had not mastered his bitterness yet. He knew not what stung worse, that Charles was free to marry as he chose, or that he had chosen the exact sort of woman as Darcy would have, had he been at equal liberty in taking a wife. By what cruel twist of fate had handed this son of a tradesman such a fine jewel, that even the master of Pemberley could not reach for? 

     Darcy glared into the crackling fireplace. Wishing his circumstances had been different had gotten him nowhere – it was time to overcome the constant lamentation that his life had not gone differently. He knew he must be a better husband to Anne. She deserved it, not only because of the years of suffering she had silently borne at Rosings, but because it was the right thing to do. She had shown much fortitude since their wedding, in her treatment of Darcy, Georgiana, and even the servants. Though not the exceptionally gifted paragon he had hoped for as mistress of Pemberley, she was patient, kind, and just – far beyond what any man might expect after witnessing Lady Catherine’s style of dominion. And while her mother would often discuss the limitations of her health at length, Anne was determined not to appear sickly or weak, and to understate any symptoms she could not hide entirely. She deserved better than a husband who would sit sullenly in her company, thinking of another. I am truly disgusting. 

     Despite the awkwardness between them, Anne had often expressed her gratitude that he had provided her a means of escaping her mother. In truth, Darcy had needed to wed, too, and Anne had been the best of limited options. Still, perhaps, with some effort, their marriage of convenience may grow into something more in time. After all, if her health were to improve, they might live many years more together – better they do so happily, instead of regretting the circumstances that brought them together. And, if her health were to take a turn for the worse, Darcy knew that he could not live with himself if her final months were tainted by him wishing she were another. 

     He turned to regard his wife again, hoping to find a trace of something that might give him hope.  As he watched her, Anne idly stroked the bulge at her midsection, an artifice of padding created to give the illusion of being in a delicate condition. It was a secret shared only amongst a handful of Fitzwilliam cousins; they would not be astonished at the baby’s arriving a full six weeks earlier than expected. 

     Though Darcy despised the deception, and the unthinkably horrible reasons for it, Anne had taken to Richard’s plan with astonishing relish. Darcy might have been appalled at her cavalier response to his living nightmare, had it not been such a refreshing and endearing surprise to witness her showing such enthusiasm at being included in the scheme. 

     Of course, as with many of the misguided endeavors Darcy had come to regret to varying degrees over the years, it had started with Richard. 

     They had still been in mourning for Richard’s older brother when Darcy had intercepted Georgiana from her intended elopement in Ramsgate. But he had been too late, and the loss of his sister’s virtue, the apparent loss of her esteem for him as a brother, and the weight of the likely repercussions had crushed him so thoroughly that the loss of his reprobate elder cousin had barely affected him. As Georgiana’s other guardian, Richard had been just as distraught, and had waited in unspoken vigil with Darcy at Pemberley for many weeks for the truth to be confirmed. Her monthly courses did not come when expected, and after waiting another two weeks they still had not. Then one morning, about a month after her recovery, the first morning she had dared to face them across the breakfast table, the proof of her condition became suddenly and mortifyingly evident when her morning repast made a shocking reappearance. The staff was told the bacon was rancid, and Georgiana’s morning meal was relegated to her rooms from thence forward. 

     For several days Darcy and his cousin had argued over what was to be done. Possibilities had been bandied about between them, but none that they could agree upon. Georgiana had hurled vicious aspersions upon her brother when he removed her from Ramsgate; she would not see reason, or the truth of Wickham’s character. She believed he loved her, and despised her brother for separating them and returning her to a life of miserable solitude. Darcy had trusted that time and distance would heal the wounds on both sides, and that after her confinement, when they had found a suitable, distant home for her bastard, a reconciliation may be attempted. 

     Richard disagreed vigorously, insisting that though her actions had been wrong, she was too young, and had been left to her own company for too long to bear the burden of blame. Further, he argued, a separation of such duration would only deepen the rift between siblings, perhaps rendering it irreparable.  

     After nearly a week of stalemate, an unforeseen solution presented itself in the form of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who arrived unexpectedly with her daughter. Darcy had been livid when he discovered their intrusion had come at Georgiana’s behest, and she owned her motive in inviting them was to vex her brother, retribution for his lack of regard for her feelings.  

     Though Darcy and Richard had managed to conceal Georgiana’s condition with furious threats of how badly it would go for her were she to reveal it to the fearsome dowager in their midst, they had taken little precaution in concealing the truth from their cousin, whose presence at Pemberley was almost immediately forgotten. 

     Until, in a strange twist of fate Darcy still could scarcely credit, she had wandered into his study one evening. Darcy and Richard, mentally exhausted by the rest of their family, were well into their cups. Darcy had feared it was some scheme of Lady Catherine’s to attempt a compromise, and was immediately on his guard; Richard was first bemused, and then suddenly inspired. Several drinks later, a plan had been laid out by the most timid and unlikely of masterminds, and the three cousins were in agreement. Though Darcy was inclined to question the wisdom of their scheme the next day, Anne was quite adamant there was no other way. It would suit everyone – everyone but Darcy. 

     Unaware that the entire situation had been engineered by her own family, Lady Catherine happened upon Darcy alone in his study the very next day, and without thinking it odd that he should be foxed out of his mind in the middle of the afternoon, she made an extremely predictable calculation. Anne put up a convincing amount of protest before acceding to her mother’s command that she don her most alluring evening gown, and close the door after entering the study. Thankfully Lady Catherine had a rather heavy step, for all her attempt at stealth, and so Anne was in Darcy’s arms, perfecting the illusion of a drunken compromise, when Lady Catherine intruded in all her glory. 

     Richard had offered to sacrifice himself, but Darcy would not hear of it. He, more than Richard, had failed Georgiana and caused this scandal that threatened their family. And so must he be the remedy. Anne had heartily agreed, having no wish to become a Viscountess and reside in London, a place she had long avoided due to her health. And so Darcy had accepted Lady Catherine’s gleeful accusations and demands, and borne her smug satisfaction at believing she had bested him at last. Though she would have to settle for a quick and simple ceremony, rather than the grand event she had always envisioned, Lady Catherine was every bit the cat that had caught the canary at long last. Resigned to his fate and aware that time was of the essence for their deception to work, Darcy had wed Anne within the week. 

     Darcy regarded his wife for some time, ruminating in his own recollections as a familiar silence settled over them. It was precisely for this reason that he had long dreamed of a different kind of marriage. The kind Charles would soon make. A marriage of love to a woman full of life, a woman who would bear him true children and fill his home with laughter and light. Instead, he had this. An unconsummated sham, to a woman who would likely not live long enough to hear his sister’s child call her Mother. 

     Again Anne stroked her padded belly in silence. A pang of guilt pierced Darcy’s heart as he wondered if perhaps she had adopted the gesture from an unconscious desire to truly bear a child, though this would never be possible. As sorry as he was prone to feeling for himself of late, it was truly Anne who was to be pitied. At the very least he owed her better than this hostile, oppressive silence.  

     Exerting himself to infuse his words with a greater degree of tenderness than he felt, Darcy asked, “What does Georgiana write, my dear?” 

     Anne looked up at him, tears brimming in her eyes. “I think we must go to her, Fitzwilliam.” He lips trembled, and she looked away. “It breaks my heart to think of her alone for so long, and in her condition.” 

     Darcy grimaced. Georgiana had left Pemberley in October – ostensibly to travel with friends while her brother settled in to married life. In reality, Georgiana’s small frame had made it difficult to conceal her condition any longer, and she had been sent to spend the rest of her confinement with her new companion, Mrs. Annesley, in a remote seaside village near Frodsham in Cheshire.  

     Things had been fraught between brother and sister since Ramsgate, and though Anne’s presence at Pemberley had brought some improvement to the situation, they had not parted on the best of terms. Darcy knew his sister had never intended to force her family to go to such great lengths to conceal her mistakes, and that the reality of it pained her. And yet, despite her professions of remorse, there had been no real contrition; her condition, and perhaps the years of isolation, had rendered her contentious and overly emotional. Much as it pained him, it had simply been easier for Darcy to simply send her away.  

     Anne cleared her throat, drawing his attention back to her. “How soon will you be ready to travel?” 

     Darcy looked at her aghast. “Surely you are not serious?” Anne did not respond, but held his gaze with a determined squint. Darcy scowled. He had wanted to make Anne happier, and was willing to exert himself to do so, but this was too much. “She has but six weeks left in her confinement, Anne. She has already been gone twice that time. She’s very near the end now, and soon she will return to us.” 

     A derisive snort was all the reply he received. Anne crossed her arms and glowered at him. 

     “Anne, you must be reasonable.” 

     As eager as he was to put the matter to bed entirely, Darcy was not prepared for his wife’s explosive response. Despite her frailty and the cumbersome bundle at her belly, Anne leapt to her feet and crossed the room to him in an instant. “I begin to think I am the only reasonable person in this family! Oh, I know you think mighty well of yourself, the great Fitzwilliam Darcy, brooding away in a corner all day long because life is not fair. But have you not considered you sister’s feelings at all? Or mine?” 

     For a moment all Darcy could do was gape up at the formidable woman his wife had transformed into. And then he could contain his rage no longer and rose to his feet, towering above her as he squared his shoulders and fixed her with his most withering glare. “You would have me consult my sister’s wishes,” he spat. “After what she has done? What she has put us all through?” 

     A wild look passed through Anne’s eyes as she stepped closer to him, undaunted by his intimidating person. “I would, sir. You are a grown man, and yet you hide from this like a child... More a child than Georgiana, indeed, for she cannot hide from this as you do. She cannot run off to London, amuse herself with her friends and call it ‘business.’ She has been alone but for a paid companion, away from the only home she has ever known, for three months, and yet you say another six weeks is nothing. I assure you, sir, it is not nothing to her. Georgiana is alone day after her day, consumed by such dark thoughts as I dare not repeat. Your sister is frightened and lonely, and she believes you hate her. I cannot convince her otherwise, though I know it is not so. No, you do not despise her, you are merely a coward. You have failed her, and cannot face her. You know nothing of what she suffers. Women die in child birth, and even those that survive must surrender their fate into the hands of unfeeling men like you.” 

     Darcy felt as if she had physically stuck him. “So, this is your opinion of me! This is the estimation in which you hold me! Thank you for explaining it so fully.” He stalked across the room and meant to leave, when another fit of coughing overtook his wife. He hesitated and heaved a great sigh, knowing he was being unreasonable, and turned back to his wife. 

     Still roiling with rage, Anne tried to push him away, even as her knees buckled and she collapsed into his arms. Darcy ignored her protestations and carried her over to the sofa nearest the fire. He pulled her shawls up around her shoulders and cupped her cheek in his hand, tilting her face towards him, though she would not meet his eye. There was a little spattering of blood at the corner of her mouth. Dabbing it away with his handkerchief, Darcy felt his anger melt away into guilt and shame. What had she said that was not the truth? He deserved it all, and more besides.  

     Kneeling beside her, Darcy clutched Anne’s hands in his. “You are right. I have behaved abominably, and I am ashamed of myself. I have faults enough, but I hope I do not lack feeling. I shall ride to Frodsham tomorrow and speak with her. I will make this right, Anne.”  

     Unable to rail at him anymore, Anne merely looked beseechingly at Darcy. “Will you not take me with you, as I have asked?” 

     “Anne, I have no wish to argue with you any more today.” 

     “Then say that you will do as I ask. It is Georgiana’s wish, and mine. Unless, perhaps, you would prefer to be away from me, again.” 

     “I fear the journey will be too difficult for you. It is nearly fifty miles to Frodsham.” 

     “And what is fifty miles of good road? I call it a very easy distance. Perhaps the coastal clime will agree with me.” 

     “Perhaps it will not. Perhaps the travelling will weaken you. I will not take the risk.” 

     Anne laughed a soft, bitter laugh. “You took the risk when you married me. You knew I was unwell. You know I shall be lucky to live long enough to lend the baby the appearance of legitimacy. That is all that matters to me now, for at least I may die happy, knowing I have done some real good in this world. I will go to Georgiana, and I shall not let anything stop me from accomplishing what I set out to.” 

     Darcy regarded his wife with a pained expression. It was what they had planned, but to hear it all reduced to such simple terms, to hear his wife discuss her own death own death so casually, it tore at his heart. He should not have accepted her offer and put her in this position, feeling as though the only value her life held was in salvaging the disaster that Georgiana, through Darcy’s failings as a guardian, had wrought upon their family. 

     As if reading his thoughts, Anne gave his hand a gentle squeeze. “I do not say such things to cause you pain, Fitzwilliam. I have no desire to wound you, or affect the kind of guilt my mother loves to sow. I merely want you to know that I have accepted my fate, and I am not afraid. It pleases me that I am doing something that matters with the time I have left. It is my own small way of leaving my mark on the world.” 

     Darcy smiled ruefully at her. “So you are determined to have you way in this matter? You would forego the comforts of Pemberley, and put yourself in danger, for Georgiana’s sake?” 

     Anne grinned at him. “I believe I must.” 

      

   

Chapter Text

      The weeks after their attendance at the opera become a whirlwind of activity for Elizabeth. Dinners were given, as promised by the Gardiners, Mr. Bingley, and Lady Rebecca, each grander than the last. Morning calls became a daily occurrence, and when there were no visitors at Gracechurch Street, it was only because Elizabeth and her aunt were engaged calling in Half Moon Street or walking with the children in the park, where Mr. Bingley would often discover them, quite by coincidence. He had become a daily fixture for them, through some social engagement or another, for there had been not a single day spent entirely at home in three weeks. 

     Elizabeth had enjoyed another trip to the theatre and a visit to the Royal Academy, a sleigh ride organized by Mr. Bingley, and enough shopping to satisfy even Mrs. Bennet’s enthusiasm for fripperies. Lady Rebecca frequently joined them on such ventures, and would often harangue her new friend into accepting some gift or other, purchased with her seemingly inexhaustible allowance. Emily, too, had proven a faithful companion to Elizabeth, her soft-spoken affability providing the perfect balance to Lady Rebecca’s confident eccentricity. 

     By February, it seemed that Elizabeth’s quarrel with Jane was largely forgotten. Though her first letter went unanswered, Jane had written again, echoing her overtures of reconciliation, but Mrs. Gardiner did not press her niece any further about the visit to Kent. There would be time for that after things had been settled between her and Bingley. 

     There was news of Charlotte Lucas, as well. About a fortnight after hearing the news from Mrs. Bennet, the new Mrs. Wesley wrote herself to confirm it. Her husband was a widower more than ten years her senior, who had travelled to Meryton to visit his sister, Mrs. Long. Apparently Mrs. Bennet had been quite put out, having decided that he would do well for Mary. But Charlotte was happy, and Elizabeth was happy for her, for her letter was warm and sincere.  

     At last she seemed content, and perhaps something more. Her smiles were brighter, and she even sometimes hummed to herself without seeming to realize it. Her time in London and considerable success in making friends there had added an air of confidence to her demeanor. The Gardiners even suspected that she had begun to display the signs of a young lady in love.  

     Mrs. Gardiner insisted Elizabeth accept another new gown for the Banfields’ dinner party. After all, she had nothing to match the carnelian slippers Lady Rebecca had insisted on purchasing for her, causing Elizabeth to vow never again to vocalize her admiration for anything expensive in the presence of her friend. She had protested the gown as well, though her aunt saw how she glowed when she beheld her own appearance in the mirror that night. The silver-white silk shimmered beneath Venetian red netting, detailed with delicate silver embroidery. She wore her cashmere shawl, and a crimson ribbon wound through her elegantly coiffed hair completed the dramatic ensemble. 

     Mrs. Gardiner was prodigiously proud of her niece. She saw the same affection in her husband’s countenance when they watched her descend the stairs that evening, eager to depart. “Mustn’t tarry now, eh, Lizzy,” he teased, making a great show of checking his watch. “Come along, then, no need to make such a fuss over your looks for the sake of a certain someone.” Mr. Gardiner chuckled kindly as Elizabeth blushed and bit her lip, averting her eyes as she always did when he mentioned her budding attachment. He gave his wife a knowing look – it surely wouldn’t be long now before their dearest young couple came to an understanding. What congratulations would then flow in! 

*** 

          The Banfields had invited everyone Elizabeth most wished to see – Lady Rebecca and her brother, Emily, and of course, Mr. Bingley. Though she remained embarrassed by the obvious expectations of all of their acquaintance, she could not deny she had grown increasingly fond of him. Who could not admire such an affable gentleman? He was cheerful and kind, his character was respectable and his person very dashing. Most alluring of all, he was as attracted to Elizabeth as she was to him – perhaps even more so. Being the recipient of such admiration was a wholly new experience for her, and though at first she had felt embarrassment and disbelief, she had come to enjoy the sensation. She had even begun to suspect he was truly in love with her; it was every day implied, though never absolutely declared.  

     Despite her aunt and uncle’s eagerness for such a declaration, Elizabeth was content to savor his attentions; she had scarcely begun to examine her own heart. She had never been in love before, and had no idea what it was like. She could not deny that she was certainly happier since he had come into her life, and happiest of all when she spent time with him, for with Mr. Bingley came all of the delights of London. He was a sociable and convivial man, eager to please and be pleased with everyone, every place he went, and Elizabeth found his boundless enthusiasm infectious. He represented a world of endless possibility, of comfort and amusement and adventure. It was entirely romantic. 

     Perhaps the only unpleasant thing about Mr. Bingley was his sister, who had accompanied him this evening, tempted no doubt by the presence of the Fitzwilliam siblings. While Elizabeth found Miss Bingley’s general attitude equal parts vexing and amusing, the initial diversion was beginning to wane. Her venom rarely succeeded in actually wounding Elizabeth, whose happiness and confidence increased daily amidst the delights of London. Elizabeth had taught herself not to satisfy Miss Bingley with the reaction she wished for, though Mr. Bingley could not boast the same. Elizabeth often detected frustration and embarrassment in his looks when his sister displayed her malice in company, yet never had he attempted to curb or correct her behavior. He was content to ignore his sister, even occasionally yielding to her, or simply smoothing over her offenses with his own abundance of kindness and cheer.  

     At first Elizabeth had tried not to let his bother her; she had no desire to be a source of strife amongst their family, no matter how much Miss Bingley’s behavior merited reprimand. Yet the utter negligence on Mr. Bingley’s part could not be wholly ignored, despite Elizabeth’s best efforts. It was all too familiar. Though her sisters tended more toward silliness than snobbery, it was obvious what might happen when bad habits went unchecked. 

     Tonight, at least, there were fewer barbs to dodge, and Elizabeth was grateful that their hosts had invited enough fashionable families and eligible men to keep Miss Bingley more agreeably occupied. The Audleys and the Suttons were discovered to be known to the Fitzwilliams through their aunt in Kent, and were fashionable enough that it was no degradation to be on friendly terms with them. Thus Miss Bingley bestowed upon her new friends all of her best smiles and pretty compliments. The fortuitous seating arrangements allowed her all the delight of an elevated audience for her self-important and superficial discourse, and with the kindred spirit of Miss Sutton at her side, her wit flowed long. 

     After dinner, none amongst their party cared for cards, and the pianoforte was soon opened. Elizabeth happily escaped having to perform, and was more agreeably engaged when it was suggested by Lord Hartley that they dance a reel or two. Sir Bertrand heartily agreed, and in his usual state of zeal, he began to push aside furniture, declaring the room a very perfect fit for six couples. Mr. Bingley was swift in soliciting Elizabeth’s hand, while the viscount partnered Emily, who blushed profusely throughout their dance and sent Elizabeth frequent looks of nonsensical glee. 

     Elizabeth found herself just as willing as her cousin to lose herself in the sheer delight of the amusement. She had danced with Mr. Bingley on a few other occasions since the Twelfth Night ball, but tonight he was more intense than ever before. He spoke little, though it as if they were having a different kind of conversation, a more private and passionate exchange that she did not entirely understand. In every movement he seemed to be subtly making love to her, oblivious to all others in the room. She was flustered when the dance ended, and relieved to be asked by Henry Audley for the next, for his easy banter was a welcome relief from the exhilarating sensations she had just experienced.  

     After partnering Emily, Mr. Bingley seemed on the verge of returning to Elizabeth’s side, when his sister intercepted him. “Charles,” she drawled, “I daresay it would hardly be proper for you to dance with Miss Eliza again so soon, when there are so many lovely alternatives before you. Do allow me to present Miss Sutton as a vastly superior choice.” 

     “I hardly think – that is, I had not thought…” he stammered, unwilling to oppose his sister so directly.  

     Miss Sutton was quickly at hand with a demure smile and a graceful curtsy. “I would be delighted, Mr. Bingley,” she simpered, conveniently unaware of his reluctance. She looped her arm through his and began to lead him away. 

     Elizabeth, as well as half the room, witnessed this exchange in some dismay, but she had no wish to let Miss Bingley to see her distress. Suddenly Lord Hartley was beside her, extending his hand with a wry smile. “Come, Miss Bennet, I must take advantage of Bingley’s distraction and partner you myself. There is no one I enjoy dancing with more.” 

     She felt her vexation subside, and smiled back as he led her to join the other dancers. “You are very kind, my lord, to come rescue me in all this state,” she whispered, certain that she was blushing excessively. 

     The viscount laughed. “Hardly! I have never met a lady less in need of rescuing – no indeed, I came to you out of self-preservation, Miss Bennet. My sister did not wish you to sit this one out, and as it happens, she pinches very hard.” 

     Lady Rebecca, dancing beside them with Sir Bertrand, gave her a quick wink. Elizabeth responded with a knowing look. For many weeks now, her new friend had been true to her word, consistently thwarting and out-maneuvering Miss Bingley’s attempts to damage the esteem that was growing between Elizabeth and Mr. Bingley. A nagging concern pricked at the back of her mind, wondering how such a relationship should ever survive, for surely Lady Rebecca would not always be around to contain Miss Bingley’s vitriol.  

     Elizabeth let out a heavy sigh, trying to push these thoughts from her mind. She wanted to enjoy every minute of her time in London, especially her time with Mr. Bingley. How she wished she could share her aunt and uncle’s unspoiled optimism regarding their relationship! She could hardly account for her sudden surge of anxiety, but felt all the necessity of concealing her feelings from her well-meaning partner. 

     Perceiving her dejection, he offered a reassuring smile and softly said, “Pray, do not think ill of Bingley, dear Miss Bennet. His disposition is such that he is easily led by his sister, without believing her capable of any artful motives. In a way, it speaks well of him, that he is capable of such unconditional affection, do you not think?” 

     A dozen bitter rejoinders came to mind, and as the steps of the dance separated them for a moment, Elizabeth took a calming breath, willing herself not to speak out of turn. She realized that unconditional affection had never served her well in the past. It had blinded her to Jane’s flaws and exposed her to the enduring wound of discovering Jane’s true nature. It had silenced her disappointment with her father’s neglect of their fortunes, for every time he indulged her mother’s spending habits for the sake of peace at home, it cost them the future security a dowry would have provided. No, blind affection was no recommendation to her sensibility – it was a threat.  

     Another turn brought her back to Lord Hartley, who raised an expectant eyebrow at her. “Come, come, Miss Bennet! I suspect you disagree with me, but I have always thought it was not your nature to refrain from sharing your own opinions, however independent they may be. My sister admires that about you, as do I.” 

     Feeling her courage rising, Elizabeth spoke at last. “I believe that such feelings, when tempered by true strength of character and superiority of mind, will always be under good regulation. But unconditional love coupled with weakness of will, or a lack of experience, must be a harmful thing.” 

     “That is singularly insightful, Miss Bennet.” 

     Elizabeth blushed as she perceived his approval of her assessment. They joined their palms as they went down the dance, and for a moment he was silent. “Do you suppose, Miss Bennet, that unconditional affection for one may injure another held in equal esteem?” 

     “Perhaps, in such cases where this affection is undeservedly bestowed, it may become a liability, but I dare say it is never quite simple. There are many forms of affection – parent and child, brother and sister….” 

     “Husband and wife.” 

     Elizabeth’s breath caught in her throat. “Yes.” 

     He cocked his head, staring pensively at her. “I suppose you have some experience yourself in this matter?” 

     “More than I would wish,” Elizabeth whispered as the dance came to an end. She sensed that he wanted to say more, but Mr. Bingley was quickly approaching, and so the subject was dropped. 

    A fourth and final set was danced, and Mr. Bingley would have no other partner than Elizabeth again. She was determined to have some conversation this time, else she would go distracted with feelings that prudence told her were better examined in privacy later. He was happy to oblige her, and though his conversation was pleasant, Elizabeth began to suspect he was agitated in some way. When the other couples had satisfied their appetites for dancing, it seemed the party was on the verge of breaking up, for the hour had grown late. Amidst the commotion of other guests moving through the drawing room to bid one another their farewells, Mr. Bingley quickly took Elizabeth’s hand and pulled her out onto a small balcony, as its door had been opened to cool the room after the exertions of dancing.  

     Once alone, Mr. Bingley drew close to Elizabeth and pressed her hands in his. Her heart pounded in her chest, for she knew they only had a few minutes before her aunt and uncle would notice her absence, and she felt certain Mr. Bingley meant to kiss her. She at once wished for it, as a measure of reassurance, and yet dreaded the finality of such a gesture. To kiss would be to commit, before she was ready. 

     He did not kiss her, but leaned in to whisper, his face inches from hers. “Miss Bennet, I cannot tell you what I am thinking, what I am feeling….”  

     Elizabeth let out a little gasp as his eyes searched hers. The draw of her physical attraction to him was strong, but for such a declaration as he was attempting to make, she was not prepared. After her thoughtful conversation with the viscount, her mind was in such turmoil that she hardly trusted her own feelings, and wished nothing more than a moment of privacy to reflect. In such close proximity her mind reeled, and all semblance of sense had abandoned her. 

     Mr. Bingley sensed her unease and ran his fingers nervously through his hair, laughing quietly at his own embarrassment. “I must sound like a madman – perhaps I am, Elizabeth – I cannot stop thinking about you. I know this is hardly the time, or the place….” Mr. Bingley again took her hand in his and pressed it to his lips. “Tomorrow, my dearest Miss Bennet, I shall call on you and express myself properly, with all the eloquence and poetry you deserve. Until then.” He turned over her hand and gently kissed her wrist before turning abruptly and hurrying inside. 

     Elizabeth shivered, suddenly aware of the wintry chill in the air. His withdrawal left her feeling bereft and a little frightened, though she had reason enough for wishing to delay his overtures. She waited a moment more to school her countenance before returning inside after Mr. Bingley, eager to seek the comfort of her aunt and uncle, and make a hasty retreat to Gracechurch Street, where she might indulge in private contemplation. She had much to consider. 

     She hoped to slip back in to the drawing room unnoticed, and she was nearly able to do so. Aside from Miss Bingley, who glared at her from across the room, only the Gardiners seemed to observe her reappearance. Though her uncle crossed his arms and attempted to look stern, the mirth in his eyes betrayed him, and her aunt did not even bother to hide her own happy curiosity. They both appeared ignorant to her present state of distress, for which she was grateful. 

     The Gardiners quickly made their goodbyes, eager for the privacy of their carriage, where they might discover what passed between Elizabeth and Mr. Bingley. “I trust nothing untoward occurred, Elizabeth,” her uncle warned as they made their way home. “As much as we approve of your attachment, the proprieties must be observed.” 

     Elizabeth was thankful the dim light in the carriage concealed her blush. “He behaved as a gentleman, uncle.” 

     “And of course you would never allow him to take liberties.” Mrs. Gardiner patted Elizabeth’s hand affectionately. “You are the dearest girl in the world! Only tell us what he said. Did he propose, or ask for courtship?” 

     “He did not.” She paused, impishly savoring the suspense as her aunt and uncle exclaimed their surprise. 

     “Surely you tease us, Lizzy,” her aunt replied. “What else could he have to say to you that would require privacy?” 

     “He said that he wished to call upon me tomorrow.” 

     “But he always calls upon you tomorrow – that is, he calls nearly every day, without secrecy. What can he be about?” 

     At last Elizabeth took mercy on her aunt, revealing that which she was most keen to hear. “I believe he does mean to ask me, tomorrow. Or rather, I believe he had meant to ask me tonight, but could not find the words to do so.” Even as she spoke, the heavy reality of it struck her. Tomorrow he would propose. Tomorrow, she must make a decision that would determine the course of the rest of her life. It was all too much.  

     A warm smile spread across her aunt’s face. “Oh Lizzy, I am so happy for you. Truly, dearest – your uncle and I think the world of Mr. Bingley. I am certain you shall do very well together.” 

     Across from them, her uncle was laughing heartily. “Yes, yes, as soon as he can muster the courage to speak up. Only think, Madeline, our dear Lizzy had little Charlie quite out of his wits. Is it not the lady who is supposed to be flustered and overcome at such a moment?” 

     “Oh hush,” Mrs. Gardiner swatted at her husband in playful admonishment. “I daresay you have remained well out of your wits since the moment we met.” 

     Elizabeth laughed half-heartedly at their antics, unable to ignore the sense of apprehension clouding her mind. 

*** 

     Elizabeth felt some little relief once she had retired to her chamber and could reflect in solitude. As dearly as she loved her aunt and uncle, the carriage ride home had been nearly unbearable, though she could hardly understand why it was that their enthusiasm for her relationship with Mr. Bingley pained her so much. 

     Objectively, it was a splendid match, beyond anything she could reasonably expect, given her circumstances. She had been aware of this from the earliest moments of their acquaintance, and yet it had not changed her heart. She liked Mr. Bingley, and she could not deny experiencing a decided physical response when in close proximity to him, but she could not say she loved him. She did not think she could truly come to love anyone in so short a time, though apparently this was not a popular sentiment amongst those close to her. 

     Elizabeth considered the examples of marriage that had been set before her. There was her mother and father, whose incompatible union had long ago formed her desire for a marriage based upon only the deepest love and mutual respect. She knew that her parents had come to love one another in time, yet they were of entirely different dispositions and shared very little common ground. That Mr. Bennet regretted his hasty courtship and marriage had often been hinted to her, and his attitude toward his wife generally wavered between condescending indulgence and open irritation.  

     Elizabeth had no wish to marry a man who would one day regret her. She and Mr. Bingley had been acquainted less than six weeks, and she could hardly believe this was sufficient time to be certain that their regard for one another would endure. Though he had professed an intention of taking a greater interest in pursuits that were dear to her, such as reading and walking, she doubted that these attempts at self-improvement would affect any real long-term changes. Nor did she have any wish for a man to make such drastic changes to himself and his habits for her sake. Surely doing so would only cause him to resent her, eventually. She should much prefer a man who already held interests and opinions of a similar bent to her own, for then their mutual esteem might grow naturally, without alterations to one’s true self. 

     Her thoughts turned to Jane, who had altered so much since her marriage, and even before. From the first day of her engagement, Jane had never even pretended there was any affection involved in her marriage. No, it was an act of desperation, for Jane feared she would never receive another offer, and the material considerations were certainly substantial. At the prospect of becoming the eventual mistress of Longbourn, she had quickly set her mind to thinking well of Mr. Collins, of pleasing his noble patroness, and spouting his effusively styled nonsense in her letters. 

     Elizabeth wondered how much of her fondness for Mr. Bingley had come from her own fear of the future. She mulled it over in her mind, until it began to seem an impossible choice. To accept Mr. Bingley without being certain of her own feelings would be mercenary, not to mention a tremendous risk of her future happiness, and yet to decline his offer would be foolish and possibly harmful to her family. She was not likely to ever receive a better offer, but what a detestable reason to accept him! She would be no better than Jane. Mr. Bingley was a good man, who deserved better than that. To be sure, Elizabeth was fond of him, and they might even be happy together for a time, but she was not convinced that was enough.  

     She considered all that she knew of him. He was kind and generous, affable and open, and entirely unpretentious. He was charming, forthright, and rather handsome as well. And, of course, he was rich. But then there was the matter of his sister. His awful, hateful sister! The woman clearly had her claws in her brother, and poor Mr. Bingley was utterly oblivious to her vicious character. She considered her conversation with Lord Hartley, whose attempt at painting his friend’s weakness in a favorable light had backfired so completely. He had brought to light all of the times Elizabeth had tried to ignore what she now longer could. To marry Mr. Bingley meant tying herself to her as well, and Elizabeth feared that Caroline Bingley would exact her revenge by ruling their lives. Though Elizabeth had managed to avoid the worst of Miss Bingley’s vitriol, what little of it she had experienced did not paint an enticing picture of what daily life with the woman would be like. Elizabeth shuddered. I would rather go live with Mrs. Collins! 

     Of course, that was hardly an option, although the day would come when Jane would be able to make good on her threats. Fortunately, their father was hale and hearty, and Elizabeth saw no reason to allow the specter of Jane as mistress of Longbourn to affect her decision about Mr. Bingley. Tired of pacing, she threw herself down onto her bed and groaned into her pillow, feeling herself no closer to knowing her own heart. It was simply not enough time. 

     Elizabeth sat up, an idea beginning to formulate. It was rather obvious, though it had taken her hours of agonizing to see the simple solution. She would agree only to courtship, not an engagement. She would neither hurt Mr. Bingley, nor lose the pleasure of his company. She could express a desire to know him better, even ask for a long engagement if she felt it necessary. In time she would grow to trust him with her future, to discover any hidden flaws or vices and the man may have, beyond his constant capitulation to his sister. She hoped they might also cultivate some manner of shared pursuits. Yes, she was certain that in time she would grow to love him well enough indeed, and would learn to trust in his regard for her.  And perhaps in time, his sister might either marry or be made to reconcile herself to the match. 

     Of course, Elizabeth thought with an irreverent smirk, this was all contingent upon his meeting the rest of her family and not immediately taking flight. 

*** 

     Though Elizabeth woke in a calmer state than she had retired in, she was not destined to remain thus. She had fallen asleep believing herself ready to face Mr. Bingley and take the next step toward a possible future with him. What she had not prepared for was the possibility of him not actually paying the call. 

     Even her aunt’s restlessness was nothing compared to her own as the two ladies waited in the drawing room after breakfast. Once making up her mind, Elizabeth had thought a great deal that morning about what she wished to say to Mr. Bingley. She had run through it over and over in her mind, and with each passing hour it increasingly seemed that it had all been for naught. 

     When her uncle returned home from his office, he was taken by surprise to find his good cheer falling on deaf ears at the dinner table, and even more astonished to learn of Mr. Bingley’s apparent desertion. 

     “Are you certain, my dear, that he was to call today? Perhaps he meant tomorrow?” 

     “He was quite clear, Uncle. It was to be this morning.” 

     Mrs. Gardiner tried to put on a brave face. “I am sure there is some explanation. He must have been detained. Mr. Bingley is a man of honor, and would not go back on his word.” 

     Elizabeth sighed, staring down at her plate with a sudden loss of appetite. As apprehensive as she had once been about his attentions, she had grown fond of Mr. Bingley, and had come to hope that love might grow between them. Now all she felt was bitter regret that she had opened herself up to the sting of his rejection. She could only surmise that his vicious sister had finally carried her point and warned him away. Perhaps he was even now convinced of her unsuitability, as his sister paraded another, more suitable lady, such as Cynthia Sutton, before him. She was only glad he had not actually proposed before thinking the better of it and abandoning her, for then she would be truly ruined. 

     “I beg your pardon,” Elizabeth murmured, excusing herself abruptly from the table. She retreated to her room to wallow privately in her own misery and disappointment. 

     Thus she remained for several days. Despite her aunt’s attempts to coax her from her room, Elizabeth ventured downstairs only once, to receive Emily and Lady Rebecca when they called a few days after Mr. Bingley’s expected visit. As her friends were unaware of her expectations toward Mr. Bingley and all that had gone amiss, Elizabeth was grateful for her aunt’s attempts to steer the conversation away from that topic. Emily was content enough to chat about other matters, though Elizabeth suspected that Lady Rebecca might have pressed her for information had they been alone.  

     Though seeing her friends had cheered her some, Elizabeth remained in lower spirits even than when she had arrived. Her mind returned to the sad state of how she had left things at Longbourn, and she began to wonder how long it might be before she would inevitably have to return home. Her mother would not be pleased to learn of Elizabeth’s near-betrothal, and would no doubt blame and berate her for it regularly. Though she knew she could not trespass on her aunt and uncle’s hospitality forever, she dreaded the thought of returning home.  

     Then again, even London had somehow lost its allure. A visit to Kent was still an option, though the thought of it held little appeal. Another change of scenery might have held promise had it not been for her dread of facing her estranged sister. Even the notion of the suitable gentlemen Jane had alluded to seemed a paltry recompense, as she had little faith in men at present. She had only just begun to accept that she must have to give Mr. Bingley up. 

     On the fifth day, Elizabeth finally ventured downstairs. Having given up hope of Mr. Bingley ever coming again, she sat away from the window, so she would not seem to be looking for him. “Aunt,” she asked, “I wonder, should I begin to think of returning to Longbourn soon?” 

     Mrs. Gardiner glanced up, but before she could reply there was a knock at the front door. Tossing her sewing aside, she moved over to the window and discretely peeked outside. “My goodness Lizzy,” she whispered, trying to remain calm, “Mr. Bingley has come at last.” 

     Elizabeth felt a sudden surge of resentment. “Has he? I am all astonishment.”  

     Her aunt furrowed her brow in concern. “You do wish to see him, do you not?” 

     “I suppose so,” Elizabeth sighed. “I may need a moment to collect myself.” 

     “Go then,” Mrs. Gardiner urged with a gentle smile and a wink. “Fix your hair a little, too, dearest.” 

     Elizabeth hastened from the room, and had just made it upstairs as she heard Mr. Bingley being announced into the drawing room. She determined to take her time, hoping her aunt might make him squirm just a bit. After all that he had hinted to her at the Banfields’ dinner, he certainly owed them some account for what could have delayed his visit. 

     Examining her reflection, Elizabeth realized her hair was indeed a disaster, for she had not anticipated any visitors that morning. She pinned it up in a simple twist, and on the whim of a moment changed out of her blue sprigged muslin, opting for a simple white dress she had brought from home. The defiant side of her did not wish to gratify Mr. Bingley by appearing to have dressed to impress him. She tugged a little bit at her hair, mussing it ever so, and checked her reflection once more. “It is not as if I have been lolling about, waiting for him to call, anyway,” she muttered under her breath, and made her way back downstairs. 

     As she entered the drawing room, Mr. Bingley rose and greeted her with a wistful smile. Mrs. Gardiner rose from the sofa and moved to leave. “I shall give you two a moment, but the door will remain open. I must attend to a matter of urgency in the kitchen, and will return shortly.” 

     Mr. Bingley held his hat in his hands and fidgeted nervously with it, barely able to meet her eyes. She knew he had not come to propose. “Mr. Bingley, whatever is the matter? Are you well?”  

     His face crumpled into despair as he stepped closer to her. He set down his hat and reached for her hand. “I do not deserve your concern, Elizabeth. We both know I have kept you waiting these five days. I broke my promise, and yet you would ask after my health without any reproach. You are too kind.” 

     The bitterness she had been trying to suppress suddenly dissolved as Elizabeth looked up at Mr. Bingley. He was clearly quite distraught. Still holding his hand, she gave it a gentle squeeze before releasing it. “Have you any explanation, sir?” 

     Mr. Bingley ran his hands through his hair in agitation, just as he had done that night on the balcony. It occurred to Elizabeth that though he was gregarious enough when he was in good cheer, Mr. Bingley was not adept at expressing himself in serious situations. No, in situations where solemnity was required, he was not at all a man who could be depended upon. Feeling her heart sink to the pit of her stomach, she sat down on the sofa. With a pained expression, Mr. Bingley sat down beside her and scowled at the rug. “I daresay you have some idea what I wanted to say to you that night…. What I have wanted to say to you nearly every moment I have spent in your presence.” 

     “Yes.” Fearing her inevitable disappointment, she wished this mortifying interview to be over as quickly as possible.  

     He let out a long sigh. “Would that I had spoken my heart that night, Miss Bennet, for now, I cannot. It would not feel right, under the circumstances.” 

     “What circumstances, sir?” 

     Mr. Bingley brushed at his hair again. “I – we must leave London, for a time. We are for Bath, this very afternoon.” 

     “You are leaving?” Elizabeth drew back in confusion. 

     “I am afraid we must. I had to see you first. I wanted to come sooner, you must believe me, but I could not get away.” 

     “Could you not have sent word to my uncle?” 

     “Would that I had thought of it, or found the time. These past few days have been so very taxing.” 

     “I do not understand. What has happened?” 

     “It is Caroline. She has fallen ill, and I am afraid it is quite serious.” 

     “Good God,” Elizabeth cried, unable to hide her surprise. Miss Bingley had showed no sign of affliction when they had last met at the Banfields’ dinner. Other than being afflicted with the worst sort of vanity and conceit. “It must have been so very sudden. I cannot believe it – how shocking!”  

     “I was shocked, yes. We returned home that evening, after we had all danced together…. I told Caroline of my intentions…. She claimed she had a headache and took to her bed. I thought she was merely being peevish, but the next morning she rose quite early and sent for a doctor. Caroline is never ill. I was alarmed, and thought I ought not leave her, though I had meant to call here. I did not imagine I would be detained so many days, yet I have scarcely had a chance to get away. She seems to be getting worse every day, and I am worried for her. Louisa thinks that it is nothing, but I am afraid. Caroline is eager to leave London, and said the doctor has recommended taking the waters in Bath. The Hursts will not indulge her, so it must be me. She wishes to travel there without delay.” 

     Realization dawned on Elizabeth, and she sat in stunned silence for what felt like an eternity. It was just as she had feared. Miss Bingley had triumphed at the last in separating them, for Elizabeth had not the slightest doubt that the wretched woman’s illness was naught but a crafty design to manipulate her naive brother. She saw in her mind precisely what a marriage to Mr. Bingley would be like, and felt that until that moment she had never known herself. No, she had foolishly hoped that he would, at the crucial moment, defy his sister in defense of the woman he loved. But it seemed he would not, or could not. He had taken the easier path, and succumbed to his sister’s demands, and Elizabeth knew in her heart that she could never bind herself to such a man.  

     Mr. Bingley looked over at her, and she could see the resignation in his eyes. On some level, perhaps unconsciously, he had already given her up. She scarcely knew what to say, for nothing could now breach the inevitable rift between them. The damage could not be undone. “And so you must go,” she sighed.  

    “I have no desire to leave… London. But I must. I cannot say how long I shall be in Bath, but if you are in London when I return….” 

     Elizabeth’s posture stiffened with defiance. That he should ask her to wait on him, on the whim of his deceitful sister, with no understanding or assurance of his regard! Her esteem for him had all but vanished, and she responded coldly, “I had not thought to stay much longer with my aunt and uncle. My sister in Kent has been wishing me to visit.” 

     “Oh. Yes, I understand. Perhaps I shall send word to your uncle when I return to town. Perhaps….” Mr. Bingley fell silent, as Mrs. Gardiner’s footsteps could be heard in the hall. Mr. Bingley rose abruptly and gave Mrs. Gardiner a slight nod of the head as she entered the room. Looking back at Elizabeth with a faint smile he said, “It is folly to linger in this manner. I will not torment myself any longer by remaining among friends whose society it is now impossible for me to enjoy.” He gave a quick bow and hastily left the room, and in another minute had departed the house. 

     Elizabeth glared out the window as his carriage disappeared. Yes, go, go, I would not wish you back again! 

     With some alarm, Mrs. Gardiner approached her niece. “Dearest, whatever has happened? Have you refused him?” 

     Despite her vexation, Elizabeth could not help feeling some sympathy for her aunt’s disappointment. “I have not – Mr. Bingley did not propose to me.” 

     Elizabeth was obliged to relay the details of her conversation with Mr. Bingley. When she had finished, her aunt sank back against the sofa, crestfallen. “Oh Lizzy, I am so sorry. ‘Tis all my fault, pressing you to like him, and setting you up for such disappointment. Your uncle and I, we thought it would be such a perfect match.” Here she embraced her niece tenderly, on the verge of tears. “Oh dearest Lizzy, can you ever forgive me for my share in your heartbreak?” 

     Elizabeth thought it strange that she should be the one giving comfort at such a time, and offered her aunt a rueful smile. “I can hardly hold you accountable, or anyone else, save Mr. Bingley. And to own the truth, I believe you may be more disappointed than I. Had he asked, I would have accepted courtship, but nothing more. Our acquaintance was of such a short duration. Truly, I knew him but little to be so surprised by his present actions. I suppose the blessing, once denied, begins to lose somewhat of its value in my estimation.” 

     Mrs. Gardiner sighed. “Truly, you do not regret his loss at all? It would have been such a fine marriage.” 

     “In some respects, yes. Mama would be beside herself. But beyond the material concerns, I am not entirely sure Mr. Bingley would have made me happy. Or, rather, I am not certain he could have prevented his sister from making us both decidedly unhappy. Had she failed in her scheme to separate us, I dare say she would have punished me for it daily.” 

     “And are you certain their removal to Bath is merely a ruse on her part?” 

     “Can you doubt it?” 

     “I should like to – I would not like to think poor Mr. Bingley so easily led.” 

     “I have tried to think better of him in that regard, but I believe it was always there, in the back of my mind. How often she would insult me – indeed, all of us – and he did nothing about it. And think, Aunt, we saw her the very night she claims to have fallen ill. She appeared in perfect health, did she not? He even told me her headache was brought on by his confiding to her his intentions toward me. She tried parading Miss Sutton before him that evening, and when she realized her ploy would not work, she must have concocted this scheme to get him away from London.” 

     “Poor Mr. Bingley! He must really believe her to be ill, to leave you behind, for he loves you, Lizzy, I am sure of it. How wretched he looked as he took his leave of us.” 

     Elizabeth could not share in her aunt’s sympathy for the man, for the fault was all his own. “If he could come to love me in so short a time, I dare say he will have no trouble forgetting me just as quickly in Bath. No doubt his sister will make a miraculous recovery once they are there, and then turn to pushing him at any and every available heiress.”  

     “Oh no, Lizzy, I am sure he is not so fickle as that. I believe he will seek you out when he returns to London.” 

     Elizabeth grimaced. “He did say as much, though I have no intention of languishing about, waiting for his return. The insufferable presumption!” 

     “I heard you tell him, just before he left, that you meant to go into Kent….” 

     Elizabeth sighed, casting a wary glance at her aunt. “I only said the first thing that came into my mind. It was vanity, or pride perhaps, but I did not wish to give him the satisfaction of thinking that I would be here, waiting for his return.” 

     “But why not go into Kent? You are welcome here as long as you wish, but a change of scenery might do you good. And perhaps this little disappointment might lend you some sympathy toward Jane. Can you not see now why she acted as she did?” 

     Though her instinct was to rebel at the very notion, Elizabeth paused to consider. Mr. Bingley had been the very gentleman who nearly let Netherfield Park, shortly before Jane became engaged. Had he come into the neighborhood, he would no doubt have been singled out by their mother as Jane’s particular property, and Jane, who was willing to have even Mr. Collins, would certainly have found Mr. Bingley vastly more desirable. Indeed, their dispositions would have suited well. Yet Caroline Bingley would no more have approved of Jane than she had of Elizabeth, and had the Bingleys met the rest of the Bennet family, persuading her brother to jilt Jane would have been short work for Miss Bingley. Jane might well have ended up with Mr. Collins anyhow, but only after experiencing a disappointment of the acutest kind. 

     Her aunt watched Elizabeth closely as she went through it in her mind. “I suppose there is some truth to it, aunt,” Elizabeth admitted. “I am not ready to answer one way or the other just yet, but I shall certainly think on it.” 

    Her aunt smiled tenderly. “Nothing need be decided just yet. I suppose it is time I abide by my promise not to pressure you. Whatever you decide, your uncle and I only want your happiness.” She gave her niece one last embrace before withdrawing to the nursery, knowing Elizabeth needed solitude more than anything else.  

Chapter Text

    Elizabeth traveled into Kent on the first of March. In less than a fortnight’s time, her travel arrangements had been settled, and a happy coincidence had even provided her an agreeable travel companion. Emily had taken a sudden interest in this particular corner of Kent after discovering it to be the location of Mr. Samuel Sutton’s family estate, to which he intended to return. His sister Mrs. Audley approached the time of her confinement, which had driven both him, as well as Mr. Henry Audley, to consider venturing into the country for sport. 

     Despite her own ambivalence about the visit, Elizabeth had been persuaded by her aunt. When the plan was amended to include Emily, who had some previous acquaintance with Jane, Elizabeth could no longer protest, and Mrs. Gardiner made short work of the rest. A letter was dispatched, and quickly answered by Mr. and Mrs. Collins, expressing an eagerness to bestow upon both of their guests the full extent of their hospitality. 

     As their carriage left the high road for the lane to Hunsford, Elizabeth began to really feel most eager to arrive, to see Jane and her new home. She felt herself equal to making an attempt at reconciliation, no matter Jane’s motives. At length the parsonage was discernible. Mr. Collins and Jane appeared at the door, and in a moment they were all out of the carriage, rejoicing at the sight of each other. Mrs. Collins welcomed her sister with the liveliest pleasure, and Elizabeth was reassured in her decision to come when she found herself so affectionately received.  

     Though there was something undeniably different about Jane, Elizabeth saw instantly that her cousin’s manners were not altered by his marriage; his formal civility was just what it had been. Elizabeth was prepared to see Mr. Collins in his glory, and fancied that in displaying every advantage of his home, he meant to make her feel what her sister had gained by accepting him. And though everything seemed neat and comfortable, Elizabeth was unable to gratify him by any degree of raptures, but rather looked with wonder at her sister, unable to comprehend how she could have so cheerful an air with such a companion. When he said anything of which his wife might reasonably be ashamed, which was not seldom, Elizabeth involuntarily turned her eye on Jane. Once or twice she could discern a faint blush, but in general Jane wisely did not hear, and busied herself speaking to Emily, who bore it all with timid composure.  

     After sitting long enough to admire what they had seen, Mr. Collins invited them to take a stroll in the garden, the cultivation of which he attended to himself. Elizabeth observed the command of countenance with which Jane spoke of the healthfulness of the exercise, and owned she encouraged it as much as possible. Elizabeth at once felt all the selfish manipulation in such an admission, and yet she pitied her sister. As ever, Jane’s expression remained serene, but her posture was confident and unrepentant; she was proud to be the mistress of such a home, whatever the cost. 

     Mr. Collins led the way through the winding paths of the garden; every view was pointed out with minuteness. Of course, of all the views which his garden could boast, none were to be compared with the prospect of Rosings, afforded by an opening in the trees that bordered the park. It was a handsome, modern building, well situated on rising ground, and Mr. Collins was at no loss for words with which to praise this illustrious edifice. 

     From his garden, Mr. Collins would have led them round his two meadows, but the ladies turned back, while Mr. Collins expressed an intention to call at Rosings and review the next day’s sermon with Lady Catherine. Jane took her sister and cousin over the house, evidently relieved to have the opportunity of showing it without her husband’s help, a pleasure which even Elizabeth could not begrudge her. Emily, too, seemed to relax once the ladies found themselves alone, for though Elizabeth had warned her of what to expect, no amount of preparation could have been sufficient for the first encounter. 

     The ladies sat for some time taking tea and refreshments. Unaware of all that had happened between the two sisters, Emily became quite easy with them, and before long she was reminiscing on Jane’s previous visits to London and the time they had spent together. Jane expressed curiosity about Elizabeth’s time there, and both of her guests had much to say on the subject. There were perhaps moments when a trace of envy or bitterness would appear in Jane’s countenance, but then she would return to her previous composure. Despite Elizabeth’s reluctance to mention him, Mr. Bingley soon came into their tale, and Jane, sensing Elizabeth’s hesitation, encouraged Emily to share what she knew. 

     “My sister is being too modest,” Jane coaxed their young cousin. “You must tell me what she will not.” 

     Emily cast a questioning look at Elizabeth, who tried to regard them both with equanimity. Jane had once rebuked her desire for privacy, and now she was pressing the issue by trying to force a confidence. Elizabeth wished to dismiss the topic, but suspected it would only provoke her sister further. “I am sorry to disappoint, but there is little to tell. He is simply a gentleman of our aunt and uncle’s acquaintance.” 

     “A handsome gentleman, and eager to become better acquainted with you, Lizzy.” Emily smirked suggestively. 

     “As well acquainted as anyone can be in six weeks’ time, and that is all.” Elizabeth tried to laugh it off, while Jane waited with a patient smile pasted on her face. 

     Emily continued, “We met him at the Twelfth Night ball, and he fell in love with Lizzy right away!” 

     “Did he? That is most astonishing!” 

     “If you had only seen her! She was wearing the loveliest green dress, and looked devastatingly beautiful – I was sure she would break everyone’s heart.” 

     Elizabeth laughed despite herself. “You exaggerate, no doubt for mischievous purposes of your own.” 

     “No indeed – Mr. Bingley has always been so very attentive to you. Whenever we are all together he talks to you for half the night and stares at you the rest of it!” 

     “Lizzy, you sly creature, to have made such a conquest, and never tell your dear sister!” 

     Elizabeth’s eyes flashed with annoyance at Jane’s increasing insincerity. With great forbearance she replied, “There was little to tell that I thought would be of interest to you, dear sister.” 

     Still blissfully oblivious, Emily giggled. “Except that he is good-looking, amiable, rich, and violently in love with you! ” 

     A strange mixture of emotion flickered through Jane’s face. “Is this true, Lizzy?” 

     Elizabeth suddenly regretted that she had not been more open with Emily, who had little idea of how Elizabeth and Mr. Bingley had parted. 

     Emily fretted. “Oh no, I’ve upset you, Lizzy.”  

    “I am not upset, I merely do not wish to create expectations that may not – that is, I have no understanding with Mr. Bingley. His sister is ill and he has taken her to Bath. What might have happened had he remained in Town – well, I doubt he will return soon.” 

     “And stubborn Lizzy refuses to mourn his loss,” Jane teased, giving Emily a wink. “Instead she means to pretend she did not care for him. Oh Lizzy, I am very sorry for you. It is good you’ve come, for you shall have all the sisterly consolation you deserve.” Elizabeth looked at her sister, unsure as to whether the subtle hostility in her words was real or imagined. Was Jane laughing at her, or did she simply wish to be a confidante?  

     Emily shook her head. “His dreadful sister has invented some illness to keep him away, but he loves you, Lizzy, I am sure of it. I daresay he shall be back in Town and dining at your side again by Easter.”  

     “But Lizzy will not be there if he does return. It was kind of our aunt and uncle to have her, but in my experience, a trip to London for one of us girls is not repeated in a twelvemonth.” 

     “’Tis true,” Elizabeth said. “They have been kind enough already, and have even asked me to accompany them to the Lakes this summer. Until then, I shall have to be content with Longbourn, and I daresay I shall. And after all, Mr. Bingley very nearly let Netherfield this past autumn, on our uncle’s recommendation. Perhaps when he returns from Bath, he will give it further consideration. If he wishes to continue the acquaintance, he might join the neighborhood whenever he chooses, for he must know I will not seek him out.” 

     For a moment Elizabeth believed she had carried the point; Jane held her gaze, a significant look passing between them. “That reminds me, I have had a letter from Mama. You will never guess, but Netherfield Park has been let at last!” 

     Elizabeth smiled politely as the letter was produced and read through. The effusions of her mother on the fine carriage the new family arrived in were tempered with lamentations of there being no single gentlemen in the family. It was just the sort of thing Elizabeth loved to laugh at, but she could not, and only wondered what her sister was about; even Emily seemed to feel the tension. Soon Mr. Collins returned and their little party was broken up; the three ladies retired to their separate rooms, each feeling perturbed, to varying degrees, by what had passed. 

*** 

     It was Mr. Collins’ primary concern to prepare his guests for their inevitable meeting with Lady Catherine, and thus the great lady occupied much of their dinner conversation. Unclear as he was on Emily’s exact relationship to them, he began to fear Lady Catherine would disapprove of the connection entirely. Jane’s patient explanation was repeated – though neither Emily nor the Bennet sisters shared blood with Mrs. Gardiner, each were claimed as nieces – the Bennet sisters being the children of Mr. Gardiner’s sister, while Emily was the step-daughter of Mrs. Gardiner’s half-sister. 

     Without seeming to entirely understand, Mr. Collins chewed his tremendous mouthfuls of food thoughtfully, and at last concluded between bites that his young guest’s liveliness, when tempered with the silence and respect which Lady Catherine’s rank must inevitably excite, must be acceptable to her Ladyship.  

     Elizabeth observed her brother-in-law with equal measures of humor and indignation, and was at last moved to inform him, when a break in his conversation allowed, that she and Emily were by no means unfamiliar with good society. Their aunt was the particular friend of Lady Helen Banfield, a well-known London socialite, who had shown them much affability. “In fact,” she added happily, “I am also acquainted with Lady Catherine’s niece, Lady Rebecca Fitzwilliam, who I understand will be visiting for Easter. I am very much looking forward to being reunited with her and her brother, Viscount Hartley, when they come into the country.” 

     Emily looked as though she had more to add on the subject, but was cut off by Mr. Collins, who raised a hand to silence her as he replied, “My dear cousin – my dear sister, Elizabeth, if you have indeed had the good fortune to meet other members of her Ladyship’s illustrious family, I am happy for you. However, I must warn you against the notion, alluring though it may be, of claiming a greater degree of acquaintance with those connected to my noble patroness than may reflect the truth, for the sole purpose of ingratiating yourself to her notice. No, in situations such as these, I believe that a proper degree of humility must be observed. She may choose to mention them, for I know she is aware of their presence in town, as Lady Catherine is always in possession of such intimate knowledge of her family’s coming and goings. But for you to profess such a degree of intimacy as you dare to boast, would be highly improper. You must remember that you are the sister of her clergyman, and therefore must be regarded by my noble patroness as inhabiting a lower sphere than her family, who are of the first circles, and among the most exalted peers of the land.” 

     Mr. Collins appeared vastly pleased with himself after making what he imagined to be a most conciliatory and instructive speech. Elizabeth exchanged a look of mortification with Emily before turning to Jane, who blanched white, her lips pressed into a taut, thin line. A moment of uncomfortable silence ensued, during which Mr. Collins presumed his edict had been taken to heart, and he continued to monopolize the conversation as he saw fit. 

     Elizabeth had hoped that after dinner she might find some opportunity for private discussion with her sister. She wished to speak frankly with Jane, and to hopefully reach a better understanding. However, Mr. Collins informed his guests of their custom of retiring early to prepare themselves in mind and spirit for Sunday services, and Jane diffidently joined her husband in bidding their guests good night.    

     It was some time before Elizabeth was able to find sleep. Her first day in Kent had not gone as she had imagined, with Jane seeming almost to take pleasure in learning of Elizabeth’s failed romance, and then remaining silent as her husband lectured their guests. The old Jane was always trying to reconcile opposing viewpoints, to please everyone all at once; Mrs. Collins, it seemed, was content to agree with her husband no matter how preposterous his position. Knowing she would only run mad if she tormented herself any further, Elizabeth resolved to think no more of her sister. Only time would tell if they had any chance of making amends. 

*** 

     Elizabeth woke at her customarily early hour and found the parsonage already bustling with activity. She had barely dressed herself before Emily burst into her room, worked up over what to wear to church, for Lady Catherine was to be there. Elizabeth could only laugh at the absurdity of the reactions this great lady seemed to inspire. “My dear Emily,” Elizabeth said impishly, “I daresay Lady Catherine will scarcely notice us at all. She will descend her jewel-encrusted carriage at the most fashionable moment possible, float with ethereal grandeur to her pew, after perhaps bestowing some words of civility upon the congregation, and take her leave the moment Mr. Collins ceases speaking, to return to the throne room from which she looks down upon us all.” 

     “Oh, Lizzy! Don’t let Mr. Collins hear you saying such things, he would consider it the height of blasphemy!” 

     Elizabeth laughed. “I am sure you are right. Perhaps I shall pretend to be confused and accidentally sit in Lady Catherine’s pew, and see if he can keep his countenance.” 

     Emily stamped her foot, giggling despite herself. “You are terribly wicked, Lizzy, now advise me please.” She held out an armful of gowns hastily pulled from her trunk. 

     Still smirking, Elizabeth turned to take a closer look at Emily’s options, when she became aware of Jane standing in the doorway, her hand poised to knock on the half-opened door. Catching Elizabeth’s eye, Jane lowered her arm and exhaled slowly before smiling brightly. “I came to tell you we depart the house in a quarter hour. I will be waiting downstairs.” She turned to go, before adding over her shoulder, “The rose one will be very appropriate, Cousin Emily.” 

     Emily and Elizabeth shared a look of discomfiture as Jane disappeared down the corridor, and dressed with all haste, so that they might not add to their indiscretion by being tardy. They made it downstairs just in time to be ushered from the house by Mr. Collins, amidst a multitude of observations on the merits of punctuality.  

     The morning service was unremarkable. Both Emily and Elizabeth were immensely curious to set eyes on Lady Catherine de Bourgh, though she had been glorified to such an extent that reality could only disappoint. At length Mr. Collins concluded his sermon, which presented a vague and verbose message of felicity in marriage that Elizabeth could only surmise was meant for her. Afterward, the Collinses made haste in approaching Lady Catherine. Jane seemed to have settled with her husband that the office of introduction should be hers, and thus it was performed in a proper manner, without any of those apologies and thanks which he would have thought necessary.  

     Emily made a proper curtsy and said little, but seemed to make a favorable impression with her modesty, as well as her pleasing countenance and stylish dress. Elizabeth, less advantaged in humility and apparel, found herself nonetheless equal to the task of meeting the infamous dowager, whose condescension she received with cheerful composure.  

     Lady Catherine was a large, tall woman with strongly-marked features, which might have once been handsome. Her demeanor was such that one could not feel completely at ease. She was authoritative in her speech, which was full of self-importance; she was not accustomed to being opposed. In a strange way she brought to mind Lady Rebecca in about a hundred and fifty years, and Elizabeth mischievously relished the idea of seeing the two ladies in company together. 

     Lady Catherine expressed her satisfaction in learning that Elizabeth had heeded the counsel of her elder sister and consented to visit, and expounded upon the vital importance of family harmony. In her own family, she informed them, her advice was highly sought after, and she was happy to impart what wisdom she could to Jane on the business of arranging the lives of her siblings to everyone’s satisfaction. Being the eldest and of such a steady disposition, and so favorably married to a man of the highest moral fiber, who would inherit a suitable enough estate, Lady Catherine affirmed, placed Jane the auspicious position to being useful to her sisters, had they the prudence to seek her counsel. 

     Jane glowed under the great lady’s approval, her pleasure surpassed only by that of her husband, who seemed to interpret these compliments as a commendation on his choice of bride. He echoed her praise with his own, until Lady Catherine seemed to tire of hearing her own words repeated back to her, and she was obliged to cut him off. An invitation to dinner that night was issued; she was thanked repeatedly, before observing that though they would make an odd number, she might invite her nearest neighbors, the Suttons. 

     Predictably, Mr. Collins’ own raptures left little room for anyone else’s. Lady Catherine’s generosity was observed again before she took her leave of them, and his admiration continued as he escorted the ladies back to the parsonage.  

     “I confess I presumed her ladyship should desire to meet our fair visitors, indeed I rather expected, from my knowledge of her affability, that such an invitation would occur. But who could have foreseen such an attention as this? Who would imagine that we would receive an invitation to dine there so immediately after your arrival?” 

     “I am the less surprised,” Jane calmly observed, “Knowing how elegant her manners truly are. And after all, was it not she who advised us that Elizabeth should be invited with all expediency to visit us, and partake in our felicity?” 

     “You are quite right my dear, as ever. Your good sense is a great credit to you, for it seems you and she are of one mind in the matter, and I am most delighted!” Mr. Collins clapped his hands with great satisfaction.  

     Scarcely anything else was talked of the rest of the afternoon. Emily was clearly elated. Jane was quite content, and Elizabeth found that despite the annoyance of Mr. Collins’ ramblings, she herself was sanguine enough when her sister was in good cheer. Though she felt some trepidation regarding Jane’s previously mentioned motives of pushing her at whatever eligible bachelors the area had to offer, Elizabeth supposed that until she had actually met them, she could scarcely object. Though they may not suit, they could perhaps amuse, which would do well enough. 

     Elizabeth also felt some relief that the impertinent remarks she had made that morning, which she was certain Jane had overheard, seemed forgotten in the excitement. She resolved to be more guarded with her tongue in the future. She had only meant to make Emily laugh, but she knew it was wrong to say such things at a time when her relationship with Jane was so precarious. She would have to temper her own behavior as best she could; it was not going to be easy. 

     The ladies took up some embroidery to pass the afternoon whilst Mr. Collins tended diligently to his garden, though he was able to do so for no more than an hour before joining them in the parlor, having decided his guests needed further counsel to prepare themselves for the grandeur they would soon encounter. He carefully instructed them in what they were to expect, so that the sight of such splendor might not overpower them. Elizabeth, determined not to vex her sister, suppressed all of her impulses to mention the fine home of the Banfields, in which she had been visitor more than once; Emily held no such compunction. 

     Jane colored slightly as she observed that while their friends’ London home was undoubtedly very fine, such a townhouse could scarcely complete with that sprawling estate Lady Catherine occupied. Though she herself was now perfectly used to visiting such a place, it was not an occurrence to be taken lightly when one was unaccustomed to the experience. She added a gentle reminder that as guests of the parsonage, their behavior reflected upon their hosts. 

     Mr. Collins echoed his wife’s sentiments, commending her good sense, and moved on to the matter of their toilette. “Do not make yourselves uneasy about your apparel. Lady Catherine is far from requiring that elegance of dress in us which becomes herself. I would advise you merely to put on whatever of your clothes is superior to the rest -- there is no occasion for anything more. Lady Catherine will not think the worse of you for being simply dressed. She likes to have the distinction of rank preserved.” 

     In this matter, at least, Elizabeth might have her share of triumph, thanks to the new gowns her aunt had insisted on purchasing her. Though she had never much cared for fripperies, as her mother and younger sisters did, Elizabeth had to admit there was something to be said for the confidence one might draw from a flattering gown, and after her first meeting with the great dowager, Elizabeth wished to summon all the confidence she could. She had little doubt Jane had painted a less than favorable portrait of her with the dowager, and Elizabeth’s natural obstinacy could not let that stand. She took extra care getting ready that evening, donning the jonquil silk she had worn to the opera, with the carnelian slippers Lady Rebecca had given her as a sort of good luck charm. Perhaps she will ask where I got them.  

*** 

     They had a short walk of about half a mile to Rosings; Mr. Collins led the party, pointing out every scenic view along the way. There was indeed a great deal of beautiful scenery, and Elizabeth caught herself gazing longingly at the paths leading through the woods and meadows. She promised herself a long walk on the morrow, should the fair weather hold. 

     With Emily the chief recipient of Mr. Collins’ present raptures, Jane took the opportunity to attach herself to her sister, and they lagged somewhat behind as they approached the great house. “You are in very fine looks tonight, Lizzy,” Jane said with a smile. “It seems your time in London has agreed with you.” 

     Elizabeth attempted a smile of her own. “The shopping trips have, to be sure, though you can imagine how much I resisted them at first.” 

     “Oh yes, I can well believe it. I will own it is astonishing to see you so finely trimmed, and I daresay you would rather be dressed in something three seasons old and spattered with mud, but I thank you for making the effort.” 

     Elizabeth met her sister’s eye, attempting to determine whether her words were meant in jest or judgement. It seemed she could never feel quite certain anymore. She only knew that she could not bear being at odds with her sister any longer, and tried to make a conciliatory reply. “I would not have you ashamed of me, in the company of your patroness. She seems to think very well of you, that must bring you a great deal of satisfaction.” 

     This was just the sort of comment to put Jane at ease. “Oh Lizzy, it is such a relief to be in her Ladyship’s good graces. I daresay she could have made me very unhappy, had she desired to do so. If she had found me wanting, I am sure I would have known it.” 

     They fell silent for a moment, as Elizabeth searched for an innocuous response. As much as she wished to say to her sister in private, this hardly seemed the time, and she did not wish to push her luck. It was Jane who took on a more serious tone, to Elizabeth’s surprise. “I was very frightened when first I came,” Jane whispered, her voice so soft that Elizabeth almost wondered if she had imagined it. She turned to Jane in disbelief, and her sister continued, “Despite all of our dear Mamma’s praise, I found myself really beginning to doubt the truth of it. As much as she spoke of my beauty, I was not married until two-and-twenty. I thought perhaps it was merely the bias of a loving mother. But to receive such praise from a stranger, and a woman of her high rank, who has seen much of the world, and of society – it has been very reassuring. She has helped me see my own worth, and encouraged me to be of use to others, as well.” 

     Elizabeth hardly knew how to respond to such a speech. She ought to be happy to see her sister valued and respected, and yet it was disconcerting to consider Jane’s reaffirmed sense of superiority, not to mention her intentions of being ‘useful’ to Elizabeth. “I am sure her presence will be very illuminating,” she said. 

     Jane gave her sister a knowing look. “I know what you must be thinking, Lizzy, but you have no reason to fear. I did confide in her ladyship about our disagreement last autumn – surely you cannot begrudge me in needing to vent my spleen – but Lady Catherine is by no means ill-disposed toward you. I think you will find she is very generous, and takes an eager interest in those connected to her.” 

     Elizabeth still felt much apprehension at being now included amongst those to whom Lady Catherine’s eager interest extended. That she would have any concern in the prospects of her parson’s wife’s sister seemed officious beyond reason, and she could not like the idea of such a woman influencing her sister. 

     Once they had arrived at Rosings, admired the ostentatious grandeur of the house to Mr. Collins’ satisfaction, and made their way to the dinner table, Elizabeth’s concern had only grown. Jane was clearly as devoted to Lady Catherine as her husband, though with perhaps less obsequious servility. Though Jane did not make herself ridiculous in an effort to please her ladyship, her desire to please was nonetheless as evident as Lady Catherine’s own satisfaction at inspiring such reverence.  

     Seated at the head of the table in her opulent dining room, Lady Catherine appeared very much the queen holding court. There was to be no conversation at table in which she did not have a share, making it very difficult for the two separate families present to become any better acquainted. Mr. Samuel Sutton was not among those of his family present, nor was his haughty sister, Miss Cynthia; they were expected in three days’ time. This information was revealed by the younger son of the house, a clammy, ill-featured young man who fidgeted uncomfortably at every attempt to make conversation. The other daughter, Miss Cecily, was perhaps more composed than her brother, though no more inclined to speak or be noticed. The baronet himself, Sir Gerald, was attentive only to the ladies, and being a widower himself, seemed most particularly determined to be agreeable to his hostess. 

     Being already familiar with the Sutton family, Lady Catherine’s attention was focused chiefly on the newcomers amongst them. Emily, of whose connections Lady Catherine knew the least, was the first to face the dowager’s inquisition, though Elizabeth interjected where she could to spare the poor girl’s increasing discomfiture. After being quizzed about the size of her dowry, her family, home, accomplishments and circle of acquaintance, Emily was pronounced to be a ‘very good sort of girl’ and the great lady moved on to Elizabeth. 

     Braced for the worst, Elizabeth maintained her composure throughout Lady Catherine’s questions, which were impertinent indeed, though not as probing as those she had posed to Emily. She expressed a certain degree of familiarity with Elizabeth and the Bennets of Longbourn already, and merely required clarification of information that had previously been relayed by Mrs. Collins. 

     That there were five daughters in the family seemed a point of great dismay to Lady Catherine, who was of the opinion that their mother ought to have tried harder to bear a son. She disapproved of the entail – such a thing would never happen at Rosings – but was happy at least for Jane, who had made a prudent marriage indeed. She thought it a right thing that Jane should encourage her younger sisters to wed early, not only to avoid becoming a burden upon the death of their father, but because the daughters of the house would very probably, like their mother, require multiple attempts at child-rearing before accomplishing the triumph of providing their husbands male heirs, which would be of the utmost importance should Elizabeth and her sisters be fortunate enough to marry gentlemen of means. 

     Despite her earlier decision to hold her tongue, Elizabeth was unable to refrain from inquiring after her ladyship’s own son, which incited a great variety of reactions across the dinner table. Jane scowled at her sister, while Emily smiled at her with merry appreciation. The Suttons all appeared suddenly interested in looking anywhere but at the other guests, while Mr. Collins sputtered an apology on behalf of his impetuous sister, which Lady Catherine seemed to ignore as she fixed Elizabeth with a withering stare, declaring herself not one to be trifled with. She proceed to explain that her daughter was a paragon of nobility, and through her illustrious marriage would pass on not only Rosings Park but Pemberley, a great estate in Derbyshire, to the child she was soon to deliver. 

     Mr. Collins seized the opportunity to congratulate his patroness on her first grandson, whose birth was expected in a matter of weeks. After so satisfactory a turn in the conversation, Lady Catherine was content to ignore Elizabeth for the duration of the meal, and for her own part Elizabeth was content to offer no further contribution to the general discussion. Sir Gerald was much occupied in recommending himself to Lady Catherine, while also consuming ample portions of every dish he could, and Mr. Collins seemed very eager to compete with the baronet in both of these occupations, praising each dish more profusely than the last.  

     After the dinner had concluded, her ladyship would have them all play at cards. Her own table was completed by Mr. and Mrs. Collins and Sir Gerald, leaving the young people to play together at the other table. Uncomfortable enough already in the garishly over-decorated drawing room, partnering the repellant Seymour Sutton only completed Elizabet’'s displeasure with the evening. How Samuel Sutton, who was a little plain perhaps, but pleasant enough, could be related to such a younger brother was beyond her comprehension. He was unattractive in the extreme, with a thin face that accentuated his large teeth, oily hair that hung lank about his protuberant ears, and his every attempt at a smile looked unnatural, even painful.  

     Elizabeth attempted to bear his conversation, dull as it was, with civility and grace. He intended to travel soon to an estate in Scotland he had inherited from his mother – nothing at all compared to the family seat of Cranbrook. He had little good to say of the locals, for whom Elizabeth was obliged to feel no little pity at having such a tiresome neighbor. 

     In the mean time, Emily had taken an eager interest in his sister, Miss Cecily, who like Mr. Seymour Sutton lacked the personal charms of those siblings still ensconced in London. Their anticipated arrival comprised much of the conversation, and when Mr. Seymour Sutton ran out of disparaging things to say about rural Scottish traditions, Elizabeth was content to listen to and observe Miss Cecily. Despite her lack of classical beauty, there was something about her that Elizabeth found inexplicably likable – perhaps it was only that her conversation was pleasant and sincere, vastly preferable to that of her fashionable elder sister. 

     Elizabeth’s thoughts drifted from Cynthia Sutton to Miss Bingley, and from Miss Bingley to her brother, a subject she had determined to put from her mind entirely. The contrast between such a man as he, and her present card partner, whom she could only imagine was one of the ‘suitable gentlemen’ Jane had promised, was as vast as it was disheartening. To go from the openly expressed admiration of such a handsome, charming man as Mr. Bingley, to stilted conversation with such a gentleman she could only surmise Jane would push her at out of a perverse sense of malice, made Elizabeth again question what she had been thinking to come into Kent at all. Even though she knew that for all his allure, Mr. Bingley had the insuperable fault of being entirely led by his pernicious sister, and that she would be a fool to pine for him in the slightest, she still felt all the disappointment of having such high hopes reduced to naught.  

     Mrs. Gardiner had tried to make the most of Jane’s offer to introduce her to other prospective suitors her stay in Kent, but Elizabeth had never had much faith in the plan to begin with, and now she had even less. Perhaps Jane and Lady Catherine were amusing themselves at her expense by making such an unfavorable instruction, or perhaps Elizabeth’s expectations had simply been raised beyond what was reasonable. To be sure, she did not expect Jane to support any endeavor that would result in Elizabeth making a superior marriage to herself, but neither had she wanted to believe her own fears that Jane would insult her with such obviously undesirable possibilities.  

*** 

     Elizabeth remained in such low spirits throughout the evening, despite her best efforts to be gracious. The Collinses and their guests were offered the use of one of her ladyship’s carriages at the end of the night, which did not come soon enough in Elizabeth’s estimation. The short drive home was occupied in all the expressions of delight Elizabeth could expect from Mr. Collins, who was gratified beyond measure to have had his visitors witness for themselves the intimacy he and his wife enjoyed so regularly at Rosings.  

     Her impertinent remark from dinner was brought up, and much to Elizabeth’s surprise, Jane was actually moved to speak on her sister’s behalf. “I believe my sister was merely suffering a brief moment of confusion,” Jane told her husband with caution. “Upon hearing Lady Catherine’s strident recommendation for us all to bear sons if we possibly can, how could she do other than to presume that her ladyship had done as much herself? To be sure, we spoke of her ladyship’s daughter with all due respect, which was very proper, but I cannot recall that we mentioned her being an only child. It is a singular occurrence, and perhaps the one area where I would not wish to imitate Lady Catherine, but I dare say the fault is ours for not warning our sister against mentioning what may be perceived as a suggestion of defect in her ladyship’s irreproachable character.”  

     The full moon offered just enough light for Elizabeth to witness the very rapid series of expressions that Mr. Collins displayed as he considered his wife’s speech, and Elizabeth had to admit it was very well done of Jane. She had turned her sister’s offense into an opportunity for him to provide guidance and indulge in his own sense of moral superiority – clearly Jane had taken her husband’s measure and decided just how to manage him, just as she had done by encouraging him to spend time in his garden, leaving her in peace. In all the years Elizabeth had perceived Jane as the peacekeeper of Longbourn, had she simply been calculating and manipulative? 

     Their arrival at the parsonage brought an end to Elizabeth’s musings, and to the tedious conversation she had tried to tune out. Though she hoped to resume her own private musings in her room, her solitary contemplation was interrupted by Emily’s entry, and Elizabeth was obliged to tuck her own secret thoughts away for later. 

     “I was very pleased with Mr. Sutton’s relations. His sister Miss Cecily is very pleasant, I think – I was expecting her to be more like Miss Sutton, though I suppose she is not so very bad either, except that she doesn’t like you, Lizzy.” 

     Elizabeth responded with a wry smile. “Miss Cynthia Sutton merely perceived me as a rival. With you she has no cause for concern. So long as you do not thwart her flirtations with Mr. Henry Audley, I dare say you will find her friendly enough, and I would not begrudge you befriending someone who is less than fond of me.” 

     Emily giggled as Elizabeth plopped down on the bed beside her. “Never! It would be such a betrayal!” 

     “Not even if she were to become your sister?” 

     Emily said nothing, but the blush that spread across her face told all.  

     “Aha! Now I see how it is. Only tell me, do you truly prefer Mr. Samuel Sutton to the handsome Henry Audley? You needn’t give him up to the likes of Cynthia Sutton, for you are just as rich as she, and smile much more often, and are a thousand times more pleasant company.” 

     Again Emily merely blushed and giggled. “I cannot argue with that,” she agreed after a moment of consideration. “He is more handsome and lively, or so I once believed. But upon my knowing him better, I find Mr. Sutton very handsome indeed. He is plain upon first sight, but there is a sincerity in all his looks that I do not find in Henry Audley.” 

     “I see what you mean. Henry Audley is a rake, that is what you are too kind to admit. You cannot like his flirtatious nature, while Mr. Sutton gives you his undivided attention, which you find irresistibly attractive.” 

     “Yes, that is it exactly, Lizzy! I had not the words for it, but you are quite right. You always are.” 

     “I don’t know about that. I was very wrong about Mr. Bingley.” 

     “Oh Lizzy, I am very sorry if he hurt you. You needn’t tell me if you do not wish to….” 

     “It matters not. He was simply not for me, that is all.”  

     Emily gave a thoughtful sigh, flinging herself back against the plush pillows. “Oh, brave Lizzy. ‘Tis a shame the younger Mr. Sutton is not more handsome, else we could be sisters.” 

     Elizabeth screwed up her face and shook her head emphatically. 

     “Perhaps there will be other agreeable gentlemen amongst Mr. Sutton’s hunting party. Did not Jane promise to introduce you to some eligible men? Our Aunt Gardiner said so.” 

     Elizabeth had no wish to say anything unkind about her sister, and was obliged to remain silent, merely giving a little shrug. When Emily nudged her expectantly, Elizabeth rolled her eyes with tremendous exaggeration. “Perhaps I wish to end an old maid, or crop my hair off and join the navy, or board a ship bound for the Americas! I have no idea why everyone is so obsessed with my romantic prospects.” 

     Emily gave her an incredulous look. “I cannot speak for the others, but I merely wish you to find someone who makes you as happy as I think Mr. Sutton might make me. Perhaps it is the same for our aunt, and even Jane. La, there’s a dreadful thought! Can you imagine what sort of man she would find you, if she would have Mr. Collins?” 

     It was a dreadful thought. The fact remained that Elizabeth felt no desire for romance so soon after her dealings with Mr. Bingley. Her heart was not broken, but she had grown cautious, and she doubted very much that her time in Kent would produce any man who could tempt her.  

Chapter Text

     It was a particularly clear day as Fitzwilliam Darcy walked along the isolated country lane with his sister. It was a little warmer there than in Derbyshire, enough so that an hour or two out of doors was not unpleasant. They had made a habit of walking out every day, as the midwife had advised that it would ease Georgiana’s labor when the time came. When she was feeling well enough, Anne would join them; on those days they took shorter walks and kept close to the village. She did her best to accompany them as often as she could, for she had made it her mission to facilitate a reconciliation between the siblings, and feared they would make little progress on their own without someone determined to help them on. 

     These daily walks had long been Georgiana’s favorite part of her daily routine, for she did little else but read and spend a few hours a day in her sitting room with Mrs. Annesley. There she would work on some little piece of embroidery, or perhaps paint a watercolor of the countryside. She had completed a dozen different views of the coastline and enough handkerchiefs to last a lifetime, when her brother and his wife surprised her with their arrival, and any hostility she had felt over the long months of her confinement gave way to her tremendous relief at the welcome break in her monotony. The cottage Darcy had let for her, though comfortable and well-appointed enough for a lady of her station, was at a remote distance from the village, and the solitude had become oppressive. 

     As it was the finest day yet in the fortnight since Darcy and Anne had come into Cheshire, the two siblings ventured further than they previously had, enjoying the sunshine in an easy silence. They had achieved a comfortable sort of accord, though Darcy knew they were still a long way from the affection that had once existed between them, before Ramsgate.  

     A deeper understanding of her solitude and the limitations of her daily life had elicited no small measure of sympathy on his part. He was also pleased to find that the better part of her anger had been spent, and she was no longer inclined to rage at him as she’d done in the autumn. She had even sardonically observed one day that she had come to see the irony of her situation, for she had once blamed her behavior at Ramsgate on her boredom and dissatisfaction with her quiet life at Pemberley, and yet here she was, led by her own folly to an even quieter and more remote existence. Though Darcy found little humor in her situation, it pleased him to see her spirits were no longer so depressed, and that she had developed a measure of acceptance of her situation. It was a step closer toward harmony between them again. 

     A bend in the road led them away from the tree-lined pastures, toward an open clearing along the cliff side, overlooking the sea. Georgiana stopped and tentatively placed her tiny hand on Darcy’s arm. She looked up at him, her eyes pleadingly searching his. “I want to thank you for choosing such a beautiful place for me here, brother. I know Anne has told you of my loneliness and misery, but on days such as this, I find myself very much at peace. Especially now that you and Anne are come.” 

     Believing her to be in earnest, Darcy smiled at his sister. “I’m glad to hear it. I would not have you unhappy.” 

     “I know that, now. I cannot deny that I was rather wretched when first I came here. I have felt lonely at times, despite dear Mrs. Annesley. But when I feel frightened and alone, I realize that I am not alone at all.” She stroked her protuberant belly thoughtfully. “I have my dear girl here, growing strong inside of me, and I am content. I know I shall never be a mother to her, not truly, but I am happy that I shall still have her in my life at all. I know I have you to thank for that. You have sacrificed so much to make it possible. I feel so much at times – Mrs. Annesley tells me it is because of my condition that I am so overcome with emotion. I have felt everything a person can feel, sometimes all at once. I have been angry and jealous and I have even sometimes still longed for… him. But I am past all that now, I believe. I would wish things to be better between us, to be as they have always been.” She closed her eyes and sighed as if releasing a heavy burden, and her grip on his arm tightened. 

     As he looked back at his sister, Darcy was overcome with emotion. In the fortnight he had been at Frodsham, he had not yet accustomed himself to seeing her so altered. The sight of her so heavy with child had discomfited him at first, as had the notion that she was no longer a child herself, but a woman grown. But in this moment, she was simply his sister, and he was overcome with the awareness of her need for his love. He took her hand in his and squeezed it tightly. “I believed you hated me, and worse yet, that I deserved it. I failed you, and I despaired of you ever forgiving me.” 

     “Brother, no. It was I who failed you.” 

     “Enough, we shall not quarrel for a greater share of the blame. This discord between us must be done. You are my sister, and you have my love – you always shall. So shall your child, I promise with all my heart.” 

     Georgia responded with the most genuine smile he had seen upon her face in many months, and squeezed his hand before placing it on her stomach. Darcy flinched; his instinct was to recoil, but his sister held his hand in place, and a moment later he was rewarded with a strange thumping sensation under his palm. His heart stirred and he broke into delighted laughter, feeling for the first time that this situation was not entirely miserable. For many long and dark months Georgiana’s condition had been merely a problem to be dealt with, a scandal to be concealed, but now the gravity truly struck him. It was so much more. An entirely new human life was on the verge of coming into being. A child that he would raise as his own, that he was sworn to love as his own, and in that moment he understood more of his own heart that he ever thought possible. 

     A happy chuckle escaped his lips as he looked down at his sister. “The child – you said your dear girl – do you think…?” 

     “I cannot know for sure, of course,” she replied with an impish smile, and motioned for them to continue on their walk. “Mrs. Annesley declares that she is absolutely certain it is a girl, and has even predicted she will have all her mother’s beauty.” 

     “I am glad she has proven a faithful companion to you.” 

     “She has indeed, brother. She is just the sort of companion suited for me, and I very much wish for her to be right about this. I want the child to be a girl, more than I can tell you. If I am ever able to marry someday, I should want nothing but sons, for I think for a woman’s part in this world is cruel and difficult. But for your sake, I would rather give you a daughter than a son. I cannot bear the thought of his child inheriting Pemberley. I know how much it would pain you, and I should feel wrong about it for all my days. You deserve to pass Pemberley on to your own natural son someday, if Anne should ever – that is….” Georgianna stopped, flustered by her own unspoken faux pas. 

     Though there was much in her words to discomfit him, Darcy said nothing, turning away and looking out across the water. He was pained by Georgiana’s grim view of womanhood and the experiences which led her to it, yet touched by her concern for Pemberley, which bespoke a modicum of remorse for her actions that she had never before expressed. The matter of the child’s inheritance he had also given no little consideration, and must deliberate further still. As to Anne’s ever bearing him a son, he had little hope in that regard, but perhaps if Georgiana did marry, Pemberley might be left to one of her younger sons. 

     They walked on in silence for some time as Darcy searched for a safer topic to introduce. At length Georgiana said, “Oh my, I just realized… today is Thursday – I should have a letter from Richard!” 

     Darcy had been surprised to find Richard such a faithful correspondent to Georgiana, though it pleased him that their cousin had known what comfort it would give her. “Whatever can Richard have to say for himself? I am sure he is very dull indeed.” 

     Georgiana laughed. “No indeed, brother, you know it is not so. I had hoped he would come to see us, for it would be so lovely to be all together here. But I do not know if he can get away. Now that he is Viscount, he is always going someplace or another in town. But at least he writes to me of many interesting things that happen to him. In fact, he told me he saw you in London after Christmas, and that he forced you out into society. Was it very terrible?” 

     Darcy thought back to that night at the theatre. “Excruciating.” 

     Georgiana laughed again. “I daresay I should not enjoy it very much, either, but it seems that Richard is settling in well to his new role. I feel sorry for him though, for it seems Miss Bingley is always appearing wherever he goes. He finds it amusing, I think, but I know it irritates Rebecca.” 

     Darcy cringed, hoping Richard had not let his brash younger sister in on their secret. “She has written you as well?” 

     “She believes the public story, that I am traveling with friends,” Georgiana said, sensing Darcy’s hesitation. “She does not write me directly. Richard sometimes includes notes from her when he sends his letters. I think it amusing to read two such varying accounts of the same balls and parties, for even though they are very similar, they often are at odds, though cheerfully so. Bye the bye, I hear Rebecca is rather vexed with your friend, Mr. Bingley.” 

     Here Darcy raised an eyebrow in curiosity. Feisty as she was by nature, Rebecca had seemed as genial as ever toward Bingley at the theatre. 

     When Darcy said nothing, Georgiana continued, “Richard has written that Mr. Bingley is soon to be married – is it true? He says Rebecca has taken an eager interest in Mr. Bingley’s lady. They both like her a great deal, but Rebecca is afraid that Mr. Bingley’s sister will frighten her away.” 

     Elizabeth. He had tried to push her from his mind these past weeks, and had very nearly succeeded. His heart wrenched at the thought of Miss Bingley tormenting her, just as it did at the thought of her becoming Charles’ wife. 

     “I hope it is not so,” Georgiana said, comfortable enough now that she needed little encouragement from her brother to continue on. “I hope Miss Bingley does not frighten her away, for she sounds like a most remarkable woman, if our cousins are to be believed. I should very much like to meet the future Mrs. Bingley, when this is all over.” 

     Darcy’s heart, his stomach, his brain – all seemed to somersault inside of him. He did not want to know, and yet he was compelled to ask. “What do they say of her?” 

     Georgiana grew animated as she replied, “She sounds absolutely perfect, brother. She is from the country and is staying in Town with her aunt and uncle, who are in trade, but very lovely people, Rebecca says. She is clever and kind and plays the pianoforte quite well. She is fond of reading and walking, which have been my sole occupations these many months, so I daresay we have much in common already. She is always laughing and teases everybody a great deal. And she takes delight in vexing Miss Bingley almost as much as Rebecca does, Richard says, which I should very much wish to see! Oh, I do hope Mr. Bingley marries her, she sounds absolutely wonderful. Really, I wonder that Richard does not pursue her himself, for he needn’t care about fortune, and even said he likes dancing with her above anyone.” 

     Darcy smiled wistfully as he considered the new pieces of information, reconciling them with his own impressions of the lady. “Come now, Georgiana, it would not do for Cousin Richard to steal Miss Bennet away from Bingley, surely you would not encourage him to do so,” he said half in jest, knowing that in different circumstances he would have been tempted to do so himself. 

     “Oh, I suppose not – all the more reason he should accept my invitation to come here, instead! But wait, I only told you her name was Elizabeth. Do you know her, brother? 

     Darcy was startled; he had betrayed himself. “Yes, I met her once in Town,” he admitted.  

     “Why did you not say so, instead of letting me rattle on?”  

     Darcy gave a little shrug. Though the topic disconcerted him, he was pleased to see his sister so at ease with him, and allowed her to question him further. “You must tell me of her, brother.” 

     “You seem to know a great deal, already.” 

     “Well, what is she like? Is our cousins’ account of her a true likeness? Is she very beautiful? Rebecca said she is, but Rebecca speaks well of everyone she likes, and thinks everyone she dislikes is ill-featured.” 

     Darcy chuckled at his sister’s canny description of Rebecca’s antics. “She does exaggerate at times, but in this instance she has not. Miss Bennet is lovely.” 

     “Where did you meet her?” 

     “At a ball I did not wish to attend.” 

     “Did you dance with her? Oh, of course you did not – I know you despise it!” 

     “In fact, I did. I had not meant to dance at all, for I had only gone to spend an hour with Mr. Bingley. I was out of humor and actually refused to stand up with her.” 

     “You did not!” 

     “I did, and she gave me quite a dressing down for it.” 

     “She did not!” Georgiana had begun to dissolve into giggles, and Darcy was moved by her levity to expound on his story somewhat. 

     “I told her I had no intention of dancing with anybody, and she replied that whether I danced or not, she intended to abuse me to my face, though my refusal to partake of the festivities only made her task easier.” 

     “Oh my! I cannot imagine anybody ever speaking to you in such a way!” 

     “Nobody ever has, except perhaps our Fitzwilliam cousins, so you can see why they get on so well.” 

     ‘She must be a fearsome creature, indeed! I suppose there’s little chance of Miss Bingley running her off. That pleases me. I hope they are married soon, and that they can come to Pemberley this summer. I long to meet Mrs. Bingley.” 

     Darcy attempted to conceal his distress at this notion. Elizabeth Bennet – no, Elizabeth Bingley – at Pemberley. As much as he had tried to overcome his fascination with her, somehow his sister had become just as fixated. He could only hope that she would lose interest; moreover, that he would lose interest. 

     At last Georgiana allowed the subject to drop, and observed some ominous clouds on the horizon. A storm was rolling in. They decided to head back toward the village so as not to be caught out in the rain, and spoke of safe, inconsequential nothings the rest of the way home. 

*** 

     The mood in the cottage grew tense over the course of the next week, during what the two local servants they employed continued to insist was the worst squall they had seen in a decade. The rain that battered the coast turned into sleet as the temperature dropped little by little each day, frosting over the window panes and obscuring the dreary gray landscape that lay beyond. 

     With their daily walks suspended, the Darcy siblings grew restless and petulant. The fireplace did little to warm them and the howling of the wind made them irritable. Darcy sighed too loudly, was too often setting his book down only to pick it up again a moment later – he was too often shifting uncomfortably in his seat, which his sister found inexplicably vexing. Georgiana was prone to pacing the room, humming tunelessly and attempting to peer out of the windows for Darcy knew not what; he found it tremendously annoying. Overwrought silence hung heavily over the household, and only the palliative presence of Mrs. Annesley kept them civil.   

     Anne had taken to her bed on the third day of the storm, and the obvious decline of her health only heightened the anxiety of her cousins. On the fifth day it became necessary to summon the doctor, who flatly refused to leave his house and attend them. The servant returned alone, drenched to the bone, and was spared his employer’s displeasure by Mrs. Annesley, who whisked the boy off to the kitchen to dry himself by the fire. Darcy made the wretched trip to the village himself, vented his ire on the mulish physician and practically dragged him back to the cottage after a deluge of oaths, bribes, and threats had been unleashed. Once there, the patient was attended do, and a grim prognosis was delivered. Anne was now considered to be in grave danger; no recovery was expected.  

     As their return from the village had been followed immediately by a vicious torrent of hail, the doctor was obliged to stay the night at the Darcy cottage, alternately attending Mrs. Darcy and Georgiana, whose intense anguish over Anne’s condition gave the doctor much cause for concern. Having the two women he cared most for in the world, who were entirely dependent upon him, confined to their beds in such a state was sheer torture for Darcy. He did not sleep that night – the violence of the storm would not have allowed it, at any rate – but took shifts with the doctor and Mrs. Annesley, alternating between sick rooms. 

     Georgiana remained highly agitated during the physician’s ministrations, despite the two men’s attempts to mollify her. The gale outside continued to worsen, and the thunder and lightning only heightened her distress. She wept in her brother’s arms, confessing her fear of Anne’s death, and even a great deal of fear for herself. She was afraid she would die in childbirth, as their mother had, and Darcy let her expel her despair at the expense of his own peace own mind, for it was a subject he had tried not to think on. 

     The idea that he might lose them tore at Darcy’s soul. He had already lost both parents, and could not bear another loss. Though he would not have married Anne under normal circumstances, he cared for her in his own way. And as for Georgiana, despite the horrible fallout of her indiscretion in Ramsgate, there was no one he loved more in this world.  

     He stroked his sister’s hair and held her until her tears were spent, promising her, as well as himself, that she was strong, that she would survive this and bring forth a beautiful, healthy child who would feel all the good fortune of three loving and doting parents. Eventually Georgiana’s exhaustion overtook her, and Darcy left her in the capable hands of Mrs. Annesley, who faithfully watched over her while the doctor took some rest.  

     The time he spent at Anne’s bedside was quiet, for she was too weakened from coughing to speak much. He got her to take a little warm broth and applied a damp cloth to her forehead, which seemed to give her some relief. In his own sleep-deprived delirium, he took to describing to her his vision for their child’s future. When he told her of Georgiana’s assurance that it was a daughter they were expecting, Anne’s eyes misted with emotion as she smiled her approval at him. She attempted a laugh when he suggested the name Catherine, shaking her head until a cough overtook her.  

     The amount of blood on her handkerchief as she drew her hand away was almost nauseating to Darcy. Though she tried to smile at him, he could scarcely meet her eye. Her time was very near. He did his best to keep up a reassuring tone of conversation for her sake, but a growing sense of dread was building within him.  

     Just before dawn, Darcy woke to the sound of the doctor coming to check on Anne. He was chagrined to be caught dozing, Anne’s clammy hand still clasped in his own, but the doctor gave him a sympathetic look and advised him to retire to his own chamber for a short rest. Though her breathing was shallow, Anne was sleeping comfortably; there was nothing Darcy could do now.  

     Nor was he needed in Georgiana’s room, where Mrs. Annesley remained in devoted vigil over her charge. She greeted Darcy with a polite nod and a pleasant smile, which bespoke a motherly sort of pride over Georgiana’s restful state. Having no wish to interfere or risk waking his sister, who was in great need of sleep, Darcy made a quick retreat to his own room. He sat down heavily on the bed, but did not lie down. His own uneasiness had not subsided, despite the peaceful stillness that had fallen over the house. Though he knew not how long he had dozed at Anne’s bedside – perhaps two or three hours at most – his body craved sleep as much as his mind rejected it. At a time such as this, the idea was insupportable. 

     As the first rays of morning light poured in through his bedroom window, Darcy realized the storm must have abated at some point during his brief slumber. He gazed out across the landscape. Apart from some puddles and a few felled tree branches, it was much the same as it ever was. Darcy was overcome with a desire to be out of doors, and decided that a morning ride, despite the inevitable mud, was just the thing to clear his mind. He determined to set off at once, so that he might be back before Anne and Georgiana awakened. 

     An hour’s gallop across the open fields to the south of the cottage had refreshed his spirits somewhat, and Darcy was on the point of returning when another rider appeared in the distance, approaching him with great haste. Another moment revealed it to be Richard Fitzwilliam, who called out a merry greeting upon recognizing his cousin.  

*** 

     Relieved to have finally reached his destination, Richard let out an energetic “Hello there!” He guided his horse over to meet his cousin. “Darcy, I might have guessed I would find you out riding,”  

     “And yet I had no idea to expect to see you.” 

     Richard laughed, and was met with a scowl. “A warm welcome, as ever! I am sorry if the surprise is not a pleasant one, but I am Georgiana’s guest, Darcy, so you shall simply have to endure.” He began to sense aught was amiss with his cousin, who usually tolerated his banter with better humor. “Truly, Darce, did Georgie not tell you she bade me come visit in her last letter?” 

     “I believe she did mention having some hopes in that regard, but nothing certain.” 

     “I suppose I should have sent word, but I thought it would make a fine surprise. Perhaps it was thoughtless of me, but I have been repaid with my own surprise – imagine my astonishment at making it as far as Whitchurch, only to be forestalled by that blasted storm! I set out at dawn this morning, for after spending two nights there, I could not stand to be stuck at that wretched inn an hour longer.” Richard paused and looked around at the sodden landscape. “You must have been mad to get out of doors as soon as it let up!” 

     “I craved some occupation, yes.” 

     Typical Darcy! “Well, shall we ride a bit longer? I believe my fair cousins will thank me if I deliver you back to the house in better humor than you left it. It shall be an even greater surprise than my arrival, and far more welcome, I daresay.” Richard laughed at his own jest, hoping his cousin would make some manner of repartee, but Darcy remained more than usually reticent. Something was wrong.  

     “I think not. You must be tired from your journey, and I had not meant to be out so long.” 

     “Ah, yes. The Darcys do not keep town hours. No doubt the ladies will wake any moment, and wonder where the life of the party has gone!” 

     Darcy’s expression was pained, and Richard began to worry. Generally his cousin preferred to deal with his problems directly. If Darcy did not wish to tell him what was the matter, it must be something too painful to talk about. Given his desire to return to the house, it seemed Darcy did not wish to be long parted from his wife and sister. Though they had both been well enough, given the circumstances, when Georgiana last wrote, more than a week had passed since then.  

     Since his teasing neither cheered Darcy up, nor provoked him to speak candidly, it was apparently up to Richard to ask the dreaded question. “Well, Darce? Are all my cousins well, or are you going to tell me which one of them you are out here brooding over?” 

     He had expected Darcy to bristle at his words, but Richard was answered with a long, unsteady sigh. When he finally met Richard’s eyes, his haunted look was deeply unsettling. “It is both of them.” 

     “Good God, what has happened?” 

     Darcy filled his cousin in on the events of the past week – Anne’s declining health, Georgiana’s fears, and his own sense of helplessness. Afterward, Richard fell silent, processing all that had transpired. He wished to offer some manner of eloquent reassurance, but he had not the words to convey the depth of his feelings. It was an awful situation, and one he should have foreseen. “William, I don’t know what to say. Perhaps I ought not to have come so unexpectedly. I am sorry if it puts an additional strain on your household.” 

     “No, I am glad you are here. Georgie has been asking for you, and I believe Anne will be pleased to see you as well. It will be good for us all to be together, one last time. ” 

     Richard tightened his grip on the reins as they rounded a hill that brought the cottage into sight at last. He met Darcy’s eye, and saw what his cousin did not say. He was frightened, weary of losing any more family, and Richard’s presence there was more than he had dared to hope for. Darcy had always been as dear to him as either of his brothers, perhaps more so. To see the anguish on his cousin’s face tore at his heart, and he worried that he might not be able to handle what he would be walking into when he stepped into that house. But he was here, and they needed him.  

     They reached the cottage at last, and were dismounting outside the stable at the back, when a shriek pierced the air. 

*** 

     The walls of the drawing room felt as though they were closing in on Darcy as he sank into his usual chair; he stared out the window, his mind reeling. He felt dizzy and short of breath, and tugged wildly at his cravat to loosen it. It would not go and he tore at it, pulling it loose and in distracted frustration casting the starched white linen into the dying fire. He drew in several shaky breaths, trying to calm himself, and repeated the unavoidable truth to himself as if the repetition would make it more real. Anne was gone. Georgiana was in her childbed. Anne was dead. She had been alive when he rode out that morning, and slipped away before he could return. Georgiana found her thus, and her grief and hysteria had sent her into an early labor; the baby was coming. The child of his fiercest enemy, the child his sister could never acknowledge, the child he would claim as his own and raise from this day forward. Alone. 

     Richard must have come in and out a dozen times, issuing commands and managing the crisis while Darcy fell apart. In a distant corner of his mind, Darcy knew it was all wrong. This was his wife, his sister – he should be facing these things like a man and not coming unraveled. He tried to rouse himself from this stupor, but his despair had riveted him in place. After remaining in such an attitude for he knew not how long, Richard finally stormed into the room and stood in front of him.  

     “Darcy, are you in there?” 

     Slowly, Darcy raised his head and met his cousin’s eye. “I hardly know.” 

     “If I strike you, will you be very angry?” 

     “What?” Darcy recoiled; Richard did not strike him, but hovered close by. Finally Darcy’s sense of obligation broke through the fog in his mind, and he took another moment to push his despair aside and anchor himself to the present moment. “I…. How is Georgiana?” 

     “The midwife should be here any minute; the doctor is with her now, and Mrs. Annesley.” 

     “I should go to her.” 

     Richard placed a steadying hand on Darcy’s shoulder. “I think not. She did not want me in there. ‘Tis no place for a man. Better to leave her to the women. They will see to her, to everything.” 

     Darcy sighed. Richard was right; he should not see her in her childbed. “Anne should have been with her for this.” 

     Richard’s countenance darkened. “I am almost glad Anne was spared this part. It bothered her, you know, that she would never be able to give you a child.” 

     The weight of Richard’s words hung on Darcy; he had known this, or at least suspected it, but did not know Richard was aware. “She told you this?” 

     Richard shrugged sadly. “I read between the lines in her letters. She had such high hopes of being a mother to this child, if she lived long enough. It was why she married you, Darcy. At first I thought perhaps she simply wished to escape Rosings, live out the time she had left, free of her mother. Perhaps that was a part of it, but beyond that,” Richard paused, his voice cracking under the emotion he tried to restrain. “Anne knew this was likely the only means for her to ever experience motherhood, and it filled her with hope.”  

     “I did not know,” Darcy muttered, unable to meet his cousin’s eye. He felt as if the breath had been jarred out of him after such a revelation. Anne had wanted this child. Only since visiting Frodsham and reconciling with his sister had he felt any semblance of joy in the anticipation of this birth, and yet Anne had being looking forward to it all along. She had not just made her peace with the situation, as he had – she embraced it. Had she deliberately concealed her feelings, or had he simply not cared enough to see them? Darcy instantly knew the answer – he had thought only of himself. Bereft of anything else to say, he looked up at Richard with a numb sense of uncertainty. “You and Anne wrote one another?”  

     Richard smiled ruefully. “Now Darcy, I am not in the habit of exchanging letters with other mens’ wives, but she was my cousin, after all. I write to Georgie, too. Besides, Anne was hardly….” He stopped a moment, his eyes shifting before finishing lamely, “Hardly a routine correspondent.” 

     Darcy felt all the truth of what his cousin had meant to say. She was hardly your wife. It was the truth. She had possessed hopes and dreams he had known nothing of; he had never troubled himself to discover them. Feeling like the worst kind of blackguard, Darcy covered his face with his hands, tugging at his cheeks with a heavy exhale. Her body still lay upstairs, alone and forgotten in the crisis, growing cold in the bed he had never shared with her. She would need to be taken home, given more care in death than he had offered her in all the months of their marriage. He would see to it, when he could sort his mind out, but now, he needed to go to her, to beg forgiveness. 

*** 

     Richard watched Darcy disappear silently down the hallway. When he did not turn toward Georgiana’s door, Richard knew what his cousin was about, and resolved to give him the time he needed. He had truly not meant to cause the poor man any more pain, but that was Darcy; he would seek it out anyway, and punish himself accordingly.  

     The midwife arrived shortly afterward and was shown to Georgiana’s room. Richard winced as the sounds of Georgian’s screams echoed down the hall, even after the door was closed in his face. He waited, rooted in place, reminding himself that this was not a battlefield, those feminine screams had nothing to do with the horrors of war. Soon enough the doctor emerged, having briefed the midwife on their patient, and he gestured for them to return to the parlor. 

     Richard perched on the edge of his seat. “How is she?”  

     The doctor sat down, removed his glasses, and wiped them clean on his shirt sleeve. “Terrified,” he said flatly. 

     Richard jumped to his feet, but the doctor shook his head with indifference. “Do not fear, everything is proceeding in the usual manner. Her distress is perfectly natural. It will keep her alert.” There was another drawn out scream, but the doctor didn’t appear to notice.  

     “Her mother died in childbirth. Her brother already lost his wife this day.” 

     The doctor had the grace to look mildly concerned. “I am sorry for that. I did what I could for the poor woman, but her condition was already quite advanced. Whoever advised her that the seaside held any benefits for a consumptive constitution has gravely misled your family. I ought to have counseled her immediate removal from this place, but by the time I was brought here – coerced by that other fellow – well, it was just too late. I tried to make her comfortable in the end, and I believe she was. As to the girl – and here I will give you all the benefit of the doubt and presume that is your wife – she is stronger than she realizes, and doing well for one so young and diminutive.” 

     Richard clenched his fists, and then forced himself to unclench them. Throttling the doctor would accomplish very little, beyond immediate satisfaction, and apparently Darcy had already given him the business. Good. There was another scream, or rather a loud, escalating groan that sounded very much like an oath, and it was all Richard could do to remain in his seat. He wanted to kick the obtuse physician out the window, and then track down George Wickham and slice the lousy cur in half. Instead, he took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. “How much longer?” 

     For a moment the doctor did not seem inclined to answer. Finally, he said, “I cannot predict that, sir. Her labor may be over in a few hours, or extend into the night. Every woman is different, and only time will tell. The midwife is capable enough – she has delivered very baby in this village for two generations, and I dare say she knows what she is about.” At this, he rose to his feet, his fatigue showing. He gave Richard a curt nod. “That being said, I believe my presence here is no longer necessary, and I have long wished to be home. The midwife will see to your wife. If it pleases you, I’ve a girl who can come and attend you, perhaps a proper meal is just the thing. Molly will see to your requirements, and I will add her services to my fee. I shall be back on the morrow to collect her and check on the babe, and we shall settle the bill.” 

     Richard responded with a simple nod of his head, glaring out the window as the doctor departed. The sounds of Georgiana’s labor continued, and he willed himself to ignore every protective instinct and stay where he was, just as he’d advised Darcy to do. Besides, there were plenty of other matters that required his attention, and his tactical mind must be put to better use.  

*** 

     Darcy returned to the parlor in better composure than he’d left it, and had even taken a moment to obtain a fresh cravat. His child was being born, and he would not greet him (or her) as a savage. His talk with Anne, though one-sided, had been productive and illuminating; he felt strangely rejuvenated. He was ready to face this child with all the joyful anticipation that Anne had felt it necessary to hide secretly in her own heart.  

     Richard was at the desk in the corner, writing furiously. He bit his lip whenever he was in such a state of deep concentration, a habit Darcy found strangely endearing, and utterly in keeping with Richard’s other youthful qualities. At such a time, this singular bit of familiarity was a powerful steady force. 

     “Good, you’re back. I mean, how are you?” Somehow Richard managed to give him a look of focused concern, without ceasing his rapid scribbling. Perhaps an odd trait, his military discipline still very much a part of him. 

     “I have collected my thoughts, and I am ready to be of some use. What must I do?” 

     Richard gave an enthusiastic nod, almost smiling. “Yes, I too must have some occupation, or I shall run mad. As it happens, there is a great deal to be done. I have been composing a list. First, we shall eat something, or we shall quickly grow quite useless. The doctor is sending over some extra help for the kitchen, I’ve sent the lad there to the village to find us a couple of sturdy riders, for we will soon have several missives to be posted very quickly.” 

     The idea of dining drifted through Darcy’s mind but did not stick, though the writing of letters was another matter. “Aunt Catherine.”  

     “Lord, no. She would descend upon Pemberley in righteous indignation the moment we return, and I presume you have no wish for such an event to take place. Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted? I had rather not bring down her wrath on your poor staff, when her own are so accustomed to it already. We will journey to Kent and deliver the news in person. It is no more than she deserves. She is an awful dragon, but still a mother. And Rosings belongs to you now. There will be much to discuss.” 

     Darcy’s eyes went wide as he processed this. “Yes, of course. I had not thought of it.” 

     “Your thoughts were directled as they should be, Cousin. This is all so much. But you have a master tactician at your service, and I shall see to it all.” Here he set down his pen and looked earnestly at Darcy. “They are my cousins, too, and so are you. I’ve no wish to unman myself, but… I care for you, Darcy. You are as a brother to me, and I am at your disposal for all that you require. I am no longer a soldier to be begging leave, I am at my own command, and I have no intention of returning to London until I am satisfied that you have everything in hand.” 

     Feeling himself in some danger of shedding a tear, Darcy simply nodded and turned toward the window. “You mentioned dispatching some letters – if not to Lady Catherine, then whom?” 

     Richard stood, blowing a heavy breath over the paper in his hands to dry the ink, before passing it to Darcy.  

 

27 February 

Decease of Anne Darcy.   Birth of Richard Lewis Darcy/Julia Elizabeth Darcy. 

Dispatch to Matlock house,  advise  Father to arrive Kent 7 March. 

Dispatch to Pemberley, Reynolds to hire wet-nurse, prepare for mourning 

Dispatch to Overton Court, Shrewsbury, Lady Eleanor 

28 February 

Departure at dawn with child, arrival Pemberley by nightfall.  G to remain with Mrs.  A , recovery 

Anticipated receipt of letter at Overton Court 

1 March 

Anne Darcy laid to rest, Pemberley Chapel 

2 March 

Arrival of Lady Eleanor at Pemberley. 

3 March 

Anticipated receipt of letter at Matlock House  

Departure for Kent, dawn 

6 March 

Arrival Kent.  Lady Catherine.  

 

     Darcy read Richard’s list twice over and gave a noncommittal grunt. Ever the military man, Richard had thought of everything. For some reason, this irritated Darcy tremendously. “Very well calculated, Cousin. How quickly you have reduced these dire circumstances to a cold, rigid schedule. You have even named my child, how very comprehensive. And perhaps you would care to explain how your grandmother enters into it?” 

     Richard grimaced at Darcy’s hostile outburst. “I am ready to hear your plan, which thus far has composed of tidying your attire and brooding out of windows. Essentially, your entire character, in summation.”  

     Intending to glower severely at his cousin, Darcy instead found himself bursting into unrestrained laughter, the type of which he had never before experienced. It was ridiculous and wild, and he gave way to it at length.  

     Richard looked on in astonishment, clearly fearing Darcy had gone mad. “You are stupid,” he said after a moment, cracking a bewildered smile. 

     Darcy nodded his assent, his laughter spent. “I hardly know what came over me – I apologize. It is well thought out, a prudent course of action. Lady Eleanor has always been fond of Georgie and I, though we are not her kin. She would do well to look after the babe while we are at Rosings. I think Georgie will be happy to have her there when she returns, in our absence. She will not be pleased with the separation.” 

     “No, she will not, but she would be even less pleased if Lady Catherine were to decide to come to Pemberley, demanding access to her grandchild, and asking Georgie too many personal questions. It is better we go there, without the babe. And Darcy, you must be prepared for her insistence upon raising that child at Rosings.” 

     “Surely not.” 

     “Mark my word, Darcy, I know how she thinks. She will demand it of you straight away, and if you allow it, Georgiana will never forgive you.” 

     “I would never forgive myself. Anne agreed to a loveless marriage simply to escape such a mother.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Darcy regretted them. It was a callous thing to say, and guilt surged inside of him anew. He had not loved Anne, not as a wife. Had she lived, perhaps her affection for the child might have brought them closer. Perhaps, perhaps. Darcy cringed, and turned back to the window. 

     “Stop it.”  

     “What?” 

     “Brooding. Or I truly shall hit you.” 

     Though he wished to make some equally insolent reply, Darcy could only sigh. He turned his gaze back to his cousin. “I trust the names are open to some negotiation? I had thought to give Georgiana a say in the matter.” 

     “Of course. She would like that. I merely presumed you were aware of Anne’s wishes.” 

     “Oh. Yes, I’m certain Georgiana will wish to take that in to account.” 

     “Come, come now – I rather think Richard Darcy has a rather gallant ring to it.” 

     “That I cannot dispute. I would be honored for my child to bear your name, you have been invaluable to me since Ramsgate. Forever, actually.” 

     “Then it is Julia Elizabeth that you dislike?” 

     Darcy felt himself tense up. Georgiana would likely find it lovely, and it really was, but to Darcy it felt wrong. “Julia, for our maternal grandmother, is perfectly acceptable, but I dislike the middle name. We will choose another.” 

     “Of course. I suppose Anne simply wished to break with the tradition of so many Annes and Georges and Catherines. I suggested Elizabeth to her in one of my letters, and she liked it very well.” 

     “You suggested it?” 

     “I made the acquaintance of an Elizabeth recently, and liked her very well. I suppose I thought the name would convey lively wit and high spirits, which I should like to see more of in this family.” 

     Darcy secretly agreed with his cousin, though he still had little desire to be reminded daily of his inconvenient infatuation with the future Mrs. Bingley. He ought not even be thinking of her now, at such a time. Fortunately, just as Darcy’s silence began to feel uncomfortable, the helper sent from the village bustled in with an abundant meal to sustain the gentlemen, and after they’d partaken the sustenance they had not even realized they’d needed, the tension had sufficiently receded. 

     Several hours and hastily dispatched letters later, Georgiana delivered a healthy, perhaps even lively baby girl, and took with relish to the name Julia Anne Darcy.  

 

Chapter Text

        It was not long before Elizabeth found herself preparing for another dinner at Rosings, after three enjoyable days of simple pleasures – solitary walks through the beautiful grounds of Rosings Park, morning calls with Jane and Emily to some of the local ladies, and even charitable visits on the poorer families of the parish. The latter had made her feel rather proud of her sister, even if Jane had been perhaps a little too aware of her own goodness.  

     The return to Rosings would surely bring back the other Jane. Around Lady Catherine, Mr. Collins, and even Emily, Jane was artificial, determined to present herself as the image of perfection. There had been unguarded moments in the last three days when just a trace of the old Jane would surface, and Elizabeth had done everything she could do make the most of these occasions in an effort to draw her sister out.  

     Though the two had spoken amicably, there was still something wanting; Elizabeth considered, as she dressed for dinner, just what exactly that was. Perhaps it was that it all felt so rehearsed. Jane was performing to Elizabeth; her every speech conveyed tranquility in her new life, but without any depth of feeling. Elizabeth could not believe it. 

     Jane had used words like “contentment” and “satisfaction” to describe her situation, and had spoken of her esteem for Mr. Collins, who made her feel valued by frequently expressing his good fortune in winning her hand. Jane had even asked her sister to be happy for her, and Elizabeth truly wanted to, but Jane had not said the one thing Elizabeth had most wished for. She has never said she loves him. “Hmph,” she said aloud, tucking the last few pins in her hair. 

     Elizabeth took in her reflection. In one respect Jane was right; Elizabeth could not ignore the pressure upon her to now look to her own future.  

*** 

     Her new perspective had leant Elizabeth a modicum of poise as she entered the drawing room at Rosings, where Lady Catherine was already holding court. All eyes shifted to the new arrivals. Mr. Samuel Sutton’s gaze fixed upon Emily, and his face brightened with a broad smile. Lady Catherine, seated upon an ornate, throne-like chair and surrounded by distinguished guests, was the last to acknowledge them; she gave a condescending nod before inviting them to be seated. 

     Cecily Sutton, who had called twice at the parsonage since their first meeting, happily made her way toward them. Her elder brother was close on her heels, stumbling through the perfunctory introductions to Mr. and Mrs. Collins, before focusing his attention on Emily. His hunting party was a small one, consisting of Mr. Henry Audley and Miss Cynthia Sutton, who declared herself to be an avid huntress, though Elizabeth had some particular thoughts on what that lady’s particular prey might be.  

     There was but one other amongst them, a gentleman of about thirty, neither handsome nor plain, who was introduced as Mr. Jasper Middleton. A second son, he had just come into possession of a modest estate inherited from a distant relative in Devonshire. He was seated near Miss Cecily at dinner, and as the friend of her elder brother, seemed to be regarded by the young lady as her particular property.  

     Elizabeth was seated farther down the table, between Mr. Seymour Sutton and Mr. Henry Audley, who sat at Lady Catherine’s left hand and seemed eager to work his considerable charm on the dowager. Jane, seated across from him, listened with alacrity to his amusing anecdotes from London, and though he addressed himself chiefly to Lady Catherine, Elizabeth perceived his pleasure at Mrs. Collins’ attention.  

     Determined not to repeat her previous impertinence, Elizabeth spoke only when called upon to do so, which was not often; she remained largely at liberty to observe. Across the table, Mr. Sutton and Emily were engaged in lively conversation, almost to the exclusion of all others. Mr. Collins, seated too far from his noble patroness to pay her homage, partook of an infamously stupid conversation with Mr. Seymour Sutton, perhaps the only person at the table dull enough to take the parson seriously. Sir Gerald was once again fixated on the food and the wine. 

     Once Elizabeth had studied her companions long enough, she was drawn back in to the conversation led by Mr. Audley, whom Jane had prompted to give an account of the Twelfth Night Ball. Elizabeth’s color rose as he spoke of opening the dance with the loveliest lady at the ball, and she felt her sister’s curious gaze alight upon her. He continued on, savoring the delight of arousing such curiosity, and very prettily expressed a hope that there might be some dancing that night, if Lady Catherine would indulge them. His flattery went a long way in procuring the great lady’s approbation, and another significant look passed between the sisters. 

     The separation of the sexes after the meal was brief, and when the gentlemen joined the ladies in the drawing room, smelling of brandy and cigars, dancing was the first order of business. The spacious room would accommodate four couples without any rearranging of furniture; the greatest difficulty was in deciding which lady would oblige them at the pianoforte first. Jane demurred, for she did not play and wished to dance, with her husband’s permission. He was happy merely to watch her, though he preferred to sit himself with Lady Catherine. Elizabeth’s hand was solicited by Mr. Audley. Emily and Miss Cecily were engaged by Mr. Sutton and Mr. Middleton respectively, leaving Jane to Mr. Seymour Sutton and the unhappy Miss Sutton to be the first to exhibit. Lady Catherine observed her with shrewd interest, proclaiming that if she herself had ever learnt to play the instrument, she would have been a great proficient. 

     Her spirits high after the flirtatious reel with Mr. Audley, Elizabeth happily exchanged places with Miss Sutton, earning her a look of gratitude from the lady, who quickly attached herself to Mr. Audley. Largely ignoring Mr. Collins’ chatter and Sir Gerald’s indolent agreement, Lady Catherine addressed herself to Elizabeth, informing her that she would never play really well unless she practiced more. She offered up the use of the pianoforte in her housekeeper’s room, for Elizabeth would be in nobody’s way in that part of the house. Mr. Collins thanked her profusely on his cousin’s behalf, even as Elizabeth silently congratulated herself on holding her tongue.  

     Miss Cecily took Elizabeth’s place at the instrument next, and gave the best performance yet. With nothing to critique in the music, Lady Catherine turned her attention to the dancers, offering praise to Miss Sutton and Mrs. Collins, and suggestions for improvement to Elizabeth. Mr. Collins was ready to congratulate them all on their superior dancing, his own dear Jane in particular, and Elizabeth did her best not to hear any of it. 

     Partnered with Mr. Middleton, Elizabeth found much to enjoy in his pleasant conversation. He was an intelligent man, well informed and elegant in his address, and seemed to share her general sense of diversion at all that was passing around them. They had both noticed that Emily and Mr. Sutton were partnered again, and carried on their own private conversation about the matter, in the form of sideward glances and subtle smirks. 

     Mr. Middleton was a pleasant surprise after Sunday night’s tedious company. Though not so handsome as Mr. Bingley, he was well worth looking at, and listening to as well. He commended her performance on the pianoforte, asked what composers she favored, and even inquired if she enjoyed reading. He seemed disappointed to learn she was not an avid horsewoman, and hoped she would come riding at Cranbrook. All this was expressed with perfect civility, lacking the overt flirtatiousness of Mr. Audley’s conversation, and Elizabeth was quite satisfied. She ventured a glance at Jane, whose look, though affectionate, was also rather smug, as if this was all going exactly according to her own plan.  

     As they were going through the final turn of the dance, a commotion was heard suddenly in the hallway, and a moment later the dancing was brought to an abrupt halt by the arrival of two unexpected visitors. The whole party was stunned into silence at the sight of them, for the two men were clad all in black, dusty from the road, and had an air about them that was almost frightening.  

     Having just gone down the dance, Elizabeth and her partner were positioned nearest the door, and after overcoming her initial alarm, she recognized Lord Hartley, who was not expected for another fortnight. He was accompanied by the same gentleman who had stared at her the night of the opera. Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth addressed herself to the viscount, who appeared less astonished to discover her presence than his companion. She dipped into a curtsy, feeling herself to be flushed from the dance and the suddenness of their entrance. “My lord, it is a pleasure to see you.” 

     He responded with a bow, and a smile that did not reach his eyes. “I apologize if we gave you a fright, we must look positively wild.” 

     Beside him, Mr. Darcy looked utterly bewildered by the scene into which he had stumbled, but he managed to bow as well. “Miss Bennet.” 

     By now the other dancers had moved apart, apparently preparing to be introduced to the newcomers, and Lady Catherine had risen from her chair at the end of the room to discover who had intruded so dramatically into her domain. “Is that my nephews? This is all very untoward. Come and explain yourselves.” 

     Despite their aunt’s displeasure, the gentlemen did not move. Lord Hartley shifted uncomfortably, and Elizabeth began to wonder if aught was amiss. That they were dressed in all black was rather foreboding, and as she glanced over at her sister, it was evident that Jane and the others were now also engaging in such private speculation.  

     Lady Catherine ignored them, advancing on her nephews as if they were delinquent children. “Richard, Fitzwilliam, you will account for yourselves at once. Have you some news of my daughter? My grandchild?” All eyes were fixed on Lord Hartley and Mr. Darcy, and the tension in the room was palpable. 

     At length Mr. Darcy responded, “We have. Perhaps there is some place more private we might speak, Aunt?” 

     Lady Catherine sniffed with displeasure. Mr. Darcy’s expression was so thunderous, Elizabeth could scarcely imagine even one so formidable as Lady Catherine opposing him. Lord Hartley grimaced, and placed a hand on his aunt’s shoulder. “We shall not be long, but do come with us. The blue parlor, I think, just down the hall.” He put his arm around her, and guided her out of the room behind Mr. Darcy.  

     Once they had gone, the viscount turned back, casting a nervous glance around the room before approaching Elizabeth and addressing himself quietly to her. “I was obliged just now to mislead my aunt, Miss Bennet, for we shall be some time in our conversation, unfortunately. Events have transpired… but she ought to be the first to hear of it. Please make our apologies to your party, which I think had better be off. Rebecca will join us tomorrow, and I am sure she will come to you.” With a hasty bow and not so much as a glance for the others, he was soon gone from the room. 

     Elizabeth watched him go, a sense of dread causing her to hug herself as though the air had become chilled. There was a moment of heavy silence before suddenly everyone was talking at once. The Suttons had clustered at one side of the room, whispering amongst themselves. Mr. Collins seemed to be about to follow his patroness, when Jane placed a hand on his arm and shook her head. They made their way toward Elizabeth, with Emily quickly following.  

     Mr. Middleton drew protectively close to her. “You are shivering – do you require a shawl, or a seat by the fireplace? Truly, you should sit down.” 

     Elizabeth had no time to answer his queries before her sister and cousins were upon them. They began speaking all at once; Jane cast the others a quelling look before addressing her sister directly. “Lizzy, was that the Viscount? His manner seemed rather familiar. Whatever did he say? Who was the other man? What are they telling Lady Catherine?” 

     Elizabeth began to tremble, and Mr. Middleton placed a hand on her shoulder, steering her toward a chair. She sank into it, her mind reeling. “Jane, I think something dreadful has happened.”  

     Mr. Collins let out an audible moan. “Oh, good Heavens!” 

     “What was Mr. Darcy doing here,” asked Emily. “Did he speak to you, Lizzy?” 

     “No, he did not. We were never introduced.” 

     Emily gave her a strange look. “Lizzy, don’t be daft. You danced with him at the ball.” 

     “What?” Elizabeth wished to refute this, but caught herself. She had been rather intoxicated at the ball, and then he had looked so familiar at the opera. And he had used her name, just now. It must be true. That was why he had stared at her at the opera. Though she could scarcely account for her feelings, she could not like the idea that she had very likely embarrassed herself in front of him at that ball, in such a state as she was. 

     Mr. Collins spoke next. “That was Mr. Darcy? Son-in-law to Lady Catherine? Yes, I should have guessed it at once. Such a noble bearing! Oh my, he must bring news of her grandchild.” 

     Jane looked panicked. “I cannot hope you are right, my dear, for I think they come bearing bad news.” 

     “I cannot think why her illustrious nephew would address himself to our Elizabeth at such a time.” Mr. Collins rounded on her. “You must tell us what he said. If my noble patroness is receiving distressing news, it is incumbent upon me, as her clergymen, to offer her immediate counsel and relief.” 

     Mr. Middleton cleared his throat, and the others fell silent. “You must give the lady some space, she is clearly most upset by what is happening, and you are not helping, sir.” 

     Mr. Collins squared his shoulders back as if to deliver some retort, but Elizabeth rose shakily to her feet and addressed the room. “Please,” she said, commanding the attention of their entire party. “We must go. It is wrong to linger here. Our hostess has urgent business with her nephews, and our presence is no longer appropriate.”  

      Cutting off another of Mr. Collins’ attempts to argue the matter, Mr. Middleton echoed his agreement. “Miss Bennet is absolutely right. This has been a delightful evening, but we must respect the family’s wishes.” 

     There was more commotion as the Suttons called for their carriages. The family from the parsonage had walked, but Mr. Collins had fully expected the usual offer of a more comfortable means of return, and he was now quite at a loss. He asked his wife if it would be too much to presume the offer would have been granted, and Jane seemed too weary of his arguments to discourage the presumption.  

     Emily was comforting Elizabeth, who was still overcome with ominous presentiment, when they were approached by Mr. Sutton and Miss Cecily. “Miss Carmichael, I hope I am not too forward….” She bit her lip, glancing timidly up at her brother, who nodded his approval. “I dare say something very bad has happened. Your cousins are sure to be very busy with their duty to Lady Catherine, but I wonder if you might be spared – if you should like to return with us to Cranbrook for a few days.” 

     Emily looked at Elizabeth, a mixture of excitement and guilt. Mr. Sutton perceived her apprehension, and said, “I would not have you think us rude, Miss Bennet. We would not wish to deprive your sister of all her company at once.” 

     Elizabeth could scarcely form a reply. She cast a dubious glance at Jane, who forced a smile. “Of course, sir. I think it a fine idea. Lizzy will be happy to remain at the parsonage and assist me with whatever is necessary, though we do not know if it is all as bad as we fear.” There was a heavy, sinking feeling in the pit of Elizabeth’s stomach, but she nodded in silent agreement. 

*** 

     Elizabeth woke later than usual, for her sleep had been fitful, and the odd feeling of nightmares she could not quite remember hung about her. With great effort, she dragged herself from the bed, determined to shake her somber feelings and begin her day. It had been a strange night, to go from such surprisingly enjoyable company, to such a shocking scene, and then to lose the company of her dear cousin. Remembering that a visit from Lady Rebecca had been predicted, she felt some consolation, and prepared to dress herself, certain she had already missed breakfast.  

     Opening the wardrobe, she found it empty, and her trunk was likewise, save for one dress. It was one she had brought from home, her oldest, dullest day dress, brown and very drab. She put it on, wondering why the maid would think to wash all of her frocks at once, including the newer ones that Elizabeth had not yet worn since her arrival. Still, there must be some explanation, and, twisting her hair up into a simple knot, Elizabeth set out to discover it. 

     Downstairs, the house was quiet. Elizabeth peered out a window to find the sun was already high in the sky – it was likely past noon. And then she noticed something strange, a great black fluttering at the back of the garden. Half a dozen dresses, ostensibly the ones she was missing, hung out to dry on the clothes line, having been dyed black. Though quite alone, Elizabeth felt the need to check her temper, as she let out a sigh that was very nearly a snarl. 

        She hastened toward the back door, and once outside discovered Jane in the small yard there, hanging up more freshly dyed garments from a basket at her feet. “Jane,” Elizabeth cried, marching toward her. “What are you doing?” 

     Jane finishing clipping up one of her husband’s shirts and turned to Elizabeth, wiping her hands dry in her apron. “Oh Lizzy, I sent the maids over to Rosings, to see if they might be of use to Lady Catherine, so I am left to handle the work here myself, but it is of no matter.” 

     Elizabeth fumed at her sister’s deflection. “That is not what I meant!” She gestured at her gowns.  

     Jane wrung her hands, her bottom lip curling up as it did just before she began to cry. “Oh Lizzy, we have had the most awful news! It is just as I feared last night. Lady Catherine’s daughter has died!” 

     With a heavy sigh, Elizabeth tried to curb her frustration. She reminded herself that she had never cared much for fine dresses, anyway – she had actively protested the purchase of many of the frocks that now hung on the line. But to see them ruined before her felt like an act of vandalism, and she could not help but wonder if her Jane took some little satisfaction in destroying her new wardrobe. Elizabeth closed her eyes and took in a deep breath. “I am sorry to hear it.” 

     Jane nodded sadly and returned to her work. “My husband said she was always of a rather delicate constitution – I never met her, for she was wed in the summer, before I came. But I have heard much of her – poor Lady Catherine was so devoted to her. And she was to have a child! Oh Lizzy, can you think of anything more tragic?” 

     Elizabeth felt that the sight of her new gowns ruined was already more tragedy than she could bear. And it hardly seemed necessary – Lady Catherine wasn’t even family. “I am very sorry,” Elizabeth said, giving her sister a skeptical look. “I am sure Lady Catherine will be depending upon you at a time like this. I wonder, though, if perhaps our wearing mourning colors might seem a bit presumptuous? After all, we are not relations.” 

     Jane wiped at the tears streaming down her face. “Mr. Collins believes it best. He says she will expect it.” 

     “Upon my word, that is a very expensive expectation, Jane. Our aunt and uncle must have spent seven pounds on those new dresses!” Elizabeth looked back at the clothes line. Some of the gowns had not quite taken the black, and simply appeared very dark. The shimmering red silver gown was now a dull maroon, the cornflower blue turned charcoal gray, and the jonquil silk looked utterly putrid. Surely just one gown would have satisfied Lady Catherine – what on earth was she going to do with a full mourning wardrobe?  

     Jane rolled her eyes. “Good Heavens, Lizzy, I did not do all of them. Between what you brought from home and what our aunt and uncle purchased for you in London, you have a dozen frocks here. I merely dyed half of them, just as I did my own.” 

     Elizabeth crossed her arms, clenching her fingers around her elbows to restrain herself. “With your own gowns, Jane, you may do as you like. With mine, you ought to have asked me.” 

     Jane fixed her sister with a superior scowl. “I hardly need ask your permission to do anything, in my own home. And as to the expense, I daresay our aunt and uncle could afford it. Surely they must have known when they purchased you these gowns that you would not have many occasions to wear them, and goodness knows the gowns you do wear frequently get rather abused.”  

     “That is not the point,” Elizabeth said, her fingers curling into fists. 

     “No indeed,” Jane said with a false smile. “The material point is that I am obliged to obey my husband’s commands.” 

     Elizabeth felt her brow twitching defiantly. “I had thought you rather adept at managing him.” 

     For a moment Jane seemed poised to deliver another scathing set-down, when she stopped, abruptly returning her attention to the laundry. “How clever you must think yourself, passing judgement on what you have never experienced. But I am sure you will find a much better marriage partner yourself. Tell me, how did that go for you in London?” 

     Elizabeth felt her mouth go dry, and she was unable to make any reply. For a moment Jane was silent, focused on clipping up another garment on the clothesline. Finally she looked at Elizabeth, her serene expression betraying just the slightest bit of triumph at having discomposed her younger sister. “Come now, Lizzy. I have no desire to quarrel with you. Olive branch?” 

     With one last glance at the ruins of her wardrobe, Elizabeth took a deep breath and looked back at her sister. There was something in Jane’s eyes that made her keenly aware of the uncertainty of her circumstances, and Elizabeth felt herself unequal to the unspoken challenge. The threats Jane made before her marriage, Bingley’s abandonment, and Elizabeth’s every failure seemed to hang in the air between them – it was all too much. “Olive branch,” she sighed. 

*** 

     Soon after the two sisters returned to the house, there was a knock at the door, and with the servants all gone, Jane was left to answer it. At the sound of a familiar voice, Elizabeth hurried into the entry-way, where Lady Rebecca, not standing upon ceremony, was introducing herself to Mrs. Collins. “Well now, this is a very snug little home you have. I understand it has been my aunt’s favorite little project to get you settled in, and I will say you both have acquitted yourselves quite well. I am Lady Rebecca Fitzwilliam. It is such a pleasure to meet you at last, for I have heard much of you. And where is my Lizzy?” 

     Smirking, Elizabeth stepped forward. With Lady Rebecca she had been more open about what had passed between herself and Jane, and she could not deny that she enjoyed seeing her friend needling Jane just a little.  

     Lady Rebecca was clad all in black, ostensibly mourning clothes left over from the passing of her brother the previous year. Her dress was of very fine fabric, elegantly trimmed and immensely flattering. Yes, her commanding presence certainly rivaled that of Lady Catherine. She held Jane’s nervous gaze for a moment longer, clearly relishing the response she received, before turning to embrace Elizabeth. “Oh, Lizzy, it is good to see your beautiful countenance, for there is nothing but long faces at the manor. It feels ages since last we met, though I suppose it has been but a week. Come, let us all sit and take some tea, for I have much to tell you, and I long to hear how your visit has been.” 

     She led them into Jane’s small parlor, and Elizabeth was sure her eccentric friend was rather enjoying her little display of dominance over Jane, who was entirely discomposed by being shown to a seat and offered tea like a guest in her own home. 

     Jane hesitated as she approached her usual chair, remembering that there was no one to serve them. “My apologies, Lady Rebecca, but I had quite forgot – I sent my two girls over to Rosings to help your aunt. I shall bring the tea things presently.” She gave a quick bob of her head and hastened from the room. 

     Lady Rebecca gave Elizabeth an arch look, and bubbled with mischievous laughter. “My, but that felt good!” 

     It certainly did. Elizabeth swatted her friend’s arm, but smiled nonetheless “You really are a terrible influence on me, Rebecca. I shall have to choose my friends more carefully in the future, I think.” 

     “I believe you should, with such a sister. Oh, I do hope you are not angry with me, but I could not help myself. After all you have told me, I daresay it will do your sister good to be reminded that you are not without friends. Powerful friends. You must always remember that, Elizabeth. I would not see you bullied by a parson’s wife puffed up by her own importance, even if she is your sister. By the by, how is that going? Tell me the truth, while we are alone.” 

     Elizabeth fidgeted a little. “I hardly know what I expected, but I hope it will get better. I think she disdains her choice, but is too proud to admit it, and now she seeks to make an even more vile match for me. I am sure you will have every opportunity to see for yourself. Oh, and I should warn you, Mr. Collins is not best pleased that we are friends. He thinks I am putting myself forward too much, and has asked me not to mention our friendship to your aunt. I have been reminded of my place.” 

     Lady Rebecca laughed. “I look forward to meeting your cousin. Now tell me, what in God’s name are you wearing, and when can we set it on fire?” 

     Elizabeth laughed in spite of herself. It was just what she would expect of Lady Rebecca, who was clearly averse to sentimental displays, to mask her heartfelt sentiment under so much saucy repartee. Still, she felt all the kindness of her friend’s solicitude. Whispering lest Jane return too quickly, she relayed the fate of her London wardrobe.  

     Lady Rebecca’s eyes flashed wide with anger. “Good God, even the yellow one? That is an outrage!” 

     “Yes, I suppose it is,” Elizabeth agreed, though her friend’s dramatic response somewhat diminished her own sense of indignation. After all, she had lost half a dozen gowns, but Rebecca had lost her cousin. 

     The clattering of dishes alerted them of Jane’s return, and the two friends schooled their countenances accordingly. “Tea sounds lovely just now. It was such a tiresome journey here, and even more tiresome at the manor. My father brought his new wife, though he knows my aunt dislikes her. My younger brother, Robert, has come with us as well.” 

     Jane began serving the tea, and listened to Lady Rebecca attentively, displaying all the deference she showed Lady Catherine. Sensing what she was about, Lady Rebecca thanked her for the refreshments, adding, “Mrs. Collins – may I call you Jane? My dear Jane, I am not my aunt, and I have no intention of delivering you a monologue. You are welcome to interject with questions whenever you like. I can see it in your eyes that you are already thinking of one.”  

     Taken aback, Jane blushed, and stirred her tea to avoid eye contact. “I understand Mr. Robert Fitzwilliam has recently taken orders, and was lately seeking Lady Catherine’s assistance in finding a position….” 

     “And you wish to know what that means for your husband. But of course you needn’t worry. Your husband’s position is secure – the new master of Rosings cannot remove him, even should he wish to.” Lady Rebecca sipped at her tea. 

     Elizabeth began to take pity on Jane. “Rosings has a new master? Has that something to do with… your cousin?” 

     “Quite right, dearest. Rosings passed to Anne upon her twenty-fifth birthday. At the time, it seemed not to matter. She was in poor health, and content to allow her mother to run the estate. Rosings belonged to Mrs. Darcy in name only, but that is what counts the most.” 

     Elizabeth’s interest was piqued. She recalled her brother-in-law saying something the night before, but in all the commotion it had not really stuck with her. Handsome Mr. Darcy was married – this much she had been told at the opera – but, to Anne de Bourgh! And now, well, she supposed, he was not. 

     “So Rosings now belongs to Mr. Darcy,” Jane asked, as Elizabeth tried not to lose her composure. Why did this man seem to upset her so? Was it because he had stared at her so strangely at the opera? And Emily says I danced with him at the ball. I must ask her more about it. 

     “The terms of Sir Lewis’ will stipulate that Rosings belonged to Anne out right, and shall pass directly to her eldest child. Mr. Darcy retains control of the estate only until the child comes of age.” 

     Jane leaned forward, engrossed in what she was hearing. “So the babe lives? Oh, thank God!” 

     “Yes, quite. Little Julia Darcy remains comfortably ensconced at Pemberley, Mr. Darcy’s estate in Derbyshire, and my aunt Catherine is not best pleased about that.” Lady Rebecca seemed amused by her aunt’s vexation. 

     “I should imagine not,” Jane said defensively. “What comfort her grandchild would give her at such a time.” 

     “I cannot imagine the journey would be practical for the babe,” Elizabeth said.  

     “No indeed. I understand she was born some weeks early. It is really a miracle the child survived. But I trust Darcy has arranged for her to have the utmost care. Aunt Catherine, however, is beside herself about it, for she wishes the child to be brought up here, with her.” 

     Elizabeth gasped. “Poor Mr. Darcy! To lose his wife, and now to fear losing his child as well!” 

     “Yes, he is not keen on the idea. Perhaps, Jane, since I understand you have Lady Catherine’s ear, you might suggest the absolute unsuitability of such a plan. It may do her some good to hear it from one so wholly unconnected with the family, who can have no ulterior motives.” 

     Jane looked as though she had no intention of ever doing anything other than receiving advice from the great lady, and merely replied, “But what is to happen to Lady Catherine?” 

     “You mean, will Darcy be very cruel? You needn't fear a tyrannical new master taking over Rosings, and turning your life upside down.” 

     “I had not meant….” 

     “I am very curious,” Elizabeth interjected, “How Mr. Darcy will manage two estates, being so very far apart. And while going through such an ordeal!” 

     “I believe he will have very little to do with Rosings, for the foreseeable future,” Lady Rebecca replied, to Jane’s evident relief. “He is fond of Pemberley, and I will own it is the superior estate.” 

     “So Lady Catherine will remain at Rosings?” 

     “She will remove to the Dower House – she only wants a little more convincing. She has taken it all very badly, which is only natural, and Darcy is not heartless. My brother Robert will run Rosings for the time being, on little Julia’s behalf, and under Darcy’s guidance. It seems the estate has not been profitable in recent years, and they wish to rectify that. Darcy has been very kind to Robert, allowing him to keep a portion of whatever increases he can yield, which will allow him to settle very comfortably some day, rather than having to earn his living making sermons in some remote little parish God knows where.” 

     Jane nodded, perceiving the subtle slight. “So Mr. Fitzwilliam will be running Rosings. I think it will be very nice for Mr. Collins to have the society of another clergyman in the neighborhood, for as long as we remain.” With a glance at Elizabeth, she added, “We are, of course, content to stay here for what I hope will be quite some time.” 

     “Yes,” Lady Rebecca replied drily. “I am sure Lady Catherine will continue to rejoice in your presence in the neighborhood.” 

     No longer enjoying the tension, Elizabeth steered the conversation back to the late Mrs. Darcy. “I am very sorry for Lady Catherine. To outlive one’s own child must be a terrible thing. And poor Mr. Darcy! I understand they were only recently married. How tragic.” 

     “Oh yes,” Jane agreed. “Lady Catherine was so pleased by their marriage – I understand it was much talked of, even before it took place. What a pity that they waited so long to wed. Please do convey my condolences to all your family. I am sure Lizzy and I will pay a call very soon, when it is convenient for everyone.” 

     Elizabeth agreed, offering her own sentiments, and gently inquired as to how Lady Rebecca was holding up. 

     “Anne and I were never close,” she confessed. “Lady Catherine did not care for my late mother, and so we were not often together as children. And she was always so very ill, from the time she was a girl. I suppose we always knew she would not live very long, indeed no one ever expected her to live as long as she did, much less to marry and have a child. In a way, it is comforting to know that she had more full a life than we would have anticipated. I am sorry she is gone, but I believe my role in this ordeal is more to assist those that are grieving, than to grieve myself.” 

     Jane and Elizabeth hardly knew how to respond to such a statement, but offered what comfort they could. Lady Rebecca did not stay much longer, but expressed a hope that they would all meet again soon. She indicated that the gentlemen would be much occupied with the business of the estate, and therefore female company would be greatly appreciated. When she had gone, Jane seemed utterly deflated. She pleaded a sudden headache and retired to her room, leaving Elizabeth to her own devices for the rest of the afternoon. 

 

Chapter Text

13.

 

 

 

     The following day, the parsonage paid a condolence call on the family at Rosings, clad in their mourning regalia, and they returned the next day after church, for Lady Catherine had arranged a sort of memorial gathering for Anne, which all the local families respectfully attended. Jane took it upon herself to assist with all of the duties of hostess that Lady Catherine was too stricken to perform. As she served refreshments and made all the appropriate comments, Elizabeth began to notice several curious undercurrents of the assembled group.

     All of the young people from Cranbrook seemed to have coupled up very cozily, Emily and Mr. Sutton most of all. As the odd man out, Seymour Sutton seemed intent on focusing his attentions, unwelcome as they were, upon Elizabeth. Mr. Darcy, though he did not speak to her, beyond accepting her condolences, seemed to look her way a great deal. She was still unsure as to the exact degree of their acquaintance; did an introduction even count, if she did not at all remember it? With too much else to occupy her thoughts, including the sad reason for their gathering, Elizabeth had to tuck this matter away for further consideration.

     She was introduced to Mr. Robert Fitzwilliam, whose conversation was unhappily monopolized by Mr. Collins, having been informed by his wife of the new dynamic at Rosings. After hearing how eager her brother-in-law had been to extol on the many similarities of the two gentlemen’s situations in life, Elizabeth chose to take Jane’s approach, and conveniently hear as little of it as possible.

     Lady Rebecca was duly mournful, and took care to speak to everyone a little, saying what was right and proper. However, she also took every opportunity of emphasizing the great comfort she felt in having her dearest friend Elizabeth so close by at such a trying time, often in the hearing of Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine.

     Jane was very attentive to Lady Catherine, whose demeanor was vastly altered from her previous conceit. Rather than issuing authoritative opinions and unsolicited advice, as seemed to be her wont, the dowager said very little to anybody, her haughty expression now a blank. Jane remained at her ladyship’s side for most of the visit, and Elizabeth quickly realized that there was a great deal of genuine affection between Jane and Lady Catherine, and no little animosity between Jane and Lady Rebecca. It was no surprise, given their first encounter, and the great difference in their temperaments. Though Jane never said anything for which she might rightly be rebuked, her tone and expression made it abundantly clear that she resented Lady Rebecca’s familiarity with Elizabeth, and that she was affronted on Lady Catherine’s behalf.

     Jane made no attempt to conceal her feelings when they returned to the parsonage. As Mr. Collins had remained at the manor to be of service to the family, the two sisters were left alone, and argument was inevitable. Jane sat brooding for some time after they had entered the house, taking up some embroidery work and then setting it back down several times. Elizabeth began to grow nervous as her sister’s anxious fidgeting increased, and was on the verge of quitting the room entirely, when Jane finally exploded. “I cannot imagine how you tolerate Lady Rebecca, Lizzy. I think you do not see her true nature – or perhaps you do not care.”

     Bracing herself, Elizabeth stared her sister down. “Jane, I cannot imagine this manner of conversation doing either of us any credit. Perhaps we had best let the matter drop.”

     “I cannot. Her behavior toward Lady Catherine at such a time is unpardonable,” Jane spat.

     Elizabeth took a deep breath, determined not to be baited into a heated argument. “Your loyalty to her does you credit, but really, Jane, what is to be done? I think it better for everyone concerned if we both try to stay out of it. If Lady Catherine is displeased with her family, I am sure she is perfectly capable of addressing the matter directly.”

     “But she is bereaved! She has suffered a terrible loss, and does not deserve to be so ill used by her relations.”

     “They are all bereaved by Anne’s loss; Lady Catherine is not the only one to feel it, and it is not for us to stand in judgement.”

     “But who could not feel for her? She has done so much for us. I cannot sit idly by while she is thus treated. The Fitzwilliams are grasping, artful people, and your friend is the worst of them. How she rejoiced in her brother’s elevation, with no regard to how callously Lady Catherine is shunted to the side, cast out of her own home and shipped off to the dower house. It is not right!”

     “Perhaps not, but it is the law, Jane. Estates are passed down, from one generation to the next, as I am sure you are fully aware.”

     “How dare you? I see what you mean, you insolent girl. I am ashamed of you. You seem to think nothing at all of your own sister, and yet you are all too eager to defend… those people! Perhaps you think to catch the viscount’s eye, clinging to his impudent sister and swooning at the sight of him.”

     Elizabeth was horrified. “Jane, no!”

     “No? I saw how he spoke to you, when they first arrived. He ought to have addressed one of the gentlemen, but no, he only had eyes for you. No wonder you could not secure your Mr. Bingley. He might have been a fine match, but you would aim too high!”

     Is that was this is about? “Jane, I beg you would stop this, think of what you are saying. Whatever it is that has truly displeased you, can you not remember that I am your sister? Let us stop this, and speak reasonably,” Elizabeth cried, angry tears beginning to burst forth.

     Jane seemed poised to lash out again, but fell silent, a look of alarm on her face. A moment later, Elizabeth realized they were not alone; behind her, a gentleman cleared his throat.

     Elizabeth spun around, wiping the tears from her face. Mr. Darcy stood in the doorway, looking deeply uncomfortable. Before she could speak, he cleared his throat again and took a step toward her. He held her reticule in his hands, and awkwardly offered it to her. “You left this – I came to return it. I knocked, but….”

     “The servants are all helping your aunt,” Elizabeth answered, unable to meet his eye. “I thank you for returning this, sir. It is very kind.”

     “Indeed,” Jane agreed, her attitude instantly shifting back toward her usual demure civility. “I wonder at your coming all this way on account of foolish Lizzy. My husband might have brought it back when he returns from the manor.”

     Elizabeth stared at her sister in horror. Mr. Darcy was sure to have overheard far too much of Jane’s vitriol, and yet she offered him the same innocent smile she had been fooling everyone with for years. Elizabeth braved a glance at Mr. Darcy, and was gratified with the severe glare he cast upon her sister.

     “It is no trouble, madam. The fresh air and exercise were most welcome. I am only sorry to have intruded at an inopportune moment. I will leave you now.” With a sympathetic nod at Elizabeth, he gave a slight bow and hastened from the room.

     Jane watched him depart, her civility turning toward suspicion. When Mr. Darcy had gone, she fixed Elizabeth with an accusatory look. “How disappointed you must be that Lord Hartley did not take your bait.”

     “Jane, this is madness! I did not leave my reticule on purpose. I have no designs on that gentleman, or any other.”

     “You must admit, it does not look good. No better than Lydia dropping handkerchiefs for the soldiers to pick up.”

     Elizabeth threw her hands up in frustration. “If that is what you truly believe of me, I cannot imagine myself to be welcome in your home any longer. I certainly have no desire to remain. I will go see to the packing of my trunks.”

     Jane’s anger again turned to panic, and she grabbed her sister by the arm. “No, wait. I do not wish you to leave. Oh Lizzy, why must we fight like this? I only wish for us to be friends.”

     Elizabeth recoiled from Jane’s grasp with enough force to send her sister staggering backward. “Have you truly lost you mind? You have insulted me in every possible way. You have threatened me, humiliated me, and accused me of the worst sort of behavior. And you have stolen and destroyed my property! No, Jane, I am done with you.”

     Jane let out a wild shriek that dissolved into sobs as she sank onto the sofa. “Lizzy, please! Do not leave me.”

     Elizabeth could only gape at her sister in sheer dismay, and for a moment she wondered if Jane had truly gone mad. Every logical impulse told her to flee before Jane could do her any further harm, and yet the sight of Jane’s distress still tore at her heart. After what felt like an eternity of struggling with herself, Elizabeth, with a heavy groan, sat down beside her sister. She chewed her lip for a moment, still too angry to offer any words of consolation.

     Finally, Jane stopped her weeping and looked up, taking Elizabeth’s hand in hers. Elizabeth tensed, and she stared expectantly at her sister, her jaw taut with anger. Jane’s lip quivered as though she might start crying again, but she did not. “How you must despise me,” she sighed.

     “I do not despise you, Jane, but I do not like you very much, either, at present. Perhaps I do not even know you.”

     Jane flinched. “What an awful thing to say.”

     “After everything that you have said to me?”

     Jane’s voice was low and lifeless, and she leaned forward, her elbows propped on her knees and her head resting in her hands. “All I wanted was for you to be happy for me, to see the wisdom in my marriage, and to let me make a good match for you, too.”

     Withdrawing her hand, Elizabeth grimaced at her sister. “Yet you were angered when you supposed Lord Hartley to be interested in me? How can that be?”

     “I wanted you to need my help. You used to look up to me.”

     “You used to be a better person.”

     Jane’s head snapped up, and she gave Elizabeth a dark look. “I am still a good person. ‘Tis those Fitzwilliams who aren’t good people. I know they cannot dismiss my husband, but they have the power to make our lives here very unpleasant, and I have no doubt that they will. It may satisfy your vanity to have such elevated friends, but what kind of people turn their own aunt out of the house before her daughter is cold in her grave?”

     Realization dawned on Elizabeth. Lady Catherine, who doted on Jane, had been supplanted by the Fitzwilliams, who were fond of Elizabeth. For the first time in her life, Jane was jealous of her sister. Though it was tempting to take pleasure in the thought, Elizabeth found it troubling.

     Her first object was to coax some rational sense back in to Jane, as immediate departure was not an option. “All will be well, I am sure of it. Lady Catherine is not insensible to your affection for her, and she will still be a good friend to you. She is fond of being useful to others, you said so yourself. And I daresay you will still be much in company with her, and will see that she is not mistreated by her family. I promise, they are not the villains you fear them to be, and treating them as such is hardly the way to foster a friendship. You made a favorable impression on Lady Catherine when first you came here, and I know you can do it again with her relations. They are not so very elevated – they have been very kind to me.”

     Jane considered this for a moment. “That is true. If they can like you, why should they not like me?”

     “And besides,” Elizabeth added, unable to resist herself, “If you are right about Lord Hartley harboring tender feelings for me, he should hardly let his brother make mine so very unhappy.”

     “Oh Lizzy, now I know you are teasing me. You may refute it, if you like, only promise me you will not encourage him. It will only make things harder on me, and besides, there are several very suitable alternatives at Cranbrook.”

     “As I said, I have no designs on any gentleman at present. I came into the country only to make amends with you, Jane, and not to find a suitable gentleman. You do have some very agreeable neighbors just now, I will own, but I am not expecting any of them to be paying their addresses.”

     With Elizabeth’s assurances, Jane returned to a vastly improved state of mind. Elizabeth, though relieved to have diffused their altercation, could not shake off her disillusionment. Jane’s fragile vanity required a degree of mollification that Elizabeth felt herself unequal to sustaining for very long, and she dreaded the next, inevitable outburst when Jane felt eclipsed by her sister.

***

     Elizabeth slipped out of the house for the early morning walk that had become part of her routine since arriving in Kent. It felt good to partake of the exercise, the solitude, and the beauty of nature all at once, especially after being unable to do so for two long months in London. Everything in the landscape bespoke the coming of spring, and Elizabeth enjoyed the feeling of renewal awakened within her. Amid such an exquisite dawn, the events of the previous day seemed far away, and not at all so very bad.

     She had been given some new insight into her sister’s mind, and Jane had finally been honest, to some extent, about her feelings; it was a good start. Elizabeth had never imagined her sister to be such a complex creature, but was willing to own that perhaps that was a failing on her part. Jane was neither all good nor all bad, but equal measures of both – she was human. Elizabeth had long been encouraged by her father to laugh at the follies of others, but had never, until Mr. Collins’ arrival in their lives, believed Jane capable of such folly, and could not laugh at the discovery.

     It would take some getting used to, this new view of Jane. Elizabeth had long felt her sister to be worthy of praise, without ever realizing she was so dependent upon it. Elizabeth knew that she was going to have to tread carefully with her sister if they were to stand any chance of reconciliation.

     A turn of the path led Elizabeth into a little clearing, where she had discovered a particularly scenic spot on her previous walks. Over the ebbing of the stream, Elizabeth thought she heard the sound of someone crying, and she hesitated, peering around to see if anyone else was there. Off to the left, seated on a fallen tree trunk, sat Mr. Darcy, who appeared to be reading over a letter, his shoulders rising and falling with the force of his sobs.

     Presuming him to be lamenting over some memento of his late wife, Elizabeth attempted to backtrack and find a different path, that the poor man might have his privacy. However, as she began to back away, she stepped on a twig, which snapped loudly, alerting him to her presence. His head shot up, and Elizabeth froze as his eyes alighted upon her.

     “I am not spying,” she blurted out. “I am so sorry – I walk out every morning, and never see anybody – you must wish me away.” Feeling entirely foolish, Elizabeth had turned to flee, when he called out to her.

     “Miss Bennet!” Elizabeth turned to face Mr. Darcy, who rose and gave a slight bow. “Perhaps fate has done me a small kindness. I should be grateful to accompany on your walk, if you would permit me. I have been too much alone with my thoughts of late, and your lively disposition would be a balm to my spirits.” He approached her, leaping over the little stream without losing a modicum of dignity, and offered her his arm.

     Elizabeth was all astonishment at his gesture, and a strange sense of familiarity overtook her as she accepted his arm. “You are very kind, sir. I would understand completely if you were to send me on my way after coming upon you at such a moment.”

     He steered them down the narrow path that ran along the steam, his gaze intent upon her. “I certainly shall not.”

     Again came the strange sensation of a feeling half-remembered at the back of her mind. There was something there. “You were out of spirits at the ball,” Elizabeth murmured, struggling with the vague trace of a memory. “Oh, of course you were – your wife…. Oh, I am sorry.”

     Mr. Darcy looked at her with feeling. “I have never been easy at such large parties, but yes, Anne’s illness weighed on me that night. I was at once eager for distraction, and disgusted with myself for finding it. Making your acquaintance that evening was, however, a pleasure I cannot regret.”

     The sincerity in his words touched Elizabeth’s heart, though she felt a pang of guilt. How could it be that what had given him so much pleasure had not even made a mark on her memory? Good God, I hope I did not flirt with him!

     Elizabeth made no reply but a sad smile, and Mr. Darcy continued. “I feel I can be open with you, Miss Bennet. Might I make a small confession?”

     Oh no, I flirted with him, didn’t I? He is so handsome, and I was well and truly in my cups! Fearing the worst, Elizabeth nodded nervously, unable to meet his eye.

     “When you came upon me, I was crying. You are too generous to mention it, perhaps you do not wish to make me feel less of a man, but I am not ashamed of it. Disguise of every sort is my abhorrence.”

     Elizabeth let out a little sigh of relief at his innocuous revelation. “That is a worthy sentiment, indeed, and I can well understand your feelings at such a time, sir.”

     They continued on in silence for a moment, before Mr. Darcy spoke again. “I had a letter from my sister this morning, which caused my distress.”

     Elizabeth wondered at his disclosure, as though he thought grieving for his wife was not sufficient reason for tears. “Is she unwell, sir?”

     He sighed. “I suppose it would be nearer the truth to say that things have not been well between us.”

     “I am sorry to hear it. I would hope that at such a time, a sister might offer the comfort of consolation, rather than further distress.”

     Mr. Darcy looked pained. “I had hoped so as well. Perhaps she is too young to see it that way.”

     “What age is Miss Darcy?”

     “Only just sixteen.”

     Elizabeth gave a rueful smile. “Then I am very sorry for you, indeed. My youngest sister will be sixteen this summer, and has already given my poor parents gray hair.”

     “Georgiana and I have lost both our parents.”

     “Oh – I am so sorry.”

     “As am I, Miss Bennet. I have not been the best guardian for her. Last summer, there was an incident…. She became rather rebellious, and I was sure she hated me. When I married Anne, I hoped things would improve, and Anne was determined to see us reconciled, but circumstances were… complicated. It seemed easier at the time to send her away. I made another attempt, but a month ago, and I thought we had made some real progress. But then, Anne’s passing, and the baby…. She is angry that I left them. I did it to protect her, to keep our aunt away by coming here instead. She does not see it that way; she says I have abandoned her.”

     Elizabeth gasped. “How awful!”

     “I suppose I should not blame her for it, though it wounds me. She is full young to understand my actions, but I am nonetheless disappointed.”

     “It seems an impossible situation. It is strange, is it not, that the more you love someone, the more power you give them to wound you. Perhaps the very nature of love lends itself to disappointment, or at the least, impossible expectations.”

     Mr. Darcy looked earnestly at her. “Very wise words indeed, Miss Bennet.”

     “I speak from experience, sir, as the second of five sisters.” Mr. Darcy’s eyes widened in astonishment, and perhaps a little bit of hope, as if she had further wisdom to bestow upon him. “Do not think, Mr. Darcy, that I hold the answer to your puzzle. As much as I know how quarrelsome sisters can be, I am no more accomplished than yourself when it comes to reconciliation.” Elizabeth blushed, wondering what had possessed her to add that last part.

     He looked at her with curiosity. “Mrs. Collins….”

     “Yes. Much like you, I first thought distance would be the thing, and when that did not work, I came here to try again. It has been… challenging.”

     “What happened? That is, you may tell me, if you wish to.”

     “Mr. Collins,” Elizabeth sighed. They came to a small stone footbridge that arced a few feet above the stream, and Elizabeth sat down along the edge of it, her feet dangling above the water.

     Mr. Darcy hesitated a moment before sitting down beside her, his face a blank as he gazed out across the water. “You dislike him.”

     “It shows?”

     His lips curled upward, almost smiling. “Only to those who feel the same, I suppose.”

     Elizabeth stared down at the stream, the steady ebb strangely soothing. “How can I respect her decision, when I disagree with it so very much? Yet, how else am I to restore the affection that once existed between us?”

     “It is an impossible situation,” Mr. Darcy echoed, and as Elizabeth noticed the moisture glistening in his eyes, she supposed he was speaking of himself as well.

***

     Darcy felt a single tear slide down his cheek, but as he locked eyes with Elizabeth, he was unable to wipe it away, for fear that any movement might shatter the moment. Here was the woman who had long occupied his thoughts, after only a single, brief meeting, and who seemed to understand him so perfectly. It was like a dream, only better, because it was real. In fact, it felt like the realest experience he had had in quite some time. He at once wanted to bare his soul to her, and to take her in his arms.

     He wanted to believe she felt it, too, this exhilarating connection. She held his gaze for a moment longer before turning her eyes back to the stream, but extended her hand towards him, and he happily took it in his; the two sat in silence for several minutes, watching the sun rise over the trees, their hands clasped between them.

     At length she withdrew, giving him an apologetic look. “Your hands are cold.”

     He rubbed his hands together; she was right. “Shall we walk again?”

     “If you wish.”

     Darcy stood and helped Elizabeth to her feet, wishing their walk would never end. How easy it was just to be with her. He felt he could tell her anything and everything, and in the impulse of a moment, he asked, “Miss Bennet, might I unburden myself to you?”

     He could see her surprise, but she offered him an empathetic smile. “Have you not done so already, sir? I can think of any number of people at Rosings that might be more qualified than I to hear what is on your mind, but I am happy to be your confidante.”

     Darcy led them back onto the path through the grove, relishing the feeling of her gloved hand on his arm, and her kind eyes on himself. “I suppose that is just it – my family, as much as I love them, are too close to the situation. Lady Catherine is angry with me, Robert is terrified out of his wits, and Rebecca is, well, Rebecca. Richard has been a faithful friend all my life, and knows everything already, for he has experienced it all alongside me.”

     Elizabeth looked questioningly at him. “Do you speak of the problems with your sister, sir, or of losing your wife?”

     “I suppose the two are woven together in many ways. Last year after the problems began, Richard attempted to assist me, for he shares guardianship of Georgiana. He spent about a month with us at Pemberley; it was a dreadful time. I felt as though I did not even know my sister. She was resentful, hateful even, and accused me of holding her prisoner, among other things I cannot bring myself to repeat.”

     Darcy closed his eyes, the pain welling up inside him. He could neither bring himself to mention Georgiana’s pregnancy, that secret he would take to his grave, but everything else threatened to spill out at once as Elizabeth gazed up at him so intently. “It was Georgiana who summoned Lady Catherine and Anne to Pemberley in August. She knows we do not get along, and acknowledged she did it to vex me. It was then that Anne proposed to me, after a fashion.”

     “Mrs. Darcy proposed to you?”

     “It was a marriage of convenience.” Darcy exhaled deeply – it felt good to say it at last.

     “Oh,” Elizabeth breathed, her voice a whisper. “I had understood your marriage was long in the making.”

     “In Lady Catherine’s mind, perhaps. Anne and I had never truly wished it. She was so ill, and I had always hoped to….” The words died on his lips, for he suddenly grew nervous, speaking to Elizabeth of his desire to find love.

     She seemed to understand him, and nodded for him to continue.

     “At any rate, when Anne suggested marriage, it seemed the most logical course of action. I thought it would solve everything. She and Georgiana got on well together, but my sister and I still did not. By October it became necessary to send her away. She and Anne corresponded regularly, but I had not a single letter from her. It was a very dark time for me, Miss Bennet. My sister was estranged, Anne’s health was declining, and I felt myself to blame. I couldn’t stand the sight of her, some days. I fled to London, to get away from it all.”

     Elizabeth looked at him with tears in her eyes, and for moment Darcy feared she must despise him, but she gave his arm a gentle squeeze, prompting him to continue. “Before long, I realized I was just as wretched in London, and so I returned home. I intended to try harder to be a better husband. It was not easy, with Georgiana still a sticking point between us. Finally, about a month ago, we traveled to the seaside, and I thought Georgiana and I were making some progress, until Anne passed. We had a most interesting conversation about you, by the bye, for Lady Rebecca took your likeness in one of her letters to my sister.”

     “Oh dear. That must have been… colorful.”

     “You know Rebecca. At any rate, I was duly admonished for refusing to stand up with you at the ball.”

     “But we did dance together, did we not?”

     “Yes, you made a very convincing, and candid argument.”

     “I am sure you deserved it,” Miss Bennet teased, and screwed her face up quite delightfully.

     Darcy nodded his assent. “I think she would like to meet you, Miss Bennet. Perhaps if Mr. Bingley makes his annual visit to Pemberley this summer….” He instantly regretted mentioning Bingley, for Elizabeth blushed at the name, and turned away. “I apologize if that was indelicate.”

     “Not at all, sir.

     “And what of the rest of it? Do you think me a beast, Miss Bennet?”

     She shook her head emphatically. “No indeed, Mr. Darcy. How could I think ill of one who has suffered so much? I think you are so determined to be a good man, you torture yourself undeservedly. Do not give up on your sister. It is clear you love her very much, and I would hate to see her miss out on experiencing that kind of love. Fight for her, and I am sure you will be rewarded, for a young girl at such a tender age has such a full heart to give, I can well attest to that.”

     Darcy was overcome with emotion, and stopped walking for a moment to gaze at Elizabeth, bringing both of her hands to his lips. “I cannot tell you what that means to me, Miss Bennet. You have given me absolution, and better, you have given me hope.”

 

 

Chapter Text

  1. 14.

 

 

 

     For nearly a week, there was little discourse between the residents of Rosings and the parsonage. Mr. Collins ventured thither each morning, only to be told that the family was much occupied with estate matters; he was most seriously displeased. Jane did her best to console her husband, reminding him that the business of estate management required very little counsel of an ecclesiastical nature. She advised that they direct their attention toward their parishioners, seeing to their spiritual needs and reminding them to keep Lady Catherine and her daughter in their prayers – and if the family at Rosings took notice, so much the better.  

     Elizabeth continued her morning walks, and on several occasions she encountered Mr. Darcy. She was relieved to find that there was no awkwardness between them after their first meeting by the stream, for she had half expected him to regret his openness with her, yet it appeared he did not. She might even say they were friends. He was reserved and often sullen, no doubt due to recent events, though Elizabeth could not imagine him as a naturally gregarious man, even under ordinary circumstances.  

     Their conversations, though not so serious as the first, were stimulating and genuine. They each spoke at length of their homes, and as neither had either seen the other’s home county, there was much to be said of both. Mr. Darcy was charmed by Elizabeth’s sentimental account of her village, and she did not feel at all silly in professing her attachment to Longbourn and its environs. He was no less proud of his own ancestral home, and painted such a beautiful picture of Pemberley, that Elizabeth almost wished she could see it for herself when she travelled to the Lakes with her aunt and uncle. Of course, she would never presume.  

     Elizabeth offered very sincere praise of Rosings, as well. The house, though not to her taste, was very fine, and the grounds were truly breath taking. “It is strange to me” said he, “That all this now belongs to my daughter, though she is still in her cradle.” He sighed, his face clouding with a melancholy that would often overtake him. At such times, Elizabeth knew not how to react. There was such a tremendous sorrow about him, which she could not fully understand, and at times she caught herself wishing to comfort him, perhaps more than she had any right to.  

     She gave his arm a little squeeze, earning a wistful smile from her companion. “I think she will love this place. I hope you bring her here often as a child, so that when she is truly mistress of the house, she might be able to walk the grounds as we do now, and at every turn she will have some happy memory to think upon.” 

     Mr. Darcy smiled warmly at her. “Do you know, there are traces of the poet about you, Miss Elizabeth Bennet.” 

     Elizabeth shrugged, caught off guard by such a compliment. “I merely speak from experience, sir. I know every inch of Longbourn, and though our park is rather smaller, it is very dear to me. I might walk through the gardens, where I was scolded for trampling the flower beds, or through the grove where I fell out of a tree picking apples, or along the pond, where I doused my sister’s new bonnet when I was cross.” 

     He raised an eyebrow. “You must have been an exuberant child.” 

     Elizabeth affected her most serious expression. “‘Tis generous of you, sir, to presume these events took place in my youth.” 

     It was the first time she saw Mr. Darcy laugh, and it was a magnificent thing. His teeth were white and utterly perfect, and his dimples affected her so much she nearly trembled. “Might I ask which of your sixty-three sisters made the grievous mistake of incurring your wrath?” 

     “Only Lydia drives me to such drastic measures. In my defense, however, it had been my bonnet, but she stole it, pulled it apart and made it up new, and said she would wear it to church. I thought myself well within my rights by disposing of my own property as I saw fit.” 

     “And you are sure it is the youngest who has given your parents grey hair?” 

     Elizabeth was amazed by his comfortable, teasing manner, and by her own ability to affect such a change in his solemnity. “I am sure that I must retract my previous observation regarding your generosity!” 

     She was rewarded by more laughter and questions about her childhood. He seemed fascinated by her having so many siblings, so close in age, and she began to suspect he was rather envious of that, having but one sister at such a distant remove in years. It saddened her to imagine what a lonely youth his must have been, though it explained his reserve. He was more apt to listen than speak, though when asked the right manner of question, he could be surprisingly expansive. 

     He was exceedingly well-read, she learned, and she took delight in discovering one whose enthusiasm for reading equaled, and perhaps even surpassed her own. Books were a safe topic at times when he returned to his usual reticence, though even the silence between them was companionable. She began to look forward to her morning walks with him, for after the first few days they had arrived at unspoken agreement that it was to be their routine, and he would suggest other scenic spots they might explore.  

     These little adventures made the tedium of the parsonage bearable, for with Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth felt she might be truly comfortable. There was no expectation placed upon her to behave a certain way, no underlying tension or fear of sudden outburst, as there was with Jane. And though Jane seemed grateful for her sister’s company, even heeding her advice in adjusting to the Fitzwilliams, it was the change in manners that Elizabeth was able to evoke in Mr. Darcy that brought her the deepest satisfaction. That her friendship held such true value to him was evident, for though he did not profess his pleasure in her company, as Jane so often did, it was shown in every conversation with a sincerity that even Jane could not contrive. Elizabeth began to feel happy indeed that she had come into Kent. 

*** 

     Lady Rebecca called at the parsonage one morning, not long after Elizabeth had returned from her walk and eaten breakfast with Jane. Mr. Collins had gone to the church to prepare for the morrow’s service, which he felt would require more than usual delicacy, so Jane and Elizabeth received their guest, who came bearing a basket of fruit and flowers from the hothouse for Jane and a parcel wrapped in brown paper for Elizabeth. 

     Jane received the gift with grateful surprise, and her attitude toward Lady Rebecca instantly relaxed. Elizabeth took her parcel with teasing suspicion, knowing her friend’s inclination to spoil her with lavish gifts. 

     “Before you open it,” Lady Rebecca said, “I must extract a promise from you, Lizzy, and from your sister as well, that you will join us on Monday, for the Suttons are to give a luncheon at Cranbrook, and I desire you come and even out the numbers, for I find the gentlemen at Rosings very dull, and female companionship is just the thing. Oh, I have longed to come visit sooner, but there has been so much to do at the manor. Lady Catherine has begun to move her things to the dower house, and I had no idea there would be so much work involved! She is very particular about her arrangements, and I understand the place has been shut up since old Lady Helen died some twenty years ago. Twenty years’ worth of dust to be shaken from everything – I declare I never wish to sneeze again in the whole course of my life!”  

     Jane schooled her countenance into a smile. “How is Lady Catherine? I do hope she is comfortable in her new home.” 

     Lady Rebecca smirked. “She does love a good project. She has determined to change out all of the furniture and the linens, and to make some other modifications. Darcy and Robert have agreed that Rosings will fund all of the alterations she desires, so long as she cedes control of all estate matters to them. She will take her favorite servants with her, and they will see to the hiring of a new staff at the manor. It is a great relief that they have all got past the initial quarreling. Indeed, I think she is rather relieved to be free of the heavier concerns, though she is too stubborn to admit it.” 

     “‘Tis very kind of them to be so accommodating,” Jane said cautiously. “I am very glad to hear it.” 

     “Indeed, Jane. I told you they would not be cruel. Now, as to the luncheon, will you both join me? Your husband is most welcome, as well, of course, though I thought Mr. Collins might perhaps wish to pay a call on Lady Catherine, who is, at last, nearly ready to receive visitors.” 

     Elizabeth tried not to panic at the thought of Mr. Collins ruining such a fine prospect with his ridiculousness, while Jane appeared to consider. “I am sure he will prefer to see Lady Catherine. I should like to as well, but I can accompany him on his next visit. Let it be us ladies. Only, you are sure Lady Catherine will not object to our going? I could well forego the amusement if it were offensive to her.” 

     “She could hardly wish us to be so rude as to decline the invitation from Cranbrook. Sir Gerald is one of her oldest friends. Besides, it would do well for Robert to become better acquainted with our nearest neighbors.” 

     It occurred to Elizabeth that the parsonage was their nearest neighbor, and the glint in Lady Rebecca’s eye seemed to privately suggest that had indeed been her meaning. She gestured to the parcel. “Now, Lizzy, do open it.” Elizabeth tore away the paper and opened to box to find an elegantly tailored day dress of very fine embroidered cambric, the exact shade of green as her eyes. She looked at her friend with affectionate exasperation, and Lady Rebecca merely shrugged. “Well! I cannot help it if I dislike seeing you all clad in black. And besides, did I not mention the multitude of gentlemen we shall encounter? Look, even Jane is in agreement.” 

     Jane appeared conflicted between defending Elizabeth's mourning apparel and agreeing with what would surely draw the attention of suitors for her sister; she nodded in reluctant accord. Elizabeth, frustrated at the near-constant mention of suitors and prospects, was inclined to think that her sister and her friend were each had a very different gentleman in mind for her, and was about ready to tell them both off. Perhaps Seymour Sutton has a violent aversion to green. 

*** 

     The Fitzwilliam carriage came round to the parsonage to collect the two sisters at the appointed hour. It was a large equipage, perfectly accommodating for six, and even more luxurious than Elizabeth had imagined. Their journey to Cranbrook was swift, and once there, Elizabeth discovered that Lady Rebecca’s fear of lack of female companionship had been totally unfounded, for the group assembled in the conservatory at Cranbrook was a large one, and the gentlemen were decidedly outnumbered. 

     In addition to those she had expected to see, Elizabeth met with the widow Barnes, a kindly and fussy woman in her early fifties, who resided in the village and was well regarded in the community, despite her genteel poverty. She was joined by her favorite niece, a winsome, willowy blonde named Mary Barnes, who visited each year. The Eastons, whom Jane and Elizabeth had visited at their estate, Grandale, were also present; Jane was on friendly terms with Mrs. Easton, who had been the Sutton girls’ governess before marrying so fortuitously. The two Miss Eastons, daughters from Mr. Easton’s first marriage, had lately arrived to the neighborhood after completing their schooling in London, and their evident disdain of their new stepmother did not recommend them to many of the party. 

     Mr. Seymour Suttons was among the few to find the Miss Eastons a very welcome addition to their little party, for they listened with dutifully fawning attention as he spoke of his upcoming journey to his Scottish estate; Elizabeth, despite Jane’s subtle machinations, seized the first opportunity of escaping that conversation.   

     As was inevitable among so large a party, they quickly broke up into smaller groups, seating themselves at little tables that had been placed near the windows, creating the illusion of a picnic. At the back of the room was a long buffet table, where guests might avail themselves of sweet meats, bread, cheese, and fruits, as well as cold tea, punch, and lemonade. Servants were on hand to see to everyone’s needs, commanded like a small army by Sir Gerald. There was even a quartet of musicians situated in an alcove draped with vines, to provide ambiance. It was a lavish affair, which Elizabeth could not but imagine even Lady Catherine would have approved.  

     Lady Rebecca certainly did, and quickly obtained two plates heaped high with every delicacy, before leading Elizabeth to an unoccupied table offering a pleasant view of the distant pond and groves beyond. Her brothers and Jane soon joined them, arranging themselves so that the table was fully occupied. Lady Margaret, who had abandoned her husband, the Earl, to the tedium of his sister, was likewise abandoned to the hospitality of Sir Gerald and his younger son. Lady Rebecca gave Elizabeth a sly wink as they observed the Countess try, with little success, to escape their eager company.  

     So happily grouped, Elizabeth and her companions savored their delectable meal, and conversed very comfortably. Jane’s posture relaxed as she began to draw out Mr. Fitzwilliam, who, though shy, soon warmed to Mrs. Collins’ kind efforts at conversation. She was sincerely solicitous of Lady Catherine, though no less interested in his own impressions of the manor and their happy neighborhood. His approval of both elicited a meek smile from Jane. She expressed her own fondness for all the local families, and a hope that he would come to feel the same about those who had so quickly become dear to her.  

     Once satisfied that he was no villain, Jane excused herself to go speak with the Eastons, and regarded Lord Hartley with surprise when he stood and offered his arm; he expressed a desire to become better acquainted with the younger members of that family in particular. Elizabeth experienced a moment of doubt as to the veracity of such a claim, for he gave Lady Rebecca a most particular look before leading Jane away, leaving his sister alone with Elizabeth and Mr. Fitzwilliam.  

     Lady Rebecca smiled widely, and sighed with contentment. “Is not this a perfect day, brother?” His voice soft and timid, he owned that it was. “How glad I am to be away from Rosings for a while. And it is wonderful that at last you have a chance to come to know dear Lizzy better. I do not know what I would do without her here.” 

     Elizabeth arched an eyebrow. “Attend your step-mother, perhaps?” 

     “Ha, never!” 

     Mr. Fitzwilliam chuckled. “The new Countess has taken some getting used to, Miss Bennet, as I am sure you are aware. My sister takes little care in disguising her feelings.” 

     “I can heartily attest to that,” said Elizabeth. “Did she not tell you how she accosted me when first we met?” 

     Mr. Fitzwilliam, his countenance full of quiet mirth, asked her to tell the story, and Elizabeth only added a very little embellishment in doing so. When she had finished, he laughed merrily. “I can well believe it was just so. And so the dreadful Miss Bingley brought you together. What a pity she cannot rejoice in such a job well done!” 

     A pang of bitterness welled up inside Elizabeth as she considered another job well done, which Caroline Bingley undoubted was rejoicing in. Schooling her countenance, she teased, “And now that you are master of Rosings, I suppose your sister has two brothers to protect from that lady.” 

     “I doubt it – I am neither as tall nor as rich as my brother, and therefore perfectly safe.” 

     “You are a very distinguished height, brother. Perhaps Miss Bingley is rather tall for a woman – hardly an advantage – but to a woman of Miss Elizabeth’s petite stature, for instance, your height would be exactly right, I think.” She gave Elizabeth a significant look.  

     Mr. Fitzwilliam laughed nervously. “My brother and cousin quite tower over you, do they not, Miss Bennet?” 

     Lady Rebecca answered for her. “Miss Bennet is not so diminutive as myself, and I believe her liveliness and wit make it so that she could never be overlooked. And of course, she happens to be incredibly beautiful, do you not think?” 

     Mr. Fitzwilliam blushed almost as deeply as Elizabeth herself, but owned that she was, particularly when wearing his favorite shade of green. Elizabeth saw what her friend was about, and cast a desperate glance around her. She managed to find Emily across the room, speaking with Mr. Sutton and Mr. Middleton, and at Elizabeth’s pleading look, the three headed over. Lady Rebecca was obliged to forego her machinations for the time being, but a quick glance at Elizabeth told her the matter was not so easily dismissed. 

     Mr. Sutton greeted his guests very civilly, and seated himself near Mr. Fitzwilliam. He asked how he was settling in to life at Rosings, and once satisfied with Mr. Fitzwilliam’s answer, he would hear everyone’s opinion on his own lovely estate. The grounds were admired, and a tour of the house was offered was offered and readily agreed to. Elizabeth was happy to accept the offer of Mr. Middleton’s arm as they made their way out of the conservatory, and she glanced backward over her shoulder, sticking her tongue out at Lady Rebecca when no one was looking. Lady Rebecca rolled her eyes and responded with a saucy smile. 

     They went through the ground floor of the house, saying everything that was appropriate in each of the elegant rooms. Elizabeth found she was less pleased by the furnishings than by Mr. Sutton’s marked attentions to her cousin, whose every look bespoke an engagement in the making. After they had seen everything of note inside the house, Mr. Sutton would show them the garden, which was neatly terraced and led down the pond. 

     Mr. Fitzwilliam demurred, claiming he knew little of gardens or picturesque scenery, and suggested that he and his sister had an obligation to return to the conservatory and become better acquainted with their other neighbors. The others continued on, still in pairs, and as they wound through the garden, Elizabeth realized she and Mr. Middleton had quickly fallen behind Emily and Mr. Sutton. Her companion made pleasant enough conversation, but for the first time since her arrival at Cranbrook, it occurred to Elizabeth that she was very sorry Mr. Darcy had not been of their party. Why ever would I prefer walking in this garden with him, more than any other gentleman? 

     After a few minutes of idle chatter, Mr. Middleton peered over the shrubs, murmured, “Very good,” and gestured to a nearby bench.  

     “I have heard you are a prodigious walker, Miss Bennet, so I will not impugn your reputation by suggesting you might be fatigued from our stroll already. Nonetheless, let us pretend that you are, and take a few minutes rest.” He sat on one end of the bench, motioning for Elizabeth to join him. With some apprehension, she did so. “You seem a very clever sort of girl – I’ve no doubt you already suspect what I am about.” 

     “You require some assistance in identifying the various species of flowers?” 

     “Charming,” he laughed. “But no, I care nothing for flowers – despise me if you dare.” 

     “Have you perhaps a pebble in your shoe, sir?” 

     “Wrong again, Miss Bennet. I must say, I am surprised you did not guess it straight away. I will tell you.” He leaned in slightly, his voice dropping to a whisper. “I promised my dear friend Mr. Sutton that I would help him find a way to get some time alone with a certain lady today. I believe he has something very particular to ask her.” 

     “Oh! But how wonderful! I am so happy for them.” 

     “As am I, Miss Bennet. I have known Samuel since we were but boys, and I wish him all the best. I have never seen him happier than he has been in the past week, with her here. I hope you will be at Cranbrook more often in the coming weeks, to see it for yourself.” 

    “I should like that as well. Perhaps Jane and I shall pay a call to congratulate them tomorrow.” 

    “I think that he will be in London tomorrow – it is customary to seek permission from the lady’s guardian, is it not?” 

     “Oh, yes, of course. In my excitement, I quite forgot.” 

     “And it does you credit, Miss Bennet. You are very fond of your cousin, are you not?” 

     “She is as dear to me as any of my sisters.” 

     Mr. Middleton smiled. “Then perhaps I will bring her to the parsonage tomorrow to pay a call on you. I daresay she would be happy for the distraction while Mr. Sutton is away.” 

     “I think it an excellent idea, Sir. I am sure my sister would be happy to receive you.” 

     Mr. Middleton nodded his agreement, a stood to take another glance over the rose bushes. “Ah, here they come now, Miss Bennet. Prepare to act surprised.” He winked and offered her his arm, and they made a great show of examining the budding roses when the happy couple joined them. 

     The announcement was made, warm congratulations were offered, and the cousins shared a joyful embrace. Mr. Sutton was keen to share the news with all their friends, for though he intended to seek permission from Emily’s uncle, he did not plan on taking no for an answer; the matter, in his mind, was quite settled.  

     Once they had rejoined the indoor picnic and made the announcement, Sir Gerald called for champagne and some dancing, and the quartet was obliged to play a lively reel. After a country dance and a cotillion, the guests were fatigued, and delighted quite enough for one day; the party broke up, and the revelers returned to their respective homes.   

     The chatter in the Fitzwilliam carriage was lively. Elizabeth was relieved that she had largely avoided not only Mr. Seymour Sutton, but her sister's ill humor. Mr. Fitzwilliam was very well pleased with his new neighbors, Jane was very well pleased with Mr. Fitzwilliam, and Lady Margaret was pleased to be out of the sun at last, for she had begun to fear for her complexion. Lady Rebecca was happy for Emily, and suggested that oftentimes one engagement would lead to others in the community. Lord Hartley gave Elizabeth an arch look before flatly asking his sister which lucky gentleman had caught her eye. Determined to be obtuse, she replied that she had always fancied finding a second son with holdings in Scotland, and burst into riotous laughter as Jane grimaced at her.  

     Back at the parsonage, after the events of the day had been relayed to Mr. Collins over dinner, Elizabeth announced she was exhausted, and retired early. She was happy for Emily, truly happy for her, but could only think of herself. The expectations placed upon her by all her family, and even her dearest friends, seemed too much to bear.  

     Lady Rebecca seemed determined to have her for a sister, though it had crossed Elizabeth’s mind that Lady Rebecca had only concocted the plan as a lark, thinking to vex Jane by setting Elizabeth up as the new mistress of Rosings.  

     Jane’s intentions were more troubling. She wished Elizabeth to wed for selfish reasons, and seemed to feel a sense of authority in selecting the man. The brothers at Rosings were out of the question, for Jane could not countenance her sister reaching too high. She had originally fixed on Seymour Sutton, likely enjoying the notion that he was almost as much of a toad-eater as Mr. Collins, and in marrying him Elizabeth would not be triumphing over Jane. Perhaps she even wished to see Elizabeth shipped off to Scotland.  

     Jane had made no objection to Mr. Middleton’s paying her attention, and though he, as well as just about every man in England, seemed vastly preferable to the younger Mr. Sutton, Elizabeth was only just beginning to know the man. The hunting party at Cranbrook would not likely last much longer, nor would Elizabeth’s tenure at the parsonage, leaving them very little time to become acquainted, despite his charming promise to call upon her. Smiling, she considered how very enjoyable it had been when he had whispered in her ear on the bench in the garden. He was not quite a handsome man, but there was something very pleasant about his mouth when he spoke. 

     Bah! I am grown nonsensical. The truth was, she would soon return home, and must bear her mother’s disappointment in the hopes that it would soon pass. Six months ago, before Mr. Collins came around, there was no such fuss about the urgency of matrimony, other than the occasional speculation from her mother. Elizabeth was determined that she would fret no more about it; she would be as she ever was, perfectly content, and say as little as possible to her family about Mr. Bingley and the other gentlemen she had met.  

     That night, she dreamt of Mr. Darcy. 

Chapter Text

  

  

  

     Elizabeth woke just before dawn, unable to shake the sensations she had experienced. It had been so real, more a memory than a dream. She had been back at the Twelfth Night Ball, and she had remembered everything. Dancing with Mr. Darcy had been ethereal and intense, and she had not wanted it to end. When it was over, the masked highwayman accosted her and Mr. Darcy frightened him away, only in her dream the highwayman took off his mask and was revealed to be Seymour Sutton. Mr. Darcy took his leave and vanished in the crowd, only to appear again later, and he kissed her beneath the mistletoe – not the chaste kiss she had actually shared with Mr. Bingley, but something more passionate. It had made her burn inside, and long for him to devour her.  

     She drew the covers about her, breathing heavily as she felt it still. And then it struck her – of all the gentlemen of her acquaintance, past or present, never had she felt so inexplicably drawn to a man. Natural perhaps, given their morning interludes, but extremely inappropriate. He was in mourning, and very recently so. He was actually a friend of Mr. Bingley’s. And he was so very far above her. No, no, no, this cannot be happening.  

     Elizabeth rose from her bed, determined to reason with herself as she dressed for the day. Mr. Darcy was her friend, nothing more. Her feelings toward him could not be romantic – they could not – what she was experiencing was merely the natural sentiment his sad situation would inevitably arouse in a woman’s heart. Who could not feel for the brooding widower?  

     Pulling on her walking boots, Elizabeth hesitated at the door. Perhaps she ought not go out this morning, for she was sure to encounter him. Or perhaps she could take a different path, avoiding the grove to the south, which he had mentioned he intended to survey next. But no, he would be expecting her, and would know she was avoiding him. It would only make it more awkward when they did meet again.   

     No, she must go. Not because she longed to see him, but because she enjoyed his friendship. They would speak together just as they ever had, and she would realize she had been mistaken, that her dream had been just that, and nothing more. He was just her friend, and she was not afraid of him. Elizabeth hastened downstairs, and took the gravel path headed south.   

***  

     Darcy began to worry that he might not meet with Elizabeth that morning. He had mentioned his intention of walking that direction, as he always did. Perhaps he had pushed his luck too far with her; planning these daily meetings was skirting on the bounds of propriety, though they were hardly assignations.   

     Had her sister or that awful parson discovered them? Had he put Elizabeth in an uncomfortable position by relishing the friendship that had blossomed between them? Darcy frowned. Was it just friendship? A woman like Caroline Bingley would already be ordering her wedding clothes, but Elizabeth was different.   

     When she had come upon him by the stream that day, he had let her see more of himself than he had ever shown anyone outside of his own family circle. And what a taste of heaven it had been for him, after months of trying to repress his thoughts of her, to discover that the real Elizabeth Bennet was even better, possessed of a greater depth of feeling and spirit, than the specter of her that had lived in his imagination.   

     Their friendship was certainly a peculiar one, and he dreaded the idea that it might become necessary to explain it to others, should his family or hers become aware of their morning interludes. He depended upon them like the very air he breathed; starting his day with her got him through the pain and vexation of everything that followed. Facing his heartbroken aunt, who blamed him for her daughter’s death, reviewing estate matters with Robert, sitting through tediously awkward meals with his extended family, and constantly rehashing the awful things Georgiana had said to him – all this would have been impossible to bear had he not had something to look forward to each day. To lose that comfort would drive him mad.   

     Darcy paced, wondering what he was about. Surely he would have to face the pain of parting with her eventually. Robert was showing a promising level of sufficiency in getting the affairs of Rosings in order, and before long Darcy’s presence would no longer be as necessary there as it was at Pemberley.  

     Finally Elizabeth appeared on the path, seemingly as pensive as himself. He greeted her as he always did, with a very proper bow and a smile that he hoped was not too eager. “Good morning, Miss Bennet, I trust you are well?”  

     She gave a little nod as she accepted his offered arm, but the furrow of her brow concerned him. “Miss Bennet, if there is something on your mind, I would hope we are friends enough that you would speak freely to me. Perhaps I might even be able to help.”  

     Her response was a wistful smile that did not reach her eyes. She looked intently at him, almost searchingly, before turning away at last. “If you possess the ability to control a person’s dreams, Mr. Darcy, I would gladly accept your assistance.”  

     “Sadly, no, I have not practiced the dark arts in some years.” His jest was rewarded with her tinkling laughter, but she said nothing further. Though Darcy was not accustomed to leading the conversation, he made another attempt. “I suppose you must tell me now, what manner of haunting plagued your visit to Cranbrook yesterday. Did you discover the ghost of poor old Lady Geraldine?”  

     Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “Was Sir Gerald’s wife really called Lady Geraldine?”  

     “I’ve no idea. I certainly hope not.”  

     “Really, Mr. Darcy.”  

     He shrugged, giving a little smile to put her at ease. He asked after her day at Cranbrook, supposing that without any paranormal activity, it must have been a very dull affair.   

     “It was pleasant enough. Jane behaved very well, and it was good to see how happily she gets on with all the local families. She was even very civil to Rebecca, which was a great relief.”  

     Darcy recalled the argument he had unwittingly interrupted between the two sisters. Though he had heard but little of it, his cousins had all been mentioned, and not very generously. Of course, it had been Jane's demeanor towards Elizabeth at the time that had caused him the most alarm. Not wishing to allude to what would only cause her pain, he said only, “I understand Rebecca can be… an acquired taste.”  

     Elizabeth laughed again. “Make no mistake, I do adore her, but I can see how Jane might not. In her mind, I need correction and not encouragement, and Lady Rebecca gives me a healthy dose of the latter.”  

     Darcy shook his head. “Then she is wrong, Miss Bennet; you require no correction whatsoever, only affection.” Darcy paused, coloring at his own words as Elizabeth turned her head to hide her blush behind the wide brim of her bonnet. “The sisterly affection my cousin shows you must remind Mrs. Collins of her own deficiencies. Therefore, I would say it is she who requires correction.”  

     Elizabeth looked back at him again, her green eyes scrutinizing him. “Thank you. And by the by, I believe I owe you another set of thanks, which I do not recall ever giving, for your rescue at the ball.”  

     Darcy was puzzled. “The ball?”  

     “The Twelfth Night. The masked highwayman… surely I did not imagine it….” She trailed off, chewing her lip thoughtfully.   

     “Oh, yes. Do not trouble yourself, Miss Bennet, I was happy to be of service. I will own, of all my remembrances of that night, that part I had quite forgotten.”  

     “So had I, at first, but when I woke up this morning I felt I must acknowledge your kindness in the matter.”  

     Darcy nodded, and for a moment they lapsed into silence. Their path took them past the old hunting lodge, which had fallen into disrepair, and he made a mental note to mention it to Robert later. And then another idea struck him, and his heart nearly missed a beat. “Miss Bennet, pray forgive me, but, of what, exactly, did you dream last night, that would remind you to thank me for, as you say, rescuing you at the ball?"  

     Elizabeth coughed and turned away, and he belatedly realized he had unwittingly embarrassed her. What was I thinking to ask such a question?  As Darcy struggled to master his overwhelming inner turmoil, Elizabeth took a deep breath and met his eye at last. “Of things that frighten me,” she said, the trace of a challenge in her portentous expression.  

     He hesitated, sensing there was more she was not saying. The feelings he had been examining that morning, his own ambivalence on the nature of their friendship – did she suspect the depth of his regard? Had he frightened her, or disgusted her, by revealing too much of his interest? But no, that could not be. She was here with him, of her own volition, and it was he who should be frightened, for all that she had awakened within him. “You are very fearsome yourself, madam, I would beg you not forget it."  

     Her laugh was almost bitter. "I shall try to remember that, sir."  

     "If you do forget, I would be most happy to oblige you by intimidating any manner of blackguards or other foes that stand in your way."  

     She laughed again, arching an eyebrow as a playful smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. "Is that so? You are welcome to come 'round the parsonage, then, at any time." With a sudden scowl, the solemnity returned, and she averted her eyes again.     

     Darcy felt himself a great fool for presuming that Elizabeth's distress had aught to do with him; clearly, what she had to fear lay at the parsonage, as he should have known. The sister was a petty, jealous creature; Darcy had seen through her right away, though it seemed as if Elizabeth was still struggling to accept it. And the parson – how such a toad-eater could be even distantly related to Miss Bennet was entirely baffling – the parson was actually to inherit her home, according to Rebecca. No doubt her time residing in Mr. Collins' present abode must make her wish her father a long and healthy life.   

     He was at once filled with a renewed sense of appreciation for the woman on his arm, and annoyed at the thought of those who could not share in this sentiment. The servile parson and his snake of a wife fairly worshipped his aunt, yet they presumed to admonish Elizabeth, who was ten times the woman his aunt was. Even Bingley's faint praise was far less than she deserved.  

     The notion of his friend's regard for Miss Bennet jolted Darcy, who had been so lost in his own reverie, he hardly knew how long they had both carried on in silence. He thought it strange that she had never mentioned Mr. Bingley, in all of their conversations together, and found himself intensely curious as to why that was. He was on the verge of posing a prudently worded question to Elizabeth, when a curve in the path brought the sight of his cousins into view, just across the meadow. Making their way from the stables down the eastern slope, the two brothers tipped their hats, and Rebecca waved eagerly, her wide smile not unlike the cat that caught the canary.  

     As Elizabeth was evidently pleased to discover them, Darcy attempted to subdue his own vexation. There was still much he wished to speak of with Elizabeth, which must be forestalled by the appearance of the Fitzwilliams. Moreover, their morning walks had now been discovered, and Darcy knew that the moment he parted from Elizabeth, one or all of his cousins would be sure to start in with an abundance of questions and opinions he would rather avoid entirely.  

     Judging by the glint in her eye, as they all converged at the bottom of the hill, it would likely be Rebecca leading the charge, though as usual Richard appeared to share in her amusement. For now, it seemed, all their delight was in encountering Miss Bennet, who received the greater share of their raucous Fitzwilliam enthusiasm as they bid her good morning. Rebecca was swift in pressing Elizabeth to join their party, and Darcy's heart sank at the notion of sharing her company with his cousins.  

     "No indeed," Elizabeth cried, to his immense relief. "You would do better to continue on just as you are – you are so charmingly grouped, and appear to uncommon advantage. The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth."  

     Richard and Rebecca laughed heartily at Elizabeth's pert allusion, while Robert, unaccustomed to her wit, looked on with unmasked dismay. A strange sense of pride welled up in Darcy's chest, and he smirked at his cousins; Rebecca's attempt at vexing him had failed, for once, and as Elizabeth had chosen his company over his livelier cousins', his triumph was complete. He quickly bid them good morning and led Elizabeth on the winding path back to the parsonage, before the Fitzwilliams could prevail upon them any further.  

***  

     As Mr. Darcy led her away, Elizabeth quickly began to regret not accepting Rebecca's invitation to join them. Knowing Rebecca's turn of mind, Elizabeth could only imagine what manner of questions she would soon be met with. What she did not know was how she was ever going to answer them. She glanced back over her shoulder, unsure if it was too late to turn back and join the others after all. Mr. Darcy clenched his arm – his very muscular arm – and drew her just the smallest bit closer, and Elizabeth began to wonder if her heart truly was in some danger.  

     How had this happened? She had been content to be in company with Mr. Darcy before, but something was different now. It was more delightful, and at the same time painful, to be in his presence. She wished for conversation, but knew not what to say.   

     The path led them through a small copse of trees, which thinned to smaller shrubs as they continued on, affording Elizabeth a scenic view of a very ornate dwelling on the rise of a hill in the distance. It was too large to be a cottage, nearly as large as Longbourn, it seemed, but Elizabeth knew of no other estate so close to Rosings. Doing her best to feign equanimity, she asked Mr. Darcy what the structure was.   

     "That is the Dower House," he replied with an apprehensive scowl, as if the mere mention of the place might somehow summon its occupant.   

     Elizabeth eyed the residence with bemusement that Lady Catherine should require so much cajoling to remove to a house large enough to accommodate an entire family, and in no little degree of comfort, if the lavish exterior was any indication of what lay inside. Not wishing to abuse his relations to his face, Elizabeth said nothing her of thoughts to Mr. Darcy, who by all accounts had a great deal of respect, if not actual affection, for his aunt.  

     Mr. Darcy seemed to be searching for a way to fill the silence, for quite out of the blue, he asked, "I trust Bingley was in good health when you departed London?"  

     "He was, yes."   

     "Good, good. He wrote to me, about a month ago; I suppose it is well past time for me to return the gesture."  

     Elizabeth hardly knew how to reply, for she had no desire to speak of Mr. Bingley. A dreadful notion occurred to Elizabeth, tearing at her inside. Perhaps Mr. Darcy is only so kind to me because he believes me to be the lady his dear friend is courting. When he learns that is not the case, he will have no further reason to speak to me. Flushed with fresh humiliation, Elizabeth came to a sudden stop, and turned her back to Mr. Darcy as she knelt down, pretending to examine her walking boot. Concealing her hands from his view, she quickly tore at one of the laces. "Oh dear," she cried, looking up at him with shame. "The lace is quite ruined – I fear this must be repaired at once."  

     Mr. Darcy extended a gloved hand to help her to her feet. "Are you able to walk back to the parsonage?"  

     "I believe so, if we take the shortest route back."  

     "Very well, then, but do hold onto me, I would not see you stumble."  

     Elizabeth felt a pang of guilt for her deceit. "You are very kind, Mr. Darcy."  

     He smiled, his eyes full of warmth and sadness all at once. "Selfish, too, Miss Bennet, for if you sprained your ankle, I would lose the pleasure of your company on my morning rambles."  

     Elizabeth could not trust herself to judge whether he was flirting with her, or simply very lonely. Stop it Lizzy! He is in mourning! She sighed. "I daresay you may anyway, if my sister lacks either the materials or the inclination to mend my boot." This was hardly the truth, for if Jane would not provide her a new shoe lace, Lady Rebecca would likely delight in gifting her with a dozen. However, Elizabeth began to fear it was unwise to continue her morning walks with Mr. Darcy. Though she was loath to forego her favorite pastime, she had no desire of making if fool of herself, which was the only way this would end if she continued spending time with the handsome, intelligent man she was currently latched onto.  

*** 

     Elizabeth managed to maintain an acceptable degree of composure until parting with Mr. Darcy at the garden gate of the parsonage, though what they had spoken of the rest of the way back had been a blank to her. Once inside, upstairs, and alone in her room, Elizabeth indulged in succumbing to the powerful feelings that overwhelmed her. She sat for some time on the edge of her bed, arms wrapped around herself, lost in thought. 

     Engaged thus for she knew not how long, Elizabeth finally roused herself from this reverie, only to realize that she was no closer to understanding herself. She had come to no great revelation, but merely revisited in her mind the finer points of the last several mornings. It had been a wonderful sensation, but left her feeling embarrassed, and just a little bit vexed with herself.  

     She resolved that it would be madness to lurk about in her room, thinking about Mr. Darcy, and she did not even wish to consider why she had unwittingly shed a few gentle tears. After splashing her face with cool water, Elizabeth changed from her drab brown dress into the one of her new gray gowns and made her way downstairs.  

     Jane and Mr. Collins were already at the table when Elizabeth joined them for breakfast. Her brother-by-marriage bid Elizabeth good morning as she fixed herself a plate of kippers, muffins and cold bacon. “I must commend you, fair sister, for the very dear compliment you pay my noble patroness in wearing your mourning attire. Not only does it reflect your penance for attempting to dress above your station while in London, but it displays the truly great respect your sister and I bear her ladyship, which is nothing short of her due.” 

     Astonished by her cousin's wordy declaration, Elizabeth looked over at Jane, who showed no reaction whatsoever to her husband’s manner of speech.  

     With no interest in receiving a response, Mr. Collins continued, “I believe your obedience to your elder sister’s mandate displays exactly the sort of deference Lady Catherine has suggested we encourage in your character, and though I would not wish to spoil you with praise, I must state that I find the improvement most satisfactory. Yes, promising and satisfactory indeed.” 
     Her shoulders and chin up, Jane smiled with satisfaction at the both of them. “Mr. Collins,” Elizabeth started to reply, but she was cut off by a condescending part of the hand. 

     “Come now, let us not forget the other virtues. To deny or deflect such humbly given praise makes a lady appear to desire more lavish compliments, and is not an attractive quality. I do understand that you have been unlucky in matters of romance while in London, but that is why you are here, for guidance. Let your excellent sister, and myself, a servant of the Lord, be your guides. Our Father in Heaven has made the weaker sex malleable for this very reason, that they might be guided towards the correct path. I trust that before your stay with us is quite over, you will be well on your way towards the very state of wedded bliss you see before you now.” 

     “Sir,” Elizabeth cried, making every effort to restrain her temper, “I have no plans for matrimony at present. If you have supposed otherwise, I must inform you that you were quite mistaken.” 

     “Your modesty does you a great credit, I am sure, Elizabeth, but of course you must be thinking of marriage, for your sister has wed so fortuitously. You are next in age as well as accomplishment, from what I understand. And besides, with two highly eligible gentlemen available in the neighborhood, I dare say you have little else to occupy your thoughts.” 

     Elizabeth's color heightened as she considered how very mistaken her cousin's conjecture was; even Mr. Collins seem to blanch for a moment before correcting himself. “That is, two eligible gentlemen of your sphere, at Cranbrook. I am certain you would not be so foolish as to insult Lady Catherine by casting your net in a different direction.” 

     Before Elizabeth could formulate a reply, Mr. Collins received an unexpected answer from another quarter. Lady Catherine swept into the breakfast room, a harried-looking maid following quickly behind to announce the lady’s arrival. “That, sir, is just what I have come to ascertain.” 

     As Mr. Collins sputtered in astonishment, Lady Catherine rounded on Elizabeth. “You needn’t feign surprise at my coming all this way to have a word with you, Miss Bennet. Indeed, I can see in your countenance that you must have been expecting I would eventually catch wind of your little secret.” 

     She paused for dramatic effect, and Jane gratified her by reacting with eager indignation. “Lizzy! What have you done?” 

      Lady Catherine's eyes twinkled with malicious glee. “Yes, tell them all about it, child.”  

     Elizabeth's posture stiffened as she stared back at the dowager. “I daresay your ladyship will take more pleasure in it, and I would by no means suspend any pleasure of yours. Tell us all what you have to accuse me of.” 

     “Cousin Elizabeth!” Mr. Collins had turned a strange shade of purple as he alternated between scowling at his cousin and apologizing to his patroness. 

     Lady Catherine waved him off and took a step closer to the dining table. “Obstinate, headstrong girl, I am ashamed of you! Do you mean to deny that you intend to influence my son-in-law, to make him forget what he owes to himself and all the family?  You have used your arts and allurements to draw him in! It is not to be borne!” 

     Jane and Mr. Collins both looked between Lady Catherine and Elizabeth with no little surprise. Spurred on by their stupefaction, Lady Catherine continued, “It appears that her recent activities have quite escaped your notice. While I shall certainly have more to say on the intricate duties of guardianship to you both later, let me now enlighten you on how this person has willfully imposed upon my poor bereaved nephew. I know, I saw it all! This little adventuress you have thrust into our unsuspecting company has been engaging in secret assignations in the groves of my property. I saw them both out walking just this morning, quite alone, and she was latched on to his arm like the fortune hunting little harpy she is, prattling away and whispering God knows what, in an effort to get her tenterhooks into him. His wife, my incomparable daughter, is but two weeks in the ground! Is my nephew to be thus preyed up on, when he comes to seek comfort from the bosom of his family?” 

     Elizabeth rose to her feet, preparing to unleash her frustration on the imposing dowager, when Lady Rebecca burst into the room in a great commotion. “Oh, dear Miss Elizabeth, how relieved I am to see that you are well! My brothers and I were returning from our extended stroll, when I saw Lady Catherine approaching the parsonage with such great haste that I feared you were taken ill after parting ways with us this morning. Indeed, you looked very fatigued when we left you in the grove, and though Mr. Darcy was kind enough to escort you back to your sister's care, I was most anxious to see for myself that you were fully restored.” 
     Elizabeth gave her friend a grateful smile for the convenient interference. Taking advantage of the upper hand being offered to her, Elizabeth calmly replied, “Indeed I was most distressed about tearing my shoe lace, but with assistance, I was able to make it back without turning my ankle. If you happen to be in possession of a spare shoestring, I think I can mend it with ease. I would by no means forego the pleasure of walking with any of the kind of friends I have at Rosings Park.” 

    Mirroring Elizabeth’s own triumph, Rebecca smiled at her aunt and the bewildered Collinses. “Dear Lizzy, I would be happy to provide you with anything you require.” 

     Lady Catherine turned to her niece, her ire increasing. “I ought to have supposed you would encourage this hoyden in her unseemly and grasping behavior. You are a disgrace to your station, Rebecca, and as it seems that my many admonishments to your father have fallen on deaf ears, I must take the matter in hand directly. You will cease all connection with Elizabeth Bennet from this moment onward, as will your brothers. You will leave this house immediately, and when you return to Rosings you will prepare yourself for departure. Go, now, for I have another matter of the utmost importance to discuss with this young woman.” 

     Lady Rebecca regarded her aunt as one would behold a small, annoying puppy nipping at one's heels. Grinning, she sat down at the table. “As it happens, Aunt, I must beg Mr. Collins allow me some little time to recover myself. I fear I have walked too far today.  Perhaps I ought to have turned back when Lizzy did. I find myself quite fatigued from my rapid approach to the parsonage, and require some rest before I make my way back to the manor.” Rebecca fanned herself to emphasize her sudden exertion, and addressed Mr. Collins with honeyed civility. “Surely our estimable parson understands how grateful the master of Rosings would be for any kindness shown to his sister.” 

     Mr. Collins was predictably unable to formulate a cohesive sentence as he looked between the two great ladies before him. Jane managed to limit her vexation to the furtive glare she directed at her sister as she poured Lady Rebecca a cup of tea and gestured half-heartedly at the tray of pastries. “I am sure Lady Catherine can have nothing to say to my sister that is not our concern, as well. Pray continue, your ladyship.” 

     Lady Catherine nodded appreciatively at Jane before turning to Elizabeth and Rebecca with a grimace. “Perhaps it would do my niece some good to hear what I have to say – how far beneath us this young person truly is. Very well, I have come here to make you an offer of employment, Elizabeth Bennet.” 

     “Surely not! Your ladyship has already leveled some serious, and wholly unfounded accusations at my person this morning. Your estimation of me, however without justification, must certainly disqualify me from accepting whatever offer you have come to make me. Indeed, my very position as the daughter of a respectable gentleman must disqualify me from entertaining any offers of employment, which you must know would constitute a serious degradation. You have now insulted me in every possible manner, and I must beg you to return to the dower house and importune me no further.” 

     "Brava, Lizzy!" Lady Rebecca clapped her hands. 

     Mr. Collins again attempted to speak, when Jane firmly laid her hand on his arm, and rose to her feet before addressing her sister. “Lizzy, you hold your tongue! These are very serious accusations, and as your guardians in this house, Mr. Collins and I are entitled to hear what Lady Catherine has to say. You have no right to dismiss her ladyship, or anyone else from this house, and as you have been accused of putting yourself into a compromising situation with Mr. Darcy, I must command you to be silent until you are called upon to speak for yourself.” 

     As Elizabeth fumed, Lady Rebecca burst into unaffected laughter. “Come now, Lizzy, are you not excessively diverted? Let us hear what my dragon of an aunt has to say, and if it does not suit your fancy, you may simply return to London with me, as I am apparently quite banished!” 

     “How dare you,” Lady Catherine burst, wagging a finger at her niece. “Your father and your brother will both be hearing about this abuse. Were it not for my knowing your long history of such vulgar and base displays of effrontery, I could well suppose it was the influence of the company you keep, and rethink my offer to Miss Bennet here. However, I am reasonably convinced that her own lack of decorum has little to do with yours, and perhaps after your removal, she might not be beyond the reach of reclamation, with proper discipline. Miss Elizabeth, having now been made to see what folly any friendship or alliance must be between yourself and my family, will you now consult your conscience and consent to enter my employ?” 

     At last able to communicate coherently, Mr. Collins cleared his throat and spoke. “I beg you, Lady Catherine, I must ask, for I find myself quite overcome by the shame I feel at my unfortunate cousin, as well as the compliment of your own generosity under such dire circumstances, which of course is the exact manner of condescension I have long been fortunate enough to expect from your ladyship – you shall always find my wife and I to be the most loyal friends in your time of need, for it is most unfortunate to be so aggrieved at present, only to be further beset by the impertinence and disrespect of your own family, that is....” Smiling obsequiously Mr. Collins paused to recollect his initial question.  

     Jane was quick to interject. “Indeed, Lady Catherine, this is all quite shocking. Pray, what exactly is the nature of the employment you are offering my poor sister?” 

     Though eager for this entire dreadful scene to be over with, Elizabeth did feel some little curiosity as to what exactly Lady Catherine would have the nerve to ask of her, and listened with her eyebrow arched sardonically.  

     “Merely this,” Lady Catherine spat. “Whatever arts and allurements Miss Elizabeth has worked on my nephew cannot and will not be allowed to result in the most reprehensible alliance she obviously seeks. However, as she has charmed her way into my nephew's good graces and secured his attention, perhaps this unfortunate circumstance may be turned toward a more desirable outcome. You have his ear, Elizabeth Bennet. Use it wisely. You will convince my son-in-law to relinquish all further custody and care of his daughter, my grandchild, to me, effective immediately. He will, of course, be observing a full year of mourning, as is befitting for a woman of my daughter's station in life, and his. When this year is past, he will remarry a woman of appropriate fortune and connections. As his daughter is the heir to this estate, like her mother before her, she must be raised here, with me. It is what is right and proper. You will convince Mr. Darcy of the suitability of this arrangement, and after he brings me the babe I will reward you. I will increase your dowry by three thousand pounds, and will allow you to fill the post of Miss Julia Darcy’s governess until such time as you are able to find a husband of your own sphere. With your excellent elder sister so close at hand to assist you, and with the consequence my name will lend you, you will undoubtedly succeed in securing a partner from a more appropriate situation in life, as I am sure by now you have come to understand that forming designs on any gentleman in my own family must be out of the question.” 

     Elizabeth gritted her teeth as she defiantly held Lady Catherine's withering stare. “As I have already explained once this morning, I have no intention of forming any designs of any kind, upon anyone. I have no desire for matrimony at present, and I possess neither the inclination nor the lack of moral decency to do what you have asked of me. I will not attempt to persuade Mr. Darcy to act against his own better judgment in this or any other matter, nor will I accept any offer of employment, even if it were offered to me in a more civil and respectable manner. I must decline your offer, Lady Catherine.” 

     Mr. Collins looked ready to swoon. “Cousin Elizabeth, think of what you are saying!” 

     Lady Catherine sneered. “He will not marry you, if that is what you are holding out for. None of my nephews would be so careless with their own reputation as to debase themselves thus, nor would any other gentleman, once made aware of your slatternly reputation.” 

     Jane came around the table and grabbed Elizabeth roughly by the arm. “Lizzy, you foolish girl, you have ruined us! I insist you accept Lady Catherine’s offer.” 

     Diminutive Lady Rebecca stalked toward Jane like a hungry lioness, stopping when she was as close as she could get without touching her. She glared up at Jane as she reached out and removed Elizabeth’s arm from her sister's grasp. “Have a care, Mrs. Collins. I, too, will be speaking with my brother. I wonder whom he will listen to?” She turned to her aunt, still snarling. “There is no compromise here. Lizzy was with me this morning, as my brothers will attest to. Darcy escorted her home to ensure her safety after she broke her shoe lace. While I am sure she would have received the utmost care from her sister, had she ventured on alone and sprained her ankle, the Fitzwilliam men are too well-bred allow such an unnecessary risk. It is obviously the women in this family who share no such scruples. That you would consider threatening Miss Bennet with such malicious rumors, that you would stoop to bribing her to undermine the authority of the head of this family, and that you would insult her by offering her employment so obviously beneath her, and unspeakably unappealing, is beyond the pale. You have always been insufferable, but this time you and your two vile sycophants have gone too far.” 

      Lady Rebecca turned back to Jane, controlling the silence that had fallen over them all with relish. Her suddenly commanding presence, despite her stature, actually caused Jane to tremble as Rebecca addressed her. “As of this moment, Miss Elizabeth Bennet is no longer under your guardianship. She is now under my protection, and that of the Earl and Countess of Matlock. As such, she will remove from this house to Rosings Park until I can arrange for our conveyance to Matlock House in London. You will refrain from communicating with her through any means, without her prior consent. Furthermore, you will completely repay the value of all garments you damaged, belonging to Miss Elizabeth. You may direct this compensation to your aunt and uncle, with a detailed explanation of why it is being given to them. I will personally see to the replenishment of her wardrobe, and I am sure my brother, the master of Rosings, will wish to make some contribution as well, to repay Miss Elizabeth for her ill usage. Perhaps that sum might be drawn from your allowance, Lady Catherine.” 

     Elizabeth’s mind reeled at everything that was happening. Rebecca, Jane, and Lady Catherine were all speaking at once. Mr. Collins was still purple all over and looked to be on the verge of apoplexy. Her arm still stung from Jane’s vicious grip, and Elizabeth suddenly found herself feeling very ill. She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. 

     Finally, Mr. Collins could bear it no longer, and stood up on his chair, a daring feat for a man of his unfortunate build. “Silence,” he bellowed, gesturing as though addressing a congregation. “Hear me now, for the Lord has commanded us 'Honor thy father and they mother.' There must be peace among families, and obedience. God commands it! Lady Catherine, we must lead by example, as the pillars of this community. You must get your house in order, as I must mine!” 

     This outburst did not produce the intended effect, but rather set off an even more heated argument amongst Lady Catherine and her niece. As Mr. Collins scrambled down from his chair, Jane grabbed Elizabeth by the shoulders and shook her. “See what you have done?” 

     Elizabeth could bear it no longer. She pushed Jane away from her and grabbed Lady Rebecca’s hand, pulling them both from the room in a hasty shambles. As they tumbled out into the hall, Elizabeth burst into tears. “Please, Lady Rebecca, I think I must go now.” 

Chapter Text

16.




In the brisk walk back to Rosings, Elizabeth had vacillated between bursts of sobbing and bouts of rage, several times over, but managed to calm herself as they entered the house through the back garden. Rebecca’s favorite withering stare sent the servants scampering as she ushered her friend through the house, eager to get her upstairs and installed in a guestroom as quickly and discreetly as possible. Once upstairs, Rebecca led them through the family wing, where they encountered Robert, emerging from his private study at the end of the hall. Seeing Elizabeth's current state of  distress, he looked questioningly at his sister, and Rebecca gave Elizabeth a gentle squeeze on the arm before she left her at the door to the guestroom, and approached Robert in all haste.

"What have you done to poor Miss Bennet?"

"It is not what I have done, but what our dreadful aunt has done. I am simply trying to repair some of the damage. By the by, I have reason to suspect her warpath may lead her here, ere long. Whatever business you are about today, I suggest you stay as far from the house as possible until dinner, and take Darcy – take everyone with you."

"I had meant to review some of last year’s accounts with William."

"Well, do it over a pint in the village. I think you had better not be home to satisfy her when she is in such a state."

Robert looked skeptical, but nodded. "Anything else I should be aware of?"

"Our aunt’s carriage. It needs repairs. Lengthy repairs. Something that will take several days. Can you arrange this?"

"Will you tell me why she needs to be neutralized?"

"No."

Robert sighed. "I suppose I do not wish to know. Very well, I will see to it."

Rebecca stood on her toes and gave her brother a quick kiss on the cheek, a gesture he only pretended to dislike.

Elizabeth was still waiting in the doorway of her room, and Rebecca quickly ushered her wretched friend into the comfort and privacy of the elegantly appointed bed chamber. “There now, you are quite safe here, Lizzy. Do make yourself comfortable, whatever you require.”

Elizabeth nodded, her lips pursed together in a pitiful attempt at regaining her composure. She slid off her slippers –  the carnelian ones, to Rebecca’s delight – and sank down onto the plush feather bed. She did not speak for several minutes, but seemed to have her tears at bay. Fingers trembling, Elizabeth pulled the pins out of her hair and shook it free, before leaning back on the pillows and curling her legs up to her chest. Sobs escaped and she wiped hastily at her face, unable to meet Rebecca’s eye.

It pained Rebecca to see her friend thus. More than that, it made her angry. That her vicious aunt and that dreadful Collins woman, two selfish harpies of the first order, had reduced such a vibrant and deserving young woman into such a miserable state was deplorable. The injustice of it made her blood boil, all the more so because of how utterly helpless she felt under the circumstances.

"Oh, Lizzy," she cried, sitting down beside her friend. "What must I do to cheer you? Please, do not cry. They do not deserve the privilege of affecting you so. I will take you to London! All will be well, I promise."

This only seemed to trigger another wave of tears from Elizabeth. She moaned and said, “Am I to just run away, then? It seems so cowardly. It will change nothing, Rebecca, and will probably lend credibility to their horrible assertions. I am so ashamed. I wish you had not seen that dreadful display. I do not know what has happened to Jane, but she has come to delight in tormenting me, and I fear I will never escape her cruelty."

"Of course you will! You will marry far beyond Jane's station, and she will have no power over you."

"I can hardly see how that’s possible. What if she is right, and I really can do no better than the revolting Seymour Sutton?"

"Lizzy! You know very well that is merely what Jane wishes. She knows she has married the stupidest man in England, and has made it her mission to find someone worse for you, because she is jealous of you. But you are destined for a better fate than she, I am sure of it."

"You say that because you are my friend. I appreciate how well you think of me, but that does not mean the rest of the world will follow suit. I have no money and no prospects, and Jane has already told me that she would turn me out of my home if given half a chance. Perhaps I ought to have accepted Lady Catherine’s offer, after all."

"What a preposterous notion! Truly, Lizzy, that is madness. My aunt and your sister are two of the most deranged individuals I have ever had to endure, and nothing they should say should ever be taken seriously by any person claiming to possess a rational degree of sanity. They both perceive the world as they wish it to be, which in no way reflects reality, I am sure. Do not give credence to their insufferable presumptions."

Still Elizabeth wept, and Rebecca was quite at her wit's end. Torn between her general distaste for strong emotions, and her extreme fondness for Elizabeth Bennet, she could only pat her friend's back and contemplate how to attempt a different approach. "Only think of what fun we will have in London together! Perhaps it is a blessing that we are driven to make our escape so soon, when we might have dragged on in such a dull state here for many more weeks. The season is still in full swing, and once we have replaced your wardrobe, it will be balls and parties every night. Only tell me which sort of gentlemen Jane would most resent you catching, and I dare say we will make short work of it."

Elizabeth laughed bitterly. "You make it sound so simple. You forget I have had two months in London already, and could not even keep Mr. Bingley’s interest, and he is a long-standing acquaintance of my aunt and uncle."

Drat Bingley. Rebecca scrunched her face with annoyance. “Yes, I had meant to question you about that.”

***

Elizabeth flinched. She had hoped that she could put all that had happened with Mr. Bingley behind her. Having eluded Rebecca on the subject of before she departed London, she had even dared to hope that her friend would have forgotten all about it. And yet, she knew she must tell her. Rebecca was far too dear to her, and was taking great pains to console her; Elizabeth felt she owed her friend some explanation.

Rebecca listened intently to Elizabeth’s account of Mr. Bingley’s sudden departure, her face reflecting her every feeling. She was silent for quite some time before she asked, “And if he is back in London when we return, would you welcome any renewal of his attentions?”

“No, I would not. Now that I understand the extent of his sister’s influence upon his life, I cannot wish to bind myself to such a man.”

Rebecca grinned. “I cannot tell you how pleased I am to hear you say such a thing. I cannot imagine how any self-respecting woman could wish to subject herself to such whims and follies.”

Elizabeth smiled wistfully. “It is a shame, for it might have been a very fine match, were it not for his sister.”

“Next time, Lizzy, take care that you fall in love with a man who does not have such a malevolent sister.”

“I shall try.”

“Good. Now, Elizabeth, I do not mean to give you any more pain, but I must ask you, regarding my aunt’s suspicions about you and my cousin Darcy…. I cannot help but suppose that this morning was not the first time you have enjoyed my cousin’s company during your morning excursions.”

Elizabeth looked away, burying her hands in the folds of her dress. She had feared her morning routine would eventually be discovered, and after meeting with the Fitzwilliam siblings that morning, she had been quite certain such questions were to be expected, but she knew not how to answer. Rebecca was a good friend, but surely her loyalty would only extend as far as what did not directly involve her own family. Darcy was still Rebecca’s cousin, and was in deep mourning for his wife, who had also been Rebecca’s cousin. Elizabeth could not imagine that Rebecca’s affection for her would outweigh any natural dismay her friend might feel at discovering what Elizabeth herself had only just begun to realize was in her heart. She cared for Mr. Darcy, as more than a friend. More than she had ever cared for a man. Still, she could not bring herself to acknowledge it.


Surprisingly, Elizabeth's silence made Rebecca burst out laughing. “Oh, no, Lizzy! It is too much! Can you really care for Darcy? You are aware, are you not, that he is completely devoid of every proper feeling?”

Elizabeth could only behold her friend in astonishment. “What do you mean?”

"Only that he cares for nothing but business, which is infinitely boring. He never dances, hardly ever cracks so much as a smile, and I daresay I have not seen him laugh since we were children.”

Elizabeth could not reconcile this illustration of Mr. Darcy with the man she had come to know. He had danced with her, albeit reluctantly, the very first night they met, and had smiled at her and even laughed during every conversation they had ever had together. He was diligent and committed to the running of his estate, to be sure, and seemed to take a great deal of pride in fulfilling his responsibilities, and rightly so. “I hardly think we are speaking of the same person, Rebecca. Perhaps Mr. Darcy has reason to be very somber, at present, but really, I think he is naturally reserved, and perhaps too often alone with his thoughts. I will own, we have happened upon one another whilst walking the grounds of Rosings several times, and he has always seemed as if he simply needs the assistance of a willing conversationalist to put him at ease.”

Rebecca seemed to consider this, as one would process the most shocking of discoveries. “I am quite astonished by your illustration of him, Lizzy. Whenever I am around Darcy, he always seems quite put out.”

Elizabeth could not resist giving her friend an arch look. “I cannot think why.”

Rebecca smirked. “Oh hush, wicked girl! I tease him as I do my brothers, and they are not so very dour about it.”

“I can only surmise that Lord Hartley’s experience in battle has given him some advantage in his dealings with you.”

Laughing, Rebecca wrapped an arm around Elizabeth’s shoulders. “Well, now. It looks as though your good humor is returning, if you can abuse me so cheerfully. I am glad of it. I will call for a maid to attend to you, and send for your trunk to be brought over from the parsonage so that you can dress for dinner.”

Elizabeth’s stomach lurched. “Oh no, Rebecca, I do not think I am quite so recovered. Would you mind terribly if I took my repast here?”

Rebecca frowned for a moment, but then her countenance softened and she gave Elizabeth’s hand a gentle squeeze. "Of course, my dear, if that is what you wish. I will have a plate sent up for you, instead. Rest now, dearest; all will be well.”

Relief washed over Elizabeth as her friend quit the room. Rebecca’s efforts had brought her some relief, but solitude, she knew, could work wonders. Reclining comfortably on the soft pillows, she lost her self in thought, and soon after in a restful slumber.

***

Rebecca made her way down stairs and sent one of the new maids, loyal to the Fitzwilliams and not to Lady Catherine, over to the parsonage to collect Elizabeth’s things. She included a message for Mrs. Collins, indicating that if anything was missing from her sister's possessions, it would go very ill for her and her husband.

Just as this order had been dispatched, Richard sauntered into the room and gave her quite a look. “Have you had an interesting morning, sister?”

Rebecca frowned at her brother. She had hoped he would heed her warning to Robert, and leave the house for a while. “Have you?

“Oh yes, Lady Catherine has been here. I daresay I might have saved your life by telling her I had not the vaguest idea of your whereabouts, nor those of Miss Bennet. Where is she?”

"She is upstairs."

"So, she is under our protection now?"

"Yes, she is under my protection, and she will remain so for as long as necessary."

Richard chuckled. "So, there is a heart under all that prickly exterior."

"Do not become overly sentimental, brother, it makes you quite ridiculous."

Richard smiled, and rubbed his hands together mischievously. “Well, shall we get on with it? I know you saw what I saw this morning. There is some truth to Lady Catherine’s ranting and raving.”

That there was. Though Elizabeth had not owned to it, she liked him. Stoic, stony Darcy. It was most extraordinary. “Indeed,” Rebecca drawled, and gestured toward the sofa. “Do come sit, for we have much to discuss. I have a plan."

***

The Earl of Matlock retired early after supper, as was his custom since his recent marriage. Suppressing her disgust at what that was likely to portend, Rebecca relished the opportunity to be alone with her brothers and cousin. She waited a few minutes after the departure of her father and his ridiculous young bride, curious to see what turn the conversation amongst them would take; as usual, the gentlemen were all very dull. Robert and Darcy were discussing estate matters, some difficulty with a stable hand that Lady Catherine had only exacerbated.  

Rebecca lowered the book she was pretending to read and glared at Richard, beseeching him to come to her aid. He answered with a knowing smile and a subtle wink, and poured them both a brandy before throwing himself down on the sofa in a wildly indecorous attitude. "This is all very tedious, let us talk of something other than estate matters," he groaned, dragging out the last two words to emphasize his ennui. "I am bored of being so serious!"  

As Robert and Darcy gawped at her brother, Rebecca seized the opportunity to speak her piece. She rose from her chaise, giving Richard an affectionate pat on the shoulder and twirling the brandy around in her snifter as she languidly approached her cousin. "Dearest Richard, you cannot begrudge them having a serious conversation. 'Tis a very serious time, and they are naturally of such a serious disposition, anyhow. As it happens, Darcy, I have something serious I would speak to you about." She fixed him with a saucy, nearly seductive smile, one that would scare a lesser man out of his wits.  

Darcy's response was a dubious scowl; no doubt he expected her to question him about Elizabeth, and just what they were doing alone in the groves that morning. Knowing how ineffective it would be to ask him directly, Rebecca meant to take a different approach. "Now do not look at me like that, cousin Darcy, you haven't even heard my proposal yet. I only wish to help."  

His disbelief was evident, but he begrudgingly nodded for her to continue. "How do you mean to assist me?"  

"By proposing. What I mean is, I will marry you. The relative situation of our families is such that an alliance between us must be regarded as a highly sensible decision. As a rational creature myself, I cannot but regard it as such."  

Richard sat up on the sofa, his face alight with diversion, while Robert recoiled, sinking into a chair in the corner and looking as if he wished to be anywhere else. Darcy cast an importuning glance at each of them before facing Rebecca with bewilderment, and perhaps a trace of anger. "In such cases as these, I believe the established mode must be to express a sense of gratitude. Beyond that, I cannot gratify you; accepting your offer is impossible."  

Rebecca inwardly sighed with relief that he had not called her bluff and accepted, but persisted nevertheless. "And this is all the reply I am to expect? Your daughter needs a mother. Georgiana needs someone to guide her. Pemberley needs an heir. I am offering you all of this, and my dowry, which is nearly double that of your sister. These are circumstances highly in my favor. I might, perhaps, wish to be informed why, with so little endeavor at civility, I am thus rejected. But it is of small importance."  

Darcy fixed her with a severe look. "I might as well inquire," said he, "Why, with so evident a design of offending and insulting me, you choose to make your offer at all? 'Tis no secret that we barely tolerate one another. Is not this some excuse for incivility, if I was uncivil?"  

For a moment Rebecca nearly felt guilty. Though it had always amused her to vex her somber cousin, she did care for him, in her own way; it had never occurred to her that he might not like her very much. On the verge of feeling a strong sentiment, she gave a great sigh of frustration and looked to her brothers for assistance. Richard, still in a state of juvenile hilarity, had finished his brandy and was pouring another. He gave her a quick wink, but was clearly not inclined to speak up.  

Robert cleared his throat, pausing a moment to give both Rebecca and Darcy a punitive scowl. "Come, now, there is no need for anyone to be uncivil. Rebecca, I know you think it is a fine joke catching Darcy unawares, but it is hardly appropriate at a time like this. And I know for a certainty that is not your first this evening." He swiftly plucked the brandy snifter from Rebecca's hand and set it on the table behind him. "And Darcy, though she has gone about it all wrong, you might do well to hear her out. If not Rebecca, you should marry someone. Mourning or no, there is a child to consider. Society will forgive you, and I am sure Georgiana will thank you."  

Darcy's mouth twitched into a grateful half-smile, and he nodded at Robert. "I suppose there is some wisdom in your reasoning. Even so, it is too soon to think of such things. I intend to honor Anne with full-mourning. After that, if I do marry again, I should want it to be for more than necessity."  

At last Richard seemed keen to enter the fray, and he sauntered over to Darcy with a devilish grin. "And now we come to the crux of the matter, eh? You have done your duty once; the second time, you want to want it."  

"I wish to marry with affection, yes."  

"What a pity, then," Rebecca drawled, "That my dear Lizzy is set to accompany me back to London so soon. I might have been able to help you on, there, but I fear we have not the time."  

Darcy turned his head toward her, his eyes betraying what he would not say. He pressed his lips together, determined not to confirm what Rebecca already knew. Once again, the beginnings of a strong emotion stirred inside her; it was very annoying.  

Richard frowned into his brandy. "That is dreadful news. I daresay she is the only person outside this room that has made this place bearable at all since we have come."  

Darcy regarded Richard with something like suspicion until Robert spoke up, earning a greater share of it. "Rebecca, I thought you were trying to match Miss Bennet with me?"  

Now all three of them stared at her with displeasure, and Rebecca threw her hands up in exasperation. "I will own the thought did occur to me, but neither of the interested parties seemed interested enough, so I decided to let the matter rest."  

Robert smiled ruefully, fidgeting with his cravat. "She is a lovely girl, to be sure, but she is rather too like you, sister, and one Rebecca in the family is quite enough!"  

Rebecca merely rolled her eyes; it was Darcy who took offense to the comparison. "Miss Bennet does bear some similarity to your sister in temperament, but beyond that, Miss Bennet possesses a much greater depth of feeling."  

"And you think I do not, cousin Darcy? I have no desire for such great depth of feeling. It would no doubt make life very dreary, indeed. Case in point, Elizabeth Bennet. She is absolutely wretched at present. Why? Feelings! What an awful notion!"

Her brothers exchanged a sardonic look. Darcy, seething with indignation, stepped closer to Rebecca, his height forcing her to tip her head up to meet his eye. "She is not your plaything, Rebecca," he growled.

Remembering how wonderfully ferocious she had felt while putting Jane Collins in her place that morning, Rebecca drew her shoulders back and stood on her toes to face down his towering pose. "Is she yours?"

"How dare you!"

"No, how dare you, you big blockhead! How righteous you must feel, ever the gentleman, you would never dream of damaging a lady's reputation, isn't that right? Only that is just what you have done! I did not warn you and Robert away this afternoon on a lark - I thought to spare you pair of ninnies the wrath I incurred when our aunt discovered your mopey little morning rambles with Elizabeth, and she was made to flee her sister's house. She is under my protection now. Whatever you presume, know this, she is my friend, and as I have stood up to her vile sister, that awful parson, and our Aunt Catherine, I can easily do the same to you if I must."


Darcy looked stricken as he processed her words, and for a moment Rebecca almost found it difficult to continue railing at him. If only the stupid man would just admit he was in love with Elizabeth Bennet! "I see what you are about," Rebecca said, her tone softening. "Your conscience dictates.... blah, blah, blah. Very sad." She scowled dramatically, and shook her head. "I know what I must do, cousin Darcy. It is time you made your mind up." She fixed Richard with a significant look, feeling not the least bit guilty for leaving her brother to clean up her mess, and swept out of the room.

***

Elizabeth did not meet him for their morning walk, nor did she come down for breakfast. Darcy had been incensed when Richard told him she had been at Rosings, unbeknownst to him, for the greater part of the previous day.  

Despite his displeasure, their conversation had been a fruitful one, and vastly more rational than his altercation with Rebecca. Still, though he could not but resent her effrontery, Darcy begrudgingly acknowledged that Rebecca did have a point. He had put Elizabeth’s reputation in jeopardy to satisfy his own selfish need of her company. He had allowed his guilt and grief over Anne to cloud his judgment, and he had sought the comfort of Elizabeth’s companionship, thinking only of his own feelings. It had been wrong of him to put her at risk while offering her no security in return. He meant now to rectify that – he meant to offer her everything.

Darcy had known he loved Elizabeth Bennet the minute she met his eye in the candlelit ballroom on the Twelfth Night; he had known that he loved her every moment he had spent in her company since then. High-handed as they were, his cousins had forced him to accept it.

After speaking with Richard, Darcy was ready to proceed, unencumbered by the many obstacles he had conceived. Anne would want him to be happy, and she would want a mother for little Julia. Georgiana would flourish with Elizabeth as a sister. Even Bingley was no longer an obstacle, as it had turned out.

That thought rankled Darcy’s temper. He was not best pleased to learn that Bingley had raised so much speculation, only to disappear, exposing himself to the censure of the world for caprice and instability, and Elizabeth to its derision for disappointed hopes. It was not right, and yet Darcy felt some relief that at least he would not have to spend the rest of his life calling his beloved ‘Mrs. Bingley.’

No, she would become Mrs. Darcy, and as quickly as he could arrange it. She would return to London with Rebecca as planned, and he would ride to Hertfordshire to secure her father’s permission at once. He would perhaps be obliged to spend a couple more weeks assisting Robert at Rosings, but a fortnight was the most he could possibly wait before carrying Elizabeth off to Pemberley. Yes, an April wedding, and an extensive honeymoon on the continent in the summer. Then they would return to Pemberley, for autumn had always been his favorite season. They would even bring back the Harvest Festival he had so loved in his youth. And then, to London for Christmas with his cousins – how happy Elizabeth would be to be reunited with Rebecca again, and perhaps by then there might even be a baby on the way. And in the spring, Elizabeth would assist to Georgiana with her coming out into society. Darcy let out a sigh of contentment, completely ignoring his breakfast as he lost himself in the reverie of planning out the rest of their lives together, a perfect world where Jane Collins and Lady Catherine did not even exist.

His cousins were amused to discover him wool-gathering when they came downstairs some time later. Darcy was obliged to turn his attention back to his repast, trying to appear unaffected by their cheekier than usual teasing. In the end, it was not his cousins’ raillery that began to distress him, but rather Elizabeth’s continued absence from the breakfast table. They had all quite finished eating and prepared to go about their business, when Darcy began to fear that Elizabeth meant to keep to her room for the entire day.

Lady Rebecca, of course, knew what he was about. “I say, cousin Darcy, it almost seems as though you were  impatiently waiting for someone.”

Darcy allowed himself just a trace of a smile. The wicked glint in Rebecca’s eye was almost affectionate. Perhaps she was not so very bad. “Cousin Rebecca,” he drawled, “I happen to have some urgent matters to attend to today.”

”I hope they are not matters of business – how odious that would be.”

“Indeed, they are not.”

Rebecca grinned. “I hope your urgent matters will not keep you away from the house this afternoon.”

“Certainly not.”

“That is very good to hear. I have every intention of luring our elusive houseguest downstairs for some amusement. I am certain you would wish to assist me in entertaining her.”

Darcy had to admit, he enjoyed the strange sense of camaraderie he suddenly felt with his cousin. “I shall look forward to it.”

He retired to the library, where he began composing two letters. The first was a quick message to the doctor in Frodsham, requesting for the doctor pay a call on his sister and ascertain her recovery and readiness for travel. The second was a longer letter, detailing this plan to Georgiana with assurances of his affection, and a promise that he would depart Rosings within a fortnight. He left room at the bottom to include a postscript after Elizabeth had accepted his proposal.

***

Elizabeth had no intention of leaving her room. She did not rise early for her morning walk, for fear of encountering Mr. Darcy. She was frightened of her own uncertain feelings about him, and had no wish to lend credulity to her sister and Lady Catherine’s insinuations from the previous day. The sooner she left Kent, and all of its denizens behind, the better. It cheered her to think of how fortunate she was to have such a friend in Lady Rebecca. Elizabeth spent the morning in her room, indulging in her own private speculation as to what adventure might await her and her eccentric, amiable, and conveniently wealthy friend.  

It occurred to her that she would have to acquaint her family, both in London and at Longbourn, of her travel plans. She sat down at the little desk in her chamber to begin penning a quick note to her aunt and uncle, informing them of her return to London as a guest of the Fitzwilliams.  

The letter she penned to her father was given more consideration. He had always been her dearest confidant, and a part of her longed to confess the true reason she was leaving Kent, yet she knew it would only pain him to hear of Jane's behavior. In the end she decided to limit her communication to the facts: Lady Rebecca had quarreled with her aunt, and subsequently decided to bring Elizabeth to London with her when she returned. Knowing she must be giving her father disappointment in staying away longer, yet beseeching him to grant her permission nonetheless, Elizabeth closed the letter with effusions of how dearly she loved and missed him, and how much she would have to entertain him with when she returned.

She rang for a maid to post the two letters at once, and had only just sat down at her dressing table when a knock came at her door; a moment later, Lady Rebecca let herself in.

“My, aren’t we luxurious this morning, lingering so long above stairs, still in our night dress.”

Elizabeth smiled at her friend with an impish glint in her eye. “I am of the opinion that anguish and despair can only be treated with absolute indulgence.”

Lady Rebecca laughed, a robust, vastly unladylike laugh. “Dear Lizzy, I believe I am beginning to rub off on you. That is most satisfactory.”

“You cannot take credit for all of my impudence, you know. I was already very bad indeed, when we met.”

"Oh, yes, I felt it instinctively; that is why I was determined we would become the best of friends."

Elizabeth grinned, feeling the stress of the last several weeks melting away. “I suppose you have come to tell me I must dress. I had meant to be quite idle today, and shall require some convincing to do otherwise.”

"I am sorry to disappoint you, but indeed I have come to tell you to dress, and quickly, for there are callers downstairs who are very keen to see you.”

Elizabeth panicked. "Good God, who is it?"

Rebecca rolled her eyes. "Surely you do not think I would I would make you see anyone unpleasant. It is only Emily, come to visit with her fiancé and Mr. Middleton, who, I must say, was so very impatient for your company that I have rather taken my time fetching you. He is far too eager, that one, and it is a bit overpowering. Can you like such a man?"

"I think you must be mistaken. Mr. Middleton is civil to me, but nothing more. He is far from flirting with me the way Henry Audley does."

"Henry Audley flirts with everybody. Indeed, I shall have to remember to seek him out when he returns to town, he is one of the few men brave enough to try anything with me." She gave Elizabeth a saucy wink.

Now it was Elizabeth's turn to roll her eyes. "I suppose I shall have to do something with my hair. If you can keep them all from rioting, I daresay I can be down in a quarter of an hour."

"Oh, let them grumble – here, I will pin your hair up for you. I find it quite fascinating."

Elizabeth looked incredulously at her friend. Rebecca’s black hair was thick and curly, and cropped short in the newly fashionable style, hanging in waves just below her ears. “Surely you have no interest in such things.”

"Infact, I do. Sometimes I miss my hair –  it was quite long before I cut it.” Rebecca approached the dressing table and began styling Elizabeth's auburn curls in a complicated arrangement. “I cut it off years ago, after my mother died.”

Elizabeth glanced up, meeting her friend's eye in the reflection of the mirror. “Why?”

Rebecca smiled, a slight wistful smile. "My mother doted on me, and I adored her. Ever since I came out, we shared a private tradition. On special occasions, when we were going out to some ball or grand event, my mother would come into my room and send the maid away, and she would do my hair herself. I have Fitzwilliam hair, thick and unruly. My mother's was thin and fair, and not much could be done with it. She loved arranging mine, and could really do some wonderful things with it. I humored her, though I never thought much of it. And then....”

Rebecca’s hands stilled, and she burrowed her fingers into Elizabeth’s hair. Elizabeth reached behind her head and placed a hand on Rebecca’s.

"When we came out of mourning, the first event we attended after I returned to London.... When the maid came in to do my hair... I took the pair of scissors from my drawer and cut it all off, right then and there. I have kept it short ever since.”

Still locking eyes with her friend in the mirror, a single tear slid down Rebecca’s cheek. She ignored it, gave a little shake of her head, and quickly returned to finishing Elizabeth’s elegant up-do.

“I had always thought the short hair was merely a manifestation of your defiance.”

"I suppose it is, in a way. There now, what do you think?"

Rebecca’s handiwork was nothing short of spectacular. Delicate little curls framed Elizabeth's face while the rest of her hair had been plaited and piled high on her head, elegant but not ostentatious.

“I dare say this is hardly a special occasion, but I shall certainly look as though it is.”

"And perhaps it will be. Now, put on that lovely green dress and I shall meet you downstairs."

Elizabeth quickly dressed and met her friends in the front parlor, which was already looking less opulent since first Elizabeth had come. Lady Catherine’s ornate throne-like chair had been replaced with a much simpler, more tasteful settee, where Rebecca and Emily sat, gesturing for Elizabeth to join them.

Mr. Fitzwilliam and Lord Hartley were engaged in conversation with Mr. Sutton and Mr. Middleton; they all gave her a bow of acknowledgment as she entered the room, but only Mr. Middleton broke away and followed her to join the ladies.

Emily greeted her cousin with a ready embrace, expressing her delight in Elizabeth joining them at last. Emily had much to say, for Mr. Sutton had returned that morning from London, having received the blessing of her uncle and her step-mother, and had given her his own mother’s engagement ring, which was presented for Elizabeth’s admiration.


Elizabeth was happy to congratulate her cousin, and listened to several more minutes of her exuberant conversation; Lady Rebecca and Mr. Middleton, who had presumably already been appraised of most of Emily’s information, seemed likewise content to hear it all again as they took some refreshment.

"How I wish we could have seen you yesterday, Lizzy," Emily lamented.“Mr. Middleton and Cecily and I came round to the parsonage yesterday to see you, but we were turned away directly. I understand you and Jane had a quarrel.”

"Elizabeth simply decided she is quite ready to return Town," Lady Rebecca replied.

"I am certainly very pleased to hear it - in fact, I did hear it from Jane, when we went back to the parsonage this morning."

Elizabeth began to feel some panic again, but a quick glance at Lady Rebecca put her more at ease.

“La! That reminds me - I have a letter for you.”

"A letter?” If it was from Jane, Elizabeth had no desire to read it.

"It arrived for you when we were visiting with Jane. It was the strangest thing, Lizzy," Emily said, leaning in to whisper. "It almost seemed as though she had intended to keep the letter, for when I offered to convey it to you, she was most reluctant, and only acquiesced because Mr. Middleton assured her repeatedly that it would be no trouble, as we intended to come here directly. I cannot think what she meant by it, but Lizzy, I must warn that you she hinted at some very unpleasant things having occurred.”

Elizabeth cast a nervous glance towards Mr. Middleton, who seemed to have suddenly taken an interest in leafing through a book he picked up off a nearby end table.

Trying to maintain her composure, Elizabeth accepted the letter Emily passed to her, and seeing that it was from Longbourn, quickly tucked it into her pocket.

Emily spared her having to reply by turning the subject back to London. “By the by, Lady Rebecca, I brought my things back to the parsonage this morning. My mother wishes me to stay there until I return home, as it would not be proper for me to continue on staying at Cranbrook, now that Mr. Sutton and I are engaged. Jane is very out of sorts, and I don’t much want to stay at the parsonage any longer than I have to. Since you are for London tomorrow, do I presume too much, asking to travel with you?”

"No, indeed," Lady Rebecca said at once. "I think it a fine idea. How merry we shall all be on the way to London!”

Elizabeth agreed that Emily would make a wonderful addition to their traveling party. In such high spirits, surely it would not be long before she was laughing about all that had happened.

Mr. Middleton seemed less enthusiastic, and struck a very dramatic pose as he frowned at them. “What, all of you leaving Kent, and on the morrow? It is a very shocking thing you know, to deprive the whole country all at once of three of the most desirable companions for miles. I cannot like this plan, though I daresay I shan’t be able to persuade you from it. It is a sad day, indeed, when the distinction of prettiest face in Kent must now be passed to poor Mr. Sutton there.”

***

Darcy heard feminine laughter as he approached the front parlor, seeking out his cousin and Elizabeth. He faltered for a moment as he entered the room, astonished to find so many people within. His cousins were engaged in a game of chess, and Mr. Sutton looked on, speaking idly about some neighborhood business. Darcy could barely give them more than a civil greeting before his attention was claimed by Elizabeth.


She was an absolute vision, seated on the settee with sunlight pouring in the window, lighting up her beautiful auburn hair. Rebecca had gotten her to abandon the mourning garb her sister had ludicrously imposed on her, and she was dressed in an enchanting shade of green that set off her eyes to perfection. Her lovely face was animated with laughter, and though envy stirred within him, he was nonetheless captivated by the sight of her.

Rebecca looked up and sensed his hesitation. With a subtle nod, she rose to her feet and moved across the room to call for more tea, graciously vacating a seat on the sofa near Elizabeth. Darcy made haste in claiming the spot beside her, though he knew not how to draw her attention away from Mr. Middleton and his irritating charm. Awful chatty, he is, for such a plain fellow.

"Miss Bennet, I trust you are well," Darcy said, inwardly berating himself for thinking of nothing better to say.

"I certainly hope I do not look unwell," she said with a teasing smile.

"Certainly not. I missed you this morning - that is, we were concerned when you did not come down for... breakfast.”

Elizabeth blushed prettily. “I am fond of breakfast, but this morning I woke rather out of sorts. However, I am recovered, now."

Darcy felt all the compliment of her words, and was pleased that his presence cheered her. Certainly she would have joined him for their morning stroll, were it not for the unfortunate circumstances caused by his officious aunt. Now he only had to devise some way of getting her alone, and all it would be quite settled between them.

He had gone in search of her, certain and finding her with none but his cousins, which would have made it far easier for him to garner enough privacy to propose. He had even brought his sketchbook with him in the hopes that after she accepted him, she might allow him the liberty of taking her likeness, for he wished to include a portrait of his intended in his letter to Georgiana. His sister had a long held an interest in Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and he thought her curiosity might be gratified by seeing Elizabeth's likeness before they met in person. It would be a sort of peace offering, and perhaps, if time allowed, he might make a copy for himself.

Mr. Middleton interjected once more, assuring Elizabeth of the importance of taking care of oneself and observing how shocking it had been to hear of the discord between Elizabeth and her sister.

Rebecca, ever vigilant, made her way back to them, and perched on the arm of the sofa near Elizabeth. “I heartily agree with Mr. Middleton, Lizzy. Do not neglect your daily walk, I know how dear a custom it is to you. I do believe you will not quite be yourself at all today, unless you satisfy this imperative portion of your routine. You must take your walk, we all quite insist.”

Darcy seized upon the opportunity his cousin had given him. How could I ever have thought her so very odious? “Indeed, Rebecca is quite right,” Darcy said, enjoying how strange that sentence felt on his tongue. "I had meant to go out in the garden this morning myself, and have even brought my sketchbook down for the express purpose of doing some drawing out of doors, for it is such fine spring weather we are having it last. I should be happy to accompany you.”

Rebecca clapped her hands. “Capital idea, Darcy. Miss Bennett has a letter from home she might read while you are about your drawing, only do see she gets some manner of exercise.”

Darcy ignored Rebecca's devilish wink and deliberate implication. He rose to offer Elizabeth his arm, and she seemed happy to accept, when Mr. Middleton stood up beside her, apparently eager to invite himself along.

"Oh, dear Mr. Middleton," Rebecca cried. "I do hope you will not abandon us, for there is a very diverting little parlor game I wished to play, and I understand that six is exactly the perfect number for it, for it is a thing that is played in pairs. I had hoped you would partner me, as Emily will no doubt partner her fiancé, and my brothers must slog along together as best they can. What say you, sir?"

Darcy could barely contain his sense of triumph as Mr. Middleton was obliged to acquiesce. With Elizabeth on his arm, Darcy hastened from the house.

“I was not aware you are an artist, Mr. Darcy.”

“It is a passion of mine, though not one I am disposed to share with the world. I enjoy sketching, when the subject is something of great significance to me.”

“And what subject shall inspire you today, sir? Oh, of course, it is Rosings, is it not, now that it belongs to your daughter?”

Darcy had not thought of that, but supposed it would be a challenging enough subject to be enjoyable some time, though first he meant to capture the exquisite beauty of the lady on his arm. “I have written a letter to my sister, and wished to include something that would give her some cheer.” Darcy faltered a moment, as he searched for the words to explain just why his sister would soon have cause to rejoice. How happy this delightful creature would soon make them all - truly, it was she who would make their family whole once more. He would tell her everything, knowing that her tender heart would accept his abhorrent deceit, and even accept Georgiana and little Julia as her nearest and dearest.  

Before he could continue, Elizabeth spoke to fill the silence. “Today seems to be a good day for letters from our families; I confess I am looking forward to mine. I hope it is from my father, though I suppose that if it is from my mother or one of my sisters, it will no doubt be just as amusing, though perhaps not quite the same way.”

Darcy nodded knowingly. He understood that Elizabeth was her father’s favorite, and that the two shared a similar sense of humor and enjoyment of intellectual pursuits. Elizabeth spoke less often of her mother, leading Darcy to wonder if perhaps the woman was more like Elizabeth’s elder sister. The younger sisters she described as being full young and very silly, though she was still dearly fond of them. “Of course, you must be wishing to read your letter. Despite the deprivation of your charming conversation, I must pray you sit here on this accommodating little bench, and read. I shan’t disturb you.”

Elizabeth gave him a pert smile. “To your sketching, then, sir. Only consider yourself warned, for when I have quite finished, I intend to disturb you. You will be quite longing for the deprivation of my charming conversation when I am peeking over your shoulder and offering you little suggestions for your drawing.”

Mr. Darcy arched an eyebrow as he had so often observed Elizabeth do. “We shall see about that.” He sat down on the bench opposite her, and opened his sketchbook. Her letter appeared to be two full pages, and as Elizabeth was quite engrossed, he took the surreptitious liberty of beginning to sketch out her frame. He had just begun to highlight the finer details of her face, when she let out a great sigh of contentment and turned the first page over. It struck him how perfectly at ease he was with her thus. Even the silence between them was companionable as they went about their individual pursuits. Is this what life at Pemberley together will be like? Darcy’s heart swelled with hope. How quickly she had become absolutely everything to him; it was sheer bliss, after so much torment. Finishing her lovely face, framed by the most enchantingly unruly curls, Darcy moved on to sketching the wondrous curve of her bosom.

Elizabeth had set aside the first page and move onto the second page when she suddenly gasped, and a moment later burst into tears, clutching the letter to her chest. “Oh good God, no!”

Darcy sprang up at once, and rushed to her side.  He knelt down in front of her, taking her hands in his. “Elizabeth, what is it? Is your father well?” His heart tore apart as she shook her head, her face pink and crumpled with despair. No, not this, anything but this. Knowing all too well the pain of losing a father, Darcy wanted to weep, and without realizing what he was about, he wrapped his arms around her.

***

A strange sensation came over Elizabeth as Mr. Darcy dropped to his knees before her. She felt the briefest moment of elation, followed by a sharp stab of guilt. To be thinking of such a thing, at such a time as this! Distracted by the delightful warmth of his hands around hers, she scarcely heard what he said to her. No, not like this, not at such a time. Oh, how could this have happened? She shook her head wildly, trying to shake away the selfish delight she took in his attentions - her family needed her. And then, suddenly, she was in his arms. Incapable of any degree of restraint, Elizabeth melted into his embrace, clinging to him as though she were drowning. She wept into his shoulder at length, not only for the loss of her father, which the physician predicted would be soon, but for the loss of what might have almost been.

Reality set in, and Elizabeth pulled away from Mr. Darcy, who seemed to remember himself and stepped away. Had it not been just yesterday that she had tried to convince herself he was just a friend? And yet now, when she must part with him, the idea tore her heart to pieces.  

Selfish girl, she chided herself. Her feelings must all be for her father and her family. Surely he had not been kneeling down to – Shame on you, Lizzy! She rose shakily to her feet. “I must go home, I must be with him at the end.”

“Yes, of course. I will notify Mr. and Mrs. Collins at once, and send a servant to ready your things for immediate departure.”

“No, there is no need to speak to Jane, she has already read my letter.”  

  Darcy appeared taken aback. “Had she any idea what the missive would contain?”

“I do not know. 'Twas added in the postscript that Papa had fallen ill. He is feverish and unconscious, and the doctor is not optimistic.” Fresh tears spilled down Elizabeth’s face and she wrapped her arms around herself, slowly rocking back-and-forth on her heels.  

Darcy came toward her again, and for a moment Elizabeth indulged in the dreadful hope that he would take her in his arms once more, that she could smell the delicious oaky fragrance of his coat as she wept into his chest. He did not embrace her again, but took her hands in his and drew her closer to him. “I am so sorry, dearest Elizabeth. I know the pain of losing a father - I have lost both my parents. It is a terrible anguish I would spare you if I could. That your sister would not come and break the news to you gently is unconscionable, but you are among friends here.” He leaned his head against the top of hers, and for a long moment Elizabeth could feel his heartache as deeply as she felt her own. And then, she felt the incredible sensation of his lips brushing against her forehead. She let out a shaky breath and clenched his hands in hers, letting the dizzying comfort of the gesture wash over her. And then she felt him leaning into her - his hands were on her shoulders - in her hair - his fingers slid down her cheeks, wiping her tears away, and then his lips came down hard on hers - his mouth caressed her lips - his tongue slid against the roof of her mouth - her fingers clasped his lapel, and for an earth-shattering moment Elizabeth forgot everything but the feel of him.  

He pulled away, his breathing ragged, and Elizabeth instantly felt the loss of his proximity. She was overcome with embarrassment as his gaze bore into her. Had she really just done that? Trying to pull herself together, she looked away and said, “Sir, I believe I must go.”

His voice was strained. “Yes, of course. Forgive me. I am not at liberty to depart Rosings at present, Robert needs me, but my other two cousins will bring you home at once. I will see to everything. We’ve not a moment to lose.”

Mr. Darcy made ready to return to the house, but Elizabeth felt frozen in place. There were far too many people at the manor, and Elizabeth was not equal to meeting with them in such a heightened state of emotion. “I cannot – that is, might I wait here? I dare say I shall have a clear view of the front drive when the carriage is made ready. I have not even unpacked my trunks from yesterday. I am ready to depart at a moment’s notice.”

“Of course, you must require solitude. I will speak to my cousins at once.”  

Elizabeth sank down on the little stone bench as she watched him go, wondering with regret if this was to be the last time she ever set eyes upon him. How eager he was to be gone from her presence after her wanton display! Elizabeth chided herself, trying to think of her family, as was her duty at such a time. Poor, dear Papa! She wiped away a fresh set of tears as the Sutton carriage pulled around the shrubbery and stopped in front of the house. A moment later, the two gentlemen from Cranbrook exited the manor, followed by Emily, who whispered eagerly into her fiancé’s ear. Mr. Middleton, averting his gaze from the affectionate display, took notice of Elizabeth, and waved at her. She mustered up a smile and waved back, trying to compose herself as the two men drove away, and Emily came rushing towards Elizabeth in the garden.  

“There you are, Lizzy! I thought I caught a glimpse of you out the window before, but Lady Rebecca was most perversely determined to position herself just as to block my view of you. Indeed, it looked almost as though you and Mr. Darcy had quarrel. Lizzy, good heavens, are you crying?”

Elizabeth nodded feebly, and was obliged to fill her cousin in on the contents of her letter from home, and her plan to return there at once. Emily’s reaction was just what Mr. Darcy’s had been, shared commiseration for the loss of a father and outrage at Jane’s callous disregard for the situation. And yet, her empathy lacked the intensely passionate response Mr. Darcy’s has evoked with her. Elizabeth shivered.  

“Well, I am certainly not going to spend another night in that house with her, Lizzy – I am coming with you.”

Elizabeth had not the spirit to argue with her friend. “Is your trunk still packed? We must be off at once.”

“Hang my trunk! I will just borrow one of your dull grays, and Mr. Sutton can bring the trunk to me when I return to London.”

Elizabeth nodded distractedly at Emily, who put an affectionate arm around her. “All will be well, Lizzy. Your father’s health may yet improve. Trust in God. He will not abandon you, and neither will I.”

***

Once back inside, Darcy hurried into the front parlor, where his cousins sat clustered in excited conversation. They froze as he entered, staring in surprise at his frenzied state.

Richard was the first to jump to his feet. "Good God Darcy, what has happened? Where is Miss Bennet?"

Rebecca joined her brother in rushing toward Darcy. "She hasn't refused you, has she?"

"We must ready the carriage – we've not a moment to lose."

Rebecca laughed. "What, eloping to Gretna?"

"It is Elizabeth’s father – he is gravely ill, and the outlook is grim. She must return home at once."

Richard let out a heavy sigh as he took in the gravity of the situation.

Rebecca frowned. "Her letter from home... blast it, Emily!"

Darcy could feel his face contorting with despair as he choked back a sob.

Richard placed a reassuring hand on Darcy's shoulder. "Please tell me you had already proposed when she read this letter."

"No, I had not. Damn my stupidity! It was I who suggested she read it straight away, and afterward, I knew it was too late. And to think I could have offered her the comfort of a fiancé!”

His cousins fell silent for a moment, offering him a look of commiseration before they sprang into action.

"I will call for the carriage directly," Richard said. "Rebecca will accompany you, for the sake of propriety."

"Yes, of course," Rebecca agreed. "I will call for her trunk and prepare to depart immediately."  

Darcy turned to Richard, nearly choking on his words. "I cannot go with you – Richard, you must go. Keep them safe on their journey, and see that it is swift. She must not know the pain of being too late."

"Of course. I will ensure we take our fastest team of horses, only, are you sure you do not wish to come yourself?"

"We are not engaged, Richard, and I do not think I can offer her the meager comfort of a mere friend when she is in such distress before me. Not after....”

“Darcy?”


He hesitated, glancing warily at Rebecca, who scowled at him before rushing from the room to make ready. "I kissed her, Richard. I do not know what I came over me, and I am heartily ashamed of myself, to have taken advantage of her at such a moment. I do not know if I can face her again.”

Richard nodded, his countenance solemn. He seemed to understand how hard it had been for Darcy to make such an admission, how he despised himself for his own behavior.

"I hardly know what to say. I know this is a terrible blow for you. Would that I had left well enough alone, and not persuaded you to such a course of action that has only led to your present disappointment.”

"Do not say that. I imagine I would have felt it anyway. At any rate, it is Miss Bennet who is to be pitied. Would to God that I could spare her any pain, especially such as this." Darcy approached a little writing desk in the corner. "I shall need a rider to take this letter express to London. I am summoning my own personal physician to attend her father in Hertfordshire. Perhaps it is not too late.”

“You are a good man, Darcy.” Shouting for the carriage to be made ready at once, he strode from the room, leaving Darcy alone with his anguish.

After sending off at his hastily written missive to Doctor Willis, another idea occurred to Darcy, and he quickly scrawled a second brief note, blowing on the ink before tucking it into his pocket. He made for the kitchen, where he bundled an apple, some cheese, a sweet roll and a small crust of bread into a small basket, and tucked his note at the bottom.

Resolved, he joined his cousins in the front drive as they prepared to set off. Emily was with Elizabeth, leading her affectionately by the hand towards the carriage. Richard and Rebecca climbed in first, and Darcy helped Emily in before turning to Elizabeth. She hesitated as he offered her his hand, and met his eye with a fearful, searching gaze. He stared back at her, committing her every feature to his memory. “I know not when we shall meet again," he sighed.

She took his hand, squeezing it tightly as she stepped into the carriage, her eyes still staring into his. They were full of tears, and it broke his heart to part with her thus. Accepting the offered basket, she attempted a slight smile and nodded her head. "Thank you, thank you for everything. Goodbye, Mr. Darcy."

A moment later the carriage was off, but Darcy remained rooted in place. He watched as the carriage disappeared from sight at the end of the lane, his hand tingling with the sensation of that last brief moment, when her hand had been in his.

Chapter Text

      The Fitzwilliams' first inclination was to bring Elizabeth and Emily to their aunt and uncle's home on Gracechurch Street, but as Elizabeth’s letter from home indicated that Gardiners were expected at Longbourn as well, Viscount Hartley had decided to take a more direct route into Hertfordshire. He was solemn but patient, offering Elizabeth what comfort he could, as she spent nearly the entire first half of the journey weeping in Emily’s arms.  

     When, at last, Elizabeth's tears were spent, Rebecca encouraged her to eat something, and Elizabeth was very grateful to Mr. Darcy for having thought of providing her something of sustenance, since she had missed breakfast. Shifting under the heavy wool blanket Rebecca had wrapped around her, she drew back the napkin pressed over the top of the basket and reached for the apple. She noticed a slip of paper folded up underneath it, and quickly snatched it up and stuffed it in her pocket. Had Mr. Darcy really written her a note? She hardly dared to hope what it might say, and was ashamed of herself for wishing so desperately that she might examine it at once. Certainly she could not do so in the presence of her companions, and there would be more pressing matters to attend to when she returned home.  

     Oh, poor mamma must be beside herself! Elizabeth stared at the apple, willing herself to eat, but her appetite abated as quickly as it had come up on her. How miserable her family must have been these several days! It made her own recent troubles seem so very small and far away when she thought of what she would return home to. 

     The house was indeed in uproar when they arrived, late that afternoon. The Gardiners' carriage was there, along with another that Elizabeth did not recognize. She hastened inside as soon as Lord Hartley had helped her down; he and Rebecca followed at a more sedate pace, stopping in the doorway as Elizabeth ran into the front sitting room, which was shockingly full of people.  

     Kitty, seated nearest to the door, jumped to her feet and threw herself into Elizabeth's arms; her Aunt Gardiner and Lydia were close behind. “Dearest Lizzy, I am so glad to see you so quickly returned,” her aunt said, clasping Elizabeth's hands when Kitty had released her. With a glance at the other, Mrs. Gardiner smiled. “Emily, dearest, welcome to Longbourn. Lady Rebecca, Lord Hartley, I know not how this came to be, but I must thank you for returning my nieces to us at this hour of need. Excuse me, but are Mr. and Mrs. Collins with you?” 

     "No, madam, I am sorry to say I cannot tell you when you may expect their arrival. I believe Mrs. Collins is aware of the situation already.” 

     A strange sensation came over Elizabeth as she realized that Lord Hartley was aware that Jane had read her letter. Good God, and now Emily and the Fitzwilliams are meeting the rest of my family. Though she longed to rush to her father's side, she was shamefully mortified at the prospect of leaving her friends alone with her exuberant younger sisters and whoever the numerous strangers were that stared at her with such pity. 

     Noticing Elizabeth's bewilderment, Mr. Gardiner came forward, giving the Fitzwilliams a very formal bow. "Pray allow me to introduce Viscount Hartley, Richard Fitzwilliam, and his sister, Lady Rebecca Fitzwilliam. They are very dear friends of ours from London. And this is my wife’s niece, Miss Emily Carmichael. Girls, meet your cousin Emily." 

     Kitty and Lydia turned toward Emily with obvious interest, while Mr. Gardiner continued, "Lizzy, I think I must introduce you to your new neighbors from Netherfield, who have come to wait upon your sisters."  

     "Indeed, Lizzy," Mary chimed in, setting aside the book of sermons in her lap. "We are fortunate to enjoy such very neighborly consolation during this trying time. It is often said that a friend in need is a friend, indeed." 

     Her uncle continued the introductions. "Elizabeth, this is Mr. Edward Ferrars of Netherfield Park, and his family." 

     The gentleman from Netherfield stood, bowing to Elizabeth and her friends. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss Bennet, despite the ill tidings that have brought you home. Allow me to present my wife, Elinor, and her sisters, Mrs. Brandon and Miss Margaret Dashwood. Their mother, Mrs. Dashwood is upstairs with your mother and Mrs. Phillips."  

     The ladies all gave pleasantly demure greetings, which Elizabeth returned as best she could. Though her mother had written of Netherfield's new occupants, Elizabeth could scarcely recall anything about them, beyond their being found generally agreeable, and though she was glad that her sisters had some company at such a time, she could think only of her father.  

     She looked beseechingly between her aunt and uncle, and Lord Hartley and Rebecca. “I must go to Papa.” 

     Rebecca reached out to squeeze Elizabeth's hand, just as Mrs. Gardiner made the same gesture. “Of course you must, Miss Bennet," Lord Hartley said. "We must rest our horses a little while longer, but you needn't linger downstairs for our sakes.” 

     "Yes, come, Lizzy," her uncle added, ushering his niece upstairs. 

*** 

     Lady Rebecca watched as Emily Carmichael was absorbed into the younger Bennet sisters' giddy embrace; the three girls seated themselves away from the others, and seemed to be making themselves quite silly, despite the circumstances. She was certain they did not possess half of Elizabeth's wit, though she was at least relieved they had scarcely taken notice of the fact that there was a Viscount in their midst; she concluded that though they were not the most intelligent of girls, they were quite a thousand times better than the Caroline Bingleys of this world. The middle sister was far more bookish than Elizabeth had let on, and she had insisted Miss Mary was very bookish indeed. She was also dreadfully inclined towards sermonizing, which Lady Rebecca found not to her taste at all.  

     She regarded the new neighbors with interest, hoping for Elizabeth's sake that they were decent people; the Gardiners, who had arrived that morning, seemed already to be on friendly terms with Mr. Ferrars and his family, and Richard was conversing with them all with relative ease. Particularly with the middle sister, a girl of about the same age as Elizabeth, whose beautifully pale heart-shaped face was accentuated by a shock of red curls. She had been introduced as Mrs. Brandon, and as she was clad in grey, Rebecca could not but wonder if she was a widow at such a young age. 

     After speaking with them for about half an hour, Rebecca found she could quite approve of her friend's new neighbors, and had the highest hopes that they would continue to offer support to the Bennet family after she and her brother returned to London. 

     Elizabeth came back downstairs sooner than Rebecca had expected. She slipped quietly into the room, looking quite dazed, as if she hardly knew where she was or what she was about. Rebecca went to her at once, linking their arms as she led Elizabeth to her place on the sofa, offering some small phrases of consolation. Elizabeth thanked her as she sat down, and was soon absorbed in a gentle embrace from Miss Carmichael.  

     Across the room, Mrs. Brandon, who had been speaking animatedly with Richard, broke off abruptly and stared at Elizabeth, her eyes glistening with tears. Richard mimicked the gesture, and before long it seemed everyone in the room was staring silently at Elizabeth, waiting to hear news of Mr. Bennet.  

     Elizabeth stared wildly at them, her lower lip trembling precariously. She choked on a sob and jumped to her feet. "For heaven's sake, you are all acting as if he is already gone,” she shouted, and ran from the room. Rebecca moved to follow her, but Mr. Gardiner shook his head and gestured for her to stay, before hastening from the room after his niece.  

    Mrs. Gardiner watched him go with a terrible sadness in her countenance before turning to Rebecca. “Oh, dear.” 

     Mrs. Ferrars spoke next, her voice steady and kind. "Mrs. Gardiner, I fear we have trespassed on your family’s hospitality long enough. I shall see if my mother is ready to depart.” The rest of her family stood and began saying their farewells.  

     Mrs. Ferrars leaned in to whisper to her husband, who cleared his throat before addressing Richard. “Lord Hartley, I understand you and your sister have undertaken quite a long journey, and most unexpectedly. If you wish to rest your horses, and yourselves, you are welcome to dine with us, and even stay the night at Netherfield. You can start out fresh and return to London in the morning. Miss Carmichael, you are welcome as well, if Miss Lydia and Miss Catherine can bear to be parted with you.” 

     The two younger girls quickly protested the notion of being separated from their newly discovered cousin, who glanced at Mrs. Gardiner for permission before stating that she meant to remain at Longbourn. Richard dared a brazen look at the young widow Brandon, and happily accepted. 

*** 

     Elizabeth expected her uncle to scold her when he came out the door to the back garden, but he approached her with a knowing look, and wrapped his arms around her. He said nothing, but held her closely, rocking her ever so slightly, and after a moment Elizabeth began to weep in his arms. “Oh uncle, what if he does not wake up?” 

     “Hush child, do not think of such things. Doctor Morgan will return when he is done setting a broken arm in the village. We will speak with him about your father’s condition and decide what is best to be done.” 

     Elizabeth took a deep breath, trying to quell her tears. She wished to show her uncle that she could be strong, but in her mind all she could see was the figure of her father, frail and unconscious in his bed. 

     Mr. Gardiner did not chastise her for making a scene in front of their visitors, but gently suggested that perhaps Elizabeth was not feeling up to attending their guests at present, and ought to retire upstairs for some rest. Elizabeth protested that she could not possibly leave her father’s side, thinking he might wake up at any moment and be wanting her. She told her uncle that she wished to attend her father until the doctor returned. 

     Her uncle sent a plate of food upstairs at suppertime, as Elizabeth still waited devotedly at her father side. For a while she read aloud to him, and after she had eaten some, she began to simply talk to him, telling him of her travels. He began to stir, and finally seem to be coming to, enough to recognize her voice and call out for her. He was disoriented, but recognized her, and clasped her hand in his own cold fingers.  

     “My Lizzy,” he rasped.  

     “Yes, Papa, ‘tis me, Lizzy!” 

     He blinked, trying to focus his eyes on her face as she leaned over him, stroking his hair affectionately. “My Lizzy, you’ve come home to me.” 

     “Yes Papa, I am here, I am not going anywhere. I will stay with you, Papa.” 

     Mr. Bennet smiled and closed his eyes, again patting her hand. “My Lizzy.” 

     A moment later, Doctor Morgan returned, followed by another man, whom he introduced as Alfred Willis, a physician just arrived from London to assist in Mr. Bennet’s treatment. He was an imposing figure, young and stern, and was scowling furiously at the old surgeon. “Has the patient been bled?” 

     Doctor Morgan bristled at the censure in the other man’s tone. “Yes, of course he’s been bled.” 

     The young physician grimaced and came forward to take a closer look at Mr. Bennet. “He is pale; you have bled him too much. You country quacks bleed all of your patients, when there is very rarely any justifiable cause for it. I will take charge of treatment of the patient from here, sir. You may return to the village.” 

      “Now, see here,” Doctor Morgan sputtered in protest, and might have said more, but he seemed to suddenly take notice of Elizabeth’s presence in the room, and feel abashedly silent. 

     Doctor Willis glanced up at Elizabeth and gave a very formal bow. “My apologies, if I have distressed you in any way. I am only just arrived from London, and I am seriously dissatisfied by the level of mismanagement I often find in these rustic country doctors.” 

     “Mister Willis,” Doctor Morgan protested. 

     Doctor Willis glowered at the old surgeon before turning his attention back to Elizabeth, attempting a smile. “Again, my apologies. I have studied all manner of illness and disease in my extensive training, and I intend to treat your father with all of the most modern methods being discussed and employed amongst my peers in London. It is far superior to the level of care he might receive from a mere surgeon. I fear I must ask you to leave, Miss Bennet, so that I can continue my examination of your father. I understand your mother has been asking for you.” 

     Doctor Willis’s well-spoken and authoritative manner inspired a degree of confidence in Elizabeth that she had not dared to feel, and she hurried from the room so that he might be about his work, even as Doctor Morgan continued to protest his ill-usage. 

     Elizabeth found her mother in her chambers, waving her handkerchief emphatically at Mrs. Phillips, who sat at her side with a look of exasperated commiseration.  

     “Lizzy,” her aunt cried. 

     Mrs. Bennet looked up and moaned at the sight of her second daughter. “Oh no, and now poor Lizzy is come home, just when her travels were so promising. Oh my dear, dear girl, how sorry I am you must come back to us at such time. Your father is very ill, and I do not know what will become of us all! Jane does not write, and I do not know what shall become of us if your poor father dies!” 

     “Hush now, sister,” Mrs. Phillips chided, and beckoned for Elizabeth to come sit with them. 

     “Mamma, I am happy to be home with you now. Here, take my hand. All will be well, Mamma. I am returned, and a physician from London has come to consult with Doctor Morgan.” 

     Her mother seemed to perk up at this. “Oh, I knew how it would be! My dear brother! How well he takes care of us. Yes, that is exactly it I knew how it would be, I said to my sister that our brother shall sort it all out, and we will hire the finest physician from Town to bring my poor husband back to life. Oh, thank you Lizzy!” 

     Elizabeth stroked her mother’s hand. “All will be well, Mamma, all will be well.” 

     “But Jane, what of Jane? What did she say to you, child, when she heard the news? Is Mr. Collins to set upon us at once, to claim this house and put us all in the hedgerows?” 

     Elizabeth bristled at the mention of her elder sister. She could not even account for her sister’s reaction to the news, as Jane had not seen fit to deliver it in person. Elizabeth could not but wonder what her sister was about, thinking to withhold the letter from her, as it seemed she would have done, had it not been for Emily’s persistence. Elizabeth shivered, thinking of Jane’s cruelty in attempting to prevent Elizabeth from learning of their father’s condition. Did Jane truly despise her so much? 

     “Of course Jane will come,” Mrs. Phillips was quick to reassure her sister. “Only let us hope that there is no need for Mr. Collins to take possession of Longbourn.”  

     “Yes, of course,” Mrs. Bennet rejoined. “That is it, of course. Mr. Bennet shall recover, and there will be no need for Mr. and Mrs. Collins to come here at all. There is certainly no need for them to waste a trip coming all this way, if only my poor husband shall survive this calamity. Only, how I long for my dear Jane to comfort me!” Mrs. Bennett went on, working herself into a frenzy as she described the events of the last several days, when Mr. Bennet’s health had suddenly begun such a rapid decline. She quickly grew agitated, and Elizabeth knew not how to comfort her mother, fearful as she was herself. 

     Mrs. Phillips again attempted to redirect the conversation, and asked Elizabeth after her time in London and Kent. 

     Elizabeth kept things general and described her attendance at the theatre, and other London attractions, mentioning only her cousin Emily and her new friend, Lady Rebecca. 

     At the mention of a titled acquaintance, Mrs. Bennet redoubled her interest in listening to her daughter. “Lady Rebecca, oh my, how well that sounds. Is the lady married?” 

     “She is not.” 

     Mrs. Bennet frowned. “Oh, that is unfortunate. What is her age? I hope she is an old maid, for I cannot like you spending time with a young woman such is she, who is certain to steal away all the good suitors with her title and her dowry and leave nothing for you, my dear.” 

     Elizabeth assured her mother this was not the case. “Lady Rebecca is a kind and attentive friend, who fosters the same hopes for my future that you do, Mamma, though I have assured everyone many times that I have little interest in marriage at present.” 

     “Hush, child, how could you say such a thing, with your father laid up in his bed? Of course you must marry, and quickly. How is my poor Jane to fill this house with grandchildren for me, if she has so many sisters always about?” 

     “Mamma!” 

     “At least tell me you met some eligible gentlemen while you were in London. I am beginning to fear you are quite hopeless, and will end a spinster, like poor Charlotte Lucas.” 

     “Mamma, Charlotte Lucas is lately married.” 

     Mrs. Bennet scoffed. “Well, if you fancy marrying a man nearly your father‘s age, with children of his own already, I suppose you can remain obstinate, and never trouble yourself to recommend yourself to the right sort of gentleman. Apparently that trip to London was quite wasted on you!” 

     Elizabeth had no wish to argue with her mother at such a time, nor did she desire to divulge any information on Mr. Bingley, Mr. Darcy, or any of the other gentlemen she had encountered in her travels. She looked beseechingly to her aunt Phillips for help. 

     “Well, now,” Mrs. Phillips said, offering Mrs. Bennet her smelling salts. “You are come home to find we have some new neighbors here at Netherfield.” 

     “Indeed,” cried Mrs. Bennet. “I always said, someone ought to let Netherfield Park! It was such a shame having it sit empty these many months, with the Marlowes going off to Ireland. Only I had always wished it would be let to a single gentleman – how fine a thing that would have been for my dear girls. I shall never forgive that odious man who everyone speculated was coming in the autumn. It all came to nothing! What high hopes I had, and all for naught. And now this new family comes along, with not a single gentleman amongst them, or even any eligible relations to come visit.” 

     Elizabeth could well imagine her mother interrogating the new neighbors as to whether they had any connections of interest, on whom her daughters might form designs, and she could not but rejoice at having not been present for such a scene. Even Mrs. Phillips looked strained by her sister’s manner of discourse. "But they are good people, are they not, dear Fanny? It was very kind of Mrs. Dashwood to come and sit with you this afternoon.” 

     “Oh, yes, indeed! Such an elegant woman, and so very genteel, I daresay we shall get on very well.” 

     “What did you think of the rest of the family, Lizzy? Did you have a chance to meet them?” 

     “Briefly,” Elizabeth said. “They were very polite and seemed friendly enough.” She felt a pang of guilt for her outburst, and hoped they were kind enough to forgive her for it. 

     “Oh, they are vastly excellent people,” Mrs. Phillips assured her. “They have been in the neighborhood about a month, and everybody is very pleased with them. They came from Devonshire, but look to settle here for a time, and there’s a sad story if ever I heard one.” As both Elizabeth and Mrs. Bennet seemed sufficiently willing to listen to the family’s history, Mrs. Phillips continued to divert their attention from the crisis at hand. 

     “Mrs. Dashwood, it seems, is a widow these four years. When her husband passed, they were obliged to leave his estate, which passed to his son from a previous marriage. There was very little left to Mrs. Dashwood and her girls, but they took a cottage in Devonshire near some relations. The two elder daughters were married three years past. The eldest, to Mr. Edward Ferrars, who at the time held the living of a parsonage on the estate of Mrs. Brandon’s husband, who passed away last summer. Around that same time, Mr. Ferrars inherited an estate from his brother. It was the younger brother, who was killed in a carriage accident along with his wife, who, by all accounts, was a very nasty little creature. You see, Mr. Edward Ferrars had been thrown over in favor of his younger brother, by their vicious mother. But when his younger brother died, the property went back to the elder brother, who discovered his family home fallen into terrible disrepair. It was so horrible that Mr. Ferrars could not bear to see his family home ruined, and he sold the estate with the hopes of purchasing another. Mrs. Ferrars's poor widowed sister, Mrs. Brandon, was quite put out of her own house by her husband’s cousin, who inherited everything, and so she, too, will reside at Netherfield with her sister and their mother, and their younger sister Miss Margaret, who is the same age as our dear Lydia.” 

     “How dreadful,” Elizabeth exclaimed. “What suffering they have all endured!” She thought again of the mournful gaze Mrs. Brandon had given her that afternoon, and realized it had been one of empathy and understanding. Her heart ached; the sisters at Netherfield had lost their own father, but Elizabeth was not ready to accept her father’s loss, not while there was still hope. Having had enough of her mother and aunt’s company, she resolved to return to her father’s side, in hopes that there was some improvement in her father’s condition. 

     Mr. Gardner and Doctor Willis were engaged in a whispered conversation at the back of the room as Elizabeth returned to her father’s bedside. Doctor Morgan was noticeably absent. “What news,” Elizabeth asked.  

     She startled as her father gave a wheezing laugh and echoed her question. “Yes, what news, indeed? I should like to hear it direct, rather than eavesdropping while you whisper about me, as if I weren’t in the room.” He offered his daughter a sardonic look, though it was but a pale imitation of his usual mirth.  

     Delighted to find her father awake and coherent, Elizabeth clutched his hand in hers and kissed it. “Oh, Papa!” 

      Doctor Willis, looking chagrined, clasped his hands behind his back, and approached Elizabeth and her father. “Mr. Bennet, sir, I am pleased to meet you. Doctor Alfred Willis, at your service. I have just been discussing my plan for your treatment with your brother Mr. Gardiner while we waited for Morgan’s heavy dose of laudanum to wear off.” 

     “I can hear my wife and daughters screeching all over the house, sir, so I daresay it has. By the by, where is Morgan?” 

     “I have dismissed Doctor Morgan, Mr. Bennet. I found his antiquated methods to be gravely troubling.” 

      “Gravely?” Laughter again rumbled in Mr. Bennet’s throat, causing a rigorous onset of coughing. 

      Mr. Gardiner grimaced. “Thomas, this is quite serious.” 

     “’Tis a trifling cold.” 

    Doctor Willis’s face twitched with impatience. “Sir, it was a trifling cold a week ago. Since that time, your condition has deteriorated considerably. I understand you had experienced symptoms of illness for several days without seeking any medical advice, and would likely not have done so had you not taken a fall. This delay in treatment, and the existing phlegm in your lung at the time, the impact on your body from the fall, as well as your exposure to the rain from the time you fell, until your subsequent discovery and removal to the indoors – sir, these are all highly detrimental factors, which might have been avoided.”   

     Mr. Bennet shifted uncomfortably as the physician continued his admonishment. “You are now afflicted with pneumonia, and it is a most severe case. Would that I had been called three or four days ago – I could have stopped that idiot surgeon from bleeding you far beyond the point of necessity. I understand he ordered the opening of windows to cool your fever, and only desisted in this yesterday, when you began experiencing shaking chills. My treatment calls for extensive use of steam and steady consumption of water and warm broth, to aid in the expulsion of phlegm from the body. You will also need to take tea with peppermint and ginger; your excellent Mrs. Hill is preparing some now. The fireplace in your room is to be kept lit, with a small cauldron of water boiling at all times. The steam will assist in easing your breathing. The hot water may be used to prepare a warm compress for your chest, as well.” 

 
     Elizabeth squeezed her father’s hand tightly. He had remained alert during Doctor Willis’s speech, silent and stern. More than anything, Elizabeth suddenly wished to hear her father laugh again, but he did not, and his gravity unsettled her. She let out a shaky breath, and Mr. Bennet turned to her, feebly reaching up to stroke her face. Elizabeth leaned in to his familiar touch, and it was her undoing. Silent tears slid down her face. 

     Heavy silence fell on the room as Mr. Gardiner and Doctor Willis respectfully observed the tender moment between Mr. Bennet and his favorite daughter. Finally the physician cleared his throat. “Mr. Bennet, if I might have a moment with you?” 

     Mr. Bennet did not take his eyes from Elizabeth’s. “I think not. Let them remain, for I have a question to put to you, sir, and I should like my daughter and my brother to hear the answer to it.” 

      Doctor Willis clenched his jaw and furrowed his brow, confirming Elizabeth's deepest fears. This was the moment of truth. 

     Finally, Mr. Bennet asked the question. “Am I dying?” 

     Doctor Willis glanced nervously at Elizabeth before looking back at his patient. “I am loath to make such a decisive statement so early on. I believe I shall require several hours further observation to determine whether I believe my treatment may succeed in counteracting all that has been done thus far. I will be honest with you, sir; I must own I would be more optimistic about your chances had I been notified of your condition several days ago. I believe in the time that the surgeon was treating you, more harm was done than healing. However, I will do everything I can for you. I believe I must, at the very least, warn you want that, as in all cases, it is only prudent to make sure one’s affairs are fully in order.” 

     Mr. Gardiner cleared his throat. “Our brother by marriage is an attorney. Would you advise sending for him now, or in the morning?” 

     Doctor Willis methodically checked his pocket watch and paused a moment to consider. "If you are not averse to feeding your kinsman some supper, I should say now would be preferable.” 

     Mr. Gardiner nodded. "I will summon him directly, sir. Elizabeth, you may stay. I will check in on my wife and Mrs. Hill in the kitchen, after I’ve called for Mr. Phillips.” 

     When Mr. Gardiner had gone, Elizabeth asked the physician, “My uncle did not send for you, did he?” 

     Doctor Willis responded with an enigmatic smile. “You have powerful friends in London, it seems, Miss Bennet.” 

     You are not without friends, powerful friends. Elizabeth felt warmed by the notion that her dearest friend had managed such a thoughtful and generous gesture, in their haste to leave Kent. She only hoped it would be enough to save her father. 

     "I shall leave you two alone Miss Bennet, until the solicitor arrives." Elizabeth nodded numbly as the physician left the room.  

     His voice gravelly, Mr. Bennet addressed his daughter. “Lizzy, do not fret, child.” 

     She smiled sadly at her father. “Yes, Papa.” 

     “There’s no cause to trouble yourself; he seems a capable man. I feel myself most fortunate to be receiving such elevated care. I dare say you must have a lot to tell me about your new powerful friends, Elizabeth.” 

     Cheered by remembrances of those who held her so dear, Elizabeth nodded her assent. “Indeed, I have encountered many new friends, Papa – and some not so friendly.” 

     Her father managed a wink. "Do start with them." 

     Elizabeth spent the next half hour regaling her father with the follies and foibles of Caroline Bingley and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, withholding only their most grievous injuries to herself. When she had expounded long enough on the overpowering opulence of Rosings Park, she detailed the absurdities of Mr. Collins' sermonizing, and Seymour Sutton in all his repellent glory. 

     Her father laughed bemusedly at all of her anecdotes and plied her with numerous questions. Had Lady Catherine brought her golden throne to the dower house or had Mr. Collins possibly absconded with it, to display it in church as a sacred relic? Might the odious Seymour Sutton possibly be introduced to the equally insupportable Caroline Bingley? Was the amount of feathers in her headwear quite sufficient for the lady to take flight? 

     When their hilarity had been spent, Mr. Bennet turned serious. “Elizabeth, your letters contained much of your new friends, and I must say I am grateful you have found your Emily and Rebecca, but you have said nothing of Jane. I would expect, given the bond that has long existed between the two of you, for her to be more prominent in your tales of Kent.” 

     Elizabeth sighed, hardly knowing how to answer without giving her father pain. What could truthfully be said of Jane that would not but distress her father at such a time? “She is happy there, I believe," Elizabeth began cautiously. “She seems to have made a great friend in Lady Catherine.” 

     "And Jane's great friend dislikes you so much?” 

     “I imagine there must have been a period of adjustment for Jane, whent first she came, but that was some months ago. They seem to have found their balance between them very well indeed.” 

     He regarded her skeptically and frowned, deep lines forming on his face. “It is just as I feared, then.” 

     "What is?" 

     "When Mr. Collins first came among us, extolling the many virtues of his noble patroness, I knew it would be just the thing to affect my Jane. She has lived her whole life the apple of her mother's eye, and after gaining the consequence of marriage, as well as the lofty connections her husband so perpetually boasts, she now does as her husband does in glorifying this Lady Catherine to increase her own self-importance.” 

     "You knew that it would be thus?" 

     "I feared it. Mary, I had thought, would be a more appropriate match, given how very pious she is. Indeed, I rather wished your mother correct in her high hopes of Jane doing better, but once Mr. Collins had fixed on her as his choice, I could not in good conscience dissuade him.” 

     Elizabeth stiffened, and her father eyed her sternly, as he had done so many months before when she had first approached the subject of Mr. Collins' apparent intentions towards Jane. 

     "I know what you are thinking, little miss, and perhaps you have every right to disagree with me. It ought not to have been necessary for any of you girls. I should have provided better for you, so that you all might enjoy the liberty of choice, however, I did not. Had I denied my consent to Jane, he would have turned his eye to you, next in age and looks. He would have had little care for the fact that you are too lively and intelligent for him – people never mind having what is too good for them, and a man like Mr. Collins feels entitled to far more than is his due. I daresay he has that in Jane in, to some extent, but Jane, it seems, can be happy with such a man, and I know you could not. At least I can rest easy knowing that you have not thrown yourself away on such a man. Jane, perhaps could have done better, had she been given more opportunities, but you, I am certain will do better – it seems you have created your own opportunities.” 

     Elizabeth flinched as a fit of coughing overtook her father, and watched in horror as the force of the cough wracked his feeble body. 

     After several minutes, he was able to speak again. “I have the highest hopes for you, Elizabeth, my dearest child. You have a good heart and a strong mind, and I think you are beginning to see that you can show the world how very deserving of love you are.” 

     Tears welled again in Elizabeth's eyes. "Papa," she murmured. Why does this feel like he is saying goodbye? 

     His eyes suddenly lit with mischief. You have yet to tell me, little miss, if I am to congratulate your mother for her success in wishful thinking? You have mentioned no amiable single gentleman at all, which makes me think there certainly must have been one.” 

     Elizabeth was spared having to reply by the return of Doctor Willis, who was accompanied by both of her uncles. Mrs. Hill and Mrs. Gardiner were on their heels, bustling in with the cauldron of water for boiling, towels, and warm broth. Commanding the room once more, Doctor Willis said, “If you care to eat something, sir, I will begin my steam treatment. Miss Bennet, you and your sisters may return once we have finished with Mr. Phillips.” 

     She waited patiently with her sisters for nearly an hour. Though her sisters questioned her relentlessly about London, and about Emily Carmichael in particular, Elizabeth soon grew tired of conversation, and had gone out for another walk in the back garden when her uncle came to summon her back inside. 

     "The doctor has advised that your sisters go in to see your father first, and then you may go back up when he is finished with them. Your father is experiencing some little discomfort, and may wish to take a small spoonful of laudanum later on in the night, but the doctor has advised against him doing so before he has spoken with you for a little while longer tonight, as the medicine will quickly put him to sleep.” 

     "Put him to sleep? But he will wake again in the morning, surely?" 

     "That is our hope, yes. Time will tell, Lizzy." 

     Elizabeth nodded somberly and followed her uncle back inside. As they passed her sisters on the stairs, Mary was comforting a weeping Kitty, and even Lydia looked tremendously dreary. Elizabeth felt a knot in the pit of her stomach as she entered her father’s room, and her alarm increased as the physician and Mr. Gardiner silently closed the door behind them, leaving her alone with her father for what she feared may be the last time. She sat down beside her father on the bed and took his hand in hers. "Is the doctor's treatment giving you any relief?" she asked, gesturing at the steam billowing from the boiling cauldron in the fireplace. 

     Her father took in a deep breath. "Perhaps it is, Elizabeth. We shall see. You will stay with me, will you not, until I can bear it no longer, and must take Doctor Morgan’s medicine?” 

     "Yes, of course. Are you in a great deal of pain, Papa?" 

     "It is moderate at present, but I would bear more for the sake of staying awake to speak with you a little while longer. My own foolish fault, felled by a mere puddle.” 

     The thought of her father lying damp and helpless behind the stables tormented Elizabeth, but she was determined not to weep any more. 

     Mr. Bennet rumbled with laughter. "If there is any chance of Mr. Seymour Sutton carrying you off to Scotland, I daresay I must persevere, so that I can be ready to meet him with pistols at dawn.” Elizabeth chided her father, but he looked at her with a serious gaze. "You did not answer my question before, you know, Elizabeth. I have not forgotten. You have always shared your secrets with me, little miss. Now, tell me about your gentleman." 

     Elizabeth tried to offer him the teasing smile she knew he was looking for. She would gladly tell him everything if there was any hope that he would recover and live to tease her about it for many years to come. With a pert twist of her lips she said, "Which one?" 

     "Oho, there is my Lizzy! Which one! The plot thickens, indeed." 

     "There is very little to the tale, I am sorry to say. In London, Mr. Bingley was quite abducted by his pernicious sister, and the two left for Bath, just as I left for Kent." 

     "And in Kent?" 

     That she could not jest about. Elizabeth's lower lip trembled and tears again threatened to spill, for an entirely different reason. 

     Mr. Bennet sighed. "Elizabeth, have I caused you to return home just when you had every reason to stay?" 
     "No, indeed, Papa, I am glad to be gone from Kent." And there was no reason to stay. 

     He squeezed her hand, his teasing demeanor softened. "Tell me what happened." 

     Elizabeth told him everything. Everything but her final moments in Kent, and the kiss. She could neither countenance speaking of such a thing to her father, nor did she wish to diminish the enchantment of the moment by attempting to put it into words. For half an hour he listened to her speak, his face occasionally betraying his discomfort, but he did not interrupt her until she had reached her conclusion. 

     "Do you love him, Elizabeth?" 

     Elizabeth thought long and hard about her father’s question, but found herself unable to answer. “I should think myself a fool, Papa, to claim to be in love after so short an acquaintance. It is exactly what gave me pause with Mr. Bingley.” 

     "And yet you do not deny it, despite your acquaintance being half the duration of your time with this Mr. Bingley in London.” 

     "It is true, I have known Mr. Darcy less than a fortnight, aside from meeting him briefly once in London." 

     "And yet you have a much clearer understanding of his character.” 

     "I suppose when you strip away all of the balls and dancing and parties, I scarcely had a single rational conversation with Mr. Bingley." 

     "And yet with Mr. Darcy, that is all you have had. If you can be happy with someone, with naught but their company to divert you, all the splendor of London society, or the novelty of any other diversion, will only heighten the natural contentment you already feel with such a man. Do not think yourself foolish for finding happiness, Lizzy – we are all fools in love. Myself, perhaps, most of all." 

     Elizabeth smiled tenderly at her father. “You paint a pretty picture, Papa, but you forget his wife has not been gone a month. His spirits are terribly depressed, and I am sure he is not thinking of any other feeling beyond his grief. Besides, he is a proper sort of man; I could almost call him proud, though he has good enough reason for it. He will want to do what is right and observe the appropriate mourning period for his late wife. And of course his daughter and sister quite depend upon him...." 

     "I like the look about you when you speak of him." 

     "Papa!" More to convince herself than her father, Elizabeth continued to protest. "It is quite impossible! His aunt was not wrong in pointing out that he is indeed very far above me.” 

     Mr. Bennet scoffed. “He is a gentleman, you are a gentleman’s daughter. So far, you are equal.” 

     She had no wish to point out to her father the very great disparity between her situation and Mr. Darcy’s, and gave him a dubious look. "You forget I have never said I wish to marry him. Only that I think very well of him. Perhaps I might consider him as a benchmark of sort, in what I should like in a man some day. That is all." 

     "Well, Elizabeth," he said, patting her hand. "Only remember what your dear Papa has told you, and do not forget it. You are not to be like Jane, and sell yourself so cheaply. Do not underestimate your own value, and do not compromise your ideals. You are my dearest little Miss Lizzy, my treasure.” 

     A tear slid down Mr. Bennet’s cheek, and a moment later he spasmed with another outburst of coughing, from which it took him several minutes to recover. He wheezed heavily, clutching at his chest, and Elizabeth cried out as she recognized the glint of fear in his eyes. 

     He interrupted her before she could speak. "The medicine my child, I am ready for it." Elizabeth administered a spoonful of the laudanum, and a moment later he seemed recovered enough to speak again. "I believe I shall say good night to you now, my dear girl. You may send your mother in to me." 

     "Yes, Papa." 

     He snatched her hand as she stood to leave, and stared at her with his piercing green eyes. “I love you, Elizabeth.” 

     "I love you, Papa," she breathed, and fled the room in search of her mother. 

     The next morning, Elizabeth returned to her father's chamber to find Doctor Willis slumped in a chair in the corner, his head in his hands. Mr. Thomas Bennet was gone. 

 
  

Chapter Text

 

     Elizabeth spent the day above stairs with her mother and sisters. Her cousin Emily and both of her aunts were there to comfort them and keep them company; Lady Rebecca and the family at Netherfield sent messages expressing their deepest sympathies, and their intention of calling the following day. Though Elizabeth wished her dear friend to come to her side at once, she understood why they had all respectfully demurred, and Elizabeth’s time was so largely occupied in tending to Mrs. Bennet’s nerves, that she knew it was for the best.

     Her uncles saw to everything that must be done. Elizabeth was aware of Sir William Lucas being in the house much of the afternoon, as well as Mr. Ferrars, and Elizabeth echoed her mother’s sentiments of gratitude for the kindness of their neighbors. There was still no word from Jane, despite Mrs. Bennet’s incessant questioning. She had begun to insist that her brother ride to Kent and bring Jane back at once, but was assured that such a plan was most impossible, as there were many matters at Longbourn that required his attention. The burial was to be the following day, and a message was dispatched express to Hunsford to communicate this to the Collinses.

     Laying in her bed that night, Elizabeth could not help recalling her sister’s words to her in October. Jane had sworn to turn her out of the house if Elizabeth remained unmarried when she became mistress of Longbourn. Given the recent events at the parsonage, Elizabeth could not but consider this with trepidation. What was she to do? Lady Rebecca would no doubt leap at the opportunity to whisk her off to London, but Elizabeth meant to observe the period of mourning her father deserved. No, until such time as it was proper to reenter society, she would have to throw herself upon the mercy of her aunt and uncle in London.

     Elizabeth did not sleep much that night, plagued by her grief and anxiety. In the morning, she helped in the kitchen to escape her mother’s lamentations at the women not being allowed to attend the funeral. Though Elizabeth secretly shared her mother’s sentiments, she kept her thoughts to herself, preferring to keep busy rather than complain. 

     Her youngest sisters were predictably useless that morning; while Mary and Mrs. Gardiner remained Mrs. Bennet’s constant companions upstairs, Kitty and Lydia spent hours confined in their room with Emily, or in the sitting room whispering together and trying to remain overlooked when there was anything important to be done.

     In the afternoon, the family from Netherfield and their guests called at Longbourn. Though Elizabeth had been holding herself together reasonably well in the kitchens before, having dressed herself and come downstairs to sit with her guests had given Elizabeth enough time alone with her thoughts to become quite distraught by the time she made her appearance in the parlor. She said very little during the visit, and focused on all of the little snags and stains on the old rug in that strangely unfamiliar room. She looked up only when she began to feel other's eyes upon her, and was sometimes aware that it seemed someone had just been speaking of her, or to her, though it oddly did not distress her that she had not heard them.

     She had to remind herself several times to breathe, and was often closing her eyes to focus on the sound of it. In, out. In, out. Across the room, Mrs. Dashwood was observing what an excellent man Mr. Bennet had been. Her mother's response was little more than an unintelligible screech. Elizabeth took in a shaky breath, feeling as though the sunlight from the front window had suddenly gotten brighter, and squeezed her eyes shut. In, out. In, out.

     A moment later, Rebecca was at her side. "Elizabeth, are you unwell?"

     Elizabeth breathed out heavily. "I hardly know."

    Rebecca gave her an appraising look, and nodded gently. "We will get you out of here," she whispered. She held out her hand, and gingerly helped Elizabeth to her feet, wrapping one arm around her to guide her toward the door. All the while, Rebecca remained nonchalant, smiling civilly at everyone in the room as she led Elizabeth from it, declaring in her cheerfully authoritative way that Elizabeth must have her daily walk, and they could be found in the back garden if they were wanted.

     They came to a stop near the kitchen door, and Rebecca placed her hands on Elizabeth's shoulders as she peered up at her. "Lizzy, if you are going to faint, you must warn me now."

     Elizabeth took in another deep breath, and tried to focus on her friend. It seemed to be working – Rebecca nodded approvingly. "I believe I just needed some air."

     "And so you shall have it. But first, come. I find that when I am overly agitated, a damp cloth to the face is just the thing. Deep breaths, now, let us see if we cannot find a wet cloth for you." Rebecca retreated into the kitchen and returned a moment later with a mostly clean rag, dampened with cool water. She dabbed at Elizabeth's face and reminded her to breathe, and after a few minutes Elizabeth began to feel some relief.

     "Thank you for that," Elizabeth said, beginning to feel her wits about her once more, as they made their way out to the garden.

     Rebecca smiled wryly. "It is an old trick from my grandmother. Fitzwilliams are all prone to getting rather worked up."

     "Longbourn is more of a 'fetch me my smelling salts' household." Elizabeth laughed for a moment before choking back a sob.

     Rebecca reacted quickly, drawing Elizabeth closer while guiding her to a little bench under the old oak tree at the back of the garden. She sat down beside her, rocking her gently for quite some time, until Elizabeth’s weeping subsided. Finally her tears waned, and she drew back, wiping at her face before meeting Rebecca’s eye at last.

     “Do you feel any better now?”

     “I do not feel worse.”

     “Well, that is something, is it not? I find a good cry out to be wonderfully purgative. Once you get all those wretched feelings out of the way, you can make room for something more productive to occupy your mind.”

     “I had not thought of it that way before, but I suppose you are right.”

     “Of course I am, dearest. I daresay you are overpowered by the notion of remaining here at home, where you are surrounded by so many memories of your father, not to mention the demands of your grieving family, and of course the looming threat of Mr. and Mrs. Collins, who I understand might come and claim their property at any time.”

     “Yes,” Elizabeth sighed. “I suppose, although in addition to that, Rebecca, I am so very angry. I am sick of feeling like a damsel in distress, so helpless apparently. That is not who I am, who I thought i was, at least. These last few months have altered me so much that I hardly recognize myself anymore, and I cannot like it. I have lost Jane, probably forever, and though I believe I am quite past the point of regretting her, now my dearest Papa had been taken from me. What am I to do, how am I to go on, and who shall I become now that everything is different?”

     “You are too hard on yourself, Lizzy. You have suffered a great deal, but I know you have the strength to get through it.”

     “Once again, you think better of me than I do myself, for I hardly know what I am going to do. I wish I could rage at the world, rail at Jane the way you have done, but I am in no position to fight her, when she might turn me out of the house at any moment. I have always fancied myself very fearless, able to laugh at the follies of others, but I cannot laugh at the ode of being so utterly alone in the world. Neither do I wish to be a burden on anyone else. It seems an impossible situation. Mamma is asking for Jane every day, but i hope she never comes home.”

     Rebecca’s face hardened as she appeared to consider Jane’s imminent arrival. “What will you do, when she returns?

     “I know not. Even before Kent, before she married, she threatened to turn me out of the house if I did not wed.”

     The trace of a smile formed on Rebecca’s lips. “Then we must get you married. Come to London with me, just as we had planned. Let us deny your sister the satisfaction of doing her worst.”

     Elizabeth smiled sadly at her friend. “I knew you would say such a thing, but it is impossible for me to accept. I cannot countenance the idea of needing to be rescued yet again. Besides, I must observe the proper mourning for my father. I cannot go to balls and parties in London with you, as much as I had wished it. I certainly shall not marry while I am still in mourning.”

     Rebecca rolled her eyes. “Good Lord, you sound like Darcy.”

     Elizabeth trembled at the mention of him. The man who had kissed her so intensely... had no intention to marry while in mourning? She recalled the note from him, expressing his tender sympathies for her family. She had even quickly penned a short response, offering her thanks, and good wishes for his sister and child: she had entrusted it to Rebecca for delivery.  As she began to regret her hasty and forward decision, Rebecca took advantage of her silence.

     "Lizzy, please say that you shall at least come to London with me. My invitation is born  out of friendship, not pity or charity, you must know that. I know your ferocity, and I have every faith that you can take care of yourself, only it is not necessary. Why refuse my assistance? I will not force you out into society, if you do not wish it. Before long Town will be emptying out as everyone goes out into the country, or the seaside; it shall be a quiet summer, you needn't see anyone outside my family - I daresay before long they shall be like your family. I know what you are feeling, all too well. I cannot let you suffer any more than necessary, as I am sure you shall if you remain at home."

     "You are asking me to abandon my mother and sisters."

     "Is not Jane to be the mistress of this house? It seems to me she understood the responsibility that would come along with that when she wed Longbourn's heir, which I presume was not a love match? There would be a grotesque notion indeed."

     Elizabeth laughed in spite of herself. "I suppose she and Mamma quite deserve each other, and she has not become so very cruel to my younger sisters."

     "And so you may leave them all in perfect harmony. Elizabeth, none of you family with any sense or sincere interest in your well-being could begrudge you a trip to London, and do not forget you have just said it may soon become more a necessity than an option. Please say you will come with me now, else I fear I may have to entreat your mother to intervene – I see how she looks at my brother, and I am not above allowing her misguided assumption to stand."

     Elizabeth laughed for the second time in three days, and returned Rebecca's dramatically beseeching pose with a great show of defeat. "Very well, I shall go to London. No balls or parties for six months, and no dinners with anyone I am not already acquainted with for three months. No shopping until I say otherwise."

     "With the exception of the dresses Jane is to replace. I meant what I said about that, and I cannot be seen to go back on my word if I mean to continue striking fear into the masses."

     "Very well. When do we leave? I believe I must spend a few more days with poor Mamma, after which I daresay I shall be more than ready."

     "I believe Richard has been advising your uncle on some estate matters, though how poor Mr. Gardiner is to convey any degree of useful information about any subject to Mr. Collins is quite beyond my not inconsiderable imagination. At any rate, I think a few more days should do, and if you have heard nothing yet from Jane, I think we may escape without encountering her again."

     As Elizabeth nodded in agreement, Mrs. Hill emerged from the house, and waved at Elizabeth as she approached them. "If you please, miss, your uncle wants you in the study."

     "Good," Rebecca said with a clap of her hands. "You might speak to him about your travel plans; I daresay he will be very pleased to have you in London again. I shall go back into the house with you, and wait in the parlor. I have taken a particular interest in the young widow Brandon."

     "Poor thing," Elizabeth muttered, and her friend swatted at her as they walked back to the house.

 ***

     Her uncle had been sequestered in the study with Mr. Ferrars and Lord Hartley for much of the morning. Elizabeth found them all seated at the large oak desk that her father would never again sit behind. A multitude of ledgers, journals and other notebooks were strewn about; the gentleman were engaged in poring over them.

     "Ah, there she is." Her uncle rose to greet her, and gestured for her to join them.

     "Good afternoon, Mr. Ferrars, Lord Hartley. Thank you for visiting us today." 

     The gentleman stood and bowed. "I believe I could not do otherwise," the viscount answered. "You are a worthy friend, Miss Bennet, as are your aunt and uncle. Your family has our sincere condolences. If there is anything I can do to be of service, I assure you I will do it." Mr. Ferrars echoed his sentiments, though less eloquently, with absolute sincerity.

     Her uncle pushed his glasses up on his nose and resumed reading as his he addressed his niece. "These two worthy gentleman have kindly offered to be of assistance as I begin the daunting task of acquainting myself with estate matters. I have had a response, at last, from Mr. Collins, who states that he cannot leave Kent at present, as his former patroness requires his continued service at least through Easter. Until then, it is vital that the management of the estate not be  neglected, or your family and all of your tenants will suffer for it."

     "Easter is more than a month away." Elizabeth was too startled by the news to decide if she was relieved or angered.

     "I had thought," Lord Hartley said, "I could perhaps exert some influence on my brother Robert in Kent. While he cannot dismiss Mr. Collins entirely, he might at least inform him that he is not in fact under any obligation to await my aunt's permission before claiming what is legally his."

     Elizabeth considered this as she regarded the viscount. He seemed to be directing his hesitation at Elizabeth, as if unsure whether she would not prefer her sister to stay away, after all that had happened. Much as she did wish it, she supposed it would hardly matter once she was safely ensconced in London, and she refused to show any semblance of fear regarding her sister’s return. "What is it you would ask of me? I can surely have little to offer in the way of assistance."

     "Indeed child, that is precisely why I have asked you to come here." Her uncle looked up, at her schooling his countenance. "I will be frank with you, my dear. Your father, rest his soul, was not the most diligent of landlords. I find his method of bookkeeping somewhat erratic, and I dare say it will be a challenging endeavor; nevertheless, it must be undertaken at once."

     Though Elizabeth could not like his criticism of her father, she had little doubt it was the truth. “What am I to do?”

     He furrowed his brow, and measured his words as he spoke. “I would ask your help, Elizabeth, in managing the business of the estate. Would that I did not have to make such a serious request of you, but it cannot be helped – you are, at present, the most responsible member of your family; I am not at liberty to remain at Longbourn indefinitely. I may remain perhaps another week or two, but certainly not until Easter. I fear the task must fall to you, my dear, to ensure everything continues running smoothly, at home and on all your farms."

     Elizabeth drew in a deep breath, unable to process the enormity of what her uncle asked of her. I am to be acting master of Longbourn? This cannot be!

     Lord Hartley caught her eye and approached Elizabeth, seeking to put her at ease. "Miss Bennet," he began, gently leading her by the elbow to an accommodating armchair beside the desk. "I see your distress, but do not be alarmed. Your uncle would not ask this of you were it not for his absolute confidence your capability. I share that confidence. My estimation of your character cannot have been mistaken, for from the earliest moments of our acquaintance, my sister and I have shared the opinion that you are a fearfully intelligent woman. Indeed, the proof is on these pages – is this not your name scribbled into the margins, here, and here?"

     He picked up one of her father's journals and showed her where her father had made notations on several parts of the page. After taking a closer look at what was written, Elizabeth quickly realized what she was looking at. She smiled as she recognized her father’s notes on the resolution they had made in July to employ several new farming techniques on John Hale’s field. "My assumption is that you were making suggestions to your father, and he was measuring their success."

     "Yes."

     Mr. Ferrars nodded appreciatively. "You are well-versed in the matters of your estate already, Miss Bennet."

     "This is not my estate," Elizabeth said instantly, and paused a moment to recover herself before adding, "I am aware, to some extent, of some of my father’s projects and interests. I spent much time in the evenings reading here with Papa. He let me read whatever I liked, and sometimes I would read what he read so that we might converse about it. If I saw something in his books that I thought might be attempted on our lands, I would mention it to him. Not all of my ideas were sound – I am by no means an expert in these things. However, there were some occasions when Papa would agree to try out new methods of crop rotation or take my suggestions for handling tenant disputes."

     Mr. Gardiner bestowed upon her a look of tremendous pride. "From the looks of things, your ideas have been largely successful, and profitable besides." 

     "So you wish me to continue doing as I have done?"

     "Yes, and perhaps a little more."

     Elizabeth's stomach lurched, as she felt what little joy she had taken in the prospect of going to London with Rebecca now slip from her grasp. "I suppose I must."

     "I have agreed to aid you as best I can," said Mr. Ferrars. "Your uncle means to make the same request of Sir William Lucas, who has been so long in the neighborhood."

     "And you can always write to me of any serious concerns," her uncle reminded her. "Between us all, we shall do what we can to keep Longbourn afloat. Many people depend upon the person who sits at this desk, Elizabeth, and not just your own family. The servants, the tenants who farm your land, the merchants you trade with. There are great many concerns, and none can be neglected. I am confident you will pick it all up very quickly, for you are a clever girl."

     As she held her uncle’s gaze, Elizabeth considered that there was certainly something to the idea of pouring herself into something. Lady Rebecca had said that she should get all of her feelings out of the way and make room for something more productive to occupy her mind. If she could not have London, she could at least have this. She would work hard. Very hard. She would study every book she could find and fill her days with tenant visits and business matters, and maybe, just maybe, it would drown out everything else that she was feeling. "Very well, I accept."

***

     After a week spent working together to keep Longbourn running, Mr. Gardiner was obliged to return to his own business in London, taking his wife and Emily with him. Lady Rebecca and her brother had left Netherfield the day before. Lord Hartley promised that they were at Elizabeth’s disposal, should she require anything at all, and Lady Rebecca had again pressed Elizabeth to come to London as soon as she felt she could, in good conscience, leave Longbourn.

     Left to her own devices, Elizabeth redoubled her effort in managing the estate and household affairs. She spent nearly every waking moment either surveying the grounds of the property and meeting with the tenant families, or sequestered in the study to chart her actions and look over her progress. In another week she had even begun riding shorter distances rather than walking, despite having forsworn all equestrian habits several years prior.

     As such a routine quickly became the new norm, Mrs. Bennet gradually began to desist in her desire for Jane’s return. In Jane's absence, Elizabeth was every bit the master of Longbourn, while Mrs. Bennet very much remained its mistress, and she continued commanding the servants as she chose, and going about her day unencumbered. Though Elizabeth had tried to dissuade her mother and sisters from too much society at such a time, she was no more inclined to put her foot down on the matter than Mr. Bennet had ever been. And so it was that Elizabeth had quickly fallen into Mr. Bennet’s role in the household, in voluntary confinement, largely ignoring the foibles of her family.

     Lady Rebecca, Emily and Mrs. Gardiner remained faithful correspondents to Elizabeth, providing just enough distraction for her to maintain some semblance of sanity. She did her best to write them back, though there was little to report that they might wish to hear, and she did not wish to write what might only pain them. She even once wrote to Rebecca, remembering the viscount’s kind offer, with an inquiry as to whether Lord Hartley might have any knowledge of a farming technique she had uncovered in one of her father’s dusty old agrarian tomes. She thought it had merit, and wished he might advise her. Rebecca's return letter enclosed a smaller missive, written in the same distinctive hand as the note she had found in her basket from Kent; it contained some brief information on the plan she had presented, as well as encouragement to move forward with the undertaking on a small scale, and concluded in wishing her and her family well, with assurances of his fond friendship. It was signed simply with the letter D.

     Both notes she kept hidden in a small wooden box beneath her bed, along with a flower she had plucked once while walking at Rosings, and the blue velvet dancing slippers she had worn on the Twelfth Night. Though it had been easy enough to tuck these things away, physically, mentally pushing them aside was a more difficult task, which was only met with long and laborious hours of work.

***

     Marianne Brandon would have rather walked to Longbourn, enjoying the pleasant sunshine of early May, but it had rained the day before, and while Edward was content on horseback, her mother and two sisters were quite in agreement that the carriage would be necessary. When they arrived for their visit, which had become an almost daily routine for them, the two younger girls were discovered to have just walked out to Meryton, and Margaret quickly departed to catch up with them. Miss Mary seemed quite at a loss as her mother's sole companion; her relief at their arrival was evident.

     Marianne was disappointed. She had hoped to catch a glimpse of the elusive Miss Elizabeth Bennet, who had held an inexplicable fascination for Marianne since their first brief meeting. She supposed she must sense a kindred spirit in Miss Bennet, after witnessing her poetically emotional response to her father’s illness. How Marianne had felt for her! How cruel it was that the structures of polite society, arbitrary rules she was obliged to obey, dictated that she merely pretend not to notice Miss Bennet's outburst of feeling, when in truth Marianne had wanted nothing more than to take the poor girl in her arms at once.

     It struck her every time she came to Longbourn. Though the house bore no resemblance to Norland, she felt as if she was returning there all over again, going back to when she lost her own father, four years past. The depth of her despair had felt boundless, and at such a tender age she could scarcely reign it in. Her sadness had been rude and indelicate, and often times quite selfish – it was certainly not polite.

     Losing her husband in August had exposed to her heart to an even deeper despair, which even now she struggled with. Sharing in Elinor and Edward's loss was simply not the same. His brother had been estranged for two years, and Elinor and Edward still had each other. Like Marianne, Miss Bennet had no one to share her burden with but a family too consumed in their own cares – Marianne longed to be a friend to her.

     Elinor and their mother conversed with Mrs. Bennet, whose chief interests tended toward neighborhood gossip and matrimonial speculation, as well as her own nervous complaints. When a break in the conversation allowed, Marianne asked, “Where is Miss Bennet, Mrs. Bennet?"

     This question seemed to set off an unfortunate and lengthy lamentation from the widow, who was quite put out with her second daughter. “I suppose she is in her father’s study, acting like she is lord of the manor," Mrs. Bennet spat. "I do not think she has been in to Meryton with her sisters to visit the soldiers at all since she has returned.”

     Marianne observed Edward and Elinor exchange a subtle, skeptical glance. Mrs. Bennet had plainly decided to ignore every rule of mourning society had laid out for their guidance, and thought nothing at all of her girls going about their daily lives just as they had ever done.  Though Marianne knew her brother and sister would never voice their disapproval, she wondered how long it would be before others in the village did just that.

     Mrs. Bennet carried on, her displeasure with Miss Bennet far from ceasing. “All day, she is in her father’s book room poring over ledgers for I know not what, traipsing across the estate and mucking about with the farmers. Last week I saw her in breeches riding out to the south field to argue with Mr. Talbot about the border fence, and she came home carrying on like anything! That night, she fell asleep at her father's desk, and we found her the next morning with half a bottle of port open beside her, and ink on her face from sleeping on whatever notes it is she pens all evening. It is really most vexing, I tell you, and I do not know what will become of us all!”

     Mrs. Bennet wailed and waved her handkerchief at them, an action repeated so frequently during their visits with her that they had all become quite accustomed to it, and no longer visibly recoiled. They did sit in stunned silence for a moment, however, and finally Marianne was moved to speak. “Brother, something must be done. Have you not been assisting Miss Bennet and her uncle in managing the estate affairs?”

     “Indeed I have, Marianne, though I have but a small share of experience. Sir William Lucas and I have agreed to each call once a week to review current business. I believe she spends the rest of the week taking matters into her own hands, so that she has something to report to us when we do call.”

     “It sounds as if she is working from sundown to sun up – this will not do. Though I do not understand why her sister’s husband does not come to claim the estate himself, surely there must be some further way we can help her.”

     As Edward paused to consider this, Elinor spoke up. “I believe I may have a solution. Let Miss Bennet come to us for her weekly visits with Edward. She may come and visit with all of us, and bring any of her family she wishes. Edward will be on hand to dispense any advice she needs, and we will be present as well to make sure she has some society to cheer her. It may be less productive than the visits at Longbourn, but she will still have one day a week with dear Edward, and I daresay her to visit with Sir Williams Lucas will be more profitable, as he has several years more experience than Edward with estate management, as well as a superior understanding of the area. I believe the benefit of spending some time at leisure may be considerable.”

     Mrs. Bennet quickly went from lamentation to delight at this proposal. “Oh, there now, there’s a fine idea if ever I heard one, how well I should like to come to Netherfield every week and see how you are all getting on at the place. I daresay we were there very often when the Marlowes lived there. They went off to Ireland more than a year ago, and how long Netherfield Park sat empty! I am so very glad you have come into the neighborhood, very glad indeed. And you do us a very great honor in all your kind assistance to us. I think Lizzy will be very happy to come to Netherfield as often as you like and visit with you all there.”

     Marianne more succinctly expressed her satisfaction with the plan. “I think that will do very well, Edward. Come, let us go find Miss Bennet now, and speak to her of the new arrangement."

     Mrs. Bennet sniffed and tipped her chin up. “I am not to go back into the study for any reason this morning,” she quipped, and Marianne imagined with glee the scene that might have triggered such an edict from the intriguing Miss Elizabeth Bennet.

     While Elinor and their mother opted to stay with Mrs. Bennet in the parlor, Marianne and Edward sought out Miss Bennet in her father's study. After being granted entry, they discovered her seated barefoot in a comfortable chair by the window, sipping a cup of tea with a massive book on her lap.

     Miss Bennet smiled warmly at them and closed the book, a dreary collection of farming calendars. “I am glad you are come, Mr. Ferrars. Do you think it is too late for planting beans in the south field? I consulted Mr. Talbot on the property boundary and he conceded that the fence ought to go further back. Once it is moved, I wish to put the extra length of field to good use. I have also had a response to my advert for a new steward, and his credentials look promising. I have asked him to come Tuesday next to speak with me, as well as Sir William Lucas and yourself, if you are able to join us.”

     Edward gave her a thoughtful smile. “I think it is fine idea, Miss Bennet, and congratulations on the boundary dispute. I suspect he gave you no quarrel?”

     Miss Bennet scrunched her face and smirked. “Very little. He could hardly argue with a woman in trousers," she added with an impertinent arch of her eyebrow, which Marianne enjoyed too much to mind being thus far ignored.

     "Well," Edward continued, "Miss Bennet, I am not actually here on business, as it were. I have brought my sister Mrs. Brandon with me on a matter of some urgency."

     "Miss Elizabeth," Marianne said, "I am very happy to see you today. Indeed, I have been very desirous of your company more often, when we are visiting. It seems dreadful that you must always be about so much business.”

     Miss Bennet began to look rather offended. With her shoulders back, she stared defiantly at Marianne and said, “I do what I must, Mrs. Brandon. As my sister and her husband have not seen fit to return home and claim what is theirs, I must ensure that my family is looked after, and our estate continues to function as it ever has. While my youngest sisters might enjoy a somewhat inappropriate amount of society at such a time, I am not ashamed to tell you I see little appeal in it, at present. If you still suspect you might enjoy the pleasure of my company, you are welcome at any time you choose to join me on a walk about the estate, as I go about the business of visiting my tenants – they are charming people.”

     Miss Bennet spoke in measured the tones, her voice calm and polite, but firm and resolute. Marianne was rather in awe of her. “I mean no offense, Miss Bennet. It is admirable that you are doing so much. Truly, you must be the bravest person I know. I only wish to offer you some respite from your work, which must be fatiguing in every possible way. I have a proposition to put to you, and I hope that I might come to be a friend.”

     Miss Bennet’s posture relaxed, and she nodded for Marianne to continue.

     “Edward and I, and my sister and my mother, would like for you and your family to come visit us one day a week at Netherfield. During your visit, you may of course discuss anything you wish with Edward that will be of assistance here at Longbourn, but you will also gain the benefit of some society; would you find such a plan agreeable? I have heard such glowing reports of you throughout the neighborhood as to be most eager to become better acquainted with you, and I believe my sisters and my mother share that sentiment. Myself, perhaps, most of all, if I may be so bold. I think I like you very much, Miss Bennet, and I should be glad to know you better.”

     Miss Bennet seemed to respond to Marianne's emotional appeal, and though she did not rise from her chair, she sat down her tea and reclined back. Again she quirked her eyebrow, and asked “My mother got to you, did she not?"

     Marianne laughed, while Edward pretended to consider the question thoughtfully. “She did perhaps hint that such a scheme might be acceptable.”

     Miss Bennet smiled again, as if she found her mother's antics somehow endearing. “Well, I think I shall agree nonetheless. When shall we begin?”

     “At once," Marianne cried eagerly.

     "How is Thursday next," Edward asked at the same moment.

     Edward looked cautiously at her. “Sister, I think my wife and your mother must be wishing to go home soon.”

     "Oh yes, of course. Well, I am not wishing to go away soon. Miss Bennet, I am certain someone as diligent as yourself must surely have some plans for the afternoon already, but do you think it possible that you might work an eager new friend into your day?"

     For a moment Miss Bennet looked as if she would decline, and Marianne began to fear she had gone too far, too soon. After a moment of consideration, however, Miss Bennet rose to her feet, brushing some dirt off of her lap

     "Well Mrs. Brandon, it would appear I must put on some shoes."

***

     Though Elizabeth was exhausted from her extensive ride to the north side of the property that morning, she thought a leisurely stroll would be just the thing to refresh her, and she was truly quite flattered by how keen Mrs. Brandon obviously was for her company. Finding herself rather lacking in pleasant company for the first time in many months, she was more than willing to further the acquaintance with the widow Brandon, who certainly held a fascination for Elizabeth. Formality was soon dispensed with, and they agreed to use one another's Christian names. Marianne informed her brother by marriage that the two ladies would walk toward Netherfield, and the rest of the family was free to leave at a time of their choosing; they would all meet at home, for she intended to keep Elizabeth for dinner, and send her back that evening, or perhaps the next morning, in the carriage.

     Though Elizabeth knew not how to begin, Marianne seemed content to steer the conversation from the beginning. "I enjoyed the company of Lady Rebecca while she stayed with us. I know she dearly wished to stay longer, for your sake, but I believe her brother did not wish to trespass on Edward's hospitality any longer. I do hope we meet again soon."

     Elizabeth nodded in agreement. "Lord Hartley is always very thoughtful and attentive to those fortunate enough to enjoy his friendship."

     Marianne blushed prettily. "Yes, indeed, though I had rather meant his sister, of course."

     Elizabeth thought there might be something to that blush, but she decided not to pursue it – not yet. "Lady Rebecca is an excellent woman, I adore her."

     "I can certainly confirm that the feeling is mutual. It was her frequent praise of you that has made me so curious to become better acquainted with you. There is also the fact that I have been informed by Lady Rebecca that she and I are to become the dearest of friends, and that I must write her frequently. It was very kind of her, and I certainly shall, however, I have the distinct impression that she will be expecting to hear regular reports of your well-being in our correspondence."

     Elizabeth laughed. "I can well believe it. Lady Rebecca has had to help me get out of more than one little scrape, and even a very big one, recently, and I believe she sort of fancies herself as my protector."

     "She is a fearsome creature Miss Bennet, so I believe it is safe to say that you are in good hands."

     "How well I know it. I have seen Rebecca at her most formidable, and she is terrifying for one so small. I should certainly not wish to be on her bad side."

     "Dear Miss Bennet, I think you are utterly charming, and I cannot imagine how you could be on anybody’s bad side."

     "Only give it time," Elizabeth sighed, turning rather serious. “You may yet see it for yourself, in the near future."

     "Whatever do you mean?"

     Elizabeth searched Marianne's face for a moment. There was something about her that made Elizabeth feel as though she could confide in her new friend. Her eyes were so very earnest, and her expressions seemed to convey a great deal of empathy and emotion. As badly as she needed a confidante, Elizabeth decided to speak candidly. “My elder sister, as I am sure you have heard, recently married Mr. Collins, our distant cousin, who is heir to Longbourn. The estate now belongs to him. He does not come to claim it, but I expect he will before too much longer, and Jane shall be mistress of the house. We had long been quite as close, as you and Mrs. Ferrars seem to be. That is no longer the case, and I am sure it will be quite evident, when she finally returns to the neighborhood. I dare say you would have noticed, without my telling you, that her behavior toward me is not what I would call sisterly.”

     “I confess I had heard that – did you not just go to visit her? I had understood when we came in to the neighborhood that you were a guest in her home at the time.”

     “Indeed, I had been in London after Christmas, but went into Kent in February. In fact, reconciling after a quarrel in the autumn was my sole purpose for the visit.”

     “And had you no success?”

     Elizabeth groaned. “No, quite the opposite.” Though ordinarily a private person, Elizabeth could not turn away the opportunity to unburden herself, and as she considered it very likely that Rebecca had told Marianne at least the essentials of her story, Elizabeth indulged in confiding the entirety of her dealings with Jane in Kent.

     Marianne appeared quite engrossed, and when Elizabeth had concluded, she cried, “Good God, Miss Bennet, how could you possibly be related to such a person?”

     “I suppose we are simply of a very different temperament, as each of us was favored by a very different parent.”

     “Indeed, I believe your mother and father were very oddly matched. I met your father on a few occasions, and I can certainly see his influence on you. What a pity your sister did not share that influence. She takes after your mother, then?”

     “Not perhaps in the same way that Lydia does,” Elizabeth said with a teasing smile. “I think that what Jane takes from our mother is a sense of dependency on praise, on being righteous and perfect. I myself was always her biggest champion, besides Mamma. I thought her the most angelic woman to have ever walked this earth – indeed I do not think we ever quarreled until Mr. Collins came to Longbourn and proposed to Jane. I wanted her to find a better man than our cousin, and it seems Jane shall hold it against me forever. Her marriage has given her too much consequence, as has the notice of their noble patroness Lady Catherine de Bourgh, whose friendship apparently means more to her than her own family.”

     “Has she any quarrel with your other sisters?”

     “She has never been terribly bothered by Lydia and Kitty’s exuberance, or by Mary’s constant sermonizing. Then again, my younger sisters have never challenged Jane as I have. I do not know what to expect when she returns home as mistress of Longbourn. As she seems to take so much pleasure in taking me to task, perhaps she will attempt to reign our younger sisters in, as well. In all honesty, it might be for the best if she did.”

     Marianne smiled. “My sister Margaret is quite the same. In fact, she and Lydia are thick as thieves already, though she hardly needs more encouragement. When she was younger, she was vastly interested in traveling the world and seeking adventure, but this past year she has had naught in her head but the opposite sex. I cannot like it.”

     “Were you not the same at her age? Forgive me, but I believe you must have married very young.”

     “I was married just before I turned 18.” Her face darkened for a moment. “I did have my head full of one particular man at her age, before I met my late husband, but that was an entirely different manner of foolishness.”

     Elizabeth regarded her with interest. “Tell me of your husband, or if it is too painful, about the foolishness before.”

     Marianne smiled wistfully. “I daresay the foolishness before is more painful. It gives me much pleasure to talk of my dear Andrew. We had but such a short time together. After he passed, I was angry with myself for a time, that I did not come to love him sooner. We lost nearly a whole year to my foolishness. He fell in love with me at first sight, you see.”

     “But that is terribly romantic!”

     “I did not think so at the time. He was nearly twenty years my senior, and at seventeen I was not best pleased by a suitor I considered an old man. It was a very dismal time in my life – my father had just died, and we had to move away from the only home I had ever known, to Barton Cottage, where our circumstances were much reduced. A serious, fastidious man was the last thing to tempt me, and instead I set cap at a young, handsome, absolute rake. Oh, he did wonders to lift my spirits, and I fell in love so quickly and unrepentantly. Poor Elinor tried to help me see how badly behaved I was, exposing myself to so much speculation – indeed I was too blind to see that I was only setting myself up for disappointment of the acutest kind. He abandoned me for an heiress of fifty-thousand pounds, and it nearly killed me, in every sense of the word.”

     “That is shocking,” Elizabeth cried. “Had he given you any cause to believe he returned your regard?”

     “He gave me every cause it to believe it, except what matters the most. There was no engagement, no promise, just my own fanciful wishes. When everything was said and done, and I learned what his character truly was, when everything was stripped away but reality, and I was deathly ill from the shock of it, Andrew was there and he never left my side. Discovering the depth of such a true and loyal heart was beyond anything I expected could ever happen between us.”

     Marianne stopped speaking for a moment, turning her face away, and Elizabeth could hear her gently weeping. Elizabeth gently patted her shoulder, prompting Marianne to turn around and abruptly throw herself into Elizabeth’s arms, clinging to her tightly as her cries continued. Elizabeth held her new friend in a comforting embrace, feeling as though she might and any moment began to sob as well, so fresh were her own wounds.

     After a few minutes, Marianne withdrew and wiped the tears from her face. “I am sorry for becoming such a watering pot. My family often tells me I am far too emotional, and I really do wish to improve myself, but I get so carried away with my feelings, I cannot help myself.”

     “You are far from owing me any apology, Marianne, for I quite share your sentiment. I confess that is why I have poured myself into my work so much of late. Had I any idle time, I should no doubt spend it falling to pieces, and that is something I absolutely refuse to do. I have been letting adversity get the better of me for too long, and I find myself content enough in my new way of overcoming it.”

     “When my father died, I was only just seventeen. I had no estate to run, nor any other pursuit to occupy my time, save the pianoforte. For many months, my mother and sisters would often lament my sudden interest in playing melancholy songs on my instrument all day. I daresay it quite drove them to distraction, but it was all I could do. It has been a little better this time – I have my little niece and nephew to keep me occupied when I need cheering.”

     “I believe I must be driving my poor Mamma to distraction, as well; if she has gone to the effort of importuning our neighbors to intervene, I must be quite a hopeless case.”

     Marianne responded with a conspiratorial twinkle in her eye. “I hear someone has been falling asleep at her desk with a bottle of port, and waking up with ink stains on her face….”

     “The ink stain was only just the once!”

     “And the port?”

     Elizabeth rolled her eyes and threw her head back in exaggerated weariness. “That may be more frequent, perhaps, but truly, you should try living with my sisters. Not to mention all the riding! Truly, Marianne, it is a wonder how gentlemen are always riding about the countryside on their horses for hours on end all the time. It has done horrible things to my body, and I think I require a new one.”

     Marianne laughed. “I did attempt, in the early months of my marriage, to become an accomplished horsewoman. Let us just say, I greatly prefer the pianoforte.”

    “I quite agree, though I shall not wish to raise your expectations in that quarter. Both Lady Rebecca and Lord Hartley have had my playing inflicted upon them, and if they have given me any degree of commendation, they have perjured themselves most profoundly.”

     “Lady Rebecca thinks you do everything to perfection, and indeed spoke of your playing and singing, when I told her how much I enjoyed the amusement. She did warn me that you would slander yourself, but alas I am already honor bound to Lady Rebecca to not believe a word you say otherwise.”

     Elizabeth laughed merrily. “I think you shall find a wonderful friend in Rebecca, as I certainly have. And as I have found in you, I believe. I certainly find myself quite happier in my friends than relations, at present.”

     “What will you do when your sister comes home?”

     Elizabeth shrugged. “I have tried not to think on it, though I suppose it is wrong to wish they would never come back. I do not intend to throw myself upon her mercy; I am not entirely sure how she would respond, given all that transpired in Kent, nor do I wish to be dependent upon her. However, there is always my aunt and uncle in London, though they have children and concerns of their own. Lady Rebecca wishes me to stay with her in London, but I should feel like an interloper in her home ere long. I suppose I could always seek employment. Though I was insulted by Lady Catherine’s offer, I should not necessarily turn away one from a more respectable sort of person. I have no wish to be a burden to anybody, and I do not know that I shall ever marry. I should like to be self-sufficient, as much as possible.”

     “Oh, but you are too clever and pretty not to marry. How happy you should make somebody.”

     “I am not opposed to the idea, but I have the highest of standards, without having much to recommend myself in return, and as I am bound to honor a promise to my father not to compromise my romantic ideals, I will likely end an old maid, teaching my nieces and nephews how to play their instruments very ill indeed.”

     “How I wish there were more Andrews in this world, and not so many Willoughbys.”

     “What is a Willoughby?”

     “Willoughby – that’s the man… the foolishness… Mr. Willoughby was the gentleman who chose money over love, and broke my heart. How angry I was when my eyes were finally opened to the ways of the world! Even now I feel it. I am not one and twenty – many young ladies marry for the first time at my age. It is likely, however, that I will never marry again, but I will tell you this, Miss Bennet – were I some heiress, publicly known to possess twenty thousand pounds, I daresay I should have gentleman importuning my brother every day for my hand, and I should never know if the qualities that make me who I am play even the slightest role in my attractiveness. Certainly Willoughby would not have cared if his Miss Grey and her fifty thousand pounds came with warts and a lazy eye! Oh, he might have wished her prettier, or more agreeable, but he is not beyond being cheered by the joys of spending her fortune on any manner of amusement he requires, to console him for her other imperfections. And that is why I shall never marry again.”

     “I am sorry you have to look at the world that way,” Elizabeth said. “I believe I am still fighting to retain a more optimistic view; at least, I was. It is as you say, I wish to be valued as a woman, and not a sum, for it is a very small sum indeed. But I promised Papa that I would not let go of my romantic notions. I do not mean to be disappointed if I do not find this mysterious, ideal man – I only mean to say that I will not marry unless I do. If I were to marry, I should desire the deepest of love and mutual affection, a man I could respect, and who I knew would respect me in return, as an equal. I would wish for a true marriage of minds and hearts.”

     Marianne let out a heavy sigh. “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments….

     “Love is not love, which alters when it alteration finds. Exactly. I should wish for a man who would take me just as I am, with little fortune, my family being perhaps a little ridiculous, and my own humors being very odd. By the by, do you enjoy Shakespeare?”

     “Not anymore. I once had the very deepest love for Shakespeare, until one particular sonnet quite killed it for me.”

     Elizabeth wondered if this perhaps had to do with the infamous Mr. Willoughby, though she did not ask, for she had no wish to speak of any other gentlemen, unless they were poets, and turned the subject to poetry, books, and plays. Their favorite volumes were discussed, and their favorite poems and novels were canvassed at length, until Marianne suddenly recalled that she had a parcel to dispatch, as Lord Hartley had left a volume of Paradise Lost at Netherfield, and she meant to return it to Lady Rebecca.

     “I am certain he will be grateful for its return – I believe he read it for a little while in the carriage, when we came from Kent, as he was trying ever so politely not to notice my weeping.”

     “I confess I have never read it, though I have wanted to. I believe I might do so before I return it, I hope it is not too terribly wicked of me.”

     “Your secret is safe with me, though I do not think Lord Hartley would mind at all.” Marianne was blushing again, as she had done the last time the viscount had been mentioned, and Elizabeth suddenly found herself very curious about it. “Marianne, what you said earlier… about not being likely to ever remarry – is it something you would wish?”

     “I do not think so. Andrew’s loss is still such a fresh wound in my heart, I cannot even imagine ever loving another man. He would certainly have to be something remarkable, and I do not know if a better man than Andrew Brandon even exists in this world. I am glad that I do not possess the reputation of wealth. Being known instead as a poor widow who lives with her sister and mother certainly ensures that no man would ever approach me for any other reason than affection, I suppose. I find I vastly prefer it that way, after all my experiences.”

     “If I could love a man would have me for a mere five hundred pounds, I should be very well pleased, but such a man could hardly be sensible, and I could never love a man who is out of his wits.”

     Marianne laughed. “What about Lord Hartley? He seems to have all his wits about him. He is not exactly handsome, but then I find that after a few conversations he nearly is, and he was certainly attentive to you.”

     “Indeed he was, though perhaps more out of his own sense of honor and decency, than any particular intentions. I think he would have done as much for any of his friends.” Elizabeth narrowed her eyes at Marianne in a gesture of exaggerated scrutiny. “Do you wish to know if I have prior claim on the gentleman?”

     “Indeed I do not,” said Marianne, taking the tease in good cheer.

     “Well, he is far from having any designs on me, as I can attest to his having once tried to put in a good word for one of his friends in London.”

     “Was this the same Mr. Darcy, that Lady Catherine accused you of having designs upon?”

     “No, in fact I believe Mr. Darcy’s wife was still living at the time I met him in London. He was there with Mr. Bingley, of whom Lord Hartley spoke so well. He is a good man, I suppose, but he was not for me. I know Lord Hartley had the best of intentions, but in the end it did not matter.”

     “What happened?”

     “I believe it was not unlike your foolishness with Willoughby. I was rather unguarded in my enthusiasm for his company. He has a long-standing acquaintance with my aunt and uncle, and we were so often together that my enjoyment of his company created certain expectations amongst my aunt and uncle, as well as all of our friends. I do not know that I was in love, but I liked him very much, and we really did have great fun together. I might have even been happy with him, but I was not sure, and his sister – oh, Marianne! She is determined that he should set his sights higher than a penniless country miss. His flaw, I suppose. was not in avarice, but in weakness of character, for he succumbed to his sister’s influence. He abruptly abandoned me, and I am certain it was a deliberate maneuver on his sister’s part, to separate us. I was angry at him, and disappointed, but I do not regret him.”

     “How awful! I do not think I could be so forgiving.”

     “I only hope I shall remain that way. In truth I fear that when Jane comes home, I may yet come to regret him after all. While her return must necessitate my finding some new situation, I doubt it shall be marriage.”

     “Your mourning shall be up at the end of the summer, as shall mine. What if we go to London together? I have friends there, and I think you do, as well.”

     “I have already promised Rebecca that I shall do just that, and I do not suppose she will allow me to go back on my word! I think she would be delighted to expand our little scheme to include you as well.”

     “I should like very much to stay in the home of an Earl, as I am sure it is very grand, but I believe my dear friend Mrs. Jennings may insist upon hosting me, though I am hoping she will first come to us, later this summer.”

     “Who is Mrs. Jennings?”

     Marianne’s face lit up. “She is my guardian angel! It is the oddest thing, too, for I must own I did not very much care for her, when first we were introduced, after my family moved into Devonshire. She was rather a source of discord between Elinor and I, in that she was rather indiscreet in discussing my relationship with Willoughby, but she was also a great proponent in my match with Andrew. I began to grow fond of her just before I married him. She was of great assistance to me after Willoughby’s abandonment, and the terrible illness that struck me shortly afterward. In the early months of my marriage, she was a frequent guest in our home, and then, when Andrew fell ill, she was so faithful in attending to us both. Edward had just lost his brother, and he and Elinor were much occupied in visiting Ferrington Hall, which was left depleted and dilapidated – Edward eventually gave it up, though for a time he had tried to make it work. They were not much around when Andrew was sick, but Mrs. Jennings was there for us in my darkest hour, and after he passed she stayed with me on my worst of days. She is like a second mother to me, and I am ashamed of how little I once valued her. She is rather forward, to be sure, and a great lover of gossip, but she has the kindest, most generous heart, and is possessed of a great deal of wisdom beneath her superficial exterior.”

     “I should very much like to meet her. You said she may come in the summer?”

     “Oh yes. She does enjoy beholding her success, for she takes a great deal of credit, not only for my marriage, but for Elinor’s as well. Though the truth is rather negligible, as they met many months before we moved in to Devonshire, I daresay she did play some role in uniting them, as she had certainly taken an interest and Elinor’s love life very early on in our acquaintance. If you are not careful, she may very well do the same to you.”

     “By all means, keep her away from my mother!”

     “Oh, no indeed. I am quite looking forward to that particular meeting taking place.”

     A moment later brought them to the entry of Netherfield, and Elizabeth was plied with questions as to when she had last been there, and what she thought of the improvements Mr. Ferrars had begun to make. She was entreated to stay the night, and an excellent evening of company was promised, and delivered. Elizabeth left Netherfield the next morning feeling quite satisfied with her new neighbors, and rejuvenated enough to face what lie ahead.

Chapter Text

 

Gracechurch Street, London

16 April

 
Dear Jane,

 
     Thank you for at last returning my letter. Let me again offer my deepest condolences for your terrible loss. Your father was a good man, and I know he was always proud of you.

     The rest of your family at Longbourn is bearing their grief as best they can. I dare say the presence of a certain sister would be a great comfort to them. Your uncle and I remained at Longbourn until about a fortnight ago, as your uncle was not at liberty to be away from his business any longer. I understand the claims of obligation and respect that Lady Catherine is due, and commend you and your husband for your loyalty during her state of mourning. However, your own family is now suffering the same affliction, and I am certain your friend and former patroness would understand your need to put family first, should you wish to return to Longbourn.

     Your mother keeps to her room still, and your Aunt Phillips occupies herself both in tending to your mother and in supervising your younger sisters, as morning calls from the local officers have been strictly forbidden. Your sister Lizzy is less agreeably engaged in the arduous task of running the household. She had some little familiarity with your father’s method of bookkeeping and other affairs of the estate, and has picked up the rest tolerably well, though I know it is taking a toll on her.

     Would that we could have spent more time with them, for I do worry so. Believe me when I tell you that any consolation you can offer them would be dearly cherished.

     There is another matter, dearest Jane, which I must mention to you. About a week after our return, Lady Rebecca paid us an unexpected visit. She communicated some very shocking information regarding an argument she had had with you, and though she would not go into specifics on the matter, she wished me to convey her sincerest apologies for her loss of temper, as well as a friendly reminder regarding repayment of Elizabeth’s ruined wardrobe. She seems to think you responsible for some damage to the gowns we purchased for Elizabeth in London. Whatever can she mean by this? The gowns seemed to be in perfectly serviceable condition when we were at Longbourn, though of course their being dyed black for mourning must conceal whatever damage had been done, so I suppose you needn’t worry about it. I do, however, hope that you will accept Lady Rebecca’s apologies for whatever it was that transpired, as she is a dear friend. 

     I look forward to receiving your next letter, and hope that it is sent from Longbourn.


 Yours ever,

 

Aunt Madeline

                         
      Jane frowned down at the letter. Had she been at liberty to act on her distemper, she might have torn it to bits, but she checked her impulses, as there was company present. It would not do to seem anything other than serene, the perfect demure wife. She ventured a glance across the room where, her husband sat by the fireplace, reviewing his next sermon with Mr. Fitzwilliam.

     Though Mr. Collins continued to defer to dear Lady Catherine for the final say in his weekly discourse, Jane had led him to see the merit in affording the same courtesy to the new master of Rosings. As Mr. Fitzwilliam had been ordained rather recently, there was a great opportunity for the two gentleman to form a common bond over their shared studies, and Jane believed that as much as her husband’s mind was being slowly improved by the gentleman, their guest was just as pleased to find his parson open and amiable, and willing to benefit from their mutual interest.

     It was very pleasing to Jane to see the two men getting along so cordially. Mr. Fitzwilliam had been hesitant, at first, to offer any input into the sermons being delivered in his parish, but the Collinses ensured him that they merely wished to perfect their own understanding of the Lord’s word through discourse with other pupils of the Good Book. Though Mr. Fitzwilliam’s conversation was vastly more intellectual in nature than her husband’s mean understanding, Jane found the conversations invigorating, and looked forward to their repetition. Not only was her husband impressed with her insight during these discussions, but the approval of Mr. Fitzwilliam became increasingly apparent, and Jane began to suspect that the man might be rather partial to her.

     He had said nothing of their altercation with his sister, and seemed unaware of what had happened in March. This ignorance allowed the beginnings of a friendship to take root between Rosings and the parsonage, and Jane meant to make the most of it. From their biblical studies, Jane went on to assist Mr. Fitzwilliam in the ongoing project of refurbishing the dower house for Lady Catherine, who was much gratified by Jane’s efforts.

     Jane’s thoughts turned sourly back to her letter. She took in a deep breath, remembering to smile. To her husband and their guest, she must appear satisfied with the contents of her letter. Inside, she was screaming.

     Elizabeth. While Jane secretly delighted that Elizabeth was faring poorly under the pressure at home, it chafed that her sister would presume to usurp the role of mistress in her home. If it is taxing, well then, so much the better! Serves her right. She always was our father’s favorite, who but she should have to clean up his mess, and take on his burdens. Perhaps she will get herself compromised by some vulgar farmer, and then I will not have to bother with her. And those stupid dresses! The nerve of Lady Rebecca, suggesting we pay for them. Well she has no authority over me. I wager Lydia and Kitty will pilfer them straight away, anyhow. Well, at least their petty thievery is Lizzy’s problem now. They will not be able to get away with their tricks on Mrs. Collins, when I do return.

     “And how does your family, Mrs. Collins?” Mr. Fitzwilliam smiled brightly.

     Jane schooled her countenance into an appropriate smile, soft and submissive. “As well as can be expected, sir.”

     How such an amiable, bashful man could be related to such a harpy as Lady Rebecca was unfathomable. Though not exactly handsome, he was well featured enough, short, but trim, soft spoken but thoughtful, and smelled far too pleasant. If only her husband were more like him.

     “I believe your dear sister paid a visit to my aunt and uncle in London,” Jane added, her face warm under Robert Fitzwilliam’s steady gaze. “That was very kind of her.”

     “Yes, she is vastly fond of your sister. I know it pained her to see Miss Bennet so distraught to leave the country. Your friends here shall miss you both as well, when you leave us to return to Rosings.”

     Mr. Collins simpered with pride at this allusion to his new home. “Yes, indeed, we shall be very sad indeed to leave friends, and our snug little home here. We had thought to consider it after Easter, and I daresay you are right about my young curate showing great improvement in recent weeks. Yes, soon we must turn our eyes to Hertfordshire. I believe we mean to travel before it gets too warm, for my dear Jane’s sake. She has been feeling rather under the weather of late, particularly in the mornings,” Mr. Collins added, the pride it his face rendering him uncommonly repellent. “I meant to consult Lady Catherine on the matter of how we might best go about the journey with my darling wife in such a delicate condition.”

     Jane blushed at her husband’s disclosure, which she had asked him to remain silent about for a little while longer. “Yes, in fact, I have spoken with Lady Catherine already, a little bit, and she suggested that my current complaints might subside in a month or so, and then I daresay I shall be quite fit to return home. Until then, I wish to remain here, in the comfort of my quiet little home. My younger sisters are very energetic, though they are good girls – I wish to enjoy the respite and peace of Kent for just a little while longer, as well as our dear friends here.”

     In fact, it had been easy for Jane to discard the news from home, when she was so happily occupied in Kent. Secure in the knowledge that she carried an heir for Longbourn, she preferred to put off returning home, in favor of enjoying her present comforts. She and her husband frequently dined at Rosings with Lady Catherine and her nephew, and the four of them all got along so merrily together each day, that Hertfordshire, Elizabeth, and the rest of the Fitzwilliam family were all easily pushed to the side in Jane’s mind. She was more agreeably engaged, in guiding her malleable husband, and relishing her elevated company and Mr. Fitzwilliam’s gratifying, if unrequited, admiration, as well as the valuable opportunity to display herself to best advantage as a hostess and leader of the community. Elizabeth had been right about one thing, the importance of making a good impression on the new occupant of Rosings Park.

 

***

 Longbourn, Hertfordshire

10 May

 
My Dear Jane,

     I should hardly wish you well at such a time. Though I know you must be loath to give up the company of your noble patroness and the splendor of Rosings Park, think of your family. We have all been in such low spirits since your poor father died, and I am quite at my wit's end. Your sister has forbade the officers from visiting us, and poor Lydia and Kitty are quite beside themselves and mad for company. I told Lizzy she has no say in the matter, but she is so very cruel to us. We are to have no money for ribbons or bonnets or new dresses, and she has cut your sisters' allowance in half. At least there, dear Lydia and Kitty were able to get the better of her, for I have commanded her to share all of her fine mourning clothes with her sisters, and I daresay her new clothes look better on your younger sisters than they do on stubborn Lizzy, who only soils them by traipsing about the countryside all day, every day.

     Though she denies us every manner of comfort, we do have some society, though only the families from Lucas Lodge and Netherfield are admitted to the house during visiting hours. There, at least, we may have some pleasure, for the family at Netherfield continue to cheer us and entertain us. What an elegant table Mrs. Ferrars keeps! I understand their former home of Norland was very grand, and they lend the neighborhood such distinction, despite there being no suitable bachelors in the family for your poor sisters. I do not think Lizzy has said one word about meeting any suitable kind of man in Kent, or London either. I swear she does not know what she is about, and if you do not come home to us I do not know what we shall do.

     Your sister is quite the tyrant, as you can see. I long for your return, and I am quite angry with you for keeping us waiting so very long. Surely Lady Catherine can spare you and your husband. This is your home, you must come at once and spare us from your obstinate, selfish sister, who does not think of us at all.

 

All my love,

 

  1. Bennet

 

     Jane crumpled the letter in her hands at the first mention of her wretched sister, but a minute later she smoothed it out to continue reading. She considered with amusement how badly things must be going for Elizabeth, and was delighted to see that her prediction had come to pass regarding Elizabeth’s London wardrobe being divided between her sisters. I daresay I might help myself to a few of the gowns as well, when I return home. Elizabeth is not so slender as I am, and I think her fine gowns would do well indeed, when I begin to increase, and they should certainly look better on the mistress of the house.  

     She was grateful for her present solitude, which allowed her to give her mother’s letter the consideration it was due, for Jane had been thinking of returning to Longbourn for a few weeks now, after her foolish husband had disregarded her wishes and made it public knowledge that they expected their first child before Christmas. Since then, the dynamic between the parsonage, Lady Catherine, and Mr. Fitzwilliam had subtly altered, and Jane could not like it. Lady Catherine’s authoritative advice on childbearing had grown tiresome, and worse yet, Mr. Fitzwilliam’s thinly veiled attraction to her had begun to wane. How humiliating it was, knowing how disgusted he must be by the idea of her laying with that toad she had married, though Jane knew that she had been thinking of another all the while.

     Her infatuation with Mr. Fitzwilliam had become an increasing source of temptation already, and though she had not yet worked up the courage to act upon it, she knew she would no longer be able to now, for she had be relegated from Beautiful Woman to Brood Mare, and she could not bear the idea of staying in Kent long enough to see her begin increasing.

     She knew they must return to Longbourn eventually, and before she was too big with child, or the weather had grown too warm, for her to make the journey comfortably. At least, if her mother’s letter was any indication, their return might be a better thing than she had once thought. Though she had enjoyed the idea of Elizabeth working herself to the bone in an effort to run the estate, as it seemed a well-deserved punishment for her upstart pretensions before, it chafed Jane to think of how her sister must be getting so much pleasure out of usurping her role as mistress.

     How well Jane looked forward to the prospect of swooping in, after months of Elizabeth’s toils, to put her in her place. Yes, Jane would enjoy returning as her mother and sisters’ savior, to knock Elizabeth down a peg. Though being her mother’s favorite was nothing to being the particular friend of Lady Catherine, it would do very nicely indeed, especially now that she was providing her mother with a grandchild. Her mother would be beside herself with gratitude.

     With her mother placated and firmly on her side, Jane would put an end to all of Elizabeth’s autonomy, and she would relish it. She had once threatened to put Elizabeth out of the house entirely when the time came, but Jane was now of another view on the matter. Her sister would be permitted to remain, but she would submit to Jane’s authority at last. She would give up all involvement in the estate, which, knowing Elizabeth, would likely be a severe blow to her. Her daily walks would be curtailed and her social activity would be limited to that which would directly result in her finding a husband as quickly as possible.

     Jane patted her stomach happily, and resolved to speak to her husband at once. Soon she would take on the role of mistress of Longbourn, and before the end of the year she would produce an heir, and her triumph would be complete.

Chapter Text

 

     Mr. and Mrs. Collins returned to Longbourn at the end of May, and Elizabeth tried to look upon her sister’s arrival with indifference. Though Jane mentioned nothing of what had passed between them in Kent, her manner towards Elizabeth, haughty indifference, made it clear all was neither forgotten nor forgiven. It seemed to please Jane more to leave Elizabeth in suspense, as she was every day expecting Jane to make good on her threat and turn her out of the house, but Jane chose not to play her trump card at once, and forfeit all further leverage over her sister.

     The first few weeks passed quickly, and though there was much awkwardness, especially between Mr. Collins and his new family, there was little enough of open conflict. The new steward attempted to familiarize Mr. Collins with all that Elizabeth had accomplished in the last two months, but Mr. Johnson and all his advice were quickly dismissed. Mr. Collins declared he had little faith in a man who would accept employment from an ignorant child. Elizabeth, though happy to relinquish the burden of the estate, was dismayed on Mr. Johnson’s behalf, for the man had been there but a month. Yet, there was nothing she could do for the poor steward, who seemed happy enough to take his leave, upon realizing what sort of employer he would have to endure if he remained.

     With Mr. Johnson gone, Mr. Collins had no intention of seeking any assistance from his younger sister on matters that were quite out of her depth. He was happier instead to turn to his neighbors, who attempted to educate the fatuous man as best they could. Civil as they were with him, they both made every attempt to give all due credit to Elizabeth’s contributions to the estate, despite Mr. Collins’s eager desire to assure them that his thanks were all for them.

     Regardless of the family being in full mourning, Mr. Collins saw fit to mingle amongst his neighbors as often as possible, claiming his need to acquaint himself with the other pillars of the community, which necessity outweighed his obligation to his cousin Mr. Bennet, and in this decision Jane happily supported her husband. Mrs. Bennet and her younger daughters were delighted at the apparent reversal of Elizabeth’s edict, and were vastly pleased to be out more. Though this degree of social intercourse did not feel right to Elizabeth, she was resolved not to vex herself over what she could not control; she was happy enough when it provided her the company of her friends at Netherfield.

     Mr. Collins was vastly pleased by the inhabitants of the neighborhood, and took a great deal of pleasure in surrounding himself with the best their corner of Hertfordshire had to offer in the way of society. Sir William Lucas, being titled, as well as their nearest neighbor and a friendly open fellow, was a great favorite of Mr. Collins, who had a very high tolerance for Sir William’s numerous recollections of St. James’s. Edward Ferrars also quickly became a great favorite, once discovered to be another parson-turned-landowner. The two gracious gentlemen offered Mr. Collins the same assistance they had extended to Elizabeth, and seemed to bear his company tolerably well, most of the time.

     Jane seemed to think she was delivering a great set down, though Elizabeth was not in the least dismayed by relinquishing the responsibilities she had shouldered for the past two months. Though she had done what the circumstances required, for the good of her family, she was happy enough to be relieved of this burden, and did not begrudge Mr. Collins the difficult task that lay ahead.

     She was instead quite content to fill her days with the company of her friends at Netherfield, a vast improvement from laboring so many long afternoons in the warm weather, dealing with tenants, and reviewing accounts in her father’s book room. On days that Elizabeth did not walk to Netherfield to visit her friends, they called at Longbourn instead. Jane declared herself very well pleased at the friend her mother had found in Mrs. Dashwood, whose manners were discovered to be friendly and genteel. She thought Mrs. Ferrars quite pleasant, as well, and was quite happy to learn that Kitty and Lydia had found a friend in Miss Dashwood. Toward Marianne, Jane was more guarded, and Elizabeth was quite aware of the reason behind it.

     Elizabeth considered that it was perhaps her own fault that Marianne was disposed to instantly dislike Jane, as Elizabeth had confided in her fully. Though Elizabeth was obliged on more than one occasion to remind her friend to remain courteous, Marianne’s emotional nature could countenance displaying anything beyond the barest civility toward one who had wronged her friend.

     Jane certainly felt the disapproval that radiated from the young widow, when they were in company together, and could be in no doubt as to the reason behind. Elizabeth often saw Jane watching herself and Marianne speak together with evident resentment. Elizabeth considered that after her dealings with Lady Rebecca, Jane would likely have been suspicious of any new friend of Elizabeth’s; that Jane should apparently resent her having any of her own friends only strengthened Elizabeth’s resolve to be gone from home as quickly as she could arrange it. Lady Rebecca was frequently reminding Elizabeth of her standing invitation, though Elizabeth still desired to wait to accept it until she was in half-mourning. The Fitzwilliams had rescued her quite enough in recent months, and she disliked the idea of relying on that family too heavily. Instead she wrote to her aunt and uncle, attempting to discreetly discern if they might be amenable to her visiting soon, and she thought it unlikely she would see them until her trip to the lakes – until then, she would have to do her best to get through each day.

     It was her mother who first felt the adverse effects of the Collins’ presence as master and mistress of Longbourn. Though they moved first into Mr. Bennet’s old chamber, seemingly content to share so that Mrs. Bennet might not be displaced, after a fortnight Jane decided she should like to install herself in the mistress’s chambers after all, and Elizabeth was obliged to move into Mary’s room to make way for her mother, as Jane insinuated that certainly Elizabeth would not wish to occupy the guest room.

     How quickly Mrs. Bennet began to change her mind about having Jane back at Longbourn. Though the idea had held a certain amount of appeal at the time of her daughter’s marriage, she had certainly expected her daughter to be happily ensconced in Kent for a great deal longer, and soon found herself quite dissatisfied, and vocally so, at having to make away for her daughter in her own home. Mr. Collins commiserated with her as best he could, lamenting what a great pity it was that Mrs. Bennet had not brought enough money into her marriage to afford them the luxury of building a dower house for her on the property, for then she should certainly be quite as comfortable as his esteemed friend Lady Catherine de Bourgh, whose estate was, of course, a great deal grander than his own, and afforded every comfort one could imagine, including a dower house that satisfied all of her needs.

     Any mention of Lady Catherine, a daily occurrence, seemed to set Mrs. Bennet’s nerves off, and she had no qualms in reminding them all of her extreme displeasure with that lady, who had kept her daughter in Kent so long, and whose opinion she was quite sick of hearing, as she did not see any sense at all in shelves in the closet or advice from perfect strangers!

***

     Lydia was next to endure the unpleasant change in this domineering new Jane. Having befriended the young wife of Colonel Forster over the winter, Lydia had received an invitation to Brighton with them, as the regiment would be summering there. Lydia’s delight in the prospect of a camp full of soldiers did not sway Jane in her decision that Lydia had better not go. Though Mr. Collins and she were in agreement in this matter, they also shared in Mrs. Bennet’s loud and frequently repeated concerns that her daughters be given every opportunity to find husbands. Mr. Collins’s manner of disapproval with the plan was not due to their being in mourning, nor was it Lydia‘s tender age, wild behavior, and low level of trust worthiness that gave him pause. It was rather his dislike of all men in uniform on the whole, as his own unfortunate brother, Captain Collins, had turned out very dissolute indeed, and had thus caused Mr. Collins to be most distrustful of the regiment on whole. They did not find ready welcome at Longbourn, and Lydia was further denied the trip to Brighton, and was even advised to avoid the soldiers’ company in Meryton until their departure.

     Lydia did not take the news well, and Elizabeth almost pitied the foolish man in his struggle to maintain control of the outburst that ensued when his permission was denied. Though he attempted to assuage Lydia’s distemper by assuring her that he intended all his sisters to begin attending the monthly assemblies In the middle of June, when they would go to half mourning, Lydia and her mother felt there was little merit in the plan if there were to be no soldiers to dance with.

     Elizabeth was driven from the house during the height of her sister’s tantrum, and instinctively walked in the direction of Netherfield. It was not long before she encountered Marianne, walking toward Longbourn. She appeared beleaguered by a great deal of complaining from her younger sister, who was quite put out that they had not taken the carriage; she was very certain it was soon to begin raining. Marianne waved at Elizabeth as they approached, scolding her sister that it would certainly not rain before they reached Longbourn.

     “You always say that, and it always rains,” Miss Dashwood wailed, determined to get in the last word before greeting Elizabeth.

     Miss Dashwood offered Elizabeth a stubborn smile before it looking pleadingly at her sister. “If you’re determined to walk, here is Elizabeth, she loves walking, and I do not! What if I go on to the house, and see Lydia? Mr. Collins will give me his carriage for the ride home.”

     Marianne made a face at her sister and waved her away. “Off you go, then. I daresay I have found a companion who is far less tiresome. Tell the other Bennets good day for me.”

     Miss Dashwood hurried away to seek out her particular friend; Elizabeth laughed and shook her head. “It seems it is a day for obstinate younger sisters. I daresay she shall certainly be diverted when she arrives to find the house all in uproar this morning.”

     “Indeed? What has happened?”

     Elizabeth gave her friend a dramatic look. “Colonel Forster’s wife has invited Lydia to Brighton for the summer.”

     “What is she thinking? You are but two months into your mourning.”

     “To own the truth, I was nearly certain she would get her way, if only because Mr. Collins is so inexperienced with her ways. She is certainly not afraid to make every attempt to get what she wants, and as he has never grown up with sisters, it is a new experience for him to see how young ladies behave when they are not in public.”

     “I can only imagine the dismay a man like Mr. Collins must feel, being in a house full of women!”

     “I do pity him, perhaps a little. It can be overwhelming for me, at times, and I have lived at Longbourn all my life. I suppose it is not Mr. Collins’s fault that he is not a particularly intelligent man. Alas, there is no Lady Catherine here to tell him what to do, and with so many opposing views was being shouted at him all at once, he does not know what to think.”

     Marianne laughed indecorously. “Poor Mr. Collins! I daresay he must do as his wife commands. I believe she holds a great deal of sway over him, does she not?”

     “As she is approved by Lady Catherine, she can certainly do no wrong in his eyes, and without the great lady’s infallible wisdom so readily at hand, he must listen to my sister, for in his estimation she is the next best thing. Perhaps that is another reason to pity him.”

      “And so, if she turns you out of the house, he will not protest her choice?”

     The question caught Elizabeth off guard, though she had grown used to Marianne’s tendency to ask very personal questions. “I do not think I would wish him to defend me; I am certain it would only increase her displeasure with me. In truth, I do not wish to cause discord in their marriage, much as I had protested it taking place. I no longer regret that Jane did not find someone better, as I no longer believe she deserves it. She has made her choice, she certainly appears content with it. She does perhaps hold some power over me, though only as long as I live under their roof. If I am made to go elsewhere, I shall, and that will be that. If I reside with the Gardiners, or take a position as a companion, perhaps, they can do me no further harm. I am determined not to make myself uneasy about it any longer. Jane may wish to hurt me, but she can only accomplish it as much as I allow her to. Thus far she has only ignored me, as she is primarily obsessed with maintaining tranquility and calming her nerves, for the sake of the baby she carries, and I find I am content with that.”

     Marianne’s outrage was apparent. “I hate her, Lizzy! I know it is wrong, and I should not hate her, or perhaps I should at least not let it show, and for your sake I really do try, but every time she speaks, I am so instantly annoyed at everyone who can look upon her false modesty and artful attempt at docile charm without immediately seeing how false she is. She deserves to be exposed for her cruelty to you, Lizzy. Why do you not tell anyone?”

     Elizabeth recalled how she had tried, with little success, to confide in her aunt in London about the hurt that Jane had done her. She had no wish to burden anyone in her family with the knowledge of what had passed between them in Kent, largely for fear that her mother and sisters simply would not believe her. Even though her mother still bore Jane a grudge for displacing her, Elizabeth could not depend upon her mother willingly accepting the painful truth of how cruel Jane had truly been. There was also her fear of retaliation. Elizabeth regretted having told her sister anything of her dealings with Mr. Bingley, as surely Jane was aware that sharing this information with their mother would only make life more difficult for Elizabeth.

     When Elizabeth did not answer, Marianne looked at her in contemplation. “I imagine it must all be very complicated for you, and I fear you have no choice but to tread lightly with your sister. If she has not yet turned you from the house, perhaps there is yet hope that she wishes to reconcile with you. I should not have said I hate her, for I believe it does you no good for me to bear her such ill will. Do you think you wish to try getting on better terms with her?”

     Elizabeth let out a heavy sigh. “I hardly know, Marianne. I hardly know Jane. After I attempted to dissuade her from marrying Mr. Collins in October, we had a terrible quarrel. After two months in London, I went to see her in Kent, hoping rather than believing her overtures of reconciliation to be sincere. What I discovered was Jane’s intention to bend me to her authority as an elder and married sister, as Lady Catherine had instructed her was proper and right. I was just a pawn in her game to garner approval from Lady Catherine, and marry me off such a way that I would neither achieve better success in marriage than herself, nor sink so low as to disgrace her.”

     Marianne looked pained by Elizabeth’s bleak outlook on her relationship with Jane. “Elizabeth, I am so sorry for you. In the brief months of our acquaintance, I have come to care for you quite as another sister, and it breaks my heart that Mrs. Collins would treat you so unjustly. Promise me it will not be forever. You must remember our plan to go to London when our mourning is up. Lady Rebecca will find you an excellent husband, and you will marry so tremendously well that your sister will lose sleep for a month!”

     Elizabeth laughed. “Good heavens! But of course I agree, I should like nothing better, and I believe before many more months I shall be more than ready to make my escape, you have my word.”

     Marianne appeared satisfied. “Speaking of London and traveling, I have some news, of visitors traveling from London.”

     “Who? I have had a letter from Rebecca yesterday, and she said nothing of coming to visit.”

     “Lady Rebecca has not been invited just yet, but I daresay that may be a distinct possibility in the near future. Let me not keep you in any further suspense, for the first revelation is not precisely a pleasing one – we expect a visit next week from my brother John Dashwood and his wife.”

     “She is the one you quite despise, is she not?”

     “Oh good heavens, you make it sound as though I loathe everybody. It is not so!”

     “I believe you have expressed an abundance of disgust towards your sister by marriage, but also the late Lucy Steele, and her sister, for good measure, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Collins, and I seem to recall your taking rather long to warm to Sir William Lucas, who I shall maintain is indeed the very best of men. Did you not even admit to an initial dislike of your now dear friend, the fabled Mrs. Jennings?”

     Marianne ignored Elizabeth’s sound logic, dismissing the argument with a wave of her hand. “That is the best part,” she cried. “Mrs. Jennings will come to us a fortnight after John and Fanny arrive. That shall make the visit a vast deal more bearable, I daresay. She gets on well enough with them, as Mrs. Jennings generally likes everyone, and Fanny is always polite towards those with a satisfactory income, though I suppose that now includes my brother and sister. She paid a similar visit upon Andrew and me, after I first settled at Delaford, and now she means to come here to see how Elinor and Edward get on.”

     “I will hazard a guess she shall arrive with a desire to find fault with everything she sees.”

     “Undoubtedly, but I have a plan, though I have yet to propose it to Elinor, as I wish you to advise me first. I wish my argument to be quite perfect.”

     “What is your plan?”

     “I wish to ensure that John and Fanny can have nothing to turn their noses up at, while they are at Netherfield. I know it is a very fine house, but she is never pleased with any of us, and thinks herself so very far above us all. I intend to emerge victorious from this visit, Elizabeth.”

     “I think you must have something particular in mind that you really wish to rub your sister’s face. What is it?”

     Marianne hesitated and gave Elizabeth an appraising look. “I do not know if you are going to like this, but I beg you would hear me out, and bear in mind that I really wish you to agree with me!”

     Elizabeth laughed. “My goodness, what ghastly thing are you trying to prepare me for?”

     “I am going to give a ball. Rather, Elinor and Edward are going to give a ball.”

     “Oh.”

     “Yes, I know you are not best pleased by how much your family has been out in society, despite the mourning period for your father, but if we hold the ball toward the end of June you shall be in half-morning, at least, and it would mean so much to me.”

     Elizabeth considered the idea. She did not like being out at all, so soon after her father’s death, and had argued that very morning against Mr. Collins’s decree that his sisters should resume attending monthly assemblies. After everything she had been through, dancing was the furthest thing from her mind. She had not danced since Kent. I have not danced with Mr. Darcy since London, and I likely never shall again. Momentarily appalled at the sudden emergence of that line of thinking, Elizabeth shook her head in frustration. “I do not know, Marianne.”

     “Only think on it, Elizabeth, for there is more. I do not mean simply to give a ball for the neighborhood. Fanny and John will not be so easily impressed by the neighborhood, as much as all of us at Netherfield adore this community. At any rate, I will not allow Fanny the privilege of returning to London and speaking ill of us. I meant to bring London here to her. Mrs. Jennings is coming to us, as well, and I had thought to invite Lady Rebecca and her brother, and your aunt and uncle, as well as your cousin Emily. I understand she is to be married very soon, but I hope she will bring her new husband, and I hear he has two very agreeable sisters.”

     “One,” Elizabeth corrected her. “The other one, you must remind me to tell you about later, but pray, continue.” Elizabeth arched her eyebrow at Marianne, but resumed her attentive listening.

     “Well, that is really all there is to it. I shall invite all of our friends from London, and Fanny will have to admit defeat. With two children of an Earl in our midst, and so many fine friends, we are hardly country barbarians.”

     “Pray excuse, me but you have met my youngest sister?”

     “Lizzy, stop! I think it a fine plan, what say you?”

     “You know I could scarcely disapprove of any plan that reunites me with so many people I am dearly fond of. If you host the ball first week of July, my aunt and uncle might be spared a trip, for they mean to collect me for our tour of the lakes. So, you see, I am not so very opposed to the idea, for I have already been persuaded by the Gardiners that in half-mourning I must certainly not forswear our plans, though after this morning’s incident, I am glad I have delayed in bringing the matter to my family’s attention. I suppose that having them come down for the ball will only help my chances, for, if necessary, I can always stow myself away in their carriage and make my escape with or without permission.”

     “I suppose I am grateful I have your support, though it seems you mean to use it to affect your own escape. You did not tell me you had thought to travel away.”

     “Marianne, you have sisters who are pleasant. I daresay you shall hardly miss me in my absence. I shall be gone but a month. Then, I shall return, and you shall once again be my primary source of entertainment and amusement, until we go to London.”

     “Unless you meet a handsome, mysterious stranger in the north country, and make a quick escape to Gretna.”

     “Indeed, I may have to, you know, for I daresay that the ball will certainly create some expectations from my mother as regards my marital prospects, if Jane does not decide to plant the idea herself.”

     “Lord Hartley will be there.”

     “As I have told you, he is truly just a friend. In London he saw me only as the object of his friend’s affection, and then Kent as a friend of his sister – I promise you that is all. I do not think I should like to be a viscountess, at any rate.”

     Elizabeth detected the trace of both a blush and smile upon her friend’s face. “Marianne, will you not simply admit that you liked Lord Hartley?”

     “Indeed you are mistaken. He and his sister were very pleasant company when they stayed with us at Netherfield in the spring, but that is all. I am merely observing that a very eligible gentleman is coming into the neighborhood, in a casual conversation with one of four single sisters of my acquaintance.”

     “I daresay there shall be vastly too many ladies in attendance, you know. Lord Hartley and your brothers will not be enough to entertain us all, and with the militia gone for Brighton, gentlemen will be outnumbered by ladies. God help us, we may indeed all be obliged to dance with my brother Mr. Collins, for lack of other offers.”

     Marianne snorted. “I should sooner sit out the entire night.”

     “I shall wager you a length of ribbon from Mr. Spencer‘s shop that you dance the first set with Lord Hartley.”

     “I could easily win by declining if I am asked.”

     “If you desire a ribbon enough to sit out all evening, I daresay you could.”

     Marianne merely rolled her eyes at Elizabeth, and the subject of Lord Hartley was dropped, as there was much else to be discussed.

Chapter Text

 

     On the eighteenth of June, Elizabeth was the only one of her family to visit her father’s grave on the morning that marked three months since his passing. The rest of the family at Longbourn was in disproportionately high spirits that day, for it was to be the night of the first public assembly they would attend since February; Mr. Collins had decreed that the girls might go into half mourning.

     As eager as Mrs. Bennet and the Collinses were to get the girls married and out of the house, the excitement at Longbourn was not entirely pleasant. While Elizabeth protested their attendance as inappropriate, Mary flatly refused to attend any ball, and Lydia and Kitty were bitterly complaining that it was too late, as the officers had moved onto Brighton for the summer, and they did not anticipate taking pleasure in dancing with anyone but their red-coated beaux.

     The evening was largely unremarkable, save for the unexpected presence of Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood, who arrived a day early at Netherfield Park, and were obliged to accompany their family. That they thought themselves above their company was immediately apparent to all who were present, and as many a young lady was already pining the loss of the militiamen as partners, the already dismal mood did little to create a positive impression on those who would have looked down upon a much livelier crowd, anyhow.

     Mrs. Ferrars, ever the diplomat, bore it as best she could, and tried to ensure that her brother and sister were well received and took what pleasure they could in the evening, and did not give too much offense to her neighbors. Marianne’s dissatisfaction with their presence was evident to Elizabeth, who observed her friend’s indignation and disgust with her usual sardonic humor.

    Mr. John Dashwood was overheard telling his wife that he would dance with none but her, as there were no other ladies in the room that it would not be a punishment for him to stand up with, though that room included three of his own sisters. Though she pitied her friend, Elizabeth found the Dashwoods’ snobbery delightful, and wistfully imagined what her father might say about such pretentious people coming amongst them.

     “’Tis a blessing he is too displeased with the ladies present to stand up with any of us,” Elizabeth said, trying to tease Marianne into better humor. “I daresay it would be a punishment for us to stand up with him, even if he were willing. He is tolerable, I suppose, but not handsome enough to tempt me!”

     Marianne laughed bitterly. “Indeed, you are right, Elizabeth. “How Fanny can put up with him is almost as shocking as how he can put up with her.”

     Marianne’s voice was far from a whisper, and Elizabeth gently nudged her friend. “I believe they will hear you.”

     “I rather wish they would, and then turn around and go home. They only come amongst us because they wish to satisfy their own curiosity as to how we all live, and I daresay they hope to find it quite below their own standards. How eager they are to find themselves so fashionable and superior to us all!”

***

     Indeed they were. On another evening, not long after the unremarkable assembly, the Bennets and Collinses were invited to dine at Netherfield, and were treated to an unprecedented show of fashionable manners.

     Jane was in fine form; having found little friendship from the sisters installed at Netherfield, Jane perceived their rivalry with Mrs. Dashwood, and saw the opportunity to form a truly ghastly alliance. The occasion presented itself at dinner, as the two women were seated near enough one another to converse, and a common acquaintance was discovered in none other than the inestimable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who was a great friend of old Mrs. Ferrars.

     Relying on effusive flattery and her husband’s peculiar manner of humbly bragging, Jane was able to ingratiate herself with Fanny Dashwood, and the two remained close as they adjourned to the drawing room after their meal. They were not a comfortable mix of ladies - Mary withdrew to the window seat with a book, as was her custom, the younger girls retreated to the pianoforte, not to play but to leaf idly through the music as they gossiped, and Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Dashwood seated themselves by the fire, content to chatter about minor village news. Elizabeth sat near Marianne and Elinor, but any attempt at conversation was inevitably overshadowed by Jane and Fanny Dashwood’s animated conversation in the middle of the room, which was obviously designed to irritate all within hearing.

     Mrs. Dashwood found an eager audience in Mrs. Collins, and was encouraged to expound at length upon the many improvements she had made in her four years at Norland Park. Elinor and Marianne attempted to remain composed at their sister-in-law’s insensitive remarks on the numerous alterations she had made to their childhood home, which had apparently been quite lacking, as she had found it, upon her arrival.

     “It is quite shocking,” said she, “to find your new home in such disorder, such disarray! Nearly all of the servants had to be replaced, and what an ordeal that was, dear Jane. I hope you have not had to suffer what I have, for it has been such a burden to be sure! You have had the benefit of having grown up at Longbourn all your life, there is no need to be concerned about cheating and dishonesty in the staff, but in my home, however….”

     All conversation between Marianne, Elizabeth, and Elinor had ceased as they listened in dismay. This was clearly Jane and Mrs. Dashwood’s design, and though Elizabeth had no wish to indulge them, she was far from wounded by the discourse, beyond the distress it caused her friends.

     Jane went on to agree with Mrs. Dashwood, and mentioned that her husband had had to dismiss the steward at Longbourn after some serious doubts as to his qualification for the post.

     “I daresay you were quite right to do it,” Mrs. Dashwood assured her. “It is your home now, and you must make your mark up on the place. It is perfectly right and natural for you to have things as you please in your own home, you should not feel any remorse for it.”

      “’Tis such a comfort to find a friend who understands the struggles I have had,” Jane replied with a bright smile.

     “You must let me give you some advice, dear Jane, on how you might improve the place. Though I understand it is not as grand as my brother’s home here, I quite long to see it. I shall come round tomorrow or the next day. I recall there was a little wilderness at Norland that was most unpleasing to my sensibilities, and I had it torn down to make away for a Grecian temple, much more a la mode these days. You must have some little folly or hermitage, it does add so much character to the grounds. And a well-manicured garden, too.”

     Marianne’s patience had plainly dissolved. “I must thank you, Fanny, for making so many alterations to my childhood home. Loath as I once was to leave the place, I find now that I do not regret it at all, for it sounds as if it is not the same house I cherish in my memories. I am sure you have been very thorough, you always are.”

     Jane looked offended on her new friend’s behalf. “But of course, it is commendable to be thorough at something, once one has put one’s mind to it. I have certainly tried to do what I can as mistress of Longbourn. I am sure there is more I could do, and I would be happy to receive any instruction you would wish to offer, Mrs. Dashwood.”

     Mrs. Dashwood nodded with self-satisfaction. “Elinor, do not think I mean to overlook you, my dear. I should not extend any service to Mrs. Collins here that I should not be most happy to provide to you, as well. I think it is a fine home you and Edward have here, though it is a pity you could not remain at Ferrington, and I am sure it did not require so much work as Edward claims, but no matter. You shall make the most of it here, and may still do very well, if you put your mind to it, as Jane says. Let us walk the grounds tomorrow, and I shall go to Longbourn the next day. As your sister, I must dispense whatever assistance you should require. Let my years of experience be put to good use. You are both so new to being mistress of any home larger than a parsonage, I daresay it must be quite shocking.”

     Seeing Marianne bite back another retort, Elizabeth interjected, “I imagine you will find your pupils more capable than you expect, Mrs. Dashwood. I know my sister well. Though she may presently find herself unequal to the task of being mistress of our childhood home, I am certain that she has not forgotten the years of instruction we have received from our mother in running a household –  the same household, in fact, that Jane is now mistress of. Of course, I am far from discouraging any attempt at self-improvement a person may wish to make. I suppose it must be the same for your own sisters, Mrs. Dashwood. I understand from Marianne that she transitioned very smoothly into her situation at Delaford, having grown up at your fine estate of Norland Park, and certainly Elinor has had the same experience. What fast learners you will find them!”

     Marianne offered her sister-in-law a devilish grin as Elizabeth concluded her speech, though Elinor looked rather torn between gratitude and embarrassment. Jane appeared as though she wished to reply, but she could hardly insult her own mother, as she must do in agreeing that she required Mrs. Dashwood’s assistance, and Jane certainly would not agree with Elizabeth, on principle. Instead, she forced a smile, and attempted to steer the subject in a direction more flattering to her own merits.

     “It is true, I am indeed fortunate in the guidance I have been offered, not only from my mother, but even from Lady Catherine, for she was ever so helpful to me in Kent. Truly, her friendship was most invaluable. She remains a regular correspondent, and I have received much advice from her already, which I intend to put to good use. I find she is never wrong. How I long to see her again, Fanny, for she is such an excellent woman, who has been made to suffer a great deal.”

     “Oh yes, I was most distressed when I heard of her daughter’s passing. My mother was quite beside herself, for she quite doted on poor Anne.”

     “Indeed, that is what I understand. It is a shame I never got to meet her, for I have heard such wonderful praise of her, and I have met several of her ladyship’s other relations, who are very well-bred. I understand they will be attending your sister’s ball here next month, and I hope they will bring good tidings of her. Her niece has apparently befriended my own aunt and uncle, and has visited them in London. I believe they are even fond of my sister, Eliza, who crossed their path in Kent.”

     “Indeed?” Mrs. Dashwood glanced at Elizabeth in feigned astonishment. “Well done, Miss Eliza.”

     It was all Elizabeth could do not to laugh at Jane’s tone, which meant to suggest that she herself was at the center of the Fitzwilliams’ relationship with her family. Elizabeth nearly pitied her sister too much to contradict her assertion; she felt all the victory of knowing the truth and saying nothing.

     “I am certainly inclined to agree with my elder sister,” Elizabeth said with a sly grin. “Having my dear friend Lady Rebecca at the ball will be a great comfort to me, as I daresay dancing partners may be wanting, just as they were at the assembly last week. Having a sensible conversation partner, other than Marianne and Elinor, will be a welcome relief. The viscount being in attendance shall be a fine thing as well, for once I have amused myself at the sight of so many young ladies swooning before him, I shall enjoy some very fine dancing. He is very graceful, in my experience, and so amiable that I daresay he shall not find it a punishment to stand up every dance. What a pleasure it is, indeed, when pleasant people come into the neighborhood.”

     Marianne was obliged to quit the room abruptly, though Elizabeth was seated near enough the door to hear her friend’s outburst of laughter in the corridor; a twitch in Elinor’s lips indicated that she perceived it as well.

     Jane and her new confidante had only a few moments to sit in startled confusion at what had just taken place, for a minute later the gentlemen joined them, bringing Marianne back as they entered the room.

     “What a fine time you ladies must have been having without us,” Mr. John Dashwood said, in an attempt to seem agreeable. “It is all mirth and hilarity in here, I am sure, for my sister was quite in stitches outside, and now we are all eager to partake of your gaiety. We must have our share of the conversation, tell us of what you have been speaking!”

     Fanny Dashwood gave her husband a smile only he could find attractive. “Miss Bennet has just been informing us of her expectations for the ball your sister means to give in our honor, John. She is eager to dance with her sister’s friend – the nephew of Lady Catherine is to be in attendance, and Miss Eliza wishes him to be an eager participant in their little country dances.”

     John Dashwood chuckled. “The viscount is a single man, is he not? He may wish to dance every dance, even in such company, but I am an old married man, and I find I am much happier at the card table.”

     Elinor was desperate to steer the conversation in an easier direction. “I shall make sure that the card room that is most comfortably appointed for you, brother, but after you open the ball with your wife, I hope you will save one more set for your hostess. I anticipate receiving a great deal of advice from Fanny in my arrangements for the evening, and I would hate to see it all go to waste if you do not partake of some of the festivities."

     He began to look nervous that he might receive similar entreaties from the other ladies present, but nodded his agreement. “I would by no means suspend any pleasure of yours.”

***

     The family from Longbourn spent a few more subsequent evenings in a similar manner with their friends at Netherfield, and even gave a dinner themselves at Longbourn about a fortnight later, upon the arrival at Netherfield of Marianne’s particular friend, Mrs. Jennings. Jane was eager to impress their guests with her own hospitality, and Elizabeth was no less eager to make the acquaintance of the fabled Mrs. Jennings Marianne had so often, and so fondly, spoken of.

     Having wearied of the airs Jane continued to put on in the presence of her pretentious new friend, Mrs. Bennet flatly refused to offer her eldest daughter any assistance in preparing for the dinner, and was even heard muttering under her breath that she hoped the entire affair was thorough disaster. She had long prided herself as being a consummate mistress, and after hearing her daughter carry on at length about the fine ideas of Lady Catherine and Mrs. John Dashwood, Mrs. Bennet was quite put out. Even Elizabeth could not wish her sister as ill as their mother did, and looked upon the event with more curiosity than malice.

     In truth, the evening was rather a success. The younger girls were merely happy to be together, Mary was reliably dissatisfied at being in company, and Mr. Collins was convinced that his gentlemanly companions had both become his dearest friends. He was completely insensible to their weariness of his conversation, for as long as he was speaking he was content, and therefore he was very well satisfied, indeed.

     There was naught Elizabeth could do but laugh at them all, which she was very ready to do, just as she was eager to be very well pleased with Mrs. Jennings.

     Seated in the center of the table, Mrs. Jennings was positioned to converse with everyone, a situation she seemed to enjoy a great deal. She detailed the remarkable comedy of errors that had been her journey thither, and then continued on in the most genuine manner of praise of everything she had come to find – Netherfield, the growth of the two young Ferrars children, the fair prospect of the countryside in summertime, Longbourn, the Bennets and even the Collinses.

     She had a great penchant for gossip, which quickly endeared her to Mrs. Bennet, just as her fondness of the sisters at Netherfield endeared her to Elizabeth. Only Jane and Mr. Collins were to be disappointed, for Mrs. Jennings was soon discovered to have an acquaintance of long duration with Lady Catherine de Bourgh, when the great lady’s name was inevitably mentioned at table.

     At Mr. Collins’s first mention of Lady Catherine’s name, they were all deprived of discovering the dowager’s particular opinion on the proper arrangement of a westward facing room, for Mrs. Jennings’s raucous laughter drowned out his tiresome speaking.

     “Good heavens, is that old dragon still breathing fire?”

     Mr. Collins’s jaw stopped speaking and hung limply, and he recoiled; Jane was so dismayed that Fanny Dashwood was moved to lay a comforting hand on her elbow.

     Elizabeth could not help herself. “Pray, you acquainted with Lady Catherine, Mrs. Jennings? I believe it is something we have in common, and I should greatly enjoy sketching her character with you.” She gave her sister a saucy wink as she took a sip of wine.

     Mrs. Jennings was instantly intrigued, and focused her attention on Elizabeth across the table, as the rest of the company waited with bated breath for one of them to begin disparaging the lofty Lady most of them had only heard praised to excess.

     “She is a distant relation, through marriage, though it is certainly not a relationship I think she wishes to claim.” She laughed roundly at the idea that the daughter of an Earl would not wish to claim an acquaintance with her.

     “I daresay she said should hardly boast of her acquaintance with myself, either,” Elizabeth responded a quirk of her eyebrow.

     “Indeed, you are wrong, Eliza,” said Jane, her smile tight. “Her ladyship certainly took quite an interest in you.”

     “That she did,” Elizabeth agreed.

     Oblivious to the tension between her two eldest daughters, Mrs. Bennet chose this moment to lament that Lady Catherine could not have been of more assistance to her family. “If she could have only found some way to put my Lizzy in the way of some sort of eligible gentleman, for I am sure she knows a great many of them,” she cried.

     Having been forewarned by Marianne, Elizabeth was not surprised to discover Mrs. Jennings all too receptive to her mother’s complaints, and though the gentleman steered the conversation toward other matters for the rest of the meal, when the ladies withdrew to the drawing room, the subject was quickly reopened.

     “I am sure you know Lady Catherine a vast deal better than I, who have never met her,” Mrs. Bennet wailed at her new friend, as they seated themselves by the fire. “I must say that it should have been one of my younger girls to go into Kent to visit with Jane, for I am sure they would have made more of the opportunity, and met some gentlemen in the neighborhood. Jane, is it not so? Your sister will not say anything of anyone she met in London, or in Kent, but I cannot believe there were no gentlemen to be found anywhere.”

     “It is a serious business to get a daughter married,” Mrs. Jennings agreed. “My two girls are very well settled, but how I worried for them when they were younger. For the Miss Dashwoods, too! They are as dear to me as my own girls,” she said with a smile. “I was quite determined to see them so well-settled. What a fine man Colonel Brandon was – poor Miss Marianne! And Mr. Ferrars, too! I think him vastly suited to you, dear Elinor. Your own Mr F, do you not recall?” Mrs. Jennings winked wildly at Elinor, who blushed and gave a little nod.

     “I am sure I could be vastly more helpful to you than Lady Catherine, if you wish Mrs. Bennet. I daresay eligible gentlemen were very thin on the ground in Kent, but come Miss Eliza, was there no one who caught your eye in London?”

     Before Elizabeth could answer, Jane broke off from her conversation with Fanny Dashwood to approach them. She perched on the arm of the sofa at Elizabeth’s side and gave her a sisterly pat on the shoulder. “Eliza is being modest about her conquest in London, but I believe she was rather popular there, for a time. It was very good of her to come visit me in Kent, and I daresay well worth the pleasure of one another’s company, though I believe there was someone she with was loath to leave behind.”

     Elizabeth flinched and drew away slightly from her sister. “Indeed I did enjoy my time with my friends in London, but I certainly kept excellent company in Kent as well.”

     Mrs. Jennings seemed to catch the scent of what Jane was implying. “Aha, so there was a gentleman. Tell us, Miss Bennet, who was he? Butcher, baker, candlestick maker?”

     “Oh, he is of no profession,” Jane replied triumphantly. “I believe her is nearly a gentleman, though I understand his fortune is from trade. It was very unfortunate that he was obliged to leave London so soon after raising her hopes.”

     “Oh dear,” Mrs. Jennings scoffed. “I hope he is not a Willoughby,” she said with a significant look at Marianne.

     Jane smiled evenly, interrupting as Elizabeth had begun to protest. “I do not know what a Willoughby is, but if Mr. Bingley is such a one, I suppose it means he is a very amiable man, for that is what my aunt and uncle tell me. I learned he is a particular friend of theirs, and I have taken the liberty of asking them to invite along when they journey into Hertfordshire next month for the ball. You shall all have the pleasure of determining whether he is not a Willoughby, but I daresay we shall all find him very pleasant. There now, Eliza, I am I not a good sister to you? You shall have another chance at him, and we will not let him slip away this time.”

     Mrs. Bennet reacted instantly. “Well now, Jane! It is good to see you doing something for your family without consulting Lady Catherine first!” She rounded on Elizabeth next. “So, a gentleman in London all this time, and never a word to your mother? Five months it has been, and you’ve not dropped a word about it! No doubt you have no wish to admit you had him on the hook and frightened him away.”

     “Oh come now,” said Mrs. Jennings. “Men can be so fickle, can they not, Marianne?”

     “Indeed they can,” Marianne agreed. “Perhaps the defect lies not with Lizzy, but with this Mr. Bingley”

     Though Jane and Marianne were both clearly spoiling for a fight, Elizabeth was able to respond to them all with equanimity. “There is need no defect with anybody, except perhaps for Mr. Bingley’s sister. She took ill in February and he was obliged to take her out of town for the sake of her health. It could not be helped. I only hope that if he does accept this invitation, which I hope dear Eleanor will be willing to issue, that it signifies his sister has made a full recovery. Indeed I could wish she might accompany her brother, for I daresay you would quite like her, Jane.”

     Beside her, Marianne grinned, as she had been informed of Miss Bingley’s character.

     “You wish for more ladies at the ball,” Mrs. Bennet cried. “I do not know what is wrong with you, Elizabeth – that is the opposite of what is desirable, for you know any great ladies in attendance will distract the men from my girls though what gentleman there may be, I do not know. Oh, if only we had gone to Brighton!”

     Jane forced a smile at her mother. “And yet, if we had gone to Brighton, we would not be enjoying such fine company here tonight, and looking forward to more of it, is that not so?”

     As agreement seemed only to vex her sister, Elizabeth gave plenty of it. “It certainly is.”

     “We shall just have to see about finding you some more gentlemen,” Mrs. Jennings said. “If Mrs. Ferrars will permit me, I might send around a couple invitations, for I have a nephew with mighty fortune who is available, though I do not think he likes to dance.” She paused and frowned but, brightened up as she remembered something else. “But he is very handsome!”

     “I daresay that will do,” Mrs. Bennet said. “When he sees my girls, I am certain he will dance.”

     “My daughter, Lady Middleton, has a brother by marriage who is single, a second son, but I think he has a property – not as handsome, but he’s good for a reel or two.”

     “Better and better,” Jane said, clapping her hands before moving across the room to sit beside her mother, who patted her with affectionate excitement. “How gay we shall all be.”

     Elizabeth did her best to appear at ease, but inside she was filled with a sense of foreboding. Though it was a little embarrassing to think that Mr. Bingley might get the idea she wished him to come Netherfield, what worried Elizabeth more was that he might actually do it. She had no wish to seek him out again, nor any desire for a renewal of his attentions. Indeed, the idea was rather repellent to her, a drastic reversal of her former giddiness at receiving his affections. After all that had happened, she now felt only disgust at ever having felt such an inclination, and she was distressed by the realization that it was all due to Mr. Darcy. She was not in love with him, at least she did not think so, nor did she really wish to be, but her heart had been touched. The unspoken intimacy that had existed between them in unguarded moments made every fleeting flirtation of Mr. Bingley’s pale in comparison. She fervently hoped he would stay away, as she feared every moment spent in Mr. Bingley’s company with only remind her of the powerful charge that had ran through her body when Mr. Darcy’s lips touched hers. As Elizabeth lost her self momentarily to the indulgence of such powerful recollection, she swore to herself it should be the last time. She would not break her own heart by wishing for such an impossible thing.

***

     After being sufficiently thanked and praised by her mother, Jane returned to her conversation with Fanny and Elinor; Marianne watched her retreat across the room, essentially abandoning the mess she had made for Elizabeth, with a with a withering glare. She knew all too well exactly why her friend had no wish to be reunited with her erstwhile suitor, who was indeed a Willoughby. If it were not so upsetting to Elizabeth, she might even wish he would come to the ball, if only so that she might punch him right in the nose. She despised Jane more than ever for betraying Elizabeth to their mother, for now Mrs. Bennet clearly meant to make it her mission to marry her daughter off to a man she would never accept.

     The two matrons were already working out their plan of attack, though Elizabeth seemed to have slipped into some reverie of her own and remained largely oblivious to them, now that she no longer had to pretend to be unperturbed by her pernicious sister. However, the topic was by no means exhausted for Mrs. Jennings and Mrs. Bennet.

     “With the viscount and this Mr. Bingley, I daresay there should be enough gentlemen, if I can get one of my relations to join us. I had thought my nephew might do for Miss Marianne, for he is a widower and she is a widow, but she will not hear of it, so I begin to wonder if he might do her one of your girls. I believe there is a child, so perhaps the eldest Miss Bennet might be most suitable. I dare say this viscount my suit Marianne very well indeed, for see she is quite beautiful enough to be a countess someday, but she will hear nothing of it. She has already warned me off, you see.”

     “Indeed, I have,” Marianne said firmly. “I am not yet out of full mourning for my husband, and even when I am, I have no wish to be back on the marriage mart. You are far too good at what you do, I am sure, Mrs. Jennings, but I do not wish it – divert your attention to those who would be the happier for it, and I will cheer you on.”

     Mrs. Jennings laughed and leaned forward to pat Marianne on the knee, as if it was some great joke between them that Marianne did not wish to wed again. “We shall see, we shall see, Mrs. Brandon.”

     “Oh, will let her remain single, if she wishes it,” cried Mrs. Bennet. “She is happy to have her own way, I am sure. It is as she says, we must think of my girls. I understand the Viscount was once a military man, which is a fine thing for my Kitty and Lydia. They must have their fair share.”

     Elizabeth showed no reaction to the notion of the viscount taking a fancy to Kitty and Lydia, an idea that Marianne felt sure her friend would look upon with a great deal of mirth; she nudged Elizabeth out of her wool-gathering and asked, “What do you think Lizzy, which of your younger sisters might do for a future earl?”

     It was at this unfortunate moment that the gentleman rejoined the ladies, and Mr. Collins strode into the room with a heavy scowl for Marianne. “Mrs. Brandon, I must ask you not to speak of Lady Catherine’s nephew in such away. You must understand that my sisters, though they are comely and lively girls, are hardly suitable for the son of an Earl, and must not aim too high. I do not know of what you are speaking, but I must to sure you that nobody here at Longbourn would dare make the presumption of attempting a match so far above our own humble station. It would mean inviting the censure of the world. I understand that some present are not on the best of terms with her ladyship, but the prestige of her family must not be disrespected in my home.”

     Jane had broken off her conversation with Mrs. Dashwood to observe her husband’s speech with a confident smile, and as the room fell silent Elizabeth said, “It was her ladyship’s nephew who recommended the steward you saw fit to dismiss when first you arrived at Longbourn. Was she much displeased?”

     Marianne nearly wished to applaud to her friend, but was quickly applied to by her brother for a performance on the pianoforte, and for fear Mrs. Jennings would continue carrying on about Lord Hartley, she hastily obliged them.

 

Chapter Text

22.

 

 

 

     Elizabeth’s feelings were conflicted as her family disembarked their carriage and made their way into the Netherfield ballroom. It was not right for them to be there – certainly they ought to forego the activity, as they were in mourning. Though Mr. Collins had decreed they might all attend, Elizabeth’s only consolation was that her father would not have wanted her to miss such a fine opportunity for observing the folly of others; she expected there would be much to be had of it, on such a night.

     Though Mrs. Jennings had not succeeded in luring any of her single male relations into Mrs. Bennet’s carefully crafted web of Available Bennet Females, the Gardiners had promised to bring a large party with them from London, and they had already arrived by the time Elizabeth and her family entered the ballroom. They moved quickly through the receiving line; Elizabeth had time merely to thank Elinor for inviting the Gardiners and their guests to stay the night at Netherfield, before her aunt and uncle were upon them, exclaiming all over them all before making the necessary introductions. Emily was presented as the new Mrs. Samuel Sutton, and Elizabeth could see her mother wavering between disappointment that there was one less eligible gentleman amongst them, and relief that it was not the more handsome gentleman, for beside him was Henry Audley, who was most eager to bow and smile and make love to them all. Mrs. Bennet could scarcely contain her delight that this charming single gentleman was already previously acquainted with her second daughter, and quickly assured him that her younger girls were even more agreeable.

     Lydia was swift in putting herself forward and securing him for the first set, at which point Mr. Collins, the only one of them who had yet to speak, felt now compelled to do so, and could find no other suitable greeting than one that included homage to the mutual acquaintance he shared with several of the new-comers. He assured Mr. Audley and the Suttons that though they had enjoyed such infinitely refined society when they all danced together at Rosings Park, he was confident that his good friend Mr. Ferrars would not disappoint them with the festivities there at Netherfield. 

     Emily politely thanked Mr. Collins for his observation, and they all lapsed into silence for a moment. Jane smirked and walked away. Lord Hartley and Lady Rebecca, who had hung back as the Gardiners greeted their family, were now walking toward them; Jane suddenly switched course to speak with them, though they were still too far removed for Elizabeth to hear what was spoken between them. 

     After a brief conversation, Jane curtsied and made her way toward her only friend present, Mrs. John Dashwood, and the two quickly became engrossed in conversation. Elizabeth could only give it a moment of consideration before Rebecca pulled her off to the side, as the viscount sacrificed himself to the exaltations of Mrs. Bennet.

     “I suppose you wish to know what your sister said to me.” Lady Rebecca grinned.

     “I believe I must own to a certain morbid curiosity, yes.” 

     “I cannot think what she meant in approaching us like that, unless it is because she was afraid of what manner of reception she would receive from us, and did not wish for her family to see her disgrace. For your sake, Lizzy, I should never put her down in front of your mother and sisters, it would not be right. Otherwise, I would be happy to give her the cut direct. Is that not your gown she is wearing? I believe it looks the rather familiar.” 

     Elizabeth smiled ruefully at the censure in her friend’s voice. “I suppose you are displeased with me. You think I ought not to have let her get her hands on it.” 

     “No, indeed – I really regret that such a concession must have been forced upon you. You do not speak of her in your letters, and I fear you have naught to say but bad news, that you are withholding.” 

     “Perhaps at first, yes, however I find I am perfectly at ease with her of late. I do not mean to suggest that I have gifted her my best dress because her company has become more pleasing, but rather I have learned the surest way of disappointing her is in letting her have her own way. Strange, is it not?”

     “And so you mean to have your revenge by putting on your plainest gown and still being the most beautiful woman in the room?”

     Elizabeth blushed. It was true, she had worn her simplest gray gown, which lacked any sort of embellishment beyond the cashmere shawl she always wore, and a simple silver comb with red rosettes, which complemented the carnelian slippers Lady Rebecca had given her. 

     “‘Tis not my only form of revenge, in fact,” Elizabeth said with a gesture toward her younger sisters. Lydia had claimed the low-cut dress from the theater, once yellow and now a putrid brown that did not look half bad with her youngest sister’s complexion. Kitty had been happy with a pretty lilac sprigged muslin, which had faded to a very pleasant sort of gray after Jane’s sabotage. It was Mary whom luck had truly smiled on. Elizabeth found an eager accomplice in her youngest sister, in an attempt to vex Mrs. Collins, and the two had compelled Mary to wear the silver white gown with red netting, now dyed to a deep grey-burgundy shade. They had arranged her hair in a far more flattering manner then she had ever attempted herself, and the result was so enchanting that even Mary seemed a little pleased with herself. 

     Rebecca smiled mischievously at her. “You are a better person than I, Elizabeth.”

     “Would you still think me a good person if I confessed a tremendous sense of satisfaction that Mr. Bingley is not in attendance tonight?”

     Elizabeth had thought her voice sufficiently low, but Emily rounded on her with a look of panic. “Lizzy,” she whispered, “I am very sorry to hear you say that.”

     “I suppose it is unkind of me. I shall take it back, if you wish.”

     “Lizzy, he means to be here tonight!”

     Elizabeth scanned the ballroom in alarm, but she did not see Mr. Bingley anywhere; she had already noted his absence with tremendous relief. 

     “I heard your uncle tell your aunt that Mr. Bingley has been delayed, as he has had a quarrel with his sister.”

     “Oh, Miss Bingley is to attend as well – that is quite delightful,” said Rebecca with a chilling smile.

     “I do not think she is to come. I heard Mr. Gardiner say that they waited too long to confirm they would attend, and Mrs. Ferrars had not a spare room for them in the guest wing. Mr. Bingley took up a room at the inn, but his sister is most put out that they not been invited into the rooms in the family wing, so she refuses to attend at all.”

     Though Elizabeth was hardly surprised at Miss Bingley’s latest antics, she sincerely hoped no word of the lady’s displeasure got back to poor Elinor, who would surely be hurt, after all her attempts at hospitality. “Perhaps Mr. Bingley will keep her company tonight; I daresay he could not leave her all alone. He is always so very attentive to her.”

     She had not told Emily the full truth of her dealings with Mr. Bingley, and could well understand her cousin’s look of confusion. Before she could think of a more diplomatic reply, the man himself was seen in the entryway, and Mr. Gardiner made haste, with his wife and sister, to greet him. Elizabeth felt her body go tense, and Lady Rebecca moved close enough to whisper, “How much does your mother know?”

     “As much as Jane wished her to.”

     “Well, best to get it over with. Shall we?”

     Arm in arm, Rebecca and Elizabeth came forward to meet with Mr. Bingley, who already had her mother in audible raptures. That Mr. Bingley bore her mother’s effusive compliments and indelicate suggestions so well only served to irritate Elizabeth more. Does he find nothing objectionable? 

     “Well, Lizzy,” her mother cried, waving a handkerchief at them. “Here is your Mr. Bingley, asking after you already.”

     There was not a trace of embarrassment on Mr. Bingley’s face; he bowed and kissed her hand with all his usual good cheer. Elizabeth smiled coldly, offering him the barest greeting possible.

     Her mother grimaced at her for a moment before offering Mr. Bingley another eager smile. “Well now, you have not met my other daughters! Such a pity they must all be clad in such dreary colors, but they are in half-mourning, and I can assure you they are all eager to dance, sir. My youngest, Lydia, is there, speaking with Mr. Henry Audley – I believe you were acquainted with him in Town? It is such a great pity my younger daughters do not get to go to Town as often as they should, for I am sure they should make a great number of friends. And there is Kitty, speaking with Mrs. Ferrars. Mr. and Mrs. Collins are across from the room over there,” she said, waving in their direction. Mary, overlooked by her mother, was speaking with Mr. Collins, who stood beside his wife, though Jane was absorbed in her conversation with Mrs. John Dashwood to the obvious exclusion of her husband and younger sister. “Are you at all acquainted with Mrs. Dashwood,” Mrs. Bennet asked. “What fast friends she has become with my Jane – I think it such a fine thing!”

     “I have not yet had the pleasure, ma’am, but her sisters pointed her out to me when I came in, and I should certainly be delighted to be introduced, after I have had the pleasure of standing up with Miss Bennet.” The first strains of music had begun, and Elizabeth knew she could not protest as he solicited her hand for the opening set.

     As was her custom, when she was not particularly interested in her companion, Elizabeth began the dance by looking about the room to see who was partnered with whom. Further down the set, Lydia had indeed claimed Mr. Henry Audley, and Mr. Sutton opened the ball with his new bride. Mr. Collins did not, instead dancing the first with Mary, likely the only set she would agree to, while Jane remained at Fanny Dashwood’s side. 

     Elizabeth watched in amusement as Mr. John Dashwood approached his wife and was waved away; he then approached Elinor, who was already on her husband’s arm, and finally he made an attempt to escort Marianne to the set, only to find her partnering with the viscount. Kitty was conveniently at hand to save him, though she hardly looked happy about it, and was already exchanging indiscreet looks of hilarity with her younger sister across the room. Pleased to see the tables soundly turned on Mr. John Dashwood, and no less satisfied at Marianne’s choice of partner, Elizabeth let out a merry laugh.

     Mr. Bingley gave her a dashing smile. “It is gratifying to see you in good cheer, Miss Bennet. I have heard much of your suffering, and I am very sorry for it, but it pleases me to see that you are past the worst of it.”

     The turning of the dance allowed Elizabeth a moment to compose herself before she made any reply. “I am not entirely past my suffering, as you say, sir. My father is gone but three months, and I think of him many times every day. It is because of this, I suppose, that I mean to allow myself to indulge tonight, for there are many present I have long wished to see.” With another turn of the dance, she allowed Mr. Bingley a brief moment to think her heavy praise was all for him, before she continued, “I am elated that Lady Rebecca has come tonight, as she has been a most constant friend, as has my cousin, Emily. I am fortunate to have friends who do not forget me in my hour of need. Though my cousin is lately married, and I am sure Lady Rebecca has a great many matters that require her attention, they have not neglected me in the least.”

     Still Mr. Bingley smiled, blissfully oblivious to the censure in her words. At the side of the room, her mother was watching them, basking in every smile Mr. Bingley bestowed upon his partner. 

     “How does your sister? I understand she made the journey with you from London, yet I do not see her among those present.”

     “I had wondered who you were looking about for, and had begun to worry I was boring you, Miss Bennet!”

     “I did not come here to be bored, sir.”

     “I shall have to remember that, Miss Bennet – indeed, I take it quite to heart!” He placed his hand on his heart for emphasis. “Miss Elizabeth Bennet is not to be bored this night. She is to be wined and dined and delighted, and delivered from distress!”

      Elizabeth grimaced. Whatever must I do to make him stop flirting with me so obviously? “Was your sister’s illness this winter of a serious nature? I hope I was not incorrect in supposing that your trip to Bath would be just the thing to restore her to her previous good health.”

     For a moment Mr. Bingley actually had the grace to look serious. “What a tender heart you have, Miss Bennet. You have suffered a tremendous loss, and that you would not wish me to suffer so is most touching. It is true, after losing both our parents so young, I am always very sensitive to the subject of illness, and I take my sisters’ well-being very seriously indeed. Thankfully, taking the waters was miraculously restorative for Caroline, and we were there for scarcely a month before I found her fully recovered.”

     “And then you returned to London?”

     Mr. Bingley look chagrined. “We had intended to, but just as we were on the verge of departure, Caroline’s old friend Miss Eliot came into town with her father, and we could hardly leave without paying our respects for some weeks.”

     “Oh, to be sure,” Elizabeth agreed. “Were you to leave at such a time, I am sure the Eliots would be led to believe that you cared for them not at all.”

     “Just so,” Mr. Bingley said, pleased by her apparent approval. Elizabeth suppressed the urge to stomp on his foot.

     The remainder of the dance proved insufficient in either amusing Elizabeth, or in convincing Mr. Bingley of her disinterestedness in him. At the conclusion of the set, she let him lead her back to her family, in the hopes that they would succeed in mortifying him at last. The Gardiners were on hand to commend them both for their excellent dancing, and Mrs. Bennet was quick to repeat this praise and thank the gentleman for his attentions to her daughter. After doing so effusively, she caught sight of her eldest daughter and waved her over. “Jane, Jane, come and meet Mr. Bingley!”

     As Mr. Bingley looked around at Jane, Elizabeth watched his reaction with no little amusement. He was clearly startled by her sister’s beauty, as it was several moments before he could stammer out a coherent greeting.

     “Mr. Bingley, allow me to present –”

     Jane stepped forward before her mother could even finish her sentence, and took Mr. Bingley’s hand as she dipped into a courtesy. “It is a pleasure, Mr. Bingley. I have heard so much of you, and I think none of the praise has been exaggerated. It is very good of you to accompany my aunt and uncle tonight.” 

     “The pleasure shall be entirely mine, Miss Bennet, if you will favor me with the next dance.”

     Jane accepted with a demure smile, and was quickly led to the dancefloor, as Elizabeth was struck with the realization of Mr. Bingley’s mistake, though no one else seemed to have noticed. 

     Mr. Collins was returning with Mary from the punch table, and addressed his wife on Mr. Bingley’s arm. “Well, Jane,” he said loudly, “I have done my duty to your sister, and now I am come to collect the set you have promised me.” 

     “Oh no, dear Mr. Collins,” Jane said innocently. “I was to save you the supper set, as we agreed. I am afraid I have promised Mr. Bingley this dance. Surely you would prefer the supper set. I think my sister Elizabeth does not have a partner for this next dance.”

     The viscount was instantly at Elizabeth’s side; he released Marianne’s arm after leading her over to them, and cleared his throat loudly before soliciting Elizabeth’s next set, all without taking his steely gaze off of Mr. Collins.

     Elizabeth passed the second dance with much more pleasure, for the viscount was as eager to make merry as she had predicted. Rebecca had sat the first dance out, keeping company with Mrs. Jennings, a conversation Elizabeth could only imagine with no little degree of private hilarity. Now her friend had partnered Mr. Henry Audley, and was taking obvious pleasure in his unrestrained flattery of her person, which was indeed in elegant looks that night. 

     Jane was also apparently much pleased with her partner, and rather pleased with herself, as well. Elizabeth could not look on without a tinge of asperity. A few months before, it had been herself standing up in her new green dress, basking in the attentions of Mr. Bingley; seeing Jane do much the same was a troubling notion, for she could not imagine what her sister was about. Jane had contrived for Mr. Bingley to be invited so that she might raise their mother’s expectations of Elizabeth, and yet now she seemed intent on dashing the very hopes she had created, by keeping Mr. Bingley’s attention fixed upon herself.

     “It is curious,” Lord Hartley observed. “A viscount does not often have the experience of dancing with a woman who is more interested in another.”

     Elizabeth laughed at his teasing and fixed her attention back on her partner. “I think you know me well enough to imagine my thoughts at present, sir.”

     “Oh, indeed. I imagine you are very angry with me for robbing you of the opportunity to dance with Mr. Collins.”

     “My only consolation,” quipped Elizabeth, “is that at least I have a partner who might speak to me of Lady Catherine, a subject I hold most dear.”

     The viscount laughed. “Shall I pass along your best wishes, then?”

     “Not at all,” Elizabeth said flatly, “and I must ask you to please try look quite put out with me, for I believe my mother is watching us.”

     “You may abuse my relations, Miss Bennet, but I will not aid you in disobliging yours,” he said, smiling even wider, “though you may perhaps find my sister a more willing accomplice. I believe I heard her informing your mother that Mr. Bingley is a ‘great blockhead,’ though it by no means diminished her enthusiasm for him.”

     “Come, come, Lord Hartley, I know you are fond of Mr. Bingley. You needn’t pretend otherwise on my account. I assure you I bear him no ill will whatsoever.”

     “Neither does your sister, apparently.”

     Elizabeth laughed nervously. Though she had determined not to be vexed by anything Jane might do to wound to her, she could not like the notion of her sister’s behavior exposing her to the censure of her friends. 

     “I am glad you do not begrudge him his folly this spring, Miss Bennet. Bingley is notorious for having his head turned by the next pretty face, but he is a good sort of man, and a great friend of Darcy’s.”

     “I see,” Elizabeth said, though she did not in fact see what Mr. Darcy had to do with anything, nor could she bear thinking of him with any degree of composure. She was instantly struck with the memory of their dance at the Twelfth Night, and she dearly wished it had remained forgotten, for her remembrance of it had changed everything. No, she chided herself, that was not entirely true – the kiss had changed everything. 

***

     Richard watched Elizabeth blush prettily at the mention of his cousin’s name and he was satisfied by her reaction. It was a pity Darcy had not been able to come down for the ball, for he would no doubt have been successful in securing her hand that very night. Richard had been a little alarmed when the Gardiners had included Bingley in the invitation, natural though it was for them to do so. Though Rebecca had assured him that Elizabeth had no interest in Bingley at present, Richard had worried that Elizabeth’s reduced circumstances might make her vulnerable, if Mr. Bingley importuned her. Were he to make any overtures at the ball, Mrs. Bennet would likely accept him on her daughter’s behalf, and the vicious sister would certainly not have been of any assistance. He had hoped that Caroline Bingley would have at least come along for the sake of ensuring Mr. Bingley did not attach himself to Elizabeth, and felt all the irony of actually being disappointed by Caroline Bingley’s absence from a ball.

     “Why do you smile, sir?”

     Richard grinned at her, unable to help himself. “I suppose it is my duty as a gentleman to say that it is the company I keep, certainly not that I am pining for the loss of Caroline Bingley.”

     Elizabeth burst out laughing, clearly disarmed by his unexpected quip. “I am of a similar mind, for I am quite determined to be entertained this evening.”

     “A change of heart toward both of the Bingleys! Most interesting, Miss Bennet. I shall have much to enter into my diary tonight, I am sure, when I am done filling so many pages with praise for your pretty friend Mrs. Brandon.”

     “You may enter into your diary, sir, that you have saved your friend Elizabeth Bennet a small sum of money, for you see, I have made a little wager with Marianne, and in accepting your hand for the first set, she has quite forfeited the victory.”

     “You seem determined to shock me, Miss Bennet, for now I am to find you a gambler as well? Whatever shall I discover next? Are you perhaps assisting the family Netherfield in elicit smuggling?”

     “Wherever do you think our hosts procured their champagne?”

     Richard laughed. He knew it would be a great relief to his sister to find Elizabeth in such improved spirits, for he understood that she had had a difficult period in managing the estate, even after he had assisted in finding her an adequate steward. He was fond of Elizabeth for her own sake, as well, and hoped she would soon become a member of his family. That she was in such a good cheer, and quite over her infatuation with Mr. Bingley, were both signs that this was all the more likely to come to pass, and her pretty new friend Mrs. Brandon was certainly icing on the cake.

     Absolutely delicious icing, in fact. Richard had been quite taken with the widow Brandon when he had met her in March, and found himself most eager to meet with her again, when Rebecca had informed him that they would be returning to Netherfield before their journey to Pemberley. 

     His sister had asked him once what sort of a lady he might favor, and though he had refused to tell her, he believed he had found such a woman at last. Despite his recent elevation in rank, Richard was a military man at heart, and had long known it would take a special type of woman to tempt him into marriage. That Mrs. Brandon was the widow of a fellow Colonel was promising, for it indicated she was accustomed to the periods of melancholy and social withdrawal that were common amongst men who had seen action on the battlefield. Most women, even those as lively as his present partner, would find themselves far too depressed by such a man, who was prone to all manner of nightmares and flashbacks and fits of dejection, and he would not bind himself to a woman who had not the temperament for it. Mrs. Brandon seemed to possess of a great sensibility, and her determination to rebuff his attentions only added to her other allurements.

      She had spent most of their dance together assuring him that she was not to be charmed by his amiable manners; she was still grieving the loss of her husband, and had no interest in any man at present, nor any fortune of any kind, and danced only to satisfy her duties as a hostess. He did not believe her at all. Methinks the lady doth protest too much.

     He did not care a whit for matters of fortune. Though it would have been a great concern to him, were he still a second son, but he was now the heir to an Earldom, and had even less of a need than Darcy to concern himself with such trivial matters. It was strange to him, though; he had met Colonel Brandon on several occasions, many years past, and had thought him to be a man of decided means, surely he would have been able to leave his widow with something, but no matter. Yes, he found Marianne Brandon vastly intriguing, and though he would learn to take no for an answer if she insisted, he suspected she liked him more than she was willing to admit.

     It was good that she was friends with Elizabeth, for certainly when her mourning was up, the window Brandon would go to visit Mrs. Darcy at Pemberley, and Matlock was not so very far away. She would come round, and when she did, he meant to woo her as a no lady had ever been wooed.

     “Do you mean to pay me back in kind,” Elizabeth asked with a pert smile. “You have chastised me for allowing my attention to drift elsewhere, and now you are all eyes for another. I know you too well, Lord Hartley – I think it is your sister’s influence, for I am inspired to observe that you are quite taken with my friend Mrs. Brandon, and though she has no doubt attempted to put you off, you are considering how you may best attack her defenses.”

     “I was, in fact, thinking of Pemberley.”

     “Mr. Darcy’s home,” Elizabeth murmured, blushing as she spoke his name.

     “Should you like me to tell you a secret, Miss Bennet? I dare say it will make my sister very angry with me.”

     “No indeed! By all accounts I hear your sister pinches very hard. I am sure you recall being on the receiving end of her displeasure, on another evening of dancing. If there is something my friend wishes to tell me, I shall not deprive her of the satisfaction of delivering the news herself. Instead, you shall have to satisfy yourself by pronouncing all of my guesses to be incorrect, and I assure you they are they shall be very absurd.”

     Richard laughed. What a change this delightful creature would effect on his sober cousin – he could not wait to behold it. “Do your best, madam.”

     “Let me see. You have expressed a great deal of disappointment at Miss Bingley’s absence, but I daresay an engagement between the two of you would be too obvious, and certainly not news Rebecca would have any right to deliver. Hmmm. Has Rebecca formed an attachment? Has she finally succeeded in securing the affections of a certain second son withholdings in Scotland? I know – Sir Gerald has become engaged to Lady Catherine. His effusive flattery has finally touched her heart, and following my departure from Kent, she succumbed at last to his extremely romantic overtures.”

     “Actually, nothing of note happened in Kent after you departed, I am sorry to say.” In fact, all that had happened was a fortnight of intense moping on Darcy’s part. 

     “So something has happened in London, then? Was your fair lady presented to the Queen? As a future countess, I am sure Miss Bingley must be eager to be on intimate terms with her Majesty.”

     Richard shook his head and laughed, and Elizabeth continued her outlandish guessing game until the dance concluded. He was glad she had ceased to worry about her mother’s observations, and let herself enjoy the evening, for she more than deserved it.

***

     Lady Rebecca eyed her brother suspiciously as he led Elizabeth over to her where she spoke with the Gardiners and Mrs. Bennet. Mrs. Bennet had been a great deal too pleased with Richard’s attention to Elizabeth, and Rebecca felt she might need to warn her brother against creating any expectations that would cause difficulty for Elizabeth at home. Mrs. Bennet was clearly determined that either Richard or Mr. Bingley must offer for Elizabeth, and soon; Rebecca began to worry that Elizabeth might be forced into an uncomfortable arrangement, before Rebecca could reunite her with Darcy. It was time for her to put her plan into action. 

     She took Elizabeth’s arm as soon as Richard released it, and to ensure that she had Mrs. Bennet’s attention, Rebecca observed, “How well you dance, Elizabeth. It is good to see you making merry tonight. Richard, have you asked her?”
She could not help but be amused by Mrs. Bennet’s eagerness to discover what Richard might mean to ask. 

     “I have been a good boy,” Richard answered.

     “Good, then the pleasure shall be all mine. Elizabeth, we have been scheming with your aunt and uncle – I understand they mean to travel north with you in a few days’ time.” 

     Elizabeth regarded the Gardiners warily before answering in the affirmative. Mrs. Gardiner came forward and said, “Dear Lizzy, your uncle and I still intend to travel, but we are not able to be away from London long enough to enjoy the Lakes properly, as your uncle has been away so long in the spring, which of course could not be helped.” 

     “Are you to cancel your plans,” Mrs. Bennet cried. “Oh, but Lady Rebecca means to take you to London, instead, Lizzy! I think it a much better plan, Lady Rebecca. Indeed, I think Lizzy will be vastly pleased to go to London with you!”
     “I am sure she would be,” Rebecca said it with a pointed look at her friend. “However, my brother and I are for Pemberley on the morrow.”

     “Your estate, Lord Hartley?”

     “It is my cousin’s, and were it not for my attachment to Matlock, I could almost declare it superior.” 

     “I would have to agree with that assessment,” Mrs. Gardiner rejoined. I grew up not five miles from Pemberley, in Lambton, a little town of no consequence to anyone but those fortunate enough to have lived there. Derbyshire is beautiful countryside, Elizabeth, and I think you will be quite content to journey there instead. I have many friends still in Lambton, and of course your own dear friends will be so near at the same time. Can you not think of a happier alternative?”

     “Who could think of anything better,” Mrs. Bennet cried. “I think it a splendid plan! Are your friends and relations not kind to you, Lizzy?”

     In fact, Elizabeth looked rather ill, and suddenly Rebecca began to doubt the wisdom of her plan. She had been so worried that the nasty Collinses might prevent Elizabeth from making her journey, and had merely intended to gain Mrs. Bennet’s support, but this assurance had apparently come at the cost of poor Elizabeth’s equanimity; she seemed more shocked than delighted. 

     “Come, Lizzy,” said Rebecca. “Let us find Mrs. Brandon, and acquaint her with the news. She cannot be content speaking with her sister-in-law over there.” Elizabeth made a non-committal reply as Rebecca swept her away and gestured for Marianne’s attention. Marianne instantly broke off from her brother and his wife, and was quickly at their side, as Rebecca seated her friend on the nearest available sofa in the ladies’ retiring room.

     “Whatever have you done to Elizabeth,” Marianne demanded, and Rebecca was rather pleased to discover where Marianne’s loyalty lay.

     “I shall take no offense at your tone,” Rebecca chided. “I am very sorry to have caused Miss Lizzy any distress. Truly,” she said, turning to Elizabeth, who still appeared to be in shock. “Lizzy, please say something, I am very concerned. Have I done something wrong? Did I go too far? Oh Marianne, I think I have gone too far this time. It was badly done, badly done indeed!”

     Marianne was very agitated, and fussed over Elizabeth a great deal. “Lizzy, I do not understand! Whatever is the matter? I know you would not quarrel with Lady Rebecca. Has Jane done something?”

     “I cannot think what it would have to do with Jane. Marianne, can I trouble you to bring Elizabeth some wine? No, bring her some punch – I think Mrs. Ferrars made it rather strong. I will speak with Lizzy.”

     Rebecca sat down on the sofa beside Elizabeth, who was staring absently into her hands, which were folded in her lap. “Elizabeth, I am so very sorry, only please tell me how I have given you offense. Rail at me, please.”

     Finally Elizabeth looked up, her expression more coherent. “Please do not trouble yourself, Rebecca. I understand your interference was kindly meant, only I was quite unprepared to hear what you had to say. My mother can be rather overbearing, as I am sure you are aware.”

     “I did not use her enthusiasm to force your hand, only to ensure that Jane did not prevent your going, if you wish it.”

     “I confess I am surprised Jane has not interfered with my plans, for I have been very much looking forward to the journey, though not without feeling some guilt at enjoying myself so soon after... Well, it is of no matter, as I daresay my mother would not have given me much of a choice even, if you had not improved upon the existing plan, and attempted to manipulate her. Anywhere there are single gentlemen, she would happily to send me off to, without any encouragement.”

     “And surely you have no wish to remain at home? Even though Jane has not made good on her threat, I cannot imagine she is pleasant to live with.”

     “Indeed, I shall be happy to get away; it was only the change of destination that caught me by surprise. I cannot quite account for my astonishment.”

***

     Elizabeth looked away, biting at her lip as she lied to her dearest friend. She was overcome with shame for making such a scene. She was quite certain that Mr. Darcy had not spoken to his relations of what had passed between them, which was surely nothing more than the impulse of a moment. She must be careful to ensure that it remained a secret. Though she would not be ruined if her moment of passion were discovered by such dear friends, she would nonetheless be thoroughly ashamed of herself had they any knowledge of what she had done, and indeed she ought to feel a great more shame than she did. Instead, what she felt was difficult to determine. The idea of going to Mr. Darcy‘s estate stirred up a great sense of yearning within her; she was at once happy and sad, and very afraid. What will he think of me, putting myself in his path like this? She had skirted the boundaries of propriety by corresponding with him shortly after her departure from Kent, and though she treasured his notes, there had been nothing in them but common friendship. Foolish girl. She would see him at home, surrounded by memories of his late wife, and she would be reminded of what she ought never to have forgotten, that Mr. Darcy was a grieving widower and quite out of her reach.

     She knew not whether she could bear his presence while her heart was still so tenderly disposed, though he had given her little enough encouragement to have developed such feelings. He was a kind and intelligent gentleman, who had merely sought a sympathetic ear, and she would have to prepare herself for it to be much the same in Derbyshire, for she was certain she could not avoid going, without raising suspicions that she would rather not address.

     “Tell me,” she asked, “are the Bingleys to go? I think Mr. Bingley said once that he went to Pemberley every summer.”
     Rebecca screwed up her face a little. “It is their tradition, and Darcy is rather determined to maintain it. They have been friends for some time, and I suppose he does not wish to give offense. Apparently, his sister, my cousin Georgiana, is rather eager to play hostess. Tell me, does this change your intentions?”

     “No, I think I shall be content. I shall endeavor to be friends with Miss Darcy.”

     “I think you will like her, Lizzy. I have already sketched your character for her in some letters I wrote her while in London, and she expressed an eager interest in meeting you, so she will be pleased at your coming. Of course, Darcy will be as well, for I seem to remember him enjoying your conversation a great deal in Kent.”

     “Rebecca,” Elizabeth pleaded. She was not ready to have this conversation with her friend, not yet. There were some things she simply could not speak aloud. 

     Rebecca looked down at her lap, seeming to choose her next words very carefully. “Darcy is aware, I think, of the Gardiners’ connection with Mr. Bingley, and will happily welcome your aunt and uncle as guests of his dearest friends, in such a way that I am sure there should be no awkwardness of any kind.”

     Elizabeth read between the lines, and understood. “I am only sorry Mr. Darcy will be troubled to host anyone outside of his own family, at such a time.” 

     Rebecca looked crestfallen. “You do not wish to go. Oh Lizzy, I am so sorry.”

     What would Mr. Darcy think of her turning up at his estate? And what if Mr. Bingley did not cease in his determined attentions toward herself? Did Mr. Darcy see her only as the object of his friend’s affection? Would he scorn for throwing herself at him so wantonly? Elizabeth made no reply to her friend, and a moment later Marianne returned with three glasses of punch, which she shared with her friends.

     “All better,” she asked.

     Elizabeth took a deep draught of punch and looked hesitantly at Rebecca before answering. “I am to travel to Derbyshire at the end of the week, it seems. I was rather astonished at the change of plans, for we were to go all the way to the Lakes, but I understand that my uncle cannot be away from his business so long. He was with us for many weeks at Longbourn in March, and it is fortunate he can get away at all. I shall be perfectly content, however, to journey into Derbyshire, as Rebecca will be going north, as well.”

     “You should come with us, Marianne,” Rebecca said impulsively. “The more the merrier, why not?”

     Marianne smiled but shook her head. “I am sorry to disappoint, but I could not leave Netherfield before my friend Mrs. Jennings has been finished her visit.”

     “No indeed, I am vastly fond of Mrs. Jennings,” Rebecca said. “What a lovely chat we had together while you all were dancing.”
     Elizabeth’s interest was piqued, for she had observed them in close conversation, and had wondered rather what they might be speaking of.

     Marianne rolled her eyes. “Which one of us were you gossiping about,” she said with a playful look at Elizabeth.

     “No, it is not like that,” Rebecca laughed. “Oh, we share an eager interest in both of you, rest assured. Why, you could bring Mrs. Jennings along, too, if you like – you must all come to Pemberley, and how merry we shall be!”

     “Forgive me, but I do not think I should like to travel just yet. Mrs. Jennings is begging me to come with her to Devonshire next month, and I am very near being persuaded to do so, but I intend to hold out a little longer, for really I am very happy here Netherfield.”

     “Very well,” Rebecca conceded. “But there is always London in the autumn.”

***

     The rest of the evening was rather a blur for Elizabeth, for her head was still so full of Pemberley and Mr. Darcy that everything else that was passing received only half of her attention. She was obliged to stand up with Mr. Collins, a fate shared by all of her poor friends and sisters, and she could only surmise that their toes must have been as sore as her own at the conclusion. Another set was claimed by Mr. Bingley, whose difficulty in dividing his attention between speaking with Elizabeth and staring at her older sister was easily ignored. He had apparently been made aware of her upcoming journey to Derbyshire, and expressed delight in the knowledge that he would continue to enjoy her company for many more weeks.

     Only his lengthy discourse on how well Darcy had approved of her caught Elizabeth’s notice, and she found herself listening more closely as Mr. Bingley went on to say how highly Darcy had spoken of her, when they had met in London. Had he liked her only as a possible match for Bingley? Elizabeth began to imagine that he had only made the effort of becoming acquainted with her in Kent in order to get to know the woman his dearest friend had been pursuing.  And then she had gone and kissed him out of nowhere, how wanton and treacherous he must think her! She could not bear the idea of having lost his good opinion, for it meant a great deal to her, in a way that had nothing to do with Mr. Bingley.

     He was teasing her now about her apparent easy friendship with Lord Hartley, and jested that if he did not know her better, he would be a little jealous. “The viscount seems quite taken with your friend Mrs. Brandon,” he observed. “I think it a very fine thing for your friend to be so well suited to my friend. It is a happy coincidence indeed, is it not, Miss Bennet?”

     Elizabeth’s lack of enthusiasm had no effect whatsoever on Mr. Bingley’s steady conversation, and once again it began to wear on her. Even as he spoke of his excitement at her journey to Derbyshire, he cast the occasional sidelong glance at Jane, and smiled with pleasure at her apparent interest in him. What on earth was Mr. Bingley about, to be making love to the both of them at once in such a way?

     He was not at all a sensible man, and she wondered at how it had taken her so long to notice it. She found herself inevitably comparing him with Mr. Darcy, and began to ponder how the two men could possibly be friends. Mr. Bingley was kind and jovial, to be sure, but it was rather tiresome. Though Mr. Darcy was not so conversant, his manners improved upon further acquaintance. When he spoke, it was sensibly, and with a great depth of feeling. There were even times she had thought him almost flirting with her, and though she had now become quite certain that it must not be so, she imagined he would be far more adept at it than Mr. Bingley. He was certainly a better dancer, and far more handsome, and she was even in the strange position of being able to verify that he was also a better kisser.

     Having finally appalled herself into good sense, Elizabeth snapped out of her reverie, and attempted to regain control of her conversation with Mr. Bingley, for it would not do for her to be thinking so wantonly at such a time. No lady should be in the position of being able to compare kisses from any gentleman, much less more than one.

     “Though I am looking forward to my journey, Mr. Bingley, I am still in half-mourning, and I am afraid I may disappoint you, at times, when I am not in such good cheer as I am tonight.”

     He assured her that he could find nothing wanting in her manners, nor could he anticipate that ever being the case.

     “You are very kind, but I must remind you how much has changed since last we met, in London. You have been happy enough to have enjoyed the full recovery of your sister; I have suffered a great loss, and though the journey north will be a welcome balm to my spirits, they have been much depressed at present, and may not make so speedy a recovery, as you imagine.”

     The dance came to an end just as Mr. Bingley seemed to finally understand that Elizabeth was not as receptive to his attentions as he had hoped. He looked very serious and confused. “I am sorry if I have given you offense, Miss Bennet.”

     “I seem to be hearing that phrase a great deal tonight,” Elizabeth said with some bemusement. She could think of nothing else to say, and so she dipped into a little courtesy and stalked away.

     It was not offense she felt at anything that had transpired that evening, she reflected as her family finally drove away from Netherfield in the wee hours of the morning. She felt entirely overwhelmed, as if she had suddenly lost all control of her own fate and future. Lady Rebecca’s concern was something she was grateful to have, and of course her aunt and uncle made it clear they wanted what was best for her, as well. Even her mother had the best of intentions in trying to marry her off, as in truth there was a little alternative for someone in her position. It was only her own natural sense of rebellion that balked at it all; she could not like that everyone around her seemed to have their own plans for what was to become of her, and she worried that she could very easily lose her own sense of self and get swept away in the machinations of others. She remembered her promise to her father on his deathbed, that she would not abandon her own ideals, and she resolved once again that her fate should be her own to decide. Whatever happened in Derbyshire, she would hold her head high and do nothing that did not constitute her own happiness.

Chapter Text

 

     Darcy heaved a great sigh of relief as he watched the de Bourgh carriage depart down the lane at Pemberley, and he could hear his sister beside him do the same. She shifted little Julia to her other arm, and Darcy instinctively reached for the babe. He took little Julia in his arms and cradled her against his chest as he carried her inside, relieved that Lady Catherine’s surprise visit had gone smoothly enough, and that it had last come to an end.

     Robert’s hastily written express had arrived too late to sufficiently warn Darcy of his aunt’s sudden departure from Rosings, no doubt in pursuit of her grand-child. Though they were ill-prepared for her arrival, Darcy thought he and his sister had handled the visit well, such as it could be. In truth, his biggest fear had not been that his aunt would discover their deception, but that she would attempt to leave with the child. He instinctively clutched little Julia closer, for even at the last, he had worried that his aunt might steal her away and break his sister’s heart.

     Though her strain was evident, Georgiana had composed herself far better than he had expected while their aunt was at Pemberley. Though her body had betrayed telling signs her recent condition, when he first returned to Pemberley, Georgiana had taken great pains to maintain her figure, and was recently beginning to fit into some of the garments she had worn the previous summer. If they were a little snug in the bosom, he thought with embarrassment, his aunt did not notice.

     Indeed, he was pleased with what grace she had handled their aunt’s visit, as well as the contrition she had come to show, after their first quarrel upon his return. He understood that the effects of her condition had been the cause of her heightened emotion, and though it often tried his patience, he was determined to be a better brother – the kind of brother whose sister does not run away out of boredom or want of affection.

     “What say you to a walk down to the lake,” he asked his sister after breakfast the next morning. “The weather is very fine, and I would enjoy the exercise.”

     “I would be happy to accompany you,” Georgiana said with a smile. “Though I never thought I should ever wish to paint another landscape again in the whole course of my life, I find I have actually missed my artistic endeavors, and I should be happy to take my watercolors along with me. You should bring your sketchbook, brother.”

     “I shall fetch it directly, for that puts me in mind of a drawing I did of Rosings. I thought we could frame it for Julia’s room.”

     Georgiana beamed with satisfaction. “You are too good to her, brother. I think she will like it very much, indeed.”

     “Yes, she is a connoisseur enfant, a true lover of the arts, is she not?”

     “I believe it is in her blood.”

     Darcy smiled fondly at his sister. Though brother and sister, and so far apart in age, they had fallen into the strange pattern of being mother and father to little Julia. It was unusual to say the least, but he was pleased that they were once again on comfortable terms. He briefly wondered what Georgiana would have done if he had returned to Pemberley with a bride, a new mother for little Julia. With the right woman, he hoped she would warm to the idea. She could be possessive of the child, at times, but he hoped that a woman like Elizabeth Bennet might make the new dynamic of Pemberley comfortable enough, in due time.

     He chided himself for the thousandth time, for allowing himself to indulge in such a thought. He had failed to make his intentions clear to Elizabeth, and he had to remind himself that they were not yet formally engaged. He hoped she was not pining for him too terribly. Of course not – she is grieving for her father, just as I ought to be doing for Anne.

     Darcy returned downstairs with his sketchbook to find Georgianna waiting eagerly for him. Mrs. Reynolds had packed them a picnic basket to take down to the lake with them, and informed them that Julia would be resting with her nurse for much of the afternoon.

***

     Georgiana walked happily on her brother’s arm down to the lake, enjoying the warmth of the sun, which seemed to shine brighter now that Lady Catherine had returned to Rosings. She was grateful to have her brother’s company; neither of them was particularly gregarious or lively, but Georgiana had developed a newfound appreciation for the quiet companionship that existed between them.

     It was strange, she thought, that the very same rustic simplicity that had seemed so tedious a year ago, now seemed to be a small sort of miracle. She had come to regret ever feeling that William and Pemberley were not enough for her; she had gone to Ramsgate dissatisfied with the quiet life she had always led it home, emboldened by the tales her companion, Mrs. Younge, had spun about the adventures other young ladies Georgiana’s age were permitted. She had wanted more, and she had certainly gotten more than she bargained for, in Mr. Wickham. 

     Thinking of sweet little Julia, it was hard for Georgiana to completely regret her actions last summer, though the past year had been painful in so many ways. Her brief romantic interlude had felt like everything she had always wanted, after so many years of solitude at Pemberley, while her brother enjoyed all the liberty allowed in the world of men. She did not wish to be a child anymore, and she had certainly gotten her wish. 

     The pain of Wickham’s abandonment was a terrible blow, but worse had been William’s anger and disappointment in her, for it had made her feel more isolated, more like a child, than she ever had before, and had only inspired a stronger sense of rebellion within her.

     Strangely, Anne had understood, in a way that Georgiana could not imagine her brother, her cousin Richard, or any man truly understanding. Anne should have been furious with me, for her own sake. Georgiana could not imagine Anne’s marriage to William had been a happy one, for Anne’s letters were almost as lonely as her own, in the months Georgiana had spent in Frodsham. Anne had quickly come to understand what a quiet, lonely place Pemberley was, and though she was happy to be away from her mother, her one course of escape was by no means a fairytale. 

     Though her heart ached for Anne’s loss, Georgiana hoped that she and her brother had come away from Frodsham as better people from what time they had with their cousin. In the month her brother spent in Kent, Georgiana’s anger had cooled, and she had come to know more of her own heart. She desired her brother’s good opinion, his affection. She wished them to be at ease with one another once more, and certainly it was what Anne had wanted for them. 

     William had returned in April, seemingly of a similar mind, and in the last two months they had truly began to live as the family Anne had wanted them to be. Though he arrived at Pemberley in far more depressed spirits than she had anticipated, and despite Georgiana bitterly envying the fact that her brother, as a gentleman, that was free to come and go in the world as he pleased, she was struck by the notion that this freedom had not brought him any more happiness than it had her.

     Julia was her true source of joy in life now, and Georgiana had begun to share that with her brother. It had been hard, the idea that Julia was not her own, not in name – Julia belonged to William. She was his child in the eyes of the world, but at home William was generous, and allowed his sister unrestricted access to the child; with none but him around, him she might be as tender and affectionate to Julia as she wished.

     In public, of course, she must be merely Julia’s aunt, doting but distant, and acting the part for the first time so soon after her birth has been difficult during Lady Catherine’s visit. Speaking of Julia as Anne’s daughter had been strange, but not as impossible as she had feared, and seeing her brother’s approbation with her restraint had given Georgiana the strength to keep up with the act for the two weeks Lady Catherine was with them.

     It pained her to see William participating in the ruse. Disguise of every sort was his abhorrence, and she knew this lie, which they must commit to for the rest of their lives, had been a bitter pill for him to swallow.

     “Why did you do it?”

     He laughed bemusedly. “Why did I do what, Little Miss?”

     “Why did you commit yourself to a lifetime of deception for my sake? Why raise my child as your own? You could have settled her with some family in a distant county, or sent us both off to the estate in Scotland, but instead you have sacrificed yourself for the sake of keeping us all together.  If Anne had lived, you would have lost your chance of finding a true love match.”

     “I do not intend to marry in the near future, Georgiana,” her brother said cautiously.

     “Yes, but surely you will marry when your mourning for Anne is up – indeed, society would forgive a man in your position if you chose not to wait, and you have always said you wish to marry for love, as Mother and Father did.”

     “That is my ideal, yes. I shall marry a lady who will bring warmth and joy into our lives, and who will accept Julia for who she truly is. Do you not wish the same?”

     Georgiana shook her head. “I suppose you would wish to tell your future wife the truth of Julia’s history, though it frightens me a little. Many women would judge and resent me for it. I cannot imagine I shall ever be at liberty to share my secret, and so I do not think I shall ever marry. Surely no gentleman would marry one who had done what I have.” 

     “I will raise Julia as my daughter, and will never marry a lady who did not accept this, just as I would hope that you might find a man who could love you, even after knowing your secret. You are not incapable of inspiring such devotion. We will give you a season in the spring, is that not why you intend to practice your skills on her as a hostess in the next few weeks?”

***

     Darcy had high hopes for what the upcoming visit from the Fitzwilliams would mean for his sister; her spirits had certainly been depressed while Lady Catherine had stayed with them. Georgiana was fond of their cousins, as well as Mr. Bingley, and Darcy had begun to nurture the small hope that she might come around to thinking of Bingley as a prospective suitor.

     Though Bingley had a reputation for flitting from one woman to the next rather quickly, and had even once shown an inclination for his own Elizabeth, Darcy had a hope that within the next few years, as Georgiana grew into womanhood, Bingley would outgrow his puppyish behavior and finally seek to settle down. He would be a good match for her, in a year or two, for his lively manners would do well for Georgiana, who had been too long left in solitude, with naught but his own somber company. It would be a splendid match for Bingley, and not only in terms of fortune, for he was sure that Georgiana would make him a delightful wife, and with Caroline Bingley’s social grasping at last satisfied, that particular lady might even become somewhat more bearable. He hoped that Georgiana’s excitement about their upcoming visit indicated that such a future was not too far off, and meant to watch their interactions closely over the next few weeks. 

     Georgiana agreed that she was eager to receive their friends and relations, and they spoke for a while about the various amusements they might have, and plans they might form to keep their guests occupied. After a long and diverting conversation, Georgiana picked up her brother’s sketchbook and began to leaf through it. “Where is the sketch you wished to show me of Rosings?”

     Darcy turned to the pages he had filled with sketches of the exterior of the house and the grounds, and Georgiana look through them in rapt attention. “Your skill has improved, I think. These are very good.” She looked through the drawings of Rosings for a while, and then began to peruse the other pages, until she came across the sketch he had begun of Elizabeth. “What a beautiful woman. Who is she, brother?”

     Darcy reached for the sketchbook, but Georgiana drew back and continued to stare at the page.

     “It is Miss Elizabeth Bennet. She was a guest of her sister, who had recently married our aunt’s parson, Mr. Collins.” 

     “The same lady that my cousins wrote of? Mr. Bingley’s Elizabeth Bennet?”

     Darcy frowned. He was still rather unsettled by all that he had learned of Bingley’s dealings with Elizabeth, and Richard’s assurances that Elizabeth’s heart had not been broken did little to temper Darcy‘s frustration with his friend for having trifled with her. He considered Georgianna‘s interest in Elizabeth, as the object of Bingley’s affections, and wondered if it was inspired, in part, by jealousy. He hoped that was not the case, for surely Bingley had forgotten all about his ‘goddess,’ and would likely not settle down with Georgiana for several years, allowing them both a chance to mature in temper and understanding.

***

     “I do not think there shall be a match between them, despite what some may have hoped,” William said sadly.

     Georgiana smiled wistfully at the image Miss Elizabeth Bennet, oddly pleased at having the opportunity to set eyes on the woman who had raised her interest so much in the winter. Rebecca had mentioned her many times in the letters she included with Richard’s, but had said nothing of Miss Bennet being in Kent at the same time as them. Lady Catherine had lamented Darcy’s acquaintance with an inconsequential country miss who had been visiting at the parsonage, and Georgiana realized it must be the same person; Miss Bennet seemed to have greatly displeased Lady Catherine. Now I really like her.

     She wondered at the drawing being incomplete. Had William started sketching a picture for Mr. Bingley of his lady love, only to discover Miss Bennet no longer cared for Mr. Bingley? “Why did you not finish your drawing?”

     William looked chagrined. “The lady did not know I was taking her likeness, in fact. We had gone out to walk in the garden, to get away from some rather impertinent visitors at Rosings, and I began sketching her to pass the time as the lady read a rather long letter from home. Unfortunately, the letter contained some rather dire news of her father’s illness, which required her immediate departure.”

     Georgiana looked sadly at the drawing, and could see that Miss Bennet was indeed seated on a little stone bench, reading a letter amongst the rosebushes. How sad it was to think that Darcy had captured her in a moment that would soon turn to such distress. “What became of the lady’s father?”

     William turned away, furrowing his brow. “I believe he passed away a few days later.”

     “Oh, how sad! I am very sorry for her. And now I suppose she is in mourning, and Mr. Bingley cannot pursue her?”

     William frowned. “Something like that.”

     “I should very much like to meet Miss Elizabeth Bennet.” 

     “Perhaps one day you shall. She is a great friend of our cousin Rebecca’s, and I daresay she might be in London when we journey there for the little season. We need only to find you an appropriate sponsor.” 

     Georgiana smiled, for it seemed she knew something her brother did not, and she had no intention of betraying a confidence Rebecca had bestowed in her most recent letter. It seemed Rebecca had learned of Miss Bennet’s plans to travel north with her aunt and uncle for her birthday, and they had been persuaded to forgo their journey to the Lakes, in favor of the visiting the home town of Elizabeth’s aunt, Lambton, the village closest to Pemberley. Rebecca intended to mention their presence in the area to William when they arrived, and so Georgiana decided to keep her cousin’s secret, and took private delight in the knowledge that she would soon set eyes upon the young lady who had inspired such affection in her cousins, and in Mr. Bingley.

***

     Typical of his cousins, Darcy thought, to disoblige him by arriving a day later than the Bingleys, though the four of them were to have journeyed north together. Rebecca explained the delay, when she and Richard arrived, claiming that she had tarried in London to attend to a matter of business with Mrs. Gardiner and Miss Bennet, for it seemed Lady Catherine had been involved in the destruction of Elizabeth’s wardrobe in Kent, and Robert had sent along a sum from Lady Catherine’s allowance, enabling the Gardiners to purchase their niece a suitable half-mourning wardrobe for her travels, and Rebecca had overseen it all.

     Darcy was pleased, after dealing with an entire day of Caroline Bingley’s undivided attention, to see that lady particularly vexed when Elizabeth Bennet remained a topic of conversation throughout dinner. Richard, Rebecca, and Bingley had lately seen Miss Bennet, as they had attended a ball given by her friends in Hertfordshire before their journey north. Darcy lamented that he was not able to attend, as he had received more than one invitation thither, and had it not been for his aunt’s unexpected arrival, he would have been happy to return to Elizabeth’s side. Knowing she had been trapped at home with her dreadful sister and cousin installed as master and mistress did not sit well with Darcy, for had he spoken sooner, it might have all been helped, and he felt himself very much to blame for any discomfort she was presently experiencing.

     Suspecting that Caroline’s displeasure was partially to blame, Darcy observed that his sister took a great deal of interest in asking Rebecca questions about her recent visit with Elizabeth in Meryton. “You said she was purchasing traveling clothes,” Georgiana prompted her cousin. “Where does Miss Bennet mean to journey to next? I believe she has had adventures in London and in Kent already this year.”

     “Indeed, she is quite an adventuress,” Caroline Bingley scoffed.

     Rebecca ignored Miss Bingley and smiled at Georgiana and Darcy. “She means to travel north with her aunt and uncle, the Gardiners, such wonderful people, do you not think, Mr. Bingley?”

     Bingley answered in the affirmative as his sister rolled her eyes. “Yes, indeed, and it is a happy coincidence Mrs. Gardiner was grew up in Lambton; I understand that is very near Pemberley.”

     “Indeed it is” Rebecca said with wicked glee before addressing Darcy directly. “I hope they shall have an invitation to visit us at Pemberley, cousin. The Gardiners are kind and sensible people, and very genteel.”

     “Yes indeed,” Miss Bingley agreed, her lip curling in disdain. “Was their house in Cheapside not situated so very near there warehouses, one might not even know they were in trade.”

     Charles laughed off his sister’s malicious words. “My house is Grosvenor Square, and I still tell everyone exactly where my fortune came from.” 

     Miss Bingley made some retort, but Darcy did not hear it, and indeed ceased to listen to the conversation at table for some time as he processed his cousin’s news. Elizabeth was coming to Derbyshire. She would be in Lambton. She could be at Pemberley if he invited her, as Rebecca clearly wished him to. He gave his cousin a warm smile of thanks and met her eye across the table. Damn meddlesome woman.

     Despite his delight in the knowledge that Elizabeth would soon be in his home, Darcy began to feel some trepidation at the prospect of her visit taking place while Bingley would be there. Bingley was acting rather strange; he asked a great deal of questions about Elizabeth’s upcoming visit, until one of them provoked a great outburst of indignation from Rebecca.

     “Will Miss Jane Bennet be accompanying Miss Bennet in her travels?”

     “Good God, I should hope not,” was Rebecca’s response, and Bingley recoiled in astonishment.

     Darcy glanced curiously at Richard, who smiled as he clapped Bingley on the back. “Charles, old boy, I think there has been some mistake. Jane Bennet has been Mrs. William Collins these six months.”

     Bingley’s confusion was apparent. “Jane Bennet is married to Mr. Collins? The pompous little fellow who would not stop talking?”

     Rebecca laughed. “I wonder, then, that he did not inform you of the fact himself.”

     “You must be mistaken, Lady Rebecca. I addressed the lady as Miss Bennett several times. I am sure and she did not correct me.”

     “That may be,” Richard replied. “I cannot tell you what Mrs. Collins was about in allowing you to form this misconception, Bingley, but I would ask you not to give credit to all her assertions. Jane Collins’s character has been made known to my sister and I for some time, and that is all I wish to say about that lady.”

     “One should always be on one’s guard around such people,” Miss Bingley said with a sniff, and Rebecca’s response was a withering glare.

     Darcy thought there was something he was missing from their conversation – why had Bingley assumed Mrs. Collins was unmarried, and what difference did it make to him if she was?

     “I would agree that he that I found Mrs. Collins to be rather wanting in character, from my time in Kent,” he agreed with a severe look at Bingley. Am I to surmise that you have discovered her manners to be otherwise? I daresay Miss Bennet may not be inclined to agree with your estimation of her sister’s character, for I understand Elizabeth Bennet does not share your approbation of Mr. Collins and his wife.” 

     In fact, his aunt had sought to brag about her own involvement in exacerbating the tension between Elizabeth and her sister, and it was at the conclusion of that discussion that Darcy had requested her immediate removal from Pemberley. What was Mrs. Collins about trying to ingratiate herself with Bingley? And how could Bingley form a positive impression of such a person? Ah, but that is easy enough to guess.

     Bingley brushed Darcy’s warning off. “If Elizabeth is on bad terms with her sister, I am very sorry to hear it, but I am sure she will not begrudge me for getting to know all of her family better, and I daresay I like them all very well indeed. Her mother is rather a lengthy conversationalist I think, but a good sort of woman, who cares about her daughters a great deal. The younger sisters are not as clever as Elizabeth, I think, but very energetic and charming. I feel very sorry for their loss, for I think they all feel it very keenly. Elizabeth in particular was very out of sorts.”

     “Perhaps this may portend that Miss Bennet does in fact object to those who would seek to be on friendly terms with a sister who has treated her with cruelty.”

     Miss Bingley grew impatient. “Why are any of us to care about their petty country squabbles?”

     Bingley scowled and simply spoke over his sister. “Well, I wish she would have told me so, but no matter, we shall make amends when she comes to Pemberley. You will invite her, will you not, Darcy? I find I have quite missed her company, all those months she was away, and it was good to see her again at the ball. We spoke for quite some time about all that she has suffered, and I understand she is much depressed.”

     Darcy felt his temper rising, and refused to admit it bothered him that Elizabeth might have confided in Bingley. Darcy wished to be her confidant, as they had been for one another in Kent, and Bingley’s inference felt intrusive, not to mention that it was entirely offensive. To think that Bingley would imagine himself able to swoop in, months after abandoning Elizabeth in London, and declare himself quite a hero for detecting that the lady with grieving the loss of her father, and then suggest he might simply make amends for showing what was likely to have been an unseemly amount of attention to her cruel elder sister!

     “I wonder that she means to travel at all, at such a time,” Caroline observed. “She should be at home with her family, not traipsing across the country. I knew she lacked in decorum, but that she would disregard the strictures of mourning, even as she claims to feel her father’s loss, at a ball suggests her incapable of every proper sentiment.”

     Rebecca seemed to be on the verge of a particularly poisonous retort, but Darcy cut her off. “Miss Bennet and her relations will be most welcome here,” Darcy said sternly. “I think it would behoove us all to treat our guests with the utmost kindness and respect, in light of Miss Bennet’s recent bereavement. Speaking as one who has recently suffered a great loss, I would hope that all of my guests would behave in a way befitting the situation.”

***

     Despite Miss Bingley’s venom, William seemed to be directing the brunt of his displeasure at Mr. Bingley, and Georgiana was most perplexed. It seemed Mr. Bingley had developed a certain degree of friendship with Elizabeth’s sister, not realizing the lady was married, and was apparently not a very nice person. That her brother was so distressed by his friend’s thoughtless treatment of Miss Bennet was evident, and Georgiana began to wonder if he desired the match for Bingley as much as she herself did. Certainly he had taken pains to become acquainted with Mr. Bingley’s love interest while they were both in Kent, and had even attempted to make a sketch of her for Mr. Bingley. Elizabeth Bennet’s time at Pemberley would be an ideal opportunity for Mr. Bingley to renew his addresses, and Georgiana determined at once that she would make herself useful to her brother’s friend. Surely it would please William. She would likely have a great ally in her cousin Rebecca in making the match, and that it would displease Caroline Bingley it would be icing on the cake. 

     Georgiana put her plan into action the very next day. As Caroline seemed rather focused on monopolizing the conversation of William and Richard, Georgiana was able to speak at length with Mr. Bingley about the topic that held such interest for her. She asked him a great many questions about Elizabeth Bennet, and encouraged him in recounting many occasions pleasantly spent in that lady‘s company in London. He was very disappointed at having to take his sister to Bath for her health, and it occurred to Georgiana that Miss Bingley might very well have faked her illness in order to remove Bingley from London. Poor Miss Bennet. Well, it would all be put to rights, now; Georgiana gave Mr. Bingley her assurances that she would do everything within her power to ensure that Elizabeth Bennet enjoyed herself very well at Pemberley, and that Mr. Bingley enjoyed Elizabeth Bennet’s company as much as possible.

***

     On her third evening at Pemberley, Rebecca received a note from Elizabeth, informing her of their arrival in Lambton; they were to stay the night at the Rose and Crown. Rebecca quickly dispatched a response, advising them to expect a call at half past ten the next morning. She had expected Darcy to be a more pleased at the news, delivered as she enjoyed brandy and cigars with her brother and cousin, after the others had retired for the evening. Instead, she found Darcy more agitated than excited.

     “I do not like the way Bingley has been speaking about her,” Darcy said, pacing the room. “He means to resume courting her, here in my own home. I think perhaps I had better not invite them.”

     “If you do not invite them,” Rebecca drawled with a roll of her eyes, “you will not be able to see Elizabeth, you blockhead.”
     “Bingley is intent on having her, he has made that plain.”

     “But she will not have him,” Rebecca insisted.

     “I am inclined to agree,” said Richard. “Miss Bennet has told me that she bears him no ill will, but she is certainly no longer interested. It was bloody daft of him to up and leave for Bath with his sister after raising her hopes, but she has not been wounded by his weakness to his vile sister, and I think it has been a good thing for her to make the discovery. I wish him well, but he could not make her as happy as you could, Darcy. You should be very well matched, indeed. I think she shall liven you up when you grow dull, as you are prone to do.”

     “And more importantly.” said Rebecca. “I am certain that Elizabeth cares for you. I abused you quite soundly to her, and she was quick to come to your defense. She will not admit to anything more, at present, but I believe her good opinion is rarely bestowed, and well worth the earning.”

     Darcy appeared to consider this. “Are you certain you are not blinded by a desire to see what you wish for come to pass?”
     “I not think Elizabeth is in love with you because I wish for her to be. I have merely observed that she finds you a great deal more tolerable than I do.”

     “Only consider this,” Richard said, clearly wishing to prevent Darcy and Rebecca from coming to blows. “If Bingley can have his head turned by Elizabeth’s own sister – and I assure you, he paid her far too much attention, and she allowed it because she is malicious woman – how could Elizabeth continue to foster any hope toward such a man? She would hardly be sensible for it, and you know she is intelligent. I believe Bingley it has sunk himself even further in her estimation in his recent behavior, than he did in his travels to Bath.”

     Still Darcy paced, his hands folded tightly behind his back, his eyes on the rug. “I will ride to Lambton in the morning and propose.”

     Richard grimaced. “Why, because you fear Bingley poses legitimate competition? Don’t be daft, Darcy. If you propose because you fear she may accept Bingley, Miss Bennet will know it. Do not do her the insult of a proposal made out of desperation. No, let her come to Pemberley and see what she might be mistress of, let her work her magic on Georgiana, God knows the girl is eager to adore her. Let Bingley do his best and I promise it will not be enough to tempt her, and then you may make your proposal confident in the knowledge that you are her true choice, and not just the first man to come along and ask. She will see you in your element, come to know you better, and it will be a sound decision.”

     Rebecca scowled at her brother. “It is a pretty thought, but I must disagree. Why should Elizabeth not come to Pemberley and view it from the first as her future home? I rather like the idea of Darcy proposing at once. I fear it will be as it was in Kent, something will happen at the last moment to prevent it, and I would not wish for a repeat of that misfortune.” 
     “She shall be here in his own home, nothing shall prevent it. I saw her reaction when you told her she was to come to Pemberley. It gave her a great shock. Better not to overpower her all at once.” 

     Darcy looked alarmed. “She does not wish to come?”

     Rebecca looked rather guilty, but said nothing, and her brother spoke for her. “Rebecca wished to ensure that vile Mrs. Collins would not prevent Elizabeth’s journey, and enlisted their mother to her cause, but in so doing, I think she caused Miss Bennet some alarm, for she was obliged to retreat to the ladies’ retiring room for some time after receiving the news that we had all expected to bring her such joy.”

     Darcy looked stricken and merely repeated himself. “She does not wish to come to Pemberley?”

     “I rather think it was her knowing that Bingley was to be here, as well, that caused her distress,” Rebecca answered, hoping that she was correct. “All the more reason for you to propose before he can cause her any further distress. I fear he will behave badly, if given the chance.”

     He seemed to consider this as he continued his pacing, and finally he said, “I believe I must do as Richard says. I must see for myself that she truly harbors no tender feelings toward Bingley. If I propose on the morrow, I will never know if she truly preferred my friend, and I should hardly wish to find out later. I must discover for myself if she truly still prefers him or not.”

     Rebecca shook her head. “You are a dreadful blockhead, Darcy. Have you so little faith in her? Do you really think that the whole time she was at Kent, Mr. Bingley was the man occupying her thoughts?”

     “I wish to be sure,” Darcy said. “It is not because I have a low opinion of Miss Bennet, but because I have the very highest opinion of her, and I wish her to be at liberty to choose. I would not have her accept me out of a fear that she might not have another offer. If Bingley wishes to press his suit with her, and he really is her choice. I must accept that. Of course, I endeavor to do everything I can to ensure that it is I who wins her hand, but I would not deny her the assurance of knowing that she might be at least have a choice. Whether ‘tis fair to Bingley or not, I do not wish to ponder, for it cannot be helped.”

     Richard raised an eyebrow. “Perhaps you are a great blockhead, Darcy.”

     Darcy merely shrugged. “We are all fools in love, I suppose."

Chapter Text

 

            Rebecca and Darcy arrived at the Rose and Crown in Lambton at half past ten the next morning. Rebecca made a great deal of fuss over her friend, and while Elizabeth seemed happy to see her again, between Elizabeth and Darcy there seemed little more than cold civility and awkwardness. The Gardiners were introduced to Mr. Darcy, who greeted them warmly. Once all the pleasantries had been gone through, and they had heard somewhat of the Gardiners' journey northward, and the great houses they stopped to tour along the way, the invitation to Pemberley was issued, and the Gardiners were eager to accept the offer of removing to Pemberley for the duration of their stay in the area.

            "We should be delighted," was Mrs. Gardiner’s happy reply. "I have not been to Pemberley since I was a girl, so I must own to a great deal of excitement about the prospect. Pemberley is a magnificent home, and we would be honored to be your guests, Mr. Darcy."

            Mr. Gardiner echoed his wife sentiments, and asked when Mr. Darcy should prefer them to arrive at Pemberley.

            "You may come whenever you wish it. We are ready for you, sir. My sister Georgiana is to have her coming out next spring, and is eager to play hostess for you all."

            "Well, capital, then," Mr. Gardiner cried, clapping his hands. "I have every confidence in Miss Darcy’s abilities, if she is half so obliging as her brother, I daresay."

            "I look forward to meeting her," Elizabeth said simply. "It is a pity she was not able to come with you to Lambton this morning, for I confess I have been rather curious about her."

            "The feeling is mutual, I assure you," Darcy said earnestly. "My sister remained at home this morning out of an obligation to our other guests. My cousin Richard rode out at daybreak with Bingley to go look at a nearby estate he is considering leasing, and it would not do to leave Miss Bingley alone. I was under the impression she was not inclined to come into town this morning."

            "Yes, and unfortunately we could not leave her at Pemberley alone," Rebecca added dryly, with a roll of her eyes for Elizabeth's sake.

            "Perhaps Miss Bingley really wishes to be coy about her excitement to be reunited with me," Elizabeth said with a half-hearted smile.

            Mr. Gardiner was quick to express his satisfaction that Mr. Bingley was finally looking toward settling down at an estate, and remarked that he imagined his friend would have a great resource in both Richard and Darcy, when he chose to settle; it must be a merit for them to be so near.

            "I heartily agree," said Darcy. "He nearly took an estate in the autumn, but was discouraged by his sister. I believe that she has rather high standards about the matter, but I hope that Charles will find Brambley House satisfactory, and will consult his own wishes accordingly. It is, as you say, very near both to Pemberley and Matlock, and Richard and I should be happy to be of use to our friend. I am sure he will be keen to tell you all about it, when you arrive at Pemberley. I understand that you are of long-standing acquaintance with him."

            "It is true, I have known little Charlie since he was a boy. He is a capital fellow, and he keeps me young, I daresay!" Mr. Gardiner laughed and winked mirthfully at them. "I look forward to seeing him again, and your cousin Lord Hartley as well. I must thank the Viscount, for he was of great assistance to my family at Longbourn in the spring."

            As the subject turned away from Mr. Bingley at last, Rebecca could see Elizabeth begin to visibly relax. Rebecca watched her glance over at Darcy at the mention of Richard's assistance in matters of estate, and Rebecca imagined both Elizabeth and Darcy were thinking of the letters that had passed between them through herself. Though it would have been tempting to take a peek at their correspondence, brief though it was, Rebecca had practiced forbearance, and only hoped that the missives contained more than just talk of business. And yet, she doubted it now, after seeing how nervous they both were around one another. Perhaps Darcy is not the only great blockhead.

            After the perfunctory quarter hour of the visit was spent, Darcy and Rebecca returned to Pemberley, having been informed by Elizabeth that the Gardiners had a prior dinner engagement that evening, as well as plans to call on Mrs. Gardiner’s brother, the parson. They could be expected at Pemberley at three o’clock the next day.

            Though nearly as disappointed as Darcy that they were not to come to Pemberley immediately, Rebecca intended to spend the interval considering everything a great deal. It seemed that bringing Darcy and Elizabeth together was not going to be as simple as she had thought. In truth, she had very little chance to observe them together in Kent, beyond the morning walk they had together the day that Elizabeth removed to Rosings. After that, the only other time Darcy and Elizabeth had been together was when the family from Cranbrook had visited, and the walk they had taken together immediately afterwards. Darcy had seemed confident enough at the time; Rebecca knew he intended to propose that very morning, and would have done so had it not been for the contents of Elizabeth's letter, and the events that immediately followed.

            Was that all that had changed, to affect this apparent reluctance he displayed? She could not credit his irrational fear that Bingley posed any threat, beyond the man’s capacity to behave very foolishly. Darcy had not been worrying about the feelings and intentions of Charles Bingley the morning Elizabeth left Kent, yet now it was clearly presenting a problem, which Rebecca knew not how to overcome.

            And since when had Elizabeth Bennet become so timid? Rebecca thought it had been most unlike her friend to be so reticent during their visit to Lambton. Of course, Rebecca had been just as surprised by Elizabeth’s unusual reaction to the news of the trip in the first place. She knew not what to think, and intended to consider it further, for she felt she needed to puzzle out what her friend was feeling, before she could determine how to proceed.

***

            Elizabeth had very much enjoyed her first night in Lambton with the Gardiners. Her aunt's family were all very pleasant and cheerful people, not unlike Mrs. Gardiner herself. The next morning, however, her spirits were low as she prepared for the journey to Pemberley. She was, in fact, extremely nervous about going there. Everything about Mr. Darcy seemed to stir up such a great deal of confusing and conflicting emotions that she knew not what to think, nor how to act. Their company and conversation had been so pleasant and easy in Kent, but now she felt entirely discomposed by the man. She began to even wonder if she had imagined the kiss, for she could not fathom how such a thing had happened, or what it could have meant.

            To be in Mr. Darcy’s company, to be in his home, amongst his family, while at the same time enduring the tedious and overbearing presence of her erstwhile suitor Mr. Bingley would be an excruciating torture, she was sure, and even as she prepared for departure, a part of her wished something would happen at the last to prevent it.

            She both hoped and feared that she would get her wish, for after she had seen to her trunk, Elizabeth was called into the private study in their apartments at the inn, by a very serious and stern-looking Mr. Gardiner.

            "Do not be frightened, Elizabeth," said he. "I wished to speak to you this afternoon before we depart for Pemberley, as I imagine we shall be there the remainder of our trip, and I do not know when we may have another opportunity to speak privately. Please, sit down, Lizzy."

            Mr. Gardiner motioned toward a chair in front of the little desk, and he sat down opposite her. He withdrew a piece of folded paper from his vest pocket, and set it down on the table in front of them, but kept his hand upon it as he spoke. "What I have to say is of a very serious nature, as you may have suspected, but you should by no means be alarmed. What I have to tell you regards your coming of age, which will occur later this week, while we are at Pemberley. However, I feel this is a private and personal conversation, which must take place before we begin what will likely be a very entertaining fortnight."

            Despite her uncle's assurance, Elizabeth could not help but feel some degree of trepidation. What could he have to say about her reaching her majority? At one and twenty, very little would change for her, given her circumstances – at least, so she thought.

            "Elizabeth, as you may recall, Dr. Willis advised your father to speak with Mr. Phillips about certain matters before he passed."

            "Yes, sir. He named you my guardian."

            "Indeed he did. I had wished to bring you back to town with us, but your father had hoped you would stay at Longbourn and look after the family and the house, until your sister Jane arrived. How he knew of her true character, when your aunt and I were too foolish to see it, I know not, but it seems that he did. I did not tell you of this before, for he wished it to be your choice, though I suspect he knew how you choose. You did well, Elizabeth. Better even than you thought."

            "Thank you, uncle, but I did have wonderful help. Mr. Ferrars and Sir William Lucas, even Lord Hartley. I could not have done it alone."

            "You spent the last year doing so, from your father's account. Do you recall the journals we showed you, his notations about your suggestions and developments?"

            "Yes, father and I had been doing that for quite some time."

            "For the last eighteen months, your father had been tracking the improvements you suggested, as we showed you in his notes. What I have not told you until now, at your father’s request, is that your father was charting the profits generated by the improvements you were responsible for. I kept his secret ledger, and with the help of Mr. Johnson, whom Lord Hartley was so kind to recommend, I have continued your father's system of notating the profits directly resulting from your hard work. Per the instructions detailed in this letter I have from your father, those funds have been set aside for your particular use and shall be made available to you upon your twenty-first birthday."

            For a moment, Elizabeth could only gape at her uncle in astonishment. "I had no idea. Father put aside money for me?"

            Mr. Gardiner gave a very solemn nod. "Your father understood his own mortality, Elizabeth. He realized too late in life what an idle man he had been, and I believe he was sorry for it. He knew you were his greatest success, and you are much to thank for a great deal of Longbourn's present success. Your father had rather low expectations for what the future might hold, when Mr. Collins took possession of the place. I think he even knew how it would be with Jane; he expected them to tarry in taking possession of the place, just as they did. It pains me to speak of my disappointment in your sister. I suspect even your friend Lady Rebecca saw something in Jane that you tried to warn us of, but only after hearing it from your father's own lips could I begin to see that Jane is not a promising new mistress of Longbourn."

            Elizabeth reached out for the letter her uncle proffered, but could not bring herself to open it just yet. She had so many questions, and wondered if they would all be answered. "Why did he let her marry him," Elizabeth whispered.

            "You are the only daughter in the family that would have been a good mistress of Longbourn, Lizzy. Your father knew it, and he would not bind you to such a man. I believe he preferred to let Longbourn become whatever the Collins will make of it, rather than to see you tied to a man like Collins for your whole life. In truth, I do not disagree with his choice."

            Elizabeth shrugged sadly; she could not argue with this. She turned her attention to the letter, which was dated the last day that her father had been alive.

 

            Dearest Elizabeth,

 

            I know not how much longer I have, or if this folly shall be the end of me, but I wish to let you know that I have made my peace with my demise, and I pray you will ere long. You are my greatest treasure, Elizabeth, and I know you are too good to let the sadness of my passing ruin the bright and promising future you have ahead of you. How proud I am of you, my little miss.

            If you are reading this letter, you will have just reached your majority, and allow me to wish you the happiest of birthdays. I hope you will spend it taking a long walk in the sunshine, and not missing your poor Papa too terribly.

            It is my belief that your sister Jane will not be as quick in staking her claim at Longbourn as you may fear. She is happy where she is, content in the distinction her position gives her, and she will have no wish to return home at such a time, when she might enjoy more elevated society with very little effort or responsibility. If the task has fallen to you, dearest Elizabeth, of running Longbourn, I know you shall do it to great credit. Indeed, you have brought your home a great deal of prosperity for quite some time.

            How fond I have been of the many evenings you have spent in my book a room with me, discussing so many improvements to Longbourn. You know your father has always been an idle man, and I can tell you candidly that I should never have undertaken them without your enthusiasm for our little projects. I have failed you and your sisters in this regard, I suppose, for I ought to have been a more diligent master, without my daughter's avid encouragement.

            Be that as it may, I feel that the increase to Longbourn's profitability, funds which I have neglected to inform you of (my foolish pride!) are rightfully yours. Mr. Phillips and Mr. Gardiner have received my instructions, and my will abide my decision to put aside a sum of 2000 pounds for you, upon your coming of age. I know you will protest, and insist that this some be divided amongst your sisters, because you have a good heart. Alas, I do not, Elizabeth, for I expressly forbid it. An additional sum of 1000 pounds, in addition to the money is your mother brought to our marriage, has been put aside for their support, which is now entrusted to your sister. As your mother was so keen for Jane to become mistress of Longbourn upon my demise, I can only imagine she should be satisfied for Jane to dispense this sum for their upkeep as she pleases. The 2000 pounds, plus any additional profits generated at Longbourn before Mr. Collins returns, shall be set aside for your particular use. I only wish I could have done more for you, little miss; you have better care of yourself than I have of any of my children, and I am proud of you for it. It seems you have been fortunate enough in finding exactly the sort of friends you deserve, who I have no doubt will be great allies to you in the months and years to come.

            Remember your promise to me, Elizabeth, that you will not let go of your ideals, and do not cry on your birthday. I look forward to our reunion in Heaven, and will spend the interim looking down on you with a fond smile. Live your life, Elizabeth and be happy.

 

            Your loving father,

            Thomas Bennet, Esquire

 

            Tears poured down Elizabeth’s face as she finished the letter and stared down at the paper. She was absolutely stunned by her father’s perspicacity, and by the trouble he had taken to ensure that she was provided for. It was a monumental thing, to consider that she was now in possession of such a great sum, for she need never fear for her future with such a provision. Perhaps it was not an impressive enough figure to consider a proper dowry, but she shared Marianne Brandon’s sentiments on that score, anyhow. No, the money would sustain her, should she remain resolute in her decision to marry only for the deepest affection.

            Elizabeth pressed the letter to her heart for a moment, overcome with gratitude toward her dear father. His words meant everything to her; not just the money, but the fact that he understood what Jane was like, and what she had suffered. The fact that he would wish her to remain true to her ideals was a reassurance she had not known she needed. After a moment, her uncle cleared his throat, and Elizabeth calmly folded the letter up and tucked it into her pocket.

     Across the desk, her uncle withdrew another document from his vest pocket and presented it to her. “Elizabeth, this is a summary of the improvements your father has credited you with, and an estimated figure representing the profits to the estate brought in by each project. At the bottom you will see the improvements made following your father’s death and the corresponding values for each. I am very proud of you, I must observe, for reclaiming the south field, for as you can see here, that additional portion of land parcel of land is worth nearly five pounds.”

     Elizabeth perused the figures with astonishment. The cataloging of her projects at Longbourn was extremely comprehensive, and though she had been very diligent in her work for the last few months, she had not expected the total to be such a fine figure – it was nearly three thousand pounds!

            Her father had certainly been correct about her impulse to propose sharing it with the rest of her family, but she was grateful that there had been additional money set aside for them. Three thousand pounds, whatever was she to do with such a sum? She would be able to live very comfortably indeed. Perhaps she might not even need to return to Longbourn. She could remain in London with her aunt and uncle, or with Rebecca, and pay her own way for a considerable period of time.

            Her uncle perceived the overwhelming enormity of the news as Elizabeth absorbed it in, and patted her hand gently. “I know it is a lot to take in, dearest, but I felt your father was right in withholding the news until now, for I daresay it would have been even more of a shock if it had come in the spring. There was already enough on your mind at the time, but I think it has been long enough that you are handling this news tolerably well. I am certainly glad I had a chance to speak with you before we went to Pemberley, for I feared you might be rather overcome. You seemed a little out of sorts at the ball, when we told you of the change in our plans, and I did not wish to give you another shock.”

            “Thank you, sir. It is indeed a shock, but certainly a pleasant one. I am not surprised at my father’s kindness, only I suppose that in all my months of working at Longbourn, I had never really stopped to think of the profits, merely the work. Seeing my efforts presented thus is a rather new perspective.”

            “Do you begin to see what an intelligent and resourceful young woman your father had always known you are?”

     Elizabeth blushed. “You are too kind to me, uncle. Indeed I am surprised I was able to affect such a change. Certainly the sums are very generous. I begin to fear my cousin Collins may protest it.”

            “There is little that your cousin can do, I think, and even less he may be aware of. Everything was handled very properly, I promise. You are so astonished at your own good fortune that you begin to fear someone will take it away from you, but I assure you the initial sum of two thousand pounds was transferred into a separate account while your father yet lived, and the rest was all documented by the steward Mr. Johnson, well before Mr. Collins came to Longbourn. Though he might find record of the transaction, if he were to take a good look at the ledgers, my estimation of him suggests that this would be very unlikely, and that he would see little to alarm him if he were aware of it. Perhaps it is wrong to speak ill of the man, but in truth I do not think he is even intelligent enough to understand the provisions we have made. If he did figure it out, he may think he has been cheated, but he is in no way entitled to the profits of your labor, Elizabeth, and I daresay he such a simpleton that he has little idea of how well you were truly did, when you were running the estate. He will not do so well, but I suspect it will be quite some time becomes aware of his of shortcomings.”

            Elizabeth could only laugh. “I think you are correct about that. For now, he seems rather confident in his own abilities, and it is fortunate for him that our neighbors are forbearing enough to continue lending their assistance. I am only in astonishment, as this news change is a great deal for me. I have not been as unhappy as I thought I should be at Longbourn, but as I have now the meals to be away, I think I may wish it.”

            “I confess that is what I had hoped to hear, Elizabeth. You are very welcome to stay with your aunt and I. We are very sorry for disregarding your feelings towards Jane, when you were with us in London. It was difficult to believe that Jane had truly changed so much, but certainly you were right to be so dismayed by your sister.”

     Elizabeth grimaced, for she had no wish to speak any further about Jane; she thanked her uncle for his kindness, as she was pleased that he could, at last, understand her. A great weight felt as though it had been lifted from her shoulders, and though she was still a little nervous to meet again with Mr. Bingley, she felt strangely optimistic about removing to Pemberley now.

***

            As the time drew near for Elizabeth’s arrival, Darcy began to think he ought not be present for it. The mood at Pemberley was strangely excited as the afternoon drew on. His cousins and Mr. Bingley were clearly anxious to have Elizabeth amongst them again, and Georgiana even more so, for it was all she spoke about, inciting a great deal of derision from Miss Bingley, as well as raptures from Bingley and sarcasm from Rebecca.

            By half past two, Darcy could bear them all no longer. He had a little wish to witness Bingley’s reunion with Elizabeth, for fear it would be one that would give him pain. Certainly his own interaction with her the previous day had been stilted. He had mentally berated himself even as he rattled on about Bingley in conversation with Mr. Gardiner. How foolish Darcy had felt, for the moment he had set foot in Elizabeth’s presence, he had jabbered on about his rival to her. She had been so cold to him, and he could not account for it. By Richard’s account of things, she might have been displeased to hear about Bingley, but Darcy began to fear that it was merely her own natural modesty, that she cared a great deal for Bingley, and did not wish to wound Darcy by showing it. How pathetic she must think him, after he had kissed her in Kent. To take advantage of a lady in such a way, and the very lady his own dear friend had been paying court to! She must think him quite a libertine. No wonder she was reluctant to stay in his home; she must fear he would importune her again.

            He was determined to prove he was a gentleman while she was in his home. He could begin by absenting himself during her arrival. Let her meet with Bingley without fearing she must restrain her excitement.

            Darcy walked down to the stables and mounted his horse for a lengthy ride to pass the time. He imagined it would be several hours before they would all begin to ready themselves for dinner, and if they meant to spend the interval touring the house and grounds, he did not doubt Georgiana would be more than equal to the task, but as for himself, he would not burden Elizabeth with his presence.

     Knowing they would likely walk the gardens to the east of the house, Darcy rode north to an overgrown grove beyond which a pond he often swam in. It was wilder and more untamed than the ornamental pond at the front of the estate, and would be a pleasant place to reign in his emotions as he prepared to meet with Elizabeth.

***

            Elizabeth arrived at Pemberley in state of awe for everything around her. The drive had been rather longer than she had expected; even once they were on the grounds of the estate they had meandered through beautiful woodland for many miles before making the final approach, which had afforded them such a fine prospect of the estate that they had stopped on a little bridge to enjoy the spectacle before continuing on. A large open meadow surrounded the manor, which was large and stately, and very happily situated. A large pond in front of the house completed the magnificence of the well-manicured grounds. The entire scene was a picturesque enough for a painting.

            The inside was just as elegant, with none of the ostentatious displays to be found at Rosings. They were met in the marble foyer by Miss Darcy and her guests. Lord Hartley came forward to make the introductions, and Elizabeth was greeted with a great deal more warmth than she had expected from Miss Darcy.

            Miss Darcy had not accompanied her brother the previous day, but had stayed behind with Caroline Bingley, making Elizabeth wonder at what sort of person she might be, given the knowledge she had of Mr. Darcy his previous quarrel with his sister. What she found was a girl a great deal friendlier than she had expected, and far more eager to please and be pleased than many of her station and consequence.

            She was slight and slim in stature like Lady Rebecca, but fair and rosy. Her dress was simple but elegant and very feminine, and she blushed prettily as she greeted them. “What a pleasure it is to make your acquaintance at last, Miss Bennet! I have heard so much of you from my cousins, and have been eager to set eyes on you for many months.”

            “You are very kind,” Elizabeth replied. “Your cousins have spoken very highly of you as well, and informed me when we met in Hertfordshire last month that they were very eager for us to become acquainted. I am pleased to find that their optimism was not in vain.”

            Mr. Bingley was quick to come forward, and stood beside Georgiana to greet Elizabeth and the Gardiners. “Well met, Miss Bennet, I am sure! We are very happy you have come, what a capital time we shall all have together!”

            Behind him Caroline gave a frigid curtsy. “How fortunate you were able to get away from your business, Mr. Gardiner,” was her only reply.

            Lady Rebecca grimaced at Miss Bingley as she came forward to embrace Elizabeth. “Ah, Lizzy, I am so glad you are here at last. It was very wicked of you to make me wait a whole day like that, but I suppose I must share you and your wonderful aunt and uncle with your many friends in the area. It is we who are fortunate to have you. I must thank you, Mr. Gardiner, Mrs. Gardiner, for bringing my dearest friend Lizzy to us.”

            “A delivery we were happy to make, indeed,” was Mr. Gardiner’s happy rejoinder. “We must thank you, Miss Darcy, for your hospitality. My dear wife Madeline grew up in Lambton, and has spoken so highly of Pemberley, yet we never did dream we might be invited to stay in the manor.”

            “Your mother was an excellent woman, Mrs. Gardiner,” Miss Darcy said with a warm smile. “I remember her from my childhood.”

            “As was yours. My father was the parson for many years, and your mother was very active in a great many charities with my parents. I believe your parents were both the very best of people.”

            Georgiana blushed and seemed rather tongue-tied by the compliment, which Elizabeth imagined must evoke a great deal of emotion in the girl.

            “Hailing from Derbyshire must do wonders for one’s character, I suppose,” Elizabeth teased, winking mirthfully at Rebecca and her brother, and Miss Darcy agreed it was so, in most cases.

            “There is an excellent portrait of my parents in the gallery, Mrs. Gardiner, and I would be pleased to show you the house.”

            “Yes, surely you came to Pemberley to see more than just the foyer,” Richard added with a playful nudge at his cousin. “Georgiana, what do you say we take our guests on a tour of the house and the grounds?”

            “That is just what I would wish,” Georgiana said with sincere excitement. “We will show you to your quarters first, of course, and see you settled comfortably in, but then we may go over the rest of the house together, and the gardens, too, I think.”

            The Gardiners agreed it was a capital plan, and they allowed Miss Darcy to lead them through the house. She led them directly to the guest wing and showed them to their assigned chambers, and after their things had been brought in and settled, they resumed their tour of the house. Elizabeth had thought that nothing could outshine the elegant grandeur of her guestroom, which contained the most beautiful furnishings she had ever seen and afforded a breathtaking view of the grounds as well, but all this was nothing to the aew that overcame her when she saw the library; she declared a desire to go no further, for she felt absolutely certain she might stay in that room for the remainder of her visit. The Gardiners and the Fitzwilliams were amused by her statement, though Miss Darcy seemed too astonish to know what to think, and Miss Bingley’s response was a predictable degree of scorn.

            The gallery was equally impressive, though Elizabeth was rather distracted by the strange sort of dance formed by the opposing machinations of both Rebecca and Mr. Bingley, who each seemed to be equally determined to detach Elizabeth from the other, and keep her company quite to themselves. Rather put out by Mr. Bingley’s determination to press his attentions upon her, Elizabeth quickly grew fed up with them both, and remained close to Georgiana when at all possible, as they viewed the multitude of paintings depicting generations of Darcys. As they moved through the length of the gallery, they came last to the younger generations. Mrs. Gardiner remarked on the likeness of the previous Mr. Darcy and his wife, for they appeared just as she remembered them in her youth.

            A young Darcy was depicted in the family portrait as well, and Elizabeth observed it for sometime. She wondered what sort of parents they had been to Darcy and his sister, and thought it strange that there were only two children were so far apart in age. Perhaps this is what has led to the disagreement between them, which Mr. Darcy had hinted at in Kent, for certainly his sister’s disposition does not seem quarrelsome. In fact, she spoke very fondly of her brother, and eagerly drew their attention to the final two portraits in the hall, one of which featured Mr. Darcy as an adult. She was rather embarrassed about her own portrait, which looked to have been taken within the last year. Georgiana blushed and informed them it had been taken just a few months ago.

            “I am surprised that Mr. Darcy commissioned such an inferior painter,” was Miss Bingley’s observation. “I daresay he made your cheeks rather plump, dear Georgiana. You are much thinner and more graceful in person, I am sure. You must ask your brother to have another one done that is more flattering.”

            Elizabeth and the Gardiners merely gaped at her in dismay that she would say such a thing. Miss Darcy was visibly embarrassed at Miss Bingley’s speech, and Lady Rebecca looked positively murderous. Even Lord Hartley looked angry, and he quipped, “Miss Bingley, that is rather a rude thing to say. The proportions may perhaps be a little off, but I can assure you that my cousin knows what he is about in commissioning artisans, and it appears I must inform you as well that my cousin Georgiana is indeed a very beautiful young woman. If you have any further comments about my cousins’ portraits, let us hope you shall keep them to yourself. With that Lord Hartley turned away from her to glance at Darcy’s portrait an extended his arm to Miss Darcy.

            Elizabeth instinctively stayed close to the girl after that, unconsciously shielding her from the caustic her remarks of Miss Bingley, which she was all too familiar with. Lady Rebecca came and stood at Elizabeth’s other side as they looked up on the portrait of Mr. Darcy. “It is a fine likeness, is it not?”

            Elizabeth stared at the large portrait of Mr. Darcy. It was indeed a very true likeness, and she looked thoughtfully into the face of Mr. Darcy, wondering at the man’s absence. That he had not been present to greet her and her relations upon her arrival was troublesome; she feared he did not wish for her presence, but could hardly account for why he should issue the invitation at all. Had he reconsidered, or had Rebecca pressured him into it in the first place? Elizabeth felt she would be very uncomfortable at Pemberley if Mr. Darcy did not wish her there, especially after what had happened in Kent.

            Miss Darcy was clearly pleased to have her there, and remained close as they went through the rest of the house and made their way toward the garden. Unfortunately, Miss Darcy seemed equally determined for Mr. Bingley’s company, and Elizabeth quickly realized what the girl was about. Evidently Miss Darcy had perceived Mr. Bingley’s interest in Elizabeth, and meant to help them on.

     Though Elizabeth wished to avoid any awkwardness which must arise from her disabusing Miss Darcy directly, she hoped that the girl would begin to perceive her own reluctance in receiving Mr. Bingley’s intentions, and Elizabeth determined not to give him any encouragement.

            Before long, Rebecca came to Elizabeth’s rescue, and Caroline Bingley quickly followed to draw her brother away. “Cousin Georgie, I am sure you must wish to show the Gardiners down to the lake, but if you will forgive my impudence, I believe I must claim Lizzy’s company for a little while. I should wish to show her another side of the estate, for I believe she would prefer to see the untamed wilderness above the stately gardens.”

            Georgiana looked bashfully at them. “Of course, I am sure you must wish to speak privately with your friend. I do not mind if you walk a different route alone, only do you not walk too far, for I am sure it shall be time to dress for dinner soon. I will go down to the lake with the Bingleys and the Gardiners, as you say, and I shall meet you later.”

            Elizabeth was happy to be rescued from Mr. Bingley, who was indeed eager to resume in the degree of intimacy that had existed between them in London, as if nothing had happened. As if his sister had not manipulated him into abandoning her, as if he had not fallen prey to whatever vicious business her sister had been about at the ball.

            As if reading her thoughts, Rebecca observed, “I had not imagined Mr. Bingley would continue with his attentions to you, after you made it quite clear at the ball that you did not wish for him to do so. I cannot imagine how my cousin Darcy is friends with a man of so little sense. If he continues to importune you, only let me know, and I shall speak to Darcy about it.”

            Elizabeth would not say so, but she certainly had no intention of doing any such thing. She would have to bear Mr. Bingley’s company as best she could for the next two weeks, but she had every intention of ensuring that Mr. Darcy need not be involved. It was entirely mortifying.

            “What do you think of Pemberley?”

            Elizabeth was relieved at the change of subject. “It is beautiful. I do not think I have ever seen such lovelier grounds or a finer house in my life. It is all very understated, but well done indeed.”

            “Yes, it is a lovely place. I dare say you shall be sorry to go after a fortnight here at Pemberley. It is always the case for me. Matlock is very grand, to be sure, but rather more like Rosings than Pemberley, I think. At Pemberley there is more of this more untamed wilderness,” she said, with a gesture to their surroundings.

            It was absolutely splendid. Elizabeth recalled a conversation with Mr. Darcy in Kent; they had compared their respective homes, and she had to admit, her had in no way overstated the beauty of his. Fond as she was of the scenic walks about Longbourn, the stunning vistas to be had at Pemberley were beyond anything she had ever seen before. “You know me well, Rebecca, for indeed I find this a far more exquisite prospect than what may be found in a garden, though I am sure that in that respect, as well, Pemberley is far superior to anything I have ever beheld.”

            “I always cherished my visits here as a child, for Matlock is not twenty miles distant from here, and we were often together growing up. You would have liked Darcy’s mother, such a kind woman, my aunt was. We spent many happy summers together when I was younger; even my cousin and would come to visit, for she was not so sickly in her younger days.”

            Elizabeth smiled as she conjured up the image of Rebecca, Lord Hartley, and Mr. Darcy as playful youths. There was no portrait of the former Mrs. Darcy in the gallery at Pemberley, but Elizabeth had seen several at Rosings, and she could not imagine the woman they depicted as a child, playing rambunctiously with her cousins. “I can well imagine you and your brother must have been absolute hellions,” Elizabeth laughed, “but I cannot imagine Mr. Darcy as a child. Was he so very serious then?”

            “Indeed he was, but not quite so shy, though perhaps it is because we are relations and he has known us all our lives. I have considered what you said about him in Kent, that he is rather shy in company, and I think you are correct, though I have seen him be open enough with you, and I think he did rather well with your aunt and uncle yesterday. He has shouldered the responsibilities of Pemberley for many years now. I believe you got a glimpse into what that was like during your time at Longbourn, and such had been the last five years of Darcy’s life, when he married Anne.”

            Elizabeth contemplated this. Though Mr. Darcy had told her all of this before, she now had a much greater understanding of what it must have been like for him to suffer everything that she had, and the loss of a wife as well. More than ever, she came to feel that the friendship that has blossomed between them in Kent must certainly have been a result of his sadness, his feelings of isolation after such a loss. There has been such a great force of emotion in the kiss they had shared, perhaps it was merely an expression of their mutual sadness.

     Elizabeth had often revisited this memory, unable to recall just who had initiated their passionate embrace, though she certainly felt herself culpable for it. It was perhaps unwise of her to give it too much thought while she was in the man’s home, but she could not help herself, and felt a blush creeping across her face.

            “I recall one visit when we were about your sister Lydia’s age, perhaps a little younger. ‘Twas the summer before Anne fell ill. We walked this way with the intention of vexing Richard and Darcy. They liked to come swim in a little pond that is not too far away, and Anne and I had got it into our heads to follow and spy on them.”

     Elizabeth laughed. “Why ever would you do such a thing?”

            “To see Darcy’s bare bum,” was Rebecca’s unabashed reply.

            Elizabeth blushed even deeper, but had no chance to respond before Rebecca informed her that they were presently very near the little pond. A little further down the path, they rounded the bend that brought the pond into view, and Elizabeth observed that it was indeed a fair prospect. A moment later, there was a disturbance in the surface of the water; Mr. Darcy surfaced near the edge of the pond, not ten yards distant, clad only in a white shirt and breeches that cleaved to his body.

            “Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth cried, unable to tear her eyes away from the sight of him, as he gazed at her in open astonishment.

     “Miss Bennet!” Darcy’s expression looked rather wild as he glanced down at himself.

     Elizabeth could not help it; her eyes followed his down his body, and she felt the heat in her cheeks as she observed the way the wet white shirt clung to every well-defined muscle in his chest and arms.

     Rebecca merely laughed at him. “Well met indeed, cousin. Now we discover what has detained you from greeting your guests properly.”

            Elizabeth new not how to read his expression, but at last he smiled at her. “My apologies, Miss Bennet. I found it was a fine day for a swim. The water is quite warm, I assure you.”

            “Yes, Lizzy,” Rebecca laughed. “What say you to a little swim?”

     Elizabeth tore her gaze away from Mr. Darcy at last, and looked down at her feet. Rebecca might make light of this, but she was Mr. Darcy’s family; for Elizabeth, the situation must be entirely mortifying. Mr. Darcy had clearly taken great pains to avoid her arrival, and now she had come up on him at such a time, and even worse, she had continued to stare at him so brazenly. How forward he must think her!

            Mr. Darcy waded out of the pond, up the bank, toward them. Elizabeth braved a glance up at him, and she saw that he was watching her intently, completely unembarrassed about his state of dress. With a grin, he wrung out his shirt and flicked the water off of his fingers at Rebecca. “I see you fine ladies are not to be persuaded to swim. What a pity.”

            “We are, as you say, very fine ladies, and would never do such a thing,” Elizabeth quipped, hoping she did not sound too prudish. She struggled to keep her eyes on his face, and not let her glance stray downward.

            He grinned boldly. “Might such fine ladies accept my humble company back to the manor? I shall part with you when we come out of the woods, so you do not have to be seen with such a sorry specimen, but we have a little ways to go before we should be in sight of the house, and I would be happy to escort you for a while.”

            He offered them each a soggy arm, and was waved away first by Rebecca and then by Elizabeth; they walked on either side of him without getting close enough to get wet. As Mr. Darcy seemed determined not to acknowledge the impropriety of their discovering him in such a situation, Elizabeth resolved she would not be uncomfortable; clearly he was taking pains to ensure that she was not so, and she was grateful for it. He was a vast deal more amiable, and seemed far more at ease with her than he had the previous day, once again overturning all of the conclusions Elizabeth had drawn about him.

            In fact, he seemed truly pleased to see her, and asked a great many questions about her impressions of what she had seen so far at Pemberley. Elizabeth found her she could answer with sufficient equanimity if she kept her gaze firmly on the scenery ahead of her, rather than looking directly at Mr. Darcy when she spoke to him. Rebecca was also attempting to ensure the conversation remained lively and pleasant, and by the time they parted ways to go back into the house separately, Elizabeth began to feel she might do better on this visit than she had expected, if only she could escape Mr. Bingley in favor of Mr. Darcy’s company more frequently.

***

            Lady Rebecca was vastly satisfied with the success of her maneuvering. She had suspected where Darcy had gone, and being proven right had gone even better than she had hoped. Getting such a view of Mr. Darcy certainly proved that Elizabeth was not insensible to his physical appeal, and that was promising. Darcy had handled it far better than she had expected him to, for she had feared he would be rather angry, despite the wisdom and her plan.

            It was a fine thing, she thought, that he had been so amiable when they happened upon him, for it seemed to put Elizabeth at ease as well; once her friend had gotten over the initial shock of seeing him thus, she seem to relax more in his company, despite what was a rather improper situation. It was clear to Rebeca that her friend was certainly not indifferent to Darcy. She needed only to ensure that Bingley did not present too much of a challenge, and she was sure things would soon be resolved for the happy couple.

            She had one more trick up her sleeve. She dressed rather quickly for dinner and went to Elizabeth’s room, where her friend was still at her toilette. “Ah, good, you are not dressed yet,” Rebecca said as she swept into the room. She carried with her a neatly wrapped parcel, which she handed to Elizabeth, who accepted it with a skeptical glance.

            “Another gift,” Elizabeth chided her.

            “Rather, it is the same one, for a second time,” Rebecca said with an enigmatic smile as Elizabeth open the parcel. It was the green dress Rebecca had gifted her in Kent, which Rebecca had secretly had done over with the addition of some black lace about the hem and bodice while they were in London.

     Elizabeth beheld the dress in satisfying astonishment. “But Jane had this altered to fit herself last month….”

            “Well, I did not give the dress to Jane. I gave it to you, Lizzy,” Rebecca said flatly.

     Elizabeth arched an eyebrow mischievously. “I wonder how you acquired it back?”

     Rebecca laughed, for she was rather pleased with herself. “It occurred to me when we were lately at Netherfield that she might have gotten rather greedy, and I asked Mrs. Brandon if she had seen Jane wearing any other green dresses. When she answered in the affirmative, I sent a maid from Netherfield to take it back while we were all dancing together, and had some improvements made to it. I fancy myself a sort of Robin Hood figure, except I am stealing it from the witch to give to the pure.”

            Elizabeth rolled her eyes at Rebecca’s jest. “That sounds like something my father would have said.”

            “And what an eminently sensible man he was,” Rebecca drawled triumphantly. She went to the vanity and helped her friend into the newly made up green dress as Elizabeth exclaimed over some of the alterations Rebecca had made. “I suppose today at the joke is on Jane, for I had come to the conclusion it was far too plain the first time, anyhow, but I believe it will do rather nicely now.”

            Elizabeth smiled with amusement at Rebecca as she regarded herself in the mirror. “It is lovely. Thank you, Rebecca. You are too good to me.”

            “Think of it as a birthday present. The first of many, I hope.”

            Elizabeth smiled brightly, biting her lip in anticipation of what she had to say. “In fact it is not the first. I have reached my majority, or rather I shall on Tuesday. Rebecca, I have come into an unexpected inheritance!”

            Rebecca looked at her friend in astonishment. “But that is wonderful, Elizabeth! Have you a secret dowry?”

            “It is far from an impressive sum, but it is more than I would ever have hoped for. My father put aside a portion of the estate, profits from some improvements I had suggested to him in the last couple years. Apparently I am rather brilliant, Rebecca, for it is a substantial sum for such a space of time – more than I had thought Longbourn to be worth in a year.”

            Rebecca was filled with pride at the sight of her friend as she spoke. How good it was to see some joy shining through Elizabeth’s eyes at last. Though Rebecca knew Elizabeth required no dowry to capture the heart of a man who would see her vastly well cared for, she understood all the significance of Elizabeth’s inheritance. There was certainly no chance of her feeling pressured to accept Bingley now, if Elizabeth has been granted this degree of financial security.

            “I am very happy for you,” Rebecca said. “Truly, Lizzy, I can think of no one more deserving than you.”

            Rebecca spent the remainder of the evening ensuring the conversation during dinner and in the drawing room afterwards remained civil. Elizabeth seemed particularly uneasy, and considering Caroline Bingley’s persistent stream of venom, one could hardly blame her.

            Georgiana did her best at dinner to maintain a cheerful and steady conversation about the entertainment she had planned for her guests in the coming weeks, but Miss Bingley seized upon every opportunity to flaunt before Elizabeth and the Gardiners, and attempt to ingratiate herself with the Darcys and Fitzwilliams by recounting a great many previous visits they had previously enjoyed at Pemberley. The woman was determined to present herself as intimately acquainted with Pemberley and its inhabitants, though how she expected to be fooling anyone was quite beyond Rebecca; she saw the many eye rolls taking place across the table, of which Caroline Bingley remained blissfully unaware.

            Even Bingley seemed a little embarrassed by her behavior, though he did little as usual to curb it. Darcy and Elizabeth were seated rather near one another, but said little to each other, and Elizabeth spoke not a word to Bingley, except for curt one-word answers to his occasional questions. She engaged primarily with Georgiana, and was absolutely sincere in her desire to become acquainted with her hostess. Georgiana was unabashedly as fond of Elizabeth as she had anticipated that she would be, and the two had already dispensed with the formalities and were using one another’s Christian names.

            To Rebecca’s delight, things were going nearly as well for Darcy with the Gardiners. He and Mrs. Gardiner had a lively discussion of memories from Lambton and their mutual acquaintance there, and Darcy spoke with keen interest to Mr. Gardiner about his business and London, completely disregarding Miss Bingley’s barbs about what an unsavory topic she found their discussion to be.

            While Rebecca passed most of the meal feeling herself increasingly obliged to intervene in Miss Bingley’s rude behavior, her vitriol was brought to a halt in a far less predictable manner. Miss Bingley had just delighted none but herself by observing what a fine thing it was for a family to remove itself from the stigma of trade by attaining an estate and joining the ranks of landowners, a distinction in which she soon hoped her brother would reach, as he was vastly pleased with the estate he had recently toured.

            “Miss Bingley,” Mr. Gardiner observed with a gentle smile, “I knew your father for many years, and had the highest respect for him. What struck me most about your father was, in fact, that he happened to have the greatest respect for himself, and admirable trait, I believe, in anybody. It is true that Charles purchasing an estate was one of his dearest wishes, but I do not suppose that this wish came from any sense of shame your father had about his own station in life. Your father was rich enough that he could have purchased an estate before I ever came into his employ. He did not wish it for himself because he was not ashamed of who he was, or who you are. He was good at what he chose to do, instead, and he enjoyed it without any shame. Your father wished to Charles to take an estate because he believed that Charlie would flourish at it, and I believe he does have that potential. He has the capacity to be a kind generous and admirable landlord, and is fortunate in having friends in his life that can guide him in this endeavor. Had not your father seen this potential in his son, he would have been just as proud of him had he chosen to remain involved in the family business. Do you not concur Charlie?”

            Everyone at the table turned expectantly to the Bingley siblings, who beheld Mr. Gardiner in two a rather different degrees of astonishment. Caroline Bingley was entirely aghast, and no doubt preparing to admonish Mr. Gardiner’s forward manners, while Charles Bingley looked as though he might weep.

            Rebecca finally broke the silence with her laughter, and clapped her hands appreciatively. “Well said, Mr. Gardiner. I daresay that has given us all something to think on.” She raised a glass of wine to him from down the table, and then cast a glance at Darcy, whose broad smile at Mr. Gardiner it was one of absolute awe.

***

            Elizabeth struggled to keep a straight face during her uncle’s rather incredible set down, which she could not deny Miss Bingley more than deserved. She glanced down the table at Rebecca, who was clearly enjoying every word of it. Rebecca made a slight gesture with her head towards Mr. Darcy at the head of the table, and Elizabeth observed him staring at her uncle in open admiration. It was no secret that Mr. Darcy did not enjoy Miss Bingley’s vitriol. He seemed to be wondering why he had never thought to make such an observation to the lady himself.

            Rebecca gave them all one of her most villainous smiles as she raised a glass and toasted to Mr. Gardiner, and Elizabeth caught Mr. Darcy looking down the table at her. He raised his eyebrows and smiled at her, clearly sharing her amusement in the turn of conversation, and Elizabeth relished the brief moment of private unspoken agreement that existed between them.

            On the other end of the table, Miss Darcy appeared rather uneasy by what had transpired, and rose to suggest the ladies retire to the drawing room, as all these fond recollections must be making Mr. Bingley and Mr. Gardiner wish for some brandy and cigars.

            Georgiana latched onto Elizabeth’s arm as they made their way down the hall to the drawing room. “I dare say Miss Bingley would be rather vexed with me if she knew how much I enjoyed that,” Georgiana wish whispered to Elizabeth. “I do not know why she seems set against you, but I believe she shall surely come around, someday.”

            It was not difficult for Elizabeth to seem indifferent to her new friend’s observation. “I confess it matters a little to me if she does not.”

            Georgiana giggled. “I think, you are very brave, Miss Bennet.”

            Elizabeth considered that it may become necessary to suggest to Miss Darcy that she had a little inclination to attach herself to the Bingleys on a more permanent basis, as the girl seemed to have interpreted Mr. Bingley’s obvious preferences as a mutual inclination. Before Elizabeth could begin to hint that this was not in fact the case, they were set up on by Miss Bingley, who seemed intent on detaching Georgiana from Elizabeth.

            “Allow me to congratulate you, Georgiana, on your impeccable manners as hostess. I must observe, it was very well done of you to withdraw from the dining room when you did. It was really becoming most shocking, and I do not know if I could have remained silent a moment longer.”

            Elizabeth felt Georgiana tense up and draw closer to her. “Miss Bingley, as I recall, you had a great deal to say tonight at dinner.”

            Miss Bingley sniffed, her chin rising high in the air. “Yes, I suppose many of us had a great deal to say.” She eyed Elizabeth warily before stalking off in a huff.

***

            Mr. Bingley and Mr. Gardiner seemed keen on reminiscing about old Mr. Bingley after the ladies a retired from the dinner table and Richard thought it a fortuitous thing. Though he and Darcy enjoyed listening to their companions for the space of time it took to enjoy a cigar and a couple glasses of brandy, Richard took advantage of the opportunity to withdraw, and urged the two gentlemen to continue their conversation for as long as they liked, while he Darcy joined the ladies.

            “Mr. Gardiner is a capital fellow, isn’t he? He is certainly giving you an opportunity to be alone with a certain lady,” Richard whispered playfully as the two made their retreat.

            “And I thought my opinion of him could not get any higher after his speech to Caroline Bingley.”

     “Something we should have done years ago, is it not?”

            “My thoughts exactly.”

            They entered in the drawing room to find Elizabeth and her aunt getting better acquainted with Georgiana, while Rebecca was taking pains to keep Caroline Bingley pleasantly occupied. She gave Richard an impatient look, and he understood that it was his turn to take over the difficult task of managing Miss Bingley’s venom. As Darcy had taken an available seat near Miss Bennet, Rebecca moved to position herself so as to draw Georgiana and Mrs. Gardiner into a separate conversation.

            Richard only hoped that Darcy would appreciate how he was sacrificing himself, for he did not know how he was to keep Miss Bingley occupied for more than a quarter of an hour, before her claws came back out. Fortunately, at least, Miss Bingley’s tiresome, self-congratulatory conversation required very little in the way of response, and allowed Richard the liberty to observe Darcy’s success from a distance.

            It was odd, he thought, that the two were still so uncertain about one another. Knowing as much as he did about the sentiments of each, Richard mused that it would be far more beneficial, if somewhat inappropriate, if he only just sat them both down and explained it all directly.

     After a few minutes, both Darcy and Miss Bennet appeared to look a little more at ease. Darcy’s posture relaxed and he had stopped fidgeting with his hands so much, while Miss Bennet’s smile seemed to be growing more genuine, and her eyes twinkled with mirth.

            Knowing that at least his efforts were worth it, Richard was nonetheless relieved when Mr. Bingley and Mr. Gardiner rejoined the party a quarter of an hour later. He heard Miss Bingley sniff with distaste, and knew it would not be long before she attempted to re-open certain subjects that ought to be left alone, for clearly she had not been satisfied at the end of the meal.

            He watched Miss Bingley’s eyes follow her brother as he made his way straight for Elizabeth, squeezing himself onto the sofa beside Georgiana, who moved closer to Mrs. Gardiner so that Bingley could be near Elizabeth. Apparently none but Richard noticed a slight crease forming in Darcy’s brow as he greeted his friend.

            Miss Bingley’s displeasure was far more evident. She wrinkled her nose as she whispered, “I do hope your sister is taking care with regard to Miss Bennet, Lord Hartley. It is my experience that those who manage to ingratiate themselves in society above their own so quickly are often not to be trusted.”

            Richard bit his tongue at the impulse to simply tell the woman off. As much satisfaction as a scathing retort might bring him, he was not Rebecca. He suspected, in fact, that perhaps Miss Bingley ought be placated just a little bit, as her desire to keep Mr. Bingley away from Elizabeth might become rather useful to his case, and even Miss Bennet herself would likely appreciate it.

            He gave her a knowing smile. “I dare say, Miss Bingley, I have rarely had the pleasure of hearing playing quite like yours. If the pianoforte was opened and you were willing to oblige us, I suppose I might ask Miss Elizabeth Bennet to dance with me, and my dear cousin might be induced to stand up with your brother.”

            Miss Bingley looked at him as though he had just handed her a diamond. “How harmonious it is, Lord Hartley, to find that we are of one mind,” she said in a breathless attempt at flirtation.

     Richard grinned at her and decided to do Darcy another kindness. “Perhaps if my cousin will play after you, I might be favored with your hand for a dance?”

            The lady’s smile was truly sickening as she accepted, and Richard began to think he might have to lock his door that night. Turning away from her artful glee, Richard clapped his hands happily and addressed the room. “Miss Bingley has agreed to play for us, everyone, and I suspect we might be able to dance a reel or two! Come, come, let us all stand up together, I insist!”

            As Richard had expected, both Darcy and Bingley turned to address Miss Bennet at once, and she glanced nervously between them. Richard quickly moved forward to extend his hand to her. “Miss Bennet, I will not allow these two cads too importune you, for I believe you are rather in my debt, at present. You had promised me another dance at Netherfield, and when the time came for me to claim me it, you were nowhere to be found. It was really quite shocking, as Mrs. Jennings had several rather concerning theories on the matter of your absence, and at least half of them involved you being at abducted by robbers. I had merely thought you did not wish to dance with me, and hope you shall now prove me wrong.”

            Elizabeth grinned at his raillery and accepted his hand as he helped her to her feet. “It is fortunate that you have had to wait so long for me to honor my promise, for had I done so sooner, you would not be able to pass the time hearing the tale of how I triumphed over the dreadful bandits.”

            “I am all ears, Miss Bennet.”

            “Hopefully not all ears, for I shall require you to have at least two feet.”

            Richard gave his cousin and Mr. Bingley of roguish wink as he led Elizabeth to an open area of the room that would allow them space to dance, and Mr. Bingley predictably turned his attention to Georgiana; the pair exchanged a curious glance between them as they followed behind Richard and his partner.

            Darcy looked over in Rebecca’s direction and extended his hand as he made his way toward her, only to walk past his cousin and bow before Mrs. Gardiner, who gave Rebecca a cheeky nudge of the elbow before taking Mr. Darcy’s hand. Not to be outdone, Mr. Gardiner led Rebecca to the dance, and there was just enough room for them all as Caroline Bingley be grudgingly played for their amusement.

            Richard used the opportunity to gauge Miss Bennet’s mood, and was relieved to find her in very fine spirits after conversing with Darcy. Though she did not own to it directly, he sensed that she was rather relieved at his deflection of Mr. Bingley’s attention. She cast several sidelong glances it Mr. Darcy, which Richard found most reassuring, and at the end of the dance he intended to lead her toward his cousin. Alas, Georgia intercepted them, and proposed an exchange of partners, for she was eager for him to observe her improvement after having had a dancing master recently.

            Miss Bingley was already moving away from the pianoforte, eyeing Darcy as a possible alternative partner, and Richard was quick to suggest Georgiana play next and he would dance with her in the third, as he had already promised this one to Miss Bingley. Darcy could only exchange partners with Mr. Gardiner, and a worried glance with Rebecca, as Georgiana sat down to play for them.

            “Well, I suppose that could not be helped.” Miss Bingley sniffed as they began moving through the second dance. Richard nearly ignored her vitriol for most of the set, and when it was over, he took a great deal of time in thanking her for such elegant dancing, allowing Darcy the opportunity to make his way to Miss Bennet’s side at last. Only then did Richard move to claim his cousin’s hand, and as he walked past his sister, he turned to her and whispered, “Play a waltz.”

            Rebecca smiled wickedly at him as she made her way to the instrument and drawled, “You shall have to forgive me, Darcy, but I am a little out of practice and shall have to play the last thing I learned, but at least your sister is only dancing with her guardian. Mr. Gardiner, Mrs. Gardiner, I hope you do not object to a waltz.”

            Mrs. Gardiner thankfully did not, and gave her niece a cheerful nod, even as she partnered Mr. Bingley herself. His sister was left with no option but Mr. Gardiner for a partner, and scowled at the man before throwing herself on the sofa in a huff.

            Both Miss Bennet and Darcy began to look a little nervous, but Richard gave them a roguish smile as the two joined together, before turning his attention to Georgiana, who appeared rather eager to show off her recent tutelage. For a brief moment, Richard felt a pang of disappointment that Rebecca had not persuaded Miss Bennet’s pretty widowed friend to accompany them north, before pushing that particular thought from his head and enjoying his cousin’s company.

***

     Elizabeth peered hesitantly at Mr. Darcy, who asked, “Do you know the steps, Miss Bennet?”

            “Indeed I do, sir. I have sisters enough at home to practice with.”

            “I had not thought you had much time for dancing lately,” he said, placing one hand in hers in the other around her waist as they began the movements of the dance.

            Elizabeth blushed, beginning to feel ashamed embarrassed by his reference to her labors at Longbourn. Her courage rising, she braved a glance up at him. “Does it shock you, a woman running an estate?”

            “Quite the opposite, I assure you, or I should never have offered my advice.”

            She recalled the letter he had written her, tucked away in the tiny treasure chest beneath her bed. “Oh, yes, of course,” she said her heart fluttering nervously as they spun together. “I believe I must thank you for it, Mr. Darcy.”

            He smiled warmly at her. “I should be happy to supply any assistance you may require, Miss Bennet.”

             Feeling that she could easily lose herself in the gaze he was directing at her, Elizabeth attempted to tease him. “That is good to know, sir, for I have yet to fight off the dragon that has been causing a great deal of difficulty for some of my tenants on the north side of the property.” For a moment her heart sank as she realized her faux pas. “That is, ‘tis my cousin’s estate now, so I suppose it shall be up to Mr. Collins to resolve the matter.”

            “Oh, but Mr. Collins has a vast deal of experience in getting along famously with dragons,” Mr. Darcy replied with a mirthful smile. “I am only glad he has taken up his duties, leaving you free to travel. I hope you do not miss Longbourn too much, after being so devoted to the place for so long.”

            “I am happy where I am, I assure you. I have had my fill of tenant quarrels and riding astride in breeches, and falling asleep in the library. Mr. Collins is welcome to those joys, for I shall not miss them.”

            Elizabeth instantly feared she had said too much, for Mr. Darcy looked at her with great intensity. “I am sure the sight of you in breeches must have done much to resolve your tenant quarrels, but I am glad you are happy where you are.” He tightened his grip on her waist ever so, while his other hand subtly caressed her fingers. “I hope you are enjoying the sights to be had here.”

     Elizabeth laughed and agreed that she was. Is Mr. Darcy flirting with me? She looked searchingly into his eyes.

            “I am sorry that I was not able to attend the ball at Netherfield, though my cousins had hoped I might. I, too, was having difficulty with a dragon here at Pemberley. You missed my aunt’s visit by less than a week.”

            Elizabeth breathed a great sigh of relief. Lady Catherine certainly would not have been pleased to find Elizabeth a visitor there. “Your aunt was rather displeased with me when I left Kent. I hope her temper has cooled somewhat, and that she was not moved to vent any of her displeasure at me towards yourself.”

            “If anyone’s pleasure was vented, I dare say it was my own. Lady Catherine did not leave here best pleased.”

     Elizabeth stared at him in wonder. Had he defended her to his aunt? As Mr. Darcy held her gaze with a steady smile, Elizabeth began to lose herself in the moment. She had not fully appreciated, at the twelfth night ball, what a fine dancer Mr. Darcy was. Despite his height and muscular build, he was extremely graceful and light on her his feet. Elizabeth enjoyed the sensation, as they glided through the room, the physical contact for that existed between them. Perhaps her aunt and uncle should not have allowed it, but she was far from dismayed.

     Dancing with Mr. Darcy like this made her feel at once entirely at ease, and yet as if she was at the center of a tremendous whirlwind. The Gardiners the Bingleys, the Fitzwilliams, Longbourn, and Elizabeth’s sudden inheritance all seemed a hundred miles distant as she moved through the room with the man she was beginning to realize had touched her heart irrevocably.

            They did not speak for the rest of the dance, but remained so wholly engrossed in one another as they went through the steps that Elizabeth felt as if they were having an extremely intimate conversation on an entirely different level. His eyes did not leave hers, and as they moved together she was drawn into the intensity of the emotions she found there.

            The dance was over all too soon, and Elizabeth was breathless at the end of it. Something had been stirred inside of her that she could not suppress, and she suddenly felt that she was in great danger of forming feelings that she would not be able to coax herself out of. She curtseyed to Mr. Darcy at the end of the dance, and made her way to her aunts and uncle’s side, before seizing the earliest opportunity to declare herself quite fatigued and ready to retire. She had much to think on.


Chapter Text

 

     Georgiana Darcy was not remiss in her duties as hostess; she had a great many entertainments planned for Pemberley’s guests. The day after Elizabeth and the Gardiners arrived, the Darcys led an excursion to the site of some nearby medieval ruins for a day of exploration. A light picnic lunch had been packed, and they made the short journey to Maythorn Abbey, a notoriously haunted location that many of the party felt a great curiosity to discover.

     Lady Rebecca, for her part, did not give a fig about some old heap of bricks and the ghosts reputed to haunt them. More than the particular destination, Rebecca was rather concerned with the journey thither. The Fitzwilliam carriage pulled up behind the Darcys’ open barouche as their party began to mill about, deciding who would go in which conveyance. Richard was in a cooperative mood, for he was quick in assuring Miss Bingley that she must ride in the open carriage, which would afford a spectacular view, and she was happy to be the first one handed into Mr. Darcy’s impressive equipage. Richard waved Mr. Bingley in after her, even as Rebecca made a great show of describing to Elizabeth the wonderful view the barouche provided of the landscape. Mr. Bingley turned his eyes expectantly on Elizabeth, just as Rebecca rounded on the Gardiners and ushered them into the two remaining seats. She would have to apologize to them later for inflicting Caroline Bingley’s ill humors upon them, but it was for the greater good. She declared her intention to go on horseback with Richard, and suggested that if Georgiana and Elizabeth did the same, the second carriage might be spared entirely.

     Rebecca smiled as Elizabeth insisted that she had forsworn all equestrian pursuits for the second time in her life, and was quite firm on the matter. Darcy was smoother than Rebecca had expected him to be, and she breathed a sigh of relief as he turned to Elizabeth and said, “Why not ride up on the box with me, while I drive? Seven miles is an easy enough distance, but I should be glad to have some conversation.”

     Rebecca savored the expression on Caroline Bingley’s face as she realized she been out-maneuvered and folded her arms with a great huff of exasperation. Elizabeth accepted Darcy’s offered hand of assistance after he leapt up onto the driver seat, and took her place beside him, as Rebecca smiled with satisfaction before turning and mounting the horse that had been led around for her.

     A moment later they were on their way, and Georgiana drew her horse alongside Rebecca and Richard. “I am sorry Elizabeth will not ride with us. I rather hoped she would, for I do hope her visit will afford me a chance to come to know her better. I daresay I would have had more to say to her then poor William. He has been in such a foul mood since his return from Kent, but I hope this visit will cheer him.” 

     Rebecca thought it rather obtuse of Darcy to remain so intent on keeping his sister in the dark about his feelings for Elizabeth. She would not betray his secret, though, for it was hardly her place, despite her disapproval of his methods. Georgiana might prove a willing accomplice if Darcy saw fit to inform her of his intentions, rather than allowing her to apparently form the conclusion that Elizabeth ought to be matched with Bingley. Rebecca was no fool, she saw what her young cousin was about, and hoped that Georgiana would have significantly less sway over Mr. Bingley than his vicious sister. Rebecca merely smiled enigmatically at her cousin. “I daresay this visit will cheer him very much indeed, Georgie.”

***

     Elizabeth quickly overcame the bewilderment she felt at her good fortune in the traveling arrangements, as she was greatly relieved to be spared Mr. Bingley's company for the journey to Maythorn. Though it was it to be a short-lived reprieve, for he would, no doubt, be quick to attach himself to her as soon as they arrived, she decided to count her blessings and enjoy a few minutes of sensible conversation.

     Despite her desire to be sensible, Elizabeth found that she knew not how, as while sitting at Mr. Darcy’s side she could think only of the waltz they had shared together the night before. It was as though she had seen an entirely different side of him. He seemed far more open and relaxed than he had been in Kent, and though it might only have been that the passing of time had begun to heal the pain of his wife’s loss, Elizabeth believed he was really happy to have her as a guest.

     “I must thank you again,” said she, “for inviting my aunt and uncle and I to stay with you at Pemberley. I hope that having the additional guests is no burden to your sister. She has shown herself to be a wonderful hostess.”

     Mr. Darcy smiled warmly at her. “We are both very happy to have you here, Miss Bennet, and I will pass along your compliments to my sister.”

     “Please do. I like her very much.” Elizabeth hesitated, wondering if it would be too forward to ask after the problems he had alluded to having with his sister, during their conversations in Kent. “I think she is very fond of you,” Elizabeth prompted.

     Mr. Darcy seemed to understand what she was really asking. “She and I have had our share of turmoil of late, but I hope we are doing much better now. A very wise young woman once told me that if I fought for her, I would be rewarded, that her tender heart has a great deal of love to give.”

     Elizabeth blushed as he recalled her advice from that morning by the stream. “I see what you are about, sir, but you must not give me all of the credit for it. If you and your sister have come to better terms with one another, I am sure it was all your own doing, and I will say you have done admirably, for no one who has seen the two of you together would imagine that there had so recently been disharmony between you.”

     “All the same, you must accept my thanks, Miss Bennet. Your words touched me in a way that I had not thought possible.” Mr. Darcy stared intently at her for a moment before turning his attention back to the horses, and he gave a quick flick of the reins. “How would you like to drive for a while, Miss Bennet?”

     Elizabeth was rather taken by surprise, but determined not to show any distress. “You must show me how it is done.”

     “Anyone who can run an estate and ride about in trousers can certainly drive a carriage, Miss Bennet.”

     Elizabeth turned her face away to conceal her embarrassment at his allusion to her forward remark from the night before. “You begin to make me regret telling you about that, Mr. Darcy. If only there was some anecdote about you, being equally strangely attired, that came to mind….”

     “You have the advantage over me, Miss Bennet, for I did not actually see you so informally attired, whereas you needn’t rely on your own imagination for such a notion.” His gaze drifted down her body, looking her over just as she had done to him the day before, by the pond, and Elizabeth felt a sudden heat in her chest. Breaking the spell of the moment, Darcy abruptly turned to guide her in reining in the horses. He moved a little closer on the seat, to instruct her how to guide the team, seeming just as flustered as she was. Fortunately, the animals were well-trained and the road before them was open and easy, and Elizabeth found it was not a very difficult at all. Soon she began to relax, and asked him to tell her more about his sister, and how they had fared since his return from Kent.

     Darcy looked rather stern for a moment, and Elizabeth began to fear she had gone too far in asking such a personal question, but a moment later he replied, “I have made it my mission, Miss Bennet, to be on better terms with my sister these last few months, and have spent a great deal of time devoting my attention to this purpose. The advice you gave me has helped more than I can tell you. It offered me a fresh sense of perspective, reminded me that Georgiana is not adversary, but merely a very young girl with a great deal of love in her heart. Remembering that has helped me find my peace with her. Little Julia has helped a vast deal, as well. My sister absolutely adores her, and in the time that the three of us have spent together at Pemberley, I have never felt like more of a family, not since my parents were living.”

     Elizabeth smiled sadly. “I know what you mean. Longbourn has not felt the same since….”

     “My apologies, Miss Bennet. I ought not to have spoken of such things, with your own loss being so fresh. Please allow me to tell you again how very sorry I was to hear of your father’s passing. With such a daughter, he must have been a wonderful man.”

     Elizabeth flinched, her mind turning into the letter her father had written her, which she had begun to carry about with her in her pocket. As she recoiled, she inadvertently jerked the reins, and the horses reared up in alarm. Mr. Darcy reacted quickly, placing his hands on top of Elizabeth’s to steady the reins and calm the animals. His hands lingered on hers, perhaps a moment longer than necessary; he turned to gaze at her, and looked as though he would speak, but a moment later the shrill voice of Miss Bingley broke the spell of the moment.

     “Is everything all right, Mr. Darcy? You gave us all quite a fright just now. I daresay Miss Bennet must be distracting you, sir. I believe we can make room for one more in the carriage, here, if you prefer to focus on the drive ahead.”

     Mr. Bingley was quick to agree, and moved away from his sister before patting the space on the seat between them. “Indeed, there is room for one more back here!”

     Mr. Darcy glanced back at them with annoyance. “I believe we shall get on well enough from here, Bingley, but if you and your sister mistrust my driving, we might all exchange places for the journey back. It shall provide me an opportunity to become better acquainted with the Gardiners, and I would not deny your sister the pleasure of the fine view afforded from up here.” He turned back to Elizabeth with a sly wink, and the two of them resumed a pleasant conversation. Mr. Darcy spoke more about his sister, and Elizabeth listened intently, finding herself most eager to pursue a friendship with that young lady.

***

     Elizabeth did her best to attach herself to Georgiana when they arrived at the ruins and split into smaller groups to explore, and was rewarded by finding Georgiana equally desirous of furthering their acquaintance. After having heard of the discord between Mr. Darcy and his sister, Elizabeth had been rather fearful of meeting her, for fear Miss Darcy would prove to be more like one of her own sisters. Instead, Elizabeth was happy to discover that the girl was merely shy, but perfectly willing to be drawn out through open conversation.

     Unfortunately, Georgiana was under the impression that Elizabeth desired Mr. Bingley’s attentions, which were inescapable. Not wishing to seem rude in the presence of her new friend, Elizabeth did her best to tolerate Mr. Bingley with good cheer, enjoying the ridiculous folly of it all.

     This became a predictable pattern in the days that followed. Georgiana had a great many plans for her guests, including attendance at a local summer festival in Lambton, fishing at the lake, a garden party at the neighboring estate of Brereton Park, and a dinner party given by their neighbors the Culberts. At every occasion, Mr. Bingley was determined to have his fair share of Elizabeth’s attention, and then some. Elizabeth bore it all with her usual sense of sardonic humor.

     While it was clear that her dear friend Rebecca found Mr. Bingley’s perseverance infuriating, Elizabeth refused to be bothered by what she could not change, and found it both satisfying and liberating to care so little about the matter. If Mr. Bingley was determined to curry favor with her, there was little she could do about it without making her hosts uncomfortable, and it was likely to produce no effect whatsoever in any case.

     The truth was, as Elizabeth had no intention of disturbing the overall felicity of their party there at Pemberley, she could only wait for Mr. Bingley to show his hand. She had not the wealth and status of her friend Rebecca, who might be afforded the luxury of giving offense to such a man, in her own cousin’s home. As such was not an option for Elizabeth, and she hardly wished to embarrass Mr. Darcy by obliging him to intervene, she could only wait and see if Mr. Bingley would eventually act on the feelings he was so frequently implying. A visit to Brambley Manor, the nearby estate he was considering purchasing, made it very clear to not only Elizabeth, but all of their party, that he looked to Elizabeth for approval not only as a friend, but as a candidate for future mistress of the place. What might have pleased her six months before, and mortified her a fortnight ago, was now only an amusing relief. If he was close to proposing, then she was very soon to be at liberty to refuse him, and put the whole matter to rest.

     While to Elizabeth the entire situation had begun to grow increasingly amusing in its absurdity, she knew that not everyone else shared her opinion. Mr. Bingley remained willfully ignorant of her disinterestedness in him, and her growing interest in another. Rebecca was extremely put out with Mr. Bingley, as was Lord Hartley, to a lesser extent. The Viscount likely saw it as an opportunity for mischief of his own, and Elizabeth could hardly begrudge him such an opinion. Miss Bingley was also clearly resolved to intervene in her brother’s fruitless attempts at courtship, while both Georgiana Darcy and Mrs. Gardiner remained steadfast in their subtle attempts to thwart Miss Bingley’s interference. It was like watching an intricate dance, or a heated game of chess, with so many movements and stratagems taking place all at once.

     Having found the strength to rise above the machinations of everyone around her, Elizabeth felt right at home as a casual observer, and sensed that it was much the same for Mr. Darcy. He alone seemed to remain separate from the maneuvering of everyone around them. When he spoke to her or spent time with her, it was not in any effort to prevent anyone else from doing so, or to achieve any hidden motive; Mr. Darcy had begun to make it abundantly clear that he enjoyed her company and conversation, and in the whirlwind of contrivance around them, Elizabeth began to feel their friendship deepening into… well, perhaps something more.

     Within a few days of her arrival, Elizabeth had resumed the custom of taking her morning walks, and was able to again enjoy the company of Mr. Darcy on these rambles, just as she had done in Kent. After several days, Elizabeth could no longer believe what she had once supposed, that Mr. Darcy saw her only as the object of his friend’s affection, for though he had avoided betraying any obvious signs of competing with his friend for Elizabeth’s attention, she had come to recognize the subtlety of his actions and expressions when they were all in company together. It was clear that he found his friend’s obstinacy annoying.

     Elizabeth found it increasingly difficult to dissuade herself from the hope that was growing in her heart that Mr. Darcy might actually care for her. Not as the future Mrs. Bingley, or as Georgiana and Rebecca’s particular friend, but for herself. In company he would seek her out very often, he would dance with her at every opportunity, and his manners grew more open and more flirtatious daily.

     He had made a point of introducing her to his daughter, accompanying her and Georgiana to the nursery one day while the others were occupied in the village. Seeing his tender affection for the babe only increased Elizabeth’s growing regard for the man, for it was instantly apparent that he doted on the babe as much as his tender-hearted sister did; they painted quite the picture of domestic felicity.

     Georgiana’s affection for little Julia was no less endearing, and quite in keeping with Elizabeth’s estimation of her. There was a very pleasing, though delicate friendship forming between the two young women, and Georgiana was so timid and eager to please that Elizabeth could not bring herself to correct her assumption that Elizabeth was amenable to Bingley’s marked attentions. Perhaps, some day, Elizabeth might enlighten her new friend on all that had transpired between herself and Mr. Bingley, but certainly not while they were both guests in Georgiana’s home, as it would no doubt undo all of the satisfaction she was taking in playing hostess for them, and Elizabeth had no wish to undermine Georgiana’s growing confidence.

     By the end of their visit, Elizabeth was certain that Mr. Bingley meant to ask for her hand, and had to steel herself for the inevitable fallout when she refused him. A few weeks earlier, she might have been forced to give the matter some serious consideration, given the situation at Longbourn. However, her recent inheritance had changed things for Elizabeth. Though three thousand pounds was hardly enough money to attract a wealthy suitor, that was far from Elizabeth’s desire. The sum granted her the independence she required to hold out for a love match, one where fortune mattered not at all, and in doing so she would honor her promise to her father, and to remain true to her romantic ideals.

     Of Mr. Darcy’s intentions, Elizabeth was less certain. Though his attentions were far less obvious than Mr. Bingley’s, Elizabeth had become aware of the effort he had exerted to spend time with her. Their morning walks were the only occasions that afforded them any degree of privacy, but they made the best of each morning by conversing openly, perfectly at ease with one another. Aside from a few chance meetings in the library, the rest of their interactions were limited to what took place amongst a great deal of company, and Elizabeth resolved to make the most of it, savoring every blissful moment in his company.

***

     When she awoke on the morning of her last full day at Pemberley, Elizabeth made her way downstairs for her morning walk, feeling both relieved that she would soon be spared the more cumbersome aspects of her time there, and simultaneously mournful that this might be the last time her daily ritual with Mr. Darcy would be repeated. Despite the hour they spent together each morning, Mr. Darcy had yet to come close to declaring himself, and Elizabeth still battled with her own feelings, for she did not wish to set herself up for what would be a disappointment of the acutest kind.

     That morning, Mr. Darcy was in fine spirits and his conversation was full of more excitement than philosophy, as was his usual custom. Much like Elizabeth, he was consumed with excitement over the festivities that Georgiana had planned for that day. Though Elizabeth’s birthday had passed more than a week prior, Mr. Darcy and his sister wished to celebrate the milestone with all the fanfare they felt she deserved, and thus they had saved this, the grandest of events, for last. Mr. Darcy’s raptures exceeded even those of his sister in describing the picnic Georgiana had planned for Elizabeth, their guest of honor.

     It was a splendid affair, indeed. After Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy had returned from their walk and joined the rest of their party at breakfast, they all walked down to the hill beside the lake, where the celebration would be held. As they made their approach to the scenic spot, Elizabeth observed the elaborate arrangements that had been set up for them there. Several large carpets had been laid out on the gently sloping hill, and a small canopy of elegantly draped gauzy fabric provided shade on one side. There was what appeared to be a rather large buffet table, promising all of the savory delights she had come to expect from Pemberley’s kitchen. At the bottom of the hill, along the shore of the lake, several small rowboats were tied up and ready to be sailed out on the water. On the other side of the picnic, at the top of the hill where the ground evened out, there was an area designated for lawn games, which Mr. Darcy had told her that Georgiana particularly enjoyed.

     Elizabeth felt all the compliment of such a lavish affair being held in her honor as she took it all in. What had appeared very grand from far away, as they made their approach, was now discovered to be incredibly magnificent, and Elizabeth thanked Georgiana in all sincerity for the splendid arrangements. It was truly impressive. Enough chairs, footstools and heavy cushions had been set out on the carpets to accommodate a group more than twice their size, and the buffet table offered a feast of epic proportions. Underneath the canopy was yet another table, this one laden with a vast array of cakes, pies, and other desserts. An abundance of elegant floral arrangements had been worked in, and there were even streamers billowing from nearby trees. The effect was rather ethereal, both stately and whimsical, and Elizabeth was both flattered and embarrassed to be the recipient of so much distinction.

     “I cannot believe this is all for me,” Elizabeth said, as a footman bearing champagne headed their way.

     Rebecca appeared at Elizabeth’s side, her smile as smug as Elizabeth had ever seen. “It is no less than you deserve, I am sure.”

     “I am pleased you like it,” said Georgiana.

     “Like it? I am in awe! I have never seen – never heard of anything like it. And to think you planned this all so quickly! I cannot begin to thank you enough.”

     Georgiana blushed. “Oh, you needn’t thank me, Elizabeth. It was all so very entertaining to organize, and I daresay I shall enjoy it every bit as much as you do. William said he wanted today to be memorable. I was not sure what he had in mind, but he told me to plan the sort of party I should like for my own birthday, and so I did.”

     As the three of them availed themselves of some champagne, Mr. Darcy made his way to their side, and Rebecca gave Elizabeth a significant look before drawing Georgiana into conversation with the Gardiners, who were in raptures over the elegant arrangements, and eager to congratulate Georgiana on her excellent taste.

     “Mr. Darcy, I believe I must thank you for all of this. I find myself nearly speechless in the sight of so much splendor.”

     “That is the opposite of my intention, I assure you, Miss Bennet. I would wish you to be perfectly at ease on such an occasion. After all, you are the guest of honor, and must derive more enjoyment than anybody.”

     “I am certain I shall! Only you must tell me, are you in the habit of throwing such lavish celebrations for all of your friends’ birthdays?”

     “In fact, I have come to believe that I have been rather remiss in that quarter, and aim to correct myself, an easy enough accomplishment, given the inducement of such company. Besides, I think it will be good practice for Georgiana. She has done well thus far, but is still very new to acting as hostess of Pemberley.”

     Elizabeth felt her heart sink just a little. Was that what this was truly about, just a test of his sister’s skill in entertaining? Before she could make any reply, she noticed two open barouches driving up the little lane towards the lake, and looked questioningly at Mr. Darcy.

     “I hope you do not mind, but I have taken the liberty of inviting the Breretons and the Culberts, as they seemed to get on so well with yourself and your aunt and uncle last week when we dined with them. I have also invited your aunt’s brother, the parson at Lambton, and his family, as I dare say we have monopolized so much of the Gardiners’ time here at Pemberley that they have not spent as much of it as they might have hoped with their own kin. And, of course, as Lambton is not actually my parish, I have invited the family from the parsonage at Kympton, for Georgiana did not wish them to feel slighted by omission.”

     “Your sister thinks of everything. I would hardly have guessed that she was so new to acting as hostess. Truly, sir, you have both been so wonderful these last two weeks.”

     Mr. Darcy smiled warmly at her. “I am glad to have pleased you, Miss Bennet. I will own, I was somewhat torn between keeping this a smaller, more intimate gathering, and celebrating with as many friends as I could, but I took what I believed to be your preferences very much to heart when I made the decision to include so many guests.”

     “Your neighbors are all perfectly charming. I should be happy to see them all again, and to make the acquaintance of the family from Kympton as well. Besides, I think it a fine thing for there to be so many witnesses to your sister’s triumph,” Elizabeth teased.

     Mr. Darcy was beaming widely at her. “Your approbation means more than you know, Miss Bennet, to both of us. My sister, like Rebecca, does not make friends easily in the ton, and when I heard you and the Gardiners were to come to us, I felt immediately that you would be just the sort of person to draw her out.”

     Elizabeth considered this. Was he suggesting that she was not fashionable enough to intimidate his bashful sister? Was her society meant to be a mere stepping stone for Georgiana, until the girl was practiced enough to move on to more elevated company?

     Before Elizabeth could make any reply, they were again joined by Georgiana, and the three of them began ambling toward the lane at the bottom of the hill, for the two carriages were very close now, and two more had come into view further down the lane.

     “How happy I am that everyone will be together here today,” Georgiana said. “I hope eve