Actions

Work Header

Beloved Friend

Work Text:

Fitzwilliam Darcy

It was appalling, Darcy thought, this notion that a girl of fifteen — a child, to put it plain — ought to be considered a woman, ready to be a wife and mother. Georgie was but one year out of the schoolroom, very nearly still in short skirts, capable of having her head turned by a seductive word — no, he must be fair. It was the particular speaker rather than any especial eloquence that had very nearly made a conquest of her; George Wickham, that thrice-damned blackguard, had been his playmate since before Georgie was born and subsequently a figure familiar in Georgiana's young life. And not always languishing in the background, for Darcy could remember very well how Wickham had turned his easy charm on her, calling her "puss" in his fondest tone. The thought that Wickham, elder to him by a year and nearly twice her age, had been honing his charm on the whetstone of his affectionate sister's untried heart filled Darcy with a blistering rage, and his hands curled into fists.

No matter how rationally he put it to himself that he could not march after the scoundrel, haul him up by the scruff of his neck like an ill-behaved dog, and beat him bloody — not without compromising Georgie's reputation or dishonouring their father's fondness for his steward and that steward's worthless son — his hands would not relax. It was not a posture that served him well, as he had his sister literally in his arms, dampening his cravat with her shamed tears. The bright auburn hair she had begged to wear "up" for so long had, in her paroxysm of emotion, come undone and flowed down her back in the softest stream; delicately, he stroked it, and in so doing managed to loose his hands from their cramped fists and feel the blood returning to his whitened knuckles. In allowing her to wear her hair pinned, he had not meant to make a woman of her, a woman who could be hurt so grievously.

"My dearest," he said, cupping her wet cheeks in his hands and importuning her to meet his eyes, startled anew by the despair he read in the depths of hers, "you have done nothing shameful; you are sinned against rather than sinning." He could see protests in her wet eyes — those were their dear mother's eyes, dark and soft as a doe's — but he would not hear otherwise, even from her own lips, still red as a child's. Wickham could not be punished at present, but Darcy was certain that the scoundrel would make any village too hot to hold him in short order, and someone, somewhere, would know how to thrash such a villain.

Georgie buried her wet face once more in his chest and gradually the shaking of her slight form ceased. Her arms round him grew heavy, weighted by unconsciousness, and he carried her to the sopha and laid his precious burden down. Unsatisfying though it was, he could do nothing more immediately for her than to dismiss Mrs Younge without a character and write Wickham a letter that spelt out in no uncertain terms what recourse he should take should his sister's name ever pass those foul lips once more.

*

In terms of her sweetness of temper — he might with more justice say her malleability — Georgie recovered apace. But her poise appeared irretrievably lost. The simplest decisions caused a blush and a stammer, even at Pemberley, amongst those she had known her whole life long, and of whose affection she was assured. When he mentioned he would like to hear her play, for no sound so soothed him as her performances on the pianoforte, Georgie, eager to please her brother, stepped quickly to the instrument, and he settled back and closed his eyes. He forced them open a few minutes later, wondering at the continuing silence, and saw her, scarlet-cheeked with shame, unable to decide between two favourite pieces held in her hands.

Rising and approaching her silently, he plucked the pages from her left hand and set them upon the instrument. "Apologies, dearest; I had not meant to leave you without your page-turner. Just nod when the time comes, for you know best." The pages in her right hand fluttered to the floor, unheeded, and though she acquitted herself very well, playing with great rapidity, precision, and execution, there were diamond drops on the keys by the time the piece was done.


Charles Bingley

It was a fine thing, that the first letter he should write as master of Netherfield Park, with his own name above a very respectable Hertfordshire address, should be to Darcy. Charles wished to show his friend that without guidance from him — or interference from his sisters, who were rather inclined that way — he had negotiated for such a desirable house on a very pretty bit of property. His servants seemed well pleased by the change, and the cook he had engaged was reputed to be strongly inclined to the sort of hearty, flavourful dishes he favoured.

He stretched his legs out and snatched up the paper to look over what he had written thus far. If he had to be parted from Harriet Cowper, whose father had objected to a son-in-law whose own father's fortune had been made in trade, there could be no better consolation than to feel himself master of a parcel of green country. Putting Harriet's blue eyes out of his mind, he turned his own eyes to tracing the lines he'd written, noting the dropped letters and words but knowing that Darcy would have little difficulty in discerning his meaning. Hastily he added to the end a most sincere invitation for Darcy to join him as soon as was possible. Netherfield might be nothing to Pemberley, but it was inexpressibly satisfying to at last be in a position to pay back some of his friend's unstinting generosity.

A Sir William Lucas was announced then, and Charles stood to greet a guest of such rank. The neighbourhood of Meryton, he felt sure, was very far from being dull.

*

I must beg your forbearance, my dear sir, as I continue to strain the bounds of even your tolerance. I cannot get away from the cares of Pemberley at present, and must remain as I am for some time yet. Please do go on your merry way, as I should like to think of you enjoying the pleasures of Hertfordshire, which I am sure must be many. Pray give my respects to your sisters and know that I sign myself, with all affection, your friend — F. Darcy.

Charles read the letter, which was uncommonly short for Darcy, a second time through, this time omitting all of the greetings and compliments that gave it the structure of a more characteristic epistle. He had never known Darcy to be less than completely truthful, but he could not help attributing some of the man's reluctance to pay a visit of some weeks to the presence of his sisters, particularly Caroline. Charles wished for at least the hundredth time that Caroline, if she had to set her cap at one of his friends, might have chosen one more susceptible to her charms, one in whom her supposed witticisms found favour. Darcy appeared impervious to her flattery, and neither Charles nor Louisa believed that situation likely to be materially altered at any future time.

A footman entered to announce the arrival of a new neighbour, a Mr Timothy Bennet, and Charles put away Darcy's letter, resolving to answer it sooner rather than later and see if Louisa and Jerome could be prevailed upon to take Caroline elsewhere for a month or two of travel.

*

The Meryton ball ought to have occasioned him far more anxiety than it did; he was less inclined than Caroline to consider the ball as a test of his attachment to his neighbours, and therefore the question of whether he should purchase Netherfield Park or continue to lease it arose only vaguely in his mind as he dressed for the grand event. He had cause to be glad of his painstaking attention to the tying of his cravat, for when the four of them entered the assembly room, all eyes turned to them, unerringly identifying himself and Caroline as the unattached members of the party; he could but hope that her air of fashion was enough to impress and his eagerness to know his neighbours was evident.

Sir William Lucas, first to have welcomed him as master of Netherfield, was likewise the first to approach him at the ball, and to offer up his eldest daughter, who reminded Charles strongly of his sisters' governess, as a partner for the first dance. With no intention of displeasing a man he already liked quite well, Charles acceded, and Miss Lucas's smile brightened her face considerably, erasing the years between them; if he were pressed into being ungallant, he would guess that she was approximately Darcy's age. Miss Lucas spoke well, and easily, of the delights of the village, without troubling herself about his plans for Netherfield. Well pleased with her perception, he paid her the compliment of professing her a most charming partner and inwardly ceased to compare the blue of her eyes with Harriet's.

In that moment, Miss Lucas's hand in his, his gaze was caught by a lady going down the dance, in consequence passing so close that he felt the breeze of her movement upon his cheek. She was neither very tall nor very small, but her beauty was complete and the elegance of her figure was pronounced. Her dress boasted none of the frills and lace of his partner's gown, but was simple in the extreme, brightened judiciously by a few fresh flowers that looked well against the ripe auburn of her hair. The man partnering her seemed to have no notion that he held a treasure, and Charles found himself craning his neck for another glimpse of her, his feet automatically moving in time to the music, until he remembered himself and looked at Miss Lucas once more.

"I beg your pardon," he said, gasping like the veriest fool.

"Miss Bennet is too lovely to pass unremarked," she said, unruffled, and he smiled his thanks for providing a name for the angel down the line. "One of her sisters is a particular friend of mine. Would you be so good as to escort me to her after our dance is done?"

Charles resolved then and there to dance with Miss Lucas at least once at every Hertfordshire ball he attended, to be sure of such friendly and disinterested conversation.


Margaret Gardiner

"Lizzy," she said, whilst her pen continued its course along the page, "when your uncle and I take our leave of Longbourn, we mean to carry you and Jane off as well."

"Oh, sister! That will never do!" Mrs Bennet burst out, having chanced to overhear the promise that so delighted her second daughter. Peggy, recognising the signs of excitement that meant no further work could be done on her list of items her children would need from the Derbyshire shops she remembered with fondness, set down her pen and gave Alicia her full attention. She was rewarded for her foresight by the animation on the pretty face of her sister-in-law. "Jane must on no account leave Longbourn! Mr Bingley, with five thousand a year, shows such an excessive attachment to her — as indeed, why should he not, she could not be so beautiful for nothing! — that he must surely make her an offer quite soon."

"So soon! Mama, they have shared but four dances, a garden party, and three dinners together in company with three other families. That is not enough time or conversation for either to determine the other's character," Lizzy pointed out, quite tartly. Peggy approved the good sense of her words but regretted Lizzy's tone, which was unlikely to placate her mother.

"Character fiddlesticks!" Mrs Bennet proclaimed and decamped, evidently bent on savouring her perceived victory. Peggy had had her heart set on her two eldest — and dearest — nieces joining her for a tour of her former home, in Derbyshire, but if Jane really were on the cusp of such an advantageous match, removing her would never do. Mary would not wish to accompany them, as it would require more walking than she favoured, and Kitty and Lydia were too young, unsteady, and untutored to be let loose on a land they had never yet seen.

Jane, when applied to, hesitated and said that she would rather stay at home, to be a help to her mama; Peggy did her the justice of believing she would do just that, even if her heart had more urgent reasons for lingering in the neighbourhood. "Shall you not stay for the Lucases' ball, dear aunt?" Jane asked, looking up from her work with a quick and pretty glance.

"No, my dear," she said, patting one busy hand, for Jane's labour was all for the benefit of others; the hat she was trimming would suit only Kitty's fair colouring, and next to it lay a pouch, to be embroidered in the Chinese style, for Mary's spectacles. "But perhaps there will be reason enough for celebration by the time we bring Lizzy back that there will be dancing then too." Jane blushed, the tide of colour illuminating her beauty so remarkably that any man must have lost his heart instantly and irrevocably, had he been fortunate enough to gaze upon her thus. Mr Bingley had better be worth that blush.

*

Bright dawned the day that the happy party of three left Longbourn. Peggy knew that Lizzy would have been well supplied with books, and though her taste was not nearly as satirical as her brother-in-law's, still to have material for Lizzy to read aloud from was indeed a fine thing; her niece had enough animation that she came close to acting rather than merely reciting.

It was a pleasure to hear the words of Tom Jones whilst the Hertfordshire landscape poured such greenness into her eyes. Edward was listening to Lizzy attentively, and she nearly forgot to attend to the story, so involved did she get in enjoying his merriment as the author's wit spun on. They reached Cambridge, long a source of fascination to her husband and niece, in time for a cold luncheon and a walk amongst the edifices of honey-coloured stone that had housed so many men of wisdom. It was impressive, though less to her taste than their eventual destination: the site of her Derbyshire girlhood.


Caroline Bingley

She was not his elder by more than two years, but Charles was too much of a boy yet to know his own mind. He reminded her of the lead soldiers he'd used to play with and then leave scattered on the nursery rug; they could do but one thing, and Charles was just the same. As if he had to keep to a schedule, here he was in a new county, falling headlong into what he called love again. Harriet Cowper had been a pretty enough girl, she supposed, but would have forever been holding her nose at the source of Charles's money, willing though she seemed to spend it. And, having got over that disappointment, now Charles was looking besotted with Jane Bennet, whose beauty and gentility did nothing to disguise that she was the merest country violet.

If only Mr Darcy would come, and bring his sister to catch Charles's eye! Surely, that match made, it would strike Mr Darcy how suited they were to each other and how fitted up by taste, style, fashion, and fortune she was to be mistress of Pemberley, once one intermarriage between the families had been fixed!

She steeled herself, resolute. She had not cavilled at the proposed match with Miss Cowper, but no Miss Bennet should stand where Miss Darcy ought to be; she would tell Charles so at once.

*

Jane Bennet was certainly far more enterprising than Caroline would have believed. Was it to be credited that a face so pure could hide an iron will and a determination to have the rich Mr Bingley with a snap of her fingers? And Charles, of course, was looking positively bewitched by her, and walking with her — unchaperoned, very likely — in the shrubbery on every day that the rain was not coming down in sheets.

No, it was not as she feared, but worse; Miss Bennet had brought along Miss Mary to put a cloak of respectability over the entire enterprise, and Miss Mary, no doubt following her sister's careful instructions, resolutely declined to walk with them and insisted instead on playing the pianoforte — her pianoforte — with little skill and less taste.

It was hard, indeed, to keep a smile on her face when Sir William Lucas, of all the interfering busybodies, took it upon himself to visit on a rare morning when Netherfield was not positively crawling with Bennets and congratulate Charles on selecting so unerringly the brightest jewel of the county. Charles immediately puffed up as if he had done something deserving praise rather than blighting her fondest hopes. To be able to call Georgiana Darcy "sister"! To look up into Mr Darcy's eyes and call him "husband"! All of her desires were encompassed by the favour of a singular family, and her own were proving most uncooperative.

Louisa did nothing, now that she had married, and though Caroline sincerely did not envy her her husband — Mr Hurst appeared to be in a constant state of hibernation — she did think it was not too much to expect some support from a sister. For heaven's sake, even plain Miss Mary bestirred herself for her sister, though surely there were mercenary concerns spurring the shows of familial devotion. Yes, Louisa ought to urge Charles to write to Mr Darcy once more and press him to honour Netherfield with his presence.


Elizabeth Bennet

What felicity to be in such good company, with such sights to see! Lizzy knew herself to be almost completely blessed — Jane's appreciative presence was all that was wanting — and was more than willing to enter into Aunt Peggy's feelings as they approached the town of Lambton.

Though the event appeared to be of the utmost importance to her mother, Lizzy could scarcely conceive of the possibility that she would marry and leave Meryton behind, but she could easily put herself into her aunt's shoes and imagine that she might long to see her former home and yet dread to see it changed in any respect. After all, the course of very few years had wrought significant changes even in the simple home sphere she knew and loved so well. Principal amongst those changes must be her own younger sisters' arrivals, and Lizzy could well remember how she had transformed from Jane's small sister to the fierce guardian who kept an eye on Mary and a hand on Kitty. Only Jane could manage Lydia, and it took all her sweet steadiness and patience to do so; Lizzy had not a hope of succeeding where the negligence of their father and the indulgence of their mother had wrought so much mischief.

Aunt Peggy's face had brightened as they approached the town in which she had spent her girlhood — beyond whatever blushes Tom Jones's fictional escapades might have raised — and Lizzy closed the book firmly on her lap. "Oh, there is the milliner's shop!" her aunt cried out, but her eye had hardly taken in the lengths of ribbon in the window before her attention was directed elsewhere, to the cobbler's. All of the once-familiar sights seemed to put stars in Aunt Peggy's eyes, and Lizzy noted well, with mingled surprise and satisfaction, that even a most beloved husband was not fully proof against the longing for what one had known in youth.

They stopped at an inn, to which Aunt Peggy had evidently forwarded her address, for there was a veritable pile of invitations and letters awaiting them from such of her acquaintance as were within an easy distance. The favourite scheme of all, fixed for three days hence, was a visit to Pemberley, some five miles distant, which was reputed to be excessively beautiful though no one could quite account for its charm, as no ruins or other picturesque additions had been placed on the grounds; Lizzy smiled at her aunt's attempts at an explanation, quickly glossed over with an assurance that she would only understand once she had seen the house for herself.

The charm of recollection cast its spell as strongly over her friends as it did over Aunt Peggy herself, Lizzy reflected, watching the small group of lively, elegant ladies. Uncle Edward had only one other gentleman to keep him company, but it was soon settled that the men would ride and the ladies would employ carriages to take them to the estate; Lizzy was comforted by this arrangement, as she was no horse-woman. To Pemberley, therefore, they went.

The housekeeper, a Mrs Reynolds, stated that the family were away, having left for Hertfordshire but two days previous, and commenced the tour. Lizzy, anxious to leave her aunt to enjoy time with friends long absent, found herself walking alone for the most part, free to examine the portraits and drawings whilst her elders exclaimed over the fineness of the furnishings. Having no skill with a pencil herself, she was always half-envious and half-admiring of those who claimed such talents, and listened attentively as Mrs Reynolds described the pains that the master, Mr Darcy, took to ensure that his sister received the finest tutelage. "His sister!" Aunt Peggy asked, and Lizzy watched sorrow dawn on her face when she heard that the elder Mr Darcy had died nearly five years ago, though his son and heir was reputed to be as good a man and master. Lizzy studied the informal crayon drawings with real pleasure, finding the young lady had most often drawn one man, handsome, with a smiling mouth and solemn eyes.

"That is my master, Mr Darcy," Mrs Reynolds announced with some satisfaction, following her gaze to various sketches of the man. The one of him standing by a glossy pianoforte was the one she liked best, as he looked unrelievedly content and at ease, smiling over some happy secret. "He would have made you all welcome, ma'am, being from the village." Lizzy smiled and wandered off again, glorying in the exquisite taste of her surroundings. She had just turned a corner when she came upon a man.

He was calling, "I say, Mrs Reynolds —" when he saw her and stopped short. A bow and a curtsey and he strode forward. "Are you visiting the old pile, then?" he asked, smiling in a manner that was impossible to rebuff. He was more fair than dark, but neither to any extreme; he was a well-built man some ten years her senior, she judged.

"I have heard much of the glories of Pemberley," she said with a smile of her own.

"Might I know the name of my fair visitor?"

"I am not here for you, sir, but for this property."

"And if I were to tell you that I am master here?" he asked, eyes twinkling roguishly.

"Then I should know it for a falsehood, for I have been assured that the master is from home." His playful spirits were not noticeably dampened by her statement, so she added, with mock severity, "In any case, I have seen the master's likeness, and you, sir, are not quite so handsome."

He gasped and staggered as if wounded, and Lizzy, accustomed to such play with the Lucases and Grevilles, laughed outright and liked him all the better when he grinned and stood on his own two feet to make her a proper bow. "Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam, cousin to the esteemed and very handsome Fitzwilliam Darcy, at your service. And his as well, for as you see, I go where he commands."

They were interrupted by the arrival of the rest of her party at that moment, and soon enough were on their way back to the inn. Lizzy found a letter from her father waiting for her and read it whilst refreshing herself with tea and cake. He missed her and would be obliged if she gave up gadding about the country with half of his library and returned to Longbourn at her earliest convenience. She smiled over the missive and went to speak with Uncle Edward about finding her way home, from which she had been absent long enough.


Charlotte Lucas

She had just finished correcting Maria's French lesson and was setting her mind to hear Tommy and Harry struggle manfully through their Latin when Lizzy called for her. "Have you much news to impart, or may I get on with my reading?" Charlotte asked with a smile, holding up the volume of a novel she'd confiscated from Maria, finding her more eager to know the origins of the skeletons in the moated grange than the conjugations of verbs more irregular than aimer or embrasser.

Lizzy laughed, dimples popping up around her mouth. "Nothing very particular, I suppose, other than Jane's being engaged, my meeting a charming man, my reading a most entertaining and rather scandalous novel, and the impending visit of Papa's cousin Collins. All trifles, when compared with the pleasures of a murky grange positively littered with bones."

She felt her heart lift at the news rather than her friend's raillery; Lizzy never could be serious for long, and had romped with the boys long after Charlotte had been held back to study cookery and needlework. "It is true, then? Jane is positively engaged?"

"Indeed, and she is so happy that she has become a veritable chatterbox."

"What, Jane? I shall never believe that, Lizzy."

"I am telling the earnest truth, as relayed to me by Mama, who said Jane scarcely let her get a word in edgewise after Mr Bingley had bent the knee, when Mama was most particular to find out what she could tempt him with at dinner," Lizzy averred.

Not for the world would Charlotte have injured her friend by observing that Jane's unwonted volubility was most likely a way of staving off her mother's effusions, which might have alarmed and embarrassed Mr Bingley; Charlotte and her own mother had heard plenty from that lady on the desirability of the match and how well Mr Bingley's money would set up the rest of the girls as well as Jane herself. She could not, however, keep herself from thinking such thoughts and approving Jane's wisdom.

"In any case, Jane will have to lapse into silence soon enough, and enchant Mr Bingley with her looks alone," Lizzy continued, "as I have been asked to stay at Netherfield with her for some days, and as you know, I must make it a point to learn all I can about my new brother."

"Woe betide Mr Bingley!" she agreed gravely. "And I wish you luck with his sisters, or, rather, I should wish them luck with you."

Lizzy laughed again. "Just for that, I shall say nothing about my second piece of news, other than to note that the gentleman was very charming indeed. But I will leave you with this, which is even more so." With that, she deposited a novel on the table and Charlotte saw the silk bookmark she'd worked for Lizzy last Christmas tucked invitingly between the leaves. "It is my father's, so you needn't rush to return it."

"And what of your father's cousin?" she asked, knowing that Lizzy delighted in people too much to be done with speaking of her mysterious new acquaintance, and only needed to be coaxed back to the subject.

"Oh, I have naught to say as of yet, as he has not made his appearance, but Papa received a letter from him that had the same literary value as that translation of Tommy's in which he kept insisting Horatius allowed no one to cross his bride. My father was excessively diverted and is anticipating the visit with some keenness."

Charlotte laughed to remember how Tommy had bungled the famous story of Horatius defending the bridge, but thought that Mr Bennet would do better to mind his family rather than seek out their follies. If her own esteemed parents were not the models of intellect and wit that she had longed for in her youth, they were still better than a flighty, querulous mother and a father who took no responsibility at all; her own father had brought Mr Bingley to her first, after all, and her mother arranged many little parties and balls to allow them all to mix in pleasant society and make whatever friends they chose.

"I wish you well, Lizzy, and hope you find Mr Bingley all that Jane thinks him." Lizzy smiled and embraced her and Charlotte set the novel aside and turned back to the Latin texts to prepare for the boys' lesson.


Georgiana Darcy

She had only to give voice to the lightest of her wishes and Will would move heaven and earth to give her what she desired; she had forgotten, in the year since he had given her a household of her own, how earnestly he strove to make and keep her happy. It was not his fault that he — a strong man, a generous master, conscientious about even the least of his responsibilities — could not see that a profoundly shy girl might have difficulty in living on her own, even with a constant companion. She needed to be nurtured by those who loved her, not simply accompanied by those paid to keep her time usefully spent, and there they both found trouble, for she had none but him, and he none but her.

Sinking back into her pillow, she turned the thought over in her mind once more. It was like the best motifs that ran through her music, this simple truth: she was all he had to love in the world. Their cousins were all their elders — even Cousin Richard was nearly four years senior to Will, and Anne was Will's own age but so isolated due to her poor health that they did not see her above once a year — and so they neither of them had a confidant. Will had had some few friends from Cambridge, but none particularly close; he had ever been one to turn to the familial rather than the social circle.

He had been George Wickham's prey as much as she had, trusting the man whom their father had held up to him as an exemplar and urged him to love as a brother, unable to see how hatefully mercenary George's regard was at the last. She had never seen her brother's face so white, so shocked, as when he had had the scales ripped from his eyes by her confession of misplaced trust in their father's namesake. White to the lips, Will had been, and his eyes like deepest pits in that still face. Had not some part of his anger been for her, that she had been so foolish?

No, it could not be, not when he had held her so tenderly and taken the full weight of blame upon himself. He must feel as alone as she. She sat up and thumped her pillow with her fist. She would allow him to feel that way no longer; she would remind him that he had friends, that a visit to them would cheer her, and it would even be true, for where he was valued she would delight in seeing it.

*

Mr Bingley's sister, Miss Caroline Bingley, was rather terrifying, but the man himself was cordial and warm, evidently fond enough of Will to make room in his house for any number of unmarried sisters. She found it odd that Mr Bingley's married sister lived with him instead of in her husband's house, at least until she learnt that the gentleman who spent his time sleeping in front of fires too great for the mild season and playing cards with a single-minded fervour was that same husband. Netherfield Hall must be more suited to the lady's idea of comfort, and having her family with her must be a blessing.

There was one more lady in the party than she had expected, and that was a Miss Bennet, to whom Mr Bingley was recently engaged. Miss Bennet was beautiful as an angel, with eyes of smoke and a voice like bells, and she welcomed Georgie readily into her confidence, saying very sweetly that she already missed her own younger sisters and could be consoled by her presence. It settled something inside Georgie to hear that — to know that a lady might be very much in love and still long for her family — and also forced her to acknowledge that what she had done was in truth the act of a scared child. She had not loved George Wickham, but allowed herself to believe that marrying him would allow her to keep her family — for had she not thought of him as very nearly a sort of step-brother? — while acquiring the status of a married woman come into her own fortune.

She had been a simpleton, she saw that now. This visit had aided her immensely already, and that was not even counting the satisfaction she felt from watching Will in friendly intercourse with Mr Bingley at dinner. Mr Bingley was so happy himself that he could not rest until his friend was equally so, and Will was pleased to keep a smile on his face throughout the long evening. She saw that it did not slip even when Mr Bingley turned away to attend to Miss Bennet, or when Miss Bingley claimed Will's attention as if it were her sole due, and went to her bed with satisfaction.

*

"I assure you I shall not mind spending the morning alone," Miss Bennet said, those great eyes utterly serene. "I have a volume of verse that I shall take into the garden."

Miss Bennet looked so content that Georgie felt emboldened to inquire, "Should you be willing to discuss poetry with me upon my return, Miss Bennet?"

"I would be very pleased to do so," Miss Bennet promised, and bestowed on them all a lovely smile. Mr Bingley was particularly affected — she could hear the sharpness of his indrawn breath — but Will lingered to convey his wish that she should find the morning as delightful as she hoped. Georgie reflected that Will did very well with those he felt to be worth his time, pleased that he had taken Miss Bennet's measure thus. Miss Bingley, she noted, had not paused to exchange pleasantries with her soon-to-be sister; perhaps she was simply leaving the field open for her brother to press a kiss to his intended's hand.

"Have you grown fond of poetry?" Will asked as they walked to the stables. A pretty chestnut mare poked her nose out of her stall, insatiably curious, and Will obligingly stopped so that she could stroke that soft face.

"A little," she admitted. "I cannot give over expecting music to be set to any rhyme, but there are times when words on a page are sufficient to delight." She darted a glance up at him as he examined the horse's strong flesh and gleaming coat, assessing it for her use. "As with your letters, of course."

He smiled then, startlingly bright, and said, "I labour enough at them, so this appreciation is welcome indeed."

She laughed at the sally — it seemed so long since they had been simply happy in each other's company — and took the boost he offered to mount. Looking down from that height, she saw that he still seemed tall and strong to her, but the pleasure of the promised ride was nearly wiped clean off his face by the advent of Miss Bingley, who likewise claimed his assistance in selecting and mounting an animal, though the stables were her own brother's.


Jane Bennet

"Lizzy, oh, Lizzy," was all she could say when at last she held her dearest sister in her arms. Lizzy must have had some sympathy with her feelings, for she forbore to make merry immediately and held her equally close.

"Jane, you are happy then, my dearest?" were the words whispered into her hair, and Jane found herself caught between tears and laughter.

"Can you doubt it?"

Lizzy held her at arm's length and scrutinised her ruthlessly, breaking into a beaming smile by the end of her inspection. "No, I cannot. Tell me all about my new brother, for I have had hardly five minutes' conversation with him when he was not distracted by either your presence or your absence."

"Charles —" she began, then hesitated. She had not called him so even to him, but to her sister, her other self, she would. "Charles is the kindest of men. He has an open temper and is the sort of man who is happiest at home, with his loved ones round him." She would not pain Lizzy with any comparison to their father, who had made his library into a sort of armed fortress in which he could be safe from any incursions by his wife and daughters, but she felt the difference keenly and delighted in the man she had accepted. The first wish of her heart was always the happiness of those beloved to her, and Mr Bingley was evidently easy to please on that score.

"I already know he must be a man of good taste, as he fell in love with my Jane, but what of his pursuits, his interests? Is he lively or solemn of an evening? Quick to feel or quick to think?"

"He is . . . he is of good cheer, certainly, and enjoys being out of doors almost as much as you, Lizzy. He cannot conceal his thoughts, yet I would describe him as more ruled by heart than head. I love him just as he is." That was all true, certainly, but she did not know yet if he would appear to advantage, at least in Lizzy's eyes, when contrasted with his friend, whose arrival had surprised her; Lizzy would doubtless declare Mr Darcy the more elegant, the more thoughtful. "Can that not be enough?" If Lizzy did not care for Charles, that would be a blow indeed.

"Why, Jane!" Lizzy exclaimed, swooping down to take her in her arms. "I shall look only to praise, dearest. I must love my brother, must I not?" With two or three kisses, Lizzy sealed her promise and Jane was satisfied. "Just tell me one thing more — will he mind so very much being teazed?"

*

It was not Lizzy she ought to have worried for, though her sister was as lively as ever; it was Mr Darcy. The man was so clearly on his guard against Miss Bingley — and if Caroline were as fickle as she appeared, with her raptures over "sweet Miss Bennet" sharply diminishing with the actual engagement, Jane could not wonder at Mr Darcy's caution — that he failed to mount any defences against Lizzy.

Lizzy, it transpired, recognised him immediately from his sister's renderings of him, and thus paid them both a pretty compliment. "Do you enjoy the pianoforte, Mr Darcy?" she asked. "I enquire because of all the drawings I saw at Pemberley, you appeared most content in the study in which you were standing by the instrument."

Jane saw Mr Darcy's eyes lighten, making almost merry the naturally solemn lines of his handsome visage. To her surprise — and evidently to Mr Darcy's as well — it was Miss Darcy who answered. "Oh! That is because it is of all things his delight to please me, and he had just surprised me with a new instrument last summer." The look she gave her brother mingled adoration and trust and gratitude. Such a look would Jane have liked to see Miss Bingley give Charles, but she had sense enough to know that the lady's character would have to be radically altered to encompass such feelings toward the brother who housed and clothed her. Mr Darcy returned his sister's affectionate look with one of his own, which Jane saw made a very favourable impression on Lizzy. "I took the sketch even before I allowed myself to touch the instrument, as I wanted to capture his expression just then."

"It conveys all you have said and more," Lizzy assured Miss Darcy. "A very handsome gift, with an equal return, is a rare and beautiful thing."

"Not among sisters such as yourselves, I am sure, Miss Elizabeth," Mr Darcy said, and the words made Jane's heart glow nearly as much as the way Mr Bingley nodded at his friend's declaration and smiled at her.

For the first time in her life, Jane felt settled and able to observe objectively, without her mother's demanding her thoughts and impressions as if she had no right to keep even them private, and without worrying over how she might strike an eligible man. She found, though she was exquisitely happy with Charles, that she liked Mr Darcy very much indeed. If he were to court Lizzy, she would think it a good thing.

"It is rarer still with a sister such as Jane!" Lizzy cried. "For she is goodness itself, and we mere mortals cannot reciprocate the thousand and one selfless, unseen acts that make up her daily course."

"Yes," Miss Bingley said abruptly. "Jane is a very sweet girl." All eyes turned to her, startled, and she aimed a lustrous smile at Mr Darcy. "What a loss it will be to your family, Miss Eliza, when she marries."

"So long as Jane is valued for herself, I must be happy," Lizzy said with a small smile.

Jane felt that the conversation had centred on her for quite long enough. "And you have consolations for any loss, do you not, Lizzy?"

"Oh, pray tell us of your numerous resources," Miss Bingley said, rather aggressively cutting her venison.

"As I have no particular talents, my resources, as you term them, are available to all," Lizzy said. "A good walk, a good book, and good friends. Any of those three will cure my despondency."

"Would a dance do, Miss Elizabeth?" Charles asked. "We must have a ball here at Netherfield to celebrate the engagement."

Lizzy and Miss Darcy smiled. "I have been away from Hertfordshire for some weeks, and now away from Longbourn for these days of my visit, so a neighbourhood ball must be a treat by my reckoning. I always find I have much to say in a ballroom."

Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst exchanged a very speaking look at that, but Jane was appeased by Charles's decisive nod. "Then it is settled! May I have the second with you, Miss Elizabeth, and the third with you, Miss Darcy?"

Miss Darcy sought her brother's approving nod before agreeing, and Lizzy acquiesced as well. Mr Darcy evidently understood that he would be required to pay his respects to Miss Bingley, but engaged Lizzy for the third, and Jane sat back, satisfied.


Timothy Bennet

It would not do, that Lizzy had abandoned him now. Certainly Jane should be supported, if she needed such when she was marrying a man of risibly simple candour, but had it been necessary for Elizabeth to depart for Netherfield Park scarcely two days after she returned from her Derbyshire trip? Lizzy would learn one day that physical journeys took an invariable toll; far better to wander far afield by means of great men's imaginations. Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Daniel Defoe — those were travel companions to be cherished.

Not for worlds would he have let himself be cozened into accompanying his wife and two youngest daughters to Brighton, where Mrs Bennet's equally silly sister lived. The widow Philips was forever writing her sister of the healthful air — stuff and nonsense, with so many revellers the place was bound to be too crowded for much clean air to enter the lungs — and how well it would answer any complaints her dear relations had. Now that Jane had made such a fortunate match, Mrs Bennet was resolved to spend on the promise of Mr Bingley's largesse, and he had sent them on their way with some relief, thinking of how agreeable silence in the house would be.

He had reckoned without Mary, who took the opportunity provided by her sisters' absence — and a distinct lack of maternal nerves to agitate — to play incessantly on the pianoforte and engage him, at every meal, with her unoriginal musings on the sermons she had most recently read. He wanted Jane's selfless sense and Lizzy's sharp wit but could avail himself of neither.

*

He counted it a grim day on which came the invitation to the ball that Bingley was giving, four days hence, in Jane's honour, and profound was his relief that the only female at home to accept was his middle daughter. Mary, at least, would engage in no endless hair-curling or negotiations for the most becoming gown; her vanity did not lie that way.

It took only the work of an evening to decide him that attending the ball, which he had considered a dreaded necessity as Jane's father, would in fact be a positive pleasure with his cousin at his side. For what did they live but to make sport for their neighbours and laugh at them in turn? His cousin Mr Collins, newly arrived at Longbourn, had a peculiar mixture of servility and self-importance and would be sure to blunder dreadfully in Meryton society; his company alone would make the ball rather livelier than most.

He made his escape from his cousin's ponderous courtesies after dinner, whilst Mary was regaling their guest with an agonisingly long concerto, and sat down at his desk most contentedly. With true satisfaction, he dipped his pen in the inkwell to write the acceptance to the invitation.

*

Mr Collins, it seemed, came to win a wife. Mr Collins told them so, after dinner on the second evening of his visit, in words that could hardly have delighted him more, for they demonstrated all of his cousin's ignorance and idolatry. "With such affability and condescension from my esteemed patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, even extending to her advising me to marry if a suitable gentlewoman — that is, one to whom the life of a clergyman's wife would be agreeable, and above all, one who could understand the importance of preserving the distinction between patroness and patronised — could be found, did I set out to meet with my estranged relations. Sir, I have found you and am desirous of making any overtures of good will that will promote that familial felicity that you and my father could not secure."

Mr Bennet, inwardly exulting in the poverty of thought displayed in this deluge of words, nodded solemnly. Mary adjusted her spectacles and then removed them, slipping them into an embroidered pouch; with a small stab of pity that surprised him, he saw the divots they had dug into the reddened skin at the bridge of her nose. Mr Collins, however, had not relinquished his claim on their attention.

"Yes," Mr Collins said, adjusting his seat rather heavily, "I am determined to cast my bread upon the waters and make amends to your fair daughters, of whose beauty I have heard much." He wondered briefly if Mr Collins were about to propose marriage to a daughter not even present, but it seemed that Mr Collins had heard only generalities and could not therefore name the "fair cousins" not before him. "I came to Hertfordshire with the design of selecting a wife, and, Miss Mary, as soon as I entered the house I singled you out as the companion of my future life. In leading you to the altar, I shall be setting the example of matrimony not only here but in Kent, in my parish, as well. Then, too, I believe we are ideally suited, and I am convinced that you will show Lady Catherine the deference that her character and rank each must excite." Mr Collins appeared to have forgotten, in his pontificating, that he was neither making tender proposals to the lady of his choice nor soliciting her father's permission for the engagement, but rather some strange mixture of the two.

One look at Mary was enough to confirm that she did not seem to mind her suitor's impolitic blundering and neither was she inclined, apparently, to examine closely the claim that she had been "singled out" though none of her sisters was present; Mary was evidently as foolishly romantic as Kitty and Lydia, and determined to seize upon her first proposal, for fear that it might be her last too. Still, she was a good enough girl to look to him first. "Papa?" she asked.

"You have my blessing," he said, not bothering to make either a pretty speech for the benefit of those who were present or a truer, more sardonic one for the audience he imagined; Lizzy alone would appreciate his wit, and he hoped that weeks away had not turned her missish, sentimental though all women were when they heard of a wedding.

"My dear sir," Mr Collins intoned, "you little know how you have gratified Lady Catherine de Bourgh, or, indeed, myself. I must write to her immediately and set a date that will not inconvenience her for the wedding." Mr Collins stood and assisted Mary in rising from her own seat. "Miss Mary, I flatter myself that we are beginning on exalted ground, and yet am certain that our love will only prosper, rising ever higher."

"Indeed, sir," Mary said, sounding a little breathless, and at that, Mr Bennet was done.


Fitzwilliam Darcy

Miss Bennet was a lovely woman, and evidently as sweet a spirit as the sublimity of her face promised. But Miss Elizabeth was a creature of contradictions — sparkling and studious, mirthful and thoughtful, lively and arch — and he was bewitched.

The sincerity with which she spoke of her sister's excellent qualities raised her in his estimation, though she was not persuasive enough to convince him that she lacked those same qualities of charity and benevolence. He saw at a glance how well she could serve as a model for Georgie, though only a few years his sister's senior; that she had spent those years satisfying her intellectual curiosity through a course of rigorous reading had expanded her world beyond the boundaries of Meryton or even Hertfordshire. That she appreciated the domestic felicity that her sister evidently sowed gave him hope that she would choose to do the same for him at Pemberley.

And he desired her, intensely, with a yearning he had never felt before.

It was almost alarming. Part of his fury at what Wickham had dared had been due to the thought that the blackguard's advances must have tainted Georgie's first taste of love; she would never hear another man's addresses without remembering the past with pain. But still more of it was due to his own ignorance of those passions, the bewilderment he had felt when cousins and schoolfellows alike had pursued and then either won or lost the women they loved. He could scarcely conceive of following their example and upending his life in a quest to take on additional responsibilities, not when his own — to Pemberley, to Georgie — were so great already. But Elizabeth made the very days brighter, the evenings more stimulating as they debated the meanings of what they read in tandem, and he found himself unprepared to let their paths diverge.

He was aware that he knew very little of her situation, though he felt sure he had understood her character to a nicety; the sum of his factual knowledge was that she was the second daughter of a local gentleman, that she had three younger sisters yet at home, and that she loved her elder sister fiercely with a love that mingled affection and esteem and was admirably requited. It was heartening that Bingley had found no objections to the family or her character worth considering in asking Miss Bennet to be his, and Darcy resolved to observe Elizabeth's behaviour at tomorrow's ball, to note the status she and her family were accorded in Meryton.

Thoughts of the ball — or, rather, thoughts of Elizabeth in his arms and turning those dark, snapping eyes on him — occupied him most agreeably until he realised that he had not read the verses upon which she had engaged him to debate her. Georgie's sketch of him from that afternoon betrayed his inattention, though he hoped she at least had not recognised the cause of it; still, he tucked the page carefully away, preserving the image of a man contemplating a world of joy that had nothing to do with his environs.

Tomorrow, then, he would speak, and let his tongue match his face.

*

Both the Miss Bennets appeared to be great favourites with the four and twenty families to whom Bingley had felt it necessary to extend invitations. That they owed that status to themselves rather than any more diffuse sentimentality regarding their family in general he determined by seeing the polite indifference with which their younger sister, Miss Mary, was treated. Miss Mary was accompanied by a tall, heavy man some few years younger than Darcy and an older gentleman whose impatience with the very idea of a ball was evident until Miss Jane and Elizabeth both greeted him with true affection. This, then, was their father, and Darcy observed more closely, seeing a man with a withdrawn and bookish air that was belied by the spirited twinkle in his eye.

The opening strains of music sounded then, and he had to leave Georgie with the Hursts to lead away Miss Bingley, whom he had engaged for the first dance. He considered it clear that the courtesy was due solely to her status as his hostess, but Miss Bingley evidently had other designs, for she flirted abominably. Quite apart from his regard for Elizabeth, she had no hope of success; he would not willingly insert a woman of such indelicacy into his sister's circle, let alone as her elder sister and guide. He kept his own remarks brief and polite, choosing not to respond to her more outrageous provocations. She had not the power to charm him.

When their dance was done, he escorted her back to her sister and brother-in-law. To his alarm, he found Mr Bennet and Miss Mary in the vicinity but the Hursts talking only to each other and paying them no mind; the young man had taken advantage of their inattention and was pressing his conversation on Georgie. His sister caught his eye with some relief and spoke. "Sir," she said, "here is my brother. He will be most interested in your news." He disengaged from Miss Bingley, not caring if she pouted, and inserted himself between his sister and this interloper. He could not conceive of why Mr Bennet had allowed a man of his party to accost a girl so young and so clearly inexperienced with social crushes such as these.

"Ah, Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy, it is to my happy lot that this favour has fallen. My name is William Collins, I am the rector of Hunsford parish, and I am pleased above all things that it is in my power to assure you that my esteemed patroness, your aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, was quite well yesterday se'night." At that, the man swept into a bow that did no credit to his form and then smiled at him with an air of disinterested benevolence belied by the closeness of his observation.

Georgie, unused to receiving such probing looks, shrank mutely into his side, and Darcy found that the best attitude he could muster that would not shame his hosts was an air of distant civility. "I thank you for the assurance, sir. I had a letter from my aunt a fortnight ago and am pleased to have more recent intelligence of her." Mr Collins grovelled eagerly, a sight so repellent that Darcy had to force the next words from his lips. "Would you be so good as to introduce me to your party?" He nudged Georgie away, willing her to free herself from this intercourse that was graced by neither of his favourites of the Bennet family.

"Sir, it would be my honour! Mr Bennet of Longbourn, Lady Catherine's nephew, Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley. Miss Mary Bennet, shortly to be my wife." The jumble of the introductions, without attention paid to rank, rather contrarily eased Darcy's mind, for Mr Collins was revealed to be incapable of plotting or, therefore, aiding his aunt in some dreaded scheme likely tending toward his purported engagement with his cousin Anne, whose happiness in the match was likely to be as small as his own.

Putting thoughts of his own relations aside, he exerted himself to imbue his greetings to Elizabeth's family with some warmth. Miss Mary, he observed, found spectacles necessary, and he resolved that she should bear no guilt for failing to see that her intended's persistent attentions to Georgie were unwanted to any degree. But Mr Bennet had a sardonic look that indicated intelligence — of a cynical sort, without any of Elizabeth's generous warmth — and he ought to have interceded to secure a young lady's comfort even over the claims of his future son-in-law. Over their heads he could see Miss Bennet, aided by Bingley, doing what her father had not: ensuring Georgie's peace of mind by engaging her in amiable conversation.

"The pleasure is mine. On behalf of my friend Charles Bingley, permit me to welcome you to this gathering in his home. Miss Mary, do allow me to offer my congratulations on your impending nuptials. May I say that I have been much in the company of your elder sisters these past weeks and have found them most agreeable companions."

"I thank you, sir," Miss Mary said, with a polite curtsey. "I have met Mr Bingley but briefly, though I am certain he must have chosen his friends as carefully as he did his bride." Darcy smiled at the pretty thought so gracefully expressed — certainly it was not the moment to reveal that he and Bingley had not chosen each other, but rather had fallen into a friendship because of the bond they both shared with Bingley's cousin Bledsoe, Darcy's Cambridge classmate — and began to respond, only to be interrupted by the obsequious fawning of the clergyman.

"My dear! This is Lady Catherine's own nephew! Of course he must be a suitable acquaintance for Cousin Jane's intended!" Darcy was alarmed to find the amused smile on Mr Bennet's face growing as Mr Collins's manner became all the more familiar. "I trust that the match meets with her ladyship's approval. Do me the kindness, sir, of indicating which of the gentlemen in this crowd is your particular friend and which of the ladies is my happy cousin."

Unwilling to extend the intercourse any longer, Darcy did, and took his leave of the party to thread through the crowd chattering between dances, evidently believing their lives depended upon their volubility. As if to reward his patience with the Longbourn party, the corner where he found himself offered a chance to overhear some small snatches of Elizabeth's conversation with a lady who seemed to be an especial friend of hers. He was besotted indeed, to find even her voice to be light and bright and sparkling.

"Charlotte, do not you find Tom to be utterly charming? A rake, doubtless, but of such good heart that he becomes nigh irresistible!" Darcy felt his heart plummet at the revelation that Elizabeth's affections might be otherwise engaged, and that too by someone evidently unworthy enough to deserve the sobriquet of rake, but this Charlotte's response made it buoyant once more.

"It is a good thing he is only fictional, Lizzy, else I should worry over your judgement! But I will admit that there is something most pleasing about the constancy of his heart, whatever his actions."

"A man with such strong, simple ties — as Tom has to his adoptive father and his sweetheart — must feel them to be safeguards to his own virtues, his own essential goodness," Elizabeth answered. Darcy, pleased with her perception and more in love than ever, made his presence known, and with heartfelt delight saw that she brightened by his joining her. "Mr Darcy! May I present my particular friend, Miss Lucas? Charlotte, here stands before you Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy, who has deigned to discuss with me the finer points of the few volumes we have found in Mr Bingley's library, and I will say that he does not scruple to differ from me though gallantry must tell him the lady is inevitably in the right."

Darcy smiled at the teazing, almost affectionate, introduction and said, "Gallantry does not enter into the picture; I am quite certain you would prefer to attribute any victory you claim to the triumph of making a more reasoned and persuasive argument than mine, rather than to the happenstance of your sex, to which I must yield." When Elizabeth nodded her agreement, he made his courtesies to Miss Lucas, a tall woman of about his own years. "How do you do, Miss Lucas?"

"Mr Darcy, I am all astonishment that other opinions are allowed to exist in Lizzy's vicinity. Are you quite certain you have read the volumes aright?"

"Charlotte!" Elizabeth cried. "A very pretty notion you will give Mr Darcy of me! I assure you that he is tremendously well read, judging not only by the ease with which he marshals his arguments, but also by his extensive library at Pemberley."

"It ought to be good," he replied, warming at the compliment, "as it has been the work of many generations."

"But was it due to your forebears or a more recent hand that it is so lovely and restful a room, and so comfortably furnished that it must be difficult to bring oneself to leave?" Elizabeth asked with her merry smile, and Darcy felt his ardour climb at her praise.

At this interesting juncture, they were interrupted by their host, come to claim Elizabeth for their turn at the dance. "Come, Miss Lizzy, I have engaged you for the second dance!" Bingley cried with great cheer, having just come from the arms and attentions of his beloved; Darcy had never before envied him so fiercely. In the space of only one dance, he would be the one holding Elizabeth's hand and partnering her, but he could not help wishing that moment had come and he could read in her fine eyes all that she might feel toward him. He had no illusions about how little his own must conceal.

He ought to exert himself to win the approval of her friends if he was to have his proposals taken seriously. He turned to Miss Lucas, who appeared to have seen all, and asked, "May I introduce my sister to you? She has quite blossomed in counting Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth as friends, and is eager to know more young ladies of sense."

"Certainly, Mr Darcy," Miss Lucas replied, but her attention was seized by a girl of about Georgie's age, who appeared most agitated by something to do with her fan, and Darcy slipped away to join his sister and watch his friend and Elizabeth cross hands and laugh.

*

There was a pretty flush on Elizabeth's face when she lifted her hand to meet his, and Darcy did not think the colour was due to the sedate gallop she employed in going down the dance. "Shall we have a little conversation, sir?" she asked, fine eyes aglow and dark curls in pretty disorder.

"Certainly. I leave it to you to decide our topic."

"Were I to praise your sister, you would be bound — by courtesy as well as by truth — to laud mine in turn, and Jane and Miss Darcy being as they are, our paeans would have no end. How very inconvenient, that each of us should have such a paragon for a sister!"

He laughed at her wit. "The field is still yours. Name your subject."

"Your beautiful grounds at Pemberley ought to occupy us very satisfactorily for the half-hour of this dance. Does the topic please you?"

"Little could be more agreeable to me than to converse upon the home I love. Did you see the arbour? The lane with the arcade is, I confess, my favourite walk."

"A veritable Arcadia," Elizabeth said with a surpassingly sweet smile, and he could wait no longer; thirty minutes seemed an eternity, though he had meant to wait and speak to her where they had some privacy.

"Miss Elizabeth, my feelings overwhelm me and tie up my tongue, but my rational mind, aware of all your virtues, makes it free again. Do please allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you."

The present figure of the dance brought them very close together, out of range of the other couples' hearing, and he could see her lips and eyelashes tremble in a face gone pale. "This cannot be," she said, breathless. "Pray speak no more until our dance is done; I cannot think and move at the same time."

The dance was unusually lengthy, due to the number of couples, and Darcy was in agony throughout its painfully slow progress. Georgie's laugh and Bingley's echo were sounds but vaguely heard as he bent the whole of his attention on Elizabeth's dear face, her eyes alternately fixed on his own visage or sweeping restlessly about the room as if to chivvy her friends and neighbours through their paces.

"Dear sir," Elizabeth said once they had found a corner with fewer candles than the rest, away from the dancers seeking refreshment, "never have I heard words that pleased me more, though it was your gracious silence that convinced me of your sincerity. Still I can scarcely believe that I have heard aright."

"Loveliest Elizabeth, you did." It was a salutary shock to his system that she was responding so agreeably to his clumsy proposals. "Would you do me the signal honour of allowing me to speak to your father?"

"I cannot allow that, Mr Darcy," she said, and his hopes were dashed. But she pressed their hands together briefly and continued, "I will need to prepare him for having a third daughter engaged in a matter of months after years of his being left in peace, and in any case, you must ascertain that your sister will not suffer by no longer being mistress of Pemberley."

Ridiculous to feel as though he had been thwarted, when her hesitancy with respect to her father was easily comprehensible and with respect to his sister further evidence of her generous heart. "On the latter score, you may be easy. Georgiana has never relished giving orders and would give much for a sister such as you. She can only gain by our marriage, and will delight in it for the happiness it brings me, I assure you." He would not deceive himself again with the notion that his sister would find solitude and independence more welcome than his constant company; Georgie should make up her own mind about living at Pemberley once more.

"Peace, sir," she said, merry-eyed again. "You run too far ahead and tempt me abominably. Let us find those remarkable sisters of ours and enjoy their company while it is ours to savour."


Elizabeth Bennet

To Jane she opened her heart, and her candour was rewarded immediately; Jane thought it eminently credible that so ideal a man as Mr Darcy should love her wholly. Before Jane could persuade herself that the only wonder was that Mr Darcy's offer of marriage had been her first rather than the most recent in a deluge of proposals, Lizzy spoke again. "I do love him, Jane, more than I thought possible, though not so nobly that I can resolve to leave him to a woman who truly deserves him."

Well did she recall her outright declaration that Jane and Mr Bingley had not been acquainted long enough to know each other's characters, let alone form a lifelong union, and was guiltily conscious that she had taken far less time to discover how exactly Mr Darcy answered every unspoken and even unsuspected wish of her heart. She laughed, half gasping at the overwhelming emotions finally given license to come to the fore, and buried her wet face in her hands, peeping through her outspread fingers at Jane's lovely reflection in the glass.

"I had wondered whether I could trust my eyes," was Jane's next astounding statement, made as she took up a hairbrush, "for I saw that he observed you too closely to be indifferent to you, but I could not be sure whether he simply relished your insights or was falling in love. Lizzy, I do hope you will be happy. Charles values him so highly and I like him so well that I am almost convinced he might deserve my dearest sister."

"Oh," she said, "it is settled between us already that we are to be the happiest couple in the world, a distinction we will gladly share with you and Mr Bingley. But none of this may yet be spoken; I have undertaken to introduce the idea to Papa, that he may prepare himself for three daughters out of the nest."

In truth, she liked the idea of some time alone with the notion of becoming Mr Darcy's wife — in a love match rather than the arranged courtship that she believed was still in general practice amongst the class of great landowners. Mr Darcy challenged her, duelled with her, smiled at her, befriended her, anticipated her, understood her: in short, he excited her admiration, respect, and love.

A line from Tom Jones, read and reread when Aunt Peggy and Uncle Edward were engaged with callers, came into her mind. As you have taken my heart by surprize, the rest of my body hath a right to follow, Tom had said, and Lizzy at last entered into the spirit animating the thought. She desired Mr Darcy, most ardently, would welcome his kiss, would feel safe and yet thrillingly aware in his strong arms.

"Papa and Mama must both be pleased by Mary's engagement," Jane said, drawing the brush through the tangle of her hair with such gentleness that Lizzy felt not a single knot tugged. "They made no objections to mine and can have none to your own match."

"Mama is from home, and I doubt whether Papa has bothered to write her of Mary's news. Had he done so, I should have expected Mama to return even from Brighton to exult over a daughter only eighteen shortly to be married."

"Dear Mary must be too incessantly employed to have written herself — did you hear Mr Collins say that they must wed and travel to Kent in but a few days? We ought to return to Longbourn to aid her."

"Of course you are right, and we must. But I beg of you one favour."

Jane's ministrations with the hairbrush paused to lend the appropriate solemnity to the moment. "Name it, Lizzy."

"You mustn't allow me to become despondent when I miss Mr Darcy, still at Netherfield and thus three whole miles from Longbourn. Give me a good pinch when you see me wearing a long face." She demonstrated her best tragic airs, supremely content when Jane's dignity gave way and they giggled together.

*

Mary's nuptials were organised with some haste — not even waiting for the bride's mother and sisters to return from a visit they claimed they could scarcely leave without giving offence — but with every detail attended to by either the bride or one of her elder sisters. Jane, of course, sewed Mary's gown, even affixing the cherished bit of lace that they all had considered hers, as the eldest and first in beauty and surely the first bride of them all; no fine feathers could ever elevate Mary to the point of eclipsing Jane, but her excitement at the new life ahead of her gave her a most becoming colour that quite put her usual pallor out of mind.

There was to be no wedding breakfast, as the bride and bridegroom would set off for Kent from the church door, Mr Collins's leave dwindling to its final hours even as he made his vows, but Lizzy ensured that they had a proper luncheon in a basket, ready to be laid out on their table in Hunsford, and Mary packed her well-worn collection of sermons herself.

Throughout all of the preparations, Lizzy observed her father closely, noting that his eyes did not linger on Mary, the first of his children to leave his home. On the rare occasions that he emerged from his library, it was only to sup or sleep, and even at the table he would often have a book to hand. She knew that she was his favourite child, but could not suppose that he would be markedly different were she the one to wed on the morrow. She could not guess what his reaction to Mr Darcy's proposal would be.

Mr Darcy would likely be at the church tomorrow, as the intimate friend of her sister's avowed intended, and the thought of his speaking gaze on her made her shiver. Having those tender, dark, and depthless eyes on her, knowing that he looked with love, would be nearly too much happiness to bear. She wondered how Jane managed to keep her emotions in check.

*

"Oh, thoughtless, thoughtless Lydia!" she said, looking into Jane's shocked eyes. "How could she do it?"

Jane, sweet Jane, thought only of others. "At least Mary is safe, Lizzy, we must be grateful for so much. And Kitty has shown valiant good sense; there is that too."

"True," Lizzy said, but could not accept their changed lot with Jane's grace. "We ought to have known, that Lydia at a bathing place of such license could only spell disaster. How could Papa have allowed her to go!"

"He must have thought that in Mama and Aunt Henrietta, she would have proper chaperones."

"They are as silly as she, and would take no steps to curb her animal spirits. Restraint is ever Lydia's detestation, and she would no more deny herself an excursion promising gaiety than she would a new bonnet, however ill she can afford it. And to abscond from their protection, however nominal, with a Mr Wickham that we have never met! We do not even know if they have been married!"

"I cannot believe Lydia to be so lost to proper feeling as to consider marriage unnecessary," Jane said firmly. "Perhaps Kitty misunderstood what she overheard, or did not hear clearly at all, given that she was laid up by the fever so shortly afterward."

Lizzy shook Kitty's first letter in her hand. "Poor Kitty wrote her warning but it lay unopened and unheeded by Papa, who could not bestir himself to feign interest in the activities of his younger daughters, and deemed unnecessary by Mama, who thought only of having a daughter married at fifteen."

Plucking up Kitty's second missive, she opened it to find that it comprised only a note from Lydia with a brief cover from Kitty confirming the fears she had outlined previously and asking why she had received no answer. Cheek by cheek with Jane, Lizzy unfolded the note and they read the careless words: Kitty, you will laugh when you know where I am gone, and I cannot help laughing myself at your surprise to-morrow morning, as soon as I am missed. I am going to London with dear Mr Wickham, where I can finally see real life and taste its pleasures. He assures me I shall be the belle of every ball we grace, and I am wild with longing at the thought of it. What a good joke it will be when you wake and discover me gone!

Lizzy was so angry that it took her a long moment to gain control of her voice. "Lydia's own account says that this Mr Wickham did not, like his friend Colonel Forster, abscond with his lady to Gretna Green, but parted from him — Lydia, all unconcern, at his side and relishing her 'joke' — somewhere in London."

Jane made a soft, hurt noise, and Lizzy wrapped her arms around her sister. Never had she been so keenly disappointed in her father, whose neglect of his children had led to Lydia's unregulated pursuit of pleasure. In marrying her mother he had indulged his appetites but not troubled himself with any of the responsibilities attendant to his place as the head of a family; her mother, who had no resources of will or strength of character, she blamed less, though her indulgence had contributed greatly to Lydia's inflated sense of importance.

Embraced by Jane, Lizzy felt anew the sting of the knowledge that their father's selfish whims might well cost them the exquisite felicity they had anticipated but a short time ago. Mr Darcy's offer of marriage seemed like a welcome escape from cares and scandal at this moment more than ever, but she could not believe that love, even as sincere and overwhelming as his appeared to be, would be sufficient to allow him to maintain that marriage to a sister of a girl wholly without moral precepts would increase his happiness or do aught other than harm to his own sister's prospects.

*

She had forgotten quite that Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy had promised to call on that day, and did so at the very moment she had steeled herself to confront her father on the topic of his continued inaction. She had rehearsed her arguments about the need for him to exert himself in reclaiming a lost daughter, but all words flew out of her head when the men were announced.

"Oh, Mr Bingley! I had not recollected that you meant to see Jane this morning. Would you do me the greatest favour by taking her for a drive? She should have half an hour at least to put her cares out of her mind." In truth she knew she was not being quite fair to Mr Bingley, but Jane came first in her heart and deserved at least one more drop of happiness before the cup was dashed from her lips. She could only hope that Mr Bingley would continue to consider his love for Jane as outweighing the scandal of attaching himself to such a family.

Mr Bingley, raised eyebrows clearly signalling his alarm at this hasty and insufficient greeting and talk of Jane's cares, followed the direction of her arm to find Jane in the garden. Mr Darcy, looking scarcely less anxious, crossed to her swiftly and took her hands in his own, which were warm and steady. "Dearest Elizabeth, what is the matter?"

She looked up at him and mourned their impending separation. She would have been exquisitely happy as his wife, as the helpmeet he chose to bring him joy! Reluctantly she detached herself and stepped back. "I cannot conceal anything from you. Please, sit with me and hear me out before we part."

A sudden pallor overwashed his features. "Why do you speak of parting? Elizabeth — Miss Elizabeth, have I done aught to hurt you?"

"The fault lies not with you, be certain. I have painful news I must impart. Do sit down."

Impatience barely masked, he sat beside her instead of in the chair opposite her sopha and fixed his eyes on her face. She drank in his hungry gaze, certain that soon his face would be averted from her. "My youngest sister," she began, then faltered. She must not play upon his fondness for his own sister by painting Lydia as anything but what she was: spoilt, vain, and ignorant. And yet Lydia had not deliberately chosen to be so; she had scarcely been allowed to be anything else. "My father," she began again, stopping once more. "Mr Darcy, do forgive me. Let me speak plain. My sisters and I were raised by our mother to have no object higher than making a rich match; my father did not trouble himself with inculcating his daughters with any kind of intellect or morals. As a consequence, my younger sisters, the youngest two particularly, were left to their own devices and often chose ignorance and pleasure. I scarcely know how our mother's indulgence, which discounted all of Jane's gentle teaching, and our father's neglect, which turned them away from steady learning, could have any other result in girls without some firmness of character, such as Mary has."

"My admiration for you and Miss Bennet only grows," he said, reaching again for her hand, but she stopped him before his warmth could comfort her once more.

"I have not done. There is more — there is worse." She gathered herself with a deep breath and prepared to forfeit his esteem forever. "The youngest two, Kitty and Lydia, but seventeen and fifteen, accompanied my mother on a visit to my aunt Philips, in Brighton. There was a regiment encamped there, and Kitty's letters to Jane and myself were full of officers and scarlet coats, but, thankfully, stopped short of true impropriety. Lydia, however, has never had the least self-control, and it appears that her flirtation with one of the officers was more consequential than she wished to have us know. That officer and the colonel made a plan to carry off Lydia and another young lady to Gretna Green and exchange vows."

"Good God!" Mr Darcy burst out. "To seize a young lady from her family is monstrous indeed."

Lizzy wanted to sob, scream, run until her lungs were fit to burst. "I have not done. Instead of marrying her in Scotland, Lydia's swain took her to London, where she is, as far as we know, living with this Mr Wickham, entirely at his mercy." She gasped when Mr Darcy leapt up from his seat and began to pace with a furious energy.

"George Wickham?" he demanded and she nodded, recalling the name from one of Kitty's earlier letters. "If he is in London, I shall know how to find him."

"And you will send her home?" she asked, hardly daring to hope that he could be so good.

He ceased his frantic pacing, looked into her upturned face, and reclaimed his seat next to her. His hand came up once more, and this time she could not summon the strength to turn away from his comfort and so allowed his palm to cup her cheek and his fingers to stroke through her hair. "And I will bring her home. My darling Elizabeth, there is nothing that would induce me to part from you, least of all a wrong in which you had no hand. Do not doubt me, dearest." Lizzy, struck dumb by his fidelity and tenderness, pulled his hand from her face to press her lips to it.

"I must lay before you the whole of Mr Wickham's connection with my family," he continued, and she looked up to see his eyes were haunted. "He was my father's godson, the son of the late steward, and as my father wished it, he was raised almost as my brother. After the deaths of his father and mine, we parted ways, for he could not hide his true character from me, so close as we were in age and family ties. Only a few short months ago, he entered our lives again, in the most painful manner possible. Reduced to poverty by his own want of principle, habitual and unsupported extravagance, and fondness for gambling, he set his sights on my sister's fortune. He imposed on her and secured her consent to an elopement; I can thank only chance for my joining her a day before I was expected and Georgiana's love for me for her confessing all without delay or reservation. Once exposed, he praised his own deceit in the cruelest of words and since that day my sister has been struggling to recover her happiness."

Lizzy sat transfixed by the tale and the emotion infusing his voice as he continued. "Well do I understand what you must feel at your sister's throwing herself into the power of a man as unprincipled as Mr Wickham. I will do all that I can to alleviate the precariousness of Miss Lydia's situation."

Principle and emotion wrought together made him look nobler than she had ever seen him. "I am sorry for the pain your sister suffered. How could anyone bear to hurt such a sweet child?"

"I do not know the answer to that." His tone suggested that he blamed himself, though she could not make sense of the thought. "I must go to search your sister out, but you will be in my thoughts every waking moment."

"You are ever in mine," she replied simply. "Miss Darcy may stay here, if you would rather not leave her at Netherfield with Mr Bingley and his sisters."

"Mr Bingley will be coming with me," he said shortly, walking to the door.

"You think, then, that he will not abandon his engagement?" Lizzy asked, scarce daring to hope that Jane's happiness could continue to match her own.

"Bingley knows how to treasure a lady as worthy as Miss Bennet. I would not befriend a fool." His very briskness was reassuring, dismissing the question too authoritatively for her fear to continue to prosper. "He is the very ally I need now, with his energy, cheer, and good sense."

"You are very good, sir," she said, her whole heart suffused with love of him.

"Those I love have made me so," he said, and departed.


Charlotte Lucas

Tommy burst into the parlour at such speed that her needle very nearly went into her thumb rather than the snowy cotton of the handkerchief she was embroidering; only the sluggish pace of her sewing — her least favourite occupation — saved her. "Letter from Lizzy!" he said, tossing it on her lap.

He was gone before she could protest that "Lizzy" ought to be referred to as "Mrs Darcy" now, and without guilt or shame she set aside her needle and opened the letter, seeking all the news a newly married lady could share. She was quite wild with curiosity to learn whether Mr Darcy the grand landowner was, as Beatrice had prophetically said, too costly to wear every day, or if Lizzy's influence had enlivened the pensive man who seemed always slightly apart from his friend's good cheer.

She need not have worried. Lizzy was blissfully happy, her joy evident in every line. Pemberley was open-hearted in its welcome of the new mistress, and Lizzy had much to do in rekindling the domestic warmth her husband assured her the home had known under his mother's care. Do not think, Charlotte, that these new duties are so absorbing that I am unable to set aside time to argue with my husband over our reading. Indeed, he says debating with me is one of the chief pleasures of his life, and one that is sure to wear well, as I bid fair to continue argumentative into my old age.

But I must not dwell on his every utterance, else I shall never come to the question I am writing to ask: will you not be our guest this summer at Pemberley? You will meet with Jane and Kitty without question, though the attendance of Mary and Lydia — both much changed — is in some doubt as Mr Collins does not approve of their travelling without him and he cannot absent himself from his duties for very long. Do join us, please.

A summer at Pemberley! Well did she remember Lizzy's rapturous description of the glories of the library and the beauty of the woods belonging to the property, and the desire to see such places was a fire in her breast nearly as fierce as the longing to see her friends again. Lizzy and Jane had both left Longbourn, Miss Darcy in tow, and were married from their Uncle Gardiner's house on the same day by special licences very shortly thereafter, without either parent in attendance. It was bruited that Mrs Bennet had fallen ill and needed her sister's nursing, and that Mr Bennet had felt himself unequal to giving the wedding breakfast without his wife's presence, but Charlotte felt sure those reports were incomplete. Even if she never heard the full story, Lizzy was a friend worth keeping, and so Charlotte wrote directly to accept the generous invitation.

*

"Lizzy," she said, struck by the very particular smile on her friend's bright face, "what have you done?"

"I had not remembered you as one to harbour baseless suspicions, Charlotte," Lizzy chided lightly. "Do help me with these flowers; I have not the knack of arranging them as you do, and every room requires at least one display."

Though her suspicions had not been allayed, she did find her task soothing enough that she lost track of the time and found her thoughts drifting to the gowns Maria was having made in preparation for her coming out. When next she looked up from the peonies and pinks, the roses and ivy, she saw Lizzy speaking with a man in a military coat. There was something vaguely familiar about him but she did not think he resembled Lizzy's husband to any great degree, and Mr Darcy was the only man she could name with shoulders quite so broad.

Seeing her attention had been pulled from the blossoms, Lizzy returned to her side. "Charlotte, allow me to introduce Colonel Fitzwilliam, Mr Darcy's cousin. Colonel, Miss Lucas is my particular friend and must be entertained royally lest she return to Hertfordshire with a very poor opinion of Derbyshire." Charlotte curtsied and looked up into a handsome face that wore a look of merriment very well.

"A very pretty art!" he said, nodding approvingly at the work of her hands. "With your flowers to admire and Georgie's music to enjoy, we shall find no shortage of pleasure this summer. What say you to that, Miss Lucas?"

"I say that if Lizzy strips the gardens of all their blossoms in order to bring you pleasure, you ought to stand between her and Mr Darcy's displeasure."

He laughed, and eyed Lizzy as if sharing a particular joke. "But I have it on the best authority that I am not handsome enough to soothe the savage beast in Darcy's breast."

"My wife speaks only the truth," Mr Darcy said in an amused tone, entering the room and pausing only to shake her hand before making his way to Lizzy's side.

"Infamous!" Colonel Fitzwilliam said, shaking his head with a feigned sadness. "I must protest this treatment and appeal to the better angel among us. Miss Lucas, do you find me so very disagreeable?"

"Not at all, sir, but we have only just met. Ask me again at the end of my visit."

His eyes widened in surprise and then, fixed on her face, turned thoughtful. "I believe I shall," he said, and Charlotte saw Lizzy smile as if satisfied.