Darcy stared into the cradle at the swaddled bundle. He envied the sleeping child, who had no knowledge of what was happening around her. She did not yet know how grievously her father had failed her mother.
He should never have suggested the marriage. It had been perfect in terms of wealth, connections and convenience. He had told himself he was looking out for his sickly cousin, protecting her from an overbearing mother and allowing her space to thrive. Instead, he had been the cause of her death.
She had had a troubled pregnancy, often confined to bed; but Anne had weathered it all, determined from the very start that she would bear a healthy child. And, Darcy mused, looking at the wrinkled bundle before him, she most definitely had.
But it had cost her everything. She had poured every ounce of her strength into this child, and now she had none left. She had slipped into a sleep soon after the child had been delivered, and Dr Elmes had confessed that it was possible she would never wake.
This was his fault. If he had wished to help his cousin, he could have found a way to do so without marrying her. Had he never proposed the marriage, she would not have felt she owed him an heir. He should have swallowed his distaste of society and found himself a bride elsewhere, and not subjected his cousin to the ordeal she had suffered.
He turned at the sound of Mrs Reynolds’ voice.
“Dr Elmes wishes to see you,” she said softly.
He stalked away from the cradle, rushing through the halls towards the chambers that held his wife. He arrived, to the doctor waiting at the door.
Dr Elmes shook his head. Darcy closed his eyes, leaning against the wall heavily.
“She is awake at present?” he managed to force out.
The doctor nodded. “She is, and she has asked for you.”
Darcy took a deep breath before he opened the door. Anne lay in her bed, pale and weaker than he had ever seen her. Her mother sat on the opposite side of the bed, her face grave. She was silent as he made his way to the chair beside the bed.
“The child?” Anne asked, hoarsely. “She is well?”
Darcy nodded. “She sleeps peacefully.”
“She is healthy?”
“A fine big child,” Lady Catherine said.
Anne smiled weakly. “I apologise that it was not a son-”
“Do not apologise,” he ordered tersely. “Do not. It is I who should be apologising.”
Anne looked at him. “You blame yourself. I knew you would. Foolish man. Do you think you would have been able to convince me? It is you who always say I resemble my mother.”
Darcy almost smiled. “Anne-”
“Yes, that reminds me,” she interrupted. “Do not name the child for me. Anne Darcy is not a fortunate name, it seems.” Darcy blinked.
“Very well,” he said. “You shall name her.”
She paused. “Julia. Julia Catherine.”
There had not been a crowd of this size at a Meryton assembly in quite some time. There was no doubt as to the reason behind such an exceptional attendance: Netherfield House, vacant for some time, had been let. The gentleman now in possession was to make an appearance at the ball. Though he had made the acquaintance of some in the neighbourhood, there were many still eager to meet him.
Few were more eager to catch a glimpse of their new neighbour than Mrs Bennet, whose husband’s estate bordered Netherfield. The nearness of his house was not the principle reason that she wished to make his acquaintance, however - she had already decided that he was to marry one of her five daughters. As he had five thousand a year, she was sure he would do any one of her girls very well.
At length, the Netherfield party arrived, consisting of three gentleman and two ladies (rather smaller than had been reported). Before long, word began circulating as to the guests Mr Bingley had brought. Mrs Bennet eagerly related what she knew to her oldest daughters.
“Those ladies are Mr Bingley’s sisters. Are they not fine ladies? The lace on their gowns! That one there is married to that gentleman - Mr Hurst is his name,” she informed them. “The other lady is Miss Bingley, and she is to keep house for Mr Bingley. But the other gentleman,” she said, dropping her voice to a loud whisper, “he is one of Mr Bingley’s oldest friends. A widower from the North of England, with two grand estates in Derbyshire and Kent! Bingley’s income is nothing to his. They say he has not looked at a woman since his wife died. But you never know, dears. My darling Jane, you are so beautiful, I am sure he must fall in love with you,” she said to her oldest daughter. Jane Bennet was indeed very beautiful, and though she blushed at her mother's words, her sister Elizabeth merely smiled.
“Oh! Mr Bingley is coming this way!” Mrs Bennet cried. “Where are Lydia and Kitty? Oh, they are dancing. Well, never mind. Mary! Where has that girl got to?” she whispered, glancing around. “Run and fetch her, Lizzy. No! Do not, for he is almost here!”
Elizabeth could not but suppress a smile at her mother’s words, but hoped that she would recover enough to address Mr Bingley with something approaching sensible conversation. Indeed, Mrs Bennet did recover enough to greet Mr Bingley with all the attention that was his due as a single man of good fortune. He was raised in her esteem even further by his immediate request of Jane’s dancing the second with him - though Mrs Bennet wished he had not already promised his first to Charlotte Lucas.
Mr Bingley’s open, friendly manners earned him the approval of everyone present. All were happy for the addition of such an affable man into local society. Consensus was not so easily reached on the subject of his friend, Mr Darcy. He spoke little, and only to his own party. He declined to be introduced to any other person, and danced only one dance with Miss Bingley, and one with Mrs Hurst. No one knew whether to put his behaviour down to the fact of his widowerhood, or to declare him a proud, disagreeable man.
Not even Elizabeth Bennet could make him out, and she fancied herself a student of character. This difficulty was compounded by her hearing, quite by accident, an exchange between Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley. Gentlemen were scarce at this particular assembly, and she had been obliged to sit out two dances. Mr Darcy was standing near her, so that when addressed by his friend, she could hear their words perfectly.
“Come, Darcy, will you not dance?” Bingley entreated. “I hate to see you standing about in this stupid manner. You had much better dance.”
“I certainly shall not,” Darcy replied, firmly. “You know how I detest it.”
“You cannot glower in the corners at every dance.”
“Might I remind you my intention was to avoid this gathering entirely? I am here on your behalf, Bingley. I have danced with your sisters. I am not acquainted with any other lady present; I do not owe anything further.”
“But surely you can be introduced! Upon my honour, I never met with so many pleasant girls in all my life as I have this evening; and there are several of them you see uncommonly pretty.”
Elizabeth could not but feel for Mr Darcy, nor could she fault Mr Bingley for attempting to draw his friend out. She wondered at the story behind Mr Darcy’s wife - who she was, and how long ago she had died. His mourning period was surely over, for him for be attending an assembly at all. And yet, he seemed reluctant to enter society again.
Darcy suppressed a sigh. “Some are tolerable, I suppose, but none handsome enough to tempt me,” he said coldly but firmly. “I am not in humour to dance, Bingley. You had better return to your partner, and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me.”
Elizabeth’s eyes widened. What an abominable statement to make! She looked around, wondering if anyone else had heard the pronouncement, but it seemed no one had. Curious, she turned her eyes back to the gentlemen, but they had separated - Mr Bingley returning to finish his dance with Jane and Mr Darcy taking another turn about the room. His expression was closed, almost haughty, and he did not so much as glance at the other guests at the assembly. She wondered if this ill-humour was typical for him, or whether he was just not disposed to enjoy himself tonight. She could not imagine Mr Bingley having a friend who behaved in this manner often, his character being so very different. Perhaps it would have been as well if Mr Darcy had remained at home rather than accompanying his friend. His behaviour would certainly not recommend himself to the neighbourhood. It was unlikely, at the very least, to reflect badly on Mr Bingley.
Elizabeth had to admit she was eagerly anticipating another opportunity to sketch his character. It would be a challenge, of course, but one she believed she would enjoy very much.
Darcy’s relief at being free of the assembly was tempered only by his being obliged to suffer the company of Miss Bingley for some time upon their return to Netherfield. Bingley was in raptures about the evening, the people, and particularly Miss Bennet. Darcy, though he did not agree with him about the agreeableness of the first subjects, did acknowledge Miss Bennet’s beauty, though he declared she smiled too much.
Once he established that he had dallied long enough to be polite, Darcy got to his feet.
“Oh, Mr Darcy, are you leaving us so soon?” Miss Bingley asked in her usual simpering tone. She had been paying him increasingly obvious attention since Anne had died. It vexed him greatly, but he had never given her any encouragement, and had made his determination not to remarry very clear. There was little else he could do but hope she would accept this fact soon.
“I am,” he said, “you will excuse me.” With a curt bow, and a warm farewell from Bingley, Darcy retired.
Lady Lucas arrived at Longbourn with her daughters the following morning, in order to discuss fully the events of the previous evening. Mrs Bennet was glad to speak of the manner in which Mr Bingley had favoured her Jane - a particular triumph as he had danced with Charlotte Lucas first.
“But what of his friend, Mr Darcy?” Charlotte said. “Did you have an opportunity to sketch his character, Lizzy? If anyone could succeed, it would be you.”
Elizabeth smiled. “You flatter me, Charlotte. It is a hobby of mine, but I must concede my abilities are not what I imagined them to be, for I failed completely on this occasion.”
She had not mentioned the overheard remark to anyone as yet, as she was not sure whether to believe it genuine, in which case she would gladly laugh at it; or whether it was not said with any intention other than to repel his eager friend, in which case she did not think he deserved ridicule.
“I could not ascertain whether his behaviour was that of a proud, disagreeable man who fancied himself above all company; of merely that of a man who desperately wished to be elsewhere for some other reason,” she added.
“Did you know he sat near to Mrs Long for half an hour without speaking a word?” her mother said. “What can he mean by that?”
“Are you sure, Ma’am?” Jane asked, gently. “I certainly saw Mr Darcy speaking to her.”
“Aye - because she asked him at last how he liked Netherfield, and he could not help answering her, but she said he seemed quite angry at being spoken to.”
“Mr Bingley told me,” Jane said, “that he never speaks much, unless among his intimate acquaintances. With them he is remarkably agreeable, though subdued since the death of his wife.”
“Who was his wife?” Elizabeth wondered. She could never remember taking such an interest in gossip before, but Mr Darcy had puzzled her exceedingly.
“She was a cousin of his, a Miss Anne de Bourgh, daughter of Lady Catherine de Bourgh of Rosings Park in Kent,” Lady Lucas informed them. “They were married but a year before her death. It was widely expected he would marry once out of mourning - for his daughter’s sake, if nothing else. But it seems he has vowed not to marry again, for he has shown no interest in looking for a new bride.”
“Oh, how romantic!” Maria Lucas sighed. “He must have loved her very much.”
“How old is his daughter?” Elizabeth wondered. All of this information was making her even more curious about the man.
“Mr Bingley said it has been just over three years since Mrs Darcy passed,” Jane said.
It seemed this tale of woe had been sufficient for Mrs Bennet to forgive Mr Darcy of his crime towards Mrs Long. Elizabeth, still undecided, found she was anticipating their next meeting even more than before.
She did make a special effort to observe Mr Darcy over the following nights spent in each other’s company. What she saw, she was sad to admit, did not impress her.
He seemed a proud man, and she thought she detected some likeness of mind with Mr Bingley’s sisters. They fancied themselves above their company – that was certain. Mr Darcy’s pride and arrogance seemed tainted with sorrow, it was true. But pride and arrogance it was, at least in Elizabeth’s opinion. He spoke rarely in company, and seemed as ill-pleased with everything and everyone as he had been at the Assembly. The neighbourhood commented on such behaviour, but put it down to his wealth and the knowledge that he had become something of a recluse since his wife’s death. Some even accepted the compliment of his attendance at their gathering, without expecting much in the way of sociability. Elizabeth was sure his attendance was due to nothing more than politeness, and that had he not been a guest of Mr Bingley, he would have avoided every gathering. Of course, if he was not a guest of Mr Bingley, he would not have visited their insignificant little neighbourhood at all. Yes, he had experienced some hardship, but she did not believe this gave him license to snub or insult the rest of the world.
One evening, while attending an evening at Sir William Lucas’, Elizabeth noticed something peculiar. Mr Darcy was staring at her. He seemed to be always near to her, and sometimes she was certain he was listening to her conversations. She at first wondered if her observations of him had been too obvious. She had tried to be discreet, but perhaps he had noticed.
Whatever the cause of his interest, it was by no means discreet. She questioned Charlotte on her opinion of the matter, once she was sure she would not be overheard by the gentleman. “What does Mr. Darcy mean by listening to my conversation with Colonel Forster?" she wondered.
"That is a question which Mr. Darcy alone can answer."
"But if he does it any more, I shall certainly let him know that I see what he is about,” she vowed. “He has a very satirical eye, and if I do not begin by being impertinent myself, I shall soon grow afraid of him."
“Oh, how wonderful it is to be back in one’s home,” Miss Bingley sighed as she draped herself elegantly on a chaise lounge. “What a tiresome evening that was.”
“I agree,” Mrs Hurst announced, to no one’s surprise.
“I thought it a charming party,” their brother declared, even more expectedly. “I do declare, it is a most charming neighbourhood.”
“Charming?” Miss Bingley repeated. “Oh, my dear Charles, surely even you must see that society here is dreadfully savage.”
“I see no such thing,” Bingley insisted. “They are less refined than London society, I will admit, but I do not see anything so wholly bad in them. They have all been most welcoming.”
“Only because they wish to throw their daughters at you,” Miss Bingley scoffed. “Every mother and aunt hangs off of you, it is really most displeasing.”
Darcy resisted the urge to roll his eyes, but it was closely done. That habit was most certainly not unique to Hertfordshire. He had witnessed - first hand - exactly that behaviour in many a London ballroom. And, indeed, from Miss Bingley herself on an almost regular basis.
“And the Bennet girls - insisting upon dancing at a gathering such as that. How abominable!” Mrs Hurst was exclaiming.
Darcy had to agree with this assessment, however. He had been astounded by the antics of Miss Catherine and Miss Lydia Bennet. Why their parents did not check them, he did not understand. And Miss Mary too, with her eagerness to display her mediocre musical talent. Even more astonishing to him was the contrast between the behaviour of the eldest Bennet sisters with the youngest ones. It was at times, hard to fathom that all five could have emerged from the same family.
“And Sir William Lucas!” Mrs Hurst said. “Such an insufferable man! Droning on about St James Court as if he were a regular. I daresay he has been once, and not a soul took any notice of him.”
Miss Bingley laughed. On that score, Darcy could not but agree. He had endured several moments of pained small talk with the man, during which he had wondered yet again how anyone could enjoy talking about such trivialities; pretending to be interested in the banal comments of a total stranger? He knew not how to respond in kind, and it vexed him greatly. And the man had spoken of Lady Lucas’ health forbidding them from setting up a home in London. Darcy had recognised at once what must be obvious to anyone - that there was little likelihood of Sir William being able to support a house in Town, regardless of Lady Lucas’ health. But of course, to point that out would have been abominably rude. He was forced to allow Sir William to continue his false boasts, and it was intolerable.
That was nothing to the discomfort Sir William had gone on to place him in. He had intercepted Miss Elizabeth Bennet as she passed, and offered her as a dancing partner. His discomfort, of course, was caused not by the idea of Miss Elizabeth Bennet as a dance partner, but at the idea of dancing at such an assembly.
Indeed, although he had initially dismissed her as being no great beauty, he had begun to think it a hasty assessment. She had not the pure beauty of her elder sister, but she was handsome in her own way. Her dark hair and slight, pleasing figure alone warranted that assessment, but it was her eyes that truly made her stand out. There was a light to them, a brightness and playfulness that seemed to transform her features into something entirely bewitching.
Not that he had been forced to dance with her. Sir William had taken Miss Elizabeth’s hand, as if to present it to Darcy. In that second, Darcy’s feelings had been at war with each other - the greatest part firm in their dislike of dancing, particularly at a gathering such as this; but a small yet significant part of him remembered her animated smiles and happy disposition earlier in the evening, and would not have strenuously objected to taking her as a partner.
But he had been saved making a decision, for the lady herself withdrew her hand and declared she did not intend to dance. He would admit that he had been surprised by her refusal. He had, of course, repeated the offer to her - purely out of politeness, of course. Likewise, she had been nothing but polite in her refusal, and Sir William had given it one final try to convince them.
"You excel so much in the dance, Miss Eliza, that it is cruel to deny me the happiness of seeing you; and though this gentleman dislikes the amusement in general, he can have no objection, I am sure, to oblige us for one half-hour.”
“Mr. Darcy is all politeness,” she had pronounced. She had turned her eyes to him at that moment, and he had been struck once again by the liveliness of her features, and brightness of her eyes.
Darcy had been so focused on Miss Bennet, that he had not heard Sir William’s response, catching only the final words: “- for who would object to such a partner?”
Miss Elizabeth had not replied, merely arched a brow and gave Darcy a challenging look before she took her leave.
Darcy had remained for some moments, preoccupied by the woman. He had found his thoughts turning to her on several occasions in the past week. He had even taken to observing her while in company, for he had found she was one of the few in the neighbourhood capable of carrying on a sensible conversation. He had noted a wit that flowed through her conversations, a delight in teasing and debate which had caused him to hold back from speaking to her until he thought he had a better chance of escaping unscathed. The more he saw of her, the less likely that possibility seemed.
He wondered again at the reason behind her refusing to dance with him. There was something in her eyes that he could not fully understand. Not that he wished to dance with her. No, indeed. He had not danced with anyone outside his intimate acquaintances in many years, and he had not the slightest intention of doing so. He should be glad she had refused, and spared him the mortification of standing up at such a gathering.
And yet, as he remembered the expression in her eyes while she spoke to Miss Lucas, he could not help but smile slightly. It was so bright and teasing, and filled with joy.
Bingley’s voice pulled him from his thoughts and back to the room.
“Forgive me,” he said, quickly. “My mind was elsewhere.”
A look of displeasure passed quickly over Miss Bingley’s face, but in an instant, she was smirking, leaning in to speak to him. “Really, Mr Darcy, are those eyes quite so fine?”
His jaw tightened. He had made a tactical error in admitting to Miss Bingley his true thoughts. She had supposed him to be meditating on the shortcomings of the society they found themselves in, and Darcy had wished that was the case. His reply to her, though candid, he now regretted. And, to make matters worse, he had disclosed Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s name. Since then, Miss Bingley had gone on to wish him joy, to congratulate him on his excellent mother-in-law, and a host of teasing remarks that lacked the sweetness of Miss Elizabeth’s teasing, and were underlined with a much harder edge.
And besides, it was all preposterous. He could admire a woman’s charms without needing to marry her. He had made it perfectly clear he would not marry again, but there was no rule that precluded him from enjoying the sight of a pretty woman in spite of this.
Miss Bingley was still speaking beside him, but he paid her little attention. His mind was once again more agreeably engaged.
Upon their first visit to Netherfield, the Bennet ladies were introduced to Miss Darcy, the younger sister of Mr Darcy. She was fifteen, and not yet out. Lydia and Kitty decided she was dreadfully dull within moments of making her acquaintance, and paid her no more attention. Mary was more disposed to liking her, as she had heard the Netherfield ladies praise her accomplishments on the pianoforte, and Miss Darcy had responded with appropriate modesty.
Jane and Elizabeth recognised her silence as what it was - proof of her being a shy, timid girl. Elizabeth was convinced her manners were quite the opposite of Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst, and was almost as eager to know her better as she was to sketch her brother’s character. Miss Darcy’s not being out precluded her attendance at many social engagements, however, and she was not with Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst when they returned their visit to Longbourn.
“Dear Miss Darcy, she so wished to come, but she was occupied with her niece,” Mrs Hurst had explained. Elizabeth rather suspected the thought of an afternoon at Longbourn had overwhelmed the girl. Kitty and Lydia thundered past the door, and she admitted that it would be a reasonable assumption.
“Miss Julia Darcy?” Elizabeth asked.
“Yes. She is such a delightful child,” Miss Bingley had effused, but even her enthusiasm for the daughter of Mr Darcy (whom Elizabeth had noticed Miss Bingley paid particular attention to) had an air of false sincerity. “And Mr Darcy quite dotes upon her. She is young yet, but I daresay she will grow to be as accomplished as her dear aunt.”
It was quite by chance that Elizabeth was given an opportunity to become more acquainted with the Darcy family. Jane had been invited to dine at Netherfield, as the men were to be absent. She had accepted, and proceeded on horseback as part of a scheme of her mother’s, undertaken in light of threatened rain. Rain it did, most unfortunately, before Jane made it to Netherfield. Much to her mother’s delight, she was obliged to spend the night at Netherfield. However, as a consequence of her ride in the rain the previous day, she developed a cold overnight. Elizabeth, concerned for her sister, set out for Netherfield soon after hearing of her illness.
Netherfield was three miles from Longbourn, but Elizabeth was quite accustomed to long walks. She arrived, somewhat dishevelled, but bright-cheeked and eager to see her sister. She was brought first to the breakfast room, where she met with the astonished faces of all but Jane. The only persons who greeted her with any warmth were Mr Bingley, and, to her surprise, Miss Darcy, though she was not as forward as her host.
“I called to see her this morning,” Miss Darcy said in a timid voice. “She is up, but I believe feverish, and not well enough to leave her room. I do not think she slept much.”
Elizabeth thanked Miss Darcy, and asked to be shown to her sister’s room. Miss Darcy immediately offered to take her there, as she had finished her meal, though she looked nervous as she stood.
“Thank you, Miss Darcy,” Elizabeth repeated. She noticed that the young lady was nervous, and also concerned, as they made their way through the house.
“It is not an inconvenience,” she told Elizabeth, “I had planned on calling to see her as soon as I had breakfasted.”
Elizabeth smiled. The girl’s quiet, serene nature would of course complement Jane’s. She assumed they must have bonded the night before. “It is gratifying to know my sister has such a friend,” she said.
Miss Darcy smiled slightly. “I had the opportunity to speak with her last evening. She is a sweet lady.”
“She is, the best of sisters,” Elizabeth said. “I am prodigiously lucky.”
“I always wished for a sister,” Miss Darcy said.
“I believe that had you been blessed with four of them, you would think quite differently,” Elizabeth teased. “Though, had I ten sisters with Jane’s character, I believe I should not mind. I fear my mother’s nerves would disagree, however.”
Miss Darcy smiled. “I believe Miss Bennet is also lucky to have a sister who shows her such affection. Here is her room. I shall leave you to your sister.”
They parted; Elizabeth to care for her sister, who was indeed very happy to see her, and Miss Darcy to return to face her hosts.
Jane was not at all well, and Elizabeth spent most of the morning engaged in caring for her. When it came time for her to leave, Jane looked distressed at the thought, and Miss Bingley was reluctantly forced to invite Elizabeth to stay. She accepted, happy to be able to continue to care for Jane, and sent to Longbourn for her things.
Elizabeth was shown to her room to dress for dinner as soon as they arrived. She was glad to have been placed in a room near Jane’s. She expected to spend the night in Jane’s room, and if truth be told, she would rather forgo the trip downstairs altogether. She was concerned for her sister, and not even the chance to further sketch Mr Darcy’s character made the prospect more pleasant.
She bustled around the room, getting her things together. She walked around the bed, and paused. Something was protruding from beneath the bed - a tiny slippered foot. She presumed it to belong to the young Miss Darcy, as she knew of no other children in the house. It must be some game that she was playing with her nursemaids. She wondered what it would be like, growing up without any siblings. She had always had Jane to play with when she was younger, though she had not joined Lizzy in her more adventurous games. Neither had Mary when she came along, she had always been a serious child.
She smiled to herself as she moved as quietly as she could to the other side of the bed, crouching down quickly and pulling up the valance. She had intended to startle the girl, but she was perhaps a little too eager, as Miss Darcy let out a shriek. She was small, with a head of dark curls, and looked out at Lizzy with wide, startled eyes that looked very familiar - she was quite like her father.
“Oh! I am terribly sorry,” Elizabeth said. “I did not mean to frighten you; I only wished to discover what game you are playing. My name is Elizabeth Bennet, and I am visiting here with my sister.”
The girl swallowed, and moved forward slightly. “Miss Bennet is your sister?”
The girl seemed to be gaining confidence by the second. “She is very pretty. Almost as pretty as Aunt Georgie.”
Elizabeth smiled. “They are indeed both very handsome ladies.”
Before the girl could reply, the door burst open. Lizzy turned around, expecting to reassure some nursemaid that her charge was perfectly fine (if a little dusty), but to her surprise, Mr Darcy entered her room. She scrambled to her feet, cheeks flushing.
“Miss Bennet,” he said, stepping back over the threshold into the hallway immediately. “Forgive me, I did not - I thought this room unoccupied. Forgive me.”
“Half an hour ago, it was,” she said, in an attempt to put both him and herself at ease. It did not seem to work very well on either account. She swallowed. “I believe you have mislaid something, sir,” she said, smiling slightly.
He blinked, and his eyes travelled around the room, Elizabeth glanced pointedly at the bed, where the valance was still raised slightly. It dropped before their eyes.
“Indeed, I have,” Mr Darcy replied. “Could you be of service to me, and search your room?” His tone was serious, but Elizabeth could see the corners of his lips twitching into a smile. It surprised her; she had somewhat expected him to be a strict, no-nonsense parent.
“Of course, Sir,” she said. “But it would help if I knew what I was searching for. Could you describe to me the item you have misplaced?”
“Certainly, it is around two feet in height, has dark hair, and I would imagine by now, a very grubby smock,” Mr Darcy said. Elizabeth heard an unmistakeable giggle from under the bed, and found it hard to suppress a laugh of her own. She smiled at Mr Darcy, who smiled back warmly.
“Well,” she said. “I have certainly not seen anything of that kind today, but I shall search my trunk,” she said. She made a show of opening and closing the lid noisily, then sighed. “No, I am afraid I cannot find what you are looking for, Mr Darcy. I am sorry.”
“Thank you for taking the time to search. I shall not keep you any longer,” he said. But before he could step back from the door, Miss Darcy crawled from under the bed, laughing.
“I am here, Papa!” she cried. “I was here all along, and Miss Bennet knew!”
Darcy looked at her, playing surprised. “Is that so? Miss Bennet, you were part of this trickery?” he accused, but his look was playful.
Elizabeth nodded. “I am afraid I was,” she admitted gravely. “I could not reveal her hiding place without her permission. I am sorry, Sir.”
“As we invaded your chamber for this game, I shall have to forgive you, if you will forgive us.”
Elizabeth nodded. “Of course.”
“Julia, apologise to Miss Bennet,” he instructed his daughter.
Julia looked up at her. “I am sorry, Miss Bennet. It was a very good hiding place.”
“Indeed it was,” she agreed. “I am sorry to deprive you of it.”
“It is for the best,” her father said. “You know we are not at Pemberley, Julia. You cannot run free here as you do at home.”
Julia hung her head. “Yes, Papa. But it is so dull here! Aunt Georgie just sits with Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst, and when I join them, they tell me over and over how I must be a good girl for you and practice all of my ‘complishments. I am a good girl, am I not?” she asked, looking up at her father.
Her father smiled fondly, a full smile, and Elizabeth was taken aback by its warmth and sincerity. He clearly held his daughter in great affection. “Indeed you are,” he assured her. “And you need not worry about accomplishments quite yet. But you must return to the nursery, for Nurse Sally is most concerned.”
She nodded, and without prompting, turned and curtseyed carefully. “Good day, Miss Elizabeth.”
“Good day, Miss Julia,” she replied warmly, returning the curtsey. The girl left, and Elizabeth could hear her feet echo down the hall.
“Once again, I apologise for the intrusion, Miss Bennet,” Mr Darcy said.
Elizabeth shook her head. “There is no need,” she assured him. “I am honoured to have met Miss Darcy. She is a darling child.”
Darcy smiled. “Thank you,” he said. He paused, and for a moment there was a rather awkward silence. “I will leave you now,” he said. He bowed, and she curtseyed to him. With one last smile, he reached for the door and closed it before he left.
Elizabeth was further puzzled by this new side to him, but had not long to dwell on the mystery, for she would need to hurry if she was not to be late to dinner.
Elizabeth dined with the party, but departed directly after to care for her sister further. The door had scarcely shut behind her before Miss Bingley began to disapprove of her manners, style, beauty, taste and conversation. Georgiana grew increasingly irritated with every criticism Miss Bingley made. They turned their attentions to Miss Elizabeth’s appearance earlier that day, and abused her freely. Georgiana’s brow furrowed as she listened to the sisters’ words. She looked almost as affronted as Mr Bingley, who did his best to defend Miss Elizabeth.
Georgiana nodded, but was unable to voice her agreement before Miss Bingley addressed her brother, who had remained silent through the entire exchange.
"You observed it, Mr. Darcy, I am sure. And I am inclined to think that you would not wish to see your sister make such an exhibition."
“But I would,” Georgiana asserted, before her brother could reply. All eyes flew to her, and she began to feel self-conscious, but was determined she would continue. “If you were ill, Brother, or Julia, or if - if I should have a sister who took ill in a house full of strangers, I would be eager to attend them, and the manner in which I arrived there would not concern me.”
Darcy smiled. “I am flattered for your concern, Georgiana, but such a course of action will not be necessary,” he assured her.
Georgiana returned his smile.
Caroline looked astonished. “Yes, dear Georgiana, you do not understand how shocking it is. For a lady to walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ankles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! It seems to me to show an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country-town indifference to decorum."
"It shows an affection for her sister that is very pleasing," said Bingley.
Georgiana nodded her agreement. “I should think anyone who had a sibling would see it as such,” she pronounced. Miss Bingley was thus placed in the unenviable position of either contradicting Miss Darcy, or admitting that she approved of Miss Elizabeth’s actions.
She chose instead to take a different approach. She leaned in to Mr Darcy, and said in a half-whisper. “I am afraid, Mr. Darcy, that this adventure has rather affected your admiration of her fine eyes."
"Not at all," he replied; "they were brightened by the exercise." A short pause followed this speech, during which Georgiana was astonished by the implication that her brother had admired something about Miss Elizabeth. She watched him a moment, barely listening to Mrs Hurst and Miss Bingley turn their attention to the Bennet family’s relations in trade. In truth, she was astounded by the sisters’ cruelty. She had always known their attentions to her were not entirely genuine, but to hear them being so openly cruel about a woman whom had done nothing to wrong them - apart from perhaps possessing what her brother thought to be fine eyes - infuriated her. She had no desire to spend the rest of the evening with them, and indeed wished that she were back in London or Pemberley, and far away from such cruel creatures.
Georgiana was not to gain a respite from the company of Mr Bingley’s sisters for a little longer as, after they retired from the dining room, all three were to pay Miss Bennet a visit. Being forced to witness their false sympathies was unbearable. They left after a short time, but Georgiana expressed a desire to stay with Miss Bennet, if it would not be an inconvenience.
“Of course not,” Elizabeth replied.
They left, and Georgiana sighed in relief. She reddened, realising how rude she had been. “Forgive me, Miss Elizabeth,” she said quickly.
“Gladly, Miss Darcy, for I believe you merely voiced my own relief.”
She rose to straighten the cool towel pressed to her sister’s head, feeling its temperature. She removed it, replacing it with a new one before she sat again.
Jane stirred, opened her eyes slightly and smiled. “Dearest Lizzy,” she murmured. “How good you are.”
“Ah, but my nursing skills are quite poor compared to your own, Jane. You must deal with far more troublesome patients.”
She pressed her sister's hand as she moved back away. Jane’s eyes closed once more. She had dozed somewhat fitfully all evening.
Georgiana smiled at the affection between the sisters.
“I had the pleasure of meeting your niece this afternoon, Miss Darcy,” Elizabeth said.
“You did?” Georgiana asked, surprised.
“Indeed. She was hiding beneath my bed; I stumbled upon her quite by accident.”
Georgiana smiled again. “Oh, that is her favourite game,” she said. “I hope she did not cause you much trouble.”
“Not at all; I was amused by the incident. She is a darling child! So lively and open.”
“Thank you,” she said.
“Your brother seems very fond of her,” Elizabeth said, warmly.
Georgiana tried not to let her interest in this topic of conversation show. The fact that her brother had expressed appreciation for this lady was more than he had for any woman since Anne’s death, and it pleased Georgiana greatly. She had worried for her brother, who had become even more silent and foreboding since the death of his wife - to everyone but Georgiana herself, Julia, and their cousin Richard. He had seemed lonelier than ever, though she knew he cared a great deal for all of them; he bore everything alone. She had never wished to push him into remarrying, but that he had shown some interest in a woman pleased her. And he could have expressed admiration for a woman far worse than Miss Elizabeth.
“Indeed, he quite dotes on her,” Georgiana said. “I think everyone expected him to be a dour, strict father - and he is strict with her when it is needed - but every time he tried to distance himself, she drew him back in. She is quite charming when she wishes to be.”
Elizabeth laughed. “I well believe it from our brief meeting,” she said. “She is a delightful child.”
The two stayed in Jane’s room, talking together as they cared for Jane. Elizabeth told her she need not stay, but Georgiana blushed and admitted she would much prefer to be of assistance here. Elizabeth welcomed her help.
At length, Jane slept, and both were relieved, though they knew they must venture downstairs again. They walked together, entering the drawing room to find the party at cards. Georgiana joined them, but Elizabeth declined, picking up a book instead.
Conversation somehow turned to the state of Bingley’s library, and the wonder of Pemberley’s library, and how much Miss Bingley admired the house in general. Georgiana was used to such discussions, and so did not pay it much attention. Elizabeth, however, seemed vastly entertained by the exchange, so much so that she soon abandoned her book and moved closer to the card-table to better observe the game.
Before long, there was a knock on the door, and a footman announced Miss Julia Darcy was waiting in the hall. Darcy and Georgiana brightened immediately, rising to their feet (much to the annoyance of Mr Hurst, who was forced to accept that the game would be neglected for some time).
“How wonderful,” Bingley said. “Show her in.”
The nursemaid led Julia in, and she looked very much like she was concentrating on behaving properly.
“Good evening, Mr Bingley, Miss Bingley, Mr Hurst, Mrs Hurst, and Miss Bennet,” she said slowly, and with a somewhat wobbly curtsey. She smiled at her father. “Papa. Aunt Georgiana.”
“Good evening, Miss Julia. My how well you look! You shall be as handsome as your aunt, and I daresay as accomplished,” Miss Bingley said.
“Thank you, Miss Bingley,” Julia replied automatically.
“Have you been practicing much with your aunt?” Mrs Hurst asked.
Julia shifted slightly, Georgiana suspected she was finding it difficult to remain still. “I have. But Papa says I must not play at all if I am to play so loudly.”
Elizabeth laughed. “I remember my papa saying something quite similar,” she said. As her attention was on Julia, she did not notice the smile on Mr Darcy’s face, but Georgiana did not miss it.
“Do you play, Miss Bennet?” Julia asked.
“A little, Miss Julia, and very ill indeed, I am sorry to say. I am afraid I took my father’s words as an excuse to practice little, which you must not do as you grow older. Your father shall have to bear the noise as best he can.”
“Indeed, take your aunt as your model, Miss Julia, not Miss Bennet,” Miss Bingley interrupted.
“I am sure you are not as bad as you profess, Miss Bennet,” Georgiana ventured. “My brother has spoken highly of your talent.”
She was gratified to see both blush. “I am sure he exaggerates, no doubt for some nefarious purpose of his own.”
“Oh, no, for my brother never exaggerates, he only tells the absolute truth,” Georgiana insisted.
“The absolute truth, Mr Darcy?” Elizabeth repeated, glancing over to him. “Is that so?”
Georgiana watched her brother closely as he replied. “Disguise of every sort is my abhorrence,” he said.
“Even in cases where it is likely that your honesty would cause harm to those around you?” Elizabeth asked. “In cases such as that politeness surely calls for tact.”
Mr Darcy paused. “I believe in most situations, the greater sin would be in concealment,” he said.
Miss Elizabeth raised her eyebrow. “A tolerable opinion, Mr Darcy, but not handsome enough to tempt me to your side.” Georgiana looked between the two, taking in Elizabeth’s sparkling, teasing eyes and her brother’s stunned expression.
“Miss Elizabeth?” Julia said, tugging on her gown. “Will you play?”
She glanced down at the girl. “Very well,” she said. “For you, I shall play.”
She made her way to the instrument. The group settled down, Miss Bingley manoeuvring to place herself next to Mr Darcy. He allowed Julia to climb into his lap, much to Miss Bingley’s displeasure. She soon turned to Mrs Hurst, who had taken a seat next to hers, and began speaking in a low voice to her.
Georgiana was charmed by Elizabeth’s playing. Though not technically perfect, she played without art or pretension, but with pleasing, natural feeling. A glance at her brother told her that he was enjoying the performance immensely. She wondered how and when Elizabeth had charmed her brother, and why he had made no mention of it to her.
Elizabeth finished the piece, and Julia applauded. “Thank you, Miss Bennet, it was very good.”
“You are most welcome, Miss Julia,” she replied warmly.
"It is amazing to me," said Bingley, "how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are."
Miss Bingley expressed her disbelief at such a sweeping claim, and stated that she did not consider most young ladies to be accomplished. Mr Darcy agreed, to an extent, that the term was somewhat overused. To satisfy Miss Bingley’s definition of the term, it seemed, one must not only excel in the areas of music, singing and dancing, but also drawing and modern languages. And she required something further than this knowledge, which she described as “a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions.”
“All this she must possess," added Darcy, "and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading."
Georgiana’s eyes widened at the obvious compliment to Elizabeth, but she could not be sure if the lady herself had noted it. It seemed she had not, for she merely remarked on the exacting nature of the definition Miss Bingley had supplied, and Miss Bingley replied with shock to the claim that Elizabeth had never come across a woman who could fit such a standard. To Georgiana’s mortification, Miss Bingley singled her out as an example of a truly accomplished woman. She protested, but to no avail.
Thankfully, Julia’s yawn soon distracted the party from the conversation. It was decided she would be taken to bed. As was their custom, Darcy and Georgiana rose to take her to the nursery, much to the disproval of Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst, but neither of them were more put out than Mr Hurst who began to despair of the game ever being resumed.
“I believe I shall also take my leave, to check on my sister,” Elizabeth said, getting to her feet. Her departure caused less pain, on the whole.
“Is your sister ill, Miss Bennet?” Julia asked as they walked along the corridor. Her father carried her, and she leaned against his chest.
“She is, Miss Julia. It is but a cold, however, and I have great hopes of seeing her improved come the morning.”
“I do not like being ill, you are not allowed to leave bed, or go outside, or do anything. I hope she is better soon.”
“As do I,” Elizabeth agreed.
“When I was ill, Papa came to my nursery and read books to me. Have you read for Miss Bennet, Papa?”
“I have not, my dear. But I believe her sister has been taking excellent care of her,” he said, giving Elizabeth a small smile.
“I have been attempting to, and yes, Miss Julia, I have read to her. I had some help from your aunt this evening, which was most welcome,” she added.
“Oh! Aunt Georgiana is very good at reading, too!” Julia said happily. “She is an accomplished lady.” She paused, her brow furrowing. “Must I learn everything Miss Bingley listed?” she wondered. “It is an awful lot.”
“Well, you shall learn music, dancing, and drawing if you wish it,” her father said. “And perhaps a language.”
“And reading?” Julia asked, hopefully.
They had reached the point at which Elizabeth was to leave them, and she said her farewells warmly.
On the second day of her stay at Netherfield, after a disastrous visit by her mother and youngest sisters, Elizabeth returned to Jane’s room, where she spent most of the morning. She was joined for some time by Mrs Hurst, Miss Bingley, and Miss Darcy. Soon after the three left, Jane slept. Lizzy decided to take the opportunity to stretch her legs. She longed to go outside, but did not yet wish to leave the house. She settled for the library, and was perusing a book when a voice startled her.
Elizabeth looked up from her book to see Mr Darcy standing just inside the library. She smiled. “Mr Darcy.”
“I am not disturbing you?”
She shook her head. “Not at all. My sister is sleeping, and so I have come here for a change of scenery and to allow her to rest easier.”
He stepped further into the room. “How does she do? Georgiana suggested there was some improvement, I hope that is the case.”
“Yes, she is making progress,” Elizabeth told him. “I was very pleased with how I found her this morning.”
“I am glad to hear it.” He took a seat opposite her, and they sat in this manner for some minutes. Elizabeth attempted to return to her book, but the presence of Mr Darcy was detrimental to her concentration. She found herself acutely aware of his every move. He made no attempt to pick up a book of his own, but merely sat glancing around in an almost agitated manner.
“Miss Elizabeth, you must allow me to beg your forgiveness.”
She was taken aback, looking at him in confusion.
He continued, “Last night you made a statement which I believe hinted at some knowledge of a remark I made the evening of the Meryton assembly.”
“Mr Darcy, there is no need-”
“I believe there is,” he interrupted. “My words were unimaginably rude. I spoke without thought, and certainly without intent to offend. I wished only to put a stop to Bingley’s entreaties which would, had I not been so blunt, only continued.”
“Please, Mr Darcy, do not distress yourself,” she replied. “I heard the remark, yes, but since my sister Jane was present and is quite the handsomest woman in the country, I assumed you to be either devoid of any proper taste, or not in humour to enjoy the enthusiasm of your friend. Either way, your opinion did not distress me.”
He smiled slightly. “How charitable of you. I thank you for such understanding. Are you aware if any others heard the remark?”
She shook her head. “I have heard nothing of it, and I do believe that thanks to my mother and aunt, I would have. I myself told only Jane and my father, and they shall not repeat it to anyone. Even if it did get about, the neighbourhood has been quite happy thus far to make allowances for your behaviour.”
He coloured slightly, bristling. “What do you mean, allowances? I am not aware of any other actions of mine that would have caused offence.’
Elizabeth coloured also, aware that she had said too much.
“Unless, of course, you mean my failure to dance and flatter their daughters?” Mr Darcy continued.
Elizabeth detected anger in his voice. “Not purely on that score, but I will not deny that some would bear a grudge on that account; my mother chief among them, I am sorry to admit. But, Sir, you are not exactly forward when it comes to making new acquaintances. The manner in which you carry yourself and act at public engagements can sometimes give the impression of your being a proud man who thinks himself above his company.”
His jaw tightened. “And what of it?” he demanded.
Elizabeth’s brow creased, perhaps he did think himself above the neighbourhood. “Well, that is for you to decide, Mr Darcy,” she said, lightly. “As it is, the neighbourhood has been happy to excuse such behaviour from you.”
He was staring at her now, but she refused to be intimidated. “But you have not,” he said, after some moments. To her surprise, he sounded almost wounded. It was quite the switch from haughty indignation to such an insulted tone.
She shook her head, exasperation showing. “I confess I do not know what to think of you, Mr Darcy,” she admitted. “I, who as you know fancy myself as a student of character, cannot get the measure of you. You puzzle me exceedingly, Sir.” She swallowed, as the intensity of his gaze was somewhat disconcerting.
“I had no idea you were putting such effort into sketching my character,’ he said. “I am sorry to trouble you.”
She smiled at him. “Please, sir, do not apologise. Have you forgotten what I said before? Intricate characters provide the most amusement,” she said, a teasing lilt in her voice.
He was still staring at her. “Is that so? In that case, I am happy to be providing you with such amusement, Miss Elizabeth.”
She felt a thrill run through her at the way he said her name. “Well, in such confined and unvarying society, you are quite the novelty.”
He smirked. “There is no one in the four and twenty families that provides you with a challenge such as this?”
She swallowed. “No, Mr Darcy. I can safely say I have never met a challenge quite like this one in all my life. You, Sir, are one of a kind.”
“I could say much the same about you,” he replied, without missing a beat.
For a moment, neither spoke. They stared at each other, and Elizabeth became conscious of her breathing, which had quickened unexpectedly. They remained seated, but too late, she realised he had leaned forward in his chair, and she had begun to do the same.
She forced herself to look away, cheeks flushing as she studied the cover of her book. Had she been questioned, however, she would not have been able to recall so much as the title, though she was almost a full chapter in.
She dared not look at Mr Darcy, raising her eyes only when she heard a rustle.
“Forgive me, Miss Bennet - I have a pressing matter of business.” She nodded to him, looking back at her book almost immediately and not moving again until she was sure he had left the room.
She was utterly mortified! She had been flirting, almost as brazenly as Lydia or Kitty! Yes, she had been fascinated by Mr Darcy since their first meeting, but she had not even considered there could be any reason beyond novelty that she was interested in him.
But now, she was forced to reconsider. Yes, she had accused him of acting proud and disagreeable, but there was more to the man than that. He was a good father and brother, an excellent friend, despite his ill-humour the night of the ball. And he was an intelligent, respectable man. This was not the first war of words they had engaged in, and she realised now how refreshing she found them. The only person she had ever met who could match her in a war of wits was her father, but she blushed as she recognised how very different the effects of a debate with Mr Darcy were on her.
Her own words to Jane came back to her: “He is handsome, too, which a young man ought to be if he possibly can…”
She was falling for Mr Darcy. She sighed, frustrated, because had it not been clear from the beginning that he never intended to remarry? He had much to consider; Julia and Georgiana and his duties to his estates. Certainly a man who had married an heiress and granddaughter of an Earl would not be able to marry a country gentleman’s daughter without fortune or connections. Added to that was the haughty manner he had displayed at the beginning of their discussion. She was sure that he had not moved on that score, but had merely been distracted by the turn the conversation had taken. Even just the memory of their later exchanges caused a flush to rise on her cheeks.
She sighed, setting down her book and deciding to return to Jane. She would just put Mr Darcy out of her mind.
Dinner passed in much the same manner as it had the previous evening. Afterwards, however, there had not been any cards. Mr Darcy had sat at a desk, penning a letter to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and Miss Bingley had taken a seat near him and observed his progress. Mr Darcy was mostly silent, but Elizabeth could tell by the way he clenched his jaw and the shortness of his replies that he was not pleased with the attention. Miss Bingley had seemed blind to his irritation, however, and continued to praise him on the speed at which he wrote, the evenness of his hand, offered to mend his pen, bade him to send her compliments to his mother-in-law, remarked upon how many letters he must have the need to write, etc, etc.
Elizabeth could not but be excessively diverted by the display, but she had done her best to hold back her smile. For someone she had thought proud and disagreeable, Mr Darcy certainly bore the attentions of Miss Bingley with remarkable calm. Following this display, her attention had again been drawn by a discussion he had entered into with Mr Bingley on the merits of Bingley’s hasty nature. She had not been able to resist joining the discussion on the side of Mr Bingley, though she was not sure why she had said half of what she had. She knew only that she had greatly enjoyed their discussion. Debate was probably a more accurate word, as it had become spirited enough for Mr Bingley to intervene and attempt to end all discussion. Mr Darcy had called his friend on this matter, and Mr Bingley had confirmed it.
“Arguments are too much like disputes,” he said. “If you and Miss Bennet will defer yours till I am out of the room, I shall be very thankful; and then you may say whatever you like of me."
"What you ask," Elizabeth had replied, "is no sacrifice on my side; and Mr Darcy had much better finish his letter."
But she had not been entirely truthful - for it was a sacrifice indeed. She had greatly enjoyed sparring with Mr Darcy, and the smile he had given her before turning back to his letter indicated she was not alone. But perhaps it was for the best that Mr Bingley had intervened, as the more she sparred with him in this manner, the harder it would be to remain unaffected. She rather suspected that she was fighting a losing battle on that front.
Mr Darcy escaped to the gardens for some much-needed air on the morning of the third day of Elizabeth’s stay at Netherfield. However, much to his displeasure, he was met in the gardens by Miss Bingley. He had hoped to meet someone more agreeable by walking out this morning, but he was forced to let Miss Bingley take his arm and endure her teasing on his (apparently obvious) attentions towards Miss Elizabeth. Most of the remarks centred on her perceived flaws, and were clearly designed to cause him to join Miss Bingley in her dislike. She commented on Mrs Bennet’s character, and that of the youngest Bennet sisters, and Miss Elizabeth’s impertinence.
Darcy’s jaw clenched. In truth, Elizabeth’s impertinence was what was drawing him in, and he could not but compare Elizabeth’s teasing with the example before him - Elizabeth could be spirited, but there was never malice in her words.
Before long, they came across Miss Elizabeth walking with Mrs Hurst. Mrs Hurst was irritated with her sister for walking without her, and without pause she claimed his free arm, which he would much rather have offered to Elizabeth. He suggested they move to the avenue, as the path was not wide enough to accomodate all four of them.
With a small laugh, Elizabeth shook her head. He was struck by her cheeks, flushed from the fresh air, and the expression in her eyes that was, once again, captivating. “No, no; stay where you are,” she insisted. “You are charmingly grouped, and appear to uncommon advantage. The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth. Good-bye."
Before he could reply, she had hurried off, walking with a spring in her step. The sisters guided him down the walkway, which he accepted with reluctance.
At the soonest possible moment, he excused himself in order to attend to some letters of business he had neglected in favour of the walk. Retreating to his room, he was relieved at the escape - not only from Miss Bingley, but from Elizabeth.
Miss Elizabeth, he corrected himself. It would not do to think of her in such an intimate manner, not when what he wanted was so far out of his reach.
He glanced out the window, looking over the grounds. He noticed movement from the gardens, and was not surprised to see Julia run to crouch behind a bush, giggling to herself. She often ventured outdoors at this time of day, when the weather allowed. His eyes moved to search for Sally, and was astonished to see not only the nursemaid, but Miss Elizabeth, making her way through the gardens. She must have encountered Julia soon after they had parted. She appeared to be calling for Julia, and making a great show of searching behind every bush on her way through the garden.
He smiled at the excitement on Julia’s face as Elizabeth neared her hiding place. He had, at first, worried his guilt over Anne’s death would cause him to be unable to care for his daughter as he should, but all those fears had disappeared the instant he saw the child smile for the first time. She had utterly bewitched him, and he was indeed closer to her than was strictly fashionable for a father. She had brought Pemberley back to life. It was brighter now than it had been since his mother’s death.
Outside, Elizabeth had reached Julia’s hiding place, and she pounced. Julia laughed, as did her captor. The sight warmed Darcy’s heart, and he could not imagine how wonderful the sound would be. An image of her at Pemberley sprang instantly to his mind, and for a moment, he was quite distracted at the possibility of the hallways echoing with her laughter.
He had often wondered if his determination never to marry again was indeed the right one. He had done his duty and married well, brought connections and fortune into the family and produced an heir. The entailment on Pemberley would pass through Julia to her son, so he need not worry over the future of the estate. Had Anne lived, and been healthy enough to have another child, a son, he would, of course, inherit before his sister. He was thankful the entailment did not specify heirs male, or he would have been forced to remarry. And his distaste for the marriage market had not decreased since his first experience - which he always partly blamed for his selfish desire to marry his cousin.
But all that aside, he often considered whether Julia would need a mother. He had been at sea when first faced with Georgiana’s care, but he somehow shared little of those concerns with his daughter. Perhaps because he was not burdened overnight with a young girl at an incredibly formative age, and a sad, shy, newly orphaned girl at that. Or perhaps his experience with Georgiana had given him confidence. He was unsure. Georgiana had attended school for two years, but had recently returned home after an illness. He had formed an establishment of her own for her, but she often stayed with them. She was very fond of Julia, and as he watched her grow into a fine young woman, he was comforted that by the time Julia came to need a female confidante, her aunt would be there for her.
There was also the consideration that, if he did remarry, his second wife may not care for Julia as she ought. He thought of the ladies of the ton, and how they would treat his first born. If he did not produce sons, would his second wife resent Julia, would she wish to place her own daughters above her stepdaughter? He had no doubt that Miss Bingley would act this way - her behaviour towards his daughter had always been fawning, but he could see that underneath, she held little affection for children. Miss Elizabeth, on the other hand, seemed enchanted by the girl. She was currently hiding, and Julia was searching. He could not make out her eyes from this distance, but he could well imagine the sparkle they held as she coughed, and when she laughed as Julia found her. She would care for Julia as her own, he had no doubt of that.
He roused himself, turning from the window in agitation. This would not do. He could not think in this manner - especially not of a country girl without fortune or connections. He would not allow himself to reconsider his previous vow never to remarry.
Not even for the sake of a pair of fine eyes.
Elizabeth sat at the pianoforte in the drawing room, her fingers absently moving over the keys. She paid little attention to what she was playing, however, as her mind was much preoccupied with other thoughts. At times such as this, her hands automatically played one of the pieces she was most familiar with, a sonata by Haydn.
Her sister was much recovered, and they were both happy to know they would be returning home the next day, despite their mother’s scheme to have their stay extend to at least a week. The company of Miss Bingley did not improve with further exposure, and much as she was pleased by the growing friendship between Jane and Mr Bingley, neither sister had any desire to overstay their welcome.
But most of all, Elizabeth would be glad for some space from Mr Darcy. She could not understand the man, or the power he seemed to have over her. It vexed her greatly to be drawn to such a man. His behaviour at times did display feelings of pride and arrogance. And he did not deny it - she thought instantly of the argument in the library two days previously. His arrogance had infuriated her - or perhaps frustrated would be a better term. But then it had all changed in an instant to something very different, and she had been quite distracted from her anger.
But that was nothing compared to the events of the previous night. She flushed again as she remembered some of his more teasing comments.
“You either choose this method of passing the evening because you are in each other’s confidence, and have secret affairs to discuss, or because you are conscious that your figures appear to the greatest advantage in walking; if the first, I would be completely in your way, and if the second, I can admire you much better as I sit by the fire.”
She had greatly enjoyed returning his teasing, until the conversation had turned slightly to whether he was in possession of faults. She remembered his words clearly:
“Yes, vanity is a weakness indeed. But pride - where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will always be under good regulation.”
It was infuriating. How could she be under the spell of such a man? His pride and importance surely precluded any possibility that he could return her sentiments.
She was so focused on these thoughts that she had not noticed that she had an audience until she finished the piece she had been playing.
“Miss Bennet, that was most enjoyable,” Mr Darcy said.
Startled, she looked up, flushing slightly at being confronted by the object of her musings.
“I am sorry,” he continued, “I did not wish to disturb you. I was enjoying the performance.”
Elizabeth laughed. “Now, Mr Darcy, I thought disguise of every sort was your abhorrence. Do not think you must lie to flatter me; I am well aware of my deficiencies in this area.”
“Indeed, I am in earnest,” he said. “Technical proficiency, while admirable, cannot alone make a performance enjoyable. What you lack in this area is compensated by the feeling with which you play. Is that a favourite piece of yours?”
She fought another blush. “I thank you, Mr Darcy, but I do not believe it excuses my neglect in this area. And yes, it is a favourite of mine, I enjoy much of Haydn’s works. He has a spirit, a brightness that runs through his compositions that makes them very enjoyable to perform.”
“And indeed to listen to,” Mr Darcy said. “I believe you are ideally suited to that composer.”
“Perhaps, with a little more practice, I should not need to slur my way through the more challenging passages,” she replied, smiling. She got to her feet, and made her way to take a seat away from the instrument. He followed, sitting across from her and taking up a book, though he made no move to open it.
Elizabeth resolved that she would not remain silent in a room with him for a whole half an hour, and having no desire to leave as of yet, took it upon herself to begin the conversation.
“I hope Miss Julia is well this morning.”
He nodded. “Very well, I thank you. Georgiana is visiting the nursery at the moment.”
“She is a devoted aunt,” Elizabeth remarked.
“Indeed, both Julia and I are fortunate to have her company,” he admitted. He paused then, and a shadow seemed to flicker across his face. “I sometimes wonder whether her devotion is not as beneficial to Georgiana herself as it is to us.”
Elizabeth was curious. “In what way?”
“She does not mix much with girls her own age,” he said. “I have tried to encourage her to make new acquaintances, but our circle in Derbyshire is more of an age with myself than with my sister. She attended school for a year, but became ill, so was removed early. She is, I fear, too like myself in not being at ease in the company of strangers.”
Elizabeth admired the concern he showed for his sister, and could not argue with his belief in Georgiana’s shyness. However, she could not hide her astonishment at his last statement. “You are not claiming to be shy yourself, Sir?”
“No, indeed,” he replied. “Not precisely. I have difficulty conversing with new acquaintances. I do not possess the talent some people have of conversing easily with those I have not seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.”
“And you suppose this a natural defect?” she mused.
“You do not?” he challenged.
“I do not know that it is a talent one either has or has not. Such talents exist, I grant you, but they are rare. For the most part, one may improve even the barest of natural gifts by extensive practice. For example, my fingers do not move over the pianoforte keys in the masterly manner which I see so many women's do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault -- because I would not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman's of superior execution.”
"You are perfectly right,” he replied. “You have employed your time much better. No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you can think anything wanting. We neither of us perform to strangers."
She smiled. “Perhaps, if you feel like practising, you may start by not hiding in the shadows at every social occasion,” she suggested. “You may appear less disagreeable and proud.”
However her mix of sweetness and archness had worked before in saving her from causing offence, it was not to be enough in this instance. “Is this truly your opinion of me?” he asked, affronted.
She paused. “It is my opinion of your actions, particularly when in company. I have seen you in the company of your family and closest friends, and you are perfectly capable of being amiable and pleasing. A difficulty conversing with strangers is not an excuse to insult or ignore them. And neither is wealth or consequence. Our neighbourhood is small, and to some may seem inconsequential and, I readily admit, at times ridiculous. But from the moment of your party’s arrival, they have greeted you all with warmth and enthusiasm, and have been forced to make excuses for the ill behaviour of all but Mr Bingley.”
Mr Darcy was silent, and Elizabeth wondered if she had gone too far. The longer Mr Darcy sat in silence, the more uncomfortable she became. She attempted to analyse his expression, and did detect a hint of anger. But on the whole, he seemed thoughtful.
She began to wonder if she should not apologise. Before she had a chance to formulate a proper response to his silence, however, Miss Bingley entered the room and exclaimed over finding them alone and wondered at their not being bored. Mr Darcy rose almost immediately, excusing himself in curt tones.
Elizabeth did not linger in the room once he had departed, using concern for her sister’s welfare as an excuse. Their removal from Netherfield could not come quickly enough.
“Fitzwilliam,” Georgiana repeated. Finally, he looked up. She had been attempting to catch his attention for several minutes, having become concerned at his remaining in his rooms all morning. He had been out of sorts these last few days.
“Georgiana,” he greeted. “Forgive me, I did not hear you enter.”
“Brother, are you well?” she asked.
He nodded, almost absently. Georgiana studied him carefully. “Come, Fitzwilliam,” she said, “you have not been yourself since Saturday.” She paused. “Since it was decided the Bennets would be leaving,” she remarked, her tone casual.
Fitzwilliam sighed. “It is not what you are implying,” he told her.
“You are certain it has nothing to do with Miss Elizabeth Bennet?” she asked in a tone that could almost be described as teasing.
“Oh, it is to do with her,” he replied, “but not in the way you imagine.” Georgiana was most curious at this announcement, but waited for him to continue. “We had a - discussion Saturday morning. It gave me much to think upon.”
Georgiana desperately wished to know what Elizabeth had said to provoke such a reaction, but she dared not.
“So you do not miss her company at all?” she asked.
“Perhaps a little,” he admitted, after a slight pause.
Georgiana smiled. “I like her very much,” she announced.
“Georgiana,” he warned. “Do not let your imagination run wild. Her company was more enjoyable than other ladies of our acquaintance, that is all I meant by my statement.”
“Of course,” she said. “I did not mean to imply anything further. Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth are both charming. Would - would it be all right if I were to call on them some time this week?”
He looked at her, smiling slightly. “Of course,” he said. “I shall not get in the way of your forming friendships closer to your age.”
She smiled. “Thank you, brother. Now, will you walk with me? I believe Julia is out with Sally at this moment; perhaps we may meet her in the gardens.”
“Yes,” he said, getting to his feet. “I would be delighted.”
Elizabeth breathed a sigh of relief when she reached the lane. It was a glorious day - cold, but bright and crisp. She had been longing to escape Longbourn all morning, but had been detained by their guest, Mr Collins. He had arrived the day before, and though she had been entertained by his ridiculousness the previous evening, his behaviour soon grew tiresome.
She was free for the moment, walking along the lane. Her boots crunched on freshly fallen leaves. Days such as this made Elizabeth appreciate autumn - the season which heralded the end, for the foreseeable future, of almost daily walks.
She had hoped that the air would help clear her mind, which had been most distracted by thoughts of Mr Darcy, and their conversation the day before she left Netherfield. She was afraid she had insulted him, and that had not been her intention. She sighed, shaking her head and vowing she would not let her mind turn to that subject again. This walk was meant to refresh her spirits, not confuse them further.
She followed the turn of the lane, so absorbed in resolving not to think of Mr Darcy, that she did not hear the man himself approach on horseback until he was quite upon her. She stopped abruptly, watching as he slowed his horse and dismounted.
“Mr Darcy,” she greeted, surprised to have the subject of her reverie appear so suddenly in front of her. She was acutely conscious of the words they had exchanged during their last conversation, and felt an immense unease as he straightened up.
He tipped his hat to her. “Miss Bennet,” he replied. “I trust your sister is well?”
“I thank you, yes, she is fully recovered,” Elizabeth replied.
“I am glad to hear it.” He paused. “And the rest of your family are in good health?”
“Yes, indeed.” It was her turn to pause. She could feel his discomfort, and shared in it herself. She knew not what she could say or how she could dispel the tension caused by the memory of their argument.
Well, she had no intention of letting this meeting ruin what was intended to be a relaxing walk. She took a deep breath and decided there was nothing to do but confront the source of the tension head-on.
“Mr Darcy, I wish to apologise for the way I spoke Saturday last,” she began, but he rushed to interrupt her.
“Miss Bennet, do not distress yourself. We neither of us behaved entirely admirably.”
She glanced down. “You are kind, sir, but I am afraid the greater share of blame must go to me. It was wrong of me to speak to you in that manner. Indeed, in intending to call you on your rudeness, I was unforgivably rude myself,” she said, laughing slightly. “I hope you will accept my apologies, Sir.”
He smiled. “Of course I will, Miss Bennet, if you will accept mine. For my part, I feel I should also thank you for your honesty. There was, I fear, a great deal of truth in what you said.”
Elizabeth was astounded by this admission. That the man she had thought of as excessively proud was admitting so easily that he had been at fault surely proved how wrong she had been to judge him as so. She knew very few individuals who, after being insulted and having such accusations leveled against them, would react as he had done. He truly was the best of men.
She managed a smile, though this knowledge caused her considerable pain. How could she not admire such a man? And yet, she knew that her admiration would likely come to naught. “You are too kind, Sir. I believe we could spend many hours arguing over who is more to blame for our argument, but I would much rather put it behind us. Let us be friends again, and think of it no more.”
He smiled again, wider this time, causing Elizabeth’s stomach to flutter. “I would be glad to,” he said.
She returned his smile, relieved that all was well once more.
“Are you walking anywhere in particular this morning?” he enquired.
“No, I did not have any destination in mind. I just wished to enjoy the beautiful morning.”
“Would you object to my joining you on your walk?” he asked, and she thought she detected a hint of nervousness in his tone. “Unless I would be interrupting your solitude.”
“You would, but it does not follow that the interruption is unwelcome,” she replied, smiling.
He nodded, seeming greatly pleased as he turned his horse around. She could not help wishing he would return to his taciturn ways - his smile was most distracting.
She could not decide upon what to say, so merely smiled and began to walk. He fell into step with her, and they were silent for some minutes. They were much easier in each other’s company than they had been minutes before, and it was not an uncomfortable silence.
“Do you walk every day?” he asked, at length.
“Yes, I have always enjoyed the outdoors,” she said. “And walking has always been my favoured form of exercise. I usually walk before breakfasting, but I was delayed this morning, as we have a guest.” She paused. “I should inform you that our guest claims an acquaintance with you - his name is Mr Collins.”
Elizabeth did not need to elaborate any further, as Mr Darcy’s expression indicated clearly that he knew of whom she spoke. She smiled. “You have met my cousin, then?”
“Yes, briefly this summer when we visited my aunt. He is your cousin?” he asked, with some surprise.
“Yes, a distant relation,” she said. “We had not met him before his arrival yesterday. My father was delighted to find him every bit as ridiculous as he anticipated.”
Mr Darcy glanced at her. “Ah, I see now where you learned your enjoyment of follies and inconsistencies.”
She smiled fondly. “Yes, I spent many hours with my father in his library as a child.”
“Well, I have no doubt Mr Collins will provide you both with ample amusement.”
“Indeed he will,” Elizabeth agreed, “but I fear we will find him less amusing as his visit progresses.”
“How long is it to be?”
“He has been granted ten whole days reprieve from his most gracious patroness, whose condescension he is extremely fortunate to enjoy.”
Darcy laughed. “He is certainly what my aunt has long been seeking in a parson.”
“And she could not bestow her favour on a more willing recipient.”
“Why has he visited now, if you have had little contact in previous years?” Darcy asked.
Elizabeth glanced down. “He is to inherit my father’s estate,” she told him.
Darcy raised an eyebrow. “He is?”
“Indeed, a subject that gives my mother much pain,” she replied.
“It is most unfortunate,” he replied, looking ahead. Elizabeth swallowed, sure that he was thinking again of her situation, and how unsuitable it made her as anything other than an acquaintance.
“I am afraid my mother informed him of your presence in the neighbourhood,” Elizabeth sighed. “I could not prevent it.”
Darcy sighed. “It is of little consequence, he would have discovered our presence eventually.”
“He is full of compliments of you, and Miss Darcy, and Miss Julia,” she said, smiling.
Darcy shook is head, looking away with discomfort. Elizabeth smiled - he was not accustomed to such teasing, and she must remember that.
“I trust your sister is well?” she said. “And Miss Julia?”
He nodded. “They are both well,” he replied. “They grow tired of Netherfield, I fear. Georgiana finds the company somewhat stifling. She asked if she may call on you some day this week, if that would be agreeable?”
“But of course!” Elizabeth said. “She would be welcome any day. Jane and I would love to see her again. I believe we are to be visited by officers again tomorrow, but she would be most welcome on Thursday.”
He smiled. “I shall inform her of the invitation. She will be delighted.”
Elizabeth returned it, and they walked some more, until they came to a lane that led to Netherfield.
“I should take my leave,” he said. She thought she detected some reluctance on his part to leave, but leave he did.
She was happy to have met Mr Darcy, and that the air was now clear between them. She turned, taking a deep breath before walking back in the direction of Longbourn. She rather suspected that the memories of this walk would sustain her through the days to come.
Later that same day, a walk to Meryton was proposed. Mr Collins eagerly agreed to accompany his fine cousins on such a journey, much to the displeasure of all.
They had no choice, therefore, but to suffer through his pompous speeches until they arrived at the village, where Lydia and Kitty became immediately focused on the search for officers. They were soon rewarded by the sight of Mr Denny. But even his anticipated return from town could not detract from the interest his companion inspired. He was immediately proclaimed to be a handsome man with a most gentlemanlike air.
Without hesitation, Lydia and Kitty led the way across he street to catch the attention of the gentlemen. Their scheme succeeded, and Mr Denny gladly introduced his friend, Mr Wickham. The youngest were delighted to hear that this handsome man had accepted a commission in the militia and would soon be fitted out in a fine red coat. His manner was easy and everything charming, and they were all happily engaged in conversation when Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy approached them on horseback. As usual, Mr Bingley greeted them all warmly, but quickly focused his attentions on Jane.
“We were just on our way to call on you at Longbourn,” he announced, beaming. “Was that not so, Darcy?”
“Mr Darcy,’ Mr Collins exclaimed, bending into an elaborate bow. “How wonderful to see you again. I had heard of your presence in the neighbourhood, and have been eagerly anticipating our meeting. It is an honour, sir. It is with great happiness that I report to you that Lady Catherine was in excellent health but two days ago.”
Mr Darcy’s jaw tightened almost imperceptibly, but he managed a nod. “I am glad to hear,” he said, and almost immediately turned his eye away from Mr Collins. Elizabeth dared not hope he was seeking her out as his friend sought Jane, and was in the process of lamenting her inability to put him from her mind when she noticed his first glimpse of Mr Wickham. To her surprise, both men seemed to be shocked by the sight of the other. Mr Wickham, after a pause, touched his hat by way of greeting. Darcy barely returned it before turning his horse and riding away.
Mr Collins looked flustered at Mr Darcy’s abrupt departure, but waved him off with a simpering smile.
As far as Elizabeth could tell, no one but Lydia seemed to have noticed the exchange between Mr Darcy and Mr Wickham - or at least, none but the two of them had read any significance into it. Though her sister’s attention was easily drawn again by Mr Wickham, Elizabeth found herself watching Mr Darcy’s back as he made his way down the street.
Mr Bingley, who had been congratulating Jane on her excellent recovery, was soon forced to take his leave. Elizabeth hardly noticed this, nor Lydia reminding him of his promise regarding the ball. Mr Darcy turned as his friend approached him, and his eyes met hers briefly. Eager to not betray the great curiosity she felt, she smiled at him. The one he returned was somewhat muted, but it cheered her nonetheless.
They departed, and Elizabeth followed her sisters to the home of their Aunt Philips, though she paid little attention to her surroundings.
Darcy was livid as he turned his horse and moved away from the group. Wickham. What could possibly have brought that man here? He had not spoken to him these past two years, not since Wickham had demanded the living and he had refused.
He sighed. Between Mr Collins and George Wickham, something seemed determined to induce him to quit Hertfordshire. But at the mere thought of this, he glanced behind him and was rewarded with the curious gaze of Elizabeth Bennet. She smiled, and he found himself returning it as best he could after such a surprise meeting.
Bingley had caught up with him, and they headed out of the village and back towards Netherfield.
“I say, Darcy, why did you stalk off in that manner? Were we not to call at Longbourn?”
Darcy knew exactly why his friend was put out by his behaviour. “I did not care for the company they were enjoying.”
Bingley was confused. “The cousin? He is a fool, without a doubt, but is he that bad?”
Darcy glanced at him. “No, not Collins. You were clearly too focused on Miss Bennet to hear Lt Denny introduce his friend, Wickham.”
Bingley blinked. “Not - that Wickham?”
Darcy nodded tersely. “The very one.”
“I see,” Bingley said, eyeing Darcy warily. “This will not make you anxious to remove to London sooner than planned, will it?”
Darcy shook his head, immediately remembering Elizabeth’s smile. He could not wish to leave, even if he knew he should. “No,” he said. “I have no plans to quit the county. And I certainly would not leave on his account,” he added.
Bingley sighed in relief. “That is reassuring. I was afraid you would leave me to my sisters with only Hurst for company.”
Darcy gave a short laugh, but he could not be fully amused by the joke. His mind was still on Wickham’s presence in the area. He wondered if he should warn the merchants of his character. But then, who would believe him? He had no proof to hand. It would be his word against Wickham’s, and he knew just how charming the man could be.
“It is a pity we could not accompany the Miss Bennets back to Longbourn,” Bingley sighed.
Darcy privately agreed with him. “Georgiana is to call tomorrow,” he said. “We could call towards the end of her visit to escort her home.”
Bingley smiled. “Yes, indeed. A wonderful scheme.” He paused, and glanced over at his friend. “Is it my imagination, Darcy, or are you as eager to call at Longbourn as I am?”
Darcy sighed. “It is about time you thought of the possibility, I have had it from both our sisters this last week at least.”
“Well, I did detect something between you - all those debates you engaged in.” He glanced at his friend again. “You do not seem happy about it.”
Darcy sighed. “I do not - that is, I admire Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and enjoy her company. But as to anything more, I am not convinced. It is not simple.”
Bingley raised an eyebrow. “Is it not? She is lively, and pretty, I daresay. And you converse easier with her than with any other person I have seen you speak with.”
Darcy shook his head. “There are many things to consider, Bingley,” he replied tersely. Bingley took the implication that conversation on this matter was finished and said nothing further. Their ride to Netherfield proceeded in silence.
Mrs Philips, during their visit, had extended an invitation to the Bennet family for supper and cards the following evening. They were to have several of the officers as guests to dinner, and Mrs Philips assured her nieces Mr Wickham would be included in the invitation.
So they went, Mr Collins in raptures about the kind attentions shown to him by Mrs Philips. There was much impatience on behalf of the younger Bennets when it the men did not soon rejoin the ladies after dining. At length, they appeared. Elizabeth was forced to admit Mr Wickham was quite the handsomest out of the officers, and it was no surprise, therefore, that he was the chief object of interest to most of the females of the room. Elizabeth’s interest, however, was motivated more by curiosity than admiration.
When the cards began, he was seated between Elizabeth and Lydia. At first, it seemed as if her younger sister would monopolise his attention, but she was soon diverted by the game of lottery tickets she was participating in, and Elizabeth was left free to speak to Mr Wickham.
To her surprise, he seemed as eager to talk of Mr Darcy as she was to hear of him. He made some passing enquiry as to Netherfield, and followed it with a hesitant question as to the length of Mr Darcy’s stay there. He then enquired as to whether she was much acquainted with the man.
“I am,” she replied. “That is, as well as one can be after spending four days in the same house as him. He is reserved, but on closer acquaintance can be a very agreeable man.”
“Indeed?” Mr Wickham replied. There was something in his tone Elizabeth wondered at, a hint of disbelief. “I have no right to give my opinion on his being agreeable or otherwise. I have known him too long to be impartial. My father was the late Mr Darcy’s steward, and we grew up together as boys. Unfortunately, in recent years we have had a - a disagreement, of sorts, and our friendship has not recovered.”
“That is sad, indeed,” Elizabeth said. “Perhaps it is now time to attempt another reconciliation?”
Mr Wickham smiled. “Perhaps,” he said. “But it would not do to awake old grievances and make either of our stays in this fine neighbourhood unpleasant.”
Elizabeth smiled. “Indeed.”
He turned then, to the game, and Elizabeth regarded him with interest. There was certainly more to Mr Wickham than met the eye.
“I win again!” Lydia cried happily.
“So you do,” Mr Wickham said, from her side. She turned to look at him, smiling widely. “You must have taken all my luck, for I have not had a single success thus far,” he sighed.
“Poor Mr Wickham,” Lydia teased. “Where has my sister Lizzy gone?” she wondered, noticing the empty chair on his other side.
“I fear your sister did not like my conversation,” Wickham said, and there was a hint of sadness in his tone.
This was curious indeed. “Did she not? But you seemed quite intimate earlier.”
He glanced across to where Lizzy was standing, speaking to Colonel Forster. “Oh, we were just discussing a mutual acquaintance. Mr Darcy.”
“Oh, him,” Lydia snorted, shaking her head slightly. “He is such a dull man, I cannot see how my sister bears his company.”
“Ah. You are not as fond of the man as your sister, I take it?” Mr Wickham enquired curiously.
“Lord, no. He is dreadfully dull, and does not dance. And besides, he does not wear regimentals,” she added, with a teasing grin.
Mr Wickham smiled at her. “Ah. A capital offence, to be sure.”
Lydia laughed, and was then forced to pay attention to the game once more. But Mr Wickham seemed eager to catch her attention again, and she was not adverse to allowing it.
“Pray, have you been much in company with Miss Darcy?” he wondered, after a short pause.
Lydia rolled her eyes. “Oh, yes, she is almost as bad as her brother. Worse, even. She just sits there and barely says a word. And she even said she did not wish to be out! I could scarce believe it.”
Wickham smiled fondly. “Ah, dear Georgiana. I used to look on her as a younger sister, but it has been many years now since I have seen her. She was but a child then. I daresay she is much grown by now.”
“She is not as tall as me,” Lydia said proudly.
Wickham smiled. “Is she not?” he asked, a teasing lilt to his voice.
Lydia giggled. “No. But she is tall, taller than Lizzy, I should say.” She paused. “How do you know the Darcys so well, anyway?” She could not imagine a man as handsome and charming as Mr Wickham spending much time with such a dull family.
Mr Wickham’s smile faltered ever so slightly. “I grew up alongside Mr Darcy, and have known Miss Darcy since her birth. My father was the late Mr Darcy’s steward.”
“Oh, how tiresome that must have been!” Lydia exclaimed. “Growing up with Mr Darcy! Did he always stand about in corners looking cross?” she wondered.
Wickham nodded with a wry smile. “I am sorry to say he did. I tried my best to make him livelier, but he would not have it.”
“What a pity you did not, it would have done him some good. But if you were so close as children, why did he cut you in town yesterday?” she wondered, suddenly remembering the way the men had greeted each other.
Wickham glanced down at this. “Ah, I was wondering if anyone witnessed that. I was not surprised by the action, I am sad to say. I should not speak more, however.”
Now Lydia was really curious. “What is it, Mr Wickham?” she asked, leaning closer to him. “You can tell me, I will not breathe a word of it.”
It took little more convincing for her to get him to tell her, but he did. Her eyes widened as he told her how Mr Darcy had refused to honour his own father’s wishes.
“That is horrid!” she exclaimed once he had finished. “How cruel of him to treat you so. Though, I confess I am glad you were not given the living. You look so well in a red coat, it would be a shame to have you in black or green.”
He smiled slightly, but he still looked pained. “I thank you, Miss Lydia. But I would accept the change in coat for the stability the living would have given me.”
Lydia raised an eyebrow. “But a clergyman! Surely that would be dull. He could have purchased a commission in the regulars for you.”
Wickham nodded, his smile still strained. “Perhaps. But it was not to be. I would appreciate your discretion, Miss Lydia. I have no desire to see Darcy exposed - not for his sake, but for his father’s. He was a truly great man, and until I can forget him, I cannot expose his son.”
Lydia nodded. “I shan’t tell a soul,” she promised. “Though who would have expected the family to be that bad? I thought them dull, but not as bad as all that.”
Wickham shook his head at this. “No, I do not think the family in general is bad - the late Mr Darcy, as I have said, was an excellent man. And Miss Darcy is not as proud as her brother, I would wager. At least, she was not when I knew her.”
Lydia snorted. “Oh, who knows what she is like? She barely says a word. She is to call at Longbourn tomorrow to see Lizzy and Jane. Lizzy has warned us we must all be on our best behaviour so as not to frighten her. Really,” she scoffed, “she is my age! The way Lizzy speaks, you would think she was a child.”
Wickham smiled fondly. “She was always a shy creature. And I would imagine her brother’s guardianship these past years has not helped in that respect.” He paused. “Miss Lydia, I wonder if - no. I cannot ask that of you. Forgive me.”
Lydia was most curious as to what he was about to request, and leaned forward more. “Ask what?”
He continued, with great reluctance. “I just - I confess that I have missed her. I looked on her as something of a sister, you see. I remember well the day she was born, and playing with her when she was an infant. But since my quarrel with her brother, I have dared not ask for permission to see her, as I know I will be refused. His prejudice against me is strong.”
Lydia shook her head, her anger at Mr Darcy rising. “Indeed,” she said. “But I do not see how I can help.”
“I had thought perhaps you could assist me in making her acquaintance again,” Wickham said, his voice barely above a whisper. “But I would not put you in that position.”
She tilted her head. “It would not be all that difficult,” she said, also whispering. “You could come to Longbourn tomorrow, and wait in the gardens, hidden somewhere, and I could come up with a scheme to bring her to you.” The idea of formulating such a plan gave her a thrill.
Wickham shook his head. “No, I could not ask that of you, Miss Lydia. Forgive me for even thinking it.”
He looked so sad, and Lydia was beginning to see the fun in such a scheme. “No, no!” she said, quietly. “She is to visit at noon. If you wait in the wilderness beside our lawn, I shall deliver her to you soon after.”
“Miss Lydia-“ Wickham started, but she raised her hand to silence him.
“Hush,” she said. “It all sounds like tremendous fun, and I am quite set on it now. Let us not speak of it again.”
He regarded her with something akin to wonder. “I cannot thank you enough, Miss Lydia.”
She smiled proudly, turning her attention back to the card game lest anyone become suspicious over the nature of their hushed conversation.
Lydia observed Miss Darcy the next day. Wickham had said she was shy. Perhaps with Mr Darcy as a brother, she could not help it. Lydia knew the man did not like balls or parties, so most likely did not bring her to any. And she was not out yet though she had no older sisters. Lydia was very glad she had her mother, for she knew if it was up to her father she would be in a similar position. But her father could at least be amusing at times, unlike Mr Darcy. Why Lizzy was so mad about him, she could not tell.
She had a vague plan as to how to go about bringing Miss Darcy out to visit Wickham without raising suspicion. She must be careful, for she was sure Lizzy would be wary. She began by making conversation, which she hoped to not only help Miss Darcy be at ease around her, but would also make her proposing an exit seem less suspicious.
“The ribbon on your bonnet is very pretty, Miss Darcy,” she remarked, taking up the hat in question.
Miss Darcy paled, looking at her hands. “I thank you,” she said, quietly. She seemed truly terrified.
But Lydia pressed on. “Where did you get it? In London?” she enquired.
“N-no, in a shop in Lambton, the village near Pemberley.”
Lydia was conscious of Elizabeth’s gaze on her, but she continued. “Did you buy it fitted up this way?”
“Y-yes,” Miss Darcy replied.
“It is much nicer than anything you could get in Meryton. We must rip apart and remake almost every hat we buy. But, you know, a bit of yellow ribbon would look very well along here,” she said, pointing to the bonnet.
Miss Darcy swallowed, but did not reply. Lydia held the bonnet at arm’s length, examining it. She did not know how she would escape without Lizzy following them - she was clever and bound to suspect something. Oh, why had she not asked Kitty to cause some sort of distraction?
But, thankfully, Hill appeared in the room at that very moment to announce that their mother requested Lizzy’s presence in the library, as Mr Collins had something to discuss with her. (He had not been informed of Miss Darcy’s presence in the house, otherwise he would have buzzed about her like a fly.) Lydia was delighted as Lizzy took her leave, though she did pity her at having to bear Mr Collins’ attention.
“I have a bonnet with ribbon almost like this with some yellow edging, and it looks very well,” Lydia said, as soon as Lizzy had left. “Would you like to see?”
Miss Darcy nodded timidly.
“I don’t know exactly where it is, you must come to my room,” Lydia said, getting to her feet.
“N-no,” Miss Darcy stammered, paling even further. “Thank you, but I-”
“I may also have some ribbon left over, it would do just the thing for your bonnet,” Lydia said, not looking away from the girl.
Miss Darcy looked uncomfortable, and Jane stepped in. “Lydia, Miss Darcy would rather remain here,” she said, gently.
Lydia smiled at Miss Darcy. “Oh, it just to look at a bonnet! We will not bite, you know, and it would look so well on you, I am sure! Please?”
Miss Darcy nodded, though reluctantly, and got to her feet. Lydia knew she was acting purely out of politeness, but she was just glad that she had agreed to come at all.
“Miss Darcy, you may stay if you wish,” Jane said.
“No, I - I shall go with Miss Lydia,” Miss Darcy said, uneasily.
Lydia smiled, took the girl’s hand, and led her out of the room.
In the passage, she thrust Miss Darcy’s bonnet into her hands. “Put it on!” she said, retrieving her own spencer and bonnet from a chair and hurriedly readying herself. “I could not say in front of Jane or Lizzy, but there is someone outside to see you.”
Miss Darcy looked startled. “Miss Lydia-”
“Hush!” Lydia said, arranging her curls at the side of her bonnet before turning to pull Miss Darcy’s on. She did not struggle, but looked terrified. “I promise to explain everything, but we must hurry before someone sees us!”
And with that, she took Miss Darcy’s hand and tugged her out to the garden and straight across the lawn to the wilderness at the side.
Miss Darcy still looked terrified as they drew to a halt, but she gasped at the sight of Wickham, waiting just inside.
“George!” she cried, smiling widely.
Wickham’s eyes widened. “Georgie?” he repeated, stunned.
Lydia laughed proudly. She had done it! What a joke! Jane had not suspected a thing, and neither had Lizzy.
“But what brings you here?” Miss Darcy was asking.
“I must seek my fortune somewhere,” Wickham sighed. He indicated his uniform, which Lydia took a moment to admire again. “I have joined the militia. Imagine my astonishment when I discovered you were in the very neighbourhood I was to be stationed in.”
“But - if it is just you, why did Miss Lydia have to conceal our intentions?” Georgiana asked, her brow furrowed in confusion.
Wickham sighed. “I asked her to, Geo- Miss Darcy,” he corrected himself. “Your brother and I have yet to patch up our differences, and he would no doubt forbid our meeting as he has done in the past.”
Miss Darcy looked shocked. “Fitzwilliam would not!” she cried.
Lydia raised an eyebrow. Fitzwilliam Darcy? Lord, with a name like that it was no wonder he was so dull and cross. Now, George Wickham sounded much better. She smiled, eyes running over Wickham again.
“I know you have quarreled,” Miss Darcy was saying, “but surely he would not prevent my speaking to you without reason.”
“You always did give him such credit,” Wickham said, fondly. “You are a dear sister, but it is more than a quarrel I am afraid. He hates me.”
Miss Darcy’s brow furrowed deeper.
“Would you take a walk with me?” Wickham asked. “There is much to talk about. Miss Bennet will keep watch, will you not?”
Lydia felt a trace of unease at this suggestion - she was doing this for Wickham, and not so he could go off alone with Miss Darcy.
“I have not spoken with Miss Darcy in many years,” Wickham continued. “It has been rather like losing a sister.”
This did something to ease her doubts. She smiled. “Of course,” she said. “Jane did not suspect a thing, nor is she likely to. And Lizzy will not think twice of a few minutes absence, even if Mr Collins allows her to escape before we get back.”
Wickham smiled at her, and it was so earnest she felt all warm inside. “I believe, Miss Lydia, you would make a fine General, with your head for strategy and tactics.”
She laughed, and his eyes met hers. There was more than mere gratitude in them as he continued, “Miss Bennet, I am in your debt. You cannot know what this opportunity means to me.”
Lydia smiled, feeling something flutter in her stomach. “It is nothing. Actually, all this sneaking about is rather exciting. I feel as if I’m in a novel!” She laughed again, and Wickham joined her.
“We will be but ten minutes,” he said. “Then you must return.”
He offered Miss Darcy his arm, and they set off down the path. Lydia leaned against the wall, a sigh escaping her lips almost involuntarily. A novel, indeed. She glanced back at the house occasionally, but her eyes were often drawn to Wickham’s retreating form. He looked just as well from the back as he did from the front.
Georgiana was uneasy as they walked away from Miss Bennet. “I think we should tell Fitzwilliam,” she said. “I do not see why he would object, after all, I have known you as long as I have known him.”
George shook his head sadly. “I wish I could be as optimistic as you, Geor- Miss Darcy. Forgive me, I fear I shall not find it easy to remember how I should now address you.”
“Surely - you may still use my name,” she said.
“Ah, that cannot be, I am afraid,” he said, smiling. “We must be proper now, Miss Darcy. You are no longer Georgie-girl, you … you are a young woman”
Georgiana felt her cheeks colour. “Geor-Mr Wickham,” she corrected. She gasped. “Oh! I feel as if I am addressing your father!”
He laughed. “Well, that will not do. Perhaps, just Wickham? Or, if we stuck to ‘George’ and ‘Georgiana’ it might be enough. Georgie-boy and Georgie-girl must, I fear, be abandoned.”
She smiled. She had taken to calling him Georgie-boy as a very young child, as she had always been Georgie to Fitzwilliam and it had caused some confusion at first. He, in turn, had taken to calling her Georgie-girl, and they had never abandoned the habit.
“Oh, I have missed you,” she said.
“As I have you,” he replied. “Though I confess, I am having difficulty believing you to be the girl I knew. Five years has changed a great many things.”
She blushed further. “I can hardly believe how time is moving so quickly. So much has happened since I saw you last.”
“I heard of your brother’s marriage, and your sister’s passing,” he said. “My condolences would not have been welcomed, so I stayed away.”
The smile disappeared from Georgiana’s face. “I thank you - Fitzwilliam has not been quite the same since then. Though I sometimes wonder if this change did not start with Papa’s death.” She paused. “Perhaps that is what caused the argument? Maybe, if I tell him of your presence here, I could-”
George stopped walking, and she turned to face him. They had turned slightly, and the wall where Miss Bennet stood was not in view. George clasped her hands, smiling fondly. “You still think the world of him, I see.”
“Of course I do - he is my brother, and a good man,” she said. She regretted it instantly, for George looked hurt. He stepped away, and she moved forward. “Oh! George - I did not mean - I do not know why you no longer speak, but - I have missed you. Please, believe me -“
“I am sorry, Georgiana,” he said, turning to face her. “I have just had a trying number of years. And - no, I shall not come between you and your brother. But he knows I am in the area. We met by accident in Meryton two days ago. He made his continued dislike perfectly clear. If he knew we were meeting, he would surely forbid it.”
Georgiana bit her lip. He looked almost crushed, and she wished she had any information as to the cause of their argument. She wanted to spend time with George, of course she did, but - lying to Fitzwilliam?
George stepped forward and took her hands again. “Georgiana, I have missed you more than I can say. And I can see I have already missed so much of your life. Please, for now, can you not speak of seeing me? A time may come when your brother will be more open to our friendship, but for now I do not see a choice.”
She could not resist such an appeal, spoken with such feeling. “I shall not tell,” she said, feeling guilty already.
He smiled brightly, and pressed her hand warmly. She felt herself shiver involuntarily.
“You are cold,” he said. “It is time we returned, at any rate.”
He offered her his arm again, and they made their way back to Miss Bennet.
But Georgiana did not feel cold. In fact, she felt quite warm. Her hand particularly, where his lips had touched her glove, felt surprisingly warm.
She smiled as he took his leave, and then Miss Bennet took her arm and led her quickly towards the house, chattering away.
“I hope they don’t suspect anything - but here, take this ribbon. I brought it to make it look like we had been upstairs. Clever of me, wasn’t it? You may keep it, for it will look very well on your bonnet you know. What fun this has been! You must come again to meet him, I shall not mind. He is so very handsome, and looks the best of all the officers, I should say.”
Georgiana blushed again, very thankful they had reached Longbourn. She followed Miss Bennet into the drawing room silently.
Friday brought several officers to call at Longbourn. Mrs Bennet received them with her usual warmth, and Kitty giggled with Denny and Chamberlayne. But Lydia had eyes for one man only.
To her delight, Wickham singled her out immediately upon entering the room. He smiled at her with such a look of gratitude and warmth in his eyes that Lydia was sure her face would crack from smiling. Mrs Bennet, after calling for tea, suggested the officers should walk in the garden while they waited for refreshments. All readily agreed, and as soon as they exited, Wickham led Lydia a little away from the rest.
He pressed her hand. “Miss Lydia,” he said, earnestly, “I cannot thank you enough for your service to me yesterday.”
He smiled. “There is no need to thank me,” she said. “It was such fun, sneaking about. I was sure I should laugh when I got back to the house, and Jane and Lizzy didn’t suspect a thing. I did not, of course, for that would have ruined our secret.”
He laughed softly. “Indeed. And it would have been a shame considering what effort you expended in arranging for my reunion with Miss Darcy. I am grateful for it.”
Lydia found that his happiness increased her own. She longed to see him smile and laugh, and was delighted that she could be the cause behind his high spirits.
“I was glad to help,” she said warmly. “Someone should be kind to you, if Mr Darcy refuses to.”
He sighed. “Indeed, he does. But at least now, I shall not be deprived of Miss Darcy’s companionship. And who knows, perhaps this could be the means of turning my fortunes around.”
Lydia blinked. “How so?”
Wickham leaned closer, dropping his voice to a whisper. “Well, Miss Darcy holds considerable influence over her brother. She mentioned yesterday that she might speak to him on my behalf.”
Lydia beamed. “Oh! It would be wonderful if she could persuade her brother to do something for you.”
“Indeed. I do not wish for riches, Miss Lydia. But security would be much appreciated. There is so much I wish to do, which my current state of affairs will not permit. The life of a militia officer looks to be a lonely one.”
“But you go to balls and parties almost every night!” Lydia cried. “Surely it must be such fun.”
“Oh, indeed, it can be enjoyable. And I love a ball as much as the next officer. But I have longed for stability for some time, Miss Lydia. A home.”
She could scarce draw breath. He was looking at her with an expression so unmistakeable - and yet she could not truly believe that he was even hinting at marriage. And to her? Her stomach fluttered nervously, and she tried her best to focus on what he was saying - for he was still speaking.
“But alas, without independence I shall not be able to secure such stability,” he sighed. “If only Darcy had fulfilled his father’s wishes. Even his sister’s persuasion would be to late for that, I am afraid. The living has been granted to another. But a commission, perhaps…”
Lydia gasped. “In the regulars!”
“Yes,” he said. “I should like that very much, I believe.”
Lydia nodded, her eyes wide. “It would be just the thing.”
But Wickham shook his head. “I do not wish to risk her receiving the brunt of her brother’s anger at me, so I put her off for now. Besides, to speak of me would mean our meetings would cease, and I do not wish that. Time will tell whether this would be a wise course.”
“Oh, I hope it will work in your favour,” Lydia said, ferverently. “You deserve some good fortune, I should say.”
“I believe I have found some since arriving in Meryton,” he said warmly.
Lydia felt something flutter inside her as he led her towards Denny.
Georgiana wrung her hands nervously as the carriage left Netherfield. Miss Lydia had sent an invitation that morning, and Georgiana knew instantly what it meant. Fitzwilliam had, at first, seemed curious as to the source of the invitation, but Georgiana informed him that she had bonded with the youngest Bennets the day before. He looked troubled by this.
“We shall be trimming bonnets,” she said, sure that her guilt was obvious for all to see. “Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth will surely be present.”
“Very well,” her brother said. Georgiana’s guilt had been almost unbearable as she climbed into the carriage. She felt torn between what she felt was her duty to George, and the distaste she felt at the mere idea of deceiving her brother. She had spent a restless night running over everything in her mind, and was still uneasy about the whole affair.
But she had done it, and was now nearing Longbourn. Her agitation soon had a different source - nervousness. Lydia greeted her in the passage.
“It is such a lovely morning,” she said after they had exchanged greetings, “I thought a walk would be just the thing before we begin our bonnets.” She linked arms with Georgiana, and led her out of the house.
“He called with the other officers this morning,” Lydia informed her in a low voice as they made their way across the gardens. “He has agreed to come back about now. I am glad you are come. Jane is with Mama, and Lizzy mentioned walking all the way to Oakham Mount - to avoid Mr Collins, I suppose - so anyway, we shall be quite safe.”
Georgiana nodded, trying to calm herself before she was to see George. He waited in the same place as before, and smiled brightly when they rounded the corner.
“Ladies,” he said, smiling brightly and lifting his hat. “I am glad you could join us, Miss Darcy.”
“As am I,” she replied, smiling nervously.
“Miss Bennet, would you mind terribly if we walked on once more?”
“Not at all,” she replied. “I shall keep watch again, and will signal if you must return.”
And so Georgiana was once again being led through the wilderness. She was nervous today, unlike the day before.
“Are you well?” George asked, laying a hand on her arm. She felt a flutter inside her, and her cheeks flushed.
“Yes,” she said, “Perfectly.”
Wickham smiled warmly. “Excellent. As much as I enjoy our meetings, I have no desire to risk your health. I would not have you harmed.”
Georgiana smiled. “I am well,” she assured him.
“Good. Now, tell me of Pemberley. Has much changed since I last visited? I wish to know every detail, however small.”
For the rest of their walk, they spoke of Pemberley and what little changes had occurred within the house and staff; of goings-on in Lambton; and reminisced over memories they shared. Georgiana was mesmerised by his laughs and smiles, and the small, affectionate gestures he made. A brush of fingers against her gloved hand; his hand on her arm as he recalled a new detail about some person or place they were both familiar with. Her shawl slipped at one point, and he caught the end before it hit the ground. She blushed as she arranged it again, and looked up to find him gazing at her in a way that made her cheeks flush even further.
He was the first to look away, and seemed rather flushed himself.
“We should return to Miss Bennet,” he said. “I do hate to impose on her in such a manner. Perhaps, the next time we meet, I could come to Netherfield?”
Georgiana paled at the thought of being discovered by her brother, which seemed far more likely in the environs of Netherfield.
George seemed to have noticed this. “I would not wish to put you in an uncomfortable position. I have walked in that direction, and I have discovered a copse not terribly far from the house. It would, I believe, be close enough for you to walk to without suspicion, and would provide ample concealment.”
Georgiana nodded. She had to concede that walking the grounds of Netherfield would be less suspicious than frequent visits to Longbourn. And she did not know how to refuse George, not when he asked with such earnestness. “Yes,” she said. “I believe that would be convenient.”
He smiled, leaning down to brush a kiss against her gloved knuckles. “Dear Georgiana,” he said. “Thank you for going to such trouble for me. You cannot know what it means to me.”
She blushed again. “It is nothing,” she lied.
He tucked her hand in the crook of his arm. “We must return,” he said, with a little sigh. Georgiana nodded, but could not bring herself to say more as they walked back to Lydia.
A morning ride was not unusual for Darcy, but he did not often take the same route several days in a row. Even when not at Pemberley, he varied his course as often as he could. But for the third time this week, he was drawn to the woods that bordered a particular lane. Each morning he would resolve to ride in the opposite direction, but he found it impossible to follow through on his plan.
And so here he was, securing his horse to a tree and making his way out to the lane. He attempted to look casual as he walked along, though he was aware he probably seemed the exact opposite. He sighed, scarcely able to comprehend how matters had come to this. Little had he suspected that a visit to Bingley’s new home would result in his present situation.
He was walking slowly, ears tuned for the sound of approaching footsteps. He was unable to deny it any longer, he was waiting for Elizabeth Bennet, the woman he found himself thinking about during his every waking hour. (And not merely his waking hours, but it would not do to remember that at the present moment.)
He turned to see her approaching, a bright smile lighting up her face.
“Miss Bennet,” he greeted.
“I was not expecting to see you here this morning,” she said, with an arch look and a small, knowing smile.
He glanced down, slightly embarrassed by how obvious he had been.
“I was planning on walking to Oakham Mount today,” she announced. “Had you planned to walk that distance?”
Darcy looked up at her. “I had no plans, but if you would not object to the company, I would like to venture that far.”
She smiled. “I do not object,” she said warmly. They started out, and fell into step easily. Silence fell over them for some minutes, but it was not an uncomfortable silence. No, nothing about her presence was uncomfortable. He had never experienced such ease in the presence of another, and especially not one of such short acquaintance.
“Your sister enjoyed her visit yesterday, I take it?” Elizabeth asked, at length.
“Indeed,” Darcy replied, though in truth he had barely noticed Georgiana’s mood the evening before. They had indeed called to Longbourn to escort Georgiana home, but it had been rather a hurried and hectic visit. Mrs Bennet was her usual garrulous self, though her attention was, as usual, focused on Jane and Bingley. His attention had been fixed on Elizabeth, though she had been deep in conversation with Georgiana.
“And Miss Julia?”
“She has taken to hiding in a certain place on the third floor, which she refuses to reveal how she discovered,” Darcy said.
Elizabeth smiled knowingly.
His eyes met hers. “You would not know who could have shared such intelligence with the girl, would you?” he asked, casually.
“No,” she replied, seriously. “Though if one is searching for hiding places in that house, it is bound to be discovered sooner or later.”
“Indeed,” he replied, smile tugging at the corner of his lips.
Elizabeth’s eyes sparkled as she replied. “And I am sure Sally, being such a fine nurse, knew exactly where her charge was the entire time.”
“Indeed she did,” Darcy replied. It had been Sally who had told him how Julia discovered her new favoured hiding place, as Elizabeth had also informed the nurse of where she was likely to find her charge. “It is puzzling how one would know that such a place exists.”
She smiled. “Ah, I know several neighbourhood children have enjoyed that particular spot,” she said. “A family used to live at Netherfield, many years ago now, and they had several children.”
“I see,” he replied. “And would you and your sisters visit the family often?”
“Yes, of course, but three miles separates the houses, and my mother prides herself on being an attentive neighbour. My sisters and I would often venture alone, when we were old enough.”
“Would you walk there?” he asked, teasingly.
She gave him an arch smile. “Oh, no, Mr Darcy, I was much more shocking than that. I ran.”
Darcy laughed, struck by the brightness in her eyes, and her cheeks pink from the cool air. She looked away, glancing down as her cheeks flushed deeper, and he realised he had been staring. He looked away quickly, attempting to compose himself.
It was some time before he spoke again. “I trust everyone at Longbourn is well?” he asked.
“Yes, they are all well,” Elizabeth replied.
“Would the length of your walk this morning have something to do with a certain visitor?” he enquired.
Elizabeth looked slightly guilty. “Indeed, I confess it does. Though, Lydia has been in such high spirits these past days, as has Kitty, and that did add to my desire to walk considerably.”
“Miss Lydia has invited my sister to visit this morning and trim bonnets,” Darcy said.
Elizabeth gave him a curious look. “Has she? She did not mention such a plan to me.”
“My sister received the note just as I was preparing to depart,” he said. “She did not mention it to you?”
“No, but I confess I have been hiding in my room all morning,” she replied, smiling slightly. “And Lydia was visiting with the officers. It has not been a quiet morning at Longbourn. I am sorry to have missed Miss Darcy, though.”
“I am sure she will be equally sorry to have missed you.” As much as Darcy knew Georgiana would like to see her friend, he was glad Elizabeth had not suggested returning home. He was quite enjoying her company.
“I am sure Lydia and Kitty shall keep her amused. And Jane will be there, to provide some sense,” she added, with a smile. “My sisters are much preoccupied with plans for Mr Bingley’s ball at present. I hope Georgiana will not feel left out.”
He was touched by her concern for his sister. “I do not think she will. I fear she has been too much influenced by my feelings on such matters, and she will not wish to attend.”
“What a pity,” Elizabeth said. “She will be out in a year or so, and is bound to have to attend some balls and parties. Perhaps she should be exposed to some enthusiasm for them now.”
He could not help but smile. “Perhaps. She will not be attending Bingley’s ball, however. She is young, yet.”
Elizabeth nodded. “Yes, a wise decision. I do not think my youngest sister is ready to be out, but Mama was insistent.”
“Were you all out so young?”
“Yes, at fifteen,” she replied, with a wry smile. “None of us were truly ready. Jane was nervous and uncomfortable with the attention. Mary, of course, has no time for balls and dances, even now. Kitty was happy for the attention she received, but Lydia is by far the most enthusiastic of all of us.”
“And you?” he asked, before he had time to stop himself. “How did you feel upon first coming out?”
“I was happy for the opportunity for new chances to study all the follies and inconsistencies of the neighbourhood’s four and twenty families,” she said, teasingly.
He laughed. “Of course.”
She looked ahead. “We are nearing Oakham Mount.”
Darcy had not realised they had walked so far already. He looked ahead, allowing himself to pay attention to his surroundings instead of his companion. It was a beautiful area, of that there was no doubt. They soon reached the top of the hill, and were rewarded with a stunning view of the surrounding area.
Elizabeth sighed happily as she looked around, and Darcy’s attention was once more drawn from his surroundings. She looked delighted to be here.
“Is this a favourite spot of yours?” he asked.
“Indeed,” Elizabeth said, almost wistfully. “The walk is beautiful, as is the view. I have spent many happy afternoons here.”
“You would be sorry, I think, to leave Hertfordshire,” he said, though he realised instantly he had spoken too hastily.
She turned to look at him, surprise evident in her eyes. “Well, it has always been my home,” she said carefully. “It is hard, I would believe, for anyone to imagine leaving somewhere so familiar to them. Would you be sorry to leave Derbyshire permanently?”
He nodded. “Indeed. I miss it greatly, and am much anticipating returning in the new year. It has been many months since I have been home. Not that I am not enjoying my time in Hertfordshire,” he added hastily, “but it is quite different from Derbyshire.”
Elizabeth nodded. “My Aunt Gardiner has told me many times of the beauty of that area. She is fond of saying it is the best of counties.”
He was surprised by this revelation. “Your aunt is familiar with the area?”
“Yes, she spent many years in a little village named Lambton, I believe.”
“That is but five miles from Pemberley!” he said, astonished by this connection.
“What a coincidence,” Elizabeth said, smiling. “She is most fond of the area. It has been many years since she has visited there; she lives in London presently.”
The relations near Cheapside. The tone of her voice seemed to be challenging him somehow, the reference a veiled attempt at reminding him of her connections. He glanced at her, her flushed cheeks and challenging expression, and could instantly see days filled with walks over the grounds at Pemberley. How she would surely love the natural beauty of the Peaks. He was, in that moment, inclined to agree with Bingley - that had she relations enough to fill all of Cheapside, it would not make her one jot less agreeable.
Yes, he was every bit as smitten as Bingley. Heaven help him.
Monday saw Darcy, Bingley and Georgiana calling at Longbourn. The weather was fine again, and so a walk in the gardens was proposed. Darcy was greatly pleased by this, as he had come to a decision - he was going to secure Miss Elizabeth Bennet for two dances at Bingley’s ball.
He had thought of little else but the question of Miss Elizabeth Bennet the evening before, running through every argument in his mind several times over. And he had more than had his fill. He did not wish to continue resisting this, as it seemed increasingly obvious that to do so was an exercise in futility.
Every argument he had constructed against his remarriage fell short in the case of Miss Bennet. She was all that he had pictured his wife to be before that first season had convinced him she did not exist. Her connections and fortune may not be ideal, but he cared less for that now he had a glimpse of what life could be like with her. He had always maintained that duty and honour precluded him from a second marriage, but he was wrong to do so. He had acted according to those principles in marrying Anne, and look where that had led.
But, having decided to cast aside all of his reluctance and pursue Miss Elizabeth, he was unsure how to proceed. He had not courted Anne; he had no experience in such matters. And while he was now certain of his own feelings, he wished to move cautiously, in case they were not reciprocated as he would wish. There was a connection between them, he could sense that much. But he also remembered every word of their arguments, and the things she had said to him. He was reasonably confident her opinion of him had improved, but he could not be certain how much.
Claiming these dances seemed to be an opportune first step. And so, as soon as they had gained some distance from Miss Bennet, Bingley and Georgiana, he cleared his throat. “Miss Elizabeth, would you do me the honour of dancing with me Tuesday night?”
Her eyes widened slightly, but she smiled. “I would be happy to,” she said. “Mr Collins has engaged my first two, and Mr Bingley the one following those, but all of the others are free,” she said.
“Then I shall request the fourth, and the supper set, if I may,” he said.
“You may, of course,” she said. He studied her expression; she seemed surprised by his request, but also pleased.
“Thank you, Miss Elizabeth,” he said warmly.
“You are welcome,” she said. “I am honoured to be asked, seeing as you dislike the amusement so.”
He felt his lips curl into a smile. “I am sure I shall like it very much with the right partner,” he said.
She glanced down, her cheeks colouring. He looked ahead, smiling to himself. And, for the first time in his eight and twenty years, found himself looking forward to a ball.
Lydia had never been more excited for a ball or party. It has been all she could think of these past days. She had never known what it was like to dream of dancing with one person.
He has claimed two dances, though Chamberlayne had already asked for the first two, which greatly vexed Lydia. Still, as she watched Mr Collins lead Lizzy to the dance floor, she was reminded of how much worse it could be.
She spent much of her dances with Chamberlayne searching the room for Wickham. She did not see him, and began to worry. He had promised her so faithfully he would be at the ball, even though Mr Darcy would be there. He had told her nothing would stop him from claiming his dances.
The music stopped, and she bowed distractedly to Chamberlayne before making her way across the room. Where could he be? She ran out onto the balcony, in case he had stepped out for some air, but it was empty.
Just as she was about to return to the ballroom, she heard voices from down below.
“Come, Wickham, let us go in. I am engaged to dance the fourth with that Lucas girl.” It was Denny, but the answering voice gave her considerably more pleasure.
“I don’t see why you are in such a hurry, then,” Wickham replied. Lydia grinned. He was here! She moved quietly over to the edge of the balcony, meaning to lean over and give them both such a fright.
“Why must we wait here, anyway?” Denny asked.
“Martha will be out soon enough,” Wickham said. “I want to check that all is in place for later.”
Lydia paused. What could Wickham be planning? Her curiosity outweighed her wish to surprise the men, so she crouched at the edge of the balcony, listening intently.
“Martha?” Denny repeated curiously.
“The scullery maid. She is to get me passage through the house,” Wickham said.
Lydia’s brow furrowed. What on earth was he speaking of?
“Is she worth all of this?” Denny asked.
“I would do a vast deal more than I have for thirty thousand pounds,” Wickham said. Lydia could hear the smile in his voice as he continued, “Besides, it has all been rather enjoyable so far.”
Lydia was more confused than ever. What could he possibly mean by thirty thousand pounds? She suddenly felt her stomach go all funny. She wasn’t sure she liked the sound of this, at all.
“You never - the chambermaid?” Denny cried, admiration evident in his voice.
“I did, my friend,” Wickham said, simply. “Hardly a sacrifice. You shall see when she comes out. A fine young thing.”
Denny laughed. “I do not know how you do it, Wickham. Is there a maid in Meryton you haven’t tasted? Not to mention Georgie-girl.”
Lydia felt all colour drain from her face, and she leaned heavily against the stone balcony. Georgiana? He was - he was speaking of meeting Miss Darcy - oh, Lord - thirty thousand pounds! He must mean Miss Darcy’s dowry.
She began to grow angry. How dare he use her in such a cruel manner? And Miss Darcy - all nervous and timid on the outside, but plotting too, right under her nose! She was furious.
The mention of her name drew her attention back to the conversation below her. Denny was speaking. “And Lydia Bennet. She is quite smitten with you, it seems. Have you any plans in that area, or shall you leave something for the rest of us?”
Wickham laughed, a cruel, sickening laugh, and Lydia felt her eyes sting. “Oh, I don’t know.” He sighed. “I have toyed with the idea of tasting the lovely Miss Lydia, but I do not think it would be worth the risk. Not when I am so close to the thirty thousand pounds my dear Georgie-girl will bring with her. But rest assured, I won’t have any use for her soon enough. You may do what you wish once we are gone to Gretna Green.”
Lydia’s cheeks burned with shame and anger. She could hardly believe Wickham could speak in such a way about her.
“Oh, but how would that be?” Denny sighed wistfully. “Fortune aside, I should choose Lydia Bennet over your Miss Darcy any day.”
Any hopes that such a statement may provide consolation to Lydia vanished when Wickham replied, “Oh, she is all right to look at, and I have no doubt she would provide amusement. But even if she had fortune, could you imagine marrying her? Such a stupid thing. Have you seen her mother? That is what she shall be in a few short years, Denny, you mark my words. Georgie is a shy one, yes, but she will not cause me trouble. I shall have some fun with her, of course - for her brother’s sake if nothing else. But she is not hard on the eyes, so it will not be a hardship.”
Lydia could not listen to any more of this. It was all too horrid. Wickham, who she was sure she loved, was using her so cruelly. He had said such horrid things about her. And about Miss Darcy, who he wanted to marry, but only for her money. Wickham was nothing but a fortune hunter. She had been angry at Miss Darcy at first, but now she was not. Wickham was using them both very ill. And Miss Darcy did not know.
She must warn her. Lydia returned to the ballroom, hurrying through the crowds of people and paying none of them any attention. She made her way to the hall, which was mostly empty. At the top of the stairs, to her great relief, Miss Darcy stood with a young girl. Lydia made straight for the stairs, taking them two at a time.
“Miss Lydia!” Georgiana cried, astonished. “How wonderful to see you. But - why are you not at the ball?”
“I need to speak to you,” she said.
“Very well,” Georgiana replied. “Julia, dear, I shall be back in a moment.”
Julia, who Lydia realised must be Mr Darcy’s daughter, nodded. She was absorbed in watching the guests in the hall. Lydia followed Miss Darcy to a room.
“Whatever is the matter, Miss Lydia?” Miss Darcy asked once they were safely in her room.
Lydia swallowed. “It is about Mr Wickham.” Miss Darcy blushed, and Lydia wondered exactly how far Wickham’s courtship had succeeded. “He has been using us both very ill. He has been asking me to arrange meetings with you, and told me he thought of you as a sister. But it is not true, Miss Darcy, he plans to marry you.”
Miss Darcy’s eyes shone at these words. “Oh! Truly?”
“Yes,” Lydia said dismissively. “But only so he can have your fortune of thirty thousand pounds!”
Miss Darcy frowned. “Miss Bennet!” she cried.
Lydia raised her chin and continued, defiant. “I heard him admit it to Denny. He plans to marry you for your fortune, and also to spite your brother.”
“What a horrible accusation to make!” Miss Darcy gasped. “I did not think you capable of such slander, though I can guess your motivation. Did you think he was paying you attentions?”
“He was!” Lydia said, rather loudly. “He told me he thought of you as a sister, and how he was indebted to me, and-” She broke off, tears beginning to sting her eyes.
“Perhaps he once did,” Miss Darcy said, her voice gentler now, “but we are not brother and sister, and he came to see me here at Netherfield-”
Lydia wiped her eye with her gloved hand, looking up at Miss Darcy. She needed to convince Miss Darcy she was speaking the truth. “And he is planning on meeting you inside the house later tonight. I heard him boast to Denny about it.”
Miss Darcy’s confidence began to falter. “He - he is probably looking forward to it, as I am.”
“Yes, of course he is,” Lydia said. “Martha, the scullery maid, is ever so fond of him too, you know. And Denny said there is scarcely a maid in Meryton that he has not - that is not,” she amended, cheeks flushing. She could not bring herself to repeat the words Denny had used.
Miss Darcy’s eyes were wide. “No, surely-”
Lydia nodded confidently. “Wickham did not deny it. And if he cared so much about you and wanted to marry you for the right sort of reasons, why would he boast to Denny about your dowry, and about spiting your brother?”
Miss Darcy had no reply. She paled, and her hands were shaking. “Oh dear,” she said. “Oh, what have I done?”
Lydia hurried over to her, distressed to see Georgiana so upset, but glad that she seemed to believe her story. “Nothing!” she said. “Nothing has happened.”
Miss Darcy shook her head, tears slipping down her cheeks. “But I listened to him, and I met him alone, and if anyone finds out, I shall be ruined!”
Lydia took one of her hands. “No one shall,” she said, leading her to the bed.
“But - if he is as horrid as you say - he may tell. Oh, what if he tells Fitzwilliam?” she said, looking to Lydia with a panicked expression.
Lydia took a deep breath. “That is what I came to speak to you about,” she said. “You must tell your brother.”
Miss Darcy’s eyes widened in fear. “No! I cannot!”
“We shall need help,” Lydia said. “If we are to have our revenge. Your brother is the only one who can make sure he does not tell anyone else of what has happened.”
“But - I cannot bear to disappoint him,” Georgiana said, desperately.
“Miss Darcy, you were taken in by him,” she said, gently. “We both were. And it is my foolishness that put you into this position to begin with. I dragged you to meet him. We shall explain everything, and your brother shan’t be cross - well, not for very long, in any case. He must know already what kind of man Wickham is.”
Miss Darcy nodded sadly. “Which is why he forbids Wickham from seeing me.”
They were silent for a number of moments before Lydia decided their plan must be put into action before it was too late. “You must send word down to your brother with a servant. Say your niece is ill or something. And I shall have the servant say I have a headache. We must act quickly.”
Darcy hurried up the stairs and down the passage to Georgiana’s room. His haste was, of course, motivated by fatherly concern, and not a desire to return to the ball (and Miss Elizabeth) as soon as he could. Their first dance had been an astounding success, and he was eagerly anticipating the supper set.
He knocked on the door, and entered at Georgiana’s reply. What he saw was most unexpected - his sister and Miss Lydia Bennet were seated on the bed. And Georgiana had been crying. There was no sign of Julia.
“Georgiana, what is the matter?” he asked, hurrying across the room.
She responded by bursting into tears again. “Oh, brother, I have been so foolish!” she sobbed.
Lydia stroked her arm. “There, there,” she said. “You have not been nearly as foolish as I.”
Darcy glanced at her. “What has happened?” he asked.
“W-Wickham,” Georgiana sobbed.
Darcy sprang to his feet, fury flowing through him. Despite everything Wickham had done, Darcy had not expected him to harm Georgiana. He could not believe how naive he had been - Wickham could gain revenge on him and thirty thousand pounds in one fell swoop.
He was almost afraid to ask exactly what had happened. He did, however, have a suspicion as to how his sister had come to meet the scoundrel.
“Miss Lydia, I presume you had something to do with this scheme?” he asked.
Her eyes flashed, but she did not move from Georgiana’s side. “Unknowingly, I will have you know,” she told him, defensively. “He used me very ill, also. He told me you had been horrid to him, and he wanted to see Miss Darcy, who was like a sister to him.” She paused. “You were not horrid to him at all, were you?”
“No,” he said, firmly, “I was not. But now is not the time to focus on whatever tale he spun - though,” he added, glancing at Georgiana, “I am disappointed my sister could believe such things of me.”
“Oh, but he did not say why you had quarrelled,” Georgiana said. “I would not have believed anything he said against you.”
“What exactly did he say to you?” Darcy asked.
They began their story, and Darcy found his anger at Lydia fading as she spoke. She had been just as deceived as Georgiana.
“I thought he loved me,” she said, her voice faltering. “But - the things he said. I am truly the silliest girl in the country, as Papa says.”
Something in Darcy softened towards the girl who, though she had almost been the cause of his sister’s ruin, was also her saviour.
“Miss Bennet, Wickham has fooled a great many men with his charming ways,” he said, gently. “Do not be overly harsh. You have made mistakes, both of you,” he added, sternly, glancing at Georgiana, “but mind you learn from them, and all will be well.”
The girls nodded sadly. “I will take care of Mr Wickham, and ensure neither of your reputations suffer,” he said.
“Oh! But we have a plan for that!” Lydia announced, brightening slightly.
“Is it time?” Lydia asked.
Georgiana checked the watch her brother had given her. “Very nearly,” she said. “Oh, I hope this works.”
“It will,” Lydia promised. “Your brother can be quite terrifying, you know. When he thought he may miss his dance with my sister, I was sure he would not agree to the plan.”
Georgiana laughed slightly. “Indeed. Oh, do you think-”
“I am sure of it,” Lydia said. “She is madly in love with him.”
“I should like it very much if she married Fitzwilliam,” Georgiana said. “And I could not wish for a better sister than Miss Elizabeth.”
Lydia smiled. “If they do marry, you shall have five sisters,” she said.
“Oh! I had not thought of that,” Georgiana said, smiling widely. “How wonderful.”
A noise from down the hall alerted them, and they peered through the small opening of the door, watching as the scullery maid, Martha, led George out of the servants staircase and into the empty room they had appointed.
As soon as Martha had retreated to the staircase, Georgiana and Lydia glanced at each other. Georgiana took a deep breath. “Shall we?”
Lydia nodded and, linking her arm with the other girl, they walked into the hallway and down to the room. Georgiana carried the candle in her other hand. She opened the door, and they both stepped in.
“Georgie-” Wickham started, but paused when he saw Lydia. “And - Miss Bennet! I heard you were feeling unwell, I was sorry to miss our dance.”
“Oh, were you?” Lydia asked. “I should have thought Martha would have kept you entertained without me.”
Wickham swallowed. “Yes, she is a dear girl, and I am thankful for her assistance in allowing me to meet Georgiana - you see, Miss Bennet, we cannot rely on your assistance forever-”
“I heard you,” Lydia announced. “I heard every word you said to Denny. You are a rake and a fortune hunter, and I told Georgiana every word of it. So you shan’t get to carry out your plans.”
Wickham’s lip twisted, and his handsome face became quite ugly as he snarled at her. “How dare you tell such lies? Georgiana-”
“I believe her,” Georgiana said. “Every word.”
Wickham laughed shortly. “And what do you plan on doing about it, may I ask? You both come in here to confront me, but you have spelled your own downfall. One word about the amount of times you met with me without a chaperone, Miss Darcy, and you will be forever ruined. No one will want to marry you, fortune or no.”
“They are not without chaperone,” a voice came from a darkened corner, and even in the faint light of the candle, Lydia could see Wickham pale.
“What, no greeting for an old friend?” Darcy asked, making his way over to the group. Lydia grinned smugly at the look of fear in Wickham’s eyes. Ha!
“Darcy,” Wickham said, but the bluster was gone from his voice.
“Wickham,” Darcy replied, tersely. “I have no desire to prolong this, so let me cut to the point. You will leave Meryton tomorrow. You will not mention a word of anything that happened here to a soul. If I hear so much as a whisper about the reputation of either of these girls, I will make sure you pay.”
“And how will you do that?” Wickham challenged, though he did not seem too confident.
“I have sent an express to Derbyshire, asking for the delivery of proof of the debts I settled for you in Lambton and Cambridge,” Darcy said. “Tomorrow, I shall buy all the debts I can find in Meryton. If you are still in the area when the papers arrive from Pemberley, or if I hear the merest hint of a rumour about my sister or Miss Bennet, I can and will bring the debts before the law.”
“You would not. If you did, I would tell everyone-”
“Perhaps, but if you did that, I would have no reason to keep you out of prison, would I?” Darcy replied, lightly.
Wickham scowled. “I am only demanding what I am due! Your father-”
“Was as taken in by you as his daughter was. I have done everything I ought to respect his wishes. You will not guilt me on that score. He treated you like a son, and this is how you repay him?” Darcy paused here, his jaw tight. “I have nothing further to say to you. Girls, return to your room. I will see that Mr Wickham leaves the premises.”
Lydia nodded, though now it was all over, she was suddenly feeling upset. Her reputation was already sullied, judging by the way Wickham and Denny talked of her. She had thought such concerns were silly, but what if she had been wrong? How would she begin to salvage any sort of respectability?
“Miss Bennet,” Mr Darcy’s voice cut in, “all will be well.”
He spoke so gently that Lydia could not help but smile. Miss Darcy took Lydia’s arm and led her back to her own room, where they both climbed onto Georgiana’s bed and gave into their tears.
Elizabeth scanned the room for Mr Darcy, but she could not see him anywhere. She had not seen him for some time, but they were due to dance the next.
The music started, and just as she was beginning to think he was not going to claim it, she felt a light touch at her elbow, and turned to see him standing behind her.
“My apologies, Miss Elizabeth,” he said, leading her to the dance floor. “I was needed to attend to Julia.”
Elizabeth smiled. “Not to worry, you are here now,” she said, as they took their places.
“Miss Lydia is also upstairs, she has taken ill with a headache and is resting in Georgiana’s room,” he said. His tone was casual, but she sensed something in his air that made her curious.
“She is?” she asked. “I had wondered where she was.”
“It is nothing to be concerned about, I am sure, but I would wager she would appreciate her sister’s company when this dance is over,” he said.
Elizabeth nodded. “Of course.”
He smiled, and she thought again that he looked distracted. Something very strange was happening, but she knew she would not know exactly what it was until after the dance.
So she put it out of her mind, and endeavoured to assist him to do the same in the way she knew best - by teasing him, of course.
“It is a remarkable room, the perfect size for gatherings such as this,” she said, echoing their conversation during their first dance.
She was rewarded by a slight smile. “Yes, I believe there must be thirty couples dancing at least.”
“Thirty!” she exclaimed, with an air of false disbelief. “Surely there are at least forty!”
“Forty you say?” he asked her, smile playing at the edge of his lips. “I believe, Miss Elizabeth, you are once again professing an opinion that is not your own.”
“Why would I do such a thing?” she asked him, smiling brightly.
“Because you greatly enjoy vexing me,” he replied.
She laughed. “Yes, Mr Darcy. I have no compassion for your nerves. I must apologise.”
He smiled, a bright, full smile, and she congratulated herself on a job well done.
The dance ended all too soon for her liking, for though she had a great curiosity as to what had occupied him for the time he was away (and how it involved Lydia), she had quite enjoyed the moments spent together. He led her over to her mother, who beamed. Before she could begin to speak, however, Darcy bowed to her.
“Mrs Bennet, I was upstairs just now, and my sister informed my that Miss Lydia is in her room, with a headache.”
“Oh yes, my poor girl! And she was to dance with all of the officers!” Mrs Bennet lamented.
Elizabeth blushed. “Mama,” she said.
Mr Darcy did not bat an eyelid at her mother’s vulgarity. “I thought I should escort Miss Elizabeth to see her sister, where she can take supper, if she wishes.”
“Elizabeth? Oh, no, there is no call for that. Lydia will be perfectly well, and you would be much better served dining down here,” her mother informed her.
Again, though, Mr Darcy responded firmly. “I believe Miss Lydia would greatly like to see her sister, and my own sister wishes a word with Miss Elizabeth also. I shall escort Miss Elizabeth to them now.”
“Very well,” Mrs Bennet said, glaring at Elizabeth as they walked away.
“Am I to know what really happened tonight?” she wondered as they reached the staircase. “I do not think anything as trivial as a headache could keep my sister Lydia from a ballroom full of officers.”
Mr Darcy looked at her, his expression grave. “Wickham,” he said simply.
“Oh, no, what has she done?” Elizabeth asked, dread filling her at the horrible possibilities.
“Nothing,” he said, quickly, “nothing irreparable, at the very least.” As they made their way to Georgiana’s room, he gave her a quick summary of the night’s events.
“Oh, Lydia. Stupid, stupid Lydia,” Elizabeth sighed.
“She was foolish, yes, but she is not the first girl of fifteen to act so. And I doubt she will be the last. And in truth, I have her to thank for my sister’s safety.”
“You have her to thank for putting Georgiana in danger in the first place,” Elizabeth reminded him.
“All is well,” Darcy said, and then thought better of it. “All will be well,” he amended. “But she seemed upset as she was leaving, so I thought she could use some sisterly companionship.”
“How thoughtful of you,” Elizabeth said.
“Well, I am hoping you will be able to comfort Georgiana also,” he confessed. “I am not of much use in situations such as this.”
Elizabeth smiled. “I shall do my best,” she said. They had arrived at Georgiana’s room. He paused for a moment, as if to say something, and then thought better of it.
“I will leave you now. Thank you, Miss Bennet,” he said, earnestly.
“Thank you, Mr Darcy, for coming to my sister’s aid,” she replied.
“It was nothing,” he insisted. He took her hand, pressing it warmly for a moment before he took his leave.
Elizabeth was left to try to compose herself before she knocked on Georgiana’s door.
Elizabeth stayed for a short time with Georgiana and Lydia, but Georgiana was exhausted, and Elizabeth advised her to attempt to sleep.
She embraced her warmly. “You must come visit tomorrow,” she said soothingly. “And do not be overly harsh on yourself. You made a mistake, but all will be well.”
The rest of the ball was rather a blur to Elizabeth. Lydia rallied slightly, but she did not dance. Elizabeth could see her relief as they reached Longbourn, and she retired quickly.
Elizabeth herself slept little that night. She was awake, staring out the window as the sun rose, when there was a soft knock on the door.
“Lizzy?” Lydia’s whisper came.
“Come in,” Elizabeth replied softly.
Her sister stepped inside, her eyes red from tears and her cheeks stained.
“Oh, Lydia,” she said, crossing the room to wrap her youngest sister in an embrace. “All is well, darling.”
“It is not,” Lydia insisted. “It shall never be well again. Oh, Lizzy, I am truly such a silly, stupid girl.”
“Lydia,” Elizabeth interrupted. “Do not speak such. Come, you are cold. Into bed with you.”
They curled under the covers, Lydia looking truly miserable. “What is it, Lydia?” Elizabeth asked.
Lydia paused before she replied. “I know all shall be well with Wickham, and that Mr Darcy will take care of everything. But - the things he said of me. And Denny too. All of the officers, they see me as a silly, as a - Oh, I cannot even say it.”
Elizabeth pulled her close so Lydia's head rested against her chest, and stroked her hair. “Oh, Lydia, I am sure it was just Wickham and Denny speaking in a most ungentlemanlike manner.”
Lydia shook her head. “No. I do not - they said they would not marry me. Wickham said he would not, even if I had thirty thousand pounds. Am I truly so horrid?”
Elizabeth bit her lip. “Lydia, you are not,” she said.
“I am,” Lydia repeated. “I am silly and vain and not at all like you or Jane or Mary. I have no accomplishments - I cannot even play poorly, like Mary, and have not read all the books you have, and I am not nearly as lovely as Jane. And as to Miss Darcy - she can do all of that, and more. I always thought - that none of that mattered because I was fun and the officers and men liked to laugh with me. But that is all they wish to do, is it not? None of them truly want to marry me.”
Elizabeth knew not what to say to this. Horribly, part of her felt that this was a wonderful development. She had not thought her youngest sister would ever display even the slightest interest in anything that was not bonnets and officers. What a pity it had come with such a cost.
“Lydia, you are but fifteen,” Elizabeth said gently. “You will not like me saying so, but you are young yet. You have time to learn. I could point you in the direction of some books. And if you truly wish to play, I could begin to teach you.”
Lydia sniffed. “Perhaps,” she said. “But everyone already sees me as a silly, stupid girl.”
“Then you must make them change how they see you,” Elizabeth said. “It can be done, if you persevere. If you truly change.”
“I shall have to,” she said, solemnly.
“But you must not change completely,” Elizabeth said. “You must look at your behaviour, and see where you can make corrections. But do not forget who you are.”
Lydia nodded slowly. “I do not wish to be like Jane,” she said. “She is lovely, and everyone likes her, but I do not think I could act as she does.”
Elizabeth smiled. “No one could. She is too good, and everyone’s behaviour must fall short compared to hers.”
“I should like to be like you,” Lydia mused.
Elizabeth arched a brow. “Truly? I do not know if I am the beacon of good behaviour.”
“But you are better than I. And you still smile and laugh and have fun. You have made Mr Darcy love you, so there must be something to it.”
Elizabeth’s cheeks flushed. “Lydia, I have not-”
Lydia gave her a mildly irritated look. “Oh, Lizzy, really. I saw the way he rushed back to make your dance last night. He loves you, I am sure of it. Miss Darcy agrees.”
Elizabeth swallowed, not knowing how to respond to such a statement. “You should spend more time with Miss Darcy,” she said, eventually. “She is shy, very shy, but I think she could use a friend like you.”
“You really think I would be a good influence on her?” Lydia asked, incredulously. “After all I have put her through?”
“Well, you have confidence, which is not in itself a bad thing,” Elizabeth said. She pressed a kiss to her sister’s head. “All will be well, my dear. All will be well.”
The morning after the Netherfield ball, Darcy and Bingley rode out early to Meryton to take care of Wickham’s debts. Bingley was along for company, Darcy having trusted him with the entire tale. Bingley had been eager to help, but Darcy refused his offer. They parted once everything was settled, Bingley riding on to London, where he was to stay a number of days to see to some business, and Darcy returning to Netherfield.
He retreated to the library immediately and attempted to attend to some correspondence. He had not been in the room more than half an hour when he was interrupted by Miss Bingley.
“Mr Darcy, how fortunate I have found you alone,” she said, striding into the room.
Darcy inwardly disagreed with that sentiment, but did not betray those thoughts. It was difficult enough to focus given the events of the previous evening without the added distraction of Miss Bingley’s presence.
“I am concerned about Charles,” Miss Bingley said, crossing the room to take a seat near his desk.
“Indeed?” Darcy replied, curiously. “For what reason?”
“Miss Bennet!” Miss Bingley cried. “Surely you heard the talk last night. If he is not careful, he will be forced to marry her.”
“I do not think your brother sees that as quite the fate you do,” Darcy observed.
Miss Bingley spluttered. “Mr Darcy, surely you cannot be serious. You must see the disadvantages of such a match. I was counting on your help to make Charles see sense.”
Darcy remained calm, but inside, he was greatly offended. “I shall do no such thing. Your brother is perfectly capable of choosing his own bride.”
“But - Jane Bennet!” Miss Bingley cried in horror.
By some miracle, he was able to retain his composure as he stated firmly, “Is a gentleman’s daughter.”
“Yes, but without fortune or connections!” Miss Bingley replied, dismissively.
“True, it would be ideal if Bingley’s wife were well-connected,” he conceded. He did not mention that if all went to plan, Jane’s connections would soon include his family. “But as I have said, Miss Bennet is a gentleman’s daughter. And I believe their temperaments are well suited. He is clearly very fond of her.”
Miss Bingley shook her head dismissively. “Oh, this is Charles we are speaking of! He falls in love every week!”
“I think this is different,” Darcy mused. “I do believe your brother is very fond of her. And she would suit him very well.”
“This is preposterous,” Miss Bingley insisted. “You must come with us; we plan to close up the house and join Charles in London this very day. If we can keep him from Hertfordshire, he will surely forget about her-”
“Do what you will,” Darcy interrupted coldly, “but I will have no part in it. And I certainly do not intend leaving Hertfordshire before the appointed time.”
Miss Bingley stared at him for some moments. He was aware that he had aroused her suspicions. “Your opinion of the Bennet family has certainly improved,” she remarked, her tone decidedly frosty.
“Yes,” he said evenly, “it has. On closer acquaintance, they have proven valuable companions for both myself and Georgiana.”
Miss Bingley’s lips pressed together into a thin line, and she got to her feet. “Well, this as been a most interesting conversation, Mr Darcy.”
“Indeed,” he replied. He turned back towards the desk. “If you will excuse me, I have business to attend to.”
“Of course. Good day,” she said curtly, and exited the room.
Darcy breathed a sigh of relief. He turned to his letters, deciding that as soon as he had attended to them all, he would propose a visit to Longbourn. Georgiana would surely agree with such a scheme, and he wished to give her the opportunity to speak some more with Elizabeth.
Elizabeth hurried out of the house, tying her bonnet as she walked. It had certainly been an eventful morning. Mr Collins had proposed. She supposed she should have seen it coming from the rather marked attentions he had been paying her, but she had been so occupied with thoughts of Mr Darcy and the events of the previous evening that it had all taken her by surprise. She had never given him the slightest encouragement, she was sure of it. And yet he had proposed, and would not acknowledge her refusal.
She was thankful for her father’s interference. Lydia’s behaviour the past few weeks had brought to her attention how lacking parental authority had been in their house, but she was comforted that she would not be forced to marry Mr Collins against her wishes.
She had barely made it to the lawn when she saw a carriage approach. It was recognisable instantly as Mr Darcy’s, and it held the man himself and his sister. Georgiana looked tired, but well - much the same as Lydia.
“Miss Bennet,” Darcy greeted, tipping his hat at her.
“Mr Darcy, Miss Darcy,” she greeted. She smiled, though it was somewhat forced. She did not relish the idea of returning to the house, or of exposing the guests to the disruption that existed within.
“Are you well, Elizabeth?” Miss Darcy asked, concerned.
“I am well,” she said. “It is somewhat hectic this morning at Longbourn,” she added carefully.
Mr Darcy looked concerned. “Is everyone well?”
“Yes,” she said, assuring him with a look that it was nothing to do with Lydia.
“Lizzy!” her mother called from inside the house. She felt her cheeks flush, and looked away from the carriage. Lydia hurried out.
“Lizzy, you had better run, for she is-” She paused, paling when she saw the carriage. “Mr Darcy! Miss Darcy!” she cried.
Mr Darcy nodded to her. “Miss Lydia,” he greeted. “We had come this way to invite you and your sister to Netherfield,” he said. “Mrs Hurst and Miss Bingley insisted.”
Elizabeth arched a brow. She knew him to be lying, she was surely the last person Miss Bingley would wish to see, and the sisters would certainly never invite Lydia. But the impropriety of Mr Darcy’s invitation aside, an escape from Longbourn was immensely tempting.
“Oh, how wonderful!” Lydia said. “I shall just go inform Papa. You get into the carriage Lizzy, I shall be but a moment.”
Elizabeth climbed into the carriage, sending Mr Darcy a grateful smile. He returned it, but his eyes were concerned.
Before Elizabeth could reply, Lydia had hurried out of the house and joined them in the carriage, which moved away. Elizabeth felt herself letting out a sigh of relief.
Once at Netherfield, they greeted Mrs Hurst and Miss Bingley, who looked about as pleased with Elizabeth and Lydia’s presence as could be expected. Before long, however, Mr Darcy suggested a walk. All but the Bingley sisters agreed, and so they set out.
Once in the gardens, the group divided somewhat naturally. Lydia and Georgiana set off in one direction. Darcy watched them go, concern flitting over his features.
“Let them be,” Elizabeth said. “I spent many hours early this morning speaking to Lydia. She knows exactly how wrong her behaviour was. I would think they shall need to lean on each other during this time.”
Darcy nodded. “Yes, of course. Bingley and I visited town today, to take care of some… matters.” He seemed to collect himself, and smiled at her. “Enough talk of Wickham. I have had quite enough of the man. I do not wish to press you for details of the reason behind our swift escape from Longbourn, but I admit I am curious.”
Elizabeth smiled, shaking her head slightly. “It is truly ridiculous,” she said, “and I imagine some day I shall laugh heartily at it. I am not sure I can quite yet.” Noticing Mr Darcy’s concerned look, she quickly set about assuring him she was well. “Today, after breakfast, Mr Collins proposed,” she announced.
Mr Darcy paled. “He what?” he asked, his voice rising in volume.
“Indeed, it was - it was almost farcical,” she said. She paused. “Perhaps I am closer to being ready to laugh at it than I thought. I refused, of course,” she added. “Several times.” He looked so relieved she could not help but laugh. “Surely you could not think I would answer in any other way?”
He paused. “No, of course - but his situation is-”
“Indeed, he spoke at great lengths on that subject. And as tempting as it was to be in a position to enjoy he condescension of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, I never entertained for a moment the idea of marrying him.”
“Your mother was not pleased,” he remarked. It was not a question.
“She was not,” Elizabeth confirmed. “She appealed to my father, but he refused to capitulate. He would never force any of us to marry.”
“I am thankful,” he said quietly. Elizabeth could not think of a response to such a statement - at least not one that would not betray more than she was willing to reveal.
“Oh, but he shall be excessively diverted by the full tale of the proposal, which I shall share with him when I am better able to laugh at it all,” she said, smiling.
“You do not feel able to recount it now?” he asked.
She paused. “Very well, I shall do my best,” she said, and launched into a recital of Mr Collins’ words. Before long, Darcy was laughing, and so was she. They had wandered some way away from the others.
“My, my,” Darcy said, regaining his composure. “What an odious, ridiculous little man. And the arrogance!” He paused. “Though, I do not know if I am one to talk. My only attempt at proposing was not much better, I am ashamed to admit.”
Elizabeth was stunned by this mention of his wife. He had never spoken of her before. She felt almost nervous, somehow. But she kept her tone deliberately light. “Surely not,” she teased, “you could never be as ridiculous as Mr Collins.”
“No, I did not mean it ridiculous - but arrogant it almost certainly was,” he admitted. “You, who know my character, can surely believe that.”
“Perhaps,” she said, “but as she accepted, it cannot have been so very terrible.”
Darcy tilted his head, as if considering this. “Perhaps not, but I believe that had more to do with her character than my proposal.”
“Ah, it is all clear now,” Elizabeth said, with a teasing smile. “The reason you have not remarried is not because of Miss Julia, or any other reason - it is because you are afraid to attempt another proposal.”
He ducked his head, lips twitching as if threatening to smile. “A fine theory,” he said. “But the reason is no mystery. I have not remarried as I have not needed to. I had become so accustomed to thinking of marriage in practical terms. I never thought my position would allow me any chance at happiness in marriage. Indeed, I thought it quite unattainable.”
Elizabeth shook her head sadly. “What a melancholy point of view.”
He stopped walking, and stared right at her. “It was. But I am happy to say I no longer hold such an opinion.”
Elizabeth’s heart beat faster, she felt almost lightheaded. Was this truly happening?
“Elizabeth,” Darcy said, reaching out to take her hand. “I- I had not prepared for this - I had not intended to speak thus today-”
She managed a smile. “Does it comfort you to know you are at least off to a better beginning than the first man to make me an offer this morning?”
He gave her a look that was half-amusement, half-exasperation. “Dearest Elizabeth, you cannot tease me now.”
“I cannot?” she replied, disappointed. “Well, perhaps I shall need to teach you better how to be teased.”
His lips twitched again, his thumb stroking the back of her hand almost absently. “You would need to spend a great deal of time with me to accomplish such a feat, would you not?” he asked, his tone serious, but his eyes betraying his mirth.
“Oh, yes. Certainly,” she replied, her eyes sparkling.
He nodded thoughtfully. “In that case, I should ask you to be my wife, so that you may educate me fully in this area.”
“You should,” she agreed. There was a pause, and she arched a brow. “Well, Sir, are you going to ask, or shall I be forced to remain in perpetual suspense?”
He gave a sigh, but he was grinning widely. “Miss Elizabeth, you must allow me to express how ardently I admire and love you. I beg you, relieve my sufferings and consent to be my wife.”
“That was very well done, Mr Darcy,” she congratulated, smiling widely. “I will gladly relieve your sufferings. I can think of nothing that would make me happier than being your wife.”
He beamed, raising her hands to his lips and kissing them eagerly.
Bingley arrived home on the third day following the Netherfield ball. Darcy was very glad to see him. Even the elation he had been enjoying since his engagement had not been enough to make three days in the same house as Bingley’s sisters bearable. Adding to his discomfort was the decision they had made to keep their engagement secret for a short time. Between Mrs Bennet, her sister Philips and Lady Lucas, the tale of Mr Collins’ proposal had spread through Meryton quickly. They had agreed it would be best to wait a short time for the gossip to die down before they made their engagement known.
Not that they had been able to conceal it from their younger sisters. Georgiana and Miss Lydia had known the moment the two groups had met again in the garden. Both had been ecstatic, naturally. Their experience seemed to have bonded them together quite securely. Darcy would have been concerned days earlier, but Miss Lydia Bennet was already changed. She was a great deal more subdued than before. Elizabeth clearly had great hopes for some improvement in her sister’s character, though she wished it had not come at such a price.
Mr Bennet had been informed of the events of the ball, of course. He had been highly amused at Lydia’s role in formulating the plan for revenge. He had expressed some regret that he had not been more involved in the upbringing of his youngest daughters. Elizabeth assured him all was now well, and reminded him it was not yet too late to show some interest in her sisters. Darcy hoped that he, too, would learn from the incident.
Also informed had been Colonel Forster, the morning following the ball. Wickham had removed without delay once it became clear to him Darcy was following through on his threat to buy up his debts. Colonel Forster was relieved, once Wickham’s true character was exposed, to be rid of the man with such little effort on his own behalf. It emerged that Wickham had not only made himself popular amongst the maids of the area, but also several of the merchant’s daughters. Colonel Forster vowed to keep a close eye on Lieutenant Denny, given his close association with Wickham. He also made a point of accompanying his men while they made social calls, or had a trusted officer go in his place. All in all, the outcome was most fortunate.
He smiled. More than fortunate, in his case.
“I say, Darcy, I have not seen you this cheerful in an age,” Bingley announced.
“I have not felt this cheerful in some time,” Darcy replied, with a smile.
“What has got into you, old chap?” Bingley demanded.
He knew he could trust his friend with the information. Elizabeth had told him she planned on telling Jane, so it seemed only fair that Bingley know. “Miss Elizabeth Bennet and I are engaged,” he announced, his smile growing even wider.
Bingley gaped. “What? SInce when? It is a wonder my sister did not mention it.”
“She does not know,” Darcy replied. “Only Georgiana, Miss Bennet and Miss Lydia Bennet know. There have been… other matters to see to. We shall make it more widely known soon though, I should think.”
Bingley nodded, then sighed. Darcy raised an eyebrow. “You are not happy for us?”
“What - no, of course I am!” Bingley said. “You know I am, you two are perfectly matched. It is just - that you seemed to be taking it all so slowly, I had rather expected-”
Darcy smirked. “That you would be engaged before I was?” he prompted. Bingley looked uncomfortable, and Darcy chuckled. “Well, then, get to it,” he said, grinning at his friend.
Bingley looked stunned for a second, and then grinned, jumping out of his seat and dashing towards the door. “Yes. I shall. We shall leave for Longbourn at once. Have the horses brought around!”
Darcy and Bingley arrived at Longbourn within an hour. Once there, Mrs Bennet fussed and talked - but mostly to Bingley, leaving Darcy free to observe Elizabeth.
“Have your heard the news, Mr Darcy?” Lydia asked. “Mr Collins is engaged.”
He glanced at Elizabeth, eyebrows raised. She nodded.
“And who is the lucky lady?” he asked. Lydia’s eyes danced, but she did not laugh.
“Charlotte Lucas,” Lydia replied.
Darcy was not expecting such an announcement, but he cared little for the unexpected nature of the match. Far more interesting to him was the possibility that they could now reveal their engagement. He met Elizabeth’s eyes, and knew she was thinking along similar lines.
“Surely, Mr Bingley, after some days in the city, you would enjoy a walk in the country air,” Mrs Bennet was saying.
“Yes,” Mr Bingley said, with a nervous glance at Miss Bennet. “I believe I would, very much.”
It was no hardship to any of them, and before long they were in the garden. Elizabeth and Darcy soon walked a ways ahead of Bingley and Miss Bennet. Kitty and Lydia took a seat on a bench near the house, wisely anticipating their elder sisters’ wish for solitude.
“You mother is still holding a grudge over the Collins affair?” Darcy asked.
“She had begun to forgive me, but now she is sure Charlotte Lucas is plotting to throw her to the hedgerows once she becomes Mistress of Longbourn,” Elizabeth sighed. “In truth, I cannot understand how Charlotte could accept such a man. I know, in all practicality, it is a good match, but I cannot believe it will give her any happiness.”
“It is possible to be content in a marriage based on pragmatic concerns,” he said. Elizabeth glanced at him, and he knew what she was thinking. He did wish to speak to her about Anne, about everything, but now was not the time. “Do you think the time is now right to approach your father?”
She smiled. “I do,” she said. “I confess, I do not know how much longer I can be patient.”
He returned her smile. “Nor do I. I do not think I shall be the only one addressing your father today,” he added, with a glance over his shoulder.
Elizabeth’s eyes sparkled. “Oh! How wonderful! Jane shall be so happy. And we shall be sure to see each other-” She paused. “I do not mean-”
“No, it is quite alright,” he assured her. “Derbyshire is a long way from Hertfordshire, and I know how close you are to your sister. Rest assured, you shall not be separated permanently.”
She smiled. “You are the best of men,” she said, squeezing his arm affectionately.
She glanced behind, and her eyes lit up. He followed her gaze, and saw Bingley and Miss Bennet hurrying towards them.
“Well, Darcy, we are to be brothers!” Bingley announced.
Miss Bennet was trembling as her sister embraced her. “Oh, Lizzy, I am so happy! Why cannot everybody be as happy as I am?“
Darcy grasped Bingley’s hand firmly. “Congratulations,” he said.
Miss Bennet smiled at him when she stepped away from her sister. “Thank you, Mr Darcy.”
“And I must congratulate you, Miss Elizabeth,” Bingley said. “This is all so wonderful!”
Elizabeth laughed. “Indeed. I could not wish for a better brother.” She paused, her eyes sparkling as she looked between them. “But there is a matter of great importance that must be settled,” she said, her tone grave but expression playful. “Which one of you shall approach our father first?”
The day following Jane’s engagement and the reveal of her own, the weather made it possible for Elizabeth to take a walk for the first time in several days. She was especially eager for several reasons - her mother’s enthusiasm regarding her engagement was almost as tiring as her anger at Elizabeth’s refusal of Mr Collins.
She had insisted on informing her mother alone, which she quickly accomplished while Darcy and Mr Bingley spoke to her father. In truth, her mother’s initial reaction had been much more muted than she had imagined. Her mother had not even begun to contemplate a match between her second daughter and a man of at least fifteen thousand a year, and had been so stunned by the news that she could scarcely speak.
Upon hearing of her eldest daughter’s engagement, she had been even happier. She had, of course, been expecting such an announcement for some time, and so was able to rally slightly and receive it with the enthusiasm it deserved.
But she remained subdued in Mr Darcy’s presence, and spent a great deal of the day staring at him in awe, as if trying to come to terms with the fact that he was to be her son-in-law. Once the gentlemen had departed, she seemed able to relax, and her enthusiasm had overflowed.
“Charlotte Lucas’s match is nothing to yours, Jane. And certainly not to yours, Lizzy! Why did you not tell me you were expecting an offer from Mr Darcy? I would never have mentioned that Mr Collins to you if I had known! Oh! But - Mr Darcy is Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s nephew! Oh, how fine that shall be!” she cackled. “The carriages you shall have, and the pin money! Oh! My darling girls. I knew how it would be. Did I not say, at the assembly, that he was bound to fall in love with you, widower or no?”
Elizabeth had smiled at this. “Yes, Mama, but I believe you expected him to fall in love with Jane.”
“Oh, what does it matter which one of you he fell in love with?” Mrs Bennet said, with a wave of her hand.
“To myself and Jane, it matters a great deal,” Elizabeth had replied with a smile.
She smiled as she turned into the lane that led in the direction of Netherfield. The main reason she was eager to walk out today was the hope that she would meet Mr Darcy.
And she was not disappointed. He waited at the usual spot, and after kissing her hand warmly, tucked it under his arm, and they began walking together.
“Are you well this morning?” he enquired.
She nodded. “Very well, if a little tired. My mother kept Jane and me awake far past our bedtime, trying to fix on dates for the weddings.”
He smiled. “How I wish it could be done today,” he said, earnestly. “But I must return to London to arrange the settlement, and thence to Kent.”
“When do you leave?” she asked, softly.
“Next week,” he sighed, glancing down.
She had known he would be leaving soon, but it did not soften the blow.
“It is but five weeks,” he said, but his voice betrayed how little that thought comforted him. “I shall be back as soon as possible. Perhaps early in the new year.”
She smiled. “Indeed.” Wishing to change the subject from such melancholy thoughts, she glanced at him. “There is one matter Jane and I agreed upon. We would like to share a wedding day, if that would be agreeable to you and Mr Bingley.”
“I have no objections to the idea,” he said. “It is a fine plan. Otherwise, one of us would be bound to resent whichever one had the honour of marrying first.”
“Well, we must not come between such a longstanding friendship,” Elizabeth said, smiling. “Thank you.”
He raised her hands to his lips, pressing a soft kiss to her gloved knuckles. “I would love nothing more than to whisk you away to Pemberley immediately following the ceremony, but it will likely be too arduous a journey for that time of year. And with the season nearing, I would wish-“ He hesitated.
“To have my presentation out of the way before it is Georgiana’s turn,” Elizabeth finished.
“Yes,” he sighed. She smiled, for she knew the thought of two full seasons of engagements was incredibly tiresome to him. “In truth, I look forward to it,” she admitted.
He raised an eyebrow, and she almost laughed at the horrified look that briefly crossed his features.
“Do not fear,” she assured him, “you have not offered for someone who will drag you to every ball and assembly. I mean only that I shall relish such an opportunity to observe what is bound to be the best example of follies and inconsistencies that I have ever come across.”
He laughed. “Perhaps you can teach me to be amused and not annoyed by such displays.”
“It shall be my pleasure, if it is your wish,” she replied.
They walked in silence for some moments.
“I informed Julia,” he said, at length.
“Oh! And how did she react?” Elizabeth asked eagerly.
“She is delighted,” he said happily, and Elizabeth was relieved. “Mostly, it must be said, with the prospect of playing hide-and-seek with you at Pemberley.”
Elizabeth laughed warmly. “Oh, I look forward to that too!” she said. “Tell me about your home. I have heard much about it from Miss Bingley, of course. But I would like to hear more. How many windows does the house boast? Dare I hope the chimney piece in the drawing room rivals the one at Rosings?” she teased.
He laughed, shaking his head slightly. “No,” he said, firmly. “Pemberley is nothing like Rosings. It is larger, for one, but thankfully my aunt and mother had rather different tastes.”
He went on to speak of his home for some time, and to Elizabeth’s delight, lingered more on describing the surroundings - the park and gardens. It sounded breath-taking, and in that moment, Elizabeth felt she would gladly trade her beloved Hertfordshire for morning walks among the peaks with Mr Darcy. Her Aunt Gardiner would surely be thrilled.
“Oh!” she cried. “How I wish you could meet my Aunt and Uncle Gardiner - they are to visit at Christmas. You would like them very much, I believe.”
He nodded, and she studied his face for signs of reluctance at the reminder of her connections in trade. But she could see none. And then he spoke, “We shall be in London for some time after the wedding - we are sure to see them then.”
Elizabeth gave a grateful smile. “Indeed,” she said. “I shall look forward to it very much.”
“As shall I,” he replied. “I have a great curiosity to meet them, your aunt in particular. You must invite them to dine with us.”
She smiled. “And Julia, I believe, would enjoy meeting my young cousins.”
“Yes,” he said. “She has not many playmates of her own age. My cousin, Lord Pollard, is the only other among my family to marry, and his son is too young to be of much interest to Julia as yet.”
“Are you close to all your cousins?” she asked, curiously.
“There is - was - but five of us. And Georgiana is so much younger than us, we were all almost grown when she was a child. My uncle, the Earl of Matlock, has two sons. Lord Pollard is a number of years my senior, and he and his younger brother, Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam, were my playmates as a child. I have always been closer to the colonel, though I do enjoy spending time with Lord Pollard.”
Elizabeth nodded. “And Mrs Darcy?” she asked, somewhat hesitantly.
Darcy looked at her, searching her face for some moments.
“I am sorry,” she said, glancing away. “You do not have to speak of her, if you do not wish it. But if you do, then you should not feel uneasy on my behalf.”
Darcy looked straight ahead, expression unreadable. She thought she noticed a tightening of his jaw, and suspected he was experiencing some sort of inner conflict.
At length, he spoke. “She was always a sickly child. We all rather doted on her, as she was the only girl. We would do our best to amuse her, as she could not join us in many of our games.” He smiled. “We once decided to amuse her by enacting a play. I think I was but nine years old at the time.”
Elizabeth smiled. “Oh, I would have enjoyed that sight, I believe. Which play did you perform?”
“We had trouble agreeing on a text,” he said. “My cousin Lord Pollard, whom I then knew as Henry, favoured Henry V, as he felt entitled to the lead role. The colonel argued for Richard II for the same reason.”
She laughed. “And you? What was your vote?”
“I seem to recall I declared there was to be no Shakespeare, for he had never penned anything with a lead by the name of Fitzwilliam. In the end, Richard and Harry read out passages from their play of choice, and I took my pick from the rest of Shakespeare’s heroes. I made a fine Hamlet, in the end.”
“Oh! What a sight that must have been!” Elizabeth said, laughing slightly.
Darcy smiled. “The nursemaid did not agree with that analysis, possibly because Lord Pollard found a skull in the woods surrounding Matlock for my portion of the play, and we abandoned it in the nursery when we had completed our performance.”
Elizabeth laughed, clapping a hand to her mouth. “Oh, the poor girl! Did Mrs Darcy appreciate it?”
“I believe so,” he said. “My aunt always wished for us to marry, and my mother supported the idea also - though never as stridently as Lady Catherine. In truth, I had no intention of fulfilling their wish, until the year after my father died. I was - tired, and lonely. And Mrs Darcy - I had neglected her somewhat since we had been young. Her mother had always been overbearing and demanding, and when I looked at her situation, I thought Mrs Darcy would do better away from such an influence. I thought, through marriage, I could help her-“
He stopped, and swallowed, and Elizabeth stroked his arm reassuringly, unable to find the words to comfort him. He placed his hand on hers silently. She could feel his gratitude, and did not wish to push him too far on this matter.
“Let us return,” she suggested. He nodded, and they passed most of the walk back to Longbourn in a comfortable silence.
Lydia sat on the bench at Longbourn, watching Kitty walk around the garden with Denny and Chamberlayne. She had not said more than two words together to Denny since the night of the ball. She could hardly stand to be in the same room as him for any length of time. Kitty did not know what to make of the change in her sister’s behaviour, and had endeavoured to awaken some new enthusiasm for visiting the officers in her younger sister, but to no avail. The only time Lydia saw the officers now was when they called to Longbourn.
She did not know if the opinions Denny and Wickham had expressed were shared among all the officers. Surely not all of them were that vulgar? Colonel Forster certainly did not seem to be, and he called regularly with the officers now. Lydia was uncomfortable with his presence, for she was aware that he had been told every detail of what had happened, and it shamed her greatly to think how silly she had been.
Her father knew, also. She had been mortified at first. He had scolded her but once, and then had told her it would do her well to be crossed in love. She had been surprised by this, but he had just smiled sadly.
“Lizzy has informed me you know the error of your ways;” he said, “which is remarkable, considering how little guidance you have received in this area. Practical experience, it seems, is as good a teacher as anything. I am sorry, my child, for failing you.”
Lydia had gaped, sure that she would be shouted at or punished. Indeed, she would have preferred it to this wretched feeling of guilt that seemed to eat her from the inside. Everything was different, and she longed for the days when she could enjoy a morning flirting and playing with the officers as she had before.
She was trying to take Lizzy’s advice, but she did not know where to begin. Lizzy had provided her with a list of books, and even patiently sat with her, attempting to teach her the basics of the pianoforte. But Lydia felt lost. She looked down at the book in her hand - one from Lizzy’s list - and sighed. She could not concentrate out here. She got to her feet, gathering up her things, and started to walk toward the house.
“Lydia!” Kitty called, coming running across the lawn towards her. “Where are you going?”
“Indoors,” she said. “I am quite cold.”
Kitty rolled her eyes. “What is the matter with you? You are becoming as dull as Mary! I know they are not Wickham, but do come speak with Chamberlayne and Denny. They are asking for you.”
Anger flashed over Lydia’s face, and she glanced towards Denny. He met her eyes, a challenging look in them, and all of his words rushed back into her head. She felt ill.
“No, I shall not,” she said. “I am not in the mood for company today, and certainly not that of Lieutenant Denny,” she spat. She turned on her heel and walked back to the house, head in the air. She did not want him to think her shamed, or upset. But once she reached her room, she let the tears come.
It was this way that Kitty found her moments later.
“Well I hope you are satisfied,” Kitty sulked, glaring at Lydia. “Colonel Forster dragged Chamberlayne and Denny away after your little display. What is the matter with you? Are you so lovesick for Wickham that you are determined to ruin everybody else’s fun?”
Lydia gave a growl of impatience. “Oh, stop it! You have no idea-” She broke down again, burying her face in her hands as she sobbed.
“Lydia,” Kitty said, slowly. “What is the matter? This cannot be because Wickham has gone?”
Lydia managed to control her sobs, dabbing at her face with her handkerchief. “It is not. Kitty, I have been so silly. We both have,” she added, for Kitty’s behaviour had exactly mirrored her own. Her sister bristled at this, but Lydia shook her head. “Denny is not a gentleman. I do not know about Chamberlayne, or the other officers, but I do not ever want to speak to Denny again as long as I live.”
“Why on earth would you say something like that?” Kitty demanded.
“I heard him say such horrid things, Kitty,” Lydia said, her eyes filling with tears again. “You would not believe-”
She took a deep breath, and told her everything - from the plan she had hatched with Wickham to meet Georgiana, to how she had fallen so deeply for him, to every word she had overheard Denny and Wickham say. Kitty looked as shocked as she must have when she had finished.
“And that is why he left,” Lydia said. “It has mostly been kept quiet, but there have been rumours about the servants’ and merchants’ daughters. They are all true, if Denny is to believed.”
“How horrid,” Kitty said, her voice hushed and barely above a whisper. “Lydia, you do not think - would they think the same way about me?”
Lydia swallowed. “Perhaps. I do not know. We have been so very silly, Kitty.”
Kitty’s eyes filled with tears. “Truly, do you think no one will wish to marry us?”
Lydia shook her head. “I do not know. Lizzy says it is not too late to change, and I have been trying to read and learn to play.”
“But if we do not marry, we shall starve in the hedgerows,” Kitty said, panicked.
Lydia smiled. “Well, I doubt Mr Darcy would let us.”
“No, I doubt he would,” Kitty agreed. “He does not seem all bad, now that he has fallen in love with Lizzy.”
“He truly is a wonderful man, Kitty,” Lydia said, happily. “He seems so dull and horrid at first, but he is a wonderful brother. And soon he shall be ours!”
Kitty smiled. “And he is so very rich! Lizzy shall have so many gowns and jewels. And a new carriage.”
“And she loves him very much, and he her,” Lydia added. “Better still, they respect each other. For all that gowns and jewels and carriages are wonderful, I believe it is that that will ensure their happiness.”
“You mean you do not wish for such things?” Kitty asked, confused.
“No,” Lydia said carefully. “I do. I want to marry someone who is both rich, and who respects me.”
Kitty nodded, her face serious as she pondered this statement.
Elizabeth was thankful that the weather over the last week Darcy was to spend in Hertfordshire made it possible for them to meet several mornings for a short walk. These walks were truly the highlight of her day, not merely for the time spent with Darcy, but for the hint it gave of what her life was soon to become. Each moment spent with him made her long for their wedding day even more. They were increasingly at ease with each other, and she foresaw many happy days spent in his company.
They talked easily, and on every topic imaginable: Books, music, childhood memories. Sometimes he spoke of Anne Darcy. She listened eagerly, wanting to know about the first Mrs Darcy, and knowing that it was a great honour that he trusted her enough to share such memories. He told her more stories of the larks they had enjoyed as children, and eventually brought the subject of their marriage.
“We left for the sea soon after the ceremony,” he said. “Dr Elmes, Mrs Darcy’s physician, had recommended sea air. It was one of the subjects on which Lady Catherine disagreed with him. But we took a house near the sea, away from any towns, so she could have rest. We spent the first months of our marriage there. I purchased the house, thinking it would be useful to be able to visit whenever Mrs Darcy’s health required.”
Elizabeth’s hand stroked his arm gently. “It sounds wonderful. Have you been back since?”
He nodded. “We spend a number of weeks every summer there, and Lady Catherine often joins us. Julia loves the sea, as does Georgiana.”
Elizabeth smiled. “Did it have any effect on Mrs Darcy’s health?”
Darcy glanced straight ahead as he replied. “Indeed, it did. Dr Elmes was very pleased with the improvements she made. It was these improvements that led to - that led us to believe she was well enough to bear a child.”
His voice sounded pained, and Elizabeth squeezed his arm.
He shook his head, glancing down. Elizabeth knew this was a painful subject for him, but she did wish to know more about his first wife. “Were Mrs Darcy and Miss Darcy close?” she wondered, in an attempt to change the focus of the conversation somewhat.
He paused. “Not as close as I had hoped. I thought my marriage would give Georgiana some companionship, and that with Mrs Darcy being her cousin, she would be comfortable with her. But Mrs Darcy was not - she did not have a personality that allowed one to get close easily. She was quite like her mother in that way. And Georgiana being as timid as she is, she never got as close to Mrs Darcy as I had hoped.”
Elizabeth nodded. She could see how easily a younger Georgiana would be frightened by her brother’s wife.
“I am glad you two are close,” he said, looking over at Elizabeth with a smile. “You shall do Georgiana almost as much good as you shall do me.”
Elizabeth smiled at him. “Is that so?”
“Almost,” he repeated, his smile softening. “You have already made my life immeasurably brighter.”
Elizabeth felt her cheeks flush under his gaze. Her heart swelled as she reflected once again on how lucky she was.
He looked away, clearing his throat. “We returned to Pemberley after a number of months. Julia was born there. Mrs Darcy had little chance to make her mark, but you must feel free to change whatever suits you. I have written to Mrs Reynolds, the housekeeper, and informed her.”
Elizabeth nodded, feeling slight panic a the prospect of bearing full responsibility for the running of a house - and one that was by all accounts several times larger than Longbourn. At least she would not be expected to manage Rosings, also - Lady Catherine still lived there, and Darcy allowed her control of her own household. There was the London house to think of, but surely that could not be too large.
“Elizabeth?” Darcy prompted.
She realised she had been somewhat lost in thought, and turned her attention back to him. “Forgive me. I was just realising what my position will entail. I confess, I had not given it much thought before.”
He nodded. “You need not worry, you will be a fine Mistress of Pemberley. I have full confidence in you.”
She smiled. “Well, so long as one of us does.”
He returned her smile, taking her hand and raising it to his lips. “Dearest Elizabeth - I long for the day when you step into that role.”
“As do I,” she replied, leaning forward to brush her lips against his knuckle. She heard his sharp intake of breath, and raised her eyes to his. What she saw made her own breath catch in her throat - the heat in his eyes was unmistakeable. It gave her a thrill, and she pressed another kiss to the back of his hand.
“Elizabeth,” he murmured. She lifted her head and he brought her hand to his lips, covering it in kisses. They were soft and lingering, and coated each of her fingers and the back of her hand. She could feel the heat of his lips through her glove. His fingers brushed accidentally against the bare skin of her wrist, and they both shivered.
He pulled away, and she noticed colour rise in his cheeks. She took a deep, steadying breath. “Perhaps we should return,” she said, reluctantly.
“Indeed,” he said. “I apologise-“
“No,” she interrupted, reaching out to touch his arm. “Please do not apologise. I - I confess I quite enjoyed it.”
He glanced at her, his eyes wide. “As did I. Perhaps too much.”
She smiled slightly. “I would not say so. I am to be your wife, after all. I should like you to enjoy kissing me.”
He swallowed. “Do not tempt me, Elizabeth,” he said, a rawness to his voice that caused another shiver to run down her spine.
She looked down, a flush spreading in her cheeks. They walked for some time in silence, a good distance between them. She wished to take his arm again, but did not trust herself to be able to do so without getting carried away again. The wedding day could not come soon enough.
Their first evening in London was spent in a rather melancholy silence. Both Darcy and Bingley were feeling the removal from Hertfordshire keenly, though at least Bingley could look forward to returning within the week. Darcy faced a much longer absence.
He was certain his sister was amused by their behaviour, even if she had also been reluctant to leave the country. They were seated in the drawing room, and she had been attempting to lift their spirits by playing for them. It had not helped a great deal, and so she had taken up a book while her brother and his friend moped in their chairs.
The silence was interrupted by a rattling at the door, and the sound of someone entering with a flurry of activity. Darcy straightened, glancing at the clock and wondering who could possibly be calling at such a late hour.
His unspoken question was answered a moment later when the strident tones of Lady Catherine de Bourgh could be heard from the entrance. “Where is my nephew?” she demanded.
Bingley started, his eyes wide. “Is that-” he began.
“Lady Catherine,” Georgiana said, looking almost as terrified as Bingley. “Why is she here?”
Darcy could only think of one reason for his aunt to drop in unannounced at this late hour. She must know of the engagement. But how? And then he remembered Collins. Surely the Lucases must have sent him word. He grimaced. He had hoped to break the news to her in person.
Bingley and Georgiana seemed frozen to their seats, matching expressions of terror on their faces.
“It is I she wants,” Darcy said. “I would make my escape while I could, if I were you.”
Bingley nodded, getting to his feet quickly. “I - it is family business, at any rate. Goodnight, Darcy.” He fled through the dining room.
Georgiana had risen also, but hesitantly. “Are you certain?” she asked, nervously.
Darcy nodded. “I am. Hurry,” he urged. She followed Bingley, and the door had just closed when a footman entered hurriedly through the other door, announcing Lady Catherine’s arrival.
“Good evening, Lady Catherine,” he said, calmly. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your company?”
Her face darkened as she walked into the centre of the room. “Do not trifle with me, Darcy, I have no patience for such things. You must know the reason for my presence.”
He walked to the mantelpiece, hoping that his demeanour did not display a hint of his agitation. “I confess, I do not,” he said, his voice even.
Lady Catherine narrowed her eyes. “I am here, as you must know, to insist that you abandon this foolish notion of marrying Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”
“Then I am afraid you will be disappointed,” he replied calmly.
“This is not to be borne!” she declared, eyes flashing with fury. “Is this woman to be my daughter’s successor? An upstart, conniving-”
“Lady Catherine,” he interrupted, “kindly refrain from speaking of Miss Elizabeth in such a manner. She is soon to be my wife, and as such, deserves your respect.”
“She deserves no such attention!” Lady Catherine cried.
“I fail to see why not,” Darcy responded. “I do wish to apologise for not informing you of my engagement personally. I had planned to speak with you when we arrived in Kent, and did not realise that you would discover it through other channels.”
“I assure you that my objections would be the same, no matter how I discovered this news,” Lady Catherine said.
“And these objections are?” Darcy prompted, though he knew very well what Lady Catherine would say.
“I would have thought they would be obvious!” she replied. “I hardly know where to start. Though, the inequality of your stations alone should preclude such a match.”
Darcy gritted his teeth. “While I will not dispute that there is a disparity between us, I do not think it is too great to be overcome.”
Lady Catherine was indignant. “But she has no connections! No fortune! Her father’s estate is entailed upon the parson at Hunsford. Is this woman to become mother to my grandchild?”
“She is,” Darcy said, firmly. His jaw remained clenched, but so far, he had managed to keep his voice calm. “She is very fond of Julia, as Julia is of her.”
“Darcy! You cannot be serious in meaning to go ahead with this. It is absurd! And it will be the ruin of you, you mark my words. I told Miss Bennet, and now I shall tell you - if you insist upon this marriage, none of us shall notice you. You will be censured, slighted and despised by all of us. Your name will never again be mentioned among us.”
Darcy paused, her words just now registering. “You spoke to Miss Bennet?”
“Indeed I did,” Lady Catherine said, drawing herself up with an expression of great distaste on her face. “I went to endeavour to persuade her to drop whatever insidious plan she has in place to secure you. I was not at all impressed. She is not a particular beauty, and her manner is quite distasteful.”
Darcy was growing angrier by the second. How dare she presume to make contact with Elizabeth? And what exactly did she say? “Coming from a woman who arrived uninvited to a stranger’s home and no doubt abused her abominably, that is censure indeed,” he remarked.
“Nephew! You dare to speak to me in such a manner?”
Darcy stepped forward. “I shall speak to you in whatever way I please,” he said, his voice hinting now at the anger simmering inside him. “You have insulted my betrothed, barged into my house uninvited and have spoken to me as if I were a disobedient child. I am no child, and I am free to marry whoever I wish.”
Lady Catherine tilted her chin defiantly. “I am ashamed of you,” she announced. “That was no idle threat. If you persist in this notion, I shall not hesitate to act accordingly.”
“Shall you?” he asked. “In that case, I hope the house in town Sir Lewis provided for you is open. I would not like to think of a relation of mine put on the streets, whatever quarrels exist between us.”
Lady Catherine spluttered. “You would turn me out of my own home-”
“It is my home, Lady Catherine,” Darcy reminded her. “It was left to Anne, and became mine upon our marriage. I have had no issue with your remaining there and overseeing the running of the house at present. It is vastly more agreeable than leaving the place empty while I reside in London and Pemberley. However, I doubt anyone would find fault with my terminating such an arrangement once you have cut contact with me.”
To this, Lady Catherine had no reply.
Darcy continued, “As to the rest of our family, I am not certain how the news shall go down with the Lord Matlock. I will inform him tomorrow. I apologise, once again, for the circumstances of your discovering it.” He stepped forward, continuing in a softer voice. “You are my aunt, and Julia’s grandmother. I have no desire to break with you. But I will be marrying Miss Bennet. I have not reached this decision lightly; it is one I agonised over for some time. But I am satisfied that it is a decision I will not regret. She will be my wife, and when that happy day occurs, I will not tolerate anyone showing her anything less than the respect she will deserve as Mistress of Pemberley and Rosings.”
Lady Catherine visibly recoiled at such a term. “Oh, is such an obstinate, headstrong girl to hold such a position?” she lamented.
Darcy could not withhold a short, sharp laugh. “As if Rosings is not accustomed to such a mistress? Was not Anne headstrong? She took after you, after all.” He paused. “I do not wish to replace Anne. But I have been given a chance at happiness, and I intend to take it. I understand if you will need time to reconcile yourself to our union. I shall not force you to leave Rosings immediately. However, if you do not think you can ever accept Miss Bennet as my wife, you should make plans to remove to town. If one word reaches my ear of any comments against Miss Bennet that are anything less than complimentary, however, I will not be so patient.”
He paused. “I leave it to you to decide if it would be wise for us to visit at Christmas as we have agreed. Now, if you will excuse me, I must retire. Thomas will show you out. Good evening, Lady Catherine.”
He walked out of the room, leaving Lady Catherine stunned in the centre of the dining room.
Mr Bingley was to return to Netherfield a week after he departed, and his arrival was much anticipated. Mrs Bennet had extended an invitation for him to dine at Longbourn before he left for town. It was expected that he would arrive early, and he did not disappoint.
Elizabeth tried her best to quash the slight jealousy she was experiencing. It would be the first time since their engagements that Mr Bingley visited without the company of Mr Darcy, and though Elizabeth was of course happy for her sister, she missed Mr Darcy a great deal.
So it was with some difficulty that she waited in the drawing room with her mother and sisters that morning. Imagine her surprise, then, when the door was opened and Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy were announced.
“Mr Darcy!” her mother cried. “We were not expecting your return until the new year! What a delightful surprise!’
Elizabeth was smiling widely at Mr Darcy, her surprise in no way diminishing the pleasure she felt at seeing him again. “Indeed,” she said.
Mr Darcy was returning Elizabeth’s smile, clearly enjoying her surprise. “Our plans changed unexpectedly. I hope I am not inconveniencing you, Mrs Bennet,” he added, tearing his attention away from Elizabeth.
“Not at all,” Mrs Bennet insisted. “Of course you are welcome at Longbourn any time you wish. Kitty, call for Hill, I must inform her we have extra guests. Miss Darcy, such a pleasure to see you again.”
Elizabeth finally noticed the presence of her friend. “Indeed,” she said. “It is wonderful to see you all.”
Georgiana smiled. “Thank you, Mrs Bennet, Miss Elizabeth. My niece waits in the carriage, perhaps you would like to meet her?”
“But of course,” Mrs Bennet said. “I would love to meet Mr Darcy’s daughter. I shall have Hill fetch her at once.”
She bustled out of the room. Darcy crossed over to Elizabeth and took her hand, pressing a soft kiss to it. “I hope you do not begrudge me my somewhat dramatic entrance,” he said.
Elizabeth smiled and squeezed his hand. “Not at all,” she replied. “Am I to understand you shall not be visiting Kent?”
His face grew serious, and he shook his head. “We shall not,” he confirmed. She did not need to enquire as to the reason; her confrontation with Lady Catherine was still fresh in her mind. She was pained by the thought of coming between Mr Darcy and his family.
He gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. “All will be well,” he promised. She knew that she would need to speak to him alone to find out more about what had happened between him and his aunt, so she just nodded.
“Oh, Mr Darcy, what a beautiful child your daughter is!” Mrs Bennet enthused as she returned to the room. Julia broke away from her nurse as soon as she was through the door, hurrying over to Elizabeth.
“Miss Elizabeth!” she greeted. Elizabeth smiled, reaching out to embrace the girl. Julia returned the embrace before stepping away. “Papa says we are to stay here all Christmas,” she announced happily.
Elizabeth beamed. “How wonderful! Did you enjoy your trip to London?”
Julia nodded. “I did. Nurse Sally took me to the park, and Cook made me her special biscuits.”
“You are a lucky girl, indeed,” Elizabeth said warmly. “Do you think she will make me some, when I return to London with you and your Papa?”
Julia considered this. “I am sure she will. She asked me many questions about you. And even if she does not, you can share mine.”
“Thank you,” Elizabeth said warmly. “Would you like to meet my sisters?”
Julia nodded, and Elizabeth performed the introductions. After a brief period of reticence, Julia soon settled in, and Elizabeth smiled to see her enjoying life at Longbourn. Before long, however, she began to grow restless - the morning’s travel had tired her out.
“It has been some time since our nursery was used,” Mrs Bennet said, “but I have had the servants bring some things to a bedroom upstairs, which should be comfortable enough for Miss Darcy and her nurse.”
“Thank you, Mrs Bennet,” Mr Darcy said. Elizabeth knew he was loath to send his daughter back to Netherfield with just the servants - Mr Bingley had informed them his sisters were to remain in London for the foreseeable future.
“Lizzy, dear, would you show Mr Darcy and Sally the way?” her mother asked, pointedly.
Her mother’s ploy was no doubt obvious to all, but no one objected. Elizabeth certainly had no desire to do so. And so they settled Julia in the bedroom, and Elizabeth and Darcy made their way slowly back towards the drawing room.
“I must apologise,” Elizabeth said, “I fear my meeting with Lady Catherine may have caused problems-”
“No,” Darcy interrupted. “I assure you any problems that exist are not down to you. It is I that must apologise to you for her behaviour. I had planned on informing her of our engagement in person, as I suspected she would not be immediately enthused by the prospect. But I should have realised Mr Collins was in a position to hear of it, and that he would pass it on at the earliest opportunity.”
Elizabeth sighed. “You are not the only one who did not think of such a possibility,” she said. “No matter. I was not expecting her call, but it did not distress me a great deal. The thought of causing you to break with your family, however, does.”
“I have no wish to break from my family. Lord Matlock is eager to meet you,” he said, with a smile. “As to Lady Catherine, I have told her I intend to marry you, and that I have no desire to cut contact with her. However, I will do so in an instant should she persist in her slander of you. Given all of this, it was necessary to abandon our planned trip to Rosings, and so we accompanied Bingley back.”
Elizabeth smiled, hearing all of this had certainly put her mind at ease. Darcy had managed to stand up for her and support her completely. She had every hope that Lady Catherine would see sense, and perhaps eventually accept her.
“I am very glad,” she said. They had reached the door to the drawing room, and Darcy took her hand, pressing another kiss to her knuckles.
Elizabeth was most distracted when they finally returned to the room.
Just before Christmas, Elizabeth had the great pleasure of introducing Mr Darcy to her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner. She had been nervous, initially, unsure how Darcy would react to her relations; but she need hot have worried. After a short few moments of unease, all was well. This awkwardness, Elizabeth now knew to attribute to Darcy’s not being at ease making conversation with strangers. Before long, she introduced the topic of Pemberley and Lambton, and listened with great curiosity as Darcy and Mrs Gardiner spoke of the area and its inhabitants. It hardly seemed believable that in a few short weeks, this would be her home - not that she would get to see the place until the summer.
It was strange, knowing how much her life was about to change. Her mother was occupied with wedding plans and attempting to convince their father of the necessity of a trip to London for the purchase of their trousseaux. Then there were the plans for her court dress, and a letter from Lady Matlock offering to help her prepare for her curtsey. She had spoken to Georgiana about the staff at Pemberley and the Berkeley Square house, and found it did little to help with how overwhelmed she had been by the scale of her duties. She was sure she would be able to adapt, but there was no denying it was a daunting prospect.
All of this seemed to throw the familiar sights and sounds of home into sharp relief. The rooms of Longbourn, the countryside she knew so well… all would be memories soon. These thoughts did not make her sad, precisely, but they caused a pang of some feeling she could not name.
She looked around the room. Mrs Bennet had been careful to arrange all manner of engagements and entertainments for the benefit of her brother and his wife. Today, they were dining at Longbourn, with Mr Bingley, Mr Darcy, Miss Darcy and the Lucas family. Her mother was talking to Jane and Lady Lucas - no doubt the discussion centred about the upcoming weddings. Her father was engaged in conversation with her Uncle Gardiner in a quiet corner of the room. Sir William was speaking to Mr Bingley, though it was unlikely Mr Bingley was paying much attention to the man, as his eyes were fixed on Jane. Her sisters - including, to her surprise, Mary - were seated together, speaking with Miss Darcy. She did not know when she would see this party assembled together again. She wondered if she might invite her family to spend Christmas at Pemberley next year. She smiled at the thought - that would surely be a merry party indeed.
Charlotte Lucas caught her eye at that moment, and beckoned to her. Elizabeth made her excuses to Mr Darcy and her aunt, and made her way to her friend.
“Our mothers are speaking of floral arrangements for bridesmaids,” Charlotte said. “I confess I am happy I am going first, for Maria’s sake if nothing else. If my mother was forced to outdo yours, she would not be able to walk though the door of the church for all the flowers she would be forced to carry.”
Elizabeth laughed. “You must spare a thought for Mary, Kitty and Lydia,” she said. “I fear their fate is quite sealed.”
Charlotte smiled. “You must be looking forward to the ceremony a great deal.”
“Indeed I am,” Elizabeth admitted, glancing automatically at Darcy. “If I could, I would marry him tomorrow. But Mama would not be pleased.”
Charlotte smiled. “I am truly happy for you,” she said.
Elizabeth felt pained that she could not say the same for her friend. It was obvious that their marriages would be vastly different.
“Do not think in that way,” Charlotte said, though Elizabeth had not said a word. “I shall be perfectly content, I believe. Only - I wish you may come visit. But with Lady Catherine’s opinion on the match, perhaps it would not be wise.”
Elizabeth nodded. “Mr Darcy believes that Lady Catherine’s anger will fade, and she will accept the reality of the situation. He hopes to visit at Easter, as is their custom.”
“Oh, that would be wonderful,” Charlotte said. ‘My father and Maria have planned a visit for around that time.”
“Then let us hope Lady Catherine has a change of heart,” Elizabeth said, with a smile.
The new year arrived. The Gardiners returned to London with Jane, Elizabeth and Mrs Bennet in tow. The purpose of the trip was, of course, to fit the brides out with everything they would need for their new lives. The Netherfield party, much to the amusement of Mr Bennet, followed them for their short stay. The days were much occupied by shopping, but they dined together almost as often as they had in Hertfordshire. Elizabeth was shown around what was to be her London home, and though it was large, she was pleased by the simple elegance of the decoration and the excellence of the staff. Cook’s famous biscuits, shared with her by Julia, also received her seal of approval.
But before long, they were back in Hertfordshire for a few short weeks. Elizabeth packed her belongings with some slight reluctance, taking the time to bid farewell to all the familiar sights and sounds she was bound to miss from time to time. It was uncertain whether this process was easier or more difficult for Jane, for though she was only to be moving three miles, she was conscious of her mother’s frequent declarations that she would be happy to call to such a fine house as Netherfield every day. Jane bore this with her usual peace and equanimity, but Elizabeth did not pity her sister.
The day before the wedding, Darcy received a most surprising letter. It was from Lady Catherine, and it was brief, and not a little terse, but it bade them best wishes for the day, and a hope that she would be able to receive the couple at Rosings come Easter.
“Oh, how wonderful,” Jane said, after Lizzy had shared this momentous news with her that night. They were in Jane’s room, sitting on her bed. “I knew she would not persist in her behaviour. She must miss her daughter very much, and it is all very hard on her, I would imagine.”
Elizabeth smiled. “Oh, Jane. What shall I do without you to make me think well of people?” she said.
Jane smiled, but Elizabeth could see the sadness in her eyes. “You shall do fine without me, Lizzy. Of that I have no doubt.”
Elizabeth embraced her sister. “As will you. You shall be the perfect wife, just as you have been the perfect sister. You shall not tease your husband, nor dare be impertinent.”
Jane laughed. “I shall only aim to be the perfect wife for Mr Bingley. You, I believe, shall be the perfect wife for Mr Darcy.”
Elizabeth nodded. “I shall miss you terribly,” she admitted.
“And I you. But we shall have letters to console us, and we are to meet in London in a few short months,” she said.
“Indeed,” Elizabeth said, with a smile. Elizabeth, Darcy, Georgiana and Julia would leave for London in the afternoon. Jane and Bingley had planned a week at Netherfield, followed by a trip to the North to meet Mr Bingley’s relations in Scarborough. They were all to meet in London shortly after the Darcys trip to Rosings. It was at this time that they planned on holding a ball to formally introduce Jane and Elizabeth to London society.
“Do you think Kitty and Lydia will mind terribly being left behind?” Jane wondered. She was to take Mary with her when they travelled north.
“I am sure they will be fine,” Elizabeth said. “They have changed so much these past few months, I can scarcely believe they are the same sisters I had but a year ago.”
Jane nodded. “They have done very well.”
“They have indeed,” Elizabeth said proudly. “I hope to have them visit at some point before we leave town, Georgiana would enjoy it very much. And of course, I wish to have all of you to Derbyshire in the winter.”
Jane smiled. “It is so strange. I cannot comprehend how fully my life is to change tomorrow. I know we have been preparing for it these past two months, but yet it seems unnatural that in a matter of hours we shall be completely different people.”
Elizabeth smiled. “I hope not. Our husbands may take umbrage if we completely change our personalities in an instant.” Jane smiled, and Elizabeth laughed. “But in all seriousness, I agree. It is very odd indeed.”
There was a faint knock on the door, and both turned to see Lydia poke her head inside. “I thought I heard you awake. May we come in?”
Jane and Elizabeth nodded, and soon Kitty and Lydia were climbing on the bed. To everyone’s surprise, Mary followed them in. Soon all five Bennet sisters were seated on the bed, with some difficulty.
“It was not this crowded the last time we did this,” Lydia said, wriggling slightly.
“We were all a great deal smaller then,” Elizabeth said. “Especially you.”
Lydia pulled a face, but she snuggled closer to Elizabeth anyway.
“It shall be so strange with you both gone,” Lydia said, her voice sad.
“We will miss you very much,” Jane replied, reaching out to stroke her youngest sister’s hair.
“Mama says I shall have Lizzy’s room, though, which will cheer me a great deal,” Lydia teased, and they all laughed.
The morning of the wedding dawned cold and dreary, but not even January weather could dampen the spirits of any of the wedding party. Both couples were radiant, and there was a break in the showers as the couples made their way from the church to greet the small crowd that had gathered.
They lingered for some time in the churchyard, receiving the congratulations of their neighbours with bright smiles. Even Mr Darcy smiled, to the astonishment of all. Lydia had never seen him so happy, nor Elizabeth, for that matter. And Jane and Bingley looked more besotted than ever.
“Miss Lydia, allow me to offer my congratulations to your family.”
Lydia turned to see Colonel Forster standing near her. She smiled, having become more at ease around him now she knew he was not about to bring up her foolishness. Indeed, she had spoken to him on a number of occasions, and found him quite a lively man, even if he was not as openly flirtatious as the other officers. Indeed, that was no bad thing.
“Thank you, Colonel.”
“Will you miss them?” he asked.
“Well, Jane is to be at Netherfield a while yet,” she said. “But yes, I believe I shall. Lizzy has invited us to London when she is to have a ball, so that shall be great fun.”
He smiled. “Indeed it shall. I remember being greatly saddened when my sisters married and left home.”
“You have sisters?” Lydia enquired.
“Two. I am the youngest in the family, and found the house rather empty when they left. They have been happy though, I daresay. As will your sisters.” He nodded towards Lizzy, who was laughing with Mr Darcy.
She watched his expression as he looked at the happy couples. “Did I hear someone suggest you were to marry, Colonel?” she asked, and then balked at her own forwardness. “Forgive me, I should not have asked.”
He glanced at his feet, which was most odd. “No, no,” he insisted. “There was talk of the possibility, but it did not come off.”
“Oh, I am sorry to hear it,” she said, genuinely.
“Not to worry,” he said, smiling at her. “I should let you return to your family.” He tipped his hat at her, and she watched him walk away curiously.
“Lydia, we must get your sisters into the carriages,” her mother said, hurrying over to her. “Their gowns shall be ruined if they delay any longer! Come, child!”
Lydia tore her gaze from Colonel Forster, and followed her mother across the churchyard.
“Oh, Lizzy! Charles has just told me!” Jane said, hurrying over to her.
“Told you what?” Elizabeth wondered.
“Mr Darcy has offered us the use of his house near the sea until we must depart for Scarborough. Oh, it is so wonderful. Mary knew all along, but he only told Charles this morning. It is wonderful, we shall depart right away.”
Elizabeth beamed. She had confessed to Darcy that she worried about what little peace Jane and Mr Bingley would be allowed while they remained at Netherfield. And Darcy had arranged it all.
“He did not even inform me,” Elizabeth said. “Oh, what a wonderful man,” she added proudly, glancing at her husband, who was speaking with Mr Bingley across the churchyard.
“He truly is. I have thanked him already, but I hardly know where to start. Charles is so very lucky to have such a friend. And to think that he is now my brother, too!”
“Well, you should thank your sister for that,” Elizabeth joked. Jane beamed.
“I shall,” she said, and she embraced her sister. Elizabeth returned it, feeling her eyes sting with tears.
“Oh, no, this will not do,” she said, pulling away and noticing Jane’s red-rimmed eyes. “We should be nothing but happy today.”
“Indeed,” Jane agreed. “We shall be leaving soon, I believe.”
Elizabeth nodded. “I shall write to you tomorrow.”
“And I you,” Jane promised, and embraced Elizabeth again. They both did their best to stay composed.
“Girls, girls, you must be gone!” their mother’s voice interrupted their silent farewell. “It looks like rain, and your gowns are already half-ruined. Oh, Lizzy, look, yours is three inches deep in mud!”
Elizabeth pulled back, and laughed. “Oh, how dreadful! I have it on good authority, however, that my husband shall not mind such a shocking display. So you may be at ease.”
Mrs Bennet shook her head, agitated. “Oh, you take delight in vexing me. I only hope you do not speak to Mr Darcy that way, or else he will regret marrying you!”
“I do not think that is possible, Mrs Bennet,” Mr Darcy said.
Mrs Bennet looked flustered at such an interruption. “Of course not, Mr Darcy.”
“I do believe it is time we were off, however,” he said. Elizabeth nodded.
Her mother fussed again, straightening Elizabeth’s shawl and tucking one of Jane’s curls behind her ear. “Oh, my dear girls. What shall I do without you? But look at you. So fine, and with such handsome husbands.”
She could not hold back the tears then, and she embraced them both warmly as she sobbed, eventually being led away by Mrs Philips.
Their father approached. “Jane, my dear. I hear you are off to the seaside. I trust, from all I have heard from your mother these past weeks that your carriage is certainly fine enough to make the journey safely, but do take the trouble to write your old Papa of your safe arrival.”
Jane nodded. “Indeed I shall, Papa.” They embraced, somewhat tearfully on Jane’s side.
Elizabeth could feel her eyes stinging even before her father turned to her. This would be the hardest of all. She would miss her father more than anything.
His eyes looked misty as he surveyed her. “Well, my dear Lizzy. I would say I shall miss you terribly, but I do not think that I would do it justice. I am comforted, at any rate, by the fact that I am losing you to as fine a man as I could wish for.”
Elizabeth nodded, tears spilling down her cheeks. Mr Bennet reached out to stroke her cheek, and she sniffed. She stepped forward to embrace him, and he returned it. His eyes were misty when he stepped away, and Elizabeth’s cheeks were tearstained.
“I am comforted to know you will know how this feels, some day,” Mr Bennet said to Darcy.
Darcy looked surprised, and his eyes travelled across the yard to where Georgiana was leading Julia towards him. “Not for many years yet, thankfully,” Darcy said.
Mr Bennet smiled wryly. “Depend upon it, it shall come sooner than you anticipate.”
Darcy glanced at Julia again, and then back to Mr Bennet. “I shall take care of your daughter,” he vowed. “You have my word on it. And you will always be welcome at Pemberley.”
“Of course you will,” Mr Bennet said. “And I may take you up on that offer, to be sure you are looking after our Lizzy.”
“Papa,” Elizabeth admonished, smiling.
Georgiana and Julia reached them then, and Elizabeth smiled as she watched Darcy lift Julia into his arms.
“Papa, are you married now?” she asked.
Darcy nodded, smiling widely. “Indeed, I am.”
Julia looked at Elizabeth. “You look very pretty Miss Elizabeth.”
“She is not Miss Elizabeth any longer,” Darcy said, smiling widely. “She is Mrs Darcy now.”
Elizabeth smiled. “You may call me whatever you wish, Julia,” she told the child.
Julia looked thoughtful. “Mrs Philips said you were my mama now. Can I have two mamas?”
Elizabeth looked at Darcy. He was studying her, as if trying to decide what would be the best way to reply. “Indeed you can,” he said. “I very much hope you look to Elizabeth as a mama.”
Elizabeth nodded. “As do I.”
Darcy glanced over to the carriages. “It is probably time we were leaving,” he said. He set Julia down. “I will see you in London this evening, poppet. Be good for Sally and Aunt Georgie in the carriage.”
Julia nodded. “I will,” she promised.
Elizabeth turned to her father again. “Goodbye, Papa,” she managed to choke out, embracing him quickly before stepping away. Darcy held her arm securely as he guided her to their carriage. She wiped her eyes with her handkerchief before turning to wave out the window at her family and friends.
As the carriage rolled out of the churchyard, she turned to Mr Darcy. He was smiling widely, and despite the emotional farewells, she could not help but return it. He looked hesitant, almost, and so she moved first, taking the seat beside him and lacing her fingers through his. She was happy to have spent some time alone with him over the past few weeks, improper as it may have been. She was not uneasy in his company - nervous, yes, but not uneasy.
He leaned closer, still hesitant, but she met his eyes as she leaned towards him. Their lips met - the slightest brush, but it made Elizabeth tingle all over.
They parted, faces flushed but smiling widely. Their hands remained clasped tightly as the carriage rolled out of Longbourn, towards London and their new life.
Chapter 17: Epilogue
“This is an excellent sized room for such an occasion, is it not?”
Elizabeth’s eyes sparkled as she looked up at her husband. “Indeed it is, Mr Darcy, but I believe you are fishing for compliments on the excellence of your arrangements.”
They parted, and when the music brought them together again, he was grinning. “Oh, forgive me, Mrs Darcy, I thought it customary on such occasions to mention the size of the room. I believe there are at least twenty couples accommodated comfortably.”
“Surely there are twenty five,” she replied.
The music swelled, and they parted again. Elizabeth moved between the other dancers, her eyes taking in the scene. Her husband had not been eagerly awaiting this night, but he did seem happier than she had ever known him to be at a ball. They were surrounded by his family and many of her new acquaintances - some more desirable than others, it had to be said.
Her sister Lydia moved past, beaming with pride and her eyes fixed on her partner - Colonel Forster. She had been surprised to hear of her youngest sister’s engagement, but was delighted to see her so happy. Her mother had happily informed her by letter of the estate Colonel Forster was to inherit and the three thousand pounds a year it would bring him in income. Until then, the couple would make do on his militia pay, but he had promised to take a house for her in Brighton, where the regiment was to spend the summer. Lydia was thrilled at this prospect more than anything, and seemed very fond of her betrothed. She had spoken to Elizabeth about it when she arrived in town.
“I am not merely marrying him for his coat,” she had announced seriously, and then added, “though he does look very fine in it, does he not?” She had composed herself before continuing. “But he is a good man, and he has been very kind to me about everything. He does not think less of me, or think me very silly. And he does so love balls and parties, so I shall be sure to be able to throw many!”
Elizabeth was happy that her sister had not lost all of her vivacity, even though she was a vast deal more sensible now than she had been months before. And she believed that Colonel Forster would be a good match for her.
“What are you thinking of, dearest?” her husband asked.
Elizabeth shook herself as Darcy took her hand. The dance was coming to a close. “Nothing of importance,” she said. They bowed to each other as the music faded, and he escorted her from the dance floor.
“Good evening, nephew,” Lady Catherine greeted. She was still somewhat cold to Elizabeth, but the visit to Rosings over Easter had done much to improve relations between the two. Elizabeth had detected a hint of respect growing in Lady Catherine every time she had refused to cow to the older woman. “Mrs Darcy.”
She was even able to address those words to Elizabeth without much difficulty.
“Lady Catherine,” Elizabeth greeted. “I hope you are enjoying yourself this evening.”
“I am,” she said. “It is very well put together. I had not high expectations, but you will be pleased to know you exceeded them.”
Elizabeth managed a smile. “I thank you, Lady Catherine. Your suggestions were most welcome, and I took them all into consideration.”
Lady Catherine gave a short nod, and then moved across the room. Elizabeth and Darcy made their way through the crowd, stopping for an occasional exchange with their guests. At the door to the hall, Elizabeth peered out. A number of guests milled about out there, but her eyes were drawn upwards, to the little face pressed against the railings. She smiled fondly, and touched Darcy’s arm, leading him into the hall and nodding upstairs.
His eyes followed hers and he smiled, lifting his arm to wave at his daughter. Elizabeth followed his example, and Julia beamed when she saw them, waving happily. Elizabeth was happy that she had bonded with her step-daughter so quickly. She knew many families did not adjust to such a change with ease.
The music began again, and Elizabeth turned to her husband. “We must return,” she said, with a last wave at Julia.
“Indeed,” her husband replied, taking her hand and leading her back into the ballroom.