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Pride and Pickiness

Chapter Text

If it is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife, it is equally true (though rarely acknowledged), that a woman in possession of a good fortune can afford to be a little picky.

This, Elizabeth Bennet mused as she climbed over the stile to the lane. As her foot dropped to the path, she felt the squelch of a muddy puddle. Mama would not be pleased. Mama was rarely pleased with her these days. At one and twenty, she had committed the grave sin of being unmarried and uninterested in finding a suitor in the near future. Not that suitors were aplenty in Meryton and the surrounding countryside, and if they were, Miss Bennet felt strongly that they might be suitors, but they would be unsuitable for her.

The lane was pleasant that afternoon; the morning’s rain had dried up, and the sun was warming her back nicely as she made her way toward the house. It was dusty underfoot, and the grit settled on her muddy boots and hem. She thought of the poor servant tasked with doing the washing. No one was going to be much pleased with her today. It was a good thing she felt so gleeful. As she walked, she hummed - a pastoral tune, fitting to the setting.

She passed her father’s agent, staring at a field lying fallow, mentally calculating.

“Miss Bennet,” he nodded, his eyebrows raised demonstrably but not from surprise - he had known her since a child. “You are a sight, Madam!”

“Oh, Mr. Darling,” she laughed, “I always am.”

Elizabeth - Lizzie to her family - was in a good mood. She had borrowed a new book from Charlotte, recently secured on a trip to London. They were having some fine weather - the kind that made Spring worth all of the waiting for it, and the kind that justified the long walk to Lucas Lodge of a morning. But best yet, she had some news that would more than forgive her for the stains on her hem for traipsing across the downs instead of taking the carriage.

Lizzie passed through the hedgerow of the garden to reveal the house itself, and giddy, she began to run, clutching at her skirts, borrowed book in hand. Jane, sitting in repose by the garden fountain, laughed and stood to follow her. “Lizzie, whatever has possessed you?”

Lizzie waved her over, continuing at full pelt up the staircase to the door. Hamilton, the servant, had barely opened it in time for her as she barreled through,

“Mama! Lydia! Kitty! I have news for you.” She called up the stairs, into the void of the house.

She heard pained piano strings in the great room; Mary must be practicing. That seemed as good a location as any, so paying as little heed to the rug as she could, she wandered over into the sunny room, Jane close on her heels.

“Lizzie, what is this all about?”

Elizabeth smiled at her sister. Jane was the oldest Miss Bennet, and far and away the most beautiful, with the soft, angelic features usually ascribed to a Boticelli painting or a Roman statue. Mary stood from the pianoforte, visibly flustered by the interruption.

“Really, sisters, if I could just get a moment’s peace to - “

“Lizzie!” Lydia burst in, Kitty on her heels, there mother walking speedily down the stairs behind them. “What is it? What is it?”

“This is most undignified be-“ Mary protested, but was cut off.

“Has something horrible happened?” Kitty implored. She had a touch of the melodramatic within her.

“Has anything happened?” Lydia flopped - for the only way her movement, a sigh of the body, dramatically thrown amongst the pillows, could be described was as a flop - and sighed. “Nothing happens here. She’s just having fun with the lot of you.”

Lydia was the youngest, and if Kitty had a touch of melodrama, Lydia was Shakespearean with it.

“I swear!” Lizzie said, moving to sit in an armchair by the window. “Though perhaps you should all take a moment.”

They were all panting with the effort. Not that Lizzie wasn’t, mind you - she was just a little bit ahead of them.

“Oh, go on Lizzie,” Jane beckoned, taking up her own perch on the chaise kept before the - currently empty - fireplace. “We could certainly do with some news around here.”

Lizzie smiled, looking round at her sisters, her mother, their eager faces. “Well, I was at Charlotte’s to borrow the Tales of Udolfo - “

“Oh, no more dreadful books,” Lydia whined, “that doesn’t even signify!” She made to stand, but seemed to think better of it, as her sisters had already surmised that Lizzie intended to drag this out as much as she could, and none had yet moved from their own hastily taken seats.

“As I was saying, I was at Charlotte’s to borrow the Tales of Udolfo, when Sir William himself came in to sit with us, as it seemed he had very lately returned from a visit with a neighbor.”

“And?” Her mother prodded. She was always eager for any tidbits she could receive about the neighborhood, for the sole purpose of reevaluating her own status amongst the little society, and for judging her neighbors badly if she considered them to have been elevated too much amongst their peers.

“Well, it seems - “
“Get on with it!” Mary blurted out. She would protest, if she were confronted about it, but she was always listening.

“It seems,” Lizzie was enjoying this too much, “that Longbourne has been let at last! To an unmarried man of some fortune.”

The faces of shock surrounding her lasted only a second, before the room stirred into a frenzy, of Lydia and Kitty dashing up the stairs to look across from the third floor window to see if they could see the house - as they sometimes could, on a clear day. Mrs. Bennet, not a small woman, heaved up and could be heard in the hallway, “Mr. Bennet, I must speak with you!” Mary muttered, tidying up her sheet music - she would have no more peace in this room.

Jane turned to her, smiling - always smiling, “Oh, Lizzie, you little devil.”

This was a very good day.

***

It had been a week and a day since Elizabeth’s news, which Lizzie had, by this point, all but forgotten about. She had delayed arising that morning, as the bed was warm and the morning had a chill to it that she would rather not think much of. Hill, the housekeeper, had instructed Greta to build a fire, but Greta was new and young and not much good at fire-building, Lizzie mused. She was sweet though, and liked to borrow Lizzie’s books, when they were on offer, so she felt a sort of kinship with the girl, even if her room was cold.

Now dressed and washed, she felt a little more lively, and slid the newest volume into her pocket. She could hear the stirrings - and bangings, and harpings of female voices - downstairs, and judged that perhaps she might want to break her fast alone.

Lizzie took the back stairway, down past the servants rooms, and straight into the kitchen. As a child, she had loved this narrow, hidden, stairway - it seemed to her a secret passage, a thing of ghost stories and adventure. She and Jane had happily spent hours sequestered behind doors and on landings, playing games of pirates and brigands, and every so often damsels in distress. It had been many a long year since Jane had thought much of the stairwell, but Lizzie used it often. Sometimes, a young woman needs a moment away from her very loving family.

No one in the kitchen was alarmed by her appearance; Lizzie had spent many an hour there over the years. Hill stood up from her cup of tea by the hearth - it must be later than she thought, if Hill already had her feet up - and offered Miss Bennet a still-warm roll, buttered and filled with fresh cheese.

“I thought you might be avoiding them.” She said.

“Avoiding them?” Lizzie certainly was, but it was unusual to hear Hill say it, so brashly and casually.

“Aye,” she said. “There’s been a right stramash this morning.”

Lizzie raised an eyebrow and took a bite of the roll. This cheese was good; she should take some into Meryton to her aunt and uncle, the Phillipses, who lived close by.

Hill nodded. “Come close to the fire.”

The fireplace was draughty and not somewhere Lizzie had ever long rested. She stood next to Hill, by the chair, and noticed that the sounds of the dining room were amplified in this spot.

She also noticed that what she had taken for the usual morning exuberance - and alternatingly, grumpiness - of her mother and sisters was in fact a rousing disagreement, made all the more interesting for her not being present.

Her mothers voice was trill, though its aim indirect. “Will you have no mercy on my poor nerves?”

“My dear,” ah, so it had been aimed at her father then, “I had a great deal of respect for your nerves.”

“Are we to be completely unacquainted with our neighbors then? Will you not do your poor, bored wife and children this one kindness?”

Neighbors. Lizzie wondered at that, before coloring with guilt. Her own news then, a few days ago. She had heard some titterings about it, but with no evidence that the family in residence at Longbourne was home to many daughters or interesting people, and with the inherent judgement - on her mothers part - that the much smaller estate was naturally let by much smaller people - Lizzie had been under the misapprehension that the news had merely been her own amusement of an afternoon.

“My darling, I should not think Netherfield Park is so boring for you?” Her father spoke, always calm, though perhaps a bit gleeful.

“Oh, we shall die of boredom in this countryside, Mr. Bennet! We have no amusement! And as you have no intention of kindness toward your family, I suppose we shall continue to have no amusement for the rest of our days until we die of the boredom of it! I am resigned to it!”

Lizzie looked at Hill. It occurred to her, not for the first time and not for the last, that her mothers tremors and shakings and occasionally flailings, were visible amongst the servants and that the servants, without question, spoke with those of their neighbors. She did not doubt that Hill had already met and spoken with the new housekeeper of Longbourne, perhaps at market, perhaps on a social call. Hill, wisely, kept her face blank.

Lizzie thought, not for the first time, that Hill would be a remarkable player at cards, if she could be induced to join them.

Her father was speaking again. “My dear, it is a shame that you should think so, for just yesterday I paid a visit to the estate.”

For a brief moment, her mother’s shock was evidenced by sputterings. Lizzie could hear the murmurings of her sisters that remained at the table - Lydia and Kitty, most certainly, they never missed a meal.

“Yes, he was a very nice chap, that young Mr. Bingley. Quite enthusiastic, good gentleman. I’ve invited him shooting on Tuesday.”

Her mother’s sputterings were beginning to form words. “Mister Bennet!”

“I did mention to him that there is a ball in Meryton at the assembly hall the week next. He readily accepted the invitation, and it seems he expects some friends to join him.”

“Oh!” Lizzie could even hear her mother gearing up for a faint.

“But I suppose, Mrs. Bennet, that you are right and you would not find a young, unmarried gentleman particularly amusing, and that you must remain in boredom until it overwhelms you.”

“Mister Bennet!” She cried. “Have you no sympathy for my poor nerves?!”

Chapter Text

There is nothing quite like preparation for a ball amongst the young women of a small society.There were dresses to be mended and made, ribbons to be obtained, hair pins to be fought over, and fretting to be done. This was, unquestionably, the arena in which Kitty and Lydia reigned supreme, egged on by their immoderate mother. In recent years, Jane and Lizzie had become used to standing at the side of the hall with a glass of wine and a friend or two. Men were scarce at such events, and as the wealthy eldest Bennet’s became ever more older and hovered on the line between marriageable and spinsterhood, it did not serve anyone’s best interest to be seen as too fond of one man or another.

With the ball a week away and the mending yet to be done, Lizzie found herself standing amidst the ribbons and trinkets and lace of the local milliner. Lydia was in ecstasies over a pretty pale hat, and Jane was patiently trying to talk her out of spending the money. Futile an effort: Lydia was well aware that should she overspend her pin money, her mother would happily supply a loan, never to be paid back. Her father had learned to look the other way, if he wanted peace in his house. No matter how big the house, five daughters always did seem to prevent much peace and quiet.

Lizzie chatted with Mr. Brown, who had a new length of lace he thought would quite suit her pink summer gown. It was appealing, and as Lizzie had spent little this month, she had some cash spare.

“I suppose you’ll be wanting it for the ball this week end?”

“Oh, yes,” she agreed.  “And I think an extra length of it. I quite suspect Jane would like some as well.”

“No new gowns for the young ladies this time, I suppose?”

Lizzie shook her head, tucking the neatly wrapped parcel in her shopping bag. Her mother hated the practical wicker holdall, which to Lizzie’s perverse sense of humor, was all the more reason to be seen with it around town.

“My father believes strongly in thrift, at times such as ours.”

“Oh, aye, quite right to,” Brown said, disappointment at the loss of future sales evident in his tone.

Lizzie smiled. “We may yet be making the trip to town for the Christmas season, and would be much obliged of your assistance in preparation.”

“Only the finest fashions for our Bennet’s, of course. You must give Meryton society a good showing among the hoi polloi.”

“It remains the envy of society, I assure you.”

“It must be, with more gentleman moving into the neighborhood, even today.”

Lizzie couldn’t hide her surprise. “Today?”

“Yes, I am pleased to say.” He nodded toward the front window of the shop. “I saw Mr Bingley’s gentleman friend arriving through the square not but an hour ago.”

So, the gentleman at Longbourne must be this Bingley - her father had not given a name when she had eavesdropped on his argument with her mother. And Mr. Bennet had mentioned friends arriving to join the new tenant in time for the ball.

Lizzie looked over to her sisters; the argument had settled and Lydia havd picked out a nice length of robins egg blue for reviving her old hat. Jane was looking a little exasperated and worse for wear. She would share the good news on the long walk home, to counter the angry silence of the disagreement. Lydia did not like to be quelched, and Jane disliked having to be the one to do it.

***

Preparing for the night of a ball - even a country ball held at the rooms of a small provincial town - was as much an event at Netherfield Park as the festivities themselves. Kitty always woke in a flurry of excitement, and then quickly angered that none of her sisters were out of bed yet.  Mrs. Bennet would complain of her fraught nerves, ever anxious that the ball would be raided by a traveling band of thieves and the town would be held hostage by the brigands while their dear estate was torched and looted, and then the beautiful girls would never be well married. Perhaps, she would sigh, it would be better for her daughters not to go out at all.

Hill would order a light breakfast, as too heavy a meal and Mrs. Bennet would complain of stomach pain and spend the afternoon indisposed, before rousing to dress for the event. Inevitably, after a light breakfast, Mrs. Bennet would arrive at lunch time utterly starving after all of her exertions, and how cruel of her housekeeper not to take into consideration the energy a mother needs on days such as this one. Mr. Bennet had it in mind to tell Hill just to order the regular meal and keep Mrs. Bennet’s fussing confined to her own chambers, but he never quite got around to it before the day of the next ball arrived, and for such a small town so far from London, as was his preference, why must there be such an active social calendar?

For young Lydia, too young to be out but too charming to be stopped, every ball must be the event of the year, the greatest night she would ever remember. It should be jolly and joyful and bright, so bright! With dresses and music and gay laughter.

Mary hated balls. She went, because Kitty would give her a ribbing if she didn’t. She took after her father in her endless search for peace and quiet, though felt herself far more intelligent and didactic than the man. Lizzie, for her part, quite liked this as Mary could easily be induced to join her in her rooms to read in companionable silence in the early hours of the evening, as neither cared much for overlong ironing of hair and pinning of tresses. Jane would spend a good amount to time managing her mothers nerves and Lydia’s dramatics and Kitty’s inevitable disappointment that the dress she had not bothered to try on was now tighter, and as there was no time to let it out she must spent all evening in discomfort beneath the whalebone of her corset. After an hour or so of running as ragged as one of the farm horses, Jane would collapse on Lizzie’s bed and declare that balls weren’t worth it, and could they not just go for dinner to Lucas Lodge instead?  

Jane’s sigh would last but a moment, because coaxing Mary into a dress that suited her and pinning her hair to fit her features was as agreeable an activity as the night’s dancing, so rare an opportunity it was.

The process would take a couple of precious hours, during which the evening repast would be overlooked in favor of tighter stays and flushed cheeks.  At some point, after being made up and no more than half of an hour before their departure, at least one of the sisters would panic, and fling themselves upon the bottom of the stairs, determined that her dress was unsuitable or her skin was marred or her hair looked like Medusa.  After ten or so minutes of coaxing, the despondent lady would be urged to reconsider, and a hasty correction to her eyes would be applied, to minimize the tear stains and redness, and her dress would be straightened, and the carriage would be waiting.

***

Inevitably, the family would be no less than an hour late to the ball.  Perfectly timed to make a dramatic entrance - Mrs. Bennet’s favorite way of gaining attention, for reassuring their neighbors of the Bennet’s status amongst the crowd.  There would be a whisper, for Jane was a beauty to behold, and a titter amongst the youngsters as Kitty and Lydia dashed to join their friends. Lizzie would seek out Charlotte, who would have, during their entrance, secured Lizzie a well-fortified glass of punch.  Mrs. Bennet would croon amongst her peers over their jewels and their little lives, and Mr. Bennet would hide in a corner with Sir William Lucas at a game of cards. Mary would sit near the food, because these balls did have some delightful little fancies, and she considered it their only redeeming feature.

It was a well-choreographed dance, familiar and comforting, Lizzie thought, as she stood with Charlotte near the dancing.  Charlotte was in fine form - she had a new dress, Lizzie noted - and for all of her plainness, was in equal measures kind and a wit, and her sly commentary was always the best part of an evening - even better than the dancing.

There were a few men of their company that she would dance with, but the crowd was thin that night and after one reel she retired to the corner with her friend, so they could gossip about the revelers.

“Your mother,” Charlotte noted, “is in fine form tonight.”

Mrs. Bennet was regaling her companions with the tale of Mr. Bennet’s treachery at trying to put her on a budget.  Mrs. Bennet intended to display her wealth by making a mockery of her husband’s thrift. Perhaps one of her companions might have bought the ruse, but Lizzie could see that Mrs. Phillips and Lady Lucas were both looking askance at each other; they knew Mrs. Bennet to be an incorrigible spendthrift.

The party was well underway when, an hour or so later, there was a stir at the door.   Lizzie found herself craning her neck along with the other partygoers to see.

A tall, well-suited man entered, with a dark countenance and darker hair. Surely this wasn’t the Mr. Bingley her father had been speaking of?  This man was neither bright nor gay; in fact, he seemed rather dour.

There seemed to be a whooshing of breaths amongst the assembly. This interloper was not their new neighbor. But no sooner had she turned her head back to Charlotte than did her friends eyes light up; someone else had walked into the assembly rooms.

This man, surely, must be the elusive Mr. Bingley. A fair man, not a great deal older than herself, with a sprightly aspect; certainly an energetic dancer, to join their merriment. He was flanked on either side by two glamorous women; one wearing what could only be the latest fashion from London, or else the most extravagant frippery that Elizabeth had ever seen. The other seemed more plain, of clothing and aspect. Close on her heels walked a dowdy older man, his eyes trained on the women; her husband, Lizzie surmised.

So this was the party that had recently taken Longbourne. Lizzie recognized that she knew little about them, but already felt quite well acquainted. She knew the estate well, knew the halls and its rooms, knew its barns and gardens. She had spent many an hour their as a child, before her friend Anne had been married, before her father died so unexpectedly of a heart complaint. The place was lovely, a old home built of nooks and crannies and fairy stories, but as a farm it needed work, and the house was just a hair’s breadth away from disrepair.  An energetic young man such as the one who had just entered - he would make a perfect tenant. The dour man - surely he must be Mr. Bingley’s manager or solicitor, to visit at such a time as this.

Lizzie felt good about the situation, on the whole, until she saw her mother all but dragging her father toward the party so recently entered.

“Charlotte,” she placed a gloved hand on her friends arm.

“Most certainly,” Charlotte agreed, following Elizabeth’s eye. The pair made their way toward the elder Bennet’s, allowing her mother enough time to be effusively welcoming without becoming smothering.

“Lizzie!” Her father sounded too joyful, too relieved. What had Mrs. Bennet been saying to the group?

“Miss Bennet,” Mr. Bingley stepper forward to introduce himself. “Mrs. Bennet was just telling us of the great dancing at the Meryton Assembly.”

“It is nothing to the ton,” Lizzie replied, “but I find our smaller society makes for more joyous company.”

“I am glad to hear it!” He broke into a smile, and nodded toward the grumpy man. “Darcy here was worried I was exiling myself to the country. I told him myself that the country was just as entertaining, if not more, than London herself.”

“I hope you find it so,” she replied. “Have you met Miss Charlotte Lucas?”

The group chatted till the end of the next, when Lizzie had already promised a dance, but Mr. Bingley would not let the women walk away without securing a dance with each before the night was out.

Throughout it all, Mr. Darcy spoke not at all.

It was much later, when the punch bowl was drying up and the floor was clearing of all but the most dedicated, that Lizzie found herself sitting with Jane in an alcove, resting their tired soles.

“Isn’t he lovely?” Jane asked. She had danced three with Mr. Bingley, who had found her no less lovely than rumored.

“I am glad,” Lizzie said diplomatically, “that we will have a good neighbor.”

“Oh, Liz, we have so many lovely neighbors!”

“But Janey darling, none are quite so fine dancers!”

The pair enjoyed the scene; Lydia was dancing with Mr. Phillips new apprentice, having barely paused all evening. Kitty was crying with Maria Lucas over some slight or tear in her dress or other - Elizabeth could not make it out from where she sat. Behind the curtain, she heard a voice.

“Is this not wonderful, Darcy?  I told you not to be so sour, the company in Meryton is delightful.”

“It does seem you have found something to delight in.” His voice was deep, sonorous. Lizzie felt, for a second, that she could have listened to it preach, if it didn’t also feel so foreboding.

“Her sister, Miss Elizabeth, is also very fine.”

Jane gasped - she was hearing it all too - and put her hand on Lizzie’s arm, as if Mr. Bingley had not just been waxing eloquent about her charms.

“I suppose she is,” Mr. Darcy said, “in this part of the country.”

Lizzie looked to Jane, torn between laughing aloud and crying. Jane’s mouth hung open in surprise.

It was, at this juncture, impossible to move and impolite to keep listening. Thankfully, Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy wandered on, away from their enclosure, and Lizzie dashed up and moved quickly away from the corner, feeling the need of air.

“Can you believe?” She whirled on Jane, who had followed her out.

“I cannot!” Jane was louder than she had intended, and attracted the stare of the local purveyor of meat.

It was unfortunate, perhaps, that at that moment Mr. Bingley spotted the ladies and made his way over, Mr. Darcy close on his heels.

“Miss Bennet!” Bingley exclaimed. “Please, do me the honor of one more dance?”

Jane looked at Lizzie, whose face was red not with embarrassment but mirth. How absurd this whole situation had become. Lizzie waved her sister off, only to realize Mr. Darcy was left standing there.

“Miss Bennet,” he growled.

“Mr. Darcy,” it was, she realized, the first word she’d spoken to him all evening. “Are you much of a fan of balls?”

He wasn’t, of course he wasn’t. She was teasing.

“No,” he said, looking - surprisingly - regretful. “I cannot say I am.”

Lizzie, for a moment, considered that she might pity him instead of resent him, but his harsh words were not to be borne on a night like this. She continued with her tease, “Not even for the dancing? I do love to dance.”

“I cannot say that I do, madam. I find myself quite unequal to it.”

She could not help herself, “No, I suppose it wouldn’t quite suit you, in this part of the country.”

Mr. Darcy seemed confused, and Lizzie couldn’t bear the painful tension any longer, and departed for the safety of the stairs, where she would certainly find Charlotte deep in conversation with the ladies of the parish school.

***

“Sister,” Lizzie was next to Jane in her bed, staring out of the window at the stars on the clear night. “Are you happy?”

Jane turned. “With the ball you mean?”

“Naturally,” Lizzie said. “And with Mr. Bingley?”

“Oh,” the smile was evident in Jane’s voice. “He was certainly most agreeable.”

Lizzie scoffed. “Most agreeable. He was held in your thrall!”

“What shall I say? Someone should have warned him.”

“Men always do think they are stronger than they are.”
Jane rolled to face her. “I heard you took that Mr. Darcy down a peg or two.”

“Who said so?”
“So you do not deny it?”

“You were not surprised by it.”

“You forget, Miss Lizzie, that I have seen you use your words like David’s sling and stone against lesser men.”

“Lesser men? I don’t think Mr. Darcy - “ but she paused. Elizabeth was uncertain now; she had assumed that he was under Mr. Bingley’s employ in some fashion, but she did not recall being told so.

Jane could always see through her, and knew her thoughts. “Oh, sister! What a snob you are!”

“It was an easy mistake.”

“Perhaps Mr. Bingley will come calling, and you could make nice with his friend.”

“You would like that, wouldn’t you?”

“Oh, very much,” Jane said, and Lizzie could not tell if it was the humbling of her younger sister that made her smile, or the thought of Bingley in the drawing room, being pressed with tea and Mrs. Hill’s shortbread.

Later, in the dark of her own bedroom, as morning drew closer and sleep seemed further away, Lizzie wondered at her mistake. No one else would have deduced her thoughts - she liked to think of herself as inscrutable to all but Jane - but that could not excuse her behavior. Lizzie liked a tease - her family and friends knew it well - but Darcy was a stranger she had taken for a tradesman or a farmer. Not a gentleman peer of their new neighbor - the neighbor with eyes only for her older sister.

Perhaps she could hope that the man with the rich deep voice would visit, so she could present herself as the upstanding lady of society she was. But, of course, Mr. Darcy had already met her mother and younger sisters, and she could hope that, in comparison, she looked positively regal in her bearing.

Lizzie snickered into her pillow. If she could not sleep, she would not waste it dwelling on her faux pas. She would be happy for Jane, because a little bit of love with a handsome man was the very least she deserved. Jane deserved the world.

Chapter Text

Lizzie often felt that the days following a ball were mellowed, subdued. Colors seemed brighter, perhaps, but time moved slowly, as if walking through a fog. The usually rambunctious Bennet girls were quieter, and Netherfield Park seemed to be in the midst of an unusual peace.

Such as it was, Elizabeth found herself venturing further and more often from the house. She would wander down the lane as far as she could - passing Longbourne by, perhaps sometimes intentionally, to see the estate so lively and happy for the first time in so long. She would cross the meadow, watching for rabbits and foxes and often, stopping in the wide-open middle to listen to the birds. She would visit friends, or stop in at the village - often traveling as far as her feet would take her, securing some refreshment before continuing on her unplanned journey.

It was in this manner that she arrived at Lucas Lodge just as a drizzle had started. She had stepped in a puddle at the side of the road while avoiding an elegant black carriage racing by - she would have been angry, if she had not had her own mind so far up in the clouds that she had not seen it until it was almost upon her. It had roared past with a thundering of hooves and a great splash. She did not recognize the livery; it must have been a visitor to Longbourne. Conscious of her own mess - she must be a frightful sight - she knocked at the door of the kitchen; the Lucases house keeper knew her well, and would surely give her a cup of tea. Indeed, she looked once at Elizabeth and, after ushering her in and stripping her to her petticoats, dashed off to collect Charlotte.

“Lizzie!” Charlotte brought her a dressing gown while her own dress dried by the fireplace. There was not enough time to take out the stains, but at the very least she would not need to walk home in a chill. “You look like a madwoman.”

“I have been walking.” She conceded. “The weather is nice and Netherfield is quiet, right now.”

“Walking aimlessly abroad?” Charlotte knew of Lizzie’s habits, so it was briefly alarming that she looked shocked.

“Not aimlessly,” Lizzie corrected. “To places I know or people I know. Or, if I should happen to walk further than that, it is not such that anyone could know me.”

“Not in the muddy state you are in, they certainly wouldn’t.” Charlotte scolded. She poured more tea into Lizzie’s cup - she must have been colder than she realized, for she had drunk it all quite quickly. “What if you were set upon by traveling brigands?”

“Why is everyone so concerned about thieves and mercenaries? I have been walking out and around these parts my entire life and have never encountered them.” She was reminded of her mother, who was always so convinced that her daughters were ripe for the kidnapping.

“Oh Lizzie,” Charlotte said. “I worry about you.”

“You have no need to worry on my behalf, friend,” she said. “I am just a little bored. I am merely seeking some amusement. My sisters - “

That excuse was enough. Charlotte nodded. “I understand.”

The pair passed a pleasant hour in repose, chatting - as Lizzie ventured about, she had often stopped in at Lucas Lodge.

As the drizzle had slowed, and Elizabeth’s dress had dried out by the fire, and the day was getting later and dimmer, Lizzie donned her ruined clothes and implored Charlotte to join her for the brisk walk home.

Charlotte hesitated; the afternoon was wearing on. “I know I will feel better seeing you there myself, but perhaps Lizzie -”

“My father will happily send you home in his carriage,” she pressed. Charlotte looked to the window - there was no immediate sign of future rain, and it had been so nice for walking. Lizzie did look like she had been taken by the fairies, and perhaps on the walk she could persuade her to be a bit more mindful of her surroundings.

The pair walked and talked animatedly; the tea and biscuits had been refreshing, and the air was warm despite the recent rain. LIzzie, mindful that her dress was unrescuable, skipped about, imitating her sisters in their turn as she told stories. Charlotte, slightly older but when alone, no less given to childish glee, would hitch up her skirts and challenge her to race, just a few yards to the next tree.

They were about to pass the stile to the meadow when Lizzie found herself slowing.

“It seems too quiet here.”

Charlotte looked around.

“Perhaps we should move quickly then. I promised that I would see you safely home.”

Lizzie looked up. Storm clouds had gathered in the east, and the sky was darkening, with streaks of purple and red in warning.

“Yes, let us move quickly.”

The fun slowed to a stop, and though the walk was no great distance from there, already Elizabeth felt the air get colder, her skin prickle with awareness.

They reached Netherfield just as the rain began. There was no gentle drizzle, no increase in strength; one moment, the sky turned black, and the next it was pouring with cold, harsh drenchings. The plan to stop first at the back of the house and sneak up the back stairs to dispose of her ruined clothes was abandoned immediately, and mindful of Charlotte, they rushed to the front of the house to enter in the main.

If Lizzie had not been so panicked by the rain she would have noticed the carriage in the drive, identical to the one she had narrowly avoided before.

Hunt had come to the door. “Miss Bennet!”

She was getting used to the exclamations these days.
“Just a little bit of disaster, Hunt. Nothing to worry about!”

They rushed in, abandoning sopping wet shawls and boots behind them. Charlotte had spent time enough in Elizabeth’s childhood home that she thought little of joining her friend in her rush.

“Miss Lucas will be staying for tea, then?” Hunt asked as they rushed toward the stairs.

Yes, of course she would.

It was at this moment that Lizzie saw, from the corner of her eye, the door to the drawing room ajar. The occupants - her entire family, it seemed - were animated, but a darker countenance had noticed her disarray, was watching her.

“Hunt?” She turned to ask. “Do we have guests?”

“Yes, madam. Should I present you?”

Elizabeth shook her head, looking to her own and Miss Lucases state of damp. “We shall return shortly.”

“Perhaps,” Charlotte suggested, “I should return home at the earliest?”

She too, had seen who their visitors were.

“Nonsense.” Elizabeth said. “You are my excuse. My mother won’t cause a stir in front of guests. She has the greatest admiration for you.”

“You mean,” Charlotte laughed, “she would prefer that you did not traipse all over the kingdom in good dresses?”

“Yes, that too, I suppose.” The pair had made it to the top of the stairs, and took some brief minutes to change into dry clothes. Charlotte was smaller than Elizabeth, but a dress of Mary’s would suit her fine, and in the meantime Lizzie set Hill to drying her friends dress by the fireplace - thankfully, not soaked through, for the rain had only just begun when they reached the house.

Returning to the drawing room, Elizabeth steeled herself. She was happy to see Mr. Bingley, and sure that Jane had been excited too. She was glad that, for what seemed to have been some hours now, she had missed her mother’s excesses of emotion and immodest storytelling - she did hope, for Jane’s sake, however, that someone had reined her in (she had no hope, unfortunately, that her mother had displayed even a modicum of self control).

She was more concerned about her own embarrassment in front of Mr. Darcy. He would not have surmised her error, of course, in assuming that he was an employee and not a friend of the neighbor, but she would be painfully aware of it herself as she greeted him, and as they conversed. She hoped that Bingley, bright and cheery, would lead the conversation - it should be that much easier to ignore his grouchy friend.

The men stood, as custom dictated, as she entered - Elizabeth realized that Bingley’s sisters and his brother in law (was he Hurst? So caught by surprise, Elizabeth could not remember) were in tow. The visitors were a full party, and her mother had gathered all of her sisters to entertain them. Even her father sat in the corner, witnessing the proceedings. Not an intimate party, to be sure. But all the less chance of being singled out for her teasing Mr. Darcy at the ball.

Her hair was wet - she had done her best to pull it back but there was no denying that it had been exposed to the elements - and it was clear from the redness in Charlotte’s cheeks that she had been walking too.

“Miss Bennet, Miss Lucas!” Mr. Bingley greeted. “Miss Bennet, your sister - Miss Jane - informed us that you had been enjoying walking, of late. When we saw the weather, we did worry on your behalf!”

“I thank you,” she replied. “I spent a wonderful afternoon at Lucas Lodge, out of the rain and nicely warm. The storm only returned just now, as we arrived at Netherfield, and I insisted to Charlotte that she come in for a time.”

“Naturally,” her father said, in what she suspected was his first contribution to the conversation in a while. Her father quite liked Lizzie - perhaps best of all of his daughters - for she was a little bit wild and more than a little opinionated, but had a more solid understanding of respectability and of quiet than his wife or younger daughters. When she wandered abroad, as she had done now, he never did worry of scandal or gossip reaching his ears - and when he heard, throughout the week, from a tenant that Miss Elizabeth had stopped by, had played with the children or spoken to them about their crops, it warmed his heart. She was known for her muddy skirts and her ruddy cheeks, but she was well loved around Meryton. The appearance of Charlotte was good news; Mr. Bennet attributed to Charlotte and Jane the ability to keep Elizabeth’s wilder impulses in check in a way that neither her nor his wife had been able to.

Elizabeth and Charlotte took a seat on a settee closest to the fire as it was clear to all that they were chilled. The conversation continued - Lydia, it seemed, had been regaling the ever-more-shocked Bingley sisters with tales of the militia coming to Meryton for a time. She had heard the rumors from a friend in town - Ellie, who worked at the taproom, which was cause enough for concern - and while Mrs. Hurst seemed shocked and perhaps to shift further from Lydia, Caroline had begun to look at her as if she had grown extra teeth. Lizzie stifled a laugh, poking Charlotte in the leg instead. Lydia was young, and quite silly, and soon the Bingleys would learn not to take her too seriously.

Mr. Bingley and Jane were standing near the window now, looking out at the rain - presumably speaking of the hopelessness of venturing out for some time, and Jane looking ever more pleased for it. Jane was the subtle kind - Lizzie had often mused that her sister would make an excellent hand at cards, if she were allowed to play in the higher stakes rooms. She would not smile so openly as Lydia or Kitty, nor be so uncouthly blunt as their mother. It was clear, however, that Bingley understood her aspect.

She could see her mother, turned toward Lydia’s tale but watching Jane. Had she begun to hope of a match for Jane? Jane was a great beauty, to be sure, but she had received no viable offers in her years. Netherfield Park was not close to the ton and society here was smaller, and somewhat bare of eligible young men. There, of course, were always suitors, but her mother had taken pains to engineer them away from Jane - her eldest daughter deserved only the best match. Lizzie had begun to wonder however; this young tradesman, newly moved to the country, would keep Jane close to home - and as Kitty had entered society this year, it was getting more notable that her older sister remained unmarried. From the looks of Mrs. Bennet’s face, with a smile like the cat who got the cream, she would not be surprised to be regaled with all of her “careful machinations” at supper (as if her mother could be so careful or so duplicitous).

Elizabeth felt eyes on her. Charlotte had begun to converse with Mary - there were few amongst their friends that Mary genuinely liked, but Charlotte had a knack for making even the most anxious of their company comfortable. Lizzie turned, as slightly as she could, to see why the hairs on her neck were prickling.

It was Mr. Darcy.

There was nothing for it, she rose, and walked over toward the piano, where he stood, to converse with him.

“I believe I owe you an apology, Mr. Darcy.”

He had the kindness to look surprised. “Do you?”

“When last we met, I teased, without knowing much of you at all.”

“I am to believe, that you are quite the wit, Miss Bennet. All amongst your company speak highly of you.”

“Well, thank you sir. I hope that is a compliment.”

“It is an observation, Miss Bennet. For you have only teased me once, and I have not had time enough to examine your wit.”

Elizabeth was taken aback. Not a compliment! There was no smile on Mr. Darcy’s face, but his eyes - he was watching her still. He was teasing her.

“Why, Mr. Darcy, I hope you are happy to have gotten your own back.”

“You are unlike your sisters, Miss Elizabeth.”

Lizzie was uncertain what to make of a statement so bold, when Hill approached the door, to announce some refreshments in the dining room. The weather was not yet calmed, and while all parties had a carriage at their disposal, it would not be a pleasant journey for the passengers or for the horses while the wind howled so around the house.

The party moved - Mr. Hurst notably faster than she expected, for being such a portly gentleman - to the dining room, where cold meats and bread and fruit had been laid out. Lizzie, a bit flustered after a long afternoon, held back at the door, and watched as she waited, catching her breath and her thoughts.  

Her plans were stymied, as Mr. Darcy came alongside her. “Miss Bennet,” He said. She waited for more, but evidently that was to be the extent of their conversation. She nodded in acknowledgement.

Eventually, she moved to put together a plate of bread and cheese. She was shivering now - her excursion that afternoon had given her a chill, and she would not be venturing out in the coming days. Mr. Darcy noticed the pallor of her skin.

“Were you caught in the rain for long, Miss Bennet?”

“I was not,” Lizzie said. “I had been out walking and was splashed by a carriage passing in rather violent haste. I do not know that the occupants had seen me, as the carriage did not stop to lend aid.”

“That is shocking,” he said. “We’re you left out long in such a state?”

“I was on my way to Lucas Lodge and am grateful for Sir William and Lady Lucas’s hospitality. Charlotte escorted me home, though we will be sending her by carriage tonight.”

“I have found Sir William to be very kind.”

Lizzie felt now that they were getting somewhere. She volunteered a bit more, to see how he might react.

“I believe my skirts are ruined.  I do love to walk, but it seems the abuse is too much.”

She thought that might be the end of it, for he remained silent for some time. The party was conversing but less lively than before. The rain had prevented the Bingleys leaving at a reasonable hour. It seemed unusual to her that the whole party - five in all - would arrive unannounced, but she would press Jane for details after their departure.

“I have observed your great love for walking.” Mr. Darcy finally offered.

Lizzie was caught off guard - her thoughts had drifted - and did not have a ready response to him.

After a moment, she swallowed her bite of cheese and turned to him. “Perhaps, sir, you think me shocking.”

“No madam,” he replied. “I do not.”

The party left, later than would have been polite under different circumstances, as the rain slowed to a gentler rhythm. Charlotte had kissed her cheek and sternly warned her not to walk about until she saw her in church on Sunday.

As they were saying their goodbyes, Bingley took her hands in his.

“My sincerest apologies madam, for the encounter on the road this morning. We did not realize that you were so muddied by the affair until it was too late to turn back.”

Lizzie was too shocked to say anything but, “I am grateful for your apology, Mr. Bingley, but I understand no offense was meant.”

But she thought of Mr. Darcy, and wondered if perhaps offense was, indeed, meant.

By this point, Lizzie was feeling the effects of a long and social day, of the miles traversed, of the embarrassment of her mother, of her sister’s joy, of her own vexation at the strange Mr. Darcy. She sat under the window, wrapped in a blanket and watching the evening fall across Netherfield Park. If Jane and Bingley were to become close, she expected that Darcy would be more frequently in her company - and as Jane and Charles Bingley would pair off to share their whispered affectionate confidences, she would more often find herself alongside the man’s sisters - and his friend.

She could, perhaps, avoid extensive conversation with him, but it would not do to be impolite or cold to the close friend of their new neighbor. She had no inkling of how long Darcy would be in the country, and was chastising herself for not using their brief conversation to inquire further. Perhaps he would depart soon, along with the odd Mr. and Mrs. Hurst and the judgemental Caroline Bingley, who had not yet greeted her with a smile.  

***

Lizzie had fallen asleep before she could interrogate Jane about the afternoon, but confined to her rooms the following day, her sister was happy to play nurse and sit with her.

“You must tell me, Jane, all about it.” She insisted.

Jane had a dreamy look on her face as she remembered the events of the previous day.  “Sister, it was such a surprise to see the carriage coming up the drive.”

“Truly a surprise?”  Elizabeth asked. Everyone had seen Mr. Bingley’s attentions to Jane at the ball.  Their own father had been calling to the new neighbor shortly after his arrival. It should not have been a surprise that someone amiable and spirited as Charles Bingley would promptly return the call - full party in tow.

“Elizabeth, I must tell you - “

Oh my, Lizzie thought.  She grabbed at her sisters hand.

“I think I quite like him.”

Oh Jane!

“Oh, Jane,” she embraced her sister, squeezing tightly.  “Of course you do.”

“He is very kind, and amiable.”

“He is so very nice.”

“Do you think, with time, he might feel some level of affection for me?”  Jane sighed. “We have only met but twice…”

“Jane, darling,” Lizzie chuckled into her sisters sleeves. “I think he likes you, very much.”

“I should truly hope so.”

They ended their embrace, and Lizzie looked her sister in the eyes.

“Now tell me, Janey, was mother so awful as I imagined?”

“Liz, sweet, you know, I think our mother has the greatest of intentions…”

“Worse?”

“You might have described it so.”

“It’s a good thing Bingley already likes you, then.”

“Lizzie!”

Chapter Text

Recovery was slow and odious, but Elizabeth found her strength returned to her by Sunday, just as Charlotte had predicted.  The family made a point of walking to the parish church of a Sunday, and were making their way down the lane.

Lydia and Kitty were all a-twitter.  The militia had arrived in Meryton, it was reported, and they hoped to spot some of the more conscientious men during the liturgy.  Jane was walking quietly along, with a secret smile - she expected Mr. Bingley to be in attendance, in the pew across the aisle from the Bennet family box.  Lizzie was, proportionately, not excited about this turn of events.

Mr. Darcy had made out as if the incident with the carriage had been news to him, but Mr. Bingley’s comment indicated that not only was it not news - for Mr. Darcy would have been in the carriage with him, precipitating their visit that afternoon - she had most certainly been seen, commented upon by its occupants. Mr. Darcy knew, and he had - by omission - been dishonest.

In her renewed attempts at setting aside her assumptions against him, Lizzie had been struggling to make out his character, but this was certainly a black mark against the man.  She had worried that might have to make nice with him, for the sake of her sister - but she was not convinced that he deserved politeness, and began to feel that the task might be more herculean than previously thought. The irony of the realization that she herself was not quite so magnanimous as she ought to be, for the mercy she had received, on the walk to the church - well, Lizzie decided, she would not let that trouble her too much.  Her dress had been ruined by the carriage’s carelessness; were her mother to realize, that would be fault enough to deserve censure.

Nevermind that her head had been in the clouds, that she had not rushed out of the way, as she would otherwise have done. What had she been thinking of?  She could not recall. It did not signify.

She had been thinking of her embarrassment over her mistake at the ball.  She had been thinking of how grateful she was to have passed by Longbourne without seeing any movement.  She was thinking of one Mr. Darcy. But it did not signify.

Charlotte greeted Elizabeth at the gate.  “You look well!”

“Much better, doctor,” she replied.  “The prescribed rest did me wonders.”

“And perhaps, in the future, less risks?”

“Are you so ambitious, Charlotte Lucas, to think that you could change me?”

“Are we not in church?”

There was no other church in the vicinity of Meryton, so the small building was as much the social event of the week as any ball or card game.  The Lucases were, of course, in attendance; Lady Lucas felt strongly of the merits of regular service attendance, and that a good sermon was tantamount to a good education.  The Phillips were there, in the pew behind the Bennet family box. Lizzie could count on Aunt Phillips to be handy with a handkerchief, and occasionally a sweet. The ladies of the school would be in attendance, sometimes with a few pupils in tow, though many were day students who would be sitting with their families.  Hill was there, toward the back, sitting with the housekeeper from Wherewell.

Mr. Bingley was not to be seen.  Lizzie squeezed Jane’s hand. It was alright; the sabbath was a day of rest, after all.  He was new to the neighborhood, new to the country - Londoners did not regularly grace parish pews - he could not be expected to understand the expectations, the norms.  Lizzie thought, perhaps, that on their next visit her father should be the one to raise it. But no - he avoided delicate subject matter whenever possible. Her mother was not trustworthy with such a task - but leave it too long, and she would air her opinions on the matter quite loudly.

No, it would have to be herself - or perhaps Jane, if she could be encouraged - to raise it with Caroline Bingley on their next encounter.  Not so forward as to undertake to instruct a man of such new acquaintance. And an elegant lady like Miss Bingley would appreciate a gentle nod such as this.

Thus determined, Lizzie fixed her gaze on the minister, listening to the sermon.  She felt particularly righteous, at such a moment.

Halfway through the discussion of the third chapter of John, she noticed that there was, in fact, someone in the Longbourne pew. In the shadow, she had not noticed a still figure - but there he was, alone: Mr. Darcy.

A knot in her chest that she had not known was there started to rise in her throat.  Lizzie was reminded of her own folly - and then her own anger at the man. And yet, here he was; and Bingley’s absence was felt all the more, if his friend had taken the effort of attending the service.  A gentle prod to Caroline Bingley would not do; this required something else. She worried for Jane, after all - what of Mr. Bingley’s reputation amongst their humble society?

The liturgy moved on, but Lizzie could barely find the strength to stand, and leaned on Jane’s arm.  

***

After the service there was no sign of Darcy; it was like he had disappeared. Lizzie found herself relieved, though also jumpy - what if she just couldn’t see him, and she would turn around in a moment and hear that deep voice, “Miss Bennet.”

This seemed silly, so Lizzie excused herself, and hurried back home ahead of the family.

This was her error.

She was turning away from the village when she saw a stranger in the crossing.

Not a stranger. The one man she was trying to avoid.

He turned at the sound of footsteps; she could not avoid this encounter without coming over as the most impolite of women. Not that he deserved better.

Not that she had much time to consider this state of things.

“Miss Bennet,” he said, by way of greeting.

Still a man of few words. She managed a smile. “Mr. Darcy. What a surprise to see you here.”

“Is it?” He asked. “This is the way to Longbourne, unless I am greatly mistaken.”

“You are not mistaken,” she said. “Only I meant that I had not expected to see you on the path at quite this moment.”

“I am on my way home from church.” She was not fully convinced he did not think her a simpleton.

“I see that,” she said - and took her opportunity. “I was, I must admit, surprised not to see your companions this morning. Are they well?”

She tried to keep her voice level but she felt the judgment edging in, the neighborhood taste for criticism flavoring her words. The new Mr. Bingley was a stranger within their midst, genial but after all of that, not one of them, not suited to country life unless he learned, quickly. And even then, she surmised, would not be so quick to gain entry back into the hearts of her family and friends, for one lapse in judgement could color a man’s reputation till the day he died.

She hoped, for Mr. Bingley’s sake in this case, to hear that he had been unwell.

“They are very well,” Mr. Darcy said.

“Well, I am glad to hear that.” She was not.

Mr. Darcy looked at her, the same way he had looked at her that night in the drawing room, that way that made her feel seen - as if he looked right through her and knew her soul, though he barely knew a thing about her.

“I will let my friend know,” Darcy said, levelly “that Miss Bennet had missed him at church.”

Lizzie sighed, audibly, before she could catch herself.

Mr. Darcy smiled. “Good day, Miss Bennet,” and strode off.

Lizzie watched him go - he did not turn around - and only realized it had been far too long after he was so far down the lane as to be almost invisible.

She could not make him out, not at all.

***

The Bennets and the Bingley’s did not cross paths again that week, though Lydia did hear rumor of Mr. Hurst at the custom house of an evening that she did not hesitate to share with her sisters. Mr. Hurst, wide and tall, with a constantly constipated look on his face, was not greatly liked within the village, the way his brother-in-law had been received. Perhaps because, as everyone was well aware, a wealthy man married was not worth nearly so much to society as a wealthy man unmarried and available for their daughters to dream about.

The week passed with less of the frenzy than the previous. Lizzie spent less time out of doors and wandering, though did make sure to take the long route when visiting with friends, avoiding Longbourne and the treacherous carriage road. She was not entirely certain of what had come over her, what had possessed her to spend hours of a day wandering all over the country. It seemed that these days, her thoughts were not her own. She chose instead, if the need to wander arose, to keep to the property within her father’s purview. And if she should climb a tree or two, was it not her own tree to climb?

When the family sat down in their box for church on Sunday, Lizzie was grateful to see the Bingleys in attendance, though Caroline Bingley seemed less than pleased to be there, her lips set in a grim line. Mr. Darcy was sitting next to Mr. Hurst, far from her on the other end of the pew, which Lizzie surmised may be the source of her displeasure. Though she had little opportunity to observe it, Jane had mentioned something of an anticipation on Miss Bingley’s part. Though Lizzie had little excitement of the week, her sister had been more joyously engaged, and had the pleasure of coffee with Caroline Bingley at Longbourne some days prior.

It was perhaps not a surprise then, that Mrs. Bennet sought to reciprocate the kindness after church with a generous dose of her own far superior kindness, inviting the entire party to join them for lunch the following day. Lizzie had a suspicion that Hill would not appreciate the short notice, and was annoyed that she had no time to concoct a reasonable excuse to make herself scarce. While she liked Bingley well enough, the rest of the party did not make for especially good company, and any time Bingley himself was in the vicinity of Jane, they spent the time making eyes at each other, oblivious to their surroundings and not much fun at all.

Such as it happened, the next day arrived and Lizzie found herself donning a dress she did not like but that Mrs. Bennet felt, “suited her complexion very well, but did not make you look quite so nice as Jane,” as if the eligible bachelor arriving might ever so much as notice anyone else. She prodded Mary into something other than a ratty housedress and talked Lydia down from a gown, and found herself lounging in the parlor with a book and some time to spare. The novel had been a gift from her Aunt Gardiner, who resided in London with her family and had seen the volume in a shop Lizzie liked to visit while in town. Her next visit to London seemed too far in the future to be determined, and so the volume was sent quickly - and with great appreciation.

It was an engaging romance and so Lizzie was surprised, some time later, to find company in the room, looking at her quite pointedly. She had, it seemed, neglected to rush to the hall to greet the Bingley’s, and had not heard her own name called when the party had entered the parlor.

She stood, dropping the book in her haste. “My sincerest apologies,” she said, with a quick curtsey, “I was distracted!”

“Distracted by a book!” Mr. Bingley’s voice was all mirth - thank goodness for him, she thought, as otherwise her mother would give her a tongue lashing before the night was out - “you must be quite the bookworm, Miss Elizabeth!”

“I am a fan of reading,” she nodded.

“A fan of reading, as well as walking?” Caroline Bingley said. It wasn’t a question so much as a haughty judgment, and Lizzie bit back the horrible thought that entered her head first - shut up, I’m richer than you.

“Where do you find the time?” Mr. Bingley asked, still more genial than his sister. “I find I would love to read more, but I think I must have been a schoolboy the last time I sat down with a book in hand.”

“As you can see,” Lizzie said, “I find the time by stealing it from others to whom I owe a much better courtesy. My sincerest apologies, again.”

The party were soon seated and greeting and chatting, and Lizzie was grateful to find herself on a settee with Lydia and Mary. Lydia was all twitchy and excited, ready to jump into conversation - and thus frequently being poked and prodded by Mary, who did not care much for social niceties but was not one for such flagrant displays of indecorum. Elizabeth found that, by turning away and paying more attention to her mother’s addresses to Caroline Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, she was better occupied. Her mother was on her best behavior; she had not yet brought up how much Netherfield cost to maintain, or how unmarried all five of her daughters were.

It was in the midst of this that she saw Darcy, across from her, similarly trying to pay attention to Mr. Hurst’s grunts at her father’s questions. Mr. Bennet wasn’t a big fan of such lunches, nor a big fan of people he did not know - it was the primary reason the family maintained a country residence and their house in London was so neglected. That he was making such an effort endeared him to her; that Mr. Hurst did not appreciate that effort was amusing - she would enjoy dissecting the afternoon later, with her sisters. She looked up at Darcy, and he must have seen the movement from the corner of his eye - he turned to her, and smiled.

“Miss Bennet, I suppose your book is quite engaging?”

“Yes, it is,” she said.

“May I ask, of the title?”

“The Lady of the Shire,” she said, coloring. For the book had fallen on the floor and in the bustle must have been kicked underneath a chair; she could not lie about the title, for any one of the party may find it at their foot.

“A romance,” he said. “Do you enjoy a romance?”

“I do like to be entertained,” she said. “But I enjoy an adventure too.”

“A lady of diverse interests,” he said. “Am I to suppose that you read often?”

“I must admit, I read a great deal. Certainly to my detriment.”

“Oh, Darcy,” Caroline Bingley interrupted. “Is your sister not a great reader?”

This, it seemed, was said to remind Lizzie that Caroline had staked her claim on Darcy, and that she was an intimate of his family. Lizzie stifled a laugh. She could have the man; she was just making conversation during what was already proving to be a most difficult lunch.

“Yes,” Darcy replied. “Georgiana enjoys reading.”

“She has a charming intellect,” Caroline said, this time, directed at Lizzie as if for her edification. “I find her the greatest wit.”

“She sounds lovely,” Lizzie said, to be polite - though she knew nothing of this woman, except that she was Darcy’s sister, and that both he and Caroline asserted her love of reading.

“I do not think,” Caroline continued, “that she would concern herself with such trifles as romances.”

That was a blunt criticism, and in Elizabeth’s own home! She felt her hackles rising, the bile in her throat. How dare she!

Darcy, it seemed, did notice, and responded, “I don’t suppose a diverse taste in literature can be of any harm. Georgiana has not read Miss Elizabeth’s title, but she is no stranger to romance.”

“Darcy!” Caroline said. “I am surprised that you would allow it! A woman does not have time for such trivialities, when there is so much else to be done to improve her aspect, to be so accomplished as one ought to be.”

Lizzie tamped down the feeling of outrage, as Darcy, cool and collected, seemed unwilling to engage the challenge, and countered with, “What, do you suppose, a lady should focus her hours upon?”

“Well, of course, there is the reading of the great philosophers, but what good will that serve her, if she cannot also sing, and play, if she cannot paint or embroider? If she spends her time with her head in a book will she be able to speak languages, to study art?”

Lizzie jumped in, unable to hold herself back and knowing, all the while, that she was proving Miss Bingley’s point with her lack of restraint. “I venture that there is great benefit in trifles,” she said. “For some tasks are difficult and onerous, though one should never confess to such a thing. A little fun is good for the soul.”

“And what, pray tell,” Mr. Darcy asked, “would you prescribe for fun?”

“I do love to read,” Miss Bennet said, “but perhaps one might enjoy a game of shuttlecock on the lawn with ones sisters, or a stroll through the park. Perhaps one might play at cards.”

“Is there a game of cards?” Mr. Hurst looked up, evidently aroused by the suggestion.

At that moment, Hill came in to announce the lunch, and as the party removed to the dining room, Lizzie could not help but overhear Caroline Bingley, in an aside to Mr. Darcy; “I dare say there is a great distinction between a stroll through the park and a trample through the weeds all over the countryside.”

And though she refrained from saying it under her breath, as overwhelming as the temptation was, Lizzie later felt impurely, every time that she saw Miss Bingley, that she was an unnecessary, odious woman.

Lizzie’s frustrations did not abate, but she found her tempers somewhat subdued over the course of the meal, as Mr. Bingley and Jane sat beside one another, chatting quietly about some thing or another, every so often pausing to smile. Lizzie doubted that Jane could even have recalled what the meal consisted of (baked fish, with lemon potatoes and some wonderful green beans, a wonderful sponge cake for pudding), but the affection was clear.

Jane was, of course, kind and polite and spent equal time at the table speaking with Caroline Bingley, to her other side, recalling the delicious coffee she had been served at Longbourne the previous week, and in ecstasies over the way the house had been redecorated.

Lizzie was not inclined to be so generous. She was sandwiched between Mary, who alternated between eating and staring at her plate, and Mr. Darcy - who was next to her father, and was having a dull conversation about farming. She understood, in broad terms, the running of her father’s estate, and was pleased that Mr. Darcy was a better conversationalist than Mr. Hurst - and grateful to Darcy (though, admittedly still peeved at his behavior some weeks prior) that he was making attempts to rectify the impolitic member of his party. She knew him to be reticent, and not quick to join a conversation, which would naturally suit her father quite well. She was not surprised, to find that a gentleman such as Darcy was engaged in farming - she was, however, a bit taken aback to find him so fluent in the enterprise. Bingley, only so recently relocated from London, was brought up in trade; his retreat to the country seemed to be some sort of naturist ideal typical of a man of good spirits but little understanding of the work involved; Darcy’s presence was apparently not solely that of a friend, but also an advisor.

Lizzie did wonder, however, what the future might hold for Jane and Mr. Bingley. She dearly adored her sister, and she and Mr. Bingley seemed remarkably well-suited to each other. However much she tried, she could not shake her mother’s voice from her head - so frequently heard, even now, from the other end of the table - that Mr. Bingley, though a gentleman, was not so wealthy as the eldest and most beautiful Bennet daughter deserved.

Did Jane love him? Jane kept her cards close to her chest. Lizzie remembered a time, not so long ago, when the neighborhood was quieter and Longbourne remained unoccupied and dark, when she had sat on the floor of her sister’s room, playing at cards, and speaking of their dreams.

“Do you think,” she had asked Jane, “that we will someday meet the sort of gentlemen worth the marrying of them?”

Jane, ever reasonable, “Of course we will, Lizzie! We are neither of us so old yet that we must worry about our prospects. And we go so often to London, and our society here in Hertfordshire is not so scarce as father would have us believe.”

Lizzie had smiled, because of course, it was truly silly to worry that she was doomed for simply having exceeded the age of twenty.

“Jane?” She had asked. “If you believe you will some day meet a man with whom you do believe you can build a life together…”

Lizzie remembered hesitating, remembered the embarrassment of the question. She and Jane shared many things, many thoughts, but this one - this was a little out of character for Lizzie, the sort of romantic notion expected of Kitty, not of the practical sister.

“Jane, do you think you would be able to love him?”

Jane was patient, gracious. “I do, sister.”

“Because I don’t think I could bear it, were I to marry a man I did not love. I would be far more determined not to marry at all.”

“Would you like to tell Mama that?”

Lizzie smiled at the memory, and felt, at the same moment, eyes watching her.

Mr. Darcy then spoke up, “Miss Elizabeth, what amuses you so, if I may be so bold to ask?”

“The potatoes,” she replied. “I believe, for a moment, I saw them dancing a jig.” She had to tease him, to hide her troubled mind. He could dislike her as much as he wanted for it - maybe even try to run her down again.

“Of course,” he said, and she heard the smirk though she did not dare look up to meet his eyes, “I have heard great things of your wonderful Hertfordshire dancing potatoes.”

She hoped Caroline overheard the quip - Mr. Darcy engaging in a joke! “Sir, I hope you are not disappointed by them,” she said. “These are a particular variety to Netherfield Park. We dug them up ourselves in anticipation of your arrival.”

He did not respond to that, and she saw - from the corner of her eye, as she dared turn only the slightest - that he was stifling a good bit of laughter.

Ass though he may be, for having pretended the carriage had not nearly killed her, he was not, perhaps, the worst of the present company. She felt eyes boring into her, but with less of that disconcerting feeling of being known. No, these were Miss Caroline Bingley’s eyes - the familiar eyes of a woman who has identified her competition, and meant to make a meal of her. She had indeed heard the conversation.

Lizzie, on the other hand, meant only to make a little amusement for an otherwise dull luncheon, so Caroline could expend all of the energy she wanted on her hatred. Unnecessary, odious woman.

***

The Bennets were out walking - all of them, for once, and no talk of ruined hems or running through marshy ground - with Lydia and Kitty skipping up ahead, Mary deep in conversation with her father, and Mrs. Bennet lecturing Jane and Elizabeth on the art of securing a husband.

“You must show yourselves to your best advantage. None of that lounging you do, Elizabeth, none of that slumping and grouching. And for Pete’s sake, Jane, pink up your cheeks! Whenever you get nervous, you go the palest shade of China white and I don’t need to tell you it does not suit you. Men will make you nervous, it is how they are designed. How else are we to fall in love without mistaking the fluttering of anxious hearts for something else?

“And Lizzie, do not worry about Jane’s leaving us. Mr. Bingley is a fine gentleman, and he certainly seems to have more than enough a year - I do wonder at him taking such a small estate as Longbourne, honestly, he could do a great deal better - but thank goodness it brought him into our neighborhood, and we’ll forgive him that folly for it is how he met our dear Jane, and that is all that matters. And she will be happy, and you will visit with them and meet other gentlemen, and perhaps in London you will find a Duke, or a Count…”

The diatribe had gone on so long, that Mrs. Bennet had failed to notice her oldest two daughters falling behind.

“Lizzie!” Jane stage-whispered. “I wish she would not speak of such things that have not happened, and may never happen. It feels like such bad luck, and I do feel sorry that she is raising her hopes, when I can give no guarantee. I do so hate to disappoint her.”

“Jane,” she had chuckled. “I worry perhaps that you are more afraid of disappointing yourself. It is a very fine thing to hope of a happy life!”

“But Elizabeth, I have known Mr. Bingley for such short a period of time! We live in such confined society, everyone sees his attentions to me as far more than the friendly overtures they are. He spoke at length with you over lunch yesterday, and a great deal with Father as well.”

“Yes, he did,” she said, and did not note that Bingley had seemed greatly distracted on the whole, and never spoke with someone that might take his angle and his eyes away from Jane. Jane was anxious - and despite her mother’s pontification on flutterings, this was no good thing.

“Perhaps,” Elizabeth recommend, “You should enjoy it for what it is, Jane. There is no rush, do not let your mother tell you so.”

“She just seems so happy to think we might be married soon.”

“It is,” Lizzie reminded her, “Her life’s work.”

“Oh, Lizzie,” Jane sighed.

They walked on in silence for a measure, allowing the family to float on ahead.

“Jane,” Elizabeth stopped her sister. “Do you know your own heart?”

Jane’s face fell, her lip quivered. “I do not.”

“But you do like him?” she prodded.

“Oh, yes, I do like him.”

“Then that is enough to be going on for now.”

Chapter Text

It is quite one thing to live in a small country neighborhood, but yet another to live in the biggest house in the neighborhood, with such a well-connected father as Mr. Bennet amongst the farming community, and a mother so socially determined as Mrs. Bennet.

With Mrs. Bennet’s eye firmly on securing the match between Jane and Mr. Bingley, she had a new scheme. It had been a long time since Netherfield Park had hosted anything but the smallest of family parties; Mr. Bennet was no great fan of company. But he had been badgered, he had been harangued, he had been begged within an inch of his - and his daughters’ - lives. And so it was determined that in a month’s time there would be a ball.

A ball is excitement enough, but in days recent, the militia had arrived at Meryton.

Lydia was in ecstasy.

The militia had barely set down their weapons, had barely made camp, when Lydia and Kitty had gone dashing from the house into the village. They had to see the soldiers, had to see their barracks, as soon as possible, before Maria Lucas did. Lizzie speculated it was just as much about getting a leg up on the social competition than it was about the opportunity to ogle young, physically fit men. It was not the first time the Militia had made a local stop; Lizzie recalled her own excitement in earlier years. She had been, unequivocally, disappointed.

With Lydia and Kitty racing away from home and into what Mrs. Bennet could only assume was the arms of criminals and profligates, Lizzie found herself sent from home to her Aunt Phillips, to keep a wary eye on her sisters. She had begged for Jane to join her - Jane, who looked like she could use a walk and an escape from the ever-growing hopes of her mother - but Jane must stay home, Mrs. Bennet said, must be near, should Mr. Bingley unexpectedly drop in, as he had done some weeks ago.

In all of this, Mary began playing the piano ever more. It was irritating; Elizabeth was not so upset at being sent from home and to her aunt’s childless, quiet house.

The Phillips apartments in town were above Mr. Phillips neat solicitors rooms. With desks and apprentices and volumes on farming and property ownership - the concerns of small neighborhoods such as theirs - Lizzie felt almost as if she could be in comfort here. As a young girl, she had spent many an afternoon at the side of Mr. Phillips’ desk, writing out correspondence for him. She had not much of an education, by way of her parent’s disregard for letters and sums, but Uncle and Aunt Phillips quite doted on the Bennet girls, as they had none of their own. From her Uncle she had learned to read and write, and from Aunt Phillips she had learned to be opinionated. Mrs. Phillips was, perhaps, a degree less civilized than her sister.

Not that Lizzie denied her mother a substantial place in her life. From her mother she had learned the ways of society, the worries of women and men. She had learned to sew and to stitch from her mother (and had been taught over again by Hill), and she had learned to dance and to dress and to walk pleasingly (though, she had learned, also, to run and to scamper from her far more permissive father). From her father, she had learned to read deeply, had learned to philosophize, had been led by example that there were battles not worth fighting. She had learned the running of a farm and of a household - she had seen plenty of folly, but also she had seen the way the tenants liked Mr. Bennet, felt a loyalty to him.

Aunt Phillips was waiting for her when she arrived. “Your sisters,” she said, “I could hear them out in the street.”

“Lydia does tend to be shrill when excited,” Lizzie noted.

“And Katherine, that girl, she does naught to quelch it.”

“Kitty is not so much older than Lydia that we might expect her to be a great deal more mature.”

“Maturity would be a blessing, in those girls,” Aunt Phillips commented. They traversed the stairs to the apartments, where there was a tea laid out.

“I don’t know that I am so certain of that,” Lizzie said. “For I remember those years - not so long ago - and how I longed for some entertainment.”

“Neither you nor Jane were ever so silly as those girls,” her aunt said. “Your parents do spoil them so, by letting them run wild. It will be a miracle, should they ever find husbands.”

“If I may speak with frankness, Aunt, the likelihood of even Jane or I both finding husbands with any great speed is low. I do not doubt that my sisters will be grown and have obtained a greater caution by the time they too, find themselves seeking companionship.”

But Lizzie did doubt. She knew, as much as the great excesses of emotion that had governed her thoughts and feelings and actions at fifteen, had never lent to so much giggling and flouncing and flirting as Kitty and Lydia were wont to. Lizzie had fought with her mother, had sulked in her room, had gone running through the woods in her steam and anger - and it had abated, and she had returned home. She had danced at balls, yes, and with great enthusiasm, but she had never been so rude as she knew Lydia to be, for she was most certain that her father would have told her off.

It was true that parents were often too permission of their youngest for they had a false sense of reassurance that their well-behaved and overly-responsible eldest children indicated a success in parenting rather than their natural inclinations and sense of duty, and thus it always seemed that younger children were wilder, were less restrained. Aunt Phillips, of course, had spoken plainly to her sister on many an occasion. She was sure that Uncle Phillips, too, had expressed his sentiments to her father. But never yet had Kitty or Lydia - or even Mary - been sent to the feet of the solicitor, to learn or to be disciplined. It had been Lizzie’s particular privilege; she had, perhaps, been more inclined to seek such an education for herself.

It was with these thoughts that she sat with her aunt, watching the comings and goings of the street below. The quiet was lovely - such a far cry from her life at Netherfield Park, despite the size of the house and the estate.

Aunt Phillips disrupted Lizzie’s musings. “Do you truly feel that you and Jane have so few prospects?”

Lizzie paused. This was not, technically, wholly true. She and Jane had wintered in London every season, staying alternately in the Bennet’s small and bare townhouse, or in the joyous mess of Uncle and Aunt Gardiner’s home, where their young children were glad of the extra attention. They had danced at balls, attended plays and operas, had walked about in Hyde Park in their coats and muffs, like the grandest women of the day. Jane had received much attention but few offers; she was of good countenance, for certain, but was naturally cautious. As she did now with Bingley, she doubted the strength of the affections of those who pursued her. In the end, the season would end, and Jane would miss her sisters and their Hertfordshire home, and few would pursue her so far as the country.

Lizzie was a wit and a social creature, and had a tendency to speak her mind with less care and restraint than others of her sex. She was often invited to conversations and card games with men who viewed her as a friend or an equal - but rarely as a romantic prospect, she surmised. She had received offers that she had turned down, from men confused that her wit or teasing was flirting and affection, and she had turned them down with that same quickness and casual cruelty that led her to tease them so. It provided a wonderful barrier, she had always felt, against men of lesser fortune looking to make their way in the world - she did not mean to be unkind, but she abhorred their games and artifice. Lizzie had, perhaps, gained a reputation for her choosiness; she had few suitors this past season.

“I think,” she told her Aunt, “that we are not in such desperate a situation as to need to worry.”

“The house,” her aunt reminded her, “is entailed away to your cousin. You have no brothers to protect you.”

“But I have a sum,” Lizzie said, “enough to live upon, for a time, should I find myself unmarried when my father leaves us. And I do hope that his time is not soon, for we are all yet quite young.”

“That is,” Aunt Phillips said, “for God to decide.”

“Aunt, do not be mislead - I do worry,” Lizzie said, “But I would so dearly prefer to marry for love that I can’t think I could live with myself if I did not! To marry for money, for practical purposes; I cannot bear the thought.”

“I have never seen you such a romantic, Eliza.”

“I have reputation abroad as a contrarian.”

“It is considered a fault, by your mother,” her aunt said - not an insult so much as a statement of fact, for Mrs. Bennet had taken no pains to disguise her criticisms of her daughter - “But I do believe it is one of your most attractive qualities.”

“How would you say so?” Lizzie was surprised. While she was rarely so frank with a family member that was not Jane, it was clear that, with Jane so clearly pursued by Bingley, marriages were on everyones mind.

“Some men,” her aunt said, “seek out a wife to ease their worries. A woman of money and breeding who understands how to run a household, who will bear him children, but whom he may never worry about talking to or loving too much.

“But some men, they seek a partner, a companion. To make such promises to a wife, only to neglect them from the off? I hope you understand, dear niece, that there are men in the world - in England - who find such an idea unconscionable. Your quick mind, and wit, your great reading and intelligence - to such a man who wishes to fall in love, to be surprised and challenged and made better for it - you would be quite a catch.”

Outside, there was a scuffle - a horse had come away from the tavern and Lizzie saw the blacksmith dashing down the street, chasing it.

“I do hope,” she said to her aunt, “that you are right. It is just, you are my friend, and I must confess, I have never met such a man.”

“Oh, Lizzie, there are more about than you might think. Do not make the mistake of assuming that, because you have met some men who cared little for the attentions and feelings of their wife, that none do exist. Your Uncle Phillips and I are of a great understanding in this - and it has been a great privilege to be a part of your life and your upbringing.”

“I am,” Lizzie smiled, “so grateful for that.”

“Be cautious,” her aunt warned, “of imputing to others the worst you have seen. Not every man is a scoundrel.”

“Yes,” she said, “I shall endeavor to be mindful of my own cynicism.”

“Good,” her aunt said. “Perhaps you can lend some of your own to your sister.”

For indeed, there was Lydia, flouncing - for that could truly be the only description of the way she bounced when she walked, swinging her skirts to and fro - alongside two tall red coats. Their progress was slow, for they stopped often to gawk at windows or chat with passersby.

“She looks ridiculous!” Lizzie exclaimed. “Does she not realize that anyone in the village can see her?”

“Your family,” Aunt Phillips observed, “is well known about the village. She is only reinforcing an opinion long-held.”

“This is why my father wanted me in Meryton today,” Lizzie stated. “I shall have to go down there and break up her fun. Can you see Kitty, from here?”
“I cannot.”

Lizzie sighed. What a task today would be.

Down on the street, Lizzie saw that her sister was strutting her way with the soldiers toward a market stall, presumably to secure a roll or two for a snack. Lydia did love her food and as young as she was suffered little from an excess of it. It was painful, to see how Jane was so cautious about her corset and her stays, and Lydia so heedless that her soft form might soon appear overindulgent.

Lizzie hurried behind - she had conjured and excuse to drag Lydia away to Aunt Phillips for tea - but first, she would need to catch up. And she would need to get from Lydia the location of her sister, though of course, Lydia would be put out and little induced to give away her secrets without a compromise (perhaps a promise of a new ribbon).

Where was Kitty? Lydia was, though the younger, always the leader and Kitty was ever following in her wake. It was strange, then that she should see one without the other. Greatly worrying.

Lizzie had almost reached the stall when she found, stepping directly into her path, a tall figure in a great black coat and dark breeches.

“Mr. Darcy!” She exclaimed by way of greeting.

“Miss Elizabeth Bennet,” he replied. “it is good to see you this day.”

“Likewise, sir,” she replied, flustered. “I had not been certain if you were still in the country.”
“I am,” he said.

What did he want, beyond a greeting? She was glancing past him, watching Lydia make her purchase. If she did not make haste, Lydia and her soldiers would move on, and she would have to give chase, and such a display would not do overmuch to improve the reputation of the Bennet daughters and their exploits in Meryton.

“Can we expect to see you at the ball, two weeks hence?” She asked. Almost immediately, she saw her mistake; this would only prolong the conversation.

“I am not certain of my plans, at this juncture,” he said, “but if I remain in Mr. Bingley’s company I would hope to join the party.”

Oh God, Lydia was moving away, and seemed to have seen her sister behind her - because she was moving far faster, with the officers, than Lizzie had anticipated.

“It would be lovely to see you join our number at the ball,” she said.

He smiled, and it was surprisingly warm - it seemed to light up the blue of his eyes. “Well, then, I shall certainly that that into consideration when making my plans.”

Mr. Darcy took leave of her, heading toward Mr. Phillips rooms, and Lizzie spun around in confusion. Lydia was long gone - it must have seemed all a game to her. And of Mr. Darcy - what was that smile? She had never seen it before, though she had been pleased, in his company, to earn a chuckle one or twice, for the reticent man seemed quite the challenge to tease.

Lizzie wondered more at that smile as she wandered back the way Lydia had gone, in search of Kitty. Lydia had disappeared but no doubt was in search of a card game or some entertainment with her new acquaintances. She was a silly girl, but Lizzie trusted that she was better than to expose herself to scandal. Kitty, meanwhile, she found in conversation with a young lady not much older than herself - the wife of Colonel Foster, who led the militia into Meryton.

Upon seeing her, Kitty broke into a smile. She had a new friend and was in her element. “Mrs. Forster,” she said, “please meet my other sister, Elizabeth.”

Mrs. Forster curtsied, “it is a pleasure to meet you, Miss Elizabeth.”

“Thank you,” Lizzie said. “I have actually come in search of my sister here; I was dining with our Aunt Philips in the village, and she insisted that Katherine join us.”

She hoped that to Mrs. Forster, this seemed a familial politeness. She knew that to Kitty, such an insistence could only mean she was in trouble. Lizzie expected resistance.

Instead, Kitty beamed more broadly. “Of course, I would love to see my aunt. First, Lizzie, let me introduce you.”

She took Elizabeth’s hand, and pulled her sister toward the barracks. “Colonel Forster!” She greeted, “please meet my elder sister, Elizabeth.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you,” he bowed. He indicated to his left, amongst a crowd of well-dressed men; more soldiers. “These are but a handful of my men - this is Crowley, and Geoffrey. And here is Wickham.”

Lizzie greeted each in turn but was struck, finally, by Mr. Wickham. He was a good looking man - he carried himself well. She was struck that he seemed to genuinely pay attention to her.

“A pleasure to be acquainted,” he said, and she heard in his voice the manners of a more gentrified type.

Nevermind; she had to pull Kitty away, though Kitty was clearly trying to engage her further. “I must apologize for our hasty exit; our Aunt Phillips is waiting for us.”

The Colonel and Mr. Wickham bowed, and she took her leave, pulling Kitty, perhaps forcefully, by the arm.

Once they were out of eyesight and near Uncle Phillips solicitors’ rooms, Kitty pulled away, yanking at her arm. “What are you doing, sister!”

“Keeping you from ridicule,” she said. “I saw Lydia scampering off with two officers, it looked remarkably silly. We need to collect her.”
“I will not,” Kitty said, far too petulantly for her sixteen years.

“I think you will find that, in fact, you will.”

It was in the midst of this that Mr. Darcy emerged with Uncle Phillips, chatting.

Phillips looked to his nieces, “Elizabeth! Katherine! It is good to see you young ladies.” He turned to Darcy. “Darcy, have you met my nieces?”

Elizabeth did not miss the recognition in his eyes; the wealthy girls from Netherfield Park, daughters of a gentleman, related to a humble country solicitor? She could see the calculation - the judgement of her mother a social climber (though she was) - and Elizabeth forgot about his wonderful smile as she prepared to resent him again.

“Yes,” he said, “I am pleased to say I have.”

“Wonderful!” Uncle Phillips said. “I believe my wife has put out a tea for the ladies; would you care to join us?”

Darcy thanked him, but made his excuses, and strode off. He was tall, and his stride long, and Lizzie felt it must take a great deal of speed to keep up with him. She pitied Miss Bingley, who was on the shorter side, and would constantly be catching up to her husband.

As he disappeared, her Uncle turned to her. “I think he must quite like you, Elizabeth. He was looking at you so funnily.”

Lizzie said nothing. That look - she had seen it - from the same eyes she could still feel boring through her even now. She had made no mistake; it was disdain.

Chapter Text

Lydia was eventually found in the milliner’s shop, now alone - her companions had some exercises to participate in. The afternoon was waning, and Lizzie was trying to corral her sisters home, when outside the shop they came upon Wickham.

“What a surprise to see you here!” He exclaimed.

“Well,” said Lizzie, “you did just meet us about town.”

“Of course,” he said. “Are you going far? May I escort you?”

Lizzie cut Lydia off - physically, with her hand - “as much as we would love your accompaniment, we are returning home, and would not wish to trouble you to walk so far.”

“Have you no carriage?” The old, ‘pardon me, are you not rich?’ the family often got in a response to walking excursions.

“We know the road well sir, but thank you again for your kind attention.”

Lizzie took their leave and walked on. There was something about the insistence from Wickham - and the implication, when he asked about the carriage - that niggled, in the back of her mind. Lydia and Kitty were silent, annoyed at their fun being over for the day, and annoyed at Lizzie for serving as agent of their father’s stern discipline instead of as sisterly confidante. Both presumed Lizzie was thinking of them and hating them; in fact, she was thinking of her Aunt’s caution earlier in the day - though it had seemed so many hours away now. She had, she told herself, a natural caution around soldiers and militia; that was what gave her pause about Mr. Wickham, for he was a lovely gentleman who had not once broken with propriety. He would do very well as a friend.

The clouds emerged during the walk home, and when the sisters reached Netherfield they were quite glad to be indoors and out of the wind - for all of a moment.

Lizzie found herself, her coat barely handed to the manservant, when Jane had rushed to her side, arm looped through. “Lizzie, we must talk.”

Lizzie felt her heart leap. Was this the happy news - was this the occasion they had waited for? She had been gone many hours chasing after Lydia; Bingley could have come and gone thrice in that time. She let Jane guide her to her father’s study, which was unusually empty. From down the hall, Elizabeth could hear her mother’s shrill voice getting ever higher - the tone she used when upset with Mr. Bennet - and outside the door she knew Mary was relaying news to Kitty and Lydia; for all of her self-righteous air, Mary was a wonderful tattletale.

“Lizzie,” Jane whispered. “It is not good.’

“Oh,” though she had no further reply. Not a proposal from Mr. Bingley.

“Father has had a letter.” Jane continued. “Our cousin, Mr. Collins - he is the one on which the estate is entailed, you know - is to visit, beginning tomorrow, but we have found out only today!”

Lizzie collected herself. “That is shockingly impolite.”

“Oh, it is worse,” Jane said. “Mr. Collins is a minister!”

“Jane, there is nothing wrong with the clergy.”

“Mama is all atwitter - that the man to inherit Netherfield Park has taken orders! And father keeps trying to pacify her, but he made it clear from his letter that his intent is to find, from among us, a bride.”

“I can hardly resent him for being practical.”

“Are you not worried?”

“What, that he should want to marry me?” Lizzie chuckled. “No, I am not worried.”

“He’ll be here for the ball,” Jane noted.

“Wonderful; our family can chase him away quite adequately.”

***

When Mr. Collins stepped down from the carriage, Elizabeth felt a keen sense of deja vu. He had all of the pomp of a much greater man, but none of the bearing. He was dressed primly in black, as befitted his station, but he had the smug smile of a man looking through a catalog at five unmarried women. When he stepped forward and looked up - and saw the immense size of the house - she could have sworn he was licking his lips.

It was clear, too, as he joined the family at a late breakfast, that this was to be a tedious visit. “You know, I feel obligated in my role as a clergyman, to caution you ladies against sloth. Why, this is far too late for the morning meal, and it concerns me that you have not enough to occupy yourselves.”

She could see Kitty try to interrupt him, to tell him that they had held the morning meal for him, as the coach had arrived later than they had anticipated, but he continued.

“My esteemed patroness - you may have heard of her, Lady Catherine DeBourgh? - has much to say of the idleness of young ladies. She is quite insistent that there are so very many productive and edifying tasks they can set themselves to, for the improvement of their minds. I have brought my copy of Fordyce’s sermons; perhaps later today, we shall enjoy some reading.”

Lizzie took a larger-than-usual bite of toast, to prevent herself from speaking; that sounded the most tedious thing she had ever heard, and she did love to read.

Mr. Collins did not prove himself to be any wiser or more thoughtful over the course of breakfast, or throughout the morning. Her mother had sequestered herself in the morning parlor complaining of a headache from a too-rich meal, which in any other circumstance would have been enough to excuse her from social activities, but Mr. Collins insisted on making recommendations, which were to be considered doubly valuable for having come from the much esteemed mouth of the venerable Lady Catherine. It was only after Mr. Bennet offered to give Mr. Collins a tour of the house that her mother successfully extricated herself from the situation. Elizabeth was not one to pity her mother, but under such circumstances was not so certain she would not quite quickly develop a headache of her own.

It did not end there. Mr. Collins insisted that his cousins accompany him on the tour, “for I should dearly like to hear your family tales and history of the place,” and while it was meant as an olive branch, from Lydia’s scoff and Mary’s blanche it was clear that it came over more as an additional affront, to rub the Bennet ladies noses in their circumstance.

The midday meal was light and quick, the better to service Mr. Bennet’s and Mr. Collin’s trip around the farm, a continuing feature of the tour. After their departure, the sisters found themselves slumped in the parlor alongside their mother, who was working herself up to hysterics.

“And to see him, surveying the estate, imagining a valuation!  I cannot hear it. Some day soon, he will put us all out and will have the run of the place, he is dreaming of having Netherfield Park all to himself! Imagine, to come to visit on such short notice and spend the whole time plotting and planning against us.”

“Mama,” Jane said, with characteristic calm, “I am sure he would not be so cruel; he is a parson to an esteemed lady. It would not be Christian of him.”

But Mrs. Bennet did not appear to hear Jane, or reason. “I told Mr. Bennet - I said it plainly! - that he should not go out walking through the woods and fields with Mr. Collins alone. Even now, he may be shot or run through with a sword and left in a ditch, and then the house should be Mr. Collins and we will all be destitute!  Oh!”

Though the girls - even Lydia - entreated their mother to recall that, as a clergyman, Mr. Collins did not wear a sword, nor carry a pistol, Mrs. Bennet needed to be given over to her anxieties. After a good cry, Fanny Bennet would calm and collect herself, and serve as a passable host for the duration of Mr. Collins stay. And, of course, there was a ball to think of.

They had cautiously agreed before his arrival not to mention the ball - though it was all anyone in the house was particularly interested in speaking of - as this seemed dangerous information to spring on a relative before they had sense of how long he might stay, and how well he might mingle amongst theirs acquaintance. Poorly, it now seemed, though Jane in particular seemed more willing to grant their cousin the benefit of the doubt.

But the preparations in the house were unavoidable, and there were only so many lectures on household economies and “the way things are done at Rosing’s Park” before one of them lost their temper and spoke in haste. Unfortunately for herself, this person was Lizzie.

His face was briefly aghast, and she was not sure if it was from the secrecy employed by the family, the unholiness of a ball, or the fact that so late in their preparations the great oracle, Lady Catherine DeBourgh could not be consulted for how things should properly be done.

He brightened up quickly, “that sounds like delightful entertainment for young ladies!  I am to assume you have all be suitably involved in the planning, so as to increase your skills in the hosting and giving of parties?”

Yes, they had all been involved, though that had little to do with their skills as future wives and more to do with the number of staff on the estate and the warring opinions between the oldest and youngest daughters.

“If you do not have to return to your post,” Jane says, politely invoking the benefactress to which he was so annoyingly indebted, in case it might sway his decision, “you are of course welcome to join our family party.”

He twisted his mouth in thought. What would Lady Catherine do?  What might that great lady recommend? “Of course, it is not the place of one of the church, to spend time on revelry and frivolity. But I should say that a good meal and delightful company is no great sin.”

From across the room, Lizzie saw Kitty and Lydia deflate.

“And, of course,” he continued, “it is my most fervent hope that my presence should prevent any egregious excesses and flirtations, serving as a kind of moral guide for those in attendance.”

Lizzie wondered if they could yet reschedule the event.  

***
It was but a handful of days before the ball, and Lizzie had walked into Meryton with Jane to pay a visit to their aunt. They had emerged following tea and were not especially surprised to see a small group of soldiers in the center of the street, speaking.

Colonel Denny - a particular favorite of Lydia’s - greeted them. “It’s Miss Jane and Miss Elizabeth Bennet!”

“Yes it is,” Elizabeth greeted the group. “It is good to see you.”

“And to see you,” spoke up Mr. Wickham, whom she had not seen initially. “It has been some days.”

“We have been much engaged with planning the ball,” Jane explained. “It brings our youngest sisters a great deal of joy, and they have not ventured so frequently from Netherfield.”

“And so in no need of a chaperone, that we might encounter you,” Wickham observed.

Lizzie thought that seemed pointed; there was no question that her sisters were young, though it was not his place to question propriety. But then she shook it off; she was being cynical, and Mr. Wickham had made the point not about his friendship with her sisters but about his new acquaintance with herself.

“Can I hope to see you all at Netherfield, a few days hence?” She asked.

It was that moment when Mr. Darcy emerged from the solicitor's office, holding a parcel. Lizzie was looking in the other direction, but she observed the way Mr. Wickham froze, as if confronted with a ghost.

She turned to look, and was greeted with those eyes boring through her, and lips pursed in a grimace.

“Miss Elizabeth,” Darcy greeted and turned to Jane. “Miss Bennet.”

He strode away, paying no heed to the others, and she could hear a “harrumph!” From Wickham.

“Have you known Mr. Darcy long?” He asked her.

“Not more than two months,” she replied.

“What do you make of the man?”

“I know very little of him.  He is good friends with Mr. Bingley, who is much liked in these parts.”

Wickham frowned.  “Darcy does show kindness to those he considers of his own society.”

It was clear that Darcy and Wickham were acquainted, and that the relationship was not of the best terms.  “And do you know him, Mr. Wickham?”
“I am ashamed to say that I do, though I would rather that I did not.”
“I see,” she said, though she didn’t.  Not that she needed to prompt him; Wickham looked quite prepared to share all that was on his mind.

“Oh, Darcy and I have known each other many a long year.  Did you know we were raised together as boys? Oh, what fun we had then.  My father was the late Mr. Darcy’s steward, and we had the run of the grounds.  When my father passed away, the late Mr. Darcy took me under his wing, promised to have me educated.  And I can speak no ill word of the man - he was a great father, a great landlord, a good master to those in his employ.”

“But you speak no such greatness of the younger Mr. Darcy?”

“The late Mr. Darcy was lost to us when I was at Cambridge.  He had promised me a vicarage nearby, a wonderful little place, and I had been ready to take orders, grateful for his generosity.

“But shortly after his father’s death, upon Mr. Darcy taking over the estate, the generosity was gone.  Not that a man of my station deserves such gifts, but the late Mr. Darcy had made such provisions for me that have not yet been carried out, and which never will be, such is Darcy’s contempt for me. Perhaps it is for the best; I hear that he has run his estate into the ground.”

“How horrible!” Lizzie found herself saying.  “And how could he have such disdain for you, under such circumstances?”

But already, she knew - she had seen it in his face.  She had seen the sneer upon Mr. Darcy’s brow when encountering Wickham in the streets but moments earlier - just as she had seen the calculation, the realization, the passing of judgement, when he understood her to have lower relations.  Not that he had a leg to stand on, a gentleman such as Darcy - he was no great man, in her estimation.

“I believe,” Wickham continued, “that he was jealous, and felt his father should not have cared so greatly for an orphan, an urchin. It should not have surprised me; in our years at university, it became clear that we had grown further apart in character and aspect.”

This revelation was a shock to Lizzie, in all of her dislike of Mr. Darcy, she had assumed him proud and difficult, but not so cruel as a pantomime villain.

“Well, let us think of happier things,” she suggested.  “Will we have the pleasure of seeing you, Mr. Wickham, at the ball a few days hence?  Netherfield Park is beautiful all dressed up for visitors; I should very much like for you to see her.”

Mr. Wickham smiled, “I have nothing to hide, and I will not be cowed by a man such as that.  I will of course be at your ball.”

Lizzie felt better for it, and as they took their leave, quite looked forward to being asked to dance by the tall handsome man with the lonely smile.

***
Jane was practical about the situation.  “It is striking to me that Mr. Wickham would make such an accusation, Lizzie, and that you would be so quick to believe it.”

Elizabeth sighed, sinking deeper into her chair.  “What evidence have we to the contrary? We both know that Mr. Darcy is a disagreeable sort of man, and far too proud for his station.”

“But sister, there is a great expanse of water between disagreeable and crooked.”

“We have no reason to disbelieve Mr. Wickham.”

“Lizzie, we cannot disinvite Mr. Darcy.  He is Mr. Bingley’s friend.” The implication being, of course, that Jane’s happiness was at stake in these proceedings.

“I can bear it,” Lizzie said, “and Mr. Wickham has declared that he can too.”

“And think of it, Lizzie; you are in no danger of being asked to dance by Mr. Darcy.”

She laughed.

Chapter Text

The day of the ball dawned clear and bright, but long before dawn Netherfield Park was all aflutter. It seemed even the laziest of occupants, those like the Mrs. Bennet’s and the old sow in the barn, were awake before the sun, filled with the excitement of the day forthcoming.

Not that Jane was given to excesses of excitement but as the house began to stir, she crept through to her sisters room, sliding in between the covers and taking Elizabeth’s hand.

“I think something good will happen today.”

Lizzie smiled. Something good would happen today.

***

Elizabeth Bennet should have known better than to be so hopeful. She should have known when Kitty screamed, as Lydia burnt her neck with the hot iron. She should have seen it when her father hid in his study, away from the planning, and no one stood in the great entry hall to keep Mrs. Bennet in check. She should have known when the rain started.  But all of these things were surmountable.

Lizzie, for her part, felt that she looked the best she had in many years. Her hair pinned so neatly, not a wisp out of place. Her gown, new for the occasion, the lightest of shades of green, pale enough to almost be cream, so perfectly complimenting her complexion, her natural blush. Jane - golden haired, in a golden dress - was a Greek goddess, statuesque and noble and so hard to look away from - and Lizzie was her attendant. Mr. Bingley would look only at Jane, all in their company would look only at Jane and Lizzie would be free to wander, looking her best, to steal some time with her new soldier acquaintance without observation or criticism.

Charlotte arrived early, at Lizzie’s request, dressed in a deep navy blue. Mrs. Bennet had once been heard calling Miss Lucas plain, but Lizzie would have none of it.

“What a beautiful friend I have,” she greeted her. “Shall we walk together and be the envy of all who pass?”

Charlotte laughed, heartily. “Elizabeth, if you sit for a single dance then it is only because you have broken your ankle from all the suitors you shall have!”

“I suspect we shall both spend much time on our feet.”

“We will,” Charlotte agreed. “And we shall spend our breakfast the morrow regretting our follies and laughing at others.”

“Then perhaps we shall have a glass of wine to steel our nerves before the festivities begin?”

“Perhaps we will slumber all the way through our breakfast tomorrow, and how will we tease our friends?”

“You are too right. We must begin clearheaded.”

Mrs. Bennet came whirling around the corner to check on the decorations on the stairs. Lizzie pulled Charlotte back into the alcove.

“We should not be seen!” She stage whispered.

“Has the planning been so awful?”

Lizzie nodded. “I have lately been reminded why we do not usually host balls at Netherfield.”

Guests began to arrive, and Mr. Collins emerged on the stairs to join the party greeting them.  Lizzie reddened; he was as silly as her sisters, and even more socially inept.

It did not take long, though, for the rest of the Lucases to arrive, and the Phillips, and more of their friends from Meryton such that the party began to mingle, and the youngest insisted that some dancing should begin. Elizabeth had been keeping her eye out for Mr. Wickham as officers began to arrive - Colonel and Mrs. Foster, Captain Denny - but he was not among their number.

They all, it seemed, waited with bated breath for another moment. Jane had not yet been asked to dance - beautiful, regal as she was tonight, she seemed out of bounds to even those most friendly with her - she stood near the entrance with her father to welcome the stragglers. Elizabeth danced a set with Colonel Denny, but glanced constantly behind, at Jane.

It was a moment to remember. The way Mr. Hurst ambled in, his wife on his arm, undramatic and unassuming - except their arrival heralded another. In walked Caroline Bingley, on the arm of Mr. Darcy, both with heads high, proud - Londoners at a country dance, condescending to the masses but determined not to enjoy themselves.

And lastly Bingley, in a handsome dark suit, his auburn hair wild from the wind, his cheeks flushed. It made him look boyish, joyful, and he had barely stepped through the door when his eyes lit upon one thing - Jane.

Charlotte later observed that it was as if time had stopped, as if the music had stopped, as if the dancers had stopped. There was only two people in the room.

It lasted only a moment, but that moment stretched forever and in it, Elizabeth could see Jane and Bingley, could see their future. It was as clear as day: they were in love.

Focus shifted back to the wine, to the cured meats and the pies and the sweets. There were dances and songs. Lizzie was taking a break in a chair, looking around for Wickham. Had he not yet arrived?

She soon regretted her pause for it gave opportunity to Mr. Collins, who stepped into her view. “Cousin Elizabeth.”

She caught his eye, which was her second error.

“I insist that you join me for a dance.”

“I would be honored.” She would not, but she could not see how she had any choice in the matter. As he took her hand, she shuddered. I insist.

His smile was simpering, which made it all the worse to stand up with him as he missed the counts and stepped on her toes. He fancied himself, he said, the kind of dancer that just doesn’t go out of style. Yes, she thought; a bad one.

She was relieved to step off the floor to find herself some refreshment when she was approached by Darcy. There was no easy means of escape; he had seen her recognize him, and he had the look of a man determined.

“Miss Elizabeth,” he said, “would you do me the honor of a dance?”

Once more, she would prefer not but did not know how she could declare so, agreeing just to get the whole matter over with.

The often taciturn Darcy seemed to be even more drawn now. What was the point, she thought, in coming to a ball where one was not wanted, in asking to dance, if one had no intention to socialize? The mind boggled.

“It is thought nice,” she said, “to have some conversation while dancing.”

There was no response.

“Perhaps, we might comment on the weather, on the rain out of doors.”

They stepped away for a moment. He almost looked relieved. She could not allow that.

“We would speak of the number of couples.”

A few more steps of silence.

“I would ask after the health of your family.”

It seemed that was the comment that roused him. “Do you make it a rule, talking while dancing?”

“It does seem,” she said, “to be the point of the exercise.”
“My family are very well,” he said. “And what of yours?”

“We are hosting a ball.”

The stepped and turned and stepped in quiet once more. Lizzie felt that the orchestra was drowned out, that the chatter dimmed, by the strange encounter. Step - bob - step - turn. His eyes; even when in motion she felt as though he did not look away from her. It made her uncomfortable, as though stripped bare in the center of the room.

“How long,” he asked, “have you been friendly with Mr. Wickham?”

Substance, at least. “Not but a week or so,” she said, “as the militia are only recently arrived. But you have known him much longer.”

Both a statement and an accusation.

“I am sure,” he said, “Mr. Wickham has said many wonderful things about our years of acquaintance.”

Sarcasm, at least; perhaps even an acknowledgement of fault?

“He is an amiable man,” she said, at loss for more.

“I am not blessed with his easy social graces,” Darcy commented. “I do not make friends so easily.”

“And he is not blessed with your favor.” A more concrete accusation, though Darcy deserved no less. “Perhaps you do not make friends so easily because you cast aside those friends of old.”

“I do not make friends easily, Miss Bennet, but be assured, I do not cast them off so lightly. If I have a fault, it is that I do not forgive easily; I am not capricious or irresolute. My good opinion, once gone, is gone forever.”

“I am trying to make you out.”

“And what do you find?"
“That I receive so many contradicting reports of you, I cannot decide.”

“Then what do you think of me?”

But the dance ended, and he bowed and took his leave, and Elizabeth was left in the center of the room feeling very out of sorts and so very much like a stranger in her own home.

The dinner was fine - one of the finest that Hill had ever set - but Elizabeth ate little to settle her stomach, sipping instead on her wine. Wickham had not appeared, and she was disappointed; he had promised he was no coward. But from her encounter with Darcy, she was sure the bad blood ran deep.

She turned, and Lydia was in a chair, practically rolling with laughter, born up by three redcoats - none she recognized. On the table next to them sat assorted empty glasses of punch and wine, and a great excess of food. Her laugh was loud enough to shake the neighboring table - she saw Charles Bingley look up from his conversation with Jane, distracted by the noise.

“Oh, come on!” She cried. “Let’s have a song!”

As if by magic, Mary materialized, music already in hand. Lizzie grimaced. Mary did love to play but had little talent for it, and in company such as this - good gracious, it was a hymn.

She looked to her father to stop the madness, but he just smiled tipsily from his seat next to Mrs. Bennet, who was pontificating, “and I said to our dear cousin that we did appreciate his coming to secure one of our girls, but Miss Jane was almost so much as engaged, and he should really set his sights elsewhere…”

She could not bear it - but there was Mr. Collins, striding across the room - not to where she sat with Charlotte and Maria Lucas, but toward Mr. Darcy. The pair had not been introduced, it could not be borne.

“Someone needs to stop him!” She said to Charlotte, who took her hand - took the glass from her hand - and there was something in her eyes.

“You vowed,” she said, “never to dance with Mr. Darcy.”

“That is not the issue at hand!”

“My dear, I think you have had a sip too much.” Because of that dance, Lizzie thought, don’t slight my judgement.

But as she looked around the room it was spinning, and she could overhear Mr. Collins, “my esteemed patroness, your aunt Lady Catherine DeBourgh…”

“I cannot - ” She said to Charlotte.

“Let us retire from this room,” she suggested. “For some air. Maria, will you go and sit with Father?”
They slipped out just as Mr. Bennet was approaching Mary, with a kindly, “That’s enough.” Too late to be of any benefit.

They took a seat on the settee in the library while Elizabeth caught her breath, head in her hands.

“Lizzie, what has come over you?”

“Oh Charlotte,” she cried. “Did you not see? It was horrible. My family - they are such an embarrassment! How can we ever been seen again in the neighborhood?”

Charlotte petted her back, smoothed her gown. “My friend, your family are well known and well loved in the neighborhood. For all of their strengths and faults.”

“It is kind of you to say.”

“It is no lie, it is deeply felt.” Charlotte took her hand. “Lizzie, tell me what’s going on.”

“Charlotte, I do not know what to make of myself. Except that I see a man like Mr. Darcy - Darcy! - and how he judges us - how he judges me - and I cannot bear it. He is a gentleman, yes, but his station…”

“You, Elizabeth Bennet, are hurt by another man’s pride?”

“He hurt Mr. Wickham, you know,” she said.

“Yes, Mr. Wickham is not shy about it.”

“I don’t know what to think.”
“Why must you think?” She said. “It is a rare ball at Netherfield, and you should not much be in Mr. Darcy’s company for long, and so you should enjoy yourself, though perhaps without more wine.”

“But Charlotte, if Jane is to marry Mr. Bingley, then I might reasonably find myself more among their company.”

“Lizzie, you are not without power. You come and go as you please. Caroline Bingley is severe, yes, but that is clear for all to see; it does not reflect upon you. And I know you to be an agreeable, forgiving, person - I do not think that, for long, you would be given to dislike Mr. Bingley’s family.”

“I must admit, this whole affair has emphasized all of the worst in me. I must take care not to be so petty.”

“Shall we get you a plate? Some bread, maybe? And perhaps you will sit a few dances down, with me, for you see, it turns out that I have badly hurt my foot.”

“Badly?”
“So very badly, I could not possibly dance another all night. And my wonderful friend - I am so greatly thankful for your attention to me in my hour of need.”

Lizzie laughed, a hiccup of a laugh, and they made their way cautiously back to the party - for though the world was not spinning, it was not Charlotte but she who was unsteady on her feet. Still, in the hall, she stumbled for a second - and could not help but bellow a great, drunken, laugh.

“Charlotte, I think you are quite right about me! I have had far too much!”

But Charlotte was not paying attention and another, larger, hand caught her, and when she turned in thanks, it was Mr. Darcy.

And though perhaps it was the wine, and perhaps she had imagined it, but he smiled at her, softly - like he had in Meryton so many weeks ago - and she wondered for a second that she had it all wrong, and he did not hate her.

But just for a second, for as he took his leave to join the men in the drawing room at cards, she recognized that now he had seen her at her worst, and could continue to despise her without reservation, as surely his good opinion was now lost forever.

Chapter Text

The morning after a ball is always quiet. The family at Netherfield Park would always awaken late in the morning to a light breakfast designed to ease the queasiness in their stomachs from the previous nights excess. The servants - up late cleaning and tidying - would rest just that little bit longer. Mr. Bennet would sneak down to his study early, with a slice of toast, and enjoy the quiet with a book before the rest of the house emerged.

As Elizabeth awakened, the light seemed to approach her like an axe between the eyes.  “No!” she groaned, and turned to burrow further under the covers.

“Lizzie!” she heard.  For Charlotte Lucas had been among those that had stayed over, and instead of preparing another room, she had taken up her spot in Lizzie’s bed, as she had so often done over the years of their friendship.

“Oh Charlotte, what have I done?”

“Nothing, Lizzie, that you would not have done had Bingley or Caroline or Darcy not been in attendance.”

“It is too early in the morning to face one’s personal shortcomings.”

“You have had one and twenty years to confront them, my friend, yet I have never heard you so troubled. There are few good things to be said of red wine.”

“There are few good things to be said of the Bennet family.”

“If I may be frank, Lizzie, the Bennet family has not much changed but for your recognition of it. And still all of Meryton came out, seeking your company.”

Elizabeth rolled over to eye her friend. “That is frank.”

“We all have our shortcomings. They are what make us who we are.”

“Our neighbors then are a good deal more generous than I am inclined to be.”

“Lizzie, it will be alright.”

“What of Jane, what of her prospects? You saw the look Mr. Darcy gave me last night; surely he reported back to Mr. Bingley.”

“Are you truly worried about Jane? Or is it your own pride that has been hurt? For surely, you saw Mr. Bingley dancing with Jane all night. The way he looked at her, as if she was the only one in the room! It was not a great deal unlike the way Mr. Darcy was looking at you.”

Lizzie, feeling ornery, chose to misunderstand her. “Then we are all doomed.”

At that, Charlotte gave up and flopped back on to the bed, for though she had consumed less wine than Elizabeth, it was not such a great deal less that she did not feel it in the morning. Eventually, the pair succumbed to the daylight and roused and made their way to the breakfast room. Some toast and tea did revive Elizabeth admirably.  Though they met Jane and Mr. Bennet, enjoying some marmalade, there was no sign of Mrs. Bennet, nor of Kitty, Lydia, and surprisingly, Mary.

“Ladies,” Mr. Bennet greeted, “I was wondering if perhaps my family had been stolen in the night, so quiet is our breakfast this morning.”

“I suspect, papa,” Lizzie said, “that it is merely your ears ringing from the immense racket of a ball where the musicians played into the wee hours.”

“And how do you fare, Lizzie? You were very flushed when you retired last night.”

“Papa!” Though If Jane was all shock Lizzie was prepared to laugh.

“I must have made quite the fool of myself.”  Charlotte squeezed her arm. Mr. Bennet would laugh, but Charlotte could see her anxiety. Jane noticed the motion; she would have her sister confessing before the day was out. Poor Jane; what had such silliness done to her prospects?  Could Mr. Bingley overlook a lady’s silly family for the sake of a pretty face and a good fortune? But Jane was so much more than a pretty face, and Mr. Bingley not so poor as to be unscrupulous in his choice of a wife. They were an even match - if only her family were suitable.

“I think, Lizzie, we should walk into the village,”. Jane said. “Charlotte, will you come? We would be glad of the company.”

“It would be a pleasure,” Lizzie said, though secretly feeling she may never be able to walk into Meryton with her head held high again.

Mr. Collins walked into the room then, looking the worse for wear. His face, ruddy the night before, was drawn and pallid now. His hair lay flat and hopeless. His usual proud stride was deflated.

“Good morning, Mr. Bennet, Miss Bennet, Cousin Elizabeth, Miss Lucas.”

“Mr. Collins,” they said, in unison.

Unusually for Mr. Collins, he served himself a silent plate of eggs, and began to eat, not looking up. It seemed his dancing - and what Lizzie could only assume was Mr. Darcy’s rebuke, having not seen or heard it - had left him rather subdued that morning.

The thought brought it all back, and Elizabeth excused herself from the table, though her coffee was still warm. Charlotte and Jane followed shortly after; they were all in silent agreement that to avoid Mr. Collins presence on their walk to Meryton, it was best to say nothing at all about the day or the plans.

The rain of the night had left a cool, sweet scent to the morning. Lizzie hugged her arms about her as they strode to the gates of Netherfield.

“One would almost not believe,” said Jane, “that there had been a ball here at all. It is so quiet.”

“Perhaps,” Lizzie suggested, “that is because half of our guests are still asleep in the house, upstairs!”

They chuckled.

“Do you still think, Lizzie, that last night was so horrible?” Asked Charlotte. “Do you have no happy memories of the evening?”

“Horrible!” Jane was shocked. “I cannot comprehend it. Last night was so lovely, and there was much delightful company. How can it be, Lizzie, that you are unhappy?”

“Oh, Jane,” said Elizabeth, “my greatest enjoyment of the evening was seeing you so happy. You had a wonderful dancing partner.”

“He does dance well, doesn’t he.” Jane recalled, a distant smile on her lips. “But I saw you had a few partners of your own. You even danced with Mr. Darcy! I thought you must be so full of mirth, to agree.”

“I was not certain that I could see a way out of it,” said Lizzie. “I am not sure why he asked me to dance; he was so disagreeable, asking me about Wickham and then saying nothing to defend his position in all of this.”

“I don’t recall seeing Wickham at all last night.”

“I searched and searched,” Lizzie said. “He did not appear. I am embarrassed to say I was disappointed.”

“And that is why you are upset?” Jane asked.

Charlotte nudged her. “You must tell, Elizabeth. Jane, I think your sister is quite out of sorts; I believe you will agree with me.”
“Oh, you’re both far too reasonable!” Lizzie stomped for emphasis. “Did you not see? The way Lydia flirted so incessantly, the way Mama was so loud and unreserved, the way Mary played a dirge and Kitty sulked and Papa did nothing to stop it all, and Mr. Collins cannot dance and then he approached Mr. Darcy without an introduction…”

“Oh my,” said Jane. “That is quite the list of grievances.”

“And to think, we were the hosts of the occasion! Have we no sense of pride or propriety?”

“I did point out,” Charlotte jumped in, “That none of the assembly were unacquainted with your family, and that all happily chose your company - and have chosen your company - for many a year.”

Jane paused in her walk and drew Elizabeth into her arms. “Oh, Lizzie. We do know that our family is the silliest in the neighborhood and neither you nor I are a great deal more sophisticated. But Charlotte is right; last night went exactly as I would have expected. In fact - I’d rather call it a success! No one spilled wine on Mary for being annoyed with her, and no one broke any toes, and no brawls broke out with so many militia in the room - quite, I think, better than we could have hoped.”

“It pains me that I do not find myself reassured, for you are both my dearest friend and family, and I know you to be kind, gentlewomen.”

“I wonder,” suggested Charlotte, “that perhaps you were looking at your family for once not with your own eyes, but through another’s?”

“Yes,” sighed Lizzie, “I believe you may be right.” She had so dearly hoped that Wickham would come, but perhaps it was for the best. And then there was Darcy; oh, she should not have let him affect her so!

“But you are not a seer, dear friend. And for anyone to count against you - against any Bennet, whom I consider sisters as much as my own - is someone who does not deserve your company. You are kind, and generous. You are a lover of wit and fun. You are a dear and loyal friend - and no one in Hertfordshire would utter a word otherwise.”

“It’s settled,” Jane agreed. “And we shall walk into Meryton with our heads held high, for we have hosted the ball of the year! And we shall buy sweet buns and we shall walk to the milliners to thank him for so much lovely ribbon, and we shall go to Aunt Phillips for tea, and she will recount to us all of the best gossip of the evening, and it will be as if the night is not yet over. You shall have your good memories of the evening.”
“That is a wonderful speech,” Lizzie said, feeling the ache of her heart begin to subside. She tried to put on a smile. “And I am quite determined now.”

It was well into the afternoon when the ladies returned to Netherfield. Jane and Charlotte stopped at a tenant’s cottage on the way, to greet a newborn child, but Lizzie, feeling unusually far from home after an excess of emotions and a new resolution never again to drink wine, returned to the house.

She was greeted at the door by her mother, who instructed her to change into a nicer dress, “for God’s sake” and go to the sitting room. It was a safe assumption that they had guests - strangely soon after the ball - but Lizzie did as told; she was not in the mood to fight.

When she returned downstairs, however, she found herself sitting not with a guest, per se, but across from Mr. Collins.

“Cousin Elizabeth,” he stood and greeted her.

She curtsied and sat. This was just unusual enough that it caught her off guard; it took a moment, before she realized what was happening.

“Mr. Collins, shall I fetch Mama? I know Jane is soon to return.”

“Cousin Elizabeth, I shall be brief. As you know, I have come here, to your lovely home, to visit my cousins and offer an olive branch, shall we say, between our families. As you know, the job of a clergyman can be a lonely one, and I have much hoped to find a companion for my daily travails. My esteemed patroness, Lady Catherine DeBourgh, has recommended that I take a wife, and it is my most fervent belief that it is right for me to set such an example in the parish.

“Shortly after arriving at Netherfield Park, it became clear to me that it is you, Miss Elizabeth, who would make the ideal companion. I wish to offer you a future life together - now at my parish, where I believe you must be comfortable, and later here, in your own home. I have the most ardent affection for you, Cousin Elizabeth. Will you do me the honor of being my bride?”

It was all too much. Were she not already in a foul mood, she might have taken great care, but on this occasion all she could muster was a, “No sir. I will not.”

If the proposal had been tedious, his reaction to her refusal was astounding. He insisted that she was being coy; she was not. He insisted that it was the right thing to do for her family; she could be sure that it was not. He was determined to please Lady Catherine; she was not. Back and forth they went, until he stormed out.

Mrs. Bennet, clearly waiting expectantly at the door, stomped in. “Elizabeth!”
“Mama -“

“Do you wish to throw us all out of our home?”

“Mama, that is hardly an immediate concern.”
“Do you have no respect for your mother, for your family, for your dear cousin?”
“For my cousin, Mama, I must confess I do not.”
“Insolent girl! Do you think you have the luxury of being so selective at a time like this?”

“I rather hope I do.”

“Out of my sight child!”

The headache of this morning had barely abated when Elizabeth ventured out of doors again, this time to the garden. Her father was working amongst the vegetables - one of his hobbies, chosen for the unlikeliness his daughters might ever disturb him at it - and she heard her mother shuffling behind, hopefully to appeal to Mr. Bennet before his foolish daughter could.

“Mr. Bennet! Have you heard what Lizzie has done? She has refused Mr. Collins! Tell her, tell your daughter that she must make this right, or I shall never speak to her again!"
Mr. Bennet displayed a cool aspect, and Lizzie wondered that there was anything much in his wife or his daughters that could ever greatly shock him.

“My dear, I shall speak with Lizzie.”

Mrs. Bennet stood by, to watch the conversation.

“There you have it, child.” He said. “Your mother declares that, should you continue to refuse to marry Mr. Collins, she will never speak to you again. This is unfortunate, because I am certain that should you choose to marry such an insufferable man - no matter that he is our relation - I shall never speak to you again.”Lizzie had no time to reply, before her mother shrieked, “Mr. Bennet!”

She smiled. Some extreme silliness to cap off a very silly few days; it was resolved.

When they returned to the house, Mr. Collins was making haste to leave - and Charlotte and Jane were walking up the path. It was quickly decided that to save himself from further embarrassment, Mr. Collins would stay for some time with the Lucases, and Charlotte needed only a moment to collect her things. Elizabeth hurried inside with her and gave her the briefest summary of events, “should he choose to recount his woes.”

“Do you suppose all men are like Mr. Wickham, and so freely air their grievances?” She asked.

“I suppose nothing about men anymore. I have decided that I do not understand them at all!”

***

The quiet settled over Netherfield Park in the following weeks. Lizzie, newly aware of her status in the country in a way she had not been before - she felt, even now, those penetrating eyes, seeing her, judging her - endeavored to be less silly, stepping out only with a fixed errand or visit in mind, spending more time indoors reading, playing, investing time in her younger sisters as a model of good behavior, as a friend and confidante to counteract their natural inclination to flirt and giggle.

It was boring. Without question, Lizzie had never felt the days so dull - even visitors could not keep her entertained, nor new novels or her fathers sitting with her to discuss the books. They had not seen much of the Bingleys since the ball - a family could not always be social, and of course much work was yet to be done at Longbourne.

Lydia was too easy and free a spirit to be thus contained, and Kitty too eager to be loved, to no longer be lost in the middle of her sisters - each of the others with such a strong sense of their own character, did not hesitate to follow. It was on such an afternoon, with Lydia and Kitty on a visit to the officers, that Lizzie decided to take some exercise of her own. Such spirits, she sensed, were not so easily curbed, and she would rather not be present to witness it. And she dearly desired to be out of doors.

She eschewed the lane for the hill, climbing from the meadow over some rocks and up to the copse. The hill had been a favorite as a child, and Lizzie had often run down it with Jane, shrieking in delight at the wind on their faces.

As a grown lady, she had often taken to this spot to look across the valley - there was Meryton, and Longbourne, and Lucas Lodge at the edge of the woods. She could see the Long’s house, and the militia encampment. It seemed, from here, she could see for miles.

Often, Netherfield Park felt as though it were the center of the world, but from this vantage she could barely see it, hidden by the hill itself, just a few chimneys to indicate it. What a world, and so many lives in it, moving about their days and filling them, and she knew none of it for she was standing upon a hill here in Hertfordshire.

Presently, she witnessed a figure making its way up the path. It was no great difficulty for the man, someone accustomed to such exercise; the dark green coat and long stride was familiar - it was Mr. Darcy.

“Miss Elizabeth!” He called from a few yards below. It was unlike him to bellow so, ungentlemanly as it appeared, and she started in surprise not from his presence but from his desire to make it known.

It was unusual to meet him here, and to be greeted thus - did Mr. Darcy come bearing bad news? Had there been an accident?

“Mr. Darcy, I am surprised to see you here.”

“And I am surprised to see you,” he said. “I have often walked to this outcropping, but have never get encountered you here.”

“This was a favorite spot of mine,” she said, “as a child. It is an excellent hill for racing down.”

He did not pass judgement, as she had expected, but instead cracked a smile. “I can see that. I suspect little boys have had much fun here.”

“I dare say so. It is impossible to believe, but my father once spent many an hour out here chasing the frogs.”

“What drew you here now?”

“The light,” she said. “This path is not always passable, but I do love the way it shines upon our little piece of the world. I always find myself surprised yet again by the size of it all.”

“And to think,” he said, “you go about it all on foot.”

“Mr. Darcy, are you teasing me?”

“My apologies, no offense was meant.”

“Oh no, sir, I was merely surprised by your skill at it.”

“I see your skirts are only a little muddied, have you found no puddles yet?” Another tease.

“Not yet, I am sorry to say. Have you any to recommend me?”

He did not respond, chuckling, and it was such a contrast to those stern eyes and way he dismissed her when they had spoken of Mr. Wickham, she did begin to wonder that there may be two Mr. Darcy’s.  

“I feel I must apologize, for after your stumbled that night of your ball, I did not take greater pains to ensure your comfort. It was unconscionable of me, regardless of the tenor of our conversation earlier in the evening.”

She bristled - an apology for this slight, yet not for lying and nearly trampling her in the carriage, and still nothing of his offense against Wickham? But so long as he was to be in her company, she would strive to be the most upstanding of the Bennet’s, for Jane’s sake. Best to make light. “Mr. Darcy, if you had taken pains to ensure the comfort of every lady who had too much wine that night, you would yet be at Netherfield Park.”

“I must confess, I am no great fan of a ball.”

“You must find our society shameful, in comparison to the society you keep in London.”

“I am sure you well know that there is little your assembly could do to evoke half the shame of a London party.”

“I must confess, I spend only a little time among the Ton. My father does not much like the city, and his business is here. With five daughters, it would be a great deal of dresses to purchase new every season.”

“I do not blame the man. Were it not for my business there, I would spend a great deal less time in London. My family home in Derbyshire is far more to my tastes.”

“I did not realize sir, that you were from Derbyshire.”

“Yes. The place is called Pemberley. It is a pride to my family. But I am often away from the place. It is not often entertaining for a young woman to be alone in a country house, and so my sister is educated in London, where I visit her often.”

“It must have been some time since you saw her; you have been in Hertfordshire some weeks.”

“Bingley wanted my assistance with the estate; he has much to learn.” An odd choice, she thought, considering the rumor Darcy had run his own estate to ruin, “However, he has now secured an intelligent steward and we are finishing up our business here.”

“We?” She asked. “I had understood that you might mean to quit the place soon, but is Mr. Bingley to depart soon too? Does he not wish to reside in the estate he has let?”

“He has business in town, and so I believe plans to address it with a regular presence in London.”

Lizzie did not reply. This was a surprise. Did Jane know?

“Miss Elizabeth, may I escort you back to Netherfield?  I trust that you are a great walker, but the light is getting low.”

“You may escort me as far as the stile,” she said, not meeting his eyes. “For we must both go in that direction. But I can manage from there.” She dearly wished to be alone. For the first time it had been an almost pleasant conversation, only to be marred by his news. Surely, he had meant to cause pain; he knew of Jane’s affection for Bingley, knew of the hopes in the neighborhood for their union.

Bingley’s departure, she reminded herself, need not be forever. He had taken Longbourne upon himself; it would be his duty to return.

***

Bingley left - the whole party with him - two days hence. He visited for only a brief goodbye, and not a single private moment with Jane. It seemed, to Lizzie, that his intention was to leave with no promise, to quell any hopes of his presence or its significance. She did not see Mr. Darcy again, and was grateful.  

If Jane was greatly distressed, she took pains to hide it. For some time they went about their days, reading and walking and escorting younger sisters to Meryton. She heard less and less the exclamation of “officers!” as their presence became more accustomed within the neighborhood.  

The summer had drawn to a close, and with it the joys of frequent excursions by foot. Netherfield was not so small as to lack diversion, but every few days Lizzie took the carriage and made a call to a neighbor.

Mr. Collins had departed shortly after Mr. Bingley, much to everyone’s relief. The relief was short lived, however, for Elizabeth. Charlotte came to visit her on the day, with her own news.

“Marry Mr. Collins!”

“Lizzie, he is not so awful as you suppose.”

“He is still quite awful.”

“Lizzie, you are a snob! Will you not be happy for me?”

“Oh, dear Charlotte!” Lizzie threw her arms around her friend and embraced her tightly. “I shall try to be happy for you. I am surprised - I had seen no sign of your affections.”

Charlotte pulled back an looked at her sternly, “Not all of us are afforded the luxury of choice. I am not like you; I have never hoped for love. I will be taken care of, I will live a modest life, and I believe that I can be content.”

“Is that what you desire?” Lizzie asked. “To be content?”

“It is.”

“Well, then, I am happy for you.”

“Will you write to me? Hunsford is so far, and I shall miss seeing you so frequently. I want to read of your adventures, and your sisters, and the neighborhood - you always do know precisely what is going on.”

“Of course, my dear.”

“And when my father and Maria come to visit me in March, will you come as well? I think Maria would dearly love the company, and I so desperately want to see you.”

“Charlotte, you have not left Hertfordshire yet!”

“It is soon Lizzie. I am to be married soon.”

Chapter Text

Some years prior Lizzie and Jane made wintering in London a habit. Their father, unwilling to quit Hertfordshire after a family Christmas, had arranged with the Gardiner’s that his daughters might stay with them in their house in Mayfair, and to facilitate their coming and going with a minimum of concern. The Gardiner’s had, as much as possible, allowed Jane and Elizabeth freedom to move with ease through the social engagements of the season, though Jane often preferred to be in the nursery playing with her young cousins, and Lizzie often found herself in the drawing room with Aunt Gardiner catching up on all of the many hours that had passed between them since the winter prior.

It was a pleasant arrangement, made all the better for Jane’s hope that she might soon see Mr. Bingley. She had written to his sister, once or twice, but Caroline had not responded. Lizzie had often thought Caroline an unreasonably proud woman, passing judgement over all and aspirational above her station. She wondered if she would arrive in London to find Miss Bingley yet engaged to Mr. Darcy, which had been, throughout her time in Hertfordshire, so clearly her object.

The opening of the season had already passed, as Lizzie and Jane had arrived late on account of the family holiday, as was their father’s insistence. Neither had felt much resistance to this requirement; their father asked little of his daughters (and almost nothing of his youngest, who seemed to regard him as a fly on the wall or a cat in the kitchen, and not as a parental figure), and of late they had begun to find the London season tiring. There were so many parties and balls, so much expectation held over a few months acquaintance - and in many seasons, neither had secured a partner, but had both felt immense disappointments.

It was in this mindset that Lizzie donned a new, deep navy gown, and joined her sister - in a soft pink that seemed to make her glow - in the carriage for a ball in Hyde Park. Whereas the Bennet’s were amongst the wealthiest of their neighborhood due to the generosity of their father, as their lower-born mother had not brought a great fortune into the marriage - those amongst London society were the most depravedly rich and most elegant, and Lizzie often felt that she could not keep up. By the end of every season, she would decide that she did not want to keep up, and mid-spring gladly returned to Netherfield Park with her sister to enjoy the country far away from the intrigues of the vastly wealthy and proud.

“I do not,” Lizzie declared to Jane, “relish this outing at all.”

“Lizzie! You love a ball, and you love to dance. Have patience; we shall arrive, and you shall be swept up by a wonderful partner, and all will be well.”

“I do hope you are right. I feel I am tired, these days, of balls.”

“It has been some weeks since you have been at a ball.”

“Indeed; the last I attended I consumed too much wine, fell in front of Mr. Darcy, and woke with a headache the size of Hertfordshire.”

“Well, I should think that is easily solved tonight, by exercising caution in how much wine you consume and by avoiding Mr. Darcy!”

“Do you think he might be here?”

“Don’t look so alarmed, Lizzie! What has come over you?”
Elizabeth steeled herself. “I find myself so frustrated by the man. I should rather wish he was not an acquaintance at all, so I could gleefully ignore him.”

“And you cannot be impolite,” conceded Jane, though she knew that Lizzie was excellent at being impolite, when she felt it warranted.

The assembly, far grander than those in Meryton, filled with gowns in the latest fashion and hair pieces as high as the heavens, was already quite full when the Bennet sisters arrived, beyond fashionably late. They were not friendless in London, but it would be a difficult to find acquaintances in such a crush as this.

“We will struggle to dance tonight,” Lizzie observed. The floor was quite full.

“I thought you didn’t want to dance?” Jane called above the noise.

“You know me. Capricious!”

“Is that so?” She heard from behind. The pair turned - straight into Mr. Bingley.

“Mr. Bingley!” They cried, almost in unison.

“Miss Bennet! And Miss Elizabeth! What a surprise to see you here!” His smile was broad - he acknowledged Lizzie, but was looking full at Jane now, as if she had set the world to turning.

“Is your sister accompanying you tonight?” Lizzie ventured to break their gaze. Caroline had known of their arrival in town thanks to Jane’s letters; it would be strange if she had not passed the news to her brother.

“She is!” Bingley said. “Shall we find her? Caroline would love to see an old friend here.”

Find evidently meant “lead,” for Bingley wound expertly through the crowd to an alcove a small distance from the refreshments, where sat Caroline - looking cross to see Jane - and Mr. Darcy, looking sullen and a little bit pale. Lizzie was gratified to realize that his grimace seemed directed, for once, at the general and not specifically at her.

“Darcy! Sister!” Bingley had greeted. “Look who I found, just come in from the cold weather!”

“Come in from the cold weather,” Caroline remarked, “yet dressed for a ball?”

Caroline, for all her faults - of which Elizabeth counted many - was a wit.

“It is lovely to see you, Caroline,” Jane had said. “I am afraid you must not have received my letters; Bingley did not know we would be in town!”

There was no artifice in this, though a less generous person might suspect it. Jane was not given to artifice or intrigues; she made a habit of honesty and though did not often speak up unless she felt it warranted, most sincerely believed that her letters had gone astray.

Elizabeth, who had been looking at Darcy as Jane spoke, suspected otherwise, as he carefully flattened his sneer into a more neutral look. Caroline, though a wit, was not blessed with so malleable a face - and what Jane would undoubtedly call a look of surprise, Elizabeth would call a look of a child being caught with their hand in the sweet jar.

“Well,” she stepped in. “I am glad we have found you now! We have so missed your company these few weeks in Hertfordshire. Have you been enjoying the season here in London?”

“It has been very pleasant,” Bingley answered. “Though the weather has turned a great deal faster than it did last year. We have met so many wonderful new people, and I have been pleased to recall so many friends - such as yourselves.”
Idle chit chat kept this going for a few minutes, but the dance on the floor ended and Bingley entreated Jane to join him for some steps. Elizabeth was saved, as there were two women amongst their company of the evening and Darcy could not choose between them without slighting the other.

Elizabeth spotted Jemima Leaver some steps away, and made her excuses. “I must speak with a dear old friend.”

Jemima raised an eyebrow at Elizabeth’s approach. “Lizzie, darling, what on earth are you doing speaking to Mr. Darcy?”

“Oh Jem, he is not a friend, I can assure you. He was of a party lately staying in our neighborhood, and while his companion is the most agreeable man Meryton has ever seen, Darcy is not much liked in the society there.”

“You must be speaking of Bingley - yes, Bingley does fall in love quite easily, and I believe most find him the sort of neighbor one could wish for.”
Fall in love quite easily - what a thing to say. Perhaps Miss Leaver had witnessed Bingley stepping onto the dance floor with Jane; but she could not have known the hopes among society in a country town.

“Tell me, Jemima,” Lizzie took her arm, “Have I missed a great deal this year?”

“Well, I am sure you heard of Amanda Kittredge’s engagement to Mr. Pellworth.”

“I just received the news in a letter, earlier today. I am surprised.”
“Pellworth has hardly a penny.”

“He is a nice man. Amanda has not much of a fortune to bring to the marriage.”

“It will do. I think she is happy,” Jemima said, handing Lizzie a glass of wine. “She has been so many seasons now without a suitor.”

“it is unconscionable,” Lizzie said. “For she is far too lovely to have been so ignored.”

“Which hearts are you determined to break, Miss Elizabeth?” Jemima laughed. “I have seen you bat away a suitor or two in your day.”
“Oh, then I must tell you a story, when we are in private.”

“Is there news on that front?”
“Shall I say it? We were paid a visit at Netherfield by our cousin.”
“Oh, heavens! Is it what I think it is?”

“It is worse. He was so upset that he removed himself to Lucas Lodge. He is now marrying my dear Charlotte Lucas.”

“I did wonder at her not being here in town with you. The pair of you have so often been inseparable.”
“Well, it is hard to judge and to mock folly without a willing partner.”

“Shall I be your willing partner this evening? It is so busy, and there are so few men of my acquaintance here, I have hardly danced at all.”

“I should tell you then,” Lizzie said, “about a ball we hosted at Netherfield some weeks ago. Mr. Darcy was there, and did ask me to dance.”

“He is a fine dancer.”

“But he is a man of questionable judgement.”

“Do you say so?” Jemima looked puzzled. “I know him to be a quiet man, often brooding in a corner - some say its part of the attraction, though I cannot see it - but his judgement?”

“Have you had different reports, here in London?”

“He resides here with his sister much of the year.”

“That much he told me, though he did speak of an estate.”

“Poor man. He has had to sell so much of it. It truly is a beautiful property in Derbyshire.”

“Have you visited there?” And then, a moment later. “I was unaware he wanted to be rid of it.”

“Perhaps you are right about his questionable judgement, then. I hear it is a grand estate. But the rumor this season is that an employee was involved in some nefarious dealings, and Mr. Darcy was much fooled in him. He has been trying to save face, but it is the talk of the Ton; something is amiss.”
“How horrible!” Lizzie was genuinely aghast. “We heard not a word of this in Hertfordshire. I must confess, when I met him I was not certain he was a gentleman.”
“It must have been a great shock to the family,” Jemima said, “To trust someone, and find them to be a fraud.”

Lizzie found herself looking to the corner where she had left Darcy and Caroline Bingley. He was looking at her, as if he knew that she was speaking of him to her friend, as if he knew what she was thinking at the moment, for as she had often felt it seemed as though he could see straight through her and make out her best and worst intentions.

Uncertain of what to do and hesitant to betray her own thoughts, Elizabeth drained her glass of wine.

“Lizzie!” Jemima said. “Are you well?”

“I feel, my friend, that I may need some air.” For I have made a damnable mistake, if this is true. Every tale had two sides; Wickham felt hard done by, but what of Darcy’s reduced circumstances?

In a sitting room, Elizabeth described her encounters with Wickham to Jemima, and her encounters with Darcy. “You must never speak of this. But you see,” she explained, “it is much thought in Meryton and the surrounding parts that Mr. Darcy has been mercilessly cruel to Wickham, and Mr. Darcy is so taciturn and proud that it has been very easy to believe the tale!”

“You are right that he is not of as easy a manner as Mr. Bingley.”

“And I wonder now if he has reason to be cautious.” But it was not enough to forgive him. And yet - she felt her heart twist. Jane’s missing letters. The looks of disapproval turned toward herself, her sisters, her family. Mr. Darcy may not have defrauded his childhood friend - but he was honor-bound to do the right thing by him, even in hard times, most especially in hard times. The revelation did not make him an agreeable man, and it certainly gave him no right to judge her and her society.

With this, and their return to the party, Elizabeth felt much better. She danced with Mr. MacCallum, a lovely Scottish gentleman whose wife had turned her ankle was unable to dance; she promised a call to Mrs. MacCallum in the coming days. She spoke briefly with Anna Clarke, an old acquaintance who had, lately, spent much time in Bath. She ate a brief meal with Esther Hooper, who was lately engaged, and danced with Esther’s young brother, more recently in society, and in need of a partner or two to make him look good - Lizzie was happy to oblige.

The night was wearing thin when she again found Jane, still with Bingley, chatting with Caroline and Darcy - still together. They would make an astoundingly good couple, Lizzie felt.

“Jane! I feel as though I have not seen you all evening!”
“That is my fault,” Bingley confessed, “for I have kept your sister dancing for far too long.”

“We had worried,” Elizabeth said, “that we might dance little this evening, for the society here in town has changed so greatly over the course of a year.”

“It always does, does it not?” Bingley said. “I am glad that we have run into you; it is good to see the faces of friends.”

When they parted ways at the end of the evening Lizzie felt little reassured about their winter, but greatly better that Jane and Bingley had been reunited and that their affection did remain. Bingley’s manner of departure may have concerned her, but Mr. Darcy and Miss Bingley’s faces upon their reunion had been very telling indeed.

***

Lizzie was not much a fan of the opera, but Jane dearly loved it and Jemima had secured a box for the evening. It would be, she recalled, a wonderful opportunity to comment upon those in attendance, and this lifted her spirits at the prospect.

Jemima was well connected and loved to introduce her friends in hopes of making matches and participating in intrigues.  Joining them, in the box, it turned out, was a Mr. Nathan DeLong. He was young - fresh from Cambridge. His father had made his fortune in trade, his mother was the daughter of a small landowner. He had come to the town to meet all the right people, and Jemima knew all the right people.

The conversation had been going swimmingly when, much to Elizabeth’s surprise, in popped the head of one Mr. Darcy.

“Miss Bennet, Miss Elizabeth” he said. “Miss Leaver.”

“Mr. Darcy,” they stood and curtsied.

“This is Mr. DeLong,” Jemima introduced the young man. “He is a good friend of my dear brother.”

Darcy bowed.  He turned to address her. “I saw you, Miss Elizabeth, across from us, and my sister insisted I must bring you and Miss Bennet to meet her.”

“I should dearly love to meet your sister!” Jane exclaimed, before Elizabeth could make excuses. “I have heard such wonderful things.”

“She cannot,” Lizzie muttered, “have heard such great things of our acquaintance in Hertfordshire.”

But Darcy heard. “As I am sure you are aware,” he said, addressed directly and quietly to her as they walked, “Bingley has only wonderful things to say of our acquaintance in Hertfordshire.”

Elizabeth was prepared to seethe at the impertinence, but Miss Georgiana Darcy was not at alllike she had imagined. Caroline Bingley loved to sing her praises, and so she had assumed she must take after her brother in aspect and in nature. Her demand of an introduction, Lizzie surmised, was evidence of this.

This could not be further from the truth. Miss Darcy, like her brother, was reticent, but it was easily apparent that the situation was not from an excess of pride, but of nerves - the poor girl was shaking.

“My brother has spoken so well of his time in Hertfordshire and of your excellent company,” she stuttered.

Lizzie could not help but raise an eyebrow, glad that the theatre should be so dimly lit that this might go unnoticed.

“I am glad he should think so,” Jane replied, saving Elizabeth of thinking of something kind to say, as she had little good to report of Mr. Darcy’s own occupations in Hertfordshire.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Darcy nudge his sister, who continued, slowly, “Are you enjoying the opera?”

“Greatly,” Jane said. “This libretto is quite a favorite of mine.”

“And you, Miss Elizabeth?” Georgiana asked Lizzie.

“I cannot admit to being so great a fan of the spectacle as Jane, but I do so love the company in the theatre, and the opportunity to observe society from my little box.”

“Miss Elizabeth,” Darcy explained to his sister, “is a keen observer of the actions and follies of others.”

“I should dearly wish to hear of that!”  Georgiana said.

“I must admit it is not so great a thing,” Elizabeth said. “It is perhaps, a fault of mine that I must be so distracted during an excellent performance.”

After a few moments more of conversation, the Bennet’s returned to their box, and the surprised face of Jemima.

“From what I have heard from you of Darcy,” she commented, “I cannot imagine his sister is any better.”

“I believe,” Elizabeth countered, “that Mr. Darcy was attempting to encourage his younger sister to be more social. She appeared very nervous to meet us.”

“I am inclined to agree with you, Lizzie,” Jane said. “Though she could reasonably argue that Mr. Darcy’s excellent account of us informed the desire for an introduction.”

“I admit surprise that he should speak so well of our company.”

Jane explained to Jemima, “My sister Elizabeth has lately taken upon herself to be concerned of the conduct and foibles of our parents and younger sisters.”

“Oh Jem, you have not met them, but it is a miracle that the society of the ton deigns to speak to any Bennet at all!”

“Liz, I shall take that into consideration, should I ever, for some ridiculous reason, wish to end our friendship.”

During this exchange, Mr. DeLong was looking at her with a peculiar tilt to his head.

“Have you been acquainted with Mr. Darcy for long?”

“A few months,” she answered. “He was of a party in our neighborhood, with a friend - Mr. Charles Bingley, who lately took up residence nearby.”

“I have heard of Mr. Bingley,” DeLong said, “Though I have never met him either.”

“He is a wonderful man,” Jane said, and it was hard to miss the dreamy look returning to her eyes.

“Have you seen Darcy’s estate in Derbyshire?” DeLong asked. “Pemberley?”

Elizabeth thought this an odd question. “I have not. Have you?”

“Oh no; I am not yet much in the society of great gentleman.”

There it was. Elizabeth caught Jemima’s eye. This man was quite the social climber.  He was glad to be acquainted with the Bennet’s and the Leavers, but that would never be enough except that it should put him in the company of ever greater men.  He should be much affronted by Darcy’s characteristic disregard in pulling the sisters from the box without taking the time for an introduction. Lizzie, having sussed DeLong out, was much amused - and a little grateful to Darcy for saving her the trouble of having to find out for herself in a few days or weeks.

Jane returned to enjoying the opera and Elizabeth alternately conversed with Jemima and Mr. DeLong - who was charming, to be sure - and watched across the audience in attendance.  She caught, at the close of the third act, the smile of Georgiana Darcy, who was not sitting so far back in the box as she had been. Mr. Darcy sat next to her, looking directly at Lizzie.

And once again, looking directly through her.

Chapter Text

The following week provided the first visit of the Bingley’s to the Gardiners townhouse.  It was clear to Elizabeth that Caroline had neither the desire nor inclination, and that any friendship she had shared with Jane in Hertfordshire had been one of convenience rather than affection.  But Bingley was all eagerness, and he gladly spoke to Mr. Gardiner of hunting and fishing and the relief of getting away from the town, excitedly teased one of the young Gardiner’s who ran delightedly into the drawing room during the visit - and paid so much happy attention to Jane that Elizabeth began to wonder why any other woman might expect to get a look in.

Caroline took pains to mention Mr. Wickham to Elizabeth, most certainly to rile her.

“And how is your favorite - the officer?  Not in London, I see.”

“No,” said Elizabeth.  “Though I would hasten to distinguish an acquaintance and friend of my sisters’ from a particular favorite.  He is stationed with his regiment, as is fitting his position.”

“Your sisters do like their officers.”

Caroline was confirming all of the worst things Elizabeth had feared about her family’s reputation. In Meryton and the surrounding neighborhood, perhaps the Bennet’s were known and loved despite all of their quirks.  But husbands were not to be got from that surrounding neighborhood, and to an outsider - particularly one of society like Miss Bingley - the family conduct was distinct rather than distinguished.

“My sisters are very young,” she said.  “I do not think it is so unreasonable, as young girls do love to be social.  They shall quickly bore and grow out of it.”

“For your sake, and the sake of darling Jane,” said Caroline, with a sneer, “I do hope so.”

The threat was not missed.  Elizabeth stifled the rising panic in her throat, opting to redirect the conversation.  Perhaps the situation was not so dire.  Perhaps she might yet find a way to fix things, for the sake of her sisters.

“Miss Bingley, tell me, how have you been enjoying the season?  For Jane and I often arrive so late that we have missed a great many engagements and no small amount of good gossip.”

The lure of good gossip was more than enough, though Miss Bingley would never dare admit it.  She began describing all of the “wonderful, by far and away the best” balls that Elizabeth had been so shocking as to miss.  There was the first ball at Hyde Park - far grander than the event at which they had recently reunited.  There was a gathering of Ladies at the Fortnum’s tearoom that the Misses Bennet absolutely must join.   

It was no great surprise that Bingley focused all of his attention on Jane, but Elizabeth was struck with the sudden - and somewhat painful - realization that should he and Jane marry, if her family had not actually destroyed all hope of it - she would be much in the company of Miss Bingley and should strive to make the most of the acquaintance.  You cannot always consider her an odious woman, she told herself.  She brushed aside the next implication; the thought that, if she were to be much in Miss Bingley’s company, she would be much in Mr. Darcy’s, for he was Bingley’s friend, and Caroline so clearly wished to marry him. 

The visit was brief, as Caroline had promised visits to a great many people, “You understand,” she said, “how it is when you are in town.”

Jane and Elizabeth said their goodbyes, and as the door closed behind their guests, Elizabeth could not help but moan aloud. “Odious woman!”

“Lizzie!” 

“You know it is true. She looks down her nose at us as though our fortunes were less than hers - for what, the sin of living in the country and having some silly sisters? Odious!”

“While I must admit that it has taken a little longer than I would have liked to befriend Caroline, I do not think I would say she is so hateful as you think.”  Jane reasoned.

“Your views are colored because you are so in love with her brother.”

“Lizzie!”

“You scold me often, sister, and for good reason.  But I say nothing that is not true. You are too kind and generous of character to recognize that Caroline is quite the opposite. You say that our family reputation is not damaged by our sisters’ silliness, but it is precisely women like her of which I am worried.  You know, she hid your presence in town from him; it was only a good deal of luck that we met again at the ball.”

“Bingley has a good deal on his mind.  It is a difficult thing, newly running one’s own estate! Can you imagine, knowing what you do of Papa’s own business, how much it must take to start anew?”

“Did he speak of his manner of departure?  It was too quick, and he spoke nothing of a return.  Will we see him again in Hertfordshire?”

“I almost daren’t raise it,” Jane said, “but Bingley was all goodness; he said that he was sorry to have left so quickly, and only didn’t speak of his return because he wasn’t certain how long things might take.  Mr. Darcy had insisted that the business at hand needed to be done in London, though Bingley says he cannot see that it was so important, and that next time he might do it from his study, so that he can be in residence like ‘a real country gentlemen,’ instead of to-ing and fro-ing to London.”

Jane was smiling as she said this; it was great compliment to her, that he wished to be more in their country neighborhood.

Elizabeth, however, could not help from frowning.  Mr. Darcy had insisted - and she recalled their conversation, so shortly after the ball.  Darcy had been the means of separating them; Caroline had been the enforcer of it.

“Jane, excuse me.” She stood.

“You are in a strange temper today.”

“I am going for walk.”

***

The next evening, Jane and Elizabeth found themselves invited to a dinner party at Anne Wallingford’s.  Anne had been, in years previous, a dear friend of Jane’s, though following her marriage to Sir Wallingford had been less in their company.  The dinner was to be a small party, and an opportunity for Jane to reminisce with her friend.  Elizabeth had been assured that she would meet “some lovely young men of our acquaintance” - no reason for artifice, had Anne - and that she would be seated with the most delightful of them.

Wallingford House was not so far from the Gardiner’s, and so the Bennet sisters arrived quite a good deal earlier than many of the guests, for the pleasure of Anne’s company.  “My dears!  It is so good to see you.  And it is good that you have arrived early, so we may have more time to ourselves.  Elizabeth, my friend Mr. Cartwright has arrived just a few minutes before; it would be my delight to introduce you.”

Should you not, thought Elizabeth, introduce Jane as well? Jane would not be subjected to the same; they had been in town only a short while and already it was widely known that she was receiving the attentions of Mr. Bingley - it only took one well-attended ball for the gossip mill to grind. Miss Bingley and Mr. Darcy must have been seething.  Elizabeth held her tongue, for the night was yet young.  Anne Wallingford was one of those women who, after finding herself successfully and happily married, believed that she owed it to her circle of acquaintance to pass on the blessing by inviting them to dinners and dances with as many eligible potential suitors as she could find, and setting about trying to make a match.  It was, Elizabeth reflected, a common characteristic of the London season - the husband finding - but this was not her first season, and she had known Anne Wallingford in the years when the poor woman had despaired that she was too plain to find a husband, too boring to ever be a mother, that she should die a penniless old maid - and felt not a little put upon by Anne’s exertions.

Mr. Cartwright was a handsome man.  He was not exceedingly tall, but he had an athletic look about him that Elizabeth appreciated.  His sideburns were, perhaps, a little long for the fashion, but his coat was neat and new and his smile charming.  When he stepped forward upon introduction, and bowed comically deeply, it was the twinkle in his eye that gave it away.  She suspected he would be a wonderful conversationalist.

“Mr. Cartwright,” she asked.  “How is it that I have never yet met you here in London?  I feel I have met a great many of my friend Anne’s acquaintance.”

Mrs. Wallingford did not appear to have heard, and so this snark was worthless, and Mr. Cartwright did not pick up on it. “I was in London the season past, though I admit that my business affairs frequently take me from town, and I was unfortunate so as to miss some of the best events of that winter.”

“And pray, tell me, what is your business that takes you so often from town?  My father, when he has business, must come up here to London, which he so hates to do.”

“I must return home to Liverpool,” he explained.  “My father owns a great factory there, and has tasked me with the running of our trade with the city.”

Ah, there it was.  A family in trade.  Mr. Cartwright was looking at her for her reaction, of course.  She was not so proud as Miss Bingley (whose family, Elizabeth reminded herself, had made their own fortune in trade). “Ah, that is an interesting occupation,” Elizabeth said.  “We have no factories in Hertfordshire, that I am aware of; our estate includes a great deal of farmland, and of course the varied business that comes from such. 

“I am convinced,” said Mr. Cartwright, that factories and industry will be the future.  “I am very excited to be at the forefront of such developments.”

“Are you much in parliament?”  Asked Elizabeth.  “For labor laws are much debated in the halls of Westminster.”

“Thankfully,” said Mr. Cartwright, “I am not.  I do not much like Westminster.”

“Neither, I suppose, should I.”

“Tell me about Hertfordshire.  Liverpool is a city, as is London, but I have not spent nearly so much time in the country as I should like.”

“Well, if you had, you would find in the country a great difference.  Here, if we wish to visit our neighbors, we need not even take the carriage - we simply step out of the house, walk a few paces, and there we are!  Our closest neighbors, in Hertfordshire, are a mile away.”

“You must spend a great deal of time in carriages.”

A voice, deep and resonant and far too familiar, interrupted.  “You will find, Mr. Cartwright, that Miss Elizabeth has a strange allergy to carriages.”

“Mr. Darcy!”  Elizabeth jumped.  She turned to see him towering over, but smiling in a good humor that lit up his eyes.  It was surprisingly pleasant; she almost forgot that she was still angry with him.

“Miss Elizabeth, I am sorry for giving you a shock.” He bowed low.  “And for such a joke.”

“You should not be,” she turned. “Mr. Cartwright, you see me dressed up and clean here in this drawing room, but should you encounter an Elizabeth Bennet in Hertfordshire, her hair should be wild about her and her hem should be so brown and muddy that you would hardly think her a gentleman’s daughter.  Mr. Darcy has been unfortunate enough to see me in such a state.”

Mr. Cartwright’s eyebrow raised.  “You go scampering around the countryside?”

It occurred, suddenly to Elizabeth, that not all would find such a thing a lark, and while Darcy had spoken in kind jest, perhaps she should not have been so ready to laugh about it. Mr. Darcy had dared to tease her though, and she knew what he was like when severe; hopefully Cartwright would take his lead. “Scampering is such a good word for it! I dearly love to walk, and to be out of doors in the air.  I do not dislike London, and in the winter when I cannot be out and about I find it quite a worthy distraction, but I find it less to my tastes than the country.” 

“I must then,” Cartwright declared, “spend more time in the country.  The company sounds quite delightful!”

“I can assure you, it is.”  Darcy said. He was not, she surmised, speaking of her own neighborhood; she had heard great things of Pemberley, mostly from Caroline Bingley.

Shortly later, the company moved to the dining room, where Elizabeth was seated between Cartwright and a man - oddly enough - named Liverpool.  Darcy was some seats away from her, but as she chatted, she felt that recurring sensation, so often felt in his presence, of being watched.   

Cartwright continued to ask about the life she lived in the country, agog that she had four sisters and that none were yet married.  “For I,” he said, “have only one sister and that is quite enough for me!”

“I would have dearly loved a brother, but I find there are particular advantages to numerous sisters that others do not possess.”

“Oh, pray, do tell! I find family stories very amusing.”

“Well,” she said, “I dare say, as a child one does become very good at sharing.  Even in a large house, well equipped, there are only so many books and children’s toys, and pianofortes to go around.” This was only semi-serious; in adulthood there was less concern of such things as was encouraged in children, but Mr. Cartwright nodded, as though taking the point very seriously. 

“I am,” she said, “as we have discussed, very fond of walking and exercise; it does me much good to get away to clear my head, for I never shall if my mother is anywhere in the vicinity. I am a great appreciator of solitude.

“I am also far more patient and forgiving of others foibles than some.” Now, she was keenly aware of Darcy’s attention in her direction - he was ignoring his conversational partners almost completely in order to eavesdrop.  “I have three younger sisters, each sillier than the next.  If I did not have the forbearance to grant them the same mercy I received at their age, I would be much poorer a person for it.”

“Your sisters cannot be so silly,” Cartwright said, “if they were raised in the same home as such an excellent woman as yourself.”

“You have only just met me,” Lizzie chided.  “Do not presume my excellent just yet.  You have not yet had long enough of an acquaintance to see all of my great folly.”

His comments were beginning to verge on too-earnest.  Elizabeth wished she had not been so animated now; he had misread her intentions.

Thankfully, Liverpool interrupted. “Are these skills you truly believe one must develop?  I have many brothers, and I fear that their trying my patience has not improved me, and instead has much loosened our relationship.”

“Many brothers!”  She laughed.  “Would that our parents have decided upon a swap.”

He puffed his chest, jokingly, and flexed his arms a little, “I could have been a country boy.”

“I do not know that I could be a man of the country,” said Cartwright.  “It sounds like a many great things to keep care of.  In the city, my father has staff that cares for such trifles.”

“My father has stewards and tenants,” said Elizabeth, “but that would not excuse him from being irresponsible with his estate.  The responsibilities, I think, are not so greatly different from the running of a household - there are books to be accounted for and balanced, economies to be made, staff to consider.”

“You speak decidedly,” said Liverpool, “for not yet having the running of a household. You seem to understand the scope of the task.”

“I do hope so,” said Elizabeth, feeling the judgement emanating from further down the table at such frank and impolite conversation.  “For otherwise, I have seen far too many lambs birthed and practiced far too many sums for a gentlewoman.”

“It always strikes me that there are a great many things a lady must accomplish in society.”

“Yes,” she said, “and thank goodness that they can be learned, for I have not a great deal of skill or natural inclination to any of them.”

As the table was cleared and coffee was served in the drawing room, Elizabeth gladly excused herself from Cartwright, who throughout the course of the conversation had pitched from over-eager to simpering.  His endless questions of country life had been charming at first, and then a bit off-putting; he must be another relentless social climber, for the next step for a wealthy man of the town would be to purchase a country estate he could enjoy during hunting season and otherwise wholly ignore. She had tried, when she could, to shock him, but feared that it only provided a great story for home: “I met a country girl and here are the wild recollections she shared.”

Liverpool, on the other hand, was engaging yet more measured.  He was rather short and stout and seemed less interested in Elizabeth herself than in the roast.  This, she decided, she minded less than the over-attentions of Cartwright.  Liverpool was an equal she may respect; she might jest with him without worrying he mistook it for a flirt. They continued their conversation as they moved about the room, discussing the upsets and joys of having far too many siblings. 

“It is far more unusual,” she said, “to hear of a family with too many boys!”

“I fear,” he said, “that my mother dearly wanted a daughter.  She will one day have them - four of them - but none she should get to teach to sew or play or draw.”

“She could,” Lizzie teased, “have taught her sons.”

He chuckled.  “We were a rambunctious lot, and she soon gave up on so much as keeping our breeches clean.”

“That I understand,” she said.  “The lure of the outdoors.”

“It is great.”  He said, then patted his belly.  “Though I fear I do not get so much of the exercise as I should.”

“There is something in that,” she said.  “For as a child I roamed the estate with a great deal of freedom. I do so, now that I am grown, but I find a bit more consternation, if I should be seen running across the meadow.”

“Ladies fashions are not tailored to the activity.”

“It is a great disappointment.”

“Have you a remedy to recommend?”

“I dearly love to walk.  My mother despairs that I never take the carriage nor go on horseback when I could walk the three miles into the village.”

“How shocking!” Liverpool gave her a conspiratorial wink.

“Precisely why my mother despairs.”

The party was breaking up for cards, which Liverpool was disinclined to play, but Darcy took his seat next to Elizabeth, and so Cartwright made of a point of taking the seat on her other side, perhaps hoping for an introduction.  Picking the lesser of two evils - the first time she had considered him thus - Elizabeth turned to Darcy.

“Mr. Darcy!” Elizabeth said.  “How is your sister? I did not get the opportunity to ask earlier, but it was lovely to meet her and I hope only the best for her health and her time in town.”

“She is well.  She and I are of a kind; not so much given to the great social occasions of the season.  It was a great effort for her to attend the opera; friendly faces such as yours and Miss Bingley’s made it easier.”

“It is a wonder that you spend so much time in town, if you do not like it.”

“I think you are aware, Miss Elizabeth, how often we must do things that we do not like to do for the sake of our betterment and health.”

“You criticize me, Mr. Darcy.” 

“I do not, and no such ill was intended.”

“I tease,” she reversed course quickly.  “You know that I am the most horrible of teases.”

“You amuse yourself,” he said, “by other’s follies.”

“And turn a blind eye to my own, of course.”

Darcy was careful with his next words, looking to Lizzie instead of the rest of the table. “I suspect you have found very little to amuse yourself by in such illustrious company as this.”

“No discernible folly, I assure you.”

Of course Mr. Darcy had been paying attention to their dinner conversation.  He had been utterly taciturn with his own dinner partners.  Cartwright, next to her, was oblivious.

“A great pity.  How are you to occupy yourself this season without the ills of others?”

“There is time yet for some silliness, I do hope.” 

“I pray that your time in London will be productive then.”

“As I pray will yours.”

“I am told that in order to secure your own understanding of a task, you must teach it.  I am endeavoring to acquaint Georgiana with practices of parties and outings, such that she feels more at ease when introduced to society.  In such a way, I am practicing my own skills.”

“No one here would have found your skills lacking, Mr. Darcy.”

“No one?” He looked her square in the eye, a smile pulling at the corners of his lips.

She laughed - and tried to stifle it, so that it came out as a strange honk followed by utter silence. 

This in turn, made Darcy laugh.

“Pray tell,” Cartwright asked.  “What is such great amusement?”

Elizabeth could not contain herself; it would be up to Darcy to respond.  He tried to square his face, but failed - the merriment, combined with Cartwright’s bewildered look, was a bit too much.

Jane, at another table, looked over, and observed, and wished - not for the first time - that Elizabeth would get a little bit outside of her own head.   

***

The following day, the Gardiner household was blessed with another visit; that of Mr. and Miss Darcy.

Though she generally disliked Darcy as a proud, judgmental man, and had a great many suspicions about his activities against her and Jane, Lizzie found that she much more appreciated this visit than that of the ever-odious Caroline Bingley, who never entered a room except to be the grandest dame in it.  Georgiana Darcy was the purest opposite of Miss Bingley; she always wanted to shrink and guide attention away from herself, when she had a far greater deal to recommend her than Caroline did.  It was a pity, Elizabeth again reflected, that Caroline Bingley so desperately wanted to be Miss Darcy’s sister.  Her conversation the evening before at Anne Wallingford’s had reminded her of the many benefits to so many sisters; it was a pity that Miss Darcy did not have one like Jane to encourage her.

Mr. Darcy was all politeness, which was a surprise.  It was his first introduction to Mr. Gardiner, who happened to be at home, and so they chatted of business matters and recent difficulties with the ports.  Jane and Lizzie engaged Georgiana in a halting and slow conversation, trying to draw out of her at least some idea of her personality.  She defaulted, when stressed, to glorifying her wonderful and loving brother.  Elizabeth reflected that, whatever his faults in her company, Mr. Darcy did genuinely seem to be an excellent brother to his only orphaned sister.

At length, Elizabeth tried another tactic.  “Have you ever been to Hertfordshire, Miss Darcy?”

“I fear I have not.” She said.

“That is where we met your brother, as he was staying for some time with a new neighbor,” she said.

“So I have heard!  My brother speaks so well of his time visiting with Bingley.  He found Hertfordshire quite delightful.”

Elizabeth felt Jane turn and look at her, even as she kept her eyes trained on Georgiana; again, this was a surprising declaration, for Darcy had never shown any enjoyment in her company.  “I am certain that Hertfordshire could not hold a candle to Derbyshire. My aunt Gardiner here is from the neighborhood and speaks often of its charms.”

This changed the tenor of the conversation entirely.  “Mrs. Gardiner, you are from Derbyshire?”

“I am,” she said.  “I was raised in the village of Lambton.”

“Lambton!”  This was the most emotion she had ever seen Georgiana display.  “Why, Lambton is but five miles from Pemberley!”

“I am sorry,” said Mrs Gardiner, “for I had not realized that you were the Darcy’s of Pemberley!  Of course; it is a beautiful estate.  You have much to be proud of.”

“My brother take great pains with the care of it,” said Georgiana. And then, a shadow fell across her face, as if she had said too much.  “It has certainly had its ups and downs, of course.”

The sudden turn was what caught Elizabeths attention; she turned to see Darcy’s reaction.  His face was studied and calm, but his eyes were all on her sister.  He was not angry or judgmental - no, she was familiar with those looks - but she could see the concern for his sister.  Georgiana was not used to so much meaningless conversation, but Elizabeth could not figure out where she might have erred.

“All great estates do,” Mrs. Gardiner was reassuring. “I have certainly heard much of the same of Netherfield!”

Georgina turned to Jane and Elizabeth.  “Please tell me more of Netherfield Park.  My brother says it is one of the prettiest estates he has ever seen.”

“Your brother does it a great service speaking so well of it,” said Elizabeth, “for it is merely a country estate you might find anywhere in the neighborhood.  I hear your aunt, Lady Catherine DeBourgh, has one of the grandest estates in all of England. My cousin, you see, is her parson.”

“It is a wonder that we should all be so connected!”  Said Georgiana.  “I am only sorry we did not make your acquaintance sooner.”

She seemed, at that moment, to remember her manners.  “Mrs. Gardiner, the next time you or your family are in Lambton, you must come and visit us at Pemberley.”

“That would be a great pleasure,” Said Mrs. Gardiner.

Darcy spoke up now, evidently having been eavesdropping again.  “Absolutely.  And Mr. Gardiner, do you enjoy fishing?”

“I must confess I do.”

“It is settled; the next time you are in the neighborhood, you must visit and make use of our ponds; I fear the trout have been given too much freedom of late.”

Georgiana’s face flushed for the affirmation of a job well done.

Jane smiled at Lizzie, as if to say, see how well this is all going?

Lizzie was troubled, however.  She could not make heads nor tales of Mr. Darcy, and meeting his darling sister had only complicated the matter.  She wished she could hate him so for his many slights against her and hers, except once again she found that she could not while he was working so hard to his own version of charming. It was beginning to be quite worrisome. 

Chapter Text

Some days hence, Jane and Elizabeth were obliged to return a visit to the Bingley’s, and so dressed neatly in their best winter dresses and shawls, took the carriage over to the townhouse. The Hursts were there, though they had not been some days earlier, and Elizabeth was gratified because it meant that she alone was not solely responsible for conversation with Caroline, as there was no doubt in her mind that Jane and Bingley would appreciate some time to speak alone. Now, the conversation would be split multiple ways - and while Jane and Bingley were still likely to split off, between three of them Elizabeth suspected that she could at least produce a tolerable afternoon, if not quite an enjoyable one.

It was obvious now that Mrs. Hurst was increasing, which meant that the conversation could drift into new territory - parenthood. While Elizabeth had expected a more subtle conversation of the joys of childhood and governesses and nurses, Miss Bingley seemed to lack the tact, and spent much of a quarter of an hour making instructions at her sister. Elizabeth felt that such lecturing could have otherwise waited until the sisters were alone; it was clearly done for effect to demonstrate Caroline’s superiority of knowledge about infants. Unfortunately, as the youngest Bingley sister, all it did was demonstrate her lack of experience; Elizabeth, with three young sisters, and a handful young cousins she currently resided with, knew a great deal more. She spent some brief time reassuring Mrs. Hurst that she had observed the experience of motherhood to be the greatest joy to those who undertook it.

Across the room, Jane and Bingley were clearly deep in intimate conversation. Elizabeth wondered how much of their parting - albeit for only a couple of months - had harmed the fledgling relationship. Were they starting afresh? Had Bingley had cold feet? His manner of departure had certainly indicated so - he had been jumpy at first, as if waiting to be confronted for leaving instead of proposing marriage. Now, the pair seemed serene, and happy. Elizabeth hoped - for the sake of her sister - that she would leave town with an engagement well in hand.

The Gardiner's could not often spare the carriage for the Bennets, as Mr. Gardiner’s business frequently saw him about town, and so the next stop was the Darcy’s townhouse, thankfully close by.

With every encounter with Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth found herself pulled in different directions. In recent weeks in London, he had seemed vastly more pleasant a conversation partner than she had ever found him to be in Hertfordshire. But her knowledge, even from their first encounter in London, that he had been complicit in keeping Bingley from Jane upon their arrival in London, that he had been aware of her plight with the carriage in their early acquaintance, that he had been involved, in some way, in Mr. Wickham’s misfortune - all this countered her knowledge of a doting brother to Miss Georgiana, an intelligent conversationalist, a man who did not trifle. In the latter, she found herself all respect. In the former, she found herself all revolt.

It did not help the way that even now, he watched her. Jane was exchanging slow pleasantries with Georgiana. If Elizabeth had not felt so divided, she would have engaged Darcy in conversation to ease Georgiana’s performance anxiety, but she could not bring herself to be so politely benign. As it was, Darcy’s eyes did bore through her; she was tempted to let him know it was rude to stare. She was reminded, too, of the revulsion those eyes had at times borne toward her and though she felt his gaze, she dared not turn to look.

The visit was brief, and the promise of another was made; Georgiana would visit them - perhaps, Elizabeth hoped, alone - in the coming week or two. Darcy murmured acknowledgement to the plan. The Bennet sisters made their exit.

In the carriage, Jane chided Lizzie, “You were incredibly taciturn today, not like yourself at all.”

“I found our time with the Bingleys and Hurst’s quite exhausted all of my conversation.”

“It would have been good, if you could have engaged Mr. Darcy in some conversation.”

“The onus was not solely on me, dear sister. He could have spoken as well.”

“I see you still dislike the man.”

“I find he confounds me.”

***

When they arrived back to the Gardiner’s house, Jane busied herself with the children, and Lizzie found herself in her uncle’s library, searching for a diversion. But no book caught her interest; she felt greater calm in pacing the room than picking up a volume.

Mr. Gardiner joined her shortly after.
“Elizabeth, my dear,” he said. “May I help you find a volume?”

She turned to him. “I must admit, Uncle, that I have not been searching in earnest. My thoughts are much distracted, and I would like some diversion.”

“Your sister Mary would recommend the word of the Lord for such distraction.”

“I am not seeking my own edification, I must confess. I am seeking pure entertainment. I wish to forget this morning entirely.”

“Then a novel it must be!” He looked with her. “Would Thomas Hardy do?”

“Too dour.”

“A Radcliffe volume?”

“If you have some to hand! I would not expect it of you, Uncle.”

“Oh, my wife does seek diversion at times, too.”

Elizabeth took the book, and then looked about her, feeling a little lost.

“Would you like to sit?” Her uncle offered one of the oversized library chairs. “It is not your chair in the library at Netherfield, and I cannot promise so great an ear, but if you desire to speak, I will do my best to reply as your father would.”

“I do not know, Uncle, that I would be able to seek my father’s advice in this matter.”

“But you are seeking advice?”

Lizzie sat down, set the book aside, and began. “Uncle, last summer, I began to despair that my family may soon become my sister’s ruin. It was ill of me, Uncle, to think thus of my mother and sisters and sometimes even my father, but there it is. We live in the country, not much exposed to polite society; our manners are known by our neighbors, who in turn have their own peculiarities, and we are loved enough in the village and in our circle.”

“Elizabeth, I know that your mother - my dear sister - can be trying at times. I am surprised you should feel her behavior might be a cause of distress. Your mother loves you and wishes only the best for you, or she would not part with you for so long every winter, to stay with us.”

“I do not question my dear Mama’s intentions,” Elizabeth explained, and realized that - without unnecessarily slandering her own relations to another - she must provide the context and tell the whole. “But in the late spring, we were introduced to a new neighbor, a man from town and his company.”

“Mr. Bingley,” Mr. Gardiner supplied, well aware of the family’s acquaintance with the man. He must have received a letter with the news; his arrival had been the most exciting thing to happen at Netherfield Park since the pig got out and trampled a hedgehog.

“And he is a joyful, felicitous sort of man; I had no doubt that he enjoyed our country company.”

Her uncle raised an eyebrow. This was the difficult bit. “He brought with him his sister - Miss Caroline Bingley, who called here last week, but I don’t think you were in - and his friend, Mr. Darcy, whom you have met and spoken with.”

“Darcy is such a pleasant chap! It does not surprise me that they are friends.”

“Well,” said Elizabeth, “It shocks me.”

“Why would that be?”

“Mr. Darcy and Miss Bingley both made it clear, upon their arrival in Hertfordshire, that their presence was in aide to Mr. Bingley, not from any excess of feeling about the neighborhood. I felt, from the off, their passing judgement on the society there. I saw Darcy to be a proud, unpleasant man, and Miss Bingley to be much of the same. But after several encounters - the main, a ball hosted at Netherfield Park at the end of the summer - well, our family display was so tasteless, so embarrassing, that I barely dare to think of it. My mother, speaking so loudly of her pride at securing her daughter a rich man - when it was nothing more than a rumor the neighborhood had been swept up in, for as you know, no engagement has been made - and my sisters, flirting and flouncing around with officers, no heed to propriety - and Mary, socially tone deaf, and my father, taking no pains to curb any of this behavior. I must admit, in my own shame, I drank an excess of wine and found myself stumbling in the hall, very near Mr. Darcy who had to catch me and prevent disaster. It was, even now recalling it, worse than I had remembered.

“Any friendship that had grown between us and the party seemed to wash away - no matter our wealth or status in the neighborhood, we were exposed as country buffoons. Mr. Bingley soon fled the country in an excess of awkwardness, barely acknowledging his courtship of Jane. Jane had sent letters to Miss Bingley, indicating our annual return to London for the season, but they seem to have gone unheeded - whatever Bingley’s temperament, his family and friends do not seem happy for his acquaintance with ours, and if they are not even now taking pains to discourage him, I should be very surprised indeed.”

Elizabeth, though tormented over Mr. Darcy’s strange regard for her, could not outline it, for she could barely get her head around it - and the business with Wickham, an officer - she began to suspect that in taking her Aunt Philips’ advice to be less of a skeptic, she was doing herself a disfavor.

Her Uncle Gardiner, mercifully, sat with her words for some time, before responding. “Have you spoken with your father of your concerns?”

“I have voiced my opinion to him from the first it became clear that my youngest sisters were unparalleled in their silliness. This did not merely develop in recent months; it has been a failing of years.”

“But in this specific concern, about your sister Jane’s happiness?”

“I am embarrassed to say that I am aware I am complicit in all of this wrongdoing, for I have not. I spoke at length with my dear friend - Charlotte Lucas, though now she is my dear cousin Charlotte Collins - and she reminded me that our own society has known the Bennet’s and still seeks out their company. This would be wonderful, except that there are five of us, all unmarried, and not so many eligible bachelors in our own society to go around. I have done us a disservice by refusing Mr. Collins in marriage, though I found him to be a most tedious and ill-mannered man.”

“You have not,” Mr. Gardiner said, unfortunately familiar of the situation with Mr. Collins, “Done your family ill in that regard, Elizabeth. And your friend speaks well; your family is well-regarded, and a few silly sisters will not put paid to that.”

“I dearly hope so, but even as we speak I cannot get the measure of the situation.”

“Do you truly think a man such as Mr. Darcy might endeavor to convince Bingley the match is folly?”

“You have met him on his best behavior,” Elizabeth said. “I have seen him capable of great offense. Even today, as we visited, he said not but ten words the whole time we were in his company. He likes Jane as a kind friend to his shy sister, but I think it is no more than that.”

“Then Elizabeth, I think there is but one solution.”

“If there is a solution, I shall be endlessly happy. I cannot think of one.”
“You are right. You cannot undo the damage already done, and you cannot convince your mother to become what she is not. There is a reason your father loves the country so much - this London politicking is abhorrent to him, and I am sorry to hear that so many Londoners have invaded your neighborhood!

“While your sisters do need to be checked, this has never been your responsibility, and the wills of young women are not something in your power to change. What you can do, Elizabeth, is read your book. You can be kind to Jane, whose fortunes are uncertain and who we know will be suffering silently. And here in London, you can be a paragon to the Bingley’s and Darcy’s of all that is good and right, and perhaps they will see your family in light of its two most excellent daughters, and not in light of a party where I suspect, my dear niece, you were not the only one in possession of too much wine. I fear your pride has been hurt, but I beg you not to continue hurting yourself with such fruitless ruminations.”

It was a pretty speech with no true solution in it, but some advice that Elizabeth took to heart. He was right; her worries were borne of her affection for Jane and no little amount of her own pride. She could not, at this juncture, change anything. Her responsibility now was to be a good sister, and a good friend. Even, she supposed, to company she found odious.

And to company that she found confounding.

Chapter Text

Lizzie’s first test of civility came a week later with the advent of a ball. She donned a favorite gown; there had not yet been so many balls in London as to exhaust her clothes. She asked the maid to pin her hair in curls, asked Jane that the look was not too severe.  She had an object with this ball; to look as serene and pleasant as Jane did with so little effort. At the very least, she would enjoy herself and not get into fights with smoldering tall gentlemen. Perhaps, by following Jane’s example, she might meet the sort of non-simpering, easy-going suitor whom would fall quickly in love and whisk her away to another county, and her family would worry her no more.

Elizabeth confessed this to Jane, who chuckled. “That, dear sister, is an ambitious object.”

“I have been much to worried with affairs not my own. Perhaps I should take greater pains with my own concerns.”

“Well,” said Jane, “I am glad that if you would not listen to my advice, you will listen to our Uncle’s.”

The ball was a pleasant event in the center of town, and so the carriage was ordered, and the Bennet sisters safely ensconced. Jane had a notion from Mr. Bingley that he would be in attendance; Elizabeth was certain that if he was to be there, so would his sister, and his friend. She commented as such, to gauge if Jane had any notion they might not.

“They do travel in a little pack,” she said.

“I find this no great surprise; at a Meryton assembly one could always find you or I in the company of Charlotte Lucas.”

“Certainly,” said Jane. “Are you hoping to see Darcy?”

“I had been hoping to avoid him, for if I see him, I am forced to be nice to him.”

“I cannot see what rankles you so of him. But perhaps I am not so great a judge of character as you are; I am not so critical, and often miss folly when it is right in front of my nose.”

“Yes, Jane, you are far too pleasant.  All of our acquaintance like you all the more for it. If your object was to be disliked, you have failed miserably.”

This made Jane laugh, and turned her attention away from the confusing Mr. Darcy and the confused Miss Elizabeth.

Owing to an excess of traffic in carriages and coaches outside the venue, the Bennets were not so early amongst the assembly as they might have hoped. Bingley was already dancing with a young lady, and Caroline Bingley was nowhere to be found. Jane spotted a friend - and in her certain way, that Bingley would endeavor find her - went to join her. Elizabeth found herself alone, and seeking out Jemima or Anne, if she could find them.

As was his wont, she was interrupted by Darcy. “Miss Elizabeth,” He bowed.

“Mr. Darcy.”  Curtsey.

“May I secure your hand for the next set, if you are not otherwise engaged?”

“I am not, and you may.”

There. She had done it; she had been exceedingly nice. It seemed he was on his best behavior as well, for she knew him not inclined to dance. Perhaps, she thought ungenerously, he was lately aware that a gentleman cannot leave so many women partnerless without having at least made an effort with two or three of them before standing aside.

She had not walked two more steps before she encountered Mr. Cartwright.

“Miss Elizabeth Bennet!  I must secure a dance with you!”

And so, without much trying, Lizzie was now busy until at least dinner - and hopefully by then, she should have found a friend.

Mr. Darcy seemed to be more of the friendly aspect she had been experiencing from him in London, full of polite conversation. He asked her of the health of her aunt and uncle. She replied that they were well. She asked after his lovely sister. He thanked her for taking the time to repay the visit.

“I must admit, I was uncertain of what I should find when I met your sister.  Miss Bingley spoke so highly of her, I was sure I should be intimidated, but she is all sweetness.”

“She is a wonderfully accomplished girl, but a girl yet.” He seemed to almost beam with pride, but Lizzie felt the pang; her sisters, still girls, were not much accomplished and seemed to have no idea they were still so young.

“You must be a proud brother.”

“Of Georgiana, the proudest. I was myself young when our mother passed, and again later with the loss of our father. She is growing up quite fine, despite my interventions.”

“It speaks to a stillness of character,” Elizabeth observed.  

“I fear for her; as you have certainly noticed; she is shy.”

“She is not unlike yourself, I suspect,” Lizzie replied. “For I have noticed that you do not much speak in company you are unfamiliar with.”

“We have already spoken at length about this.”

“You are doing admirably now.”

“I believe I can fairly say we have much extended our acquaintance.”

“Yes, well observed. Though I caution that I am not quite yet ready for your childhood secrets.”

He colored, and Lizzie wondered where she had overstepped. He already knew of her muddy skirts and carousing through fields as a child. Perhaps he had been a messier child.

They were quiet for a few moments, and soon enough the dance ended. Darcy excused himself, and Lizzie soon found herself across from Mr. Cartwright, his eyes a bit too eager.

“Miss Elizabeth,” he said, “It is such a pleasure to be in your company again.”

“This pleasure is mine,” she fibbed.  Mr. Cartwright, it turned out, was an excellent dancer, so she found that though she was given to dislike him, at least he made her appear to her advantage.

He asked her more about her family; she asked him how he was enjoying London.  He asked her how many new gowns she usually acquired per season. She pretended he had not asked the question and instead commented on how daring the fashions were this year.  

It was the little impertinences that got to her.  Though coming to London to find a husband was much the norm, she would hardly admit to it, and in years of attending balls and soirees had never much expected to find a man she could love.  Your standards are too high, she could hear Jane, you do not allow anyone close, and so how could you get to know him?

Jane, she thought, you allow so few close either.

There were many wonderful men to be found in town, but some, she felt, were as silly as Lydia in sight of a redcoat.  There were men who had just come into money, and thought it was enough to splash around their wealth to secure a wife. There were men who were raised in the heights of society and refused to mingle with those such as a country gentleman’s daughter. There were - always - more ladies than potential suitors. Lizzie blamed the war. Perhaps an officer would not be so ill a thing.

And there were men like Cartwright; social climbers. She did not resent newly acquired money; all wealth must come from somewhere. And she had no issue with trade either; Mr. Gardiner was in trade, though he did well enough for himself to have secured a house in Mayfair. There were men like Bingley, intelligent and amiable men who took advice and had good intentions.  And there were men like Cartwright, who were eager to know how the game worked so they might manipulate it.

And so Lizzie, at events such as these, accompanied the beautiful Jane and felt a duty toward at least trying - for her family fortunes were not so dire as to need immediate action, but not so great that she would not, at length, need to provide for her own happiness - but she had decided that, as she could afford to be picky, she could afford to have fun and make friends.  She was well aware that an unmarried gentlewoman of good friends might make a reasonable life for herself, should a suitor never materialize. And for all of her examinations of character, Elizabeth did quite like people who weren’t interested in marrying her.

The dance with Cartwright ended, Elizabeth only a little pained by the conversation, and the dinner was soon to begin. It had been engineered that Jane would sit by Bingley, which meant that Elizabeth was to be at their table also - as was Miss Bingley, and the Hursts. A disproportionate number, and as such, she found herself sandwiched between a taciturn Mr. Hurst, and an almost-angry Caroline.

Miss Bingley was too aware of propriety to be silent, though Mr. Hurst - married and soon to be a father - cared little. Elizabeth decided to focus her niceties on Caroline, since her Uncle had reminded her that her own conduct was really all that she had the capacity to change.

“Miss Bingley,” she said, “it has been quite some days since we have seen you! I know my sister was very grateful for your visit.”

“And I,” she said, “was grateful for hers.”

“You have a lovely house here in town. Longbourne must have felt so exceptionally provincial in comparison!” She almost cringed as she spoke it; perhaps a step too far.

“My brother has country tastes,” Caroline said; Elizabeth took pains not to react. “Though he was kind enough to give me the decoration of our house in London.”

“Have you always resided in London?”

“Yes, always.”

“I cannot imagine it! Tell me, did you not suffer for lack of lawns and lanes to run through as a child?”

“I am not like you, Eliza,” she said, “I do not much like to walk, and have never run.”

“We are of very different minds then. Though perhaps I have been unduly influenced; my father despises the Ton and refuses to keep a residence in London.”

“That is why you and your sister live with your Aunt and Uncle?”
“It is a sweet - though I suppose quite cluttered - arrangement. Mrs. Gardiner is most certainly a favorite aunt, and it gives us great pleasure to spend time with our little cousins. I am sure you have friends who appreciate what rare adult conversations they can find.”

“My friends employ governesses.”

This censure put paid to the conversation, and for a few bites of the meal Elizabeth simply observed around her. She noticed Caroline scowling at Jane and Bingley, deep in an intimate conversation. She noticed Darcy ignoring his own conversation partner, Mrs. Hurst, in order to glance in her and Caroline’s direction.

The uncomfortable silence in the middle of a ballroom was insupportable. “Caroline, I must thank you for so well recommending Miss Darcy. When Jane and I met her the week last, it was such a pleasant conversation; she is such a sweet girl.”

That did it; Caroline Bingley’s face blanched; she had not known that the Bennet sisters were associated with her own favorite someday-sister. Both she and Jane had taken care not to mention their next visit to the Darcys with the Bingleys the week prior, for they knew Georgiana to be exceedingly shy and worried about the attention she should receive if their visit was broadly known. But, after its success, Elizabeth felt it safe to test the waters.

“I did not know you were acquainted with the young lady. When were you introduced?”

“Jane and I were attending a performance with my dear friend Jemima Leavers, when we encountered Mr. Darcy.” She said. Best not to even hint that Darcy had sought them out; while she herself knew it was merely the gesture of an acquaintance that he felt he could safely introduce to a gentle sister, she did not think Miss Bingley would see it that way. Lizzie did consider that she had the opposite effect, not of making friends with Caroline but of pushing her in all the wrong ways, for she was clearly much in love with Darcy - but the temptation was too much.

“Ah, yes,” Miss Bingley said. “It is no surprise, for Miss Darcy dearly loves music.”

“Yes, I believe she was enjoying the performance.” Elizabeth confirmed.

“How did you find her?” Miss Bingley asked, though Lizzie had already mentioned her to be a delightful young girl.

“She seemed very well, though unused to much company. Jane is so gentle - she is much better suited to such conversations than I.”

Mr. Darcy’s attention had fixated on them throughout this conversation - it had not been Lizzie’s precise object, but she had figured it to be a happy and amusing side effect. She addressed her comments to him now, acknowledging his stare.
“Mr. Darcy knows me to be a wild and impolitic conversationalist. I am not quite so well suited to his sister’s temperaments.”

“Georgiana,” he said, looking directly at her - Miss Bingley must be steaming, but Lizzie could not turn her head to find out - “is not yet much in public and is practicing her conversation. She will encounter all sorts when she does come out.”

“Glad to be of service,” Lizzie tipped an imaginary cap.

“And,” he continued, “I would not call you wild.”

Lizzie turned then to Caroline, for a stage-whispered aside, “Except that he’s being polite - you’ve both seen my hems in Hertfordshire.”

“You do love a tease, however,” he commented. “It takes some getting used to.”

“Georgiana is a smart young lady; I am confident she will learn quickly.”

“Your advanced skills, Miss Bennet, are a wonderful example for a shy girl.” This was almost a compliment. Elizabeth was all surprise. Mr. Darcy, throughout their acquaintance, had certainly improved his own conversational skills.

Miss Bingley, next to her, was fizzing. She could practically feel the steam coming off the woman, though she dare not look to find out.

After the dinner, there was only some dancing remaining, and Lizzie sought out Jemima to catch up, as she desperately wished to avoid being Shanghaied into a dance with another Mr. Cartwright type.

Her wanderings were joined by Mr. Darcy, who “knew Miss Leavers a little” which would be enough to enable him to help with the search. He seemed eager to leave the grasp of Caroline Bingley, whom he had already danced with for a set. Lizzie’s need to visit with a friend was the perfect opportunity, though unbeknownst to him Lizzie had made no such commitment to Jemima; to her mind it was the natural sort of commitment one made between friends trying to avoid unpleasant conversations with overly proud men.

“Have you known Miss Leavers long?” He asked.

“We met during my first season in town,” she said. “She appreciates a good folly as much as I do.”

“Did she introduce you to Cartwright?”

“She did not - that was the fault of Anne Wallingford.”

“That was a wonderful dinner party.”

“It was. A good crowd - its important to mix new acquaintance and old. I find it is far easier to get a sense of character when one sees another interacting with their friends.”

“If I recall correctly, you were struggling to make out my character. Do you find me such an enigma still, Miss Bennet?”
He had paused to address her with this - it seemed, strangely, almost a serious question, and she did not know how to lighten the mood.

“You are not unlike your sister, Mr. Darcy. Your hesitation to speak in certain social situations is something I so rarely encounter.” This was not quite a clarifying statement, because Elizabeth didn’t know how to say, “but you have treated me and my sister quite ill,” when she did not know how to prove it, and she did not know that she could safely raise the topic of Mr. Wickham in company such as this and still maintain her commitment to civility.

“Miss Bennet, I would like to call on you this week.” Not quite in turn, she thought, but as she had just noted, he was improving in her presence as a conversationalist. “That would be lovely.” And it would be good to see young Georgiana again, who now owed them a visit; Elizabeth had begun to consider it a particular project of the Bennet sisters, to draw her out.

“Excellent,” he said, “I shall visit on Tuesday, if that pleases you.”

“Tuesday suits me quite well.”

***

The next morning, hidden away in their rooms with mugs of coffee, resting away from the buzz of young children after a late night, Elizabeth tried to get the measure of Jane and Bingley’s relationship.

“You must tell me all, dear sister!” This entreaty was too much, but Jane giggled.

“You know that Mr. Bingley is a delightful person. He is a very easy conversationalist. The time flew by.”

“I’m sure it did; he spoke with no one else, danced with only one other.”

“I am sure that is not true.”

“You forget, I was at the table when we ate dinner together.”

Jane looked taken aback; she had forgotten that her sister had been at the table and had seen their conversation - and the total neglect of others.

Jane redirected. “How was your conversation with Miss Bingley?”

“You know that Miss Bingley is my favorite of all the Bingleys.” Jane knew this was patently untrue, and just smiled and sipped her coffee. “I tried so hard to be nice and good - as Uncle Gardiner has been encouraging me - and to not let my dislike of her person color our interactions. But oh, it is difficult! I had to press on her a little, for she is so abominably proud, and thinks so low of us.”

“I am sure that is not true; I am certain that she has a reasonable regard for us, and I cannot believe that you were so horrible to her as you think.”

“It was not that I was so horrible,” said Lizzie, “it is just that it is clear she has set her sights on Darcy as the object of her affections. And you remember, in her time in Hertfordshire, how she sung the praises of Miss Georgiana?”

Jane nodded. Even for Jane, that attempt to impress Darcy had eventually become tiring.

“Well, I mentioned that we had recently made acquaintance with Georgiana…”

“Lizzie! How did she take it?”
“Not well at all!” Lizzie laughed. “And even less so when Darcy began to pay our conversation more attention - he can hear Georgiana’s name from across a room, I dare say.”

“Oh, and she would not have liked that - the idea that the Darcy’s had come to visit!”

“Jane, you say nice things but you know, as well as I do, what Caroline is.”

“Lizzie.”

Lizzie calmed, and looked at her sister. “Oh, Jane, I do understand.”

“I dare not hope,” Jane says, “for some day we will be separated and I recall what happened just months ago. But when I do hope - when I manage just a moment of it - oh Lizzie, I so dearly hope that she would be my sister. Because that would mean that I should be married to her brother.”

“Jane, you would put up with a great deal for your love for others.”

“Do I not tolerate you?”

Lizzie chuckled. “I am eternally grateful for it. It has proved a training ground for your future marital bliss.”

“Lizzie, I do not like the idea of leaving you.”

“There are many things a lady can bring into a marriage, but I do not believe her younger sister is one of them.”

“If I were to marry, promise me you will visit as often as you can!”

“If you were to marry, Jane, you would live just down the lane and it would take brigands and gypsies and an entire regiment to stop me.”

Jane smiled. “I am not so certain that you will be overlong at Netherfield Park yourself.”

“If you know of a suitor, please inform me; I am resigned to being an old maid.”

Jane shook her head, and Lizzie could not tell if it was amusement, or denial, or some other thought that was closed to her.

***

Tuesday dawned unusually bright for Winter in London. The Bennet sisters were quite eagerly awaiting Georgiana’s visit - she was so unlike their noisy young cousins, and held none of the artificial politeness of their acquaintances in town.

So it was a surprise when spotted exiting the carriage was not Georgiana Darcy but her brother alone.  Elizabeth cursed herself; when they had last spoken, he had asked if “I could visit you” not “we could visit you.”

“Jane!” she turned to her sister.  “I think I have made a mistake.”

She hastily explained the whole, and Jane’s face, instead of disappointed, seemed amused.  “It is a nice day,” she recommended, “Why don’t you suggest a walk? It would be lovely to get Fanny out of the house.” Fanny was their oldest female cousin, who had lately been delighting in Jane’s company and the opportunity to escape her noisy younger siblings.

This seemed agreeable until, after the gentleman had made his greetings, it became apparent that Jane would not be walking with them, but behind, as a chaperone.  She silently cursed herself, and cursed Jane for playing such a game, but recalled Mr. Gardiner’s words.

They had walked but a short while in silence, before Mr. Darcy spoke.  

“Miss Elizabeth, I hope that you are well?”

“Yes, sir,” she said, though this ground had already been covered during the course of their earlier greetings.

“And your family?  Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner - they are well?”
“Yes, they are all quite well. I hear regularly from my family in Hertfordshire, who, despite the cold, only have good things to report.”

“That is good to hear.”

He was taciturn again for a little longer, until they reached a little park, which it was only pragmatic to enter.  The trees were bare, but there was no snow on the ground, having melted away in the previous days. It seemed, to Elizabeth, to be so very grey and dull as to be foreboding.  

“Mr. Darcy, how is your sister?” She wanted to acknowledge that she had hoped to see her today, but that felt like it would display yet more of the misunderstanding with which their acquaintance had been so fraught.

“Georgiana is well.  She would much like to see you and your sister again.”

“We would greatly love to have her visit again.”

More silence.  Every step in the little park crunched, as if there was ice on the ground, with frozen leaves and twigs.  

“Miss Elizabeth,” Darcy said abruptly, “you can have no confusion as to why I wished to see you today.”

“Indeed sir, I am greatly confused.”  She could say it now. “I had assumed, when you spoke, you wished to make a visit with your sister.”

“Perhaps I have not been clear with my attentions to you.”

Oh. Oh no.

“You know it is not my nature, to speak often to those I don’t know.  I am not easily comfortable in such situations. You have endeavored, at every turn, to draw me out - at times, to provoke, and to promote my discomfort - and to speak with me even when I was difficult to converse with.”

Elizabeth held her tongue, refusing the satisfaction of agreeing with him, tempting though it was.

“Surely you must know how I admire you.”

Lizzie was stunned.  She did not. She found herself immediately suspicious of this declaration.

Darcy continued.  “It would not be a perfect match, I must admit.  Your family - they are not of the sort I had imagined aligning myself with, aligning my sister with. You yourself show no affinity for life in the town, though you are a social creature and must spend a great deal of time in society.  But you have proved yourself a quick mind and not unfamiliar with the running of an estate. All of this, I observed in my time in Hertfordshire.

“Since we have met again in London, I have found myself regarding you more and more.  You are not a great beauty, but you have ease in company, and you smile often; no one is made to feel uncomfortable in your presence.  Your kind attentions to my sister have been noted.”

Lizzie felt her mouth hanging open, uncouth and unpretty, proving him right.  Where had these declarations come from? And worse; she realized, she knew where this was going. She felt her temper rising.

“Please, Mr. Darcy - “

“Let me have it out.  I must.” She quieted, but only from fear of causing a scene.  “In vain I have struggled,” he said, “and I can bear it no longer.  Will you marry me? You will be mistress of Pemberley - I can offer you a comfortable life, not unlike the one you are accustomed to.  And I believe that you, too, regard me. Please answer, quickly, for I have been in great pain.”

She stopped in the path, hoping that Jane and their cousin might catch up to them. “I shall answer quickly, but I fear it is not what you wish to hear.”

He stopped but did not look at her.

“I cannot accept your offer.  To give a lady offense in the same words as you speak of your admiration - to insult her family!”  Lizzie took a breath. “I cannot, Mr. Darcy. Not to speak of the ills you have caused others - to my sister!  To Mr. Wickham! Even from the first, you saw me nearly run over by your own carriage and have yet to acknowledge it. Under such reduced circumstances as I have heard of here in town, I am shocked that you might think us equals, especially with such faults as these! I have said often that I cannot make you out - and still I cannot! I find myself unconvinced of any sort of goodness in your character that could make me fall in love. In fact, if I am convinced, it is that you are the last man in the world I could be prevailed upon to marry!”

She felt her heart racing, and stepped forward to remove him from her sight. Mr. Darcy fell in step alongside, but waited a long moment before speaking.  “I am at fault for mistaking your quick wit and politeness for affection. You tease, not flirt.”

All she could manage was short, clipped. “Then I apologize for the misapprehension. It was not intentional.”

“I do not wish to pain you longer, but I shall escort you back to the Gardiner’s.”

“Thank you sir.”

They walked back in painful silence - every second, Elizabeth aware of the presence of her escort, tall and breathing and alive, and him regarding her, and she despising him.  It hurt, and she wanted to cry, and she could not, in this sort of public space, speak or breathe a word.

As they neared the corner, where Jane and Fanny had paused and were waiting, Elizabeth slowed for a moment.  “Mr. Darcy, if I may speak - we have been in a misunderstanding, but I think we both have good reason to believe that we may yet be in each others company. I think it would be impossible to ask you to keep this from your sister - but please, do not share this with your friends. I will endeavor to be civil, if you will agree to the same politeness.”

“You can be assured, Miss Elizabeth, that I have no desire to recount this tale.”

She curtseyed, and he bowed, and he took his leave of Jane, walking in the opposite direction.

Elizabeth considered walking on - running - to clear her head, but this was not her countryside estate.  So instead she retreated to her room, complaining to Jane of the cold, and instructed the housekeeper to bring her a light meal in her apartments, as she did not wish to trouble the family with her cough.

***

Two days later, Jane made a visit to the Bingley’s for coffee and card games; Elizabeth begged off, saying that she still felt unwell.

Three days after that, Caroline Bingley and Mrs. Hurst came to visit.  Elizabeth sat, placidly, in the corner as the women spoke with Jane. Caroline mentioned, “Miss Elizabeth, you seem unusually quiet today.  Are you out of sorts?”

“I am afraid that I took a walk some days ago, and have been feeling poorly ever since.”

“I always did say that so much walking cannot be good for one’s health.”

Elizabeth let the comment hang.  She did not wish to engage.

She did not know how to feel.  Mr. Darcy’s proposal had been shocking in its surprise, though looking back she could observe that he did pay her more attention with his constant staring - if not the particular attention she would have expected, of the kind displayed between Jane and Bingley - and she had read it as his censure.  She could not yet make out his behavior - and now, she had confronted him about the specific actions she had objected to, and he had made no response. It was damning indeed, his silence. She doubted that their friendship with Georgiana would continue, and it would give Jane great trouble, and she would be unable to explain - for Jane believed Darcy to be a good man, and did not see his disdain for their family as Elizabeth had done.

She knew, too, that Darcy had endeavored to influence Bingley before.  Might he do so again? He had confirmed all of her worst suspicions about her family, and her refusal could only confirm his prejudices. She had spoken of a future where they might yet be sometimes in each other’s company; but Darcy had such power over his friend as to prevent it.

Afraid to walk out and encounter an acquaintance who might read all on her face, afraid to speak with Jane for telling all, afraid of spending much time with her relations, Elizabeth ensconced herself in either the library or at her writing desk. She found that she could put on a cheerful face in a letter when in company she could not.  She knew that her behavior aroused suspicion amongst the Gardiners; she hoped that familial affection would forgive her lack of sociability.

It was in this mood that she opened a letter from Charlotte that was long overdue a response.

My Dearest Lizzie,

It is quiet here in Kent.  I know that London is no great distance; I think often of you, and of the balls and parties you will be attending.  The great fun you found such assemblies; you must be having such a wonderful time.

I deeply wish to see you here at Hunsford.  I know that it will not be the great society you are used to, and I would not deprive you of your season - but when you are done, please consider a detour to visit with us; I have much to share, and there are such great walks around here that you cannot long find yourself bored with us.

Your cousin!

Charlotte

It was a short missive, but enough.  Lizzie wrote back quickly, for as it turned out, she was just this very moment entirely done with her season, and quite desperate to get out of town.

Chapter Text

The road to Hunsford was pleasant, despite the winter, and Lizzie attributed it to her relief at being rid of London, rid of Mr. Darcy, rid of their friends.  It had been, in short, a trying season, and she was glad to be away.

Charlotte had written back immediately, eager to receive Elizabeth in her new home.  It seemed any tension between them following Mr. Collin’s misguided proposal to Elizabeth and sudden turnabout to Charlotte was gone, and Charlotte had some time to accustom herself to being a wife, and to the running of her household.

The Gardiners had been glad to see Elizabeth emerge from her strange cocoon; she had played with her cousins, gone walking with her aunt, spoken of books with her uncle.  Jane had been concerned, but Elizabeth promised that it was for the best.

“I have not,” she said, “had so pleasing a season as you have had.”

“Oh, Lizzie, I would love for you to be here.  What if I am disappointed?”

“If you are disappointed, then you should join me in Kent.  Charlotte would love to see you.”

“It seems she is now taking in refugees, as any good parson’s wife might.”

And so they had parted on good - if confused - terms.  

Hunsford was a modest home.  It suited Charlotte, who was of a modest temperament.  The road leading up to it was narrow, such that just one carriage could pass by, but the house was cheery, grown over with ivy, with a neat garden in front that Mr. Collins was eagerly working in, and lots of sun in the windows.   It was reputed that the great Lady Catherine DeBourgh had even commented that it was well-positioned, and had recommended to Charlotte that she take a moderate amount of sunlight from the windows, for her health of course.

Charlotte was all eagerness to see Lizzie, and came rushing down the walk as soon as the carriage drew near.  Lizzie was ready, jumping out before she could be helped out, reaching out to Charlotte.

“Oh, my friend - my cousin! - your letter could not have come at a better time!”

“I so wished to have you visit, Lizzie.  I needed to know that we are truly still friends.”

“Forever, the best of!  You are my cousin now, do not forget!”

They embraced, and Mr. Collins wisely stood back and silent, allowing his wife to exclaim over her old friend.  As the evening progressed and a light dinner was served, it seemed to Elizabeth that he had mellowed in even a short period of marriage. Difficult to endure before, he was still tedious, but throughout the meal deferred to Charlotte in matters of conversation. Elizabeth vowed to ask her how she had done it, though considered that he may be on his particular best behavior in this instance.

It transpired that she should have the evening to rest and tomorrow to find herself situated, for that following evening they should dine at Rosings.  The mention was enough to brighten Mr. Collins’ face.

“Cousin Elizabeth, I am so glad that you shall get to experience the great pleasure of Rosings Park.  It is an estate with no equal! That is not to say, I suppose, that Netherfield Park is not a most exceptional estate but… you shall see; my esteemed patroness is a very fine judge of architecture.”

Lizzie had made it two hours from practically falling out of the carriage and into Charlotte’s arms before the phrase “my esteemed patroness” crossed her cousins lips, so she would take this as a small blessing.  

“I am overwhelmed, cousin,” she replied, looking to Charlotte as she stifled her giggle.  “This is far greater an honor than I dared expect.”

“Cousin, your feelings are evident, but I assure you, do not fear - Lady Catherine DeBourgh is a generous and discerning soul; I have no doubt that she will condescend to your humble manner.”

Lizzie held back a cringe, instead asking Charlotte to recall her first encounter with Lady Catherine, so as to better prepare for the experience.  As she had successfully predicted, so long as Charlotte was appropriately effusive and humble in her praise, her husband did not interrupt, and they had what passed for a semblance of conversation.  

That evening, Lizzie made her excuses for an early night, feeling tired from travel but also feeling the whole of the past several months weighing on her.  Charlotte was a dear friend, and she did not seem unhappy in her circumstances, but time would see what the true circumstance was.  Lizzie feared that Charlotte would not put voice to discontent - she would see it as useless and impractical, as she had chosen her lot.  But Elizabeth hoped she might yet be honest with her.

That this life with Mr. Collins might have been her own lot!  The house was small but cosy; she could already see Charlotte’s tastes emerging.  Mr. Collins had - for now, at least - been changed by the influence of marriage, and yet again, much remained to be seen.  But she should not have liked to live a life so subservient to the whims of a patroness like Lady Catherine deBourgh; a grand lady, and grand ladies had whims, and were merciless like Huns.

Still, the visit tomorrow should provide some amusement, and she dearly hoped to have some private conversation with Charlotte to hear her true impression of the house and its great occupant; it was clear that Charlotte had been measuring her tale in order to prevent Elizabeth from laughing, because her eyes were all mirth as she recalled the story.  Charlotte, though polite and unassuming, was not in fact without wit and humor. She had been a wonderful friend to Elizabeth over the years, for she could always keep up.

***

The following evening approached too quickly, and was dull and grey. The walk to Rosings was not so great a distance, and Elizabeth vowed to escape for some solitary rambles before her trip to Kent was done - before the week was out, if she could. Rosings Park was indeed grand; it was a massive stone building, square and gothic and imposing, surrounded by gardens so lavish one might have mistaken them for Versailles. It was clear that Lady Catherine spared no expense. Elizabeth could not help but do the calculations in her head - as Mr. Collins would surely appreciate - from her knowledge of the running of her father’s estate, there was nothing in the care and keeping of a mansion like this that was not less than ten thousand pounds a year, and almost certainly much greater. Whether Lady Catherine was frugal or living close to the line remained to be seen. By Mr. Collins account she was a great believer in frugality, but her hedgerows begged to differ.

Upon the door opening, there was much bowing and curtseying and scraping, and Elizabeth had barely time to see the woman before them; dressed in many grand embroidered layers, fashions a few years gone, on her rather large body.  Her headdress was immense - she was reminded of Caroline Bingley - and it seemed a surprise she could hold her head aloft while wearing it. Next to her stood a woman, younger - perhaps of Charlotte’s age - thin and pale, wrapped tightly in a shawl.  This must be her daughter, Anne.

She started, for next to Anne was the tall, dark, figure of Mr. Darcy.

Lizzie looked down; she had planned to be on her most charming behavior, but now her heart was all a panic. What was he doing here? Lady Catherine was his aunt, she knew, but surely he would not depart town at this point in the season! What was he thinking? Lizzie did not know what to say, though perhaps gratefully she need not; immediately after introductions and a retreat to the drawing room, Lady Catherine began to address her.

“I trust your journey was not trying?”

“It was not, Ma’am.”

“It is such a great distance from London; I should wonder at your completing it in a single day.”

“It is but a few hours, Ma’am.”

“I suppose that you are young, and given to less caution than you should.”

“It was worth it, to visit with my dear cousins. I have not seen them in many months.”

“I am to understand that Mrs. Collins was your friend in Hertfordshire?”

“Yes, since childhood.”

“My nephew, Mr. Darcy, tells me that he encountered both of you in his visit to the neighborhood last year.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” she nodded, swallowing heavily.  “We are acquainted.” She hastily added, “I did not know you would be in the neighborhood, Mr. Darcy.”

“I came quite at the last minute,” he said.  “For I began to find the town stifling.”

“I should wonder at you spending any time in town,” his aunt interrupted.  “For I find it immensely dirty and noisy and not at all suitable to my dear Anne.”

“My father feels the same way,” Lizzie said.  “He avoids town at all costs.” Complaining about town was an area she felt secure enough in to speak of.

“Do you mean to say that you were in town alone?” The shock was evident and shrill and a bit unnecessary.

“No ma’am,” she explained.  “My eldest sister and I spend the season in town with our Aunt and Uncle Gardiner.  We are both fond of a ball and of society.”

“And you left the season early? Your affection for Mrs. Collins must be very great.”

“I perhaps have found, in recent weeks, a greater understanding of those whose sentiments do not run in favor of the city.”

“Quite right.”

Lady Catherine turned away to chat with Mr. Collins, and Lizzie felt Charlotte’s squeeze on her arm.  If this had been a test, she was uncertain that she had passed - and felt that either way, Mr. Collins would later find something to criticize.

Mr. Darcy, seated at the opposite end of the room, took pains not to look at her.  So used to his penetrating gaze, it seemed now that she felt the loss of it.

She had come to Kent to escape London and that man.  What recourse had she now? She could not avoid dining at Rosings, for she could not find reasonable excuse without arousing suspicion. Perhaps Darcy would depart early. But she was not confident of that either; he was stubborn. This might easily become a battle of silent wills.

She smiled a little at the thought. It was a great joy to spar with Mr. Darcy. When he wasn’t insulting her. Her smile dropped.

It was a dismay to realize that - even now, as she had returned to his society far more quickly than she had anticipated, for she had dearly hoped that she would not have to endure him again before Jane and Bingley were wed - she would not again spar with him, if they ever were to so much as converse.

He deserved no less, she reminded herself.  

She had never liked the man, yet she was surprised at her own disappointment.  

***
Dinner at Rosings, it seemed, moved at a snail’s pace.  Used to the lively chatter of the Bennet ladies of Netherfield Park, and the constant noise and activity of the Gardiner children of London, the long courses and even longer silences felt painful.  Her keen awareness of Darcy, sitting next to his cousin Anne, was all the worse for it. Lady Catherine spoke - condescendingly indeed - to each in turn. Charlotte spoke little, though Mr. Collins took pride in preaching whenever possible. Even Darcy only spoke when spoken to, and the conversation was dominated by the voice of Lady Catherine, between her enormous bites.

“Mrs. Collins, you really should take pains to practice the pianoforte.  It is the requirement of a parson’s wife. You should use the instrument in the servants quarters; you will not be in anyone’s way there.”

“Darcy, you should rotate the crop fields at Pemberley.  You have been without your esteemed father for far too long; it is little wonder the estate needs extra care. You must remember to sometimes visit your own home, you know.”

“Mr. Collins, I would very much like to know your sermon this Sunday coming. It is important, in the edification of the neighborhood, that its mistress be involved in its care.”

“Anne, sit up straight.”

“Miss Elizabeth, are you truly one of five sisters?  All of them out? None of them married?”

Yes Ma’am.  Yes, it is true.  No ma’am, none married.  

“Your society in Hertfordshire must be very small.”

“It is sufficient for us. I find the influence of such close and dear friends is a wonderful environment in which to grow.”

“You speak your opinions very decidedly for someone so young.”

Elizabeth felt, when walking back to Hunsford in the brisk evening air, quite exhausted - and it had been Lady Catherine who had done all of the talking.  

***

The next morning, Elizabeth entreated Charlotte to join her on a walk.  She had relinquished her original idea of making fun at Lady Catherine’s expense, for she was much concerned about Mr. Darcy’s presence.

“Charlotte,” she begged.  “Did you know?”

“I confess I did not.”

“Charlotte, I cannot stand the man.  I must confess; I had hoped, on leaving London, that I may not encounter him again.”

“Surely, Lizzie, that was not your sole desire in coming to Kent.”

“Of course not!” she said, nearly caught.  “But I had quite enough of him when I saw him last.”

“He cannot be so bad. Jane did not think so, in her recent letter.”

“Jane does not know the whole of it.”

“About Mr. Wickham?”

“I have reason to suspect more.”

“Pray tell.”

So Lizzie explained what she had deduced about his involvement in keeping Jane and Bingley separate.  

Charlotte listened carefully to the tale, her face going from a studied calm to more and more pinched in surprise and frustration. At the end, she sighed.

“Poor Jane!”

“Jane is now reunited with Bingley - and if Darcy is here, it means he is not making efforts to separate them.”

“It sounds like Mr. Darcy has given up on his object of separating them.” Charlotte noted.

“I am not so convinced of Miss Bingley, however.”

“You mistake Jane for some wilting flower. Your sister is strong; she is not easily bowed.”

“Yes,” Elizabeth agreed, “when it comes to her family and friends, but she is not easily convinced to fight for herself.”

“You cannot be her keeper, Elizabeth,” Charlotte reminded her. “The fortunes of your family are all tied up together, it is true, but they are not your responsibility. It is not in your power to change your sisters or father or mother.”

“Oh Charlotte, if only you knew!”

“Lizzie, I know more than you estimate of me.”

And while Elizabeth knew that her friend could not know of Darcy’s proposal, she understood, and was chastened. Mr. Collins proposal at Lucas Lodge could not have been anything other than a surprise to the family there, who in general considered him a tedious man. She knew however, that the connection would settle Charlotte for life, and Charlotte, older than Elizabeth, knew that her fortunes were not so great as to attract the kind of social climbers that had so lately been frustrating her own season. Charlotte had, in her own way, exercised her agency as much as Elizabeth, now an incorrigible proposal-refuser twice over.

Charlotte took her hand and sat them down on an overturned tree trunk. “Is that truly the only reason you wish to be away from Mr. Darcy?”

Lizzie took a moment to assess. She did not feel she could be honest - not with Darcy in their near presence, not as Charlotte must remain honest with her husband, who was so loyal to Mr. Darcy’s aunt. She could not be honest, but she could not lie to her friend.

“Is there a reason you ask?”

“I have been suspecting that there is an attraction, between you. He looks at you - I have observed that. You avoid his gaze, do not look at him, except when you know he is looking away. I have seen you tease him.”

That would be much easier to answer without great risk.

“Charlotte, I never know what to make of the man. To see him with his sister - he is all kindness and gentleness and affection. And he has been forthright about his discomfort with crowds, with strangers. The privilege of a good parlay - I do recognize that we might even have been considered a kind of friends. But I cannot reconcile these things with the actions I know of his to be cruel and dishonest.”

“Is there no way you could be mistaken?”

“Charlotte, it has been clear from the first that, for some reason, the man thinks himself above us all.”

“Pemberley is a great estate.”

“Pemberley was once a great estate, you mean. Surely you have heard that Darcy is mismanaging it.”

“And you hold a mistake or two against him? He is young yet for the running of an estate, and you know that Netherfield Park has had its share of difficult seasons.”

“But you can agree that, on the whole, it does not paint a pleasant picture of the man.”

“And what shall you do? If Jane and Bingley will someday be married, you cannot avoid the man forever and keep the familial peace.”

“And I suppose, at length - and in small enough doses - I should tolerate him.”

“Could you find it within yourself to tolerate him a little longer, and remain some time with me?”

“Oh, Charlotte, of course I shall! For your sake, I would tolerate him a thousand years.”

“While I would appreciate such a sacrifice for the sake of a friend, I do think just a week will be enough. I cannot imagine that Darcy will stay so very long with his aunt.”

“I do hope so. And we shall not be invited to dine at Rosings so very often.”

“I would not count on that. Lady Catherine does insist on company; we dine there three times a week.”

“Oh Charlotte, I am so sorry for you!”

“I often try to think, ‘what would Elizabeth say?’ And it gets me through the meal.”

“How is Miss Anne de Bourgh? I could not make much of her; she spoke but little last night.”

“She is not especially friendly, but I suspect it is because she has been sickly for a great many years.”

“How upsetting that must be for her mother.”

“Oh yes, she speaks of it a great deal.”

Lizzie giggled; Lady Catherine talked a great deal of anything, and with such questionable authority. She should find it difficult to respect her, and hoped that she would make it through three dinners a week without causing great offense.

Chapter Text

At the next dinner at Rosings two days later, Elizabeth managed a brief greeting to Mr. Darcy, and after the meal felt able to ask after the health of his sister. She made attempts - four, at least - to intentionally look his way and appear less aggravated by him. She observed, once, that he too was looking in her direction, and it made her heart skip a beat in brief panic. Perhaps he had a Charlotte of his own to encourage him to civility.

Three days later, she came to understand; one Colonel Fitzwilliam, a cousin of Mr. Darcy and nephew of Lady Catherine, joined the party.

Colonel Fitzwilliam was all the goodness that Darcy lacked; he was of a bright humor, happily engaging conversation - even drawing a few words from Anne - and going so far as to tease his aunt (though it was clear the meaning escaped Lady Catherine, who persisted in taking him at his word).

Lizzie found that she almost looked forward to the next dinner; after a rather dull week at Hunsford, she had begun to miss lively company. Colonel Fitzwilliam was happy to oblige; over a game of cards, he was the instigator of conversation.

“Miss Elizabeth, you must tell me of how you and my cousin are acquainted.”

“We met in Hertfordshire,” she said. “He was visiting with a new neighbor of ours, Mr. Bingley.”

“Ah, Bingley! A capital fellow.”

“He is very amiable. It was a pleasure to make his acquaintance.”

“And what of my cousin’s acquaintance? Do give us the gossip.” Fitzwilliam inferred more than she had meant to say.

“Your cousin takes his time,” she said, knowing that Darcy, playing his hand across the table, had been listening intently all the while. “He is particular with whom he associates.”

“Now, that does sound like Darcy.” He said. “Will you not defend yourself, Cousin?”

“All present here know that I do not have the ease within society that others might.”

There was a moment of awkward tension, and even in her anger it seemed not right to let is sit, so Lizzie added, “We became better acquainted in town. The season lends itself to making acquaintances.”

“And yet you are not in town?”

“I began to find London tiring.” She said.

“It is strange,” said Fitzwilliam, “for that is the very excuse Darcy gave for his own departure from the season. Not that I should be so unhappy; I come to Rosings to visit with him, for we have barely seen each other in a year.”

Darcy did not speak, but Lady Catherine took the occasion to interrupt. “As I have often said, London is not the place for polite society. It is to your credit that you have grown to dislike it.”

“How do you find Hunsford?” The Colonel asked.

“It is a pleasant place.” Elizabeth replied. “Made all the pleasanter for my dear cousins inhabiting it.”

“Then Darcy and I shall endeavor to pay the place a visit on the morrow.”

“I am sure,” she said, “that Mr. Collins will be very honored.”

***
The morning dawned with drizzle, and at breakfast Elizabeth began to hope that the visit might not happen. But the sun emerged, and within the hour it was a truly bright spring day, and in due course there came the sound of footsteps on the drive - Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mr. Darcy, mercifully unaccompanied by their aunt.

It was decided that the parlor at Hunsford was small enough and the day nice enough to justify a walk out of doors. The Colonel engaged Mrs. Collins in conversation, pressing her on how she was finding Kent and his dear Aunt Catherine, and Mr. Collins spent time interjecting to ensure that his wife had only the most positive report to give.

This, unfortunately, left Lizzie to walk alongside a taciturn Mr. Darcy.

“Darcy,” she eventually said, “we must speak to each other.”

“I suppose we must.” He agreed. But they proceeded in silence further.
“I am given to believe that, in the future, we should spend more time in each other’s company,” he finally spoke. “I do not doubt that Bingley and your sister will be wed.”

She could not help herself. “Do you not object to the match?”

“You renew your criticism of me. I was in error, in Hertfordshire. Your sister, she is not of so effusive a temperament as yourself. I mistook her reserve for a lack of regard.”

“But you do not anymore?”

“I regret that I held so much power over a friend as to sway him over such a decision.”

“She is still related to my mother. She is still sister to my sisters.”

“That should be Bingley’s concern then. He does not scruple as I do.”

“Oh yes, you are very scrupulous.”

He turned to her, slowing their progress. “Please allow me the privilege of an explanation. If we are to spend time in each other’s presence I do not wish you to hate me quite so much as you do now.”

“You may attempt it.”

“You have accused me of misconduct against an old friend. I must address this. Wickham and I were raised together, almost as brothers; this much you know. My father had great affection for Wickham - he was the son of his steward - and took pains to raise and care for him after his own father’s death. This I believe, is where my tales diverges from his. It became clear, at Cambridge, that Wickham was given to wastefulness and insobriety. He spent his funds and entreated me for more. I had long considered him a brother, and though our paths had diverged, I still felt affection for him; I loaned him much, with no hope of repayment. Later, upon my father’s death, he insisted that he receive the money equal to the living promised him. At the time it was the simplest way to be done with the matter; we had grown so apart, and I could not imagine that we would much be in each other’s company. I had hoped that he would use the funds to make a new life for himself.”

This was entirely counter to Wickham’s story. She shuddered, for there must be more. “And was that not the end of it? It should hardly deserve such animosity.”

“I regret to confess that there is more.” He said. “For I discovered, not but two years ago, that while I had believed myself done with Mr. Wickham, he had not relinquished his business with me, and had been using my name and the money I had given him to defraud many and to acquire debts he could never hope to repay. He was involved in a business investment that soon fell through and would have been the ruin of a far richer man. This soon caught up with him - and with me. I was forced to repay a great number of his debts. I must confess, that when I offered you, I was not fully honest with you; Pemberley is greatly reduced as a result of the affair. My sister’s fortunes - “

“You need not say more of it,” Lizzie interrupted. “This is serious, indeed.”

It was serious. The group ahead had moved much quicker - it seemed as though Darcy’s heavy tale required more ponderous steps, and they were standing by the gate to the path through the woods. For the first time since her arrival in Kent, she was looking directly at him, and he at her; that stare, which had felt so abhorrent, now seemed so sad.

“It is not something I had wished broadcast; I certainly understand that you would not have heard of it, but I do hope you might comprehend my position on such matters as family and propriety.”

“I thank you for your honesty,” she said. Truly, she did not know what to make of it. Darcy’s words seemed to make clear, in her mind, a whole score of confusion and uncertainty. And to make clear that “such matters” included his concerns about alliances with those less scrupulous than himself - like her mother, and careless Lydia.

It seemed cruel to continue silently when he had spoken so much and so personally. “Mr. Darcy,” she said. “I am sorry to have been so mistaken in Mr. Wickham, and of your involvement in his tale of woe. It seems that I have had the wrong of this situation.”

“Then let it be past,” he said. They walked to join the rest of the party - who had continued in much the same vein and had barely noticed the absence. Lizzie still felt the strange anguish of so much that had happened in a month - and so much confusion over the course of a year. She began to look forward to her departure from Rosings, to seeing her sisters again, and to seeing Jane.

The letter with the announcement of Jane’s engagement came two weeks later. Mr. Darcy had departed the week prior, with Colonel Fitzwilliam, and though she had begun to enjoy the quiet days Elizabeth felt it was the opportune moment to return to Hertfordshire and her beloved Netherfield Park. She was saddened to leave Charlotte, who assured her that she and Mr. Collins would be in the neighborhood before the summer was out.

Chapter Text

Elizabeth found Netherfield not much changed since she had left it, except that the passage of time seemed to have simultaneously changed the whole. Mary was much as she had left her; practicing the piano, reading sermons, and had lately begun spending time in Meryton with Mrs. Washburn, who had three young children and desperately needed some help. The work - Lizzie reflected on her strange truce with Mr. Darcy, who would certainly consider it beneath a Miss Bennet to work - kept her busy, which was the best anyone could ask for. If patience for children grew from there, it would be all the better. She had a suspicion this was what had been in her father’s mind when he had made the recommendation.

Lydia and Kitty, however, were a greater concern. Lydia had been invited to Brighton with Mrs. Forster, and Mr. Bennet had agreed she could go. Kitty, remaining at home, was distraught. Her upset, it seemed, lingered still though Lydia had been gone already a week (Lizzie reflected that it was easy to blame the vagaries of letters and travel and timing, such that she and Jane had conveniently not been made aware of these events), though in her boredom and moping Kitty seemed to have pick up a spare book or two, which Lizzie could not fault.

Her mother, whom she had left in an excess of nerves following her denial of Mr. Collins proposal and many a statement that, “even if you were to meet a nice gentleman in town, you would refuse him! I don’t much see the point any more in sending you to all these balls with all of these clothes. At least we might hope that Jane should reunite with Bingley, but you, Elizabeth, are a thorn in my side!” Elizabeth, if her mother were to know the whole, would remain a thorn in her side; for she had discouraged many a too-eager gentleman, and she had refused Mr. Darcy outright.

Her father, as she often observed, remained serene in the face of chaos. He met her on the drive when the carriage arrived at Netherfield, and escorted her to her mother for the greetings and the kisses and the storytelling, and promptly disappeared to his study. She sat down with him later to hear that the estate had a good winter. The prized pig had been butchered shortly after her departure and if she was interested in salted pork, she could have as much of it as she liked. The frost had not done so much damage this year as it might have. The hunting had not been so good, but Mr. Bennet had not been much inclined to it anyway.

And so, with Jane now at home preparing for a wedding in mere weeks, the house was much as it always was - busy, and noisy, and full of the same love for family that Elizabeth had been missing. She adored her sisters, she realized, even when they were silly; recently, she had come to accept that she herself had a great capacity for silliness.

It had been a few busy days before she had Jane alone to herself, on a walk to Meryton to visit with their Aunt Phillips.

“Jane,” she asked, “are you happy?”

“So, immeasurably happy, Lizzie.” She said. “I wish you could feel as I do.”

“So do I,” she said. “but I am happy on your behalf. I had worried, when we went to London, that you would be disappointed in love.”

“You take such good care of us, Lizzie,” Jane said. “You worry too much for us.”

“I have, I think, been over involved in concerns that are not my own.”

“Our sisters, our mother - their reputation - it is imperfect, but I do not think it so great a barrier. All families have their quirks. Do you still worry so?”

“It is certainly no barrier to Mr. Bingley!” She said. “And I do believe my thinking is changing on the topic. Oh Jane, I have discovered that I am far prouder than I realized, and I took great offense that those I held most dearly should disadvantage us, but took so little pains to check that behavior, or to consider that all families have a little bit of silliness in them.”
“But I do not think Mr. Bingley or his sister capable of it. I am so happy to be united with them.”

“You do not think Miss Bingley capable of silliness?”

Jane laughed. “Do you think she might yet find favor with Mr. Darcy?”

“She may,” Lizzie said seriously, thinking of his gaze, of the way their hands had brushed while walking alongside each other in Kent just weeks earlier. “But I think he is a scrupulous man who takes great care with whom he associates.”

“His opinions on politeness and reputation have given you pain, haven’t they?” Jane asked.

“I must admit that his reaction to our family ways was perhaps the first time I had considered them to be ill. But I misjudged it all. I consider myself such a great judge of character - oh and my pride, Jane, to confront that I might have been in error!”

“And you misjudged Mr. Darcy?”

“Jane, I misjudged Mr. Wickham.”

She confessed the tale, explaining as Darcy had done of the scandal at Pemberley, of the reduced fortunes of the estate, of Darcy’s concern for his sister’s future - though leaving out the matter of the proposal, and her refusal.

“Charles must know of it,” Jane said, “for Darcy has spent a great deal of time in his company in the last year.”

“I should think so.”

“I had not thought you and Darcy such great intimates. You left London in such a state I had an inkling he must have offended you greatly, for the next I saw Miss Darcy, her brother had made a hasty escape from London himself.”

“I am ashamed of myself in this,” she said. “I confronted Mr. Darcy regarding his treatment of Mr. Wickham. I am a fool for having believed Wickham. I, who have been such a skeptic of those who aim to be too nice to me, I who see fortune-seekers at every turn; our good Aunt Phillips had cautioned me to be more generous to those new acquaintances in the neighborhood, but I fear I was too generous with the wrong one, and not at all forgiving of the man who did not deserve my censure.”

“So you and Darcy are friends now?”

Lizzie paused. “We agreed in Kent that surely you and Bingley were soon to be engaged, and we must expect to be more regularly in each other’s company. It should be an unkindness to you and your new husband, if we were both to be taciturn and disagreeable.”
“Oh, Lizzie, I am glad that it is all resolved!”

“As am I.” She felt, in that moment, that perhaps she was.

They reached the solicitor’s home, and Aunt Phillips wanted to hear the whole story of Jane’s engagement. Jane recalled how she had been worried, when Bingley had left Hertfordshire in such haste and in a manner that suggested he was so uncomfortable. But when they had reunited in London, some weeks into the season, it seemed as though no time had passed. Her letters to Caroline Bingley must have been lost, for they did not see each other until a ball in Hyde Park - and there, the Bingleys and even Mr. Darcy were all friendliness. She talked of the visits and balls, and how, after Elizabeth’s departure for Kent, she had continued to attend the events of the season with Miss Bingley and occasionally Miss Darcy, and had dined twice at the Bingley house in Grosvenor Square, and how, in the days before her scheduled departure to Netherfield Park, Bingley had called upon her alone and had asked her to be his wife.

Jane, once married, would live but down the road from Netherfield Park. Elizabeth was ecstatic; she need not be much separated from her sister. She was not yet resigned to spinsterhood, but now she was even more cautious of those she gave her time and acknowledgement. If she had been so mistaken in Wickham, so mistaken in Darcy - could she trust her self to fall in love with a man and truly know him?

Her Aunt Philllps must have seen the concern on her face, for as they departed she took her niece’s hand in hers and promised, “Dearest Lizzie, you will some day find such happiness. I am no oracle, but I am certain of this.”

Elizabeth hoped that she, too, could be so certain.

***
Bingley’s arrival the following week was practically heralded throughout the neighborhood. Caroline was with him, which resulted in the family at Netherfield for dinner just two nights later. Elizabeth had to stifle her impulse to cringe, for her mother was all overbearing and doting and so effusive to Bingley, and constantly reminding Caroline how lucky she must be to go from having only one sister to having so many sisters. It was enjoyable enough, Lizzie felt, to watch poor Caroline’s face. She hoped, for Caroline’s sake, that Mr. Darcy would get the hint soon and just propose to the poor woman, so she might find herself in Derbyshire and far away from these awful Bennet girls.

The following Sunday, after church and on the walk back to the park, Mr. Bennet was intercepted by a messenger. The state of the address could only be Lydia’s hand; she had been sent for, as her mother desired her return in time for Jane’s wedding, for “I must have all of my daughters with me at such a difficult time.” The message was not encouraging.

Mr. Bennet hurried on ahead while reading, which meant that he was not yet willing to share the news with this family. On entering the house, Mrs. Bennet rushed into his study to confront him, and while Lizzie and Jane could not make out the particulars, the rising volume and rising tone of Mrs. Bennet was proof enough that the news from Lydia was ill-recieved.

Eventually, Mrs. Bennet retreated to her room in an excess of nerves, and the four sisters crowded into the office for news.

“It is not good,” Mr. Bennet said. He stood, staring out the window, and Lizzie could only see his face in reflection. He was not given to tears, but it was clear he was overcome with emotion.

“Your sister, Lydia, has refused to join the family for the celebration.”

A gasp - this from Kitty - who had been quite relying on Lydia’s return to rebalance the scales of sisterly age and justice.

“She has declared that she will marry Mr. Wickham, and that even as we speak they are off to Gretna Green.”

This gasp, from Lizzie and Jane.

“Father!” Lizzie said. “She cannot! She must be stopped.”

“I do hope so, dearest girl. It pains me to leave you girls now, while there is so much to be done, but I must off to Gretna.”

“Father,” said Jane. “Before you go, Lizzie must speak with you.”

At this, he turned from the window. “Lizzie, what must you tell me?”

On the spot, Elizabeth blanched. She ushered her sisters out, and steeled herself for the story.

“Father,” she lead him to his chair, sat him down, and knelt in front of him, taking his hand. “We have been much deceived in Mr. Wickham.”

“Well, as it stands now, I very much think we have.” He said.

She told him the whole.  As she recounted the story, Elizabeth both felt keenly aware of the eyes of her sisters, her mother (who could not resist eavesdropping and had returned downstairs) at the door. She was conscientious, as she spoke, of it being impossible to ignore the intimacy of the confidence from Darcy.  She would have to answer for that later with a nosy Kitty or a determined mother. But right now, if she did not share what she knew, she would have to answer for Lydia’s reputation - for all of their reputations! - and so close to Jane marrying the very man she had dreamed of.

After her tale, her father sat back, staring at the ceiling. “So this is what occurs when I send you girls away, when I am not looking. This is quite the scandal, Elizabeth. It is a wonder your Mr. Darcy did not have him in prison.”

“He is not my Mr. Darcy” she said at the same time as Jane burst in with, “for the sake of his dear sister!”

“I only wish, if this is known in society circles, that we had been made aware of it sooner. We had all thought Darcy a snob, instead of justified in his behavior toward Wickham!  Why would he not speak up?”

“There is more at stake,” Elizabeth said. “Darcy’s own reputation and fortunes…”

“Darling, in all my years, I can count on one hand the number of things I can guarantee. One of them is this: that a thief may learn the error of his ways, but a coward will always remain a coward.”

***

They had just seen Mr. Bennet off in his carriage to join Mr. Gardiner in a search. First to Gretna - where few suspected Wickham would have gone without some guarantee of Lydia’s money - and then to London, where Uncle Gardiner had already been asking around. It was a rough morning, stormy and dull, and Jane was feeling unwell far too close to her wedding. Bingley was stoic but a part of Lizzie was, ungenerously, waiting for him to change his mind.

That was the day that Mr. Darcy arrived.  He had come to join Bingley as he made his preparations of the house for its new mistress. Elizabeth would have been grateful not to have to see him so soon after her previous departure, but as soon as she heard she rushed - against all reasonable propriety - to Longbourne, with Jane in tow. “We have to speak with him,” she had said, and thankfully Jane had agreed.

The house was quiet as they approached. A single manservant came to the door - but seconds later, Bingley dashed out, clearly recently having eaten breakfast, given the jam in the corner of his mouth.

“The Misses Bennets!  To what do I owe the honor?”

“It’s good to see you sir,” Lizzie said. “But we’ve actually come to seek the council of your friend over a grave matter.”

“Gracious!” he exclaimed. Jane had declined to visit the previous day in all of the stress, and he had surely noticed the changes tenor of the exchange. “Please come in.  Would you like some refreshment? We have only recently retired from our morning meal.”

“Perhaps some coffee?” Jane suggested.  They had hardly eaten since the news had come, but Jane had been bolstering her strength by making tea for Mama and by setting her sisters to work in the garden.  

They were thus seated in the morning room when Darcy joined them, freshly washed.

“To what do we owe the honor, so early in the day?”

“I am afraid, sir, it is grave news,” said Elizabeth. Bingley’s face paled, as so she hurriedly added, “our youngest sister, Lydia, has run off with Mr. Wickham.”

Darcy sat down, ungracefully, face in his hands. “This is grave indeed.”  

“We have come to seek your advice as to his associates, his locations.  Our father had recently departed for London; the letter we received suggested they had gone to Gretna, but our father doubts such action while Lydia’s money is not secured.”

“He has good reason to doubt. Wickham is a skilled extortionist. He will have heard that Miss Bennet is soon to be married.”

“I believe,” Lizzie said, “it was the news requesting Lydia’s return home that prompted this.”

To her left, Bingley looked quizzical. This was dangerous news for him; Wickham would have been counting on his desire to keep from a disreputable family to hasten the payment. Elizabeth was gratified to see that his countenance was one of worry, yes, but he was looking at Jane with concern and confusion, and did not seem to have taken personal offense. Mr. Wickham, in his own cruel way, had neglected to anticipate the generosity and kindness of the company before her. “What can we do to help?” Bingley asked.

“You can stay right here with your bride,” Darcy said. “If you can spare me, I will go to London immediately.”

“Oh, we cannot ask you to -“ Jane said.

“Wickham is my responsibility,” Darcy would not let her finish. “I could have had him in prison long ago, if I had not so afraid of a scandal. Yet I know him well enough to know that scandal follows Wickham wherever he goes.”

They made haste to return home, and at the door, while Bingley was promising a visit that afternoon to Jane and her stricken mother, Lizzie stopped Mr. Darcy. “Thank you, for your kind help.”

“Thank you for coming to me with this matter.”

“We are indebted to you.”

“No, Miss Elizabeth; you most certainly are not.” Darcy shook his head, and looked beyond her at the wall behind, his countenance severe.

“How difficult do you think the task will be?”

“I cannot say. I have no doubt that, with a wedding so near on the horizon, Wickham will be easily discoverable. He will be in London, to make for easier access to your sister’s fortunes.”

“Do you think that is all he seeks?”

“No. It will not be enough.”

Elizabeth’s distress must have shown in her face, because he bent in a little closer, away from Jane and Bingley.  “But you must promise me not to worry. Wickham has no reason to suspect that you are in my confidence.”

“No, he will not think us friends.”

“He’s the fool then,” Darcy smiled, kindly.

The sisters elected to walk home, and Lizzie puzzled over Darcy’s final statement. Were they friends? They had reached a truce at Rosing’s, but it was a far cry from friendship, at least as she had known it. Was the man still in love with her? After her rebuff, she suspected not. Did he respect her?  His regard for her family - it was not so great as to justify such actions. His sense of pride and responsibility, perhaps?

Once again, Lizzie was left with an overwhelming sense of incomprehension about the man.

Chapter Text

The next days passed like treacle from a spoon.  Mrs. Bennet kept to her bed in an excess of bad humors.  A remonstrating letter arrived from Cousin Collins, which Mary had to read aloud when Jane could not bring herself to open it. Under the circumstances, Lizzie had no wish to countenance it.

She walked, when she was able, but the joy of the upcoming wedding had been disposed of by the sadness of the disaster Lydia had brought upon them. Trust Lydia to pull attention away from the bride — but that was not generous, for Lydia was young and naive and Wickham a trickster and a thief.  Even Lizzie had been swayed by his story and the openness of his manner. It shamed her to think of it now, and to think of the way she had treated Darcy, had willfully misunderstood him.

She then had to remind herself of the cold manner of his proposal in London; she was not solely at fault for the error, because for much of their acquaintance he had done little to justify correcting it. Still, it made her feel ill, and she wished she could take to her bed the way Mrs. Bennet was wont to.

On the fourth day, their father returned, looking a little worse for the wear from the express coach. He retired immediately to his study and did not emerge. Mrs. Bennet heard he had returned but insisted that, unless her husband had good news to deliver in person, she would not be getting out of bed.  

At length, Elizabeth knocked on the door. She expected a gruff, “go away!” And so was surprised when her father opened the door to her.  

“I always know your knock,” he said, by way of explanation.  

“Father, have you any news?  What happened in London after Mr. Darcy joined you?”

“I have been writing all day child, I will need to move slower than all of that.  I do have news to share; I do not think it is the news you hope for.”

She gasped, aloud, unable to help herself.

“Your Mr. Darcy was a great help to us.”

“Father, he is not my Mr. Darcy.”

“Darling -“ he shook his head, as if deciding not to continue with that line of argument. “Mr. Darcy helped us discover the lovers. It was as bad as we had feared.”

“Heavens.”

“They are to be married. Your mother will be pleased.”

“But you will not deliver the news direct?”

“She will not be much pleased to hear that they will be on a ship bound for America within two weeks time.”

Lizzie herself felt her heart catch in her throat.  Lydia was a fright at times but she dearly loved her sister. This fate, by tying herself to a scoundrel like Wickham — was far worse than she deserved.  Mama would scarce know what to do. Her youngest daughter married — and sentenced to exile. Her oldest daughter to be married soon after; would she rouse herself in time for the event? Lizzie knew her mother was prone to bouts of extravagant self-pity, but this was a truly horrific situation.  

“Father, you must share the news with my sisters.”

“I know.”

“And my mother.”

“I will.”

“And Mr. Bingley must be made to understand the situation. He has time yet to change his mind, though we can only pray that he will not.”

“I hope so.”

“Father, tell me truly; how do you fare in all of this?”

Mr. Bennet sat back in his chair. His face was pained, and it was evident his joints were giving him trouble. For the first time, Lizzie was struck by how old he looked, how little it might take to tear him away from them all.  

“Lizzie, my dear, it is a strange place I find myself in. I love each of my children in their own way. Lydia is my silliest girl but as a child she was one of my sweetest. She dearly loved to please her Mama. I have often wished for some shock of news to curb her wild behavior - but this, I fear, is far more than that. This is grave, for all of us.”

“Father, you must take time to rest, to feel back to sorts.”

“Darling, with time perhaps I will. But now I have two daughters to get married, and a wife to rouse from her bed.”

He stood up with a groan, and Elizabeth escorted him to the door.

Dire, and grave, indeed.

***

Mr. Darcy returned two days later, with the newly married couple in tow. The assembled Bennets stood at the door, and greeted their sister and new brother, and as Mrs. Bennet exclaimed and cooed over her youngest daughter, Lizzie could not keep her eyes from the pained face of their helper. Darcy had done a noble thing indeed, helping discover Wickham - and she suspected, helping negotiate the terms of the marriage and the travel to America.

Luncheon was served promptly, and Darcy accepted the invitation to join, even if it kept him further in the company of the man he most despised. Lizzie suspected that this was what was keeping Wickham’s tongue in check; he barely spoke, and let Lydia do all the high-pitched giggling over the ceremony and all the new clothes she would have for her trip to New York.

Lizzie’s joy for Jane felt muted now, as she looked around the table. Jane was clearly relieved, happy that the situation was resolved and should all be over in time for her own wedding. Sad, too, to lose a dear sister. And glad that Bingley — who had declined to join the party today only because he had business to attend to — was still ready and willing to marry her.

She watched her sisters. Kitty’s eyes were pulled tight, squinting as thought she was resisting the urge to cry.  Since the day that Lydia was born, each had been the other’s shadow. In recent years, the outgoing Lydia had been the more vocal ringleader, but quieter Kitty was her confidante and she relied on Lydia in turn. She would lose a best friend — not just a new family loyalty to a husband, not just to a new house or even a home in a different part of England — but to a different country.  

Mary seemed to sit in shock, as if she was unable to process what she was seeing. The sister that had calmly preached from a book of sermons, who had lectured others and expounded on virtue —in the face of scandal and tragedy, her own sister in front of her whom she did not respect, but did love dearly — Mary was speechless.  Reality, it seemed, had knocked her sideways.

And poor Jane, Lizzie thought. Jane was torn between mourning for the sister she would never see again and joy she knew she ought to feel for her own future life.  

It was, Elizabeth realized, seeing her father watching them all interact with his sad smile, just too overwhelming.  She excused herself from the table and rushed out onto the lawn.

***
To think she had known - had seen the Lydia’s letters from Brighton. She had thought it harmless flirting with Wickham and had let it lie; she had not been so cautious as to imagine that the Bennets of Netherfield Park might be such a target, even as she had spurned the advances of far less egregious social climbers during the season. To think she had felt, for some time, the burden of the Bennet family reputation and behavior, knew now for a fact it had almost permanently ended the happiness of her favorite sister, and yet for all of that worry she had never spoken a word of caution or advice, sitting in the judgement seat against her own sisters. She was no better than they.

And to think she had accused Mr. Darcy — a far better man than any of her acquaintance — of such serious social crimes. And now, a sister too young and naive to know better was attached for life and doomed to exile with a man a hundred times worse than his proud childhood friend.

It was unthinkable. Elizabeth had begun walking, she knew not where. She was some distance from the park now - across the meadow and toward the hill. An old favorite; the last she had been here she had met Darcy atop it. Cruel memories! She was ashamed of who she had been, not a full year ago. She was ashamed of who she was now. But the exertion did not wipe away the memories nor the guilt associated with them.

At the crest, she looked back at her home, at her neighborhood. There in the distance was a figure, dark and tall, coat flying as though he was running. He was running — undignified and unnecessary, but he was running, she realized, after her.

When he caught up, he was a little out of breath, unable to explain his chase.  

“I..” She began, but faltered.  

“I worried for you,” he all but breathed out.

“I found myself overcome by the situation. I am quite well.”

“It has been a trying time.”

“It has.”

“Tell me what you need. What can I do?”

Instead, she asked, “Why are you being so kind?”

“Miss Elizabeth, I -“ and he abruptly stopped. She knew then, the unsaid — that things had not changed, not in so short a time since her refusal. She had not considered — not at the time, not really, even in her shock and melancholy after the event - that he had truly been in love with her. She had not even counseled that a man she considered all types of awful could love. That a man she considered now kind and good?  That she had so offended? And still in love with her?

He could see that she saw it now too. He stilled, his hand halfway in the air, his leg bent as if to move away - undecided, unsure if she wished him gone.

“Now is not the time to give you greater pain. But if I can be a friend to you, if you are willing to consider that?”

It was all so overwhelming, but — “I do need a friend.”

“What else do you need?”

“I cannot go home and face them all yet.”

“Do you wish for a walk?”

“A walk, I am afraid, will not solve anything this time.”

“But it is what friends do.”

“Then we shall.”

Darcy was, kindly, quiet, as they descended the hill. While it was her preference to speak, his quiet steadiness was a balm on her fractured nerves. The thought startled her. “What dramatics I have engaged in! And I, nowhere in the middle of all this.”

“I dare say you shall easily be forgiven.”

“Do you?  I know you do not find it easy to forgive. I and my family have certainly given you more offense and inconvenience than you deserve.”

“As regards Wickham, the blame is all mine. I worried too much for my family name in the scandal and thought little of his future victims.

“Of the other issue, that which I believe we have agreed not to speak, you did me a great favor with your honesty.  There are many virtuous women in London but few that will speak so plainly. You said nothing that I did not deserve to hear. There is nothing to forgive.”

She swallowed. This was skirting too close to the uncomfortable.  “We are ever in your debt. You have done a wonderfully kind thing.”

“I believe,” he said, “that is what friends do.”

“Then I suppose we must be friends.”

“We must.”

“I am glad we are agreed.”

They continued in this manner for some time further, speaking of pleasanter things — Georgiana and her desire to see Jane and Elizabeth again, the upcoming hunting season, Mr. Bingley’s preparations for his bride.  By the time they returned to Netherfield Park, Elizabeth was feeling much more equal to looking her sisters in the eye — and perhaps to having a frank conversation with them about their actions. As Darcy handed her in to the steward, and turned to walk to Longbourne, she felt the loss of his arm, on which she had been leaning as he escorted her, and it felt strangely warm, where his had been.

Chapter Text

They day of Lydia and Wickham’s departure came, and there were tears, but as the coach drew away, it felt as though a chapter had ended, and there was more yet to come - for the next day, preparations for Jane’s wedding began in earnest.  

Netherfield Park had not hosted so large a celebration since the ball the summer previous, and there was furniture to be dusted and rooms to be arranged and food to be prepared and dresses to be readied. The gardens were trimmed and the silver polished till it gleamed. It seemed all - not just Mrs. Bennet, but all of the family and staff - hurled their efforts into the nuptials, as a distraction from the scandal and gossip.

And there was certainly plenty of gossip. Bingley lived as if on a cloud and heard none, but Darcy was aware of the murmurings about town. Elizabeth knew that her aunt and uncle Phillips had tried to quash what they could, but one afternoon as the lovers walked and Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth followed as chaperones, he confessed that there was much more than the Phillips had heard.

“What can be done?” She asked.

“A neighborhood might forgive much for a good party,” and she looked up to confirm the twinkle in his eye, that it was a joke, “but they do love to gossip.  Unless you can provide them with better, it may simply do to wait.”

She considered it. “If my father's business has been hurt in these dealings, I am not aware.”

“And I am sure that Bingley’s continued desire to marry your sister will help; he affirms the virtue of the remaining Bennets.”

“I would hope it is clear to our neighbors that we are not all so much like our sisters.” Though it pained her to acknowledge that may not be clear at all.

“Soon enough, Jane will be Mrs. Bingley, and something else interesting will happen to one of your neighbors, and you will fret no more.”

“I worry that you overestimate the size of our society here.”

“And you underestimate the consistency of any society toward bad behavior.”

The walk was pleasant, and the conversation veered to better things.  After the wedding, Darcy would away to Derbyshire where he would meet with his sister and spend some time taking care of his estate.  “It may not be the size it once was, but I have certainly been away from it too long.”

“The job does not seem to grow or shrink so proportionally with size.” Elizabeth observed.  

“You seem to know far more than my steward does of the business. Should I need to replace him, I’ll come to Netherfield in the very first.”

“My father would never part with me. I am excellent at pig wrangling.”

“You will not come and wrangle my pig?”

And it was at that moment that the pair realized Bingley and Jane had stopped, as if to turn back along the path. Jane’s eyes were to the ground; she was laughing, heartily in her private way.  Bingley’s eyes were as wide as teacup saucers.

“Mr. Darcy is having some trouble with his steward,” Lizzie explained.  “As I am currently busy with the pig-chasing at Netherfield, I cannot possible go to Derbyshire to assist.”

It was, perhaps, too much explanation to convince anyone of its appropriate nature, and so the group turned back, Darcy and Elizabeth alternating between red-faced embarrassment and the desire to break into peels of laughter.  

“Perhaps,” she told him, “Hertfordshire is not the place for finding stewards.”

“Well, Derbyshire isn’t, I must say.”

The day of Jane’s wedding arrived far sooner than any expected, and the whirling tizzy of the house was perhaps the greatest it had ever seen.  Mr Bennet Iocked himself in his study and made Kitty promise not to rouse him until he must leave for church.

It was, by the end of it, a wonderful day. Lizzie found herself on the lawn, a glass of wine in her hand, watching.  All around her, it seemed as those the past few weeks had not happened, that the past year which had seemed to flip their lives all over had settled into the peaceful pastoral scene she often saw in art galleries but never in real life.

Jane was greeting guests with her new husband, a smile on her face the largest Elizabeth had ever seen.  Mrs. Bennet was in her element, showing off the ornamental garden and not even trying to be subtle in boasting of her good fortune as a mother to have two daughters so recently married. Kitty seemed to have, for the moment, forgotten her heartbreak and was scampering about with Maria Lucas. Mary was sitting in the shade with some of the children from Meryton, ineffectively trying to coax them into sitting down to be read to. Mr. Bennet was standing with Mr. Darcy, and she could only assume they were speaking of farming and country estates.

Amid this scene she saw Caroline Bingley, alone on a lawn chair, her glass of wine sadly empty. Elizabeth picked up a new glass and wandered over. If they were to be sisters now, it could never be said that she didn’t hold out the olive branch.  

“Caroline!” She called. “Is this not the most joyful kind of day?”

“I suppose it is,” Miss Bingley said, taking the proffered glass.

“Have you been recently in London?”

“Yes, until just last week.”

“And how was the end of the season?”

“It was marvelous. A pity you should have missed it.”

“I found I was wanted elsewhere.”

“I’ll say.”

Lizzie turned her head at that. What on earth?

Miss Bingley scoffed.  “Oh, don’t look at me all doe-eyed like that. You were very much wanted.  I had it from Georgiana Darcy that she was hoping very much to welcome you as a sister some weeks ago. It really just takes a bit of coaxing to get her to speak, you know. I visit a day or so hence and Darcy is storming about the place like death. Next thing I know, I have it from Jane that you’ve disappeared to Kent, and its only a few days later that Darcy follows you there. I know you don’t think much of me Eliza, but I can hold my own. I know how these things work.”

“Caroline, Darcy and I are not engaged.”

“Of course not, you turned him down. Cannot for the life of me see why. This house is lovely, but if another of his daughters gives your father the kind of shock he had this month I don’t think you’ll much longer live in it.”

“Miss Bingley, I would prefer not to speak of this, or in such a way of my father. What is past is past. Darcy and I are friends.”

“I suppose you must be.” She said. “For here he is, disappointed and still showing his face. Thank goodness, I suppose, it was not a love match, or I should wonder at him ever showing his face in Hertfordshire again.”

“Yes,” Lizzie said between gritted teeth. “We have much to be thankful for.”

Later on, when Darcy asked her to dance, she did wonder what others thought when they saw the pair. Was it so obvious? But, of course, Caroline Bingley had inside information - had she told her brother? Had it been mentioned by either to Jane? She could suppose that Jane did not know, but she had not been in London in so long - had the news been cast so widely abroad?

A topic she had planned to avoid with Darcy from here till at the very least their dying days, but now perhaps she might warn him. Or perhaps she would let the chips fall where they may; it was an easy enough piece of gossip to deny or refute the longer they continued unengaged and unmarried. Just as in Meryton, where his advice had come right; give it time, and the attention will divert. A little gossip was not worth a disproportionate amount of worry.

The party ended and Lizzie avoided Caroline Bingley, instead catching up with neighbors and with friends whom had been greatly missed in the preceding months.  The Bingley party and their companions all left the following day; Jane would spend some time as a married lady touring with her new husband.

Chapter Text

Time passes and things are forgotten, hurts recede and the patterns of life rearrange to accommodate the new norm, and after a while it becomes easy to ignore the things of the past.  Elizabeth had settled back into life at home. She was spending more time with Mary and Kitty, and learning to enjoy the merits of their unusual company.

It was nearing the end of summer, and after her curtailed trip to London, the Gardiners had invited Elizabeth to join them on a trip through the Peak District and Lake Country and Derbyshire, for Aunt Gardiner had been raised in Derbyshire.  Elizabeth was worried — she was not convinced that time away from family would truly fix the ills she felt she — and they — had caused, but she dearly wanted to spend more time with some rational, kind, relatives.  She was not convinced that the London season would be for her this year — not after the last misadventure — and even less so if Jane was not to be there.

But a trip to new lands sounded perfect, and so Lizzie packed a couple of new books she had been waiting to read, and put on her eager face.  Her family could do without her for a couple of weeks.

The Peaks were more beautiful than her little Hertfordshire heart could have imagined.  If there had been a lingering heartache of the past few months, it seemed that wide-open spaces and deep valleys and dizzying hills could in fact sweep it away.

More than a balm, the calming distance gave Elizabeth some sense of perspective. She had been - for her life, really — so entwined and embroiled her in family and in the neighborhood intrigues and scandals that, even with regular and lengthy trips to London for the season, it was difficult to retain a sense of balance and normality.  London was no better really; a larger society, but equally prone to the excesses and dramatics that seasoned its character.

Elizabeth had been walking, after a brief carriage upset, with her aunt and uncle in the hills, taking in the greens and views — it seemed, to her, that there was not a soul around, except for the little party. “Thank you,” she expressed to her Uncle Gardiner, “for bringing me here. And for your advice, when we were in London. I fear that I was too late in the hearing of it.”

“My dear,” he said, “think no more on what is past. It cannot be changed.”

“Lizzie,” asked Aunt Gardiner. “Do you worry still, now that Jane and Lydia are both married?”

“I find myself worrying a great deal less,” she said. “And here, I find myself not anxious at all. What are men to rocks and mountains?”

“Thinking of men,” said Aunt Gardiner, “Your friend Darcy lives in Derbyshire, does he not?”

“He does,” she said. “At Pemberley.”

“Well, that is not but five miles from Lambton. When we get there, I would dearly love to see the house.”

“I doubt he would still be in residence,” she said, “for he spends much of his time in London with his sister.”

“We can apply to the housekeeper,” said Uncle Gardiner. “In these great houses, it is normally done.”

Elizabeth felt, for the first time in a while, that brief anxiety she had just so casually dismissed to her Aunt and Uncle. While she and Mr. Darcy had called themselves friends, and while he seemed to have forgiven her, she could not so easily dismiss her embarrassment, even shame, at the sorry affair. It was easy enough, in his company, to pretend that nothing was amiss so long as he did the same, but it would be disingenuous to say that Lizzie did not still sometimes wake in the middle of the night consumed with her thoughts on it.

The visit to his house while he was gone? Her Aunt and Uncle were correct; they could apply to the housekeeper, it would not be a misstep. But she began to feel yet again - for the sake of the “friendship” unlike any other she had — that to move forward, she and Darcy may at some point have to have it out. She had to apologize to him.

In the back of her mind, a flicker as well, of his words to her. Did she occupy his thoughts in the same way that he did hers?

***

The contrast of the inn at Lambton - noisy and crowded - to the approach on the long drive to Pemberley was something that Lizzie would never forget. As they turned the final mile, the hills rolled up ahead, and in the distance, a house.

There were many things that Lizzie had assumed of Mr. Darcy, but at some point in the back of her mind she had compared his grand estate to her own at Netherfield Park. She had decided they were equals. If Pemberley was anything to judge by, however, they were not. She recalled that much of the surrounding land had been sold off to pay for Mr. Wickham’s bad debts and keep him out of prison and the family name unsullied; the gardens and lakes surrounding the house seemed, however, to form a most perfect picture.

It was an immense and tall building — of a type even to dwarf the overwrought and overdesigned Rosings Park — and Elizabeth realized that she could imagine the proud, tall, dark Mr. Darcy striding down the path, master of his domain. The closer they drew near to the house, the more she began to doubt herself. It seemed almost cruel to visit, to see.

The thought, in the back of her mind, as well, “You would not have minded to be mistress of this estate.”

As always, she brushed it away.

The housekeeper was happy to show off the grounds, happier still to discover that Miss Bennet was acquainted with the family and “had already heard such good things from Miss Darcy that we had to see it for ourselves while we were in the neighborhood.” Nothing like a little flattery to tickle someone, and they were ushered around great rooms, with great portraits, and it seemed to Elizabeth that the house itself gave such a different account of Darcy than the one she had first encountered. They had started off on the wrong foot so spectacularly!

“Would you like to take a walk on the grounds?” The housekeeper asked.

“Oh, we must!” Declared Mrs. Gardiner, who was so thoroughly charmed by the housekeeper’s accounts of the estate and the family — dotted with her own recollections of a childhood in Derbyshire at Lambton — that Lizzie had gotten away with remaining quiet on the tour.

Mr. Gardiner was taking delight in a fishing pond when the sound of footsteps behind them almost startled the women, who turned to find — in the flesh — one flushed Mr. Darcy.

“Miss Bennet!” He cried.

“Mr. Darcy!” She felt the heat filling her cheeks. “My sincerest apologies, I thought you were away from the house.”

“I was,” he said. “But Georgiana is to come tomorrow, and so I rode on ahead.”

“Oh,” and Lizzie, embarrassment filling her from the tips of her hair to her toes, didn’t know what else to say. She felt the presence of her Aunt and Uncle behind her.

Thankfully, if Darcy felt the force of her upset he did not say, for he greeted the Gardiner’s and happily answered Mr. Gardiner’s questions about the fishing lake, giving Lizzie a moment to compose herself.

What he must think! She, who had turned down his proposal, now here evaluating his estate? But perhaps he thought of her no more. Time had passed — months — and though she had discerned that he might love her still in the tortuous weeks before Jane’s wedding, perhaps now they were, as he had called them, simply “friends.” And what fault was there in a friend coming for an unexpected visit?

Presently, Darcy returned to speak with her. “Miss Bennet, how long do you plan to stay in the village?”

“We have planned to stay but a couple of days,” she said. “My aunt grew up in the region.”
“Yes, I recall,” he said. “It’s just that, my sister might never forgive me if you and your family were in the region and were not implored to come to dine with us tomorrow night.”

Elizabeth smiled. “I could not bear to disappoint Georgiana, and for your sake, in honor of familial peace, I suppose we must.”

“Wonderful! It is settled then.”

Darcy continued on their walk, speaking with each of the party in turn, until he came upon his own steward, with whom he had business, and so escorted them to their carriage, to return the following day.

***

The next day, Lizzie felt calmer, more steady, as they approached the great house. Whatever Darcy thought of her (she comforted herself that some day, years in the future, she might give herself the pleasure of teasing it out of him, for certainly she knew in herself she could not bear to have such a frank discussion in this state), it would be a delight to see Georgiana, and no unpleasantness would occur in front of the girl.

It is one thing to visit a great house as a tourist, another to sit in its drawing room as a guest, even amongst friends. Georgiana was more at ease, she noticed, in her own home. Mr. Gardiner kept Darcy occupied with questions of business and discussions of hunting and of travel, so Elizabeth could speak more freely.

Georgiana offered her congratulations to Jane. “I hear your sister was recently married to our good friend Mr. Bingley.”

“Yes! Your brother was a member of the wedding party.”

“He said wonderful things of the event.”

“It was a joyful day. Some day, you must come to visit in Hertfordshire. Netherfield Park is not so large as Pemberley, but it would be glad to host you and it is such a short ride to Longbourne we could call upon Mr. and Mrs. Bingley every day.”

“I would dearly like that,” she said. The timidness was still there, but her voice was steady. “I understand my brother plans to visit Longbourne again before the winter season.”

“Does he?” Elizabeth was not greatly surprised by this, but more than a little glad of the forewarning, so that she might prepare herself for his nearness.

“He seems to like Hertfordshire quite a lot! Can you tell me about it? Tell me about Netherfield; I so dearly would love to visit.”

It seemed to Lizzie a surprise that Darcy should like Hertfordshire so much, but Georgiana was convincing in her eagerness and Lizzie was always happy to talk about her home. She described the relative wildness of the area surrounding Netherfield Park, of the small farming estates, of the house with a library that she dearly loved but in which, she admitted, she had read all of the books and could not trouble her father to buy her more. She spoke of Meryton, taking care not to mention the recently departed regiments. She spoke of her neighbors and favorites; of the Lucases, and Charlotte who now lived near Georgiana’s Aunt Catherine De Bourg, of the Phillips, with whom she had learned a great deal, of the assembly rooms with their crowded and noisy balls.

Georgiana, the whole time, continued to ask clarifying questions and seemed to be painting a picture in her head. Lizzie noticed, after some little time, that Darcy and Uncle Gardiner had ceased their conversation and were listening too.

“I could speak of home for hours,” Lizzie said, “but surely you are all bored to tears now!”

“You speak of it with great depth of affection,” said Darcy.

“I do love it so very much.”

“Does it pain you to leave?”

She knew, as those in the room did not, that there was a layer to this question. She also knew that, with her gracious hosts for the London season in the room, she could temper her response — where she would normally have been frank and witty with Mr. Darcy, she would be polite now.

“I spend much time in London, with family I dearly love, which lessens the pain greatly. I think often that I don’t know how I could leave — and now with Jane settled so near by! But then I see other parts of England, and I see your lovely Derbyshire and wonder that you ever leave it yourself!”

Georgiana, unknowing. “I think your sister Jane is so lucky to be settled close to home. Most ladies, when marrying, must move away. It pains me to think that some day I should be separated from my brother.”

“How did you do it, Aunt?” Lizzie turned to Mrs. Gardiner, who could allay Georgiana’s fears, being a native of this very neighborhood herself, and also take the attention from Lizzie, who felt for the first time in a while Mr. Darcy’s eyes upon her.

“It is difficult to leave home,” Mrs. Gardiner said, “but I find it is worth it, to be happily married and to have a life and a family of my own. And I do not have so cruel a husband that he doesn’t let me drag him all over the country to go visiting.”

“What you must do, Miss Darcy,” said Uncle Gardiner, “is find a husband who doesn’t mind to travel a bit, and if he loves you as I do Mrs. Gardiner, he will follow you like a very devoted lost puppy.”

“You make it sound like such an easy task!” Lizzie wondered.

“Is it not?” Uncle Gardiner said, with the polite chuckle to let his audience know that he was teasing his niece.

The meal was served, and Lizzie found herself seated next to Mr. Darcy, who asked kindly after the health of Jane and Mr. Bingley, and of how they were settling in Longbourne — after all, he had invested so much time in helping him with the beginnings of running the estate. Lizzie was happy to oblige that conversation since she knew a little of running an estate, and knew a good bit about her sister’s temperament and now Mr. Bingley’s, such that she could speak for a while.

Over lunch, Mr. Gardiner regaled the table with tales of misfortune in London — carriages upset, ladies scattering in shock, children running amok — just the right amount to keep them amused, and to keep Lizzie from worrying too much about her dinner partner.

After the meal commenced a walk through the grounds. Georgiana happily took up Lizzie’s arm, glad for a rare chance at female companionship, and begged her to come visit as much as possible during her London season.

“I must confess,” Lizzie said, “I am not certain I will have a season this year. I find I enjoy the society less and less.”

“My brother says it is all abominable social climbers.”

“Your brother and I share the same sentiments in that regard. It would not be the first time he has come to rescue a conversation where I have been besieged by someone wishing to estimate my own fortune.”

“That does sound like my brother!”

“Only, I confess, it does me no good, for then the crab realizes that I am acquainted with the great Mr. Darcy, and they try to cling all the more!”

Darcy, overhearing, “You should not belittle your own skills at dismissing a suitor.” He paused for a moment, seemed to realize the error, and hastily added, “I should say that many of the young upstarts of London seem to hardly know how to keep up with you.”

“It is not that I dislike an upstart,” Lizzie observed, keenly aware of how recently her family on her mother’s side had come into money, “but I deeply dislike the artifice of the connection-making.”

“I think I should find it horrible,” said Georgiana. She was young and shy, but Lizzie knew must be keenly aware of her position as an object of desire for those seeking money an connections. The Bennet fortune must be split between five sisters, but even with reduced circumstances owing to Wickham’s chicanery, there was only one Darcy daughter.

“Worry not,” Elizabeth said. “If you find yourself so uncomfortable at a ball, and cannot find your brother, come and find me. If I am not dancing, I will be in a corner with a glass of wine, laughing at everyone else.”

“That is good. And my brother does not often dance.”

“He does not,” Lizzie confirmed. “It is shocking.”

“I have danced with you,” Darcy spoke up.

“And,” Lizzie confided, loudly, to Georgiana, “he protested greatly every time. You are right; you are much more likely to find him at a ball than to find me.”

“Unless he is dancing with you,” Georgiana said.

“On the rare occasion, you should note it — it is so very rare.”

Behind her, she could hear Darcy chuckle. Things were, objectively, going well.

***
Darcy escorted the family back to the inn, with Elizabeth making solemn promises to Georgiana to write, and to invite her to Netherfield Park, and to visit her often in London (for it seemed, she had been convinced to spend the season there after all).

The Gardiners made excuses, and Lizzie found herself with Darcy in the public room, saying their goodbyes.

“It has been good to see you,” he said.

“It has been. Thank you for allowing us to intrude. Georgiana is doing so well, I am happy to see it.”
“And what are your thoughts of Pemberley?” She could see his eagerness, the way he wanted to hear her opinion, the way he expected her frankness. She had missed their parlay.

“You should be proud. I think it is the most beautiful house I have seen.”

“Surely not moreso than Netherfield?”

“Netherfield Park is home, but it is no great beauty. You have seen it.”

“I have seen how at ease you are within it.”

“I should wonder, Mr. Darcy, that you ever allow yourself to leave for London, when owning such an estate as this, in such a pleasant neighborhood.”

“I admit, London is not much to my liking.”

“I am beginning to understand why.”

“This past season—.” He began and cut himself off, clearly troubled at raising the past.

“I was unkind.” She said. That much was true.

His face twisted. “I was impolite.”

“Yet here we are.”

“We are.”

“I will be visiting our friends at Longbourne soon.” He said.

“Georgiana told me; please tell me you will bring her? She dearly wishes to see Hertfordshire and she would be much welcome at Netherfield.”

“I shall. Though I do not know how long I will be in Hertfordshire.”

“For the sake of your sister, and your friend. Oh, he needs a great deal of help, Darcy! He is not so expert as you in the running of an estate. For the sake of all of your friends in Hertfordshire,” herself included, “please do not make it so brief.”

“We shall see.” He said.

And she wondered what his errand must be, that he bid her adieu and left the inn in such haste.

Chapter Text

Elizabeth’s return to Netherfield Park felt anticlimactic after her travels, and she was glad. Mary and Kitty had reached a kind of agreement, wherein Mary would help Kitty with her dawdling practice on the pianoforte, and would then consent to be dressed up or primped for their daily walk into Meryton, wherein the pair would complete an errand for the housekeeper, or visit Aunt Phillips, or stop to play with the children of the family Mary had been helping. Mrs. Bennet, after a flurry of activity, had calmed to the pleasant mother Elizabeth remembered from her childhood, with her sweetness and love for her children, even if she was a bit too permissive, a bit lax in discipline. She was often visiting with friends, but the constant boast of success had been subdued, for everyone in the county knew that Jane had married Bingley, but it was too soon for news of a grandchild, and so their neighbors might have their own moment in the sun.

Mr. Bennet had continued in his same way, recovered from the shock of Lydia’s marriage and from the whirligig of business surrounding Jane’s wedding. He was working closely with his steward and his tenants as the harvest approached, and Lizzie had not been back a full day before she found herself assigned on errands to a tenant cottage nearby, bringing a pie from the house and returning with a basket of eggs.

And so, life moved along. The long days of summer dwindled, and the assemblies in Meryton ended, and the leaves began to fall from the trees. Elizabeth read several books she had already finished. She helped her Uncle with some dictation. She called upon Jane again, and again, and again, and was delighted to see her so happy and settled.

She thought, every so often, that perhaps she had eschewed her own chances of such happiness, and wondered if she could be content forever in Hertfordshire, an old maid.

It was September when the news of Mr. and Miss Darcy’s \ arrival in Hertfordshire came accompanied by the news of Miss Bingley’s arrival. She had not visited since the wedding, her life in London apparently being much occupied over the summer, but the arrival of “a dear friend” (in Jane’s words) had made her visit all the more critical.

Privately, Elizabeth laughed. Maybe Miss Bingley would land on her object, but she could not ignore the twinge in her chest at the thought. Not for Mr. Darcy, she told herself - she had given up all that, even if her anxious heart betrayed her - but for was Miss Bingley’s fawning over Georgiana, which Elizabeth suspected gave the girl much discomfort, and was embarrassing to watch.

Their arrival kept Jane quite busy, and so it was several days before Elizabeth and her sisters felt comfortable making the visit over to Longbourne - Kitty and Mary having both decided to accompany her, even though they considered Darcy “a bore” and “uninteresting,” as they were intrigued by the idea of meeting his much lauded younger sister.

Longbourne had much improved in aspect in the time since Bingley had taken residence. Darcy had been of great help initially in setting up his household staff and in advising on the care and keeping of an estate. Elizabeth feared that Bingley’s time away in London might have diminished the hard work, but it seemed his continued investment from afar had kept things running, and when he and Jane settled in their house for the first time once married, it was already one of the sweetest little estates in the neighborhood.

If her visit to Pemberley had reduced her anxiety, this visit to Longbourne — a familiar place filled with friends — served to increase it. Should there never come a point where Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy could be in the same room without personal pain? Once he should get married, she reasoned — perhaps to the odious Miss Bingley — she should feel relief, with the guarantee he was no longer in love with her. And then it would be settled, and that strange burning in her chest would go away.

The visit went well. Kitty was perhaps too enthusiastic for Georgiana, who seemed overwhelmed. With so many women in the room, Lizzie was forced to make polite conversation with Miss Bingley - though their last conversation had been less than pleasant.

“How do you find London at this time of year?” She asked.

“I find the town stimulating,” Miss Bingley said. “It is lovely to come to the country; I find it humbling to be reminded of my privilege.”

“I feel we must be at odds here, for I find it quite the opposite. In town, I am reminded of the grift and hardscrabble life, and am very grateful for my peaceful corner of the world.”

“I suppose, if one is used to more provincial ways…” Miss Bingley implied.

“Certainly. We are all so very provincial here. And glad to welcome Mr. Bingley to our number; it is a joy to have such wonderful and sophisticated company so close to home.”

It was a step too far, and she knew it, and Miss Bingley’s face looked as if burn. A hollow victory; she took little joy in it. It occurred to Lizzie, and she went to sit down next to Mary, that even Miss Bingley had become boring to her. How she had changed!

Georgiana was uncomfortable with the attention and had withdrawn into herself, sitting away from the center of the room, and so Bingley began quizzing Kitty and Mary on their daily activities, “for I often see you going to and fro the village.”

“Charles, you sound like a regular old country farmer now,” Darcy commented. He must have overheard her reproach to Miss Bingley.

“I am quite happy to be!” Bingley said. “Who knew that coming to Hertfordshire would afford me so much joy?”

Jane beamed. Caroline steamed.

Lizzie felt that knot of embarrassment in the pit of her stomach at, once again, being noticed by Darcy. She was grateful for his subtle defense. She was not surprised to see Caroline Bingley’s smirk; she had taken the comment as criticism, forgetting that Darcy was a gentleman of society, but also the owner of a great country estate who had no hesitation to express his disdain of the Ton.

The stay was but a short while, and Elizabeth was grateful to return to the fresh air and to her own thoughts. They had done their duty until the group came to visit at Netherfield Park; a relief, because Elizabeth found herself beginning to tire of company.

***
It was only two days before the return visit was made, with only Mr. Darcy and Miss Darcy in attendance. On the one hand, it was lovely not to have to deal with Miss Bingley, though Elizabeth wished that her sister Jane had been of the company. Still, Georgiana was sweet, and as Kitty was out visiting Maria Lucas, much less overwhelmed.

“Are you enjoying your time in Hertfordshire?” Lizzie asked Miss Darcy.

“Very much,” she said. “It is even more beautiful than I imagined.”

“I am glad. It must be good, too, to spend some time with Miss Bingley.”

“She is very kind to me.”

“I know her to have great affection for you.”

“I am grateful.”

“Would you like to see some of the park?”

“I would dearly love to! You spoke so well of it.”

“Then perhaps a walk? Mr. Darcy, it is a nice day - would you take the fresh air?”
“It has been some time since I’ve seen your estate, it would be lovely to do so.”

“My brother tells me that you are a great walker, Miss Bennet.”

“I do love to walk, but worry not — we will not overexert ourselves.”

The day was nice, and the walk was pleasant. It did not require so much talking as an hour in the parlor, and Mary was happy to give the tour to Georgiana, having otherwise found herself rather uncomfortable and silent. Naturally, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy fell into step.

“How do you find this visit to Hertfordshire, Mr. Darcy?”

“I find Hertfordshire as lovely as ever.”

“You did not much seem to like it, when we met last year.”

“I think I had quite the wrong impression of it.”

“And you find your impression is much changed?”

“I do. I find I quite like the place now.” He smiled, and she found it warming.

“I am glad. It is quite my favorite place to be.”

“You will, someday, perhaps be unhappy to leave it?”

“I know that there are other wonderful places in England. I suppose I should fall in love with those too.”

“Miss Bennet.”

He had stopped, and was looking at her curiously. She stopped, waiting, her heart racing. Mary and Georgiana were walking quite up ahead.

“I must be frank. Surely, you know — my feelings, my wishes have not changed since we spoke in the winter. But one word from you will silence me on this forever. Please, tell me - are your feelings still the same as they were in February?”

She was stunned, but found herself replying before she knew what words were coming out of her mouth. “They are not. I find they have changed a great deal. They are quite the opposite to the criticisms I expressed in February.”

“Then, please, tell me,” his eyes seemed to plead, “will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”

“Yes.”

And it was, after all, as simple as that.

They did not catch up with Mary and Georgiana, instead walking together behind their sisters and enjoying their happiness. It was no fault to the younger women that they did not turn around and look back, instead enjoying the lovely day, and only noticed the smiles when they returned to the house, where Mr. Darcy directly applied to Mr. Bennet for his blessing, and where congratulations were served all around.

***

Elizabeth Darcy was struck, sometime later, at the magnitude of the misunderstanding under which she had initially labored about her husband, and the misunderstanding that he had harbored about her. They were well matched - if prone to argument - but Pemberley was large enough to hold their tempers and Darcy was patient enough (she had so often seen that!) to await a resolution, and thankfully Elizabeth was not so arrogant as to be unable to ask forgiveness, nor so humble as to let her husband away with pride.

And had it been worth it to see Caroline Bingley aghast, when — after Mr. Bennet had given his permission and Mrs. Bennet had retired to her room from the “flutterings and murmurings” in her heart — they had proceeded to Longbourne (with a happily crying Georgiana) to share the news? Yes, there was a part of Lizzie that felt it had been worth it.

And had it been worth it, to be so picky? For the Mr. Darcy who had proposed to her at the first was not the Mr. Darcy she could have married. She saw that now. Yes, it had been worth it.