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Marry in Haste; Version 2

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Marry In Haste, Repent At;

"Marry in haste, repent at leisure."

Proverb 16th Century.

"SHARPER: 'thus grief still treads upon the heels of pleasure.
Marry in haste, we may repent at leisure.
SETTER: Some by experience find those words misplaced: At leisure
married, they repent in haste.'"

The Old Bachelor, 1693, Act 5, Scene 1.
William Congreve, 1670-1729, English Dramatist.

"Now hatred is by far the longest pleasure; Men love in haste, but
they detest at leisure."

Don Juan 1819-1824.
Lord Byron, 1788-1824.

Chapter I.

The journey from London to Rosings had never seemed so long before, but then to a man under the spell of a desperate resolution, even a short walk can last a lifetime. Fitzwilliam Darcy glanced at his pocket watch once more, observing the lack of time which had passed since his last marking of the hour. With a sigh he contemplated the triumph he was about to face from his Aunt, and only the near disaster which he had encountered recently kept him from ordering the carriage to turn round.

Closing his eyes, he confronted himself with the full horror of the memory once again. Of waves crashing against rocks in time to the pounding of his heart. Of a young girl in a scoundrel's embrace, upon the shore of a seaside town. Innocence pitted against the foulest mind in existence. If he had been but a day later, what disaster would have unfurled. No sister to seek comfort in his arms at the unexpected visit, only a letter scribbled by her captor announcing their elopement, and that only if he were lucky.

His recollection of the alternative still haunted him, the ugly confrontation which his sister bore witness to, as the scoundrel took his leave from the place and from her. Granted there had been a solid mahogany door between her and them, but the words still reached her ears, their meaning unavoidably audible. Not until that barrier was thrown open did he see the effect they had on her, the tears barely held in check by the Darcy demeanour. Out of all the events during that dreadful day, her desolate expression carried the most weight.

For five years he had been given charge of her and the estates their family had left him. He had strived to become all that his mother and father wished for him to be, but his failure with Georgiana rendered the rest of his achievements moot. By remaining thus he had neglected her in favour of the rest of the bounty which he had been left. Well, no more. It was time for him to do his duty and fulfil a long outstanding wish.

At that moment the view outside changed, the long avenue of trees parting to reveal a grand imposing residence, its shape and style belonging to a time far more ancient than the one in which he currently resided, yet nowhere near as old as the stones in which Pemberley was enshrined. Darcy gazed at the house with unseeing eyes, taking in none of the windows or the chimney pieces. It was useless. He could not attempt to love this place as much as he loved the one which had heralded his birth, witnessed his childhood and nurtured his early stewardship.

Rosings was nothing to Pemberley. Where one estate seemed to emerge from a land where nature had done more, where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste, the other imposed its will upon the land in which it reigned, commanding order and symmetry, opulence and wealth. The woods which surrounded the environs were lucky to escape a similar fate, their unchecked wildness a stark contrast as well as an example of imperious mismanagement. It would take him years to work a transformation and he had not the will with which to begin.

The carriage turned into the long drive, his well trained horses thundering their way down past the topiary trees all too soon for his liking. Soon the equipage came to a halt before the grand imposing entrance, forcing him to quit the peaceful luxury of one for the ornate loudness of the other. As his booted feet touched the ground, no flood of servants appeared as if from nowhere to attend to him, his carriage, or his horses, another sign of his Aunt's efficient mismanagement. Sparing only a glance at the quality of the other vehicle stationed in the drive, he slowly mounted the steps and opened the door before going inside.

"Mr Darcy, sir.” The butler rushed into the marble cased hallway, fresh from his mad dash from the servants' quarters. "I apologise for my tardiness."

"No need, Simmons, my arrival was unexpected." Darcy divested himself of his coat, hat and gloves. "You and your family are well, I hope?"

"Yes, sir, blooming apace, thank you," Simmons beamed at the inquiry, one he never received from his mistress. "Her Ladyship is away at Lady Metcalfe's, sir. And Miss Anne is with the physician from town."

Darcy stilled in quiet shock at this piece of information. "The physician from town? Which one?"

Simmons mentioned the name, and further surprise stole across his features, along with a sufficient surplus of dread. He had heard enough of the man's reputation to be imagining the worst. "Take me to her."

Anne's suite of rooms lay on the ground floor of the house, occupying the left wing of Rosings while the ones usually assigned to him during his yearly visits occupied the right. At her mother's design and instruction, Anne's suite of rooms lay on the ground floor of the house, occupying the left wing, as Lady Catherine could not bear the thought of her daughter being troubled with staircases, even though Rosings had several. Darcy turned to his cousin's apartment, waiting for her to learn of his arrival as he paced the confines of her sitting room.

To his surprise, Simmons returned almost immediately to let him know that he was granted admittance. Leaving the man behind, Darcy entered the room to find another just finishing the examination of his cousin. A blush rose to his features as he observed Anne in her simplest of garments sitting up in the bed under the covers; and any further embarrassment faded away, as he caught sight of the decline in health of which his Aunt always vehemently assured him and his family of the reverse.

"Hello, cousin," Anne greeted him softly. "Your arrival is as always propitious." With a frail hand she indicated the doctor. "I trust you have heard of..."

Darcy kissed her cheek, his gentle sign of affection rendering her speechless, then rose to shake hands with the physician. "I am honoured to make your acquaintance, sir."

"And I yours, Mr Darcy." He paused to take in the glance which passed between cousins, then looked back at his patient. "I take it, Miss de Bourgh, that you wish for your cousin to hear my prognosis?"

Anne nodded whilst Darcy took a seat. Within moments, the physician's words rendered his visit a pointless expenditure. While Anne's intellect and humour were sound, her physical anatomy was not. Procreation was considered too dangerous an endeavour to be attempted, for it was declared doubtful that she could conceive, let alone bring an heir to term. As long as such a possibility was never entertained, her longevity was certain.

Darcy turned to his cousin in order to witness her reaction to the news, and found her better resigned to the matter of her health than he felt at present. Anne seemed to nod in agreement to each part of the physician's prognosis, as though she had noted the deficiencies herself and simply required confirmation. However when she offered him provision and the prospect of accommodation for the night, she was relieved when he declined, however carefully such emotion was concealed. But then her cousin realised that it was very likely his Aunt had yet to be informed and suddenly he was aware of how carefully Anne had chosen to arrange this appointment.

After seeing the physician to the door, Darcy returned to his cousin, finding her still abed, with seemingly little inclination or strength to alter such a state before him. "You do know what your mother would do if she saw us thus?"

"Harry us both to the nearest altar," Anne replied. "Do not worry, Darcy, I shall be dressed and you shall be gone before she returns from Lady Metcalfe's."

"I take it then that it is your desire she never learns of this?" Darcy asked her softly.

"For now at least," Anne sighed, her features partly pressed against the pillows. "I know she will have to learn one day, but I prefer it to be when your banns are published, not before." she frowned at his sudden look of consciousness. "Now, what was it brought you here today? Last I heard you were away to Ramsgate to surprise your sister."

The self-conscious expression changed into a frown and before he was aware of it, the entire event was laid out to her in every detail. Another cousin to receive his confession and administer proper penance, though she would doubtless frown at the choice of words as much as Richard had when he received the sorry mess at the Darcy townhouse the day before. Like the soldier he was, the good Colonel had been ready to hunt the scoundrel down and put him before a firing squad, or worse, a trip to Portugal to face a castrator he knew. He was incensed by Darcy's mild remonstrance and exile, the more so because there was so little he could remedy about it.

Anne took the news in much the same way, although her reproofs of the scoundrel were equally different to her soldiering and gentleman farmer cousins. All her compassion was saved for her younger relation, who, it must be argued, would be feeling the most wretched from this ruined endeavour. She wondered aloud why her brother would be so soon parted from her, unless he blamed her for allowing herself to be so deceived, until she caught a full look at his features and finally reasoned his intentions.

"You meant to fulfil my mother's favourite wish?" she cried, incredulous. "To banish yourself, ourselves, to a marriage of little affection, devoid of every proper feeling for the sake of preventing the repetition of an event which only by hindsight and luck you have already avoided? You, who swore to me upon first occasion of receiving my mother's hints that you would marry for nothing but the deepest love? Fitzwilliam," she sighed his first name aloud, and could not escape noticing his flinch at such an intimacy from her. "That response alone tells me that you are not reconciled to such a match. Let not Wickham win this noble goal from you! Go back to your sister and your estates and find your lady!"

"How, Anne?" he queried. "How shall I find her? Have I not already tried for seven years to find the one woman in society who would see beyond my wealth and connections? There is none!"

"Then go out of society!" she countered. "Surely there are gentlemen and gentlemen's daughters who abhor it as much as we do? Or have you acquired other tastes so continuously expounded at this house? Do not sink to my mother's level of arrogance, Fitzwilliam, it is a bitter living."

Darcy sighed, reluctantly conceding to the strength of her arguments. It was true that he had yet to fully reconcile himself to the desperate resolution so recently formed. His response to her unusual token of intimacy had proven that much. And her words were not without merit, for if he did indeed sink to this level, Wickham would have won a far sweeter victory than he could have wished for had his previous attempt succeeded. His wealth allowed him the luxury of choice, the loss of his sister's thirty thousand from their inheritance would not demand his wife to supply the deficit. And marriage of convenience or no, he would need an heir, else place a burden which no brother would wish to bestow upon a most beloved sister.

"Then I shall take my leave," he replied, rising from his chair to lean over her and pay his farewells. "Unless you wish me to linger until your mother returns?"

Anne laughed as she raised herself up to meet his embracing kiss. "I think not. After all if mother finds us thus, all my arguments shall prove a pointless endeavour." She cupped his cheek, her frail fingers tracing the handsome sculpture above and beneath. "Go and find her, cousin. Go find the woman from whom you can stand to hear your name spoken. Grant not Wickham this sweet revenge."

Upon his return to London, Darcy discovered that his next actions had been anticipated and preempted. Arriving at his townhouse, he met with his soldiering cousin, the other guardian of his sister's care, who had managed to procure in his absence a companion of the most honest and trustworthy references. After reading through these documents and spending two hours with the woman himself, Darcy could do naught but agree with the appointment.

He was then seized upon by his friend Bingley, who ignorant of the events which had followed the intuitive impulse to surprise his sister, had also continued in his quest and found the next part of their experiment, causing him to visit thus, with the desire that they go and view the place as soon as may be. Reluctant to leave his sister so soon to the care of another companion, Darcy hesitated to accede to his friend's boundless enthusiasm. However, he had reckoned without his friend's astute observation of the reasoning behind the hesitancy, and immediately a solution was offered; if the experiment proved viable, he would happily accommodate both Darcys and the companion during the seasons required.

Unbeknownst to his Kentish cousin, her words would soon prove prophesy, for out of society he was to go, to the county of Hertfordshire, where his friend was to lease an estate in the midst of a savage neighbourhood which consisted of villagers, tenants, shopkeepers and impoverished gentlemen farmers. However only one gentleman was to succeed in his endeavours, for her cousin would be prevented by events of but two summers before, and by a man to whose depravities Wickham had yet to sink.

81, Piccadilly, on the corner of Bolton Street, London, 1812.

"This is the dullest place in existence!"

Fitzwilliam Darcy looked up from his brandy at the declaration, finding himself for once in complete agreement with the speaker. Even if the quote was misplaced. It referred in fact to the other establishment of this nature that he more frequently attended; Alfred's.1

In comparison, Watier's2 was.... well, Darcy could not actually find the words to describe the club that he attended out of familial tradition. Founded in 1807 by the Prince of Wales who detested dinners at White's so much that he hired his chef for meals here, the club was very much regarded as a Dandy haunt with the likes of Brummell, Mildmay, Alvanely and Pierrepont for members. It played host to all the usual revels, including Maco, by which fortunes were lost and won. Fortunately while the Fitzwilliam family and his late father had patronised the place with their membership, they chose to deny the club the privilege of gaining any particle of their fortunes. Personally, Darcy hated the place, yet he felt duty bound to honour it with his occasional presence, if only by obligation of attendance in company of another member, in this case, his Uncle.

The Earl of Matlock had granted the place the privilege of his company for but an hour or so before quitting the establishment, pressing his nephew to linger rather than following in his wake, for he believed that it would not do to snub the club by the rapid exit of two of the most illustrious personages it had the honour to call members.

Now one of the richest men in Derbyshire glanced up, and with practised eye sought out through the haze of cigars and the dark opulent masculine panelled walls, the figure of the speaker, and witnessed the richest man in Essex being frog-marched out of the club. Darcy sighed before finishing the rest of his brandy. Rising with extreme reluctance, he reminded himself of the many duties he owed to his well connected and sorely lamented late father, and strode out of the gaming room into the capital's night.

With disdain did he glance down at the Earl of Saffron Walden, whose tall figure lay rather ignominiously upon the tiled stones of Piccadilly. If their fathers had not been school fellows, he would not have given the man five minutes notice, let alone the privilege of his consideration for the safety of his life. Snapping his fingers, Darcy called his carriage, and with the help of his footmen, lifted the prostrate gentleman into the pale blue damask upholstery. Tapping his cane upon the ceiling, he sat back and relished the quiet, hoping the Earl would not disgrace himself or the material by voiding most of his consumed liquor during the journey.

A while later the imposing equipage that was Darcy's carriage came to a halt before his passenger's lavish townhouse in Hanover Square. Discerning that the owner was in no fit state to perform the necessary civilities, Darcy dismounted from his vehicle and rapped upon the door.

A relieved Butler met him, flanked by a corps of footmen, who calmly and stoically went about the business of getting their master from the carriage and into the grand Entrance Hall. While this evidently well practised and frequently repeated expedition was being undertaken, Darcy prepared to leave. Indeed, he was almost out the door when a beautiful voice assailed him.

"Robertson, have his Lordship's chamber prepared for his arrival," uttered she, a young woman elegantly attired, whose fine eyes rendered a certain expression within them that he could not fail to understand nor feel the utmost compassion for. He recollected a similar facade, displayed by his sister only last summer, when he had encountered her in Ramsgate, in the arms of another reprobate. Fortunately for Georgiana he had been in a position to deal with the son of his father's steward, and send him packing. Unfortunately for the lady before him, he could not provide the same service, his hands having been constrained by rank and insufficient evidence of provocation.

Somehow, he recollected his manners and bowed, displaying an elegance which his travelling companion still lacked as he continued to be hoisted upstairs.

"My Lady, forgive us for disturbing your privacy," Robertson addressed her with a equally elegant bow.

"It is of no matter, Henry," she assured him with a smile, before coming to stand in front of the other gentleman. "I thank you, sir for bringing my Lord home. I trust he was no trouble?"

"No trouble at all, Milady," Darcy replied, his sense of propriety overriding his general shock. This woman was his wife? He had hoped her to be a close relation, but not so near a connection as this. "Shall I call tomorrow to see the Earl?"

Her smile disappeared and her features paled. Darcy fought the urge to kneel before her and humbly beg her forgiveness in bringing on such a troubled expression. "I would rather you did not, sir. He will remember little of this in the morning, and it is best to keep it that way."

Darcy bowed silently in reply, before quitting the establishment. Once outside he stood for some moments on the pavement before his coach, breathing heavily as he strove for composure. So that was the Countess of Saffron Walden. No wonder the Earl keeps her at home. Where on earth did he find such a beauty?

The wife of the Earl of Saffron Walden had been a mysterious creature to all of the Ton from the moment the man had first arrived back from wherever it was he had been to be married to her. After one display, when she was presented at Court, the Earl had shut her up at his townhouse and she had never been seen again.

All of Society had wondered about her since. Speculations on her wealth, identity, looks, intelligence, form, figure and more had cast themselves rampantly over all of London and beyond. For weeks many had presented themselves at the imposing house in Hanover Square in the vain hope that they would allowed admittance so they could set their sights on the mistress of the house. After the continuous repetition of being admitted into the grand marbled hall, allowed to present their cards to the butler, only for that same personage to return with a swift denial of their request for further intimacy, Society began to believe that the Earl had put the knocker upon his door solely for the purpose of exposing them to such an amusement.

As for the Earl himself, he remained the man he had been before gaining his late father's fortune at the young age of nine and twenty. The reputation of a rake and a gambler, with unpaid debts that he could well afford but hated to kill off, his standing in Society had made him the prey of many a matchmaking Mama and their daughters despite his scandalous reputation which caused their husbands and fathers to further the previous restrictions on their dowries, lest they be forced to sign away a compromised child.

However, he had kept them running at his heels for eight years before inheriting his title until suddenly disappearing into the wilds of his country estate in Essex. Six months later he was back in London for his father's funeral, and engaged, much to the surprise of all who knew him. Barely two months after that he disappeared once more to marry and a month after that, returned to Society without paying either his wife or their acquaintance what was deemed due consideration.

For the rest of the journey to his own house in Grosvenor Square, that sighting of the Countess remained fixed in Darcy's mind. He knew that the chances of ever seeing her again were unlikely, but he could not prevent himself from hoping that was not the case. He wanted to see her again, he needed to see her again, for reasons he could scarce yet understand, other than a desire to render her the service he had rendered his sister during the summer. How deeply these feelings went remained yet to be understood, for he had yet to comprehend what steps they would command him to undertake.

1. Alfred Club: Established in 1808, and described by the Earl of Dudley as "the dullest place in existence," as it attracted mostly gentlemen scholars. Lord Byron was a member, and he found it literary, pleasant and sober. Despite all this it achieved so much success that by 1811 it had three hundred and fifty-four on its waiting list to join. In 1855 it joined with the Oriental, established in 1824.

2. Watier's: Established on the corner of Bolton Street, at number 81 Piccadilly in 1807. The Prince Regent had suggested the club using his new chef, Jean-Baptiste Watier, for the food of White's and Brook's was not to his satisfaction. The club's main entertainment was gambling, its usual game being Macao, a form of twenty-one. It was nicknamed the Dandies Club by Byron, as Brummell was a member. Having become a haven for blackguards and acquiring a reputation of fortunes being lost and won in the gambling, it died out in 1819.

Source for both of these notes was the Regency Collection website, which can be accessed by the following link; Locations of town houses were sourced from The Annals of London by John Richardson.

Chapter Text

C hapter II.

Any minute now, Darcy thought, and the word destiny would be used.

"It was destiny." With dramatic intensity, his friend paused, waiting. One minute passed, blissfully silent. Then another. Upon the third, his friend looked at the clock then back at him. With the fourth he let out a sigh and cried, "Well, what did you think? Is it enough?"

Darcy leaned back into the armchair, steepled his fingers together underneath his chin and considered the words. "Well, the emotions were properly expressed, you displayed an eloquence that befits you as a graduate of Cambridge- a rarity coming from you, by the by -I believe the intended recipient will comprehend from what you have expressed, providing you remember to do so before her, that they are of a long standing nature, and not formed on the spur of the moment.

"I also congratulate you on remembering her proper name, instead of referring to her as angel - to address her by such has been your wont frequently of late. Your sentences and pauses are astutely timed, and perfectly in keeping with your character. Propriety, duty, honour; all these things you have mentioned and at the right moments. There is however one thing you missed."

"What? I missed something? I cannot believe it... are you sure?"

"Having never delivered one of these addresses myself, I cannot be completely sure, yet I think it would be prudent if you chose to mention at some point the following: Will you marry me?"

His friend stared back at him incredulously. "I forgot those words?"

Darcy stared at his friend with a mixture of wry amusement and puzzlement. "Yes, you did. Absolutely vital words as well."

Charles Bingley collapsed into a chair. "But everything else was correct?"

"Yes, although you could do better if you added the words 'do me the honour' or 'consent' on to marry me."

"Right of course." His friend paused. "Shall I do it again?"

Darcy chuckled. "I think not. One footman thinking that you are in love with me is a misfortune, but two might seem like carelessness,1 thank you."

Bingley laughed as he remembered the rather untimely entrance of the servant, just as he had cried aloud 'I love you' while upon one knee. Rapidly his thoughts then drifted to imagining what the young lady he intended to say all of these things to would think. Foremost was his concern that she might refuse him, for though he held little doubt of her affection, his doubt that he was worthy to be graced with the honour of her hand was a natural and prominent concern.

Darcy saw his friend's features turn despondent and sought to give relief. "Charles, calm yourself. It is useless to worry about something that is beyond your control. No amount of practising will change how she feels about you. You will know what to say the moment you are kneeling before her."

Charles nodded and brightened at this. Darcy merely relaxed into his chair and observed his friend Bingley with no small amount of envy. Despite being disillusioned that he would ever find a woman who would marry him without a thought to his wealth and looks, he still harboured a hope that he would eventually reach the same state his friend was now in. For a moment his creative eye brought to mind the woman he had encountered the evening before, then his reason brushed the image away in incomprehension of such a happenstance.

"Do you think it wise of me asking her while she is in town?" Bingley now asked him.

"Although the delay precludes you from asking her father's consent immediately, I think you will do better in managing to see her alone. It was a rare occasion in Hertfordshire that you did not see her without other company being in attendance. I understand she is staying with her sister?"

"Yes, she is."

"Then why don't I accompany you and engage her attention, giving you time to ask Miss Bennet for her hand?"

Bingley, who had been hoping his friend might suggest this, instantly and heartily agreed. A part of him still appeared nervous however. "Caroline and Louisa still do not approve of what I'm about to do."

"With due respect, Bingley, your sisters will not approve of any woman unless she were born with a title, and has a large fortune behind her. But it is not Mrs Hurst or Miss Bingley that are marrying Miss Bennet."

Morning faded into afternoon. The comforts of the Darcy carriage were sacrificed in view of the fine weather and soon its owner found himself treading the familiar streets of London's salubrious quarter with Mr Bingley. To the impartial observer the two friends could not look more dissimilar. Where Mr Darcy was dark, Mr Bingley was fair. Bingley was intelligent, but Darcy was clever.

Bingley was endeared to the gentleman by his easiness, openness, ductility of his temper, though no disposition could offer a greater contrast to his own, and though with his own he never appeared dissatisfied. Where Darcy saw the world with cynical and often distrustful, sometimes humoured eyes, Bingley saw all that was to be enjoyed in it, and took immense satisfaction in doing so.

Of the strength of Mr Darcy's regard Bingley had the firmest reliance, and of his judgement the highest opinion, as just previously displayed. While he was inviting and sociable, Darcy was reserved, almost to the point of haughtiness. This perhaps, though, was due more to the difference in their fortunes rather than the difference in their dispositions in general. While Darcy had the luxury of ten thousand pounds, which was rising steadily, per annum, Bingley had but half that amount. His father had made his fortune, but was unable to settle upon an estate before his death.

And, until last Michaelmas, neither had his son. That Autumn, when he had not been of age for more than two years, had led he and his friend to take a look at Netherfield, a property bordering the town of Meryton in Hertfordshire. Bingley did look into it for half an hour, was pleased the situation and the principal rooms, satisfied with what the owner said in its praise and took it immediately. Now that he was provided with such a good house and the liberty of the manor, it was doubtful to those who best knew his easiness of temper, whether he might not spend the remainder of his days at Netherfield, and leave the next generation to purchase.

His sisters were anxious for him to have an estate of his own, for they were eager to forget that while they were from a respectable family in the north of England, their brother's fortune and their own had been acquired by trade. This was not to the deficiency of their characters, for they were in fact very fine ladies, not lacking in good humour when they were pleased, not incapable of being agreeable where they chose it; but proud and conceited. They were rather handsome, had been educated in one of the first private seminaries in town, had a fortune of twenty thousand pounds, were in the habit of spending more than they ought and of associating with people of rank; and were therefore in every respect entitled to think well of themselves and meanly of others.

Even though their brother had established himself only as tenant, Miss Bingley was by no means unwilling to preside at his table, nor was Mrs Hurst or her husband, a man of more fashion than fortune, disinclined to take residence in that estate. Together with Mr Darcy, they had spent the early part of the winter season enjoying all the privileges of landed country society, attending the local assemblies, and calling upon those whom they considered worth their notice.

In any event Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst soon tired of the neighbourhood, discomforted that their fortunes, fashions, and manner were superior to those of everyone else. They made few overtures of friendship to the ladies who lived in the surrounding environs, for only one was considered a suitable acquaintance, and only because their brother happened to attach himself to that lady almost from the moment of being introduced to her.

Miss Bennet was the lady, the eldest daughter of five, whose mother was found to be intolerable and her sisters not worth speaking to, but her pleasing manners, elegant behaviour and beauty, commended her enough to Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst to be worthy of forming a closer acquaintance. Her connections however were to be deplored. Her father held an estate worth only two thousand a year, entailed in default of heirs male, on a distant relation, and her mother's fortune, though ample for her station in life, could ill supply the deficiency of his. Mrs Bennet's father had been an attorney in Meryton and had left her four thousand pounds. She had a sister who was married to Mr Philips, a former clerk to their father who had succeeded him in the business, and a brother settled in London with a respectable line of trade. One of Miss Bennet's sisters was also married and settled in town, but though the connection was boasted of as being one of the highest favour, her absence counted against such fanfaronade in the minds of Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst.

Though these considerations rendered her an unworthy match for their brother, Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst were unable to press upon him the necessity of considering these disadvantages. He considered Miss Bennet to be the most beautiful creature he had ever beheld, and over the course of four dances with her in Meryton, a call to his own house one morning, dining in company with him four times, and a ball which he held at Netherfield, declared a preference of her that was regarded by the rest of the society in Meryton and Longbourn, as a certain expectation of marriage.

Mr Bingley left Netherfield for town the day after the ball, to where his sisters followed him, determined to press upon their brother the advantages of other ladies against his decided preference for Miss Bennet and the certain evils which were to be had in making such a choice. In this they were confident of success, for their brother had been in love before, possessed a great natural modesty, and a stronger dependence on the judgement of his friends and relations than on his own.

However, they reckoned without the consideration of Mr Darcy, who was far from willing to discourage his friend, having determined that his partiality for Miss Bennet was beyond what he had ever witnessed in him, and Miss Bennet, with manners open, cheerful and engaging, received his attentions with all the pleasure which proceeded from a peculiar regard, for her disposition was not unlike his own. Though the behaviour of her mother, sisters and father were objectionable, the want of connection could not be so great an evil to Mr Bingley as it would be to another gentleman with twice his fortune and landed circumstance.

So much time was spent during the short walk from Grosvenor in fortifying his friend's courage by conversation, that Darcy remained insensible to their surroundings and therefore was most surprised to see them arrive at the same house in Hanover Square that he had visited last night. Having not mentioned the event to his friend during the course of the morning though, Darcy refrained from commenting upon it, instead passing only a look at Robertson that was to say that he was as much surprised as the butler appeared to be.

Their cards were presented and their admittance granted. If the Countess was surprised when Darcy bowed in greeting once more, it was never visible upon her features. She greeted the gentlemen with the same manners as the night before, and indicated a blushing Miss Jane Bennet to the inanely grinning Mr Bingley.

The couple sat down, and then, after inquiring into the general state of the weather and respective families health in a way that conveyed her real interest and curiosity, the Countess rose to arrange matters for the tea. Darcy offered to assist, and so Mr Bingley's wish to be left alone with his lady love was thus accomplished.

It was only in the walk from the Drawing Room to the household quarter that the Countess chose to mention any memory of their prior acquaintance.

"Forgive me, sir, for not having recollected your name from last evening."

"There is no need, Milady," Darcy replied, "in fact I believe that I never mentioned it. Most remiss of me."

"Most remiss indeed." She smiled. "May I say that you seemed as surprised to be here again as myself?"

"I must confess that I am. Mr Bingley and I have been friends since university. I travelled with him to Hertfordshire and was in frequent company with him and your family, but I never heard of your connections other than as a general boast."

"Well, there I am more known as Elizabeth than by my title, though my mother takes frequent delight in it, my family have not seen my husband and me often enough since our marriage to refer to many events spent in our company."

Darcy responded in kind and they walked on. At length after she had arranged tea, they began a return to the Drawing Room. Before they had reached the doors, the Countess turned to her companion with a serious look and tone. "Mr Darcy, excuse my bluntness, but I must ask. I know by my sister's and my father's account that your friend is all that is good, honourable and true. Indeed, he could hardly be anything else for my sister to love him as deeply as she does. Jane sees all that is amiable and good in the world, the existence of evil quite shocks her."

He prompted her. "You want to make sure of his intentions?"


"Surely, as I am his friend, any judgement that I cast would be partial?"

"If a man dislikes anything of his friend, he is a friend no longer."

"You have a point." They halted outside the doors. Darcy turned his back to them and faced her, speaking low so as not to be overheard by the couple beyond the threshold. "Milady, I can safely assure you that Charles Bingley is the best of friends and the best of men. I have never seen him care more deeply than he does for your sister. His intentions concerning her have long been known to me. You could not find a better brother."

"Thank you, sir." The Countess opened a door and stepped into the room, Darcy following. Across from them in front of the large, ornate fireplace, stood Mr Bingley, who with an earnestly happy countenance, was bent towards an equally happy Miss Bennet, their lips touching in the sincerest and gentlest of kisses. The sight was enough to make anyone smile, and smile the two witnesses did.

"Oh Lizzy, I am so happy." The couple had broken apart at their entrance, and Jane was now in her sister's arms, joyous and oblivious to any other presence but her most loved sister. "It is too much, it is too much. Oh why can't everybody be as happy I am? He loves me, Lizzy. He loves me!"

"Of course he does," the Countess replied, equally happy. She glanced to the gentlemen, who were likewise engaged, Bingley exclaiming and Darcy congratulating. The latter turned to Miss Bennet, taking her hand. "My congratulations, Miss Bennet. I could not be more pleased."

"Nor I, sir."

The gentlemen stayed for tea, and then reluctantly departed, Mr Bingley promising to ask her father as soon as he returned to Netherfield, which would not be until Jane had also returned from town.

During the journey home Darcy was again thinking of the Countess of Saffron Walden. This second time in her company had only increased his want to be in it once more. He confessed to himself to be much intrigued by her. Aside from her fine eyes and wondrous dark hair, she seemed to possess a talent for observation not unlike his own.

Her conversation was intelligent and sophisticated; she seemed to have spent all her life in the upper circles, a contrast to the Society he had met with in Hertfordshire, but then he was convinced that she and her sister were two of the most well-bred ladies from Meryton.

Above all though, there was something missing, something in her manner that must have previously existed in full, but now seemed rarely used. A certain sadness and vulnerability hung about her, the same emotions he had observed within his sister, emotions that could not fail to enlist his desire to help and remedy.

1. Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest.

Chapter Text

Author's note: I would like to point out that I do not condone the actions Lord Lucius is about to take in this chapter. Any who do not wish to read it, must stop at the first horizontal line in this chapter. Be assured that it will not affect your knowledge of the main plot in any way, except to give an hint of what is to come. Enjoy.

Chapter III.

Now that the gentlemen departed, Jane turned to observe her sister. Since her marriage two years ago, Jane had only communicated with Elizabeth by correspondence. This was a continuation of their first meeting which began the afternoon before when Jane had arrived at the house from their Aunt and Uncle Gardiner's place in Gracechurch Street, with whom she had spent a few days after arriving in town from Longbourn - and Jane felt all the awkwardness that accompanied such an occasion.

She had not expected such a separation to serve as a barrier between their normal intimacy, but such was the case. Despite this, all else between them seemed to be fine. All save one thing. Her sister did not seem happy. In fact she was going to great lengths to convince Jane that she was, but Jane, knowing her sister as she did, could not avoid detecting the signs of sadness. The liveliness that she had seen so much of when they were growing up at Longbourn, had disappeared. She still smiled, still laughed, but was no longer happy.

Jane could not point yet a finger at the cause, for she had determined the notion only this afternoon, having found no hint of it whatsoever in their weekly letters. Now, as she wondered what it could possibly be, she also quietly sighed, for, judging by the performance she was receiving, Jane knew that she would not get the truth from her sister.

She who had once been her only confidante, was now barred. Jane was not hurt by the barrier, for she trusted that her sister had just reasons; such as a wish not to give her sadness on the day of her engagement, or not to force a secret upon her that could cause distress to keep it from the rest of their family. Thus she would have to discover it by observation.

When evening came upon the house but an hour after the visitors had departed, it marked the return of the Earl. Jane was thus a witness to what she perceived as a restrained reunion between him and her sister before dinner was announced. She had only met the Earl twice before this night; the first two years ago at the Meryton Assembly and the second at her sister's wedding, as Jane had spent much of her time with Mr and Mrs Gardiner in London during her sister's courtship. Nor had he been present when she and her sister had partaken of their morning repast.

Jane had arrived the night before but had retired early, and thus was not present when his Lordship had been carried up the stairs after returning home from his club. Elizabeth herself had mentioned nothing of it. He greeted her cordially enough, escorted her to her chair, and inquired after his sisters and parents in law in the usual manner of a brother by marriage, causing Jane to put the restrain of his reunion with his wife down to a limited acquaintance with herself and consideration of what was proper behaviour, which he had been brought up to observe, whoever his guests and or company happened to be.

Conversation during the long, rich and varied meal revealed nothing either to Jane, as to what was the cause of her sister's sorrow. The Earl listened to the discourse between his wife and his sister in law, offering no more than the occasional- but always well informed and founded -comment or two.

It was limited to the typical topics which constituted as the norm for such a gathering at dinner; weather, Society in London and Meryton, news of family events, and Jane's engagement, to which the Earl, upon hearing of it, immediately offered in a mild mannered tone his most heartiest congratulations. In reply Jane politely inquired if he knew Mr Bingley, to which the Earl answered in a negative, before turning the conservation toward other concerns.

Being such a small party there was no separation of the ladies and gentleman after the meal, instead the trio returned to the Drawing Room. A game of whist was proposed by the gentleman, and then quietly accepted by the ladies, which served to occupy their time pleasantly enough until Jane felt she ought to retire and give her sister a chance of privacy with her husband, whom Jane presumed, she had not seen since the morning before.

As Jane prepared herself for bed, only one cause had occurred to her concerning her sister's state of happiness. In the two years of their marriage, Jane could not remember one occasion, where the subject of children had been discussed. A quick but thorough examination of all her sister's letters confirmed it. The matter had not even been aired.

Jane had not asked herself, assuming that Elizabeth would tell her if at any point she ever had entertained hopes of a child. Such an event was not unusual, but at the same time it was still puzzling. The Earl was the only member of his family left, and so must feel the need for an heir, and it did not matter which, as the title was a peculiar one, for both male and female descendants could claim it and the fortune which came with it.

Jane also knew by experience how much Elizabeth loved children, for they were the acknowledged favourites of their young Gardiner cousins, having spent frequent vacations in their company. Before her marriage it had been a frequent joke between them, that she would spend her years teaching her sister's children to embroider their cushions and play their instruments very ill. Neither were ignorant of the ways of their world, their education though ill provided for had never been censored and their father's widely encompassing library was always at their disposal. In short, if her sister was not with child now, she doubted that it was through lack of commitment.

However, after debating silently upon the matter in her mind, offering both pros and cons towards it, Jane felt forced to discount it from being a cause that Elizabeth was was not confiding in her. Whatever the length of separation between them, Jane would know if her sister was having problems in that area, it would be something that Elizabeth could talk of. Yet, as she settled herself in bed, Jane could not think of another cause that would satisfy this despondency which she could not fail to observe.

Little did she know that the blame was all upon the Earl's side, that it was not through any want of commitment, but from technique and concupiscence that the miracle of children had yet to be bestowed upon her most beloved sister, who was secretly grateful that none of his cruel endeavours had succeeded, for her nescience remained regarding this particular biblical rite.

Downstairs, silence ruled the Drawing Room. A cold, forbidding silence, familiar to all its occupants, served to cast a spell of tension. It hung over the room like the blade of the guillotine over the neck of any doomed French aristocrat or over-ambitious politician, waiting to strike the moment someone cut the holding rope.

Elizabeth was at the whist table, playing patience with herself, while the Earl had crossed the room to partake of a brandy. With his back to the decanter, he stood watching hers. "Who visited today?" His tone was calm, but laced with a deadly undercurrent.

She noticed the depth of tone in his query with much trepidation, but forced herself not to let any inclination given to fear being betrayed in her voice as she replied. "Mr Bingley, our future brother in law."

"Who else?"

"No one else." Elizabeth knew he would not take kindly to her receiving a gentleman who was entirely unconnected to their family, so she refrained from mentioning that Mr Bingley had been accompanied by his friend. Barely a moment later did she feel the cold pressure of his hand upon her shoulder, causing her to breathe in to better manage the pain which his grip was causing. His mouth was close by her ear. "I shall know," he remarked, " if you are lying."

"I am not." she replied, and though there was nothing to betray the falsity in her words, her mere words provoked a response from him. Immediately, the pressure increased. Ignoring the stab of pain it had created, Elizabeth calmly laid down another card.

Upon the mantle, a clock chimed out the hour, breaking the silence with its eleven strokes. The Earl pressed his other hand on her other shoulder, his feverish mind desiring strokes of another kind. "Shall we retire, my dear?"

Elizabeth was careful to lay her last card down without allowing her hand to succumb to the nervous sensation which such a request always created within her. "You go," she answered, her tone quiet and studiously calm, "I should like to remain here awhile."

The pressure again increased, causing more pain. "We shall retire now." Lucius let go of her shoulders abruptly, his hands leaving red marks upon her pale skin. He gripped her wrist, and dragged her up from her seat, his strength making it impossible for her to resist his manoeuvres. A look passed between them, hers a struggle between resistance and submission, his a threat and a warning as to what he desired from her this night. Neither had time to claim a victory as he led her out of the Drawing Room and up the stairs to his bedchamber.

Once inside, Elizabeth suddenly acted, wrenching her wrist from his grip and dashing to the door that led to his dressing room and then to her own bedchamber, situated at the other end of the room, and enclosed in the wall.

Reaching it, she clasped the handle, began to turn, and then all hope of escape was gone, as he grabbed her from behind. Turning her around, he grabbed her wrists. She could not fight, unless she wished to break them, for this time his grip was unrelenting.

"No," she uttered quietly, her fine eyes pleading to his own for a compassion towards her feelings which he had never yet shown.

His voice was firm and dangerous. "Yes."

"NO!" she screamed, hoping that a servant might hear, for the household had yet to retire and her maid would doubtless be preparing her chamber.

"Screaming will only make it worse," was all the reply she received. The Earl dragged her to the bed, threw her down amongst the furnishings, taking care to secure her hands to one of the bedposts with the ties which adorned the curtains that decorated that piece of furniture. He then removed himself briefly from her sight to lock the doors which would prevent her escape, and the intrusion of the household staff for whose help she had screamed in hope of receiving.

Elizabeth, her face against the pillows, her wrists and shoulders sore, knew that further resistance would only incur greater suffering. Yet she also knew what else she would have to endure this night, having encountered similar abuses from her husband since the first night of their marriage. She knew that what was to come would make the injuries which she had suffered so far this evening pale in comparison, making her instinctively struggle against the binding rope which held her wrists.

Though she could not see what he was doing, she could hear his return to the bed, marked by the rustling noise made as he shed his elaborate evening attire in favour of a shirt and breeches. She could feel the moment in which he resumed his attentions to her, as he climbed upon the bed and pulled at her fastenings of her dress. His handling was rough, caring little for the cost of the material or the damage to her as he forced his way past the garments to grip the flesh concealed beneath them.

She screamed again as he found her breasts, her resistance incurring a harsh slap by way of retribution. His hands applied pressure in little consideration as to her pleasure, using them as a means of support for his other ministrations, which he soon administered, as he compelled her legs to part beneath his own before he penetrated her more deeply.

Such a harsh intrusion served to wrench all further resistance from Elizabeth, whose cries of suffering were masked by the furnishings which her body was pressed into, until her strength was depleted, whereupon darkness came to her aid.

Chapter Text

Chapter IV.

The red marks upon her shoulders and breasts had disappeared by the morning. No evidence of the cruelty she had received remained, except for those bruises which could be concealed by her garments. Elizabeth, seated at her dressing table, tried to compose herself for seeing her sister with the appearance of happiness. Truth be known, the emotion was far from her mind. The night before, its events the same as countless others since her wedding night, continued to prey on her.

She had thought herself prepared for what marriage would entail. No one had informed her that it would be like this. Two years ago, she would have thought it to be unnatural, now she just accepted it. Accepted that there was no escape, accepted that she would just have to endure, in hope of better things. Charlotte Lucas had told her once that happiness in marriage was entirely a matter of chance. How perfectly right she was.

Lucius had gone to his club once more, leaving Elizabeth to enjoy a breakfast alone with her sister. Carefully she kept up her mask, trying to be the person that she had always presented to Jane, throughout the morning meal. She had no desire to impart to her sister the full horrors of her marriage, for there was little which Jane could do to remedy the affair, other than provide compassion, which was little comfort. As she had said to Mr Darcy only the day before, her sister had little conception of the evil which existed within the world, and Elizabeth had little desire to attempt to awaken her to the idea of such existences now.

After breakfast the two sisters departed the house, walking in the direction of Gracechurch Street. This visit to her Aunt and Uncle was another matter that Elizabeth hoped she would be able to keep a secret from her husband. He disapproved of anyone visiting her and of her going into Cheapside, although her sister was not denied such excursions. Once she had attempted to prevail upon him for openness in such visits, submitting to all his abuses upon her flesh, but to no avail, except to incur further injury and misery to herself. She had been grateful when her sister did not mention Mr Darcy accompanying 'dear Charles'. Had his presence been revealed to the Earl she would have endured a far worse degree of suffering last night than what had been meted out for her pains.

During the walk Elizabeth found herself reflecting greatly on the gentleman she had now received two visits from. She knew little of Mr Darcy's reputation, Jane having described just his wealth and residence in her correspondence. Beyond that he had ten thousand a year and a great estate in Derbyshire, she knew nothing about him.

During their first meeting, late at night after he had escorted her drunken husband home, she had not really dwelt upon him, for they had scarcely spoke ten words to each other. He had been all that befitted a gentleman of his standing in Society and nothing more.

Only yesterday had she observed something different in him. She knew him now to be a good friend, a good judge of character, and an astute observer. He must, by default, possess excellent intellect, indeed he had displayed a propensity to sardonic wit during their discourse over tea.

She felt an interest in him for mere the fact of his being so different from her husband. Yet she could not allow herself to dwell upon that attraction, not just for fear of discovery, but from the vulnerability which any such indulgence would lay her open to, her society so confined and unvarying as to render anything new a tender novelty. No, she must guard what few thoughts and emotions which she could still call her own, and think of him less, lest she open herself to a danger which no cruelty visited upon her thus far gave her any idea of.

They reached Gracechurch street in due course. Mr and Mrs Gardiner were delighted to see them both; their dispositions instantly placing in Elizabeth the feeling that she had travelled back in time to happier days, when she had spent many a vacation in their company touring the theatre and balls in town, and the delights of the countryside when their children and business could not prevent them from enjoying such travelling. Here she felt able to be herself for the first time in two years, without restraint upon her character or her education, which the Earl had endeavoured to not only to expand but to suppress as well.

For a while there was nothing but laughter and music in the drawing room of the Gardiner household, as Jane and Elizabeth involved themselves in amusing their many little cousins, who, as their Aunt was close to their age, were still in their youth and likely to be increased in number soon.

Madeline Gardiner watched as they did so, out of the concern of a close Aunt who cared deeply for her eldest nieces. She found Jane to be all that was happy and contented, the prospect of future marriage to Mr Bingley clearly a joy. But Elizabeth drew from her further consideration. She knew her niece well enough to know when she was putting on all the contentment in her expression in an effort to not give her relatives worry. Two years of absence from their company could not change that.

Madeline was not angry at her niece for the disguise, but she was concerned as to why she felt the need for it. She could only remember meeting her nephew in law once; at the occasion of the wedding, and very brief it had been too. Much too brief to form a judgement on his character and suitability for her niece.

Now she tried to remember how Elizabeth had behaved on that day. Had she been as happy as was to be expected for a love match? Madeline could not answer in the negative. The stark contrast between then and now was all too clear for her to observe.

Mrs Gardiner wondered if any of the Bennets knew about it, and as soon as this thought had crossed her mind, she realised that they could not. For indeed if they did, Mr Bennet would have certainly demanded a visit to Hanover Square, Elizabeth being his favourite daughter. However Mrs Gardiner doubted that there would be much which her brother in law could accomplish, for now that she was married, Elizabeth was required to submit to the will of her husband.

Morning faded into afternoon. The children departed to their rooms to rest, leaving the adults to talk. Elizabeth ceased feeling calm and content, knowing now that there was more chance for her Aunt to ask her about her marriage, not to mention that the visit would soon come to an end. She knew full well that she could not tell the truth, lest she reconcile herself to bringing down upon her family a scandal which not even her wild sisters could surpass.

Not only were the events of her marriage a suffering which few of her family could contemplate, let alone endure to see her living through without the desire to prevent them, she also wished no one to assign blame to anyone but herself. It was she after all who had encouraged the match, and agreed to the proposal, now she must do the best that she could. She had made her bed, and now she must lie in it, however painful that task became to be.

The afternoon was almost over when Elizabeth and Jane returned to Hanover Square. To the former's relief, Lucius had not yet returned from his clubs, leaving her to enjoy an evening alone with Jane.

Her sister noticed the visible if slight movement of Elizabeth's shoulders in relief when they were told that the Earl had yet to return, and her concern for Elizabeth grew to such an extent that she had to ask, "Lizzy, are you happy?"

"Of course I am, Jane," Elizabeth replied, and with that, Jane had to be satisfied. She excused herself to get a book from her room.

When she had gone Elizabeth laid her head in her hands, breathing deeply to prevent herself from crying. She hated lying to her sister. However it was necessary. Jane did not need the distress which the truth of her marriage would undoubtedly cause. Elizabeth had kept this to herself for two years, she could survive the next weeks spent with her sister.

Afternoon drifted into evening, and still the Earl did not return. Elizabeth spent a good dinner with her sister, and then they both amused themselves with volumes of literature until tiredness stole upon them. Jane retired, and Elizabeth followed to her room, although she remained awake awhile longer, until her tiredness was such that she would fall straight asleep.

She placed herself by the bedroom room window, casting discreet looks upon the street, expecting every moment to see the arrival of his carriage, or hear the sound of his stick and foot upon the marbled entrance hall floor. The events of the novel in her hand rarely entered her head, so frequent was her lapse of concentration upon it. But each hour passed and still there was no sign.

At last she felt herself tired enough and closed her book. Rapidly she locked all the doors that accessed the room. Only then did she feel safe enough to undress, changing into her night gown. Checking the doors were secure one last time, she got into bed.

She was sound asleep when he returned hours later, sober despite reeking of alcohol from every orifice. He tried the main door to her suite, then the one that led from his dressing room to her own. Both were locked. For once he did not try to force his way through. Instead he returned to his own suite, and went to bed.

Chapter Text

Chapter V.

Upon reflection Darcy was not sure how he had got through one day without seeing her. Ensconced in the study, his private domain, where no one could disturb him and with only work to occupy his distracted mind, his thoughts constantly drifted out of that room, out of his townhouse, out of Grosvenor Square, to that of Hanover, to her.

Scattered before him on the bureau were papers, correspondence from his capable steward in Derbyshire, dating from Michaelmas, when he and Bingley had left for Netherfield. That seemed so long ago now. Yet it was not even the end of the year. He chose one from the pile, scanning the closely written words. One of his tenants had fallen behind in their rent, due to the unexpected increase of their family a month ago. Her face suddenly floated before his eyes. The temptation was irresistible; he dwelt upon the image.

A mantle clock struck the hour, and the dream faded away. Sighing Darcy picked up his pen and wrote upon a fresh sheet of paper his reply to the tenant, congratulating the family on their new addition, assuring them that the rent could wait. Four years ago his steward would have shook his head at the leniency, but now he would merely remain silent. The Darcy family, their estates and wealth vast, could well afford the delay. And they had always been generously loyal to their tenants.

He wondered if he could persuade Bingley to visit Miss Bennet again. The weather was so unusually fine for this time of year; just right for a walk in Hyde Park. Once there he could..... he could what? She was married. And besides, Bingley was also confined to his townhouse this day; drafting the settlements with his solicitors, his eagerness outweighing the need to ride the four and twenty miles to Longbourn in order to obtain the father's consent without them.

Darcy picked up another letter. A receipt of the successful land buy from his neighbouring landowner. This would increase the boundary of his estate by two more miles round. He wrote a entry in his ledger, and then added it to the complete pile. Silently he ridiculed himself at the meagre amount of work he had done in four hours. It seemed so impossible, so hard to concentrate on anything but her. But he had to. His estate could not be neglected for another month, lest he be reduced to sacrificing a long Christmas with his sister in order to complete it before the new year.

Georgiana. The mere thought of her brought him harshly back to the present. It was barely half a year since Ramsgate and he was neglecting her already. The fascination with the Countess seemed paltry by comparison. At the moment she was with his Uncle and Aunt at their estate in Matlock, having travelled from Hertfordshire to spend the rest of the year at their Uncle's estate, after the existence of a certain scoundrel was discovered within the ranks of the militia.

Though at the time Georgiana had valiantly attempted to endure spending time in the same neighbourhood as him, festivities had soon prevented her from continuing such endeavours, as upon arranging his ball, Bingley was required by civilities to issue a general invitation to all officers. In the event Wickham elected not to attend, but his sister had not been able to stomach the thought of spending the night in the same house as him, so to Matlock she had gone before his absence was discovered.

He laid aside his work and quietly calculated how long his stay in London would be. Bingley would want him to accompany him upon his return to Hertfordshire, which his friend had arranged to be but a day after Miss Bennet's departure for the same county. It was now the end of November, which gave him two and twenty days.

The time would suffice, and he needed to see his cousin, whose contacts in the military would discover if the militia had left Meryton. He knew Georgie would want to attend the wedding of his friend, and he could not bear the thought of her having to endure the presence of the man who had betrayed her feelings during her time spent in Ramsgate.

Which would be when he could see the Countess again. Idly he contemplated the idea of her standing up with her sister, an office which he would also perform for his friend. A minute later he shook his head to get the image of the two of them standing so close in church and what such closeness might lead to out of his imagination.

This was getting ridiculous. She was married. How many more times would his mind strive to forget that most salient of facts? True, her husband was, in his humble opinion, the most disreputable man on earth- a certain childhood friend excepted -but it was not impossible that the Earl could have some amiable, perhaps even admirable, qualities?

Darcy tried not to discount that point immediately. Yet public reputation was not in his favour. The Earl had made the headlines of the Society gossip columns for all the wrong reasons from the moment he had come of age. A known gambler, and rake, only his fortune and title had saved him from being considered anything other than eligible. A member of Prinny's1 set, he had been rumoured to indulge in liaisons with married women.

Since his marriage, as far as Darcy knew, none of this had stopped. Setting aside the fact that it was common practice amongst the Ton to conduct themselves in this manner, as well as his increasing fascination for the woman in question, Darcy could not see why any man would continue, married to such an inducement.

The clock struck another hour, bringing him back to the present and the mound of estate work once more. He picked up the next letter. A report of the state of his stores from the harvest of his estate last summer. Wheat, hops, rye, flax and oats had yielded excellent results, but the fruit, particularly strawberries and raspberries, was poor.

This result had been not the fault of his tenant farmers, but the weather. Darcy consoled his steward and tenants in his reply and surveyed the letter underneath, which reported a good yield in blackberries and soles, making up for the loss elsewhere.

Somehow, Darcy managed to make his way through the rest of his estate work without his thoughts distracting him. Two hours later he emerged from his study, and ate the cold late luncheon his servants had left him. Bingley would be joining him for dinner this evening. Perhaps then he would be able to forget the Countess of Saffron Walden.

At least for a little while.

Charles Bingley, while still marvelling over his happiness, could not fail to notice that his friend was rather pensive that night. The quota for conversation at dinner was filled largely by himself, with his friend uttering only a few comments. Darcy, Bingley well knew, was prone to reserve, but rarely with his closest friends; a title with which Charles had the honour to call himself.

Not until they retired for the night, as he had elected to avoid remaining at his townhouse while his sister hosted a soiree, did Charles discover a hint as to the motive behind his friend's preoccupation. Roused from sleep by the sound of music, an unusual occurrence when Miss Darcy was not in the house, he ventured downstairs in search of the source, which he discovered to be located within the drawing room.

In one corner stood a pianoforte, a requirement of Georgiana's and one that her brother always indulged. But Charles had never known his friend to play the instrument himself. Until this night. For there was Darcy, playing out a tune, without any need for sheet reference.

Bingley listened in silent surprise. He determined the identity after only the first few bars, a piece, by Beethoven.2 He could remember Georgiana- knowing her from her youth, he had always called her Georgiana or Georgie -playing the tune often, but never with this depth of feeling or masterful skill. Miss Darcy was an excellent musician, but her brother seemed to far surpass her with this piece.

As he had previously witnessed, there was no sheet of music to serve as a guide for Darcy's fingers, yet his friend's memory of the piece never wavered for a moment. Observing Darcy's face, Bingley could see his eyes were closed, but the emotion felt by the music was clearly written all over the rest of his features.

Charles wondered who had taught his friend. Music was not a skill required by heirs of great landowners, and he would have remembered if Darcy had acquired such a talent during their time at Cambridge. No, the learning must have come earlier, which was a true testament to Darcy's memory to invoke this display.

The piece came to an end, Darcy only having played a sample of the second movement, which in Bingley's opinion, was the most moving of the entire composition. Only then did his friend realise that he was not alone, for he glanced up at Bingley with surprise.

"Darcy, I never knew you could play," Bingley remarked, trying to ease his friend's sudden embarrassment.

"My mother taught me," was the quiet and serious reply.

"You have a marvellous memory then," Bingley rejoined, remembering that the late Lady Anne Darcy had died when Georgie was but six years old, miscarrying their younger sibling. "You seemed almost to be in a trance."

"I believe I was," his friend uttered quietly. A trance brought on by the Countess of Saffron Walden. He felt bewitched. Abruptly he moved away from the instrument to the selection of brandy and port on the sideboard.

"Drink?" he offered, in a tone that spoke volumes to his friend.

All conversation on the event had to be ceased. Charles obliged, and changed the subject, never speaking of the moment again that night. But the occurrence haunted him throughout the journey back to his townhouse the next morning and long into the conclusion of the night.


1. Prinny was the nickname for His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, currently Prince Regent and soon to be George IV. His father George III had ruled the country excellently for thirty years, before the suffering caused by his inherited porphyria rendered him unfit to rule and made his government to request for his heir to serve as regent. Prinny was of the racy set at court, and reputations in the Regency were known to be in frequent disrepute.

2. Moonlight Sonata otherwise known as Sonata No. 14 in C# minor (1801). Beethoven dedicated the piece to a Countess with whom he was in love, however, as I have recently discovered, it gained that name long after this story was set, around the 1830s.

Chapter Text

Chapter VI.

December 2nd

My dear Lizzy,

I write to you from a house of chaos. The scene you have witnessed before and I must trouble you with the task of delivering the news abroad for you know too well my dislike for the craft of the pen.

I trouble you for congratulations to the Lucases; they now have a daughter soon to be married; Maria. Our cousin Mr Collins is the lucky suitor fortunate enough to grace her hand.

He visited us some weeks ago, parting too soon and returning too promptly; a veritable source of amusement to us all, at least for those of us who possess the sense with which to appreciate his foibles, that is.

Many's a moment during the stay I wished you there, for the man is not sensible,- quite the reverse in fact, -and in raptures so over his patroness and dear cousin the Countess, though he has never set eyes on you in his life.

The man set his cap first at Jane, determined as he was to provide a matrimonial olive branch and also get the best of our remaining single daughters.

But your mother soon prevented that, a word in his ear and he was a changed man, in the time it took to stir the fire.

He tried for Mary, but she has announced her intention to take the veil - saving me a world of expense and inconvenience - and then set eyes on Maria during a party at Lucas Lodge a day or so later.

Enquiries must be made to your health; I presume it to be well, else your husband shall bear retribution for it. His health must be inquired after as well and Jane's; I know she will not begrudge that I give her no news myself, no doubt your mother will soon send her own post haste.

I hope you have encountered Mr Bingley and wrought his worth for Jane. They shall be happy I am sure; both are so complying that nothing will ever be resolved upon, so easy that every servant shall cheat them, and so generous that they will always exceed their income. Both of you I know will shake your heads at me for this, but you, my dear, cannot refute its truth.

Hopes of hearing news regarding the above soon; Mrs Bennet cannot be allowed to run her course in the deepest despair of failing to secure the heir of Longbourn only to start again in the joy of securing a man worth three thousand more his fortune so soon.

And thus I cease, remaining etc, etc,
Andrew Bennet.

Elizabeth was restored entirely to good humour after this missive, and related eagerly the whole to Jane before luncheon. During the meal itself, she give the news to her husband.

"Well it is an equal match for her I suppose," was Lord Lucius reaction. "And she is within easy distance of her family."

"An easy distance you call it?" Elizabeth replied, some of liveliness returned by her father's letter, "it is nearly fifty miles."

"And what is fifty miles of good road? Less than half a day's journey. Yes I call a very easy distance."

"Near and far are relative terms, it is possible for a woman to be settled too near her family," Elizabeth, mindful of Jane's future situation, replied.

"Yes it is unlucky that I have an estate in Hertfordshire," mused the Earl, in a tone which caused Jane to have difficulty in restraining a gasp at the obvious insult which was implied. Anxiously she glanced at her sister to see how she bore it. Elizabeth's liveliness had disappeared almost instantly, and when she did respond, it was with a clear but quiet desire to change the subject of their discourse.

Jane remarked only upon the words after the meal had long since ended; when the Earl had departed for his club. "Lizzy, does it not distress you how he refers to our family?"

"Often," Elizabeth replied, "but it is the way of things. I have learned to bear it."

Her face betrayed otherwise. Jane persisted. "Lizzy, I saw how he treated you. Why have you not said something of it to me before? Why have you not fought it?"

Elizabeth turned away. "Because it is of little consequence, Jane." She rose from her chair. "I must make sure Mrs Stancoombe has the dinner menu." And with no more than that, she left the room.

Once outside Elizabeth leant against the doors. Silently she took several deep breaths, trying to restore her previous composure. She did not feel able to face her sister's discovery of part of what she had suffered these two years.

Jane knew her far too well, two years had done little to change that. Elizabeth could already predict her reaction to the entirety. She would be much distressed, try to pry from her the whole history, then write to her father, Uncle and Aunt Gardiner for help.

Not that Elizabeth did not desire help. But she did not believe that anything could be done, at least without making the whole thing public. And she did not desire that. True she was not out in Society, but if the help succeeded, she would be, and the gossip would prove a damage not only to her reputation, but to the reputation of her whole family.

But that was only if it succeeded. If it did not, it would not only be reputation, but also the risk that she might be shut away in a institution instead. He had the influence to get her to be declared insane, an influence that her family, for all the Gardiner connections which their trade acquired, did not have the ability to fight if it ever became reality.

Which left her only one option. However this one option would be her last resort. She could run away, leave the country, if needs be. She had talent enough to be able to find herself suitable employment. But it was the losses that made her discount this whenever she thought about it.

She would lose what little contact she had with her friends and family for ever. She would not be able to tell any of them her whereabouts, or indeed if she was all right, for the Earl would instantly find out, and she gravely feared to imagine the consequences if he found her.

Besides, her life was not yet that unbearable.

Jane sat gazing at the door which her sister had closed a few minutes before. She sat shocked and amazed at the state of her sister's marriage. Why had Elizabeth never told her about this before? Why had she not seen any of this before? Had the signs been there, but she had been too concerned with other matters to see them?

However, Jane realised suddenly, this was the first time she had actually seen her sister in the flesh since her marriage, the Earl being allegedly far too busy to attend to any familial obligations. And she had noticed that her sister was not herself from the moment of her arrival at Hanover Square. Yet she had refrained from questioning her about it, preferring instead to try and determine what was the matter herself, by careful observation.

Elizabeth, Jane could already tell, would be reluctant to talk about it. Jane also knew that the fact that she was not yet married also barred her sister from seeking her confidence, at least in part. But despite that, Jane knew well that what she had just witnessed was not the sign of a happy marriage, far from it.

The truth was not at all what she had supposed it to be. Indeed, Jane saw it to be far worse. She wondered how far it extended into their marriage, and instantly her fears and concerns for her sister quadrupled before her eyes. Something had to be done. But what? Jane realised that so far, she only had suspicions. If she could but get her sister to admit it....

As if hearing that thought, Elizabeth returned, and resumed her seat beside her. Jane laid aside her needlework instantly, placing a hand upon hers. "Lizzy," she began in earnest, "please tell me the whole. I must know how long it has been like this."

Elizabeth shook her head. "Jane, I am perfectly fine, I assure you."

"Do you not trust me?" Jane asked. "Has been so long since we have been in each others company that you have forgotten how to confide in me?"

Elizabeth seemed to have difficulty in replying to this entreaty with the same composure as she had dealt the last. For a few moments did she sit breathing deeply, until replying, "Jane, I do not wish to start a quarrel. So you must believe me when I say all is well and nothing can be ill."

Jane rose from her seat to stand before her sister. "Elizabeth, I wish I could. But I see quite clearly that it is not the case. What is it that is keeping you from telling me the truth?"

"The..... There is nothing! I am fine!"

"Look me directly in the eye and say that!" Jane returned. It was the angriest that Elizabeth had ever seen her. And she was almost tempted to confess the truth. But she still did not have the strength for the consequences that would follow.

So it was with regret that she looked up at her sister, and, quite frankly, lied through her teeth. "I assure, you, Jane. There is nothing wrong."

The only response her sister could offer to that was a resigned sigh. Then she took up her needlework, and walked to the door. After placing her hand upon the implement tasked in the office of aiding the opening, Jane turned and faced her sister with a solemn facade. "I hope that, one day, you will find the courage within yourself to tell me the truth, Lizzy." Then she left.

Barely had the door shut than did Elizabeth almost abandon her previous notions, and run outside to confess all. Yet at the last, she held back. She did not wish to quarrel with Jane, indeed it was so rare that they did fight, and they both disliked doing so intensely. But this time there was no other way.

Chapter Text

Author's Note: Again, I must warn you that there will be another instance of abuse towards the end of this chapter, and for those of you who wish to avoid it, cease reading after the second horizontal line. To give you a frame of reference as to the other version, Elizabeth recalls a memory of this during an evening a Netherfield when Georgiana plays a piece of music that Elizabeth confesses to be her favourite, but unable to master sufficiently to play it with the same degree of skill. Enjoy.

Chapter VII.

For two days Jane had be content at that, and let the matter rest. Or, at least, show the appearance of contentedness. There was nothing that she possessed which could be offered as a new persuasion to obtain her sister's confidence. Nor was there nothing firm with which she could go to their father or the Gardiners with. All that she could do, all that her sister wished she would do, therefore, was to provide her company as always, and pretend that the entire affair had never occurred.

Then, Mr Bingley came to dinner. The Earl, having no wish to appear as anything but the good brother in law, had invited him some days ago, and this was the evening that Mr Bingley had been able to accept. He had just returned from Netherfield, where he had travelled to obtain Mr Bennet's consent, and finalise the settlements. He arrived and presented himself as he always had been, having had nothing but good news on all fronts.

To his delight, when he first presented his card, his beloved angel was alone in the Drawing Room which he was ushered into, enabling him time to acquaint her with as much affection as one can suppose to receive from a man in the happy position of being engaged to the woman whom he is violently in love with.

With much joy did he clasp her hand in greeting, raising it to his lips for a lingering kiss, followed by one to her own smiling lips. Together they sat down upon the sofa, he retaining her hand, clasping the other as her own came to caress his dear face. Time became endless as they gazed into each other's eyes, sending and receiving all the love which many days apart could not overcome, but only increase in strength.

"My dear Jane!" uttered he in greeting; in awe.

"Charles!" returned she, managing to convey the same amount of sentiment as he, but with but one word and tone.

Speechless, they lost themselves in each other's eyes once again. Then, with a happy sigh on both sides, resumed conversation.

"How is my father?" She did not need to inquire after her affianced, his very smiling countenance assured her that nothing could be ill on his part.

"He is very glad of our engagement," Mr Bingley replied, his smile seeming to grow wider as he spoke the last word which signified as the reason for their mutual happiness. "He agreed with all the settlement arrangements, and, if you are agreeable to it, a date has been tentatively set."

"Charles, I shall be happy whatever day is set, providing that it is still you I am marrying," was Jane's reply.

Charles took a moment to gaze happily into her eyes, and increase his smile, before continuing. "Then it will be a day after Miss Lucas' and Mr Collins', January the tenth."

"January the tenth," Jane echoed, with such a tone that expresses how perfect the day will be, but also the regret that it was over a month away. Only, a month? "Did not my mother object to the early date?"

"No, she believes that as you are presently in town, you will have the opportunity to furnish yourself with all that is necessary." Bingley paused to clasp her hands even more joyfully, as he saw a slight worry that crossed her angelic features. "Relax, Jane, your father managed to persuade her that Lizzy and Mrs Gardiner knew the right shops to get everything from."

Jane smiled happily at that. "Has anything else occurred while we have been apart?"

"Nothing in Hertfordshire," Bingley replied, "but when I visited Darcy before I left, I experienced a most strange event."

"What was that?"

"Well, after we had retired for the night, I awoke to hear music coming from first floor. Granted, music is not an uncommon sound within the Darcy household, for his sister has been proficient at the instruments almost as soon as she could walk. But Georgiana is away at the Matlock's estate, so I was curious and concerned as to who was taking such a liberty, though Darcy has always been generous with his staff. My quest took me into a Drawing Room, where, as is the custom of his house, for his sister's enjoyment, there is in a corner of the room a pianoforte, and discovered my friend at the instrument, performing a piece with not just the genius and taste that his sister had always displayed, but true feeling as well."

"How strange! And there was no reason at all?"

"None, at least that I could see. I never even knew he could play. I knew his sister was proficient, but not him."

"What did he play?"

"Beethoven's Sonata No. 14 in C# minor."

Jane gasped, realising the significance. "Did you talk of the time you had spent here?" she asked to confirm her suspicions.

Bingley thought for a few minutes before replying. "Yes, I believe we did. Why do you ask?"

"Oh, no reason," Jane replied, not quite ready yet to betray her thoughts as to the reason for Mr Darcy's activities. Due to Elizabeth's and Mary's enthusiasm for the instrument she had learnt to whom that particular piece had been dedicated, and thus was much amazed at the light it now placed upon events.

She had seen Charles' friend talking much to her sister during that afternoon of proposal, and the fascination he had seem to hold for her. This now added to the music, showed to her clearly what Mr Darcy felt for Elizabeth.

Jane knew it was wrong, for her sister was married, but, in witnessing the unhappiness apparent in her sister's air since her arrival at Hanover Square, Jane could not help but be glad at the romance of it. She did not think it at all unreasonable for a man to admire her sister, indeed, to be in love with her, if he chose to be.

And she could not help but wonder at what the gentleman would do about it.

The privacy that Jane and Mr Bingley had enjoyed came all too soon to an end, as the Earl and Elizabeth came down and joined them in the Drawing Room. For a while did they sit in discussion before moving to the Dining Room for the invited meal.

Lucius entered into conversation long enough to ascertain what precisely was Mr Bingley's station in life, and, finding it to be only the son of a self money making man from a respectable line of trade, but of trade nonetheless, decided that the fellow was not of his station, nor worthy of his attention, and turned into the silent observer for the rest of the evening. His guest noticed not the contempt, having always greeted and regarded people with the mind to approve of everything and everyone that he met, and nearly always apprehending nothing beyond the presence of the angel that was soon to be his wife.

Elizabeth noticed, but chose not to remark upon it. She preferred to watch the entire evening with a cautious eye, careful not to let anything that the Earl did not know about, out from its hiding places. Those nights when she escaped his 'attentions' were too few, installing in her the need to savour every one.

However, it was impossible for her to completely careful. As the desert was laid out, Mr Bingley mentioned in passing his friend Mr Darcy, and his presence at Hanover the day of his proposal to Jane. He had no idea of the effect it would have, or what it would cause, and the Earl took care to assure that none realised or noticed either.

Elizabeth heard the remark, and barely refrained from shuddering in response. She did not dare to glance at her husband, and when she had occasion to do so without being seen, she saw all that could cause her to fear and to regret. But there was nothing that could be done to take it back.

She would just have to bear whatever consequences it brought. Making sure that she showed that the remark meant nothing to her, she let the conversation continue until a reasonable enough time had passed to begin the separation of sexes.

Her time away from the Earl was not long enough for her liking, however. His Lordship, having no desire to talk with his future brother in law, soon acquiesced to Mr Bingley's need to be returned to Jane, and they entered the Drawing Room only half an hour after the ladies had arrived there. The gentlemen immediately assumed a place beside each of their ladies, Mr Bingley entering into the conversation, Lucius observing like a hunter, waiting for the right moment to strike and pounce upon his prey.

It was soon time for Mr Bingley to leave, a task which he completed with all the proper reluctance of a man about to be parted from his future bride for the night. Elizabeth willingly obliged her sister some time to say farewell alone, seating herself at the piano, in order to delay what was to come.

Her sister unconsciously furthered the delay, returning after Mr Bingley had gone, smiling and exclaiming to all over the gift he had just given her. It was an engagement ring, with the brightest blue gemstone she had ever seen, set in a perfect thin band of gold.

Eagerly did she show it to her sister, remarking upon how well 'dear Charles' knew her, and how she could not remember ever remarking that she liked the particular gem before, showing all the more how they were destined for each other. Elizabeth willingly praised the gift to Jane's content, truly happy that her sister would so obviously have better success than she in choice of husband.

Jane then asked for her favourite song, and Elizabeth obliged, grateful to have a reason for her decision to be at the piano. As she played, she felt herself for a moment transported back to her past, when she and Jane had as children, laughed and sang together at the piano, as she tried to further the talent that she had the most patience for.

Reluctantly did she let the piece end, returning to the present, her mind sad at the contrast. Careful not to let her sister know, however, Elizabeth did not beg her to remain, when Jane decided that she would retire.

Alone at the instrument, Elizabeth quickly began to play another tune, not letting the silence that the pause had created linger. It was a piece that was her favourite, but for which she had never been quite able to master the fingering required to the excellence that she wished, and therefore it required all her concentration. Slowly did she work through the movements that presented a struggle, not turning to the next until she felt she had mastered them sufficiently for her patience.

The Earl did not let her continue thus for long. Laying aside the book which had occupied his attention until her sister's absence, he rose from his chair, and moved to stand behind her. Catching her by surprise he placed his hands firmly upon her shoulders.

Elizabeth's hands stilled. Desperately she tried to begin again, but his grip was too firm. Desirous of not pre-empting anything, she remained silent.

"I told you," began he, "that I would find out." With one hand he maintained a grip upon her shoulders, his strength serving to hold her in place whilst his other reached down below to tear up her dress till the garment was bunched up around her waist. Pressing her against the instrument, he sank down upon the seat behind her, his clasp releasing her now reddened shoulder in order to encircle her neck. As for the other, that continued to thrust what little was left of her clothing away, until his fingers could penetrate the prize which the material had previously concealed.

As usual his handling was rough and her resistance only served to increase the pressure of his touch. With strength he imposed himself upon her, pinning her arms against the instrument, the notes which this produced serving as a signal of the doom which she now endured. In silence, for due to the grip which he imposed upon her neck, she could not find the breath with which to air her terror, she submitted to his abuse.

Chapter Text

Chapter VIII.

Jane woke the next morning to see through her window that snow had come early to London this winter. She watched it with some fascination and some sorrow, for today marked the time that she was to depart from her sister and return, with the Gardiners, to Longbourn for the winter festivities. Before she had arrived at Hanover, Jane had felt this stay would be enough to heal the separation between herself and Elizabeth which had fallen over them since her marriage to the Earl. Instead she feared that they had drifted even further apart, and that distance would only increase upon her departure.

Her own marriage to Mr Bingley was imminent, and with that she would move to her own household, with the same pressing concerns to manage that her sister had, though of a entirely lesser degree of wealth. For all her prospective husband's affability, she doubted that they would stay at Netherfield; her mother would not resist the opportunity of so short a distance between them to visit. Jane could in truth bear that no more than her sister. She also desired for her husband to fulfil his father's wishes of purchasing an estate, not out of ambitious sentiment, but through her proclivity to do good by everyone, and see it in everything, for the owners of Netherfield showed no sign of selling.

In town she and her sister would move in different circles, if the Earl ever took her into society, for she was not insensible of the rumours which surrounded Elizabeth. Whenever she was at Longbourn, she would witness her mother eagerly scouring newspapers for accounts of their activity in society, and daily did she lament their absence from the gossip sheets. And with marriage came children, though that was yet another difference between herself and her sister. She would not have time for the visits, nor would she desire to have her children stay in a house where she knew her focus was directed more to her sister than them.

This visit seemed to mark then the last time she would see her sister, a separation which Jane did not foresee, nor desire to endure. In their youth when Lizzy had joked of teaching her ten children to embroider cushions and play their instruments very ill, Jane had imagined a future not so dissimilar, involving both their offspring, emulating their Aunt and mother with their accomplishments, without the concern of having to marry well in order to save their entailed estates. The harsh reality did not sit well with her, nor would time inure her to its unpleasantness.

Somewhat reluctantly she entered the breakfast parlour, greeting her sister as she sat down to partake of the morning repast. Elizabeth responded in the same vein, but Jane detected almost at once that all was still not well. Glancing at her discreetly throughout the meal, Miss Bennet descried the marks around the eyes which indicated a lack of sleep and tears, and the occasional flinch from some invisible pain when her sister moved from the sideboard to sit down and partake of her decidedly meagre selection.

In contrast the Earl, when he came down to join them, was in very good spirits. Having seated himself at the head of the table with the two of them on either side, he proceeded to converse with his sister in law, asking her if she was happy to be seeing her family once more, and how he and his wife would miss her when she had gone. It was the longest conversation she had ever had with him, causing Jane to inwardly speculate as to why he had suddenly exerted himself to make such an effort to be sociable with her.

As the conversation continued, Jane began to observe that whenever he spoke, Elizabeth flinched, and she constantly fought to prevent an expression of fear from appearing on her features. Silently she conjectured as to the cause, her mind unable to ignore the possibility that he was in some manner responsible for the pain which her sister seemed to be enduring this morning, both in her body and in her spirit.

The conclusion of the meal brought a change to the morning, for usually the Earl would depart for his club, but today he lingered at the table, preventing Jane from inquiring as to the source of her sister's pain from Elizabeth alone. When she sought to rise from the table in order to consult with the housekeeper as to the evening dinner courses, the Earl clasped her hand tightly, causing her to stay until Jane had to leave the room in order to ready her departure.

When the time came, with a heavy heart did she embrace Elizabeth, pressing her close, entreating her most earnestly to write, and, in a quieter voice, reminding her that she could confide in her at any time. Her sister flinched at the embrace, and when Jane drew back, she found difficulty in restraining a gasp as she noticed the bruising upon her sister's neck, which the presence of a jewelled choker had hitherto concealed. Unable to ask her sister about the injury without incurring the attention of her brother, she had no choice but to bid the Earl a quiet farewell, and step into her carriage.

The ride to her Aunt and Uncle's had never seemed longer. All throughout the journey Jane worried over her sister, at times almost ordering the carriage to halt and turn back, so she could try and persuade Elizabeth to come with her. The only thing that kept her from doing so, was the reaction of the Earl.

With such a state of conflict in her mind, it was impossible for her to conceal it, and thus impossible for Madeline Gardiner not to notice the distress when she welcomed her eldest niece to the house.

Being a shrewd judge of character, Mrs Gardiner did not inquire immediately, letting Jane retrieve her luggage from the carriage, see to its instalment within a bedchamber, and divest herself of her travelling clothes. Only when she was seated inside the parlour in the company of just her, did Mrs Gardiner begin to question.

Knowing her Aunt to be the best confidant and adviser, Jane could not refrain from confiding upon in her all that had passed during her stay at Hanover, and the suspicions that she had drawn from it. Mrs Gardiner, knowing that her niece never exaggerated, expressed surprise and shock at the state of her other favourite Bennet girl.

"What do we do, Aunt?" Jane now asked.

Madeline hesitated in answering, hating the fact that she could not avoid inflicting sorrow upon her companion. Then with a sigh she slowly replied, "I am afraid, Jane, that there is little we can do. Elizabeth will not admit it herself, which is half the battle lost, and the law prevents us from doing anything else. Since her marriage she, and everything she is entitled to, has been the property of the Earl, and will remain that way until either her or his death.

"If we try to take her away, he will appeal to those connections which his rank gives him, and we will be forced to give her back. Even if we helped her to escape somewhere else, this is the first place he would come look, and he would use those connections to make it impossible for us to further help her."

Jane uttered a cry of exclamation. "I do not like this!" she declared with feeling, rising from her seat to pace, concern for her sister making act out of character. "I dislike feeling so useless to her. I am her elder, I should be able to protect her!"

Mrs Gardiner reached out and took her hand. "So do I, Jane, but I am afraid that there is little we can do to prevent this. I promise you however, that I will talk to her when they come for your wedding."

Jane thanked her with a look, and then resumed her seat. Her younger cousins rushed in at that moment, preventing further conversation.

Only later, when the Gardiner children had gone to bed for the night, and Mr Gardiner had arrived home from his place of work, did Jane mention the subject again, after her Aunt had told her husband of their suspicions. Mr Gardiner was just as close as his wife was to their eldest nieces, and naturally disgusted at the speculation as to the true nature of her once spectacular marriage. But he was also angry too, for there was nothing he could do to assist, except sit and listen to her sister's and his wife's concerns.

"I don't suppose that there is anything my father can do either?"

His brother in law shook his head. "No, I am afraid not. He is bound by the same restrictions as us. I also believe that we should not tell him of this. Elizabeth is his favourite, and the sense of uselessness that he will inevitably feel frustration at if we do, could cause him great harm."

"I just wish we could do something."

"I know you do Jane," Aunt Gardiner replied. "We all do. But the only thing that we can, despite its futility, is hope."

Chapter Text

Chapter IX.

Matlock was different from Pemberley, though the houses were built in the same style, with hints in both the interiors and exteriors to the designs which predated the current coatings of modernity. But where Pemberley reposed unaffectedly within the nature which surrounded the house, Matlock like Rosings, demanded all the attention required to be paid on the country estate of a prosperous earl.

If when he arrived, Darcy had expected to find some peace here that he could not find at Pemberley, a mere forty miles distant, where every patch of land or every room lent itself to wondering what she would make of it, then he would be sorely disappointed. But he had come for distraction, and so it proved, though the mode and the source varied constantly throughout his stay.

Georgiana was a delight to see, fully recovered from Ramsgate and the brief intrusion of a certain scoundrel in the militia in Meryton whilst they were guests of his friend. Aware now that in two years she would be a debutante, he had slipped the role of father off from his broad shoulders and gradually allowed himself to become a brother to her, as they spent time with each other and their cousins and their uncle and aunt.

She was not the only beauty to see, there were his new cousins Jocelyn and Olivia, the son and daughter of his cousin the viscount and his wife. Jolian had been married but two years, an heiress of fortune and pedigree, whom he highly regarded if not fully loved. She in turn cared for him as much as any wife in a match which was frequently and commonly transacted within the circles of the wealthy and the pedigreed.

But despite all that of their union being something which he did not desire for himself or his sister, they were people he was proud to call cousins, though he was not quite as close to them as he was to Richard, yet. He was honoured that they chose him and Georgiana to be godparents. Many an hour he had spent in their company, his creative eye unable to resist imagining them to be of a much closer connection. If he had come to Matlock to rid himself of this fantasy, it seemed that his heart would do all in its power to prevent it.

When he returned to London, the fantasy was still present, especially when the carriage passed the familiar route into the square that was her home. Alone with only Georgiana in the carriage, he was not insensible of her curiosity, nor that she held such feelings while in Matlock, whenever he appeared lost in thought, or at a loss of what she talking of. If he ever followed through with his plans he would have to explain it to her one day, to open her eyes to another part of the world which he had tried desperately to shelter her from.

A desire born from protection and love he realised, but he wondered now if in hindsight such a practice had been wise. Her ignorance had not prevented Ramsgate any more than her knowledge might have, there was simply no way of knowing. Yet he did question what was the point in sheltering girls until they were deemed women, only to usher them into a world where all vices and proclivities were practiced, however openly or privately, and expect them not only to deal with it, but to accept it and do nothing but continue such misguided teaching.

It was fortunate that when he reached this conclusion the carriage had come to a halt outside the townhouse, and the figure of a familiar friend was waiting outside to greet them, an almost gleeful smile splayed across his face.

"Charles!" Georgiana cried as she descended from the carriage, falling into his arms.

Mr Bingley smiled as he opened his arms to receive the embrace of a young woman whom he had always looked upon as his sister. "Georgiana! How was Matlock?"

"Oh, its usual self," she replied with a shrug of her shoulders. For the siblings nothing quite compared with the wild and untamed beauty that surrounded Pemberley. "Jolian and Onamae are well, and I got to see little Jocelyn and Olivia. How has London been?"

"Splendid, absolutely splendid," he replied, receiving her confusion in response. Somewhat terrified at the prospect of her debutante season in two years time, Georgiana regarded London with a fair amount of healthy suspicion.

"I think I can guess the reason behind such praise," Darcy remarked as he came into hearing, before all of them began to walk the short distance from the street where the coach was standing into the entrance hall of his residence. "He has spent many an evening in Hanover Square, or Gracechurch Street."

Bingley smiled. "Yes, I cannot wait to meet her," Georgiana replied, in reference of her friend's intended.

"And you soon shall," the gentleman assured, "for she departs town for Longbourn after us on the morrow." He glanced ahead, and seeing that his friend was out of hearing distance, added, "and how has your brother been? Distracted?"

"Yes," Georgiana confirmed in low tones, "How did you know?"

"He has been all while he was here," Bingley commented as they came up to the Drawing Room. "Ever since we encountered Jane's sister."

"Miss Bennet's sister?"

"The Countess of Saffron Walden."

"You mean the mysterious one that since his marriage the Earl has only once displayed to Society?"

"The very same. I do believe your brother, according to dearest Jane, is attracted to her."

"Really?" Georgiana glanced at her brother. "He has been distracted most of the time at Matlock. He would not tell me why." She turned back to Mr Bingley. "What do think will happen?"

"I do not know," Bingley answered honestly. "Knowing your brother, I believe that until he has sufficient reason to call the Earl out, he will continue to simply brood upon the matter."

Conversation on the subject ceased at that moment, as the two neared the object of their ruminations. Georgiana happily detailed all that had passed during her stay with her Aunt and Uncle. She commented on the well-being of her cousins, the Viscount and his wife, and on the antics of her little godchildren.

Mr Bingley listened to the conversation, while Darcy gave every appearance of listening, but was actually in spirit, miles away from his sister. Ever since he had departed London, he found it impossible to drive any thoughts of the Countess from his mind. The need to see her, which had arisen from the moment of his parting after their first meeting, had increased tenfold, and if it were not for the occasion of his friend's wedding, he would soon be imposing himself upon her doorstep.

All throughout his stay with his Uncle and Aunt had Darcy argued with himself over the propriety of his desires concerning the Countess. Affairs, he knew well, were rife in his Society, particularly among the Ton, but it was something he had vowed to himself that he would never embark upon.

Now, however, he was seriously contemplating such a notion. Such musings had led to many eloquent debates within his mind, as he thought of the consequences and the possible damage that might be inflicted if he chose to embark upon such a course. Calling the Earl out to duel, although being the preferred option, was not practical, due to its illegality, but the alternative, while the more common, was not palatable to his sense of morals and values either.

But he could not cease thinking of her, and wishing to see her. And he knew, if he did see her as much as he wished, what it would soon lead him to, whether he objected or not to his rationale. This was the first time he had ever felt the need to act against his principles, and as a result, he found himself extremely reluctant to take such an action, however much his feelings might incline him towards it.

All through the evening that Bingley spent with them, and the next day after that, as they departed for Netherfield, did Darcy ruminate upon the subject; arguing the pros and cons of the matter with himself, while the countryside drifted past the carriage window. Beside him his sister glanced at him after every page turn of the novel in her hands. She was concerned, not for the outcome of the situation, but for her brother.

In her view, he had not experienced much happiness in his life, having been her guardian for nearly six years, and master of Pemberley and all the Darcy estates since three and twenty. She was well aware of all that such duties entailed, and the troubles each had brought upon him during the years of his tenure. Like any good sister she wanted him to fall in love, and marry where he found it, believing that such state would not only help to relieve him of some of his burdens, but allow him a freedom which his current troubles denied.

She had not expected him to fall for a woman already in that state. She was not naive about the behaviour of society; the whispers she heard from those at her school and her experiences with Mr Wickham had cured her of that, but she knew how strongly her brother had believed in not following any of their usual vices. Thus this matter, she believed, would cause him more pain than any other concern he had so far had to tackle because it demanded that he ignore his long held beliefs.

Yet, despite all this, she wanted to meet this woman. Anyone whom her brother was entranced by must be by default an intriguing person, worthy of his approval and attraction. Especially since the Countess' reputation was one frequently conjectured upon by all of her friends and family. Her Aunt had speculated to all of those in her acquaintance while she was in attendance about the Countess many an occasion. Very few had seen her when she was presented at Court, and no one had seen her since then.

Georgiana, when she had first heard the stories, had believed it to be a great romance, the stuff of fairy tales. A husband who was so enamoured of his wife that he could not bear to be parted from her by the usual proclivities which were demanded of them through society. Now however, she was more suspicious of the affair. She knew her brother would never attach himself to someone who was already happily attached. No, something had to be wrong, and Georgiana could only wonder at what.

The mystery would be solved only when she would meet the Countess.

Chapter Text

Chapter X.

"And, now, I request you all to join me, in raising a glass to their health and felicity in marriage. Mr and Mrs Charles Bingley."

Elizabeth smiled, agreeing entirely, with Mr Darcy's sentiment. It was two days since she had arrived back in Hertfordshire, and this was already the second marriage which she had attended. The first had been the day before, of Miss Maria Lucas, and her cousin Mr William Collins. A not more mismatched pair could be found.

Elizabeth had not spent five minutes in their company before she had concluded the impossibility of any true felicity in their marriage. The one, she had found out, had clearly followed the instructions of his 'esteemed patroness' to the letter, while the other had obviously only accepted due to the persuasions of her parents. She was loathe to imagine how long domestic bliss would last. If indeed it occurred at all for either of them. Poor Maria.

Still, she concluded as her glance surveyed the present, Mr Collins had his good points; one being the confidence to enter into conversation with a person he had never laid eyes upon in his life before. She smiled as she witnessed her husband unable to get away from the ever talkative parson.

The minute Mr Collins had obtained their names, he had quickly decided it was necessary for him to inform the godson of his 'most esteemed' patroness, that Lady Catherine de Bourgh had been in excellent health, four days ago.

"It appears we are connected in more ways than I had previously realised, Countess," remarked a voice at that moment.

Elizabeth turned. "Connected, Mr Darcy?"

In reply he gestured to the two people she had previously been staring at. "Mr Collins' patroness is also my Aunt." He smiled. "Perhaps I should teach your husband how to extricate oneself from Mr Collins' company."

"I would rather that you did not," Elizabeth replied boldly, then quickly seized upon the happy couple as they came towards them, preventing Mr Darcy from replying with anything but the most curious of expressions. "Jane," she began, "congratulations once again."

"Thank you Lizzy," Mrs Charles Bingley replied, her glow of sweet complacency increasing. Happily she clasped her sister's hands, prepared to embrace her close, had it not been for Elizabeth cringing a little in pain. "Lizzy, what is the matter?"

"Oh, its nothing," she replied, almost too quickly, "merely a strain from sleeping upon it last night. Now, you were telling me of your ideas for the East Room....."

The two ladies walked away, leaving the gentlemen to stare after them. Bingley smiled in adoration. "Is she not an angel, Darce?"

Which one are you referring to? Darcy nearly asked in reply, but swiftly remembered to refrain, uttering a noncommittal "hmm," instead, before parting from his friend. Silently his eyes followed the Countess' form around the room, as his mind pondered upon the expression that had accompanied her cry of pain. All too soon he found further evidence for the conclusion it had drawn. The dark red mark briefly uncovered by her hair could not be explained by anything else.

That scoundrel.

Darcy clenched his fist and rapidly rejoined his friend. If he continued in letting his thoughts run down this path, they would lead him into dangerous territory.

Alone once more, Elizabeth breathed a grateful sigh that her sister had not inquired further after her wrist injury. Once again, she was glad that this occasion had required her to wear long evening gloves. Had it been otherwise, the bruise would have immediately been apparent.

The events of the evening that it had occurred were still fresh in her mind. Since then he had not laid a hand on her, and the bruises had faded from her skin. She still shuddered at the thought of it. Unhappily, despite the advantage of hindsight, the incident had been unavoidable. Even if she had told him the truth, told him outright that Mr Darcy had attended along with his friend, she would still have received the attack. The Earl was quite possessive of her, to the extent that he required to know exactly everyone she knew. He also positively hated any single men having an acquaintance with her.

Elizabeth hated every one of his restrictions, and usually found ways and means to evade them. She could only escape his detection so long, however. Sooner or later, someone would carelessly inform him, and he would exact punishment upon her for the concealment. She still did not know how she had managed to keep her pain hidden from Jane the morning after, let alone get out of bed.

She longed to fight back, longed to revenge herself upon him for his treatment of her. But he had broken her resistance long ago. She had believed herself to be in love, and the moment of her awakening from such an illusion, could not have been when she was more vulnerable.

Nervous as she had been of the truth of her mother's description of the wedding night, versus the possible truth of her Aunt's, she had failed to calculate on his being anything but gentle with her. Instead he had forced her every step of the way. Still of her old character, she had resisted as much as possible, only to have every resistance countered by even greater pain. She shivered as she remembered her final attempt at escape, early in the morning.

The door had been locked. What was worse, upon her first try, he had woken and dragged her back to the marriage bed. When he had let her out, four days later, she had been unable to do naught but retire to her own chamber to recover. Since then, he had barely given her a chance to think of any escape.

And she had rapidly realised the futility of such a notion. His staff were loyal to him, she had only her small dowry to assist, and it would not get her very far. Even if she managed to get away, there was hardly anywhere that she could go where he would be unable to find her. Her family would be unable to protect her, and he had assured that she had no friends that could help in London.

But she had not yet given up hope. The idea of escape still continued to exist within her mind, despite the harsh reality. Despite two years of marriage. She was grateful that Fate had not seen fit to give her children yet. She dreaded the Earl getting his hands on anything so small and so precious.

And she knew that the difficulty for her to escape would be even greater. She had done nothing to prevent their arrival, but two years had passed and still there were none. And although she dearly would have liked a child, she was grateful that they had yet to come along.

Elizabeth sighed, knowing that this present subject was not really something she should be thinking of, on this, the day of her sister's marriage, but once she had begun, she could not think of anything else.


The interruption could not have come at a better time. Elizabeth turned gladly to the source with a smile. "Mr Darcy."

He gestured to the young, clearly bashful, woman beside him. "May I present my sister to you? Georgiana, this is Jane's sister, the Countess of Saffron Walden."

Perceiving instantly the lady's shyness, Elizabeth held out her hand in greeting and remarked, "I very pleased to meet you, Miss Darcy. I have heard so much about you from Mr Bingley."

"I am glad to meet you as well, Countess," Miss Darcy replied shyly. "I have had heard much of you as well."

Seeing Miss Darcy's brother hovering anxiously, Elizabeth endeavoured to draw the girl out, and was pleased when her shyness disappeared nearly half an hour later. Remembering from Mr Bingley's frequent visits to the Earl's town house, that he had spoken of Miss Darcy's fondness for music and art, Elizabeth had begun to speak of the former, which she had more knowledge and experience on, and was glad to see the lady brighten immediately.

Soon they were speaking deeply upon the subject, even drifting into a gentle debate, as they discussed the merits of the harp verses the pianoforte. Occasionally this involved Mr Darcy, who, Elizabeth found to her surprise, had also some skill in the field, and she had been happy to see another facet of his character revealed, as he looked kindly, encouragingly, and proudly upon his sister.

Later, when she was in the company of her sister and brother in law once more, Elizabeth found out even more to give her pause for thought about her recent acquaintances. She had learnt from Mr Bingley how Mr Darcy's parents had both died while his sister was still very young, and that he had seen to most of her education and accomplishment.

Clearly he cared a great deal for his sister as he demonstrated whenever he was around her. There, at least, was proof that not all men in the same circumstances as her husband, were of the same character. Unlike the Earl, who upon his inheritance had used and abused it to its greatest advantage, Mr Darcy had preserved and improved upon what he had, and cared for all of those that were in his care.

His friend respected him a great deal, and therefore had talked much about the nature of Mr Darcy's circumstances, wealth and generosity. Throughout each conversation Elizabeth compared her husband more and more to the man, and found the Earl to be considerably lacking.

Why had it taken her so long to realise that her husband had never been the man of her dreams? She had sworn to marry only for the deepest love long ago, and now she knew that she had completely ignored that vow when she had married the Earl. She had clearly not known what it was to love two years ago. To agree to his proposal after so short an acquaintance! She should have known better.

The next morning dawned, and Elizabeth rose from her bed in somewhat better spirits. Calling her maid, she attired herself in her riding clothes and informed the Earl that she was going riding. For once he declined to go with her.

A half hour later, and far enough away from the house not to be clearly defined, Elizabeth broke into a gallop. Despite the sadness which her marriage had brought, it had also enabled her access to some good things. The ability to ride was one. The Earl had insisted that she learn, even though they had never ridden in public yet, and she was grateful that she had, for the temporary freedom that it gave her was enough to make her forbear most of the bad parts of her marriage.

The other thing that she was satisfied with was this house. Stoke Edith1 was perfect. It had been built around 1698 for a Paul Foley, Speaker of the House of Commons and had thus been acquired by the Cavendishs of Saffron Walden by marriage. Considered one of the finest Restoration Houses, it displayed the skills of James Wyatt, Issac Bayly, and James Thornhill. A hipped roof housed the servants' quarters, and windows covered most of the walls. Its grounds while extensive had both formal and informal design, though she thought the Hall walls and the Green Velvet Bedroom far too opulent and ornate.

Compared to the other houses that the Earl owned, it was smaller, but Elizabeth did not think that a disadvantage. Now, as she rested her horse, looking back on the building from a distance, she wondered why such a beautiful house should be owned by a man who had no value for anything he owned. True, he owned more than most; for apart from this house and the two houses in town, there was another in Kent, another in Cheshire, and one in the highlands of Scotland, but Elizabeth knew that all but the house they lived in were closed up, not even maintained by a steward, due the Earl's fondness for gambling. He could not lose them, due to the terms of his inheritance, but he could certainly rob them of any value.

The sudden sound of a neigh made Elizabeth come back from her introspection. Looking up, she descried another horse and rider, far away, but close enough to determine that it was not the Earl come to join her after all. Her first instincts were to return home at once, before they spotted her, but as the notion ran through her mind, Elizabeth found herself wanting the opposite.

Exhilaration from the ride had made her bold, made some of her old self return to guide her emotions, her desire to resist the Earl. But she kept her steed steady, and watched the other, as its rider spotted her, and broke his horse into a gentle trot in order to join her.

The sight was a powerful one. Elizabeth could not remember ever seeing anyone so in tune with their horse before, even her husband, who had been riding almost as soon as he could walk, although he preferred now to recklessly race carriages with his fellow members of the Four Horse Club.2

He came to a halt before her, and bent forward in the saddle to serve as a bow in greeting. It was Mr Darcy. "Good morning Countess," he added, his voice displaying little sign of exhaustion, even though he had ridden a fair distance from Netherfield.

"I had not realised that I had strayed on to the Earl's land." That was a lie. Though he abhorred disguise of any sort, Darcy was sure she would not want to know that he had specifically ridden this far just in the hope that he might see her.

"You have not, sir, for this hill is just past the edge of his boundary," Elizabeth replied, remembering the Earl referring to it the last time they had stayed here, shortly after her marriage, so he could teach her to ride. Quickly she shied away from memories of that time. "Have Charles and Jane left yet?"

"Yes, they went early this morning," Darcy answered. "The rest of the guests in residence there and I leave today. Yourself and the Earl?"

"We leave this afternoon."

A moment of silence passed between them. Then Darcy decided that enough was enough. He had to know. "Countess, may I ask; what did you mean yesterday when you wished for me not to tell the Earl how to get away from Mr Collins?"

"I meant..." Elizabeth hesitated, then made herself bold. "I meant exactly that." She flicked her reins and drove her horse to turn and gallop further on.

Darcy kept his position for a moment, watching her, deciding what he should do next. Before he knew it, he was also galloping. Rapidly he drew level with her, as their horses, as if by a mutual agreement unknown to the riders, matched strides with each other, jumping a hedge boundary into another field together.

Then Elizabeth stopped, turning hers to face his once more. "I wanted to avoid him," she confessed aloud.

"The Earl?" Darcy confirmed. "Why? Because of that?" He pointed with his gloved hand to a faded but still apparent red mark just under her chin. Any other possible injury was hidden by the fashion of her riding clothes.

Elizabeth hesitated a mere second this time. "Yes." For some reason, unknown to herself, she wanted this man to know the truth.

Darcy had difficulty in keeping his anger in check as he heard his suspicions verified. When he spoke, his voice was awash with emotions; anger at him, fear and love for her. "Has it always been like this?" He saw her nod her head, and his hands became clenched fists as he asked, "Why have you not run from him?"

"Where could I run to?" she replied rhetorically. "My family have not his connections. I have no one."

He was about to come closer towards her. About to vow that she had now had him, and that he would protect her with his life. But the outside world interfered. A church bell sounded the hour, causing her to change.

"Excuse me, sir, I must go," she announced, her voice quieter than before, as if she was afraid of being overheard. "Please, tell no one of this," she entreated, before galloping back the way they had come.

This time he did not follow, choosing to watch her silently instead, as he contemplated all that had passed between them, and what his emotions and thoughts had now revealed to his conscious mind.

It was too late. He had already gone beyond the point of no return. He would love her for the rest of his life. Above all others. From this moment on, he would do all that he could to help her.

And damn the consequences.

1. Stoke Edith is- or rather was -an actual place, though it resided in Herefordshire. Everything I have stated is true to the house, except for the bit concerning James Wyatt. The decoration in question is in his style, but has also been attributed to Robert Adam.

Tragically, on the 16th December 1927, a fire struck the building, completely ruining all the fine architecture and interiors. Only the ruinous wings survive. My source for the place is a lovely book by Giles Worsley titled 'England's Lost Houses' from the archive of the magazine Country Life. Pictures of the interior and exterior are contained in the book.

2. The Four Horse Club was an organisation in which wild groups of young men enjoyed bribing coachmen to give them the reins of their vehicles then drive them at breakneck speed down very poor British roads. By the early nineteenth century it was considered a respectable club for only the best drivers, numbering at its peak thirty to forty members.

Sometimes referred to as the Four-in-Hand Club, the Whip Club, or the Barouche Club. Its popularity began to die out in 1815, and it was briefly disbanded in 1820, before being revived in 1822, but only for another two years.

3. Duelling: According to Richard Hopton's book, Pistols at Dawn, a History of Duelling, the question of honour lay at the root of any challenge. When one gentleman calls another other he is seeking to expunge a slur, either real or imagined on his repution (honour). This could range from the seduction of a wife or daughter, an insult delivered in speech, to a trifling argument over dinner. Failure to pay debts were also grounds for duels, this is where the phrase 'debts of honour' comes from.

With officers, there was the additional requirement to defend not only their own honour, but the honour of their regiment. During the Pensinsular War officers could be punished, cashiered and dismissed from their regiments if they failed to uphold their honour or the honour of the regiment.

An insult offered to a woman's honour would be an insult to the man of whom she belonged to, be he husband or father. It was considered more shameful to stand by and be a cuckold than to fight a duel with your wife's lover. The events of Anna Karenina are a classic example of this.

One of the ironies of that time was although duelling was illegal, and penalities ranged from the gallows to a mild reprimand, with a few notable exceptions, duellists got off very lightly indeed.

Chapter Text

Chapter XI.

Elizabeth spent most of the days after that encounter wondering whether she had done the right thing in being so bold. She still had no idea why she had chosen to tell Mr Darcy, a man whom she only knew as the friend of her new brother in law, and the nephew of her husband's godmother, of all people, a part of the terrible truth of her marriage. Since that meeting in the fields between Netherfield and Stoke Edith she had not seen the gentleman again.

Which was, as she reflected now, probably why this was bothering her so much. It was so unlike her to confide in someone who was practically a complete stranger to her, and a gentleman. She had made herself tell no one about the nature of her marriage, and yet, something about Mr Darcy had made her forget all that. What, she knew not.

It was a puzzle, and a puzzle that she spent most of her time in Hanover Square trying to figure out, as January and February passed by, sometimes dirty, sometimes cold, and sometimes both. Life for her and her husband resumed much of its unique normality. She spent her days in the townhouse, reading, embroidering, performing on the pianoforte, while he passed the majority of the time at the various clubs he had yet to be thrown out of.

The nights were taken up with her quietly submitting to his ministrations and then escaping into sleep and dreams. Often the latter would cause even more consternation to Elizabeth, as the puzzle prayed more and more upon her mind. Its effects resulted in regular imaginings of a different life, one spent far away from her present location, and in an entirely different manner and emotion to how she spent it now.

The surroundings were usually places she had never seen before, and the people around her strangers, due to their less than distinct form, which, whenever she would try to define them more closely, tended to fade away.

After much thought upon them, she had achieved the ability to discover the identity of at least one of the forms in her dreams, and that discovery had given her even more concern over the puzzle, for Mr Darcy had proved to figure prominently in all of them.

Why she had suddenly begun to dream of this gentleman as well, Elizabeth did not know. Sometimes she would only see him in the distance, others he would be nearby, observing her. Mostly she would picture him as she had last seen him, upon a horse facing her, with the same expression that he had held in his eyes. The one that had always both intrigued and terrified her.

For it seemed to speak of a desire to protect her, to spirit her away from the tragedy that was her marriage. The prospect of such an endeavour was intriguing and tempting, but, and this is what frightened her, Elizabeth could not tell if she had imagined the look, or if it had been as real now as it was that day of their meeting.

A sudden rustle of paper broke into her thoughts, and Elizabeth awoke to her surroundings once more. It was an unusual day to be spent much in thought so early upon its morning. The former because her husband was still at home, having breakfasted late for reasons as yet unknown to her.

Now he was reading through a thick volume of papers the size of a letter, which he had just split the seal and opened. Taking a deep breath, she returned to her own meal, hoping he had been too concerned in his correspondence to wonder why she had hardly touched it yet.

Twenty minutes later, the Earl laid down the letter, just as Elizabeth had finished and was engaged in taking a sip of tea. "That was a letter from my godmother, Lady Catherine de Bourgh," he remarked. "It appears she has learnt of our attending her parson's wedding, and now wishes for me to renew my annual visitation to her, beginning at the end of this month." He took a sip of his own drink. "What do you think, my dear? Shall we say yes?"

Elizabeth knew immediately from the tone of his voice that this was not a inquiry as to her real preference, but one more conforming to a direct order. "If you wish it."

"Indeed I do wish it." He stood up, striding to the end of the room. Pouring a refill, he added, "Lady Catherine, though not in any way a relative of blood to me, is the only relation left to me upon this earth. As she is my godmother, she has had a profound effect on my ideas and wishes concerning much of my future.

"You will find her a very wise person for a woman. I would also consider it a good thing if you took many of her pearls of wisdom concerning marriage, proper decorum and behaviour into your character and displayed them accordingly."

The inference was unmistakable. Elizabeth made no reply, knowing from past experience that any comment would likely cause more damage to her than the actual dig had caused itself.

Taking another sip of tea, she bowed her head as if in acknowledgement of his instruction. Quietly she observed him as he resumed his previous seat. His features were still composed, signalling little sign of any trouble ahead. Yet, she could never be sure.

"I shall write a reply, and attend the Four Horse meet this afternoon," he remarked some minutes later. Taking another draught of his coffee, he waited for her reply. When a few moments had passed and she had made none, he added, " Are you not going to comment on what a reckless and dangerous use of my time that it is?"

"I never have done so before," Elizabeth answered cautiously, "for I know you enjoy it, and I would by no means disturb any pleasure of yours."

The Earl smiled and rose from the table. "It seems you are already following Lady Catherine's advice without even having heard it before. Excellent."

He left the room. Elizabeth waited until the door had fully closed before sending a look that could have killed him on the spot, if she had the nerve to display it before his face. There were times when she could tolerate him, and times when she hated him with everything within her. Recently, the latter had been occurring with more and more frequency.

For the reason of this she did not have to look too far. It was the same reason which had caused her dreams and was the source of her puzzle. Mr Darcy. Elizabeth sighed. All thoughts of remaining where she was, went from her mind. She rose from her chair and exited her present surroundings for the Music Room.

As she did so, she wondered once more why she could not stop thinking about Mr Darcy. And why, whenever she did, her rebellious nature would arise, and would persuade her to try and fight the Earl.

As she had used to. Two years ago, from the moment she had discovered the truth of her marriage, Elizabeth had tried every means she knew to resist whatever he chose to foist upon her. Even now, there were times when she still tried to do so. But in comparison to her first years with him, they were much less used.

Now a lot of the thoughts that had accompanied them had arisen within her mind again. Usually after she had thought or dreamt about Mr Darcy.

Elizabeth seated herself at the pianoforte and tried to put this train of thought out of her mind, afraid of where it might lead, if she continued to pursue it further. She knew what the signs were indicative of, her marriage had never taken any hopes of a happier future completely away.

But she was not prepared to take any step down that path. Not only was it foolish for her to even try, it was also impossible. She was married. There was no probability of any reprieve from it, even if the fates chose to smile down upon her. She could not fall in love with any one while the Earl was still alive.

No matter what their position or status was. The idle fancy would not do her any good, and the alternative, while however normal in her society, was still a dangerous direction to take. The likelihood of the scandal of it reaching her family was all too great. Just as were the odds that he would find her and bring her back.

Shaking her head, Elizabeth tried once more to rid her mind of these thoughts. She opened the cover that protected the keys, and focused on choosing the music she would try to learn this day. It would do her no good to continue to think like that. To continue to hope for a better tomorrow.

There was no real chance whatsoever of her ever being free of this torment. Thus the wish was rendered useless, and the thought a waste of her mind and intelligence. It was irrational and full of folly. Yet the strength of its persistence to remain within her mind was powerful.

And Elizabeth was no longer certain about how long she could resist any of the possible consequences it might bring.

Some streets away, in the same fashionable and rich area of London, another person was also contemplating all the possible consequences. Not because he wished to talk himself out of the actions he intended to take. Nor because he needed to talk himself into them either. Instead, because he needed to tell someone what he was about to do.

That someone was very precious to Fitzwilliam Darcy. Indeed, a few months ago, she had been the most important person in his life. A person who counted on him to teach her the ways of the world, and the best way to conduct oneself through it in life. A person whom he had always sought to protect and provide for, almost from the moment of her birth.

Finally, she was someone to whom he had always told the absolute truth. And therein lay the present trouble within his thoughts. For what he intended to do would be in complete contradiction to all the values he had taught her to hold most dear. It would set an example that he had never wished to set her, and would teach her some ways of the world in which they lived that he had wished her never to know.

Naturally, this caused him great consternation. It also reminded him of something that he would much rather had never happened, and something that he wished to entirely forget. For she already knew a little of the ways of a world he had wanted her never to know. Her discovery of them had occurred during her summer in Ramsgate. Last summer.

The mere mention of the place caused horrible recollections for both of them still. Darcy did not know which of them judged the place with the greatest part of fear; she for experiencing the events, or he for being capable of imagining all the possible outcomes that could have resulted from the incident, whether he had learned of it, or not.

Even now, with the event almost a year old, he still refrained from leaving her in the care of her new companion for too long, despite Mrs Annesley's excellent references.

There was of course a perfectly simple solution to his present hesitation and reluctance in his next step. And that was, to never tell her. To keep his actions secret for ever. But, while that would solve any possibility of her learning about the rest of the world he had wished her to remain unaware of, it would compromise another intention of his entirely.

For if, and he would, having now gone long passed the point of caution over the matter, follow through with his future actions, the consequences of them would bring about a sacrifice that he did not want nor wish to ever make. That was to never see one of them again. He knew that he could never do that. Both were now far too important to him.

A click, originating from the motion of the door opening, awoke him that moment to his present surroundings. He turned away from the window and smiled at the source, his mind suddenly made up. They had always been completely honest with each other. It was that he had to focus on. If he tried to keep this from her it would damage their bond forever.

"You wanted to talk to me, William?" Georgiana asked him now, as she sat down within one of the armchairs. She was the only person in the household, and the world, who could join him in his study without asking first.

"Yes," he confirmed, coming away from the window to sit opposite her, so they could be on equal terms. For a moment or two he simply stared at her, uncertain as to where or even how to begin. Then abruptly the words formed in his mind, and he found himself speaking before he had even decided to do so.

"You remember I told you once that I wanted us always to be completely honest with each other?"

"Yes, it was after father died." Georgiana smiled encouragingly at her brother. She did have a slight knowledge of where he might be heading with this turn of conversation, and she wanted him to be able to tell the whole.

"Well, while we were in Hertfordshire for Bingley's wedding, I decided something which will greatly affect both of us when I act upon it." He leant forward in his chair, clasping his fingers together. "It is something which I have been contemplating for many months. For a long time I withheld myself from pursuing it, because of the consequences I knew that could occur. These consequences would be very dangerous to all of us. Especially for you."

"Why for me?" Georgiana asked, puzzled.

"Because when you are old enough to come out, the nature of my reputation by then would damage your chances of ever making a good match."

"But you always taught me to put love before fortune and title."

"I did, and I still believe in that. But I also, out of purely brotherly concern, wanted whomever you chose to be able to cope without the fortune that would come with you. I did not want there to be any likelihood of you being sought for your money and connections rather than yourself."

Georgiana lessened her smile a little. "That has already happened once. And I am determined to make sure I do not let it happen again."

Darcy sighed and shook his head. "Georgiana, none of that was your fault. In disobedience of my vow to always be honest with you, I also wanted to protect you, which was why I never told you about his bad character. I had hoped I could keep you safe from him. I realise now that I should have told you long ago the entire truth about him, instead of you having to learn it in such a traumatic way.”

"We should not quarrel for the greater part of fault upon that subject," Georgiana decided. "The result will benefit neither of us."

"You are quite right," Darcy agreed, wondering suddenly how his sister had become so wise. "And it is not what I wanted to talk about anyway.

"I shall start from the beginning. Late last year, when I was with Bingley in London after the ball he had held at Netherfield, I went with him to see his intended while she was staying with her sister in Hanover Square."

"Ah," Georgiana uttered in complete understanding. "You wish to tell me that you have fallen in love with the Countess of Saffron Walden."

Darcy leaned back in his chair in surprise. "How did you know?"

"You were distracted all the time we were at Matlock. When we returned to town I mentioned this to Mr Bingley. He told me that he believed you to be thinking about the Countess. Then you introduced me to her at his wedding. The look in your eyes whenever you glanced at her and her character made me realise the rest." She smiled at her brother's still stunned features. "I know you very well, William. You can rarely hide anything from me nowadays."

"Yes, I can see that." Darcy smiled too. "Ordinarily, that alone would not cause any worry or damage to either of us. But I decided something back in January that has the potential to do so."

"In January? Why are you only now just telling me about it?"

Darcy looked her straight in the eyes. "I feared your reaction."

"My reaction? Whatever for?"

"Two reasons. One, you are the most important person in the world to me, and two, I did not want to disappoint you."

"You have never, and you never will disappoint me." Georgiana affirmed determinedly.

"I might be just about to. I want to persuade the Countess to come and live with us."

"Why?" Georgiana tentatively asked. "I know you love her," she added, "but that cannot be the only reason. If it was you would not be so concerned. Is it something to do with her marriage?"

"You guess very astutely. Yes it is because of her marriage. From what I have seen, it is not a happy marriage at all. I believe her to be very much afraid of her husband."

"What do you think he has done to her?"

"Not only do I think it, I know it, for she admitted as much to me the day we left Netherfield. That her husband...." Darcy trailed off, suddenly unable to say the actual words. "I have seen bruises on her skin. There was one under her chin that morning I met her while out riding. When I asked indirectly if he had done it to her, she confirmed that he had."

Georgiana's first response was to gasp in astonishment. Her second was to remark, "Sometimes I am glad that I do not know all the ways of this world in which we live." She reached out and took her brother's hands in hers. "William, whatever you have decided to do, I am with you. And I hope for her sake you have decided to rid the Countess of him."

"There is only one way in which I could do that, and duelling is considered illegal," Darcy reminded her. "However, I may be forced into taking such actions. But if I did, I would not render his end mortal. Richard has told me enough of the consequences to dissuade me from assuming such a power over men."

"And how you will persuade her to come and live us?" Georgiana asked. "And when, for that matter?"

"In regards to the how, I hope to simply ask her. I know the price to all our reputations and the scandal that will surely follow makes this a difficult task. It is why I have not wanted to tell you about this."

"Even if you had acted upon it without my knowledge I would have learnt of it sooner or later," Georgiana pointed out. "If not from our family, then the newspapers. If not from the newspapers then society whenever I ventured into it. And you would not have been able to prevent any damage being done to my reputation because of that."

"Yes, you are right about that," Darcy confirmed. "Are you sure you do not mind my decision to do this?"

"If she were happy, then I might have some objection, however much I also wanted your happiness. But as she is not, you have my full loyalty upon this."

"You are also aware of all the things that will be said about me?"

"I think so. But they do not matter to me, because they will not be true."

"Some of them might," Darcy admitted, "if she cares for me as much as I care for her." He hoped Georgiana would be able to determine which.

Miss Darcy nodded her head in understanding. "As long as she loves you, then I do not think it wrong."

"Even though I will become one of those people you and I have always despised?"

"They have the wrong intentions. You do not."

Darcy smiled in appreciation. He had not realised it would be so easy. His heart felt suddenly lighter with the knowledge that Georgiana not only knew, but also supported him entirely in his future actions. "Georgie, do you approve of her?" he asked finally.

His sister laughed in reply. "My dear brother, do you really think that if I did not, I would encourage you in this? Now, if it were Miss Bingley, I would think differently."

Darcy joined her in laughter. "I can safely assure you that it would never be Miss Bingley. Seriously, do you like the Countess?"

"Yes," she replied. "I like her very much."

The weeks passed. March was to take Elizabeth and the Earl to Kent. Specifically, to the Earl's residence there, a few miles from Lady Catherine de Bourgh's home, Blisstham Place.1 Built in the time of Queen Elizabeth, then remodelled between 1735 and 1740, by Henry Joynes, it was a home that Elizabeth had yet to see.

The Earl, ever considerate of the fact that she should be as proud of his wealth as he was, told her the whole history of the place during the journey. For once Elizabeth found much of the topic to be interesting, as they managed to open a sense of ease with each other, the like of which they had not had since the day of their marriage.

At length the place was discernible. The drive sloping down at an angle from the main road, the evidence of more artificial landscaping as opposed to the naturalness of the countryside, every thing declared they were arriving.

Elizabeth looked out through the window of the carriage, noticing the farmed land giving way first to formal gardens, then a large gravel drive which surrounded the building. Raising her eyes to the house, she took in the bow which had been added in 1793, and other palatial improvements that had been made to keep the old H-plan up to the new and present fashionable architecture.

Despite this contradiction of styles, however, Elizabeth saw much to like about the place. Though much larger and established upon a grander scale, it resembled Stoke Edith in terms of possessing a natural beauty that was little counteracted by an awkward taste, lacking the ostentation that the town house and many of the Earl's other properties, such as Pearlcoombe and the castle in Scotland, held.

Alighting from the carriage, the Countess witnessed the servants, who had opened up Blisstham for living in a few days ago, coming out of the house to greet them. This was her due as her first visit to the place, but it brought back memories of another similar time, namely her wedding night.

Instantly, any feeling of ease that she had previously held within the carriage during the journey concerning proximity to her husband disappeared. She still had a vivid memory of that night in her mind. And his actions after that could do nothing to change her fear of him, only increase it.

She followed the Earl inside, and listened without objection to his plans to visit his godmother on the morrow. Knowing his opinions concerning what should be her proper behaviour, she dreaded the prospect already.

1. Blisstham Place: Normanton Park. Built between 1735 and 1740, by Henry Joynes, retaining the unfashionable H-plan of the Elizabethan House, but with the correct Palladian dress. In 1793 the interiors and Bow were remodelled/added to the building. In 1813 Britton's Beauties of Britain described the house as 'a rich scene of modern elegance throughout.' Originally in Rutland and owned by the Heathcotes, of whom in 1827 Sir Gilbert, 5th Baronet, married Clementina, daughter and heiress of the 21st Lord Willoughby d'Eresby.

They eventually acquired the estates of her grandmother; Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire, and Gwydyr Castle in Caernarvonshire, and her mothers;' Drummond Castle in Perthshire. They also owned Bulby Hall in Lincolnshire. The vast wealth of Saffron Walden is somewhat based on this family example, showing how much wealth can be obtained through marriage and luck.

The house remained with the family until 1925, when the state of the family wealth and the current political situation required that they sell off a number of their land assets. Gwydyr Castle was sold to a cousin, then Normanton's 6,000 acre estate, plus the villages of Empingham and Edith Weston, were put up for auction.

The house did not sell, and a fire left it demolished. Its site now lies under 900 million gallons of Rutland Water. Only the stables and farming building remain, 200 yards North-east, and the tower of Normanton Church, left on an island in the lake.

Source is Giles Worsley's 'England's Lost Houses' from the archive of the magazine Country Life. Pictures of the interior and exterior are contained in the book.

Chapter Text

Author's Note: Another incident of abuse in this chapter, which for those you who have desire to read such events, begins after the first horizontal line and ends before the second. Elizabeth does recollect the incident during her rambles the next morning, but not in such explicit terms.

Chapter XII.

"Your wife appears to be a very genteel, pretty kind of girl, Lucius. I understand from Mr Collins that you are connected to him by way of cousin. Have you any sisters, Elizabeth?"

It was the day after they had arrived in Kent. Elizabeth had found upon visiting her husband's godmother, to her relief, that Charlotte was staying with her sister and Mr Collins, enabling her not to be the only guest subjected to Lady Catherine de Bourgh's vigorous scrutiny.

Lady Catherine herself was a tall, large woman, with strongly marked features, which might once have been handsome. Instantly could her most important manners be made out; she spoke authoritatively, and with an air that was most definitely not conciliating.

Her godson's wife, being a lady she had never met in her life before, naturally became Lady Catherine's first, last, and all-encompassing, port of call and attention. After performing the role of hostess at dinner, during which she believed it her duty to induct Mrs Collins further in the duties of a vicar's wife, Lady Catherine turned to the Countess with the intent of satisfying her extreme curiosity.

Conversing with Mrs Collins had always proved to be a somewhat thankless endeavour as Lady Catherine could not help but find her too awed by her the splendour of the interior and the manner of her hostess to venture anything reply beyond that of a monosyllable one. Lady Catherine had then turned first to Charlotte, and then to Elizabeth herself, using all the privilege that her relationship with the Earl gave her to ask any question that she saw fit to voice to the whole room.

How many sisters did she have? What sort of person was her father? What was his situation? What sort of person was her mother? Did she have any other senior relatives? Were any of her sisters married? Were they handsome? Were they educated, and if so, where? What carriage did her father keep? What was her mother's maiden name?

All these and more did Lady Catherine ask, and persisted in asking until she was satisfied with the answers that she received. Indeed, five minutes spent in her company was all that Elizabeth had required to determine that nothing was beneath this great lady's attention, which could furnish her with an occasion to dictate to others. She was by no means a woman used to having her judgement controverted, nor her opinion ignored on any subject.

"When did you meet my godson, Elizabeth?" asked Lady Catherine, seeing no point in calling her with the title as befitted her rank, though it was superior to her own, because of their connection to each other.

"In the autumn of nine," Elizabeth replied, feeling all the impertinence of the questions, but striving to answer them composedly, aware than any infraction on her part would incur not only the displeasure of her hostess, but the wrath of her husband.

"And where was this meeting?"

"At the Assembly Rooms in my home village of Meryton."

"So you must have being staying at your estate in Stoke at the time then?" Lady Catherine inquired of Lucius, receiving a nod in reply. "It is a good sized home I suppose, but the second drawing room must be most inhospitable during winter. Why, the windows are full west! Was it a long courtship?"

"Long and short are relative terms, upon which circumstances count, I believe, your ladyship," Elizabeth replied. "It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy, it is disposition alone. Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others."

Lady Catherine was astonished at receiving such a reply. "Upon my word," she began, "you give your opinion very decidedly for so young a person. Pray, what is your age? You cannot be more than twenty, I am sure."

Drawing a breath against the crushing pain inflicted upon her by her husband, Elizabeth carefully replied. "I am not one and twenty."

"And My Lucius to decide upon an eighteen year old country girl, at nine and twenty, without family connections or fortune!" Lady Catherine cried.

"I am the only heir to my earldom," Lucius pointed out. "I require good breeding stock if I wish for my land and estates to pass down through my bloodlines."

"Breeding stock is all very well, godson," Lady Catherine replied, "but as I understand from my clergyman, your father's estate is entailed on Mr Collins, I think. For your sake," turning to Maria, "I am glad, but otherwise I see no occasion for entailing estates from the female line. It was not thought necessary in Sir Lewis de Bough's family, nor indeed in yours, Lucius'." She turned to Elizabeth."You are aware what a heavy task the nature of my godson's inheritance places on you? That if, god forbid, the worst happens, you will be sole benefactor of all his estates?"

"Yes, Lady Catherine, I am."

"Hmm," was all that her interrogator made in reply, as if the simple words had not satisfied her. "Your upbringing has not, I think, prepared you well for the role of mistress and management of such a large estate. The second of five daughters from an estate with only an income of two thousand per annum would be no preparation for any wife of an Earl. Did you have a governess?"

"No, we did not."

"How is that possible? I have never heard such a thing. I have always said that nothing is to be done in education without steady and regular instruction, and nobody but a governess can give it. Especially for one who marries so high born a person as my godson. But then I suppose it was not expected that you would. Yes, I see that now. Lucius, I hope you have sought to remedy that neglect?"

"I can assure you I have," the Earl replied. "Thanks to my instruction, Elizabeth now knows how to ride, and can play the pianoforte with proficiency. My capable steward will see to anything concerning the estate, if anything happens to me."

"So you do play do you? Well, we must have the pleasure of hearing you some time or other. All is just as it should be then. But I do hope that you supervise your Steward's management, godson. I have always said that an estate cannot be managed by owner or steward alone. It must be in combination."

"I do, Lady Catherine," the Earl smoothly lied. For Elizabeth could testify that, aside from a cursory check of the expenses each month, her husband left control of the vast wealth he had inherited entirely in the hands of his steward, without any concern as to how it would turn out with such neglect.

"I presume," Lady Catherine began again to Elizabeth, "that your elder sister is married?"

"Yes, in January of this year."

"Really, that is most peculiar. A younger sister married before the elder, that is something that rarely occurs in our society. It is exactly as I thought, you are quite young to be the bearer of such an ancient title. Still, that is the way of the world. Youth bears more fruit as opposed to the more mature woman. But no children yet, that is unusual. You have time, but one must be wary of having heirs late in life. Remember that, Lucius."

The evening came to a close then, as the carriage was called for the Hunsford party. Elizabeth and her husband left soon after their departure, the return journey to Blisstham fraught with much silent thought. Indeed, how could it be otherwise, upon the end of such a visit? Their host's conversation had been all that served as entertainment for the evening, and her final words had given Lucius in particular much pause for thought.

His godmother had made him aware, perhaps for the first time, how strange it was that he had not been blessed with children. It was not for the want of them, indeed, as far as he was concerned, he only needed one; a son and heir to all that he owned. Until their age had turned into double figures, they were their mother's department, and thus the fault of their having none so far, fell to his wife of almost three years.

So he felt entirely justified in his actions concerning Elizabeth that night. While they returned to Blisstham, he composed himself to the task at hand, taking in every appearance of his wife's attire, calculating the means and speed required to render her disrobed. He recalled the route to their rooms from the entrance hall, the servants upon whose loyalty he was not yet certain of, determining to dismiss his entire household to the kitchens for the night.

Elizabeth, her face turned to discerning what features she could from the passing countryside, could comprehend little of her husband's thoughts, other than his silence seemed unusually constrained and deadly. She too was attempting to recall what she could remember of the house, in order to try to escape his attentions for a night, for she could not help but fear retribution was to be delivered for her behaviour towards Lady Catherine this evening.

When the carriage came to a halt outside the entrance of Blisstham, the Earl anticipated her move to quit the equipage first, forcing her to take his hand in order to descend from the vehicle, instead of that of the butler who had opened the doors almost upon the moment of their arrival. As her feet touched the ground his fingers closed around hers, pulling her inexorably towards his side.

Reaching the servant, Elizabeth felt her husband further restrain her by placing his other hand around her waist, as he spoke to the butler and then the rest of the staff who came to their assistance, dismissing them for the night. With his fingers fast upon her hand and his other close about her waist, there was little she could do to object, or escape him.

Once the hall was deserted, the Earl turned to her. "It is time my dear, to beget the heir to all that I possess, save for you, that is." His features formed a strange expression, half smirking, half frowning, as he swept her upstairs to their rooms.

Inside his bedchamber, he retained his close hold, whilst locking each of the doors that led from the hall, his dressing room and her rooms. As each escape route was barred to her, Elizabeth's fear of what he would do to her increased in it intensity, rendering her mind incapable of providing her with ways to render him incapacitated, whilst she turned the keys which were still within their holes, in order to seek the safety of her bedchamber.

Helpless, she was forced to stand before the large and imposing four poster bed in which husband spent his nights, whereupon he proceeded to rid her of her clothes. She had never been with him in such a state before, a disturbing sight, as his hands roughly surveyed her wares, reminding her horribly of that moment during the evening when she had been compared to breeding stock.

When he reached behind her and produced one of the gold rope fastenings, she knew what was to come next, for such trappings featured regularly in their night time rituals. But once more he surprised her, by binding her hands together as she stood before him, in a position eerily akin of that of a prisoner condemned to death. Using his superior height and strength he forced her backwards until she fell upon the bed, whereupon he seized hold of her legs, resting them atop his broad shoulders.

In fearful fascination she watched as he unleashed himself from his breeches, his eyes locking on her terrified form as he stroked himself into life before kneeling upon the bed. Placing her hands about her sex, he thrust himself inside that chamber, his movements in time to her every scream of pain, until such cries were smothered from her mouth by his hand.

The grounds surrounding the bordering estates of Blisstham, Rosings and Hunsford Parsonage were still wet with the early morning dew when they were disturbed the next day by the Countess, as she made her way from one end to the other.

Indeed, Elizabeth was heartily glad that she could get away from the house so early. Blisstham Place was now very much a name she was sure was devoid of any truth in its meaning, for she had experienced nothing close to the description inside it yet. Last night had been the worse out of the two she had spent in the building.

Even now she shuddered at the mere thought of it, and was helpless in the quest to avoid thinking about it. She had endured his 'ministrations' on her before, but never more than once a night. And never in such a position. This time she had to submit to seeing his face as he hovered over her, trapping her beneath him, in the cold quest for an heir. The move to dress herself and slip away quietly that morning had not been accomplished with any ease.

Now though, as she ran her fingers through the wet hedges that bordered the lane between Rosings Park and the parsonage, Elizabeth felt much calmer, and much less trapped. Despite its owner's preference for opulence in architecture and interior, the grounds had a pervasive serenity about them.

Thanks to the pleasant surroundings, she did not feel any exhaustion from walking the great distance from Blisstham to the parsonage, in conjunction with the effects of last night. This, added to the fine morning weather, also helped to settle, and gently erase, the turmoil in her mind.

By the time she had met Charlotte a little before entering the gardens of the parsonage, Elizabeth felt much more in control of her composure, much more able to greet her friend with all her usual emotion. They turned back the way her friend had come, until they reached a parting in the path, where the lane became two for access to the grounds of Rosings Park. They turned then in that direction.

Charlotte began their conversation, obliging Elizabeth with all that had occurred to her since the wedding of her sister Maria. Originally their father Sir William had accompanied Charlotte to Hunsford after a suitable time had elapsed for Maria to become accustomed to her new situation. He had stayed but a week, long enough to convince him of his daughter's being most comfortable, and possessing such a husband and such a neighbour as were not often met with.

Since then she and Maria had much more time to themselves, with Mr Collins spending the time between breakfast and dinner paying his respects to Lady Catherine, doing work in his garden, or in reading and writing, and looking out of the window in his own book room, which fronted the road, enabling him to see if any visitors from Rosings came to Hunsford.

Miss Lucas, Elizabeth had suspected, and now discovered to be true, guided much of her younger sister's 'handling' of Mr Collins, making sure that he walked to the Park every day, ministered closely to his parishioners, and attended to the growth of his garden, thus leaving her free to indulge in her own amusement much of the day.

"And so is Maria much more content with her situation now?" Elizabeth asked when her friend's monologue had ended, having heard that when Mr Collins had proposed, there was much objection on the younger Miss Lucas' side, which had been met with stern persuasion by her parents.

"I believe so," Charlotte replied. "She realises now that there are many advantages to be had here, which makes up for the hardships."

"Time has worn away her youthful hopes of everlasting affection in marriage?"

"You know I have never been one to put much faith in that, or indeed expect its occurrence. All I desire is a comfortable home. Maria, I am sure, feels the same." Charlotte glanced carefully at her friend. "Love is not always possible in every marriage."

"Too true," Elizabeth replied, thinking of her own. "Jane's must be the only exception in our world, do you not think?"

"Yes," Charlotte agreed, "Jane will have a happy marriage. With her and Mr Bingley's dispositions, it is impossible to do otherwise I believe. But what about yourself, Lizzy? Three years ago you claimed to have accepted the Earl's proposal for love. Now that you are married, do you find it exists so?"

Elizabeth could not think about her reply, she knew. Yet, she did not feel able to lie straight away to her friend. "I am content," she finally answered.

Charlotte looked at her thoughtfully, remembering the insulting comparison made of her friend to breeding stock at Rosings only the evening before. "That is not an answer to my question, Lizzy."

They neared the boundaries of the woods to the more formal gardens that were closer to the house. Elizabeth directed them around, back into the path that led to her residence. Coming to a halt before the turnstile which was built in the gate that separated Rosings' land from that of Blisstham's, she replied carefully to her friend, "There is always some disappointment in marriage. And always things one finds which gives one an ability to bear the sentiment," before climbing over the boundary in silent farewell.

The entertainment of dining at Rosings was repeated almost every night by the Earl and Countess of Saffron Walden. The former would insist upon them attending on his godmother from the late afternoon, leaving much of the morning to his passion for racing the way of Four-Horse.

Their other engagements were none; as the style of living of the neighbourhood in general was below her husband's taste. This however was no evil to Elizabeth, and upon the whole she spent her time comfortably enough; there were half hours of pleasant conversation with Charlotte, sometimes with the company of Maria as well, and the weather was so fine for the time of year, that she had often great enjoyment out of doors.

Her favourite walk, and where she frequently went when she could seek her own amusement, was along the open grove which edged that side of the park, where there was a nice sheltered path, which no one seemed to value but herself, and where she felt beyond the reach of Lady Catherine's and the Earl's curiosity.

In this quiet way, the first fortnight of their visit soon passed away. Easter was approaching, and the week preceding it was to bring an addition to the family at Rosings, and one that the moment she had heard of it, Elizabeth had not been able to look upon with anything but a mixture of half eager and half fearful anticipation.

It was Lady Catherine's two youngest nephews; Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mr Darcy. Elizabeth could not help but wonder why now of all times, until she learned that Lady Catherine usually received the pleasure of their company around this time of year.

During her last meeting with Mr Darcy, there had been something in his look, a certain facet of his expression which had left her with the feeling that he had not said all he had intended to say before they parted at the chorus of the church bells.

What the exact nature of his unfinished conversation was however, Elizabeth could not predict with any degree of certainty. He had seemed resolute in finding out whether or not his suspicion concerning the truth of her marriage was correct, and she had felt unable to deceive him otherwise.

His response then, of despaired astonishment at why she had not run away from the Earl, seemed even now to indicate to Elizabeth that, had she ignored the hour, she would perhaps be no longer walking the quiet grove she was walking now. That perhaps, she might be some place far away, too great a distance for the Earl to know her whereabouts.

Did she welcome such a prospect? Elizabeth did not know. The enticement was certainly existent in the outlook, but whether or not she would actually gain any happiness from it, would remain to be seen until she took the courage to agree to whatever he proposed.

But almost as soon as these words had finished forming in her thoughts, Elizabeth found herself shaking her head at her presumption. He had not even spoken these things she was speculating about aloud, and she had no surety that he would do within the near future. All that she knew with any authority was that she had confirmed to him that her marriage was one of abuse, from which she had not been able to escape.

What he did with that information was now up to him.

Chapter Text

Chapter XIII.

As the carriage bearing the crest of one of the richest families in Derbyshire travelled the familiar environs of a certain Kentish relative, the occupant who owned such a magnificent equipage could not but help turn his mind to the last time his horses and coach had traversed that road, and the desperate resolution which had occupied him during that fateful journey, only for it to be swiftly abandoned shortly after his arrival, leaving him bereft in the wake of an impassioned plea from his cousin, which neither of them would have imagined to be rendered into prophecy.

Having resolved during his recent sojourn in town his future actions regarding that situation, his visit to his Aunt this time was with the intent to broach the matter regarding the extent of his involvement and cooperation in her favourite wish, and to disappoint her accordingly.

He had spent too many years in keeping silent upon the matter, a silence which he had long since realised served to create as much suffering as had failing to disabuse her of the notion from the moment when she had first voiced the wish aloud to him. While he had often looked upon the union as something of a prevention against the matchmaking whims of society regarding his eligibility, his Aunt had treated his silence as certain assent, and sheltered his cousin from rivals accordingly, in detriment to her health and to his.

His cousin was a contrast to her mother, being so thin and small, with little resemblance to the tall, large and strongly marked features of his Aunt. Anne was pale and sickly; her features, though not plain were insignificant, her appetite often nearly nonexistent and her view of the world rarely extended beyond daily short rides in her phaeton. Even if his heart were not engaged elsewhere, none of his cousin's qualities stood her in good stead to be the next mistress of Pemberley and Rosings.

Lady Catherine reigned over her household with a firm, almost domineering hand, depending upon her steward to report to her every accounting, no matter how insignificant. While she was content to observe the proper forms of estate management, her trust would only extend so far. However, her concern for her daughter's health prevented her from taking her in hand and preparing her to succeed, causing his Aunt to rely on her nephew's experience, hence his annual obligation to visit.

It had not taken many visits for Darcy to determine the motive behind his Aunt's request for assistance, and for some time now he and his cousins had taken pains to help her daughter become acquainted with the instruction which their Aunt had failed to supply. Anne possessed a fine intellect, which only the want of education had neglected, and once that need was stimulated, flowered accordingly. But while her talents flourished, her health remained worrisome.

Last summer, after a certain godson had painfully obtruded upon his notice, Darcy had travelled to Rosings with a desperate resolution formed out of guilt that in striving to raise his young sister, he had neglected to supply her with a companion in whom they could both trust. Where a stranger whose character served to unhappily deceive them failed, a family member might succeed. It was the closest he had come in submitting to his Aunt's wishes, and had she known the full extent of his thoughts her triumph would have been complete.

But she had not anticipated his arrival, nor did he seek to warn her ahead of his visit, two instances which served to disappoint both her wish and his desperate resolution utterly. For when he entered the house, he discovered that his Aunt was out to dinner with Lady Metcalfe, and her daughter had used this absence to her advantage, by requesting a physician from town to pay her a consultation, for the one established in Hunsford was too enamoured with her mother's patronage to be capable of delivering an unbiased diagnosis.

At Anne's request, Darcy was permitted to witness the physician's verdict, and the result was enough to render his motive for visiting Rosings pointless. While her intellect and humour were sound, her physical anatomy was not. Procreation was considered too dangerous an endeavour to be attempted, for it was declared doubtful that she could conceive, let alone bring an heir to term. As long as such a possibility was never entertained, her longevity was certain.

Lady Catherine's ignorance regarding this consultation was equally established, for neither Anne nor Darcy had desired to inform her of the diagnosis unless certain events required them to do so. He and the physician, after ascertaining Anne's sagacity regarding such grave prospects, returned to London before his Aunt returned from her dinner engagement. Upon his return to town he was informed by Colonel Fitzwilliam of a woman whose references were of the highest recommendation, and after meeting her, employed her to preside over the household of his sister. Then Bingley came to him with a request for his assistance in estate management, whereupon the matter was left in the hands of his cousin.

During his continued correspondence with his Aunt and his cousin whilst staying in Hertfordshire, it soon became apparent to Darcy that Lady Catherine's ignorance remained unabated. Her desire for himself and her daughter to unite their great estates was forever alluded to, and in terms which spoke of the prospect as certain. Whilst he continued to remain un-enamoured by the daughters of society, such nescience was preferable, but when he began to realise that his heart was engaged, the means to disabuse her of this wish became a troublesome prospect.

Many of his motives which he could reveal to her as his reasons for disappointing her wish, related to his cousin and her health, for if Lady Catherine were ever to learn of the truth behind his endeavours, the silence in which he desired to surround the matter, not just for his sake but for the sake of the Countess, would be broken before it could even be implemented. His Aunt would not be above the idea of using any children he might conceive through his affairs as legitimate heirs of himself and her daughter, rendering the proposed marriage a necessary cover. How far the Earl might be complicit in such a disguise was a possibility on which he did not desire to speculate.

One other person, aside from his sister, would need to be informed of the matter; his cousin Richard, who held joint guardianship over Georgiana and who was sitting opposite him at this moment, on leave from his regiment, attending the annual visitation to Rosings as a supporting buffer to provide his often beleaguered cousin relief from their Aunt's continual badgering regarding her favourite wish.

How Richard was likely to react to his cousin's intentions was difficult to determine. He had been a confidant of Darcy's nearly all their lives, a relationship nurtured through close correspondence and the guardianship of his sister. A few years older than he, Richard began his career early in the army, rising through merit rather than birth and wealth to the rank of Colonel. His connections in the military high command were an impressive if somewhat closely guarded secret, due to the nature of the work he was involved in for the war effort. Respected for his moral, upstanding behaviour, he was one of the few high ranking officers on staff who was not living a scandalous lifestyle off the battlefield.

Between the cousins there was a mutual respect founded on those morals, borne in the wake of witnessing a certain godson's total disregard for such values. Darcy knew that it would take his cousin greatly by surprise when he learned of his intentions, not to mention that he was likely to incur the Colonel's disapproval of the affair. But by choosing to confide in him the full nature of the affair first, rather than have him along with the rest of his family learn of the matter through the gossip columns favoured by society, he might earn some acceptance that his actions were honourable in their intent.

It was a quiet hope that society would never learn of the affair, for the Earl was known to keep his wife confined within his estates, whilst he spent time at some of the most dangerous gentlemen's clubs in London. Darcy's own disdain for Society was well known also. It would not be too difficult to remove himself from it, disappearing into the wilds of his estate, hopefully taking the Countess with him. The Earl knew little of their acquaintance, he was unlikely to number Derbyshire amongst the places that his wife might escape to, for the county was not connected to her family, save for it being the birthplace of her Aunt. If indeed they were traced, where better to challenge her oppressor than on the loyal stomping grounds of his estate.

But before he could even begin to contemplate such a future, he must first disappoint his Aunt, an interview that was likely to be difficult for all concerned. So, it was with anything but pleasure that Darcy commanded his coachman to come to a halt outside the front entrance of Rosings Park. He took a deep breath and schooled his face into an expression of indifference, before disembarking from the carriage on to the pebbled driveway of the estate.

"'Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more,'" Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam quoted as he stepped down from behind his cousin.

Darcy allowed himself to smile and chuckle at the wisdom of it. "No truer words could be spoken," he agreed, before returning his countenance to his previous mask of composure.

They walked the short distance to the edge of the building, up the stone steps, and inside the opened entrance. Darcy met the eyes and hand of the understanding and long suffering butler. "How are you, Mr Darcy?"

"Moderately well, thank you, Simmons," Darcy replied as he divested himself of his travelling clothes, depositing them into the hands of the waiting footmen. "And yourself?"

"Very well, thank you, sir," Simmons replied, touched by the gentle enquiry.

"And how are your wife and children?" Darcy asked, incurring another gratified smile from the butler.

"They're very well, thank you, Mr Darcy," Simmons replied. "Lady Catherine is in the Drawing Room, if you'll follow me."

The trio crossed the checked marble floor into the room in question. Simmons prudently waited for his mistress to pause in her conversation before announcing to the occupants at large, "Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy and Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam."

All rose from their chairs to greet the new visitors. Colonel Fitzwilliam paid them all merely a cursory glance. Darcy however, was able only to fix his eyes on one. He had not thought it possible that this visit would be anything but an endurance. Then he had glanced from the form of his Aunt to meet her startled fine eyes.

For a moment he was unable to do naught else but return the expression. Time seemed to stop. Sounds seemed too quiet. The rest of the room seemed to fade away. Unconsciously both changed their countenances, from startled surprise, to almost perfect joy at each other's presence. Joy then also drifted away, as each moved to express a longing silent and unacknowledged only to one, but deeply felt by both.

Lady Catherine spoke, and Darcy found himself back in the present with a jolt. When he had discreetly glanced at the Countess again, the expression was gone, with no evidence that it had ever existed, almost persuading him that he had imagined the entire thing. Counselling his own face back into the mask it had held before, he made the appropriate response to his Aunt's greeting.

As he and his cousin took their seats amidst the company of their Aunt, her daughter, her godson and his wife, her curate and his wife and sister, Darcy allowed himself to take a deeper look at the Countess. From his vantage point immediately to the right of his Aunt, he was able to observe her discreetly, unhampered by by the Earl, by whose side she was sitting. His presence might have been a hindrance, had it not been for the fortuitous intervention of Mr Collins, who was conducting a one sided conversation with his Aunt's godson.

He found her much subdued, a contrast to their last meeting, where he had been able to observe how well the ride had brightened her fine eyes, rendered a rosy hue to her face, and untamed her long, tightly coiled hair. By contrast she seemed pale, save for a redness around her mouth, which he was at a loss to comprehend. Allowing his eyes to drift downwards, he soon descried the same stain at the limits of her bodice, sinking in between her breasts. But it was the marks upon her wrists which drew the most attention.

Concealed partially by two ornately jewelled bracelets, was the discoloured bruising indicative of restraints. When he swept his gaze from the injury upwards to her face, it was to meet a gaze from her that conveyed a fair degree of fear. He could only speculate as to the cause behind such evidence, and the emotion with which he reacted to this thought required considerable restraint in preventing himself from rising to his feet and calling the Earl out.

Indeed his anger was such that it was with difficulty that he managed to recall himself to his surroundings, to find his Aunt staring at him, clearly awaiting answer to whatever it was she had deigned to ask him.

"Forgive me, Aunt," he replied, rousing himself from his violent thoughts, "of what were you talking?"

"I hope, nephew, that your inattention is merely a product of your long journey rather than an acquired habit," Lady Catherine remarked by way of admonishment. "As it is, I was recollecting my advice to my godson which I delivered to him on his first evening in my company, concerning the continuing establishment of his bloodline. It is wisdom that I believe you would do well to follow, being as you are but two years his junior. You have had the management of the Darcy estates for five years now. Surely enough time has passed for you to be able to direct yourself to other duties required by society."

Her inference was clear; she expected him to raise the issue regarding her and, as she frequently claimed, his mother's favourite wish, although Darcy could not recall Lady Anne mentioning anything of the sort in his presence. "Indeed, Aunt, I came into Kent with no other view," he replied, leaving her surprised, along with the rest of his immediate family.

Lady Catherine was too highly pleased by his response to recollect that the words could convey entirely different meanings that would necessitate an outcome which was contrary to her wishes. "It is high time that you address these concerns, nephew. As I said to my godson upon his first evening here, the begetting of heirs is an important endeavour, one which you should be wary of entertaining late in life. The Earl has been married two years before I reminded him of this task, and I hope that you, nephew, will not allow a similar period of time to elapse before your own bloodline is allowed to prosper."

Darcy nodded, directing a glance to Elizabeth as soon as his Aunt's attention was focused elsewhere, in time to observe that her colour had paled even further, allowing him to draw a swift conclusion as to what his Aunt's wisdom had led the Earl to do during their stay. He would have to act quickly if he desired to remove her from her husband's household, lest other signs of his treatment began to show themselves, preventing such departures.

Persuading the Countess of the wisdom in his plans however, would doubtless prove a difficult endeavour. Clearly the Earl's actions had conspired to produce an even greater fear of his person than she had already possessed, one which only time and distance could hope to erase. Despite the extraordinary conversation between them during their last encounter he could hardly presume on her trust; measures would have to be taken to earn such favour from her throughout the duration of their stay. Providing that is that he was able to procure her company, and bring matters regarding the desired union between himself and his cousin to a speedy end.

As Darcy silently began to compose the conversation which he was likely to be having with his Aunt, reprieve for Elizabeth came in the form of that lady's request that she favour the company with a song, performed upon the instrument situated in the next room, whose opened doors would permit Lady Catherine and her guests the privilege of hearing such music. Rising from her seat with some care, for the Earl's increasing intentions upon her had caused much more damage than that which was readily apparent about her person, the Countess walked slowly towards the pianoforte.

Lady Catherine listened to half a song, and then talked, as before, to her nephew, till her attention was drawn to the the actions of her other blood relation. Colonel Fitzwilliam seemed really glad to see additions to the usual party with which he was met at Rosings, indeed anything was a welcome relief to him, and Mrs Collins' pretty sister had moreover caught his fancy very much.

Upon entering the room he had seated himself by her, and talked so agreeably of Kent and Hertfordshire, of travelling and staying at home, of new books and music, that Charlotte had never been half so well entertained in that room before; and they conversed with so much spirit and flow, as to draw the attention of Lady Catherine, as well as of the Earl. His eyes had been soon and repeatedly turned towards them with a look of curiosity; and that her ladyship after a while shared the feeling, was more openly acknowledged, for she did not scruple to call out, "What is that you are saying, Fitzwilliam? What is it you are talking of? What are you telling Miss Lucas? Let me hear what it is."

"We were speaking of music, madam," said he, when no longer able to avoid a reply.

"Of music! Then pray speak aloud. It is of all subjects my delight. I must have my share in the conversation, if you are speaking of music. There are few people in England I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a true proficient. And so would Anne, if her health had allowed her to apply. I am confident she would have performed delightfully."

It was with some irony that her ladyship managed to deliver this speech while ignoring the fine piece of composition which the Countess was now performing. But that her attention had been caught was enough, causing Darcy to rise from his post and move with his usual deliberation towards the pianoforte, stationing himself so as to command a full view of the fair performer's countenance.

Elizabeth saw what he was doing, and her fear at how the Earl might interpret such actions on his part arose within her to such a degree that it was to the testament of her talent that no evidence of such emotion flowed through her performance. At the first convenient pause, he said to her softy, "I do not mean to frighten you, milady, by coming to hear you."

"I shall not say that you are mistaken," she replied, raising her gaze from the sheet music before her to observe that his station not only allowed a full view of her countenance but also shielded the two of them from the company within the other room, "because you could not really believe me to entertain any design of being alarmed by you.”

"I am glad to hear it," he returned. "I hope your time in Kent has been agreeable. The countryside hereabouts features much in the way of lanes in which to lose oneself, and I recollect from our previous acquaintances that you have professed yourself to be a great walker. Indeed I know you to be a magnificent horsewoman from my own observation."

Elizabeth frowned as she endeavoured to conjecture what he might mean through this unconnected enquiries and compliments concerning her pleasures in solitary walks. Catching his intense gaze, she soon realised that he meant to secure a moment alone with her, in a location where no interruption to their conversations would occur. Discerning his motive was another, far easier matter, for he could only mean to raise the subject which had existed between them during their last solitary encounter.

That things had worsened since their last meeting clearly had not escaped his notice; his coming to see her, his close observation of her whilst in the company of his Aunt, and finally his continued stance which served to hide her from the Earl all spoke of his knowledge as to the misery of her situation. "There is a open grove towards one side of the park, where there is a sheltered path that no one seems to value but myself and where I feel beyond the reach of the Earl's curiosity."

"Thank you, milady," Darcy acknowledged the nature of her confidence with small inclination of his head. "I shall endeavour to insure that the perverseness of mischance shall bring us together in such a favourite haunt."

Here they were interrupted by Lady Catherine, who approached them, and after listening for a few minutes, said to Darcy, "Elizabeth does not play at all amiss. She has had the advantage of a London master thanks to my godson, the Earl, and must merely practice diligently. She has a very good notion of fingering, though her taste is not equal to Anne's. Anne would have been a delightful performer, had her health allowed her learn."

Lady Catherine continued to her remarks on the Countess' performance, mixing with them many instructions on execution and taste. Elizabeth received them with all the forbearance of civility; and at the request of Mr Darcy remained at the instrument until her husband's carriage was ready to take them home.

If anyone served to witness the seemingly unexpected meeting of Mr Darcy and the Countess of Saffron Walden, both desired to appear as being brought together by wilful ill-nature, or a voluntary penance, consisting of a merely a few formal enquiries and an awkward pause, before turning back and walking together , as gentlemen feel themselves obliged to do when in the company of a lady.

As no such perverseness of mischance occurred however, they were able to conduct their rendezvous with some ease, meeting in the middle of the sheltered walk, having entered the path from the opposite ends of Rosings and Blisstham.

Darcy was the first to arrive, and thus able to observe the approach of the Countess, the walk being here less sheltered than on the other side, allowing him to see her before they met. At no great distance, he could easily establish that some discomfort lay within the manner of her walk, along with the care she took to ensure that her garments might shield herself from any unforeseen incursion from the fine weather.

Aware that his emotions would remain difficult to keep in check if he allowed himself to speculate as to the real reason for such modesty, Darcy forced himself to focus on how best to approach her. There was little recourse to be had by talking of general matters such as the state of the roads and the weather, yet to directly begin with the subject which preoccupied both of them would undoubtedly serve to wrench a fair amount of fear from her. Yet he was also of the opinion that she would not care to raise the matter first herself.

It was therefore to his surprise however that her first remark upon joining him was almost a direct reference to the affair. "I risk a great deal by coming here to see you. If the Earl knew of your interest, the damage to my situation would only increase."

"Then I am grateful that you chose to risk such dangers, and I admire your courage in doing so," Darcy replied. He held out his arm to her. "In light of such information, it would be best if we continued to walk."

After some hesitation, the Countess took his arm, and they rambled along together. "How long do you intend to sojourn in the company of your Aunt and cousins?"

"That depends on the result of the conversation I plan to have with Lady Catherine," Darcy explained. "I came into Kent with the intention of disappointing a favourite wish of hers, regarding a union between myself and my cousin Anne."

Elizabeth nodded in understanding, as she came to recall the many allusions which her husband's godmother had made concerning her daughter to her nephew the evening before. "Such a match is not to you or your cousin's liking, I may infer."

"Once, last summer, I came close to capitulating to her wishes, " Darcy confessed. "My sister, Georgiana, whose guardianship is under the care of Colonel Fitzwilliam and myself, was taken out from her school and given an establishment in Ramsgate, under the care of a Mrs Younge, in whose character we were unhappily deceived. Unbeknownst to myself, she had made the acquaintance of the son of my father's steward, a George Wickham."

To his surprise, Elizabeth gasped in recognition of the name. "I believe I know something of this man. His name has been mentioned by my sisters as a great favourite member of the militia who are quartered in Meryton."

"Yes, it is the same man, as Georgiana and I discovered when we came to stay with Bingley at Netherfield." Darcy paused before continuing. "George Wickham was my father's godson, and in gratitude for the service which his father had done, my father saw to his education, with the intent of providing him a living in the Church. We played together as children, and attended Cambridge, where Wickham's behaviour was as dissolute as his manners were engaging.

"My excellent father died about five years ago, and his attachment to Wickham was to the last so steady, that he left him a legacy of a thousand pounds, and recommended to me to promote his advancement in the best manner that his profession might allow, and if he took orders, desired that a valuable family living might be his as soon as it became vacant.

"But Wickham declined any interest in the church, and hoped that I should not think it unreasonable for him to expect some more immediate pecuniary advantage, in lieu of the preferment, by which he could be benefited. He had some intention of studying the law. I wished rather than believed him to be sincere, so an agreement was drawn up between us, where he resigned all claim to assistance in the church, and accepted in return three thousand pounds.

"For about three years I heard little of him, but on the decease of the incumbent of the living which had once been designed for him, he applied to me again by letter for the presentation. His circumstances, he assured me and I had no difficulty in believing it, were exceedingly bad. He had found the law an unprofitable study, if indeed he had even taken up the profession in the first place, for his life was always one of idleness and dissipation."

"I hope you refused him," Elizabeth remarked, greatly shocked by the tale, "to go through a sum so great as four thousand pounds in three years, to then presume on your nature and trust him not only with a living, but the salvation of a parish, marks gravely against his character."

"Indeed I did refuse him, and his resentment was in proportion to his the distress of his circumstances, and he was doubtless as violent in his abuse of me to others, as in his reproaches to myself. All connection between us seemed now at an end, until last summer when he intruded painfully upon myself and my sister's notice. You have met Georgiana, and seen how fragile her character is, a state affected by Wickham's persuading her to believe herself in love with him, in order that he might revenge himself upon me, and gain her dowry of thirty thousand pounds. He intended for them to elope, but fortunately he was prevented, by my joining them in Ramsgate unexpectedly.

"This near ruin of my sister persuaded me that I had neglected her somehow, by focusing on the management of my estates, by delinquency in providing her with someone in whom we could both trust. Since a stranger had failed, I sought to establish a more familiar connection, by marrying my cousin. So the summer before I went to Netherfield, I returned here, with the intention of asking Anne to marry me.

"I found Lady Catherine to be visiting a neighbour of hers, and in her absence Anne had called for a physician from London to attend upon her person. I was allowed the privilege of witnessing his diagnosis, which rendered my visit pointless. Her health is too delicate to risk the establishment of heirs to Rosings or Pemberley. She pleaded with me that I might find another, whom I could care for, and until recently, I feared such an endeavour would be impossible."

He finished this with a look directed towards her, whose meaning was unmistakable. Elizabeth felt the intensity of his gaze, and wondered at the measurement. "How can you profess such, after so short an acquaintance?"

"I cannot explain it," he confessed. "From the first moments of our acquaintance, I have come to feel for you an attraction which despite all my struggles has never faded. Had you been happily married, I would have striven to rid myself of the feelings, but you gave me to believe otherwise during our last encounter, and from my observation yesterday, such circumstances have only worsened."

"Whether such is the case," Elizabeth allowed, "what can you possibly do to provide relief? I am subject to my husband, one of the richest Earls in the country."

"I can offer you sanctuary," Darcy revealed. "If you are willing, I could take you from this place into my household as a guest of my sister."

"For how long?" Elizabeth queried. "Forty days and forty nights, or until perhaps he endangers himself on one of his reckless vices?"

"For as long as you wished, and as holy as the church used to render it," he promised. "I'm not asking you to make a decision immediately, I know there are matters which you need to consider, and I have yet to speak with my Aunt regarding her wishes, but I desire you to know of my intentions, in order to give you the time you need."

"And what shall we do in the meantime?" Elizabeth asked as they neared the environs of her husband's estate.

"Spend what time we can together, with the aim of furthering our acquaintance, so you may come to trust me as much as I trust you," he replied, before gently letting go of her arm, as they reached the gate which marked the entrance of Blisstham.

Elizabeth parted from Mr Darcy at the gate of the drive to Blisstham. The path before her led to the house in such a way as to obscure him from the view of any who might be inside, making it appear as though she had returned from the parsonage alone. Which was how she preferred it to be for now.

Though she had known of his coming and possessed a fair idea of what it would inevitably include, Elizabeth was by no means ready to let the situation become reality. His expression when they had parted that day after her sister's wedding, had made his intentions clear enough.

At first she had not allowed herself to admit it, nor let her mind entertain the possibility, and what answer she might give him. Then, when she had heard of his coming to Rosings, the response had come upon her so suddenly as to make every thing within her revolt against it. For a time she had chosen to ignore it, believing that he was not serious in his intentions, that she had misunderstood his expression.

His arrival put all that doubt and any emotion that came along with it to bed immediately. For, from the moment she had possessed the courage to raise her eyes to his own in the Drawing Room of Rosings Park, that expression returned to his face.

And Elizabeth now knew that she had responded to it. She had not realised her expression at the time, but now, as she recalled his response, she knew that her heart had declared before her mind what would be her destiny. The understanding of it was almost terrifying to her.

Yet her heart was welcoming, and she had almost been unable to prevent him from speaking about it just now. Thoughts of her accepting him had made her naturally think of the worst consequences that could occur. It was the first time she had contemplated such a notion; at least one involving the protection of another. A part of her feared what it might entail. What she might owe him.

But another part of her welcomed the prospect, however, and it was with these two conflicting emotions in mind that Elizabeth had made herself want to wait until her heart and her mind had firmly declared to her jointly in favour of either yes or no.

Until then, she should just carry on with her everyday life, spending time with him when circumstances permitted them to be alone and unnoticed. That, she hoped, would help her decide which course of action to follow.

Chapter Text

Chapter XIV.

Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam had not earned his title by his family's position and connections in Society. All that had earned him was his first commission. It was his intelligence and natural ability in the art of soldiery which had got him the rest of the way up the ladder, and now in charge of his own battalion in the Life Guards.1

Senior to his cousin Darcy by only two years, and having all the appeal of a second son, he had begun and still maintained a close friendship with him, providing many a voice for advice and counselling, even when the man became master of Pemberley and all its estates.

Fitzwilliam was the fellow that Darcy turned to when this inherited gift became a burden, and in turn the Colonel was provided with that most precious of luxuries; his cousin's unswerving but rarely bestowed loyalty. Richard knew Darcy to be an honourable man, ruled by his sound principles, a very good brother and a rarely shocked friend.

Thus, Fitzwilliam was most surprised when his cousin announced to him his intentions concerning the Countess of Saffron Walden. Richard could not recall a time when he had been more shocked. He could not speak a word for a full ten minutes. When at last he did find the words, they could not have been more blunt. "Have you lost your mind!?!"

Darcy, who from originally sitting opposite him to tell the tale, had now moved to stand in front of the window, a habitual pose for when a conversation deeply touched his heart. "If when one is lost in love one is presumed to be out of his mind, then yes perhaps I have, Fitzwilliam."

"Seriously Darce," Richard continued, "have you really thought all this through? Do you have any idea what will happen when, and I do not mean if, the scandal of it comes out?"

"Have you really so little in faith in me?" his cousin replied. "Do you not think that such a man as I would have not spent many weeks and months running through all the consequences in my mind? Fitzwilliam, I have not decided to embark on this course of action purely because I am in love with the lady. If I could see that she was happy in her marriage, then I would not dream of removing her from it, either by choice or by force. But I know for certain that she is not."

"For certain?" Richard echoed. "You have already asked her?"

Darcy described the day that they had met riding in between the fields of Netherfield and Stoke Edith, and what had passed in their conversation there, along with what he had observed during their first evening together at Rosings, and the conclusions which the evidence led him to form, as well as the substance of the conversation which he had with her the day before.

"If this is true," Richard commented after a while, "and I am not implying if it is that or if it is false in any way, then why has not the lady herself endeavoured to find some way out of the marriage?"

"Because she cannot afford to," Darcy answered. "You know as well as I do, the terms of the last Earl's will. Its details were made clear to almost all of Society. The wealth in its entirety passes solely to the next in line. None of it is delegated to the wife or any issue of the heir until the present holder of the title is deceased. Any that they have is due to the will of the present Earl alone. And you know that his reputation is hardly that of a generous soul. Which means the Countess could only rely on the goodness of her family, which would not get her very far."

"And so you are offering all the means which are at your disposal?" Richard surmised, to which his cousin nodded. Leaning back in his chair, the Colonel clasped his hands behind his head. "You realise of course how this will look to everyone else, including those who know you?"

"It is not uncommon, Fitzwilliam. But yes, I know it will look to others as though I have another, less honourable motive in pursuing this. And, to be frank, I don't care what they think, be it family, friend or stranger." Darcy paused and turned his back on the window. "The only opinions I do care about are Georgiana's, the Countess', and yours."

"So you haven't chosen to confide in her new brother in law?"

Darcy hesitated before replying, "No. I did not want to put Bingley in a difficult position."

"Yes, I see your point," Richard conceded. He returned to his previous position in the chair. "Darce, don't take this the wrong way, but have you an ulterior motive in pursuing this mission?"

His cousin heaved a sigh and sat back in the armchair opposite him. "I'm not a monk," he eventually began, his face solemn, "you know that. I may not practice what other men my equal usually participate in, and nor do I approve of the dubious fashion. And I will not deny that, if the opportunity was presented to me, I would be strongly tempted. But I would not take the step, not unless she was as willing as I. It would never feel right otherwise."

Richard smiled slightly in response to that. "Good to see you are still thinking about this as rationally as you deal with any matter. Now, dare I ask; have you spoken to Georgiana?"

Darcy judged his expression before replying, "Yes, I spoke to her when I was in London, after Bingley's wedding."

"And what is her opinion?"

"She likes the Countess very much. She approved."

Richard found himself smiling again at that. "Yes, I cannot imagine Georgie not approving of any woman you fell in love with or vice versa."

Darcy leaned back in the leather and displayed the same expression for the first time in the conversation. "You haven't met Caroline Bingley."

Richard chuckled. "No, but I remember your expression when Bingley mentioned his sister once between us all." He chuckled once more, then returned to his previous seriousness. "All right. You asked for my opinion and I shall give it, though I never dreamt of being required to provide one on this subject. I have yet to properly form an acquaintance with her, but I know you very well. I know how highly you hold your notions of honour, principles, and loyalty. Therefore, I can give no other answer but this. You have my blessing. And my unbending support."

His cousin smiled for the second time in the conversation. "Thank you Richard," he uttered, dropping the formality of surnames. "You know I will do my best to make sure that you never find yourself regretting that assurance."

"I know."

Later, when the morning had faded into afternoon, Richard walked with his cousin to the Parsonage, where he found occasion to properly meet the Countess of Saffron Walden. The time they spent in conversation together could not have lasted more than half an hour, but it was enough for him to form an opinion of her, and her suitability for his cousin.

Aside from the undeniable fact that she was married, Richard could not help but approve of her. She displayed all the wit of a highly intelligent woman, and none of the usual arrogance that the other woman of that rank tended to display, when they thought themselves so.

Her loyalty to her friends and relatives, he saw having the equal measure of his cousins. Most importantly of all, her interests in literature, music, and travelling, exactly complimented Darcy's. In short, Richard approved, and he could think of few who would not.

He conveyed this much to his cousin. Not vocally, for the visit did not give them such a chance, but silently, with a look, which Darcy, knowing him as well as he did, could interpret without any difficulty. Then, feeling his task done, Richard resumed what had been his previous occupation.

That was, conversation with the Countess' friend. Miss Charlotte Lucas. Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam could not deny that he felt a certain fascination for Miss Lucas. Upon first meeting her, he had perceived her to be unusual, having a younger sister married before her, a contradiction it seemed when he was confronted with her practical nature.

Within minutes he had concluded that she would have gladly taken her unwilling sister's place in the match with Mr Collins, and not out of any regard, personal or sisterly, but because the one thing he could provide was a reasonably respectable good home.

Having been referred to as the eternal bachelor nearly all his life, Richard had naturally been quite surprised by this turn of thought. He had always been so military in his emotions and frame of reasoning. Love had never been something he felt he could afford, having been always the second son. Second son of one of the richest Earls in the country mind you, but still second son. His birth had not granted him the luxury that his cousin and his brother possessed.

His profession had also been limited, because he was the son of an Earl, to the military or to the priesthood. He had chosen the former because he had a natural aptitude for the life, something which had presented him with the luck of rapid promotion, rather than choosing to rely on the weight of seniority and payment for the rank, as did most younger sons of gentlemen. But he was also well aware, however, that a Colonelcy did not count for much in terms of wealth.

He could live comfortably off the income, but a wife would be hard pressed to in his circle of Society, unless she had a significant monetary worth of her own. This was something which Richard always accepted without question, and something he had never believed he would ever contemplate, as he had never felt himself to be close to falling in love.

That is, until now. To others, reaching this conclusion might have seemed to be too fast, too soon, but Richard was a military man, and as such, his judgement on any situation could usually be relied on to be swiftly formed. A soldier had to possess that ability, as his day to day routine required him to act instantly, or suffer deadly consequences. Their first instinct was always their first port of call, for, the more experienced they became, the less likely it was to be wrong.

And his first instinct on this fascination was that he was about to fall in love. Rarely had his instinct taken him by surprise. In fact, until this moment, it never had. And, having never been in love before, Richard did not know what he should do next.

His brother's courtship had been like many others in Society: a mutual evaluation of each other's potential and existing wealth, followed by a suitable number of public appearances together, before the proposal was conducted and the approvals sought.

His cousin's was obviously going to form an outwardly scandalous end, though Richard knew that the reality would differ entirely from what Society believed it to be. And while he waited to gain the lady's acceptance on the matter, Richard knew that Darcy would never press. Like himself his cousin was a most patient man.

When he reached this thought, Richard realised that he already knew what he would do. He would wait. Pursue the acquaintance, and wait until his regiment called him back to barracks for service in Spain. Only by then would he know for definite what his feelings were for her.

And, by default, what Miss Lucas felt for him.

1. 2nd Life Guards: Together with the 1st Life Guards they sent two squadrons to Portugal at the end of October 1812, where, with the Royal Horse Guards, they formed Household Cavalry Brigade, under the command of Major-General Rebow, who was also of their regiment. They were inspected by their Commander in Chief, the future Duke of Wellington- this title was only bestowed on him in 1814 -on May 23rd 1813, and on June 21st they took part in the battle of Vitoria.

They entered the entanglement late afternoon, just as Joseph Bonaparte's army collapsed, the 2nd Life Guards driving off the enemy infantry. After spending the winter of 1813-1814 in Logrono, they followed the army into France. More squadrons of the Life Guards joined them and they were present at the battle of Toulouse, on April 10th, though they took no part in the battle itself.

On July 22nd both regiments disembarked Boulogne for England. On the 27th April 1815 two squadrons from each of the two regiments of both the Life Guards joined Wellington for the battle of Waterloo. They took part in the Earl of Uxbridge's charge against D'Erlon's corps, at a cost of 17 killed and 41 wounded.

They marched into Paris on July 7th 1815, and remained in France until January 17th 1816 when they returned to England.

Source is Ian Fletcher's Wellington's Regiments; The Men And Their Battles 1808-1815.

Chapter Text

Chapter XV.

With the not very tempting attraction of Lady Catherine's company at Rosings, it was not hard to suppose that her nephews would frequently take opportunities to amuse themselves elsewhere. All field sports were over. Within doors, apart from their Aunt and their cousin, there were books and a billiard table, but gentlemen cannot always be within doors; and in the nearness of the Parsonage, or the pleasantness of the walk to it, or of the people that resided or visited the place daily, the two cousins found themselves tempted to walk there almost everyday.

They called at various times of the morning, sometimes together, sometimes separately. What their attractions were for the place, their Aunt could not claim to know of, for she believed the nightly experience of her parson and his guests, along with her godson and his wife to be enough for the enjoyment of their company. Nevertheless, she was unable to persuade them from desisting in the exercise, as she discovered only after they had returned if either of them had gone at all.

Elizabeth knew the reasons for one of them to visit, her own declared attendance upon the parsonage for the company of Charlotte was excuse enough, and, while she felt herself still unable to accede to those plans Darcy held, she did not desist from accepting his escort from Hunsford to Blisstham. His company was far from unpalatable to her, despite the possible consequences that might ensue.

She still found him to be everything that was amiable and good, along with the perception that her husband did not hold, which was that ladies could display the same intellect in subjects as men. There was an understanding between them that, while it had not been vowed aloud, made them as intimate with each other in conversation as any sibling, or even husband and wife, which, at present, neither wished to change unless the other was also willing.

Thus the Countess had deduced the reasons for one of the gentlemen's preferences for visiting the parsonage almost every day, and soon she had concluded the reasons of the other. While not presuming to obtain the confidence of it from either party, Elizabeth soon learnt of the Colonel's feelings for her friend. During a brief lapse in conversation with her own- she could suppose him to be termed -'suitor,' she had glanced at the two, and observed an expression upon Colonel Fitzwilliam's face that was impossible to interpret in any other way than one of love.

Having discovered this, she attempted to see if she could also discover the existence in some degree, of the same on her friend's side, and in the same manner, before she came out and asked. Elizabeth knew her friend's nature leaned to the more practical, but had always hoped her to be blessed in love, whatever the situation of her suitor.

Surprise however, was still her initial first emotion when she observed the same interest displayed in Charlotte's manner. That emotion though was soon replaced by happiness for her friend, as Elizabeth observed them together more and more throughout each day, soon coming to the opinion that they were entirely suited for each other.

Having formed this conclusion in her mind, Elizabeth set about discreetly confirming its reality, discussing the Colonel in some outside form, which did not convey her suspicions outright, with Charlotte. Within four or five conversations upon the subject did she soon have her friend blushing, as her teasing revealed more than Charlotte wished.

Leaving the parsonage after this conversation, Elizabeth lingered in her favourite grove for a time, only to have her hopes of encountering Mr Darcy walking along the same path, disappointed. There had been no prior arrangement between them to meet, but she felt a certain amount of emotion from such a deprivation, which caused her to draw a comparison between her own situation against that of her friend, finding one of them wanting in terms of felicity.

Her days spent walking with Mr Darcy had felt like a courtship, which she began to realise was exactly what it had been. Over the course of their walks they had exchanged views concerning their childhoods, preferences on everything from Cowper, Scott and Pope, to sentiments on philosophy, classics, the picturesque, religion, politics. A few days spent in just enjoying his company, had done nothing to ease all of the fear within her, concerning what might happen if she acceded to his proposal, but it was her worries as regards to his safety rather than her own which gave her pause for thought at present.

Though she did not see any of the outside world in which her husband and herself lived, Elizabeth was not naive about the many examples of society's behaviours which she might now be facing for herself. Before her marriage she had heard about and sometimes observed many of the more infamous scandals when she spent time with the Gardiners in London.

Such observation could not be more capable of impressing itself upon her now. There was not one case that Elizabeth had seen to resolve itself satisfactorily to all concerned. The woman of the party was invariably left in a ruinous state, either after a messy divorce, an equally messy duel, or when she had fallen with child of the man of the party. Or else both parties had returned to their previous partners, and the affair was embarked upon openly with the acceptance of all affected by the event.

The latter, considering her husband's character, was not an outcome that Elizabeth expected if she did decide to embark upon such a course. Nor did she expect him to consider a divorce, even though Darcy had money enough to carry it through. No, she knew all too well what actions the Earl would take if she chose to accept Mr Darcy's proposal.

He would follow her to the ends of the earth, as any defeat of that nature would be a grievous insult to his character. And Elizabeth knew his skills in the sports which would doubtless follow or be the prelude to her reluctant return to him, whereas she could only suppose what Darcy was capable of.

Halfway home, she came to a abrupt halt, and wondered suddenly what she was thinking of. She who had usually been so incapable of fearing a man with such character as her husband. She had sworn once only to marry for the deepest love, why should she disregard that emotion now, if she felt it for Mr Darcy in favour of the brute she had married?

To all outward appearances he was not a man who would be defeated by the Earl, and, when presented with the example of his behaviour concerning his sister, Elizabeth could be reasonably assured of his steadfast protection of her, should she choose to accept him. She was not one to be swayed by what others thought of her. Why was this venture something she regarded with fear?

Barely a mile did she pass on, before her mind had brought her the answer. Because she feared that the worst she could imagine had a possibility of occurring. That the Earl would be able to find her. Or that Darcy might tire of her, leaving her with no other alternative but to return to the marital home that was her present nightmare. A situation which would no doubt become even worse because of her attempt at freedom.

All the present comforts which she used as reasons to bear the situation would certainly be swept away, as he made her a virtual prisoner at his home, kept only for the supply of an heir, before being quietly done away with. Her family would inevitably hear of it, those who lived in Meryton would talk much about it, and the ruin of the prospects of her remaining unmarried sisters would duly follow.

As for Darcy, if he was not killed by the Earl in a duel, he would be unable to marry well and secure the survival of his family, because his reputation would be ruined also.

The fears, however nonsensical and devoid of probability they might appear to be, when considered rationally, overwhelmed Elizabeth so suddenly and, to such a degree, that she was unable to push the thoughts of them aside. By the time evening had come that day, her mind was in so much turmoil that she felt unable to face anyone but herself that night, as dinner in Darcy's company would inevitably betray some part of her thoughts, not only to him but to everyone else present.

Yet the Earl would not hear of her remaining at home, far removed from his watchful eye, under the care of a household in whom he did not fully trust. That her attendance upon his godmother was required he declared and expected her to submit to, just as she did regarding all other tenets of their marriage which had been enforced during their sojourn in Kent.

It was with a heavy heart that she entered the carriage, her gaze settling on the passing countryside away from the husband who entered to sit across from her, tapping the hilt of his walking stick to the roof as the signal for their departure. As the carriage trundled along she felt a strange sensation of everything closing in upon her, akin to the darkness she endured when her husband pressed her against the pillows in his rough ministrations. Yet here everything was bright and loud, the pounding of her heart beating in time to the pounding of the horses' hooves outside.

She took a deep breath, then another, until slowly the sensation began to pass and she felt like herself again. Glancing outside, she was disconcerted to discover that they had reached the formal gardens of Rosings already. The entrance was but a short approach, and she felt no readier to welcome company than before she left.

The equipage came to a halt outside the door, whereupon the Earl opened the door and descended from the vehicle, brushing aside any attempt at assistance from the servants of his godmother's household who came rushing from the halls within to render their service. He turned, holding out a hand to her, with a firm inscrutable expression splayed across his features which brooked no opposition.

Elizabeth felt all the indignity of accepting his hand as much as submitting to his nightly ministrations, even more so when his tight grip served to all but crush her slender fingers. He led her up the steps inside to the grand imposing hall, where the footmen rushed from outside to help divest them of their coats. Such freedom which such movements offered was rapidly relinquished as he all but carried her into the drawing room.

Along with his cousin and the vicar Darcy rose as they entered, his eyes fixing immediately upon the symbols of her imprisonment. Acquiring only a moment to comprehend the situation, he swiftly raised them to decipher the fear behind her expression of composure, before fixing his own on the Earl, who nearly blanched as he received the violence contained therein.

His grip of his wife faltered and it was all Darcy could to restrain himself from seizing upon such an opportunity. As it was, he soon had reason to do so, when the Countess swayed in response to the sudden loss of her husband's support. Nimbly catching her arm before she could fall further, he helped her sink down into a nearby armchair.

"Is there anything you can take for your present relief?" he asked her softly, his stance shielding her from the curiosity of her husband and his godmother. "A glass of wine, shall I get you one?"

"I thank you no," Elizabeth answered shakily, "'tis merely a headache, I'm sure it will pass soon enough."

Once more his gaze swept across her womanish form, far more intimately than a gentleman should allow himself. Understanding swiftly reached his temples, penetrating far beyond, and with a deft motion he swung round to capture the attention of his Aunt.

"Lady Catherine, if you'll forgive me, the Countess is suffering from an indisposition which prevents her from enjoying the pleasure of your company this evening. If you will allow me, I shall escort her to the family wing and instruct the servants to find appropriate measures for her relief."

Without waiting to receive her reply, he swept Elizabeth into his arms and carried her out of the room, up a flight of stairs, before entering a room where an impressive display of blue coloured furnishings adorned an opulent four poster bed. Laying her gently amongst the pillows and sheets, he called out to his valet with directions to fetch Mrs Jenkinson's maid, whom he judged the most competent of his Aunt's household.

"I hope you'll forgive me for my impetuosity," he remarked to her as he seated himself in a chair by the writing desk, which he manoeuvred closer to the bed.

"There is nothing to forgive," Elizabeth assured him, "your attentions have been most solicitous and proper."

"In a moment, after I seen to it that Mrs Jenkinson's maid will not allow anyone to disturb you, I will leave you to your silence and solitude," he added. "If you'll forgive my impertinence, I confess that I cannot help but feel some relief at your indisposition. I was concerned that your desire to delay any acceptance to my proposal was perhaps due to another condition."

Elizabeth blushed at his inference, realising that his comprehension must derive from his devotion to his sister and the immediate aftermath of the circumstances which he had recently confided in her. "I hope you are right, sir. It has taken me quite by surprise, I am not usually so indisposed."

Darcy was grateful that they were alone, for he was unable to restrain the grimace which arrested his features in response. "I hope that has naught to do with your husband, but I fear such is indeed the case."

She flinched at the reference to the Earl. "He has been quite adherent to his godmother's pearls of wisdom."

"Though they are often naught but pearls cast before swine," Darcy commented wryly.

"Artificial pearls," Elizabeth countered.

"Yes, but real swine," he returned. "You hope that I am right?" he inquired suddenly. " Did you suspect otherwise?"

"Not suspect, fear that such could come to pass," Elizabeth confessed. "I cannot even contemplate what I would do if such a circumstance were to arise."

"You need not dread a withdrawal of my offer," Darcy informed her. "Indeed I would think it became imperative that you accepted my protection."

"You would bear such a complication," Elizabeth murmured, unable to believe what he was saying.

"I would bear anything to know that you are safe from his ministrations," he assured her, with such a look that left her in no doubt of his sincerity.

"How would it work?" she found herself softly asking him.

Understanding her, he rose from his chair and crossed to the writing desk. After scratching at a piece of card for but a moment, he was before her once more, his hand bearing one of his calling cards. "The directions for my townhouse in Grosvenor Square and Pemberley. You need only present this to the staff at either of them and you would be welcomed into my household as a guest of myself and my sister."

Elizabeth hesitated but a moment before taking the proffered card from him and secreting within a pocket about her skirts. "What would happen then?" she queried. "Would you call him out?"

"Only for au premier sang1," Darcy answered, "I consider such an end not grave enough in terms of what he has suffered you to endure. As soon as events allowed us, we would go to Pemberley, where we would remain for as long as it is necessary."

At that moment, Mrs Jenkinson's maid knocked on the door, leaving Elizabeth no time to ask what he meant by his parting words. Darcy called out for the servant to enter, and after instructing her to see to the Countess' comfort before he left her for the drawing room.

Lady Catherine was still talking when Darcy entered, paying her nephew no more than a cursory glance as he surveyed the room in order to locate the Earl. He was seated by himself, with a eye directed towards the door, by which watchful movement Darcy presumed he was waiting only for his return before leaving the room to check on his wife.

Silently he walked over to him, coming to a standstill before him, his figure shielding their conversation from the curious eyes of the company. In soft voice aimed to be audible to naught but the two of them, but laced with steel, he said, "If you ever lay a finger of abuse upon your wife again, I will demand satisfaction."

Without waiting for the Earl's response, Darcy returned to his Aunt's side, where he remained for the rest of the evening, his watch on the Earl never ceasing, until the scoundrel was safely in his carriage, without his wife.

*: au premier sang; the terms of duelling with swords were usually agreed by seconds, either to the point of disablement, sometimes to au premier sang (first blood), or sometimes for an agreed number of rounds. Weapons were compared to ensure that they were the same size. Duelling pistols were often kept in pairs, loaded by the seconds to prevent sabotage.

In the case of pistols, eighteenth century England deemed a distance of ten paces was required, although the Irish code of 1777 does not specify, merely providing that the challenger chooses an acceptable distance. The American code of duelling in 1838 pronounces 'the usual distance is from ten to twenty paces, as may be agreed on, and the seconds in measuring the ground usually step three feet.'

Chapter Text

Chapter XVI.

Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam's continued acquaintance with Miss Charlotte Lucas had only served to confirm all his first feelings about her, and his desire to drop the previously held beliefs concerning the benefits of prudent marriage versus the possible evils of one chosen with no other desire than that of mutual deeply held regard and devotion.

Having established his present opinions thus, being a military man and using therefore all the practicality and instinct which comes with such a profession, Richard was quite ready to fall deeply and hopelessly in love, and accordingly did so with the utmost celerity. All that remained now, was to continue to spend time in the object of his love's company, until he could be reasonably assured that she felt the same way.

He doubted not what would be his family's opinion if he were successful. His cousins would approve, as would his parents and brother, who, it must be said, loved his wife now despite the initial Society courtship, and she returned that emotion. The only person likely to object- and Richard did not doubt that she would -was Lady Catherine de Bourgh. She would consider the match to be a disgrace to the position of a second son of an Earl, and would use all the resources that she had at her disposal to try and persuade both him and Miss Lucas out of it.

Not that he cared for his Aunt's opinion concerning what he did with his life. Lady Catherine had always found a reason to be dissatisfied with all of her nephews' and niece's accomplishments, believing that the best they could do was never enough. When Richard had gained the promotion to Colonel, all his Aunt could say upon the event was that it had not been achieved as quickly as she would like, and that he should have chosen to advance himself the way most gentlemen in his position did, by money and influence.

This was a practice which Richard disapproved of, an opinion which he had professed with frequency to Lady Catherine, arguing thoroughly over all of the merits of an earned position of command on a battlefield, as opposed to a bought one, and the superior responsibility which the former gave him. But, like all her opinions, his Aunt remained firm in holding it, causing Richard, like the rest of her nephews and niece, to ignore her and resolve to act in a manner which best constituted his own happiness.

So, it was with this resolution in mind that both he and Darcy took an early breakfast, before Richard would depart from Rosings Park for Hunsford Parsonage. Usually both possessed a mutual desire to vacate the house before their Aunt rose that morning, for she was likely to express a wish that they might spend more time with her and Anne, a pastime which was not currently to their liking.

However, due to the Countess suffering from an indisposition the night before, requiring her to spend the night at Rosings, Darcy lingered at the table, his features displaying a thoughtful countenance as he went about breaking his fast in the same manner of deliberation. His conduct soon drew the observation of his cousin, for despite his attention being pleasantly engaged the evening before with a certain lady of their acquaintance, his experience in the army had led him to keep himself apprised of what else occurred that evening.

Therefore he had not missed the way in which his cousin had shielded the Countess from her husband's view, whisked her out of the room before their Aunt had time to respond to his excuses, and the conversation which he held with the Earl upon the instant of his return. Given the expression which the Earl displayed after Darcy had removed himself to his Aunt's side, Richard could not help but speculate upon the nature of the conversation, his thoughts unable to reach any other conclusion but the one which he was about to air.

"Darcy, do you need me to carry a note to Blisstham Place on my way to Hunsford Parsonage?" he asked his cousin.

Rousing himself from his thoughts, Darcy glanced at the Colonel, evaluating the military man's expression before replying. Becoming the prey of nearly every eligible woman and her family almost from the moment of his majority had forced him to acquire the skill of thinking before spoke, to determine whether a series of words said to him might carry within them a meaning contrary to what was been heard. By extension he had come to acquire a method of descrying the mood of the person who spoke, enabling him to answer fully, although he was by no means an expert in the latter, except perhaps when it came to members of his immediate family, or close confidantes such as his cousin.

"If the Earl lays a hand on her again, then yes I will ask you to convey a note to him," Darcy replied. "If the Countess seeks my protection in the future, then I will ask you to do the same."

Richard was not surprised by his cousin's response, for he had surmised that such would be the case before he asked him. After consuming a measure of his coffee, he remarked, "I need not ask if you are prepared to face the consequences of what you have just undertaken. However I will remind you that we are at war with the usual port of call for such endeavours."

Darcy nodded. "I have no doubt that the grounds of Pemberley will serve such a task adequately." Meeting his cousin's serious mien, he added, "Au premier sang. Although I may wish her free of him, I do not think he deserves such an easy fate at my hand."

The Colonel relaxed a little at hearing such words. "I must confess myself relieved, cousin. Killing is a grave business. Once a man has committed themselves to the act, they emerge from the affair a different person entirely."

"Which is why I held you back from committing the same regarding certain events in Ramsgate," Darcy replied. "The affair almost led one of us to fulfil a desperate resolution, I had no desire for you to spurred into conducting another upon a scoundrel who also deserves a ignominious end."

"Speaking of scoundrels," Richard remarked, "is he still in Meryton?"

"I heard as much when Georgiana and I stayed at Netherfield for Bingley's wedding," Darcy answered. "Why do you ask?"

"Oh, no reason," Richard assured him. "I just wanted to prepare myself when I visited the neighbourhood, lest the surprise of his appearance render me impulsive."

Darcy inclined his head in agreement before rising from his chair. Clasping's cousin's shoulder, he remarked, "In view of such endeavours, I wish you every happiness. Now, I shall be attending to matters about the house for the day, thus I shall not be able to join you on our usual promenade. Please deliver my apologies to those at the Parsonage."

"Of course, cousin," Richard replied, whereupon the two men parted, one for Hunsford, the other for the family wing of the house, where the Countess had spent her night.

As a member of the Guards, the Colonel had acquired a certain speed and dexterity in arriving at destinations on horseback, thus it was not long upon leaving Rosings that he arrived at the Hunsford. After delivering his cousin's regrets to the company at large, and waiting the requisite length of time required for Mr Collins to finish his reply, Richard turned to the source of his real desire to depart the company of his Aunt and cousins, requesting a desire to tour the Parsonage's fine gardens in the pleasure of her company.

Charlotte was happy to acquiesce to his request, and the couple departed the hallowed walls, losing themselves amongst the lush greenery of the surrounding environs.

"So," Charlotte began by way of conversation, for it would not do to be silent through the tour, as some conversation would be required in order for the pleasure of the gardens to be enjoyed fully, although doubtless the current custodian of said greenery would be astonished if he had borne witness to their conversation, if not quite alarmed by the subject matter which it entailed. "Your regiment does not require your services yet, Colonel?"

"I am happy to say that it does not," Richard replied. "Not that I do not look upon the profession as nothing more than a duty, you understand. I made the choice for it myself, and strove to earn by intelligence and experience on the field the position I hold now. But when one is not on active duty, relegated to the position of practically courier for one's General, then the profession can become tiresome, and the company of those not in the same employ, much preferred."

"Active field duty was what that attracted you to the profession, then?"

"Yes. I had not the strongly held desire for religion, which I believe all those who enter it must have, to consider the priesthood. My mind tended to lean to things that were of a more practical nature. Once I had served in a battle, I realised how perfectly suited my character was to the life."

"May I ask, what is it like?"

"At first, it can appear like chaos. But once you find it within yourself to cast aside your fear, and remember your training, you can find a sense of order within. The rules of a battle are very simple. If you are good with your sword, if you can adjust quickly to change, then you live. If you cannot, then you die. You learn to rely on your instinct, to hone it until it becomes a fine tool, something that never lets you down."

"It seems to me a very lonely life."

"Sometimes it can be. However, for those officers or soldiers who are married, it can be perhaps even more dangerous. A bachelor has less to lose, therefore he tends to take more risks, whereas the married man does the opposite in order to live for his wife and his children. For those whose wives and offspring could not join him abroad, it is a worrying time when he is on active duty. There is rarely time to write, and many delays before the letters arrive home. Those wives that accompany their husband to his post have only concern during the battle."

"Reasons why most soldiers or officers stay bachelors," Charlotte remarked. "They cannot often find a woman who possesses the character to withstand all the concern their husband's profession forces upon them."

"Exactly," Richard agreed, pleased that Miss Lucas held the same beliefs as he. "How have you found Rosings and Hunsford so far, Miss Lucas?"

"I am content with all I have observed," Charlotte answered. "My sister seems happy with her choice of husband. And in a prudential light, it is a good match for her."

"Mr Collins does appear very fortunate," Richard agreed. "And it must be agreeable to her to be settled within so easy a distance of her family."

"I would not call fifty miles an easy distance!" Charlotte countered.

"What is fifty miles of good road? Little more than half a days journey," he pointed out. "Yes, I call it a very easy distance."

"The near and far must be relative, and depend on varying circumstances," Charlotte argued. "Where there is fortune to make the expense of travelling unimportant, distance becomes no evil. But that is not the case here. My sister and her husband have a comfortable income, but not one as will allow of frequent journeys. I am persuaded Maria would not call herself near her family under less than half the present distance."

"Forgive me, I was thinking of my own travels abroad which make such differences in friendly country easy by comparison." He answered with a certain look that spoke of an authority to his rank which lay not just in money to afford commissions, but the steadfastness and courage to earn them through merit instead.

Charlotte smiled to show that she was not offended. "I can believe that. There must be hardships to endure during war which few younger sons of Earls know little of."

"Perhaps I cannot say that I have experienced many hardships at home," he allowed. "Except perhaps in one matter of weight. Younger sons cannot marry where they like."

"Unless where they like women of fortune, which I think they very often do," Charlotte remarked.

"Our habits of expense make us too dependent and there are not many in my rank of life who can afford to marry without some attention to money," he added, but with a look which suggested he was speaking generally as opposed to personally.

"And second sons must, unfortunately, frequently sacrifice happiness to prudence.”

He answered her in the same style and the subject stopped, giving way to a silence which required instant interruption else one might fancy the other was affected with what had passed. In truth both were possessed of the same feeling and had much to think about.

It was late afternoon when Charlotte returned to the Parsonage. She took possession of a seat in her room with a clouded mind; full of thoughts and feelings concerning her conversation with Colonel Fitzwilliam.

That his attentions seemed definitely to be directed at her, and her answer had appeared to matter to him very much. It was a realisation which caught Charlotte by surprise. Having never fallen in love during the time when a young woman is considered eligible, she had never held any expectation that she would come to feel the emotion when she was well past such an age.

Seven and twenty was not considered a favourable age for marrying for women as it was with men, for the former were apt to lose their bloom, while the latter would be considered as to have entered their prime. Thus, to have fallen in love at that time of her life, Charlotte had been naturally suspicious of the emotion when it had first appeared to her. Yet, as the weeks continued in his company, and the feeling not only persisted, but also strengthened, she found herself unable to doubt those sensations any longer.

And today was the first time she had been able to prove, beyond all possible doubt to herself, that the Colonel returned the emotion. His reaction at her answer to his question could not be interpreted in any other way. Now, for the first time, Charlotte could allow herself to properly judge the merits of such a match, and what her family would think of it.

The military profession may be a popular one at the moment, and one which held much influence because of the war, but sooner or later they would be at peace again. Colonel Fitzwilliam had no house of his own, unlike Mr Collins, who stood to inherit Longbourn. They would have to rely on the good favour of his family.

Yet, Charlotte considered, Mr Collins' profession depended upon Lady Catherine, a demanding woman. The Colonel however, was not yet two and thirty, and had many a chance to gain promotion in a war which showed no signs of ending soon.

But, this promotion depended upon his ability and his luck to survive each battle. Another point to consider was her age. Her parents might be glad to see her finally married and off their hands. Charlotte's opinion and affection for them had undergone a change when she had witnessed the forcing of Maria to accept Mr Collins.

The knighthood had obviously not done as much good to their characters as she thought it had. Her mother still held the desire to outbid Mrs Bennet, while her father could not afford another visit to St James. All they had seen in Mr Collins was the eventual inheritance of Longbourn, not his character or whether their daughter would actually care for him.

All that really mattered, Charlotte concluded before she made a move to dress for dinner, was whether or not she wanted to accept Colonel Fitzwilliam if he made his addresses to her. If she did, then her parents could not stand in her way, because, at seven and twenty, she was of an age to be able to decide for herself.

*: Proper conduct of duels usually required that a note of explanation regarding the insult, or in Darcy's case ultimatum, delivered, before a challenge was formally issued. This challenge would then include the details of where the duel was to be conducted and how. Due to such affairs being considered illegal in England, it was customary for some duellists to seek to conduct the duel abroad, one case going to Germany because of the war with France, although this was not a convenient practise for everyone, so anywhere where privacy could be ensured would satisfy. In Sense & Sensibility, Jane Austen implies that Colonel Brandon duelled with Wiloughby over Eliza Williams.

Chapter Text

Author's note: For those of you who may be distressed to read Lord Lucius' attack on Elizabeth, you can stop at the second horizontal line, it will not affect your knowledge of significant events in the story in any way. And do excuse Charlotte and Richard for borrowing some of Elizabeth's lines from the book.

Chapter XVII:

After departing the breakfast parlour for the rooms where he had entrusted the Countess to be taken care of the evening before, Darcy allowed himself a brief moment of silent gratitude concerning his cousin. Without asking the Colonel had consented to be his second in the altercation which he believed was inevitable now. He considered himself fortunate to have such a man as his cousin by his side in this endeavour.

All through the evening he had observed the Earl, from his reaction to the challenge which he delivered, to his manners and conversation, until the scoundrel departed from Rosings. Although quite clearly the man was angered by what Darcy had said, he had not allowed such words to affect his disposition during the rest of the evening, however sorely Lady Catherine might tax his forbearance.

His Aunt had paid her usual amount of attention to Elizabeth's absence, advising the Earl to be solicitous as to his wife's health, ensuring that she remained in the best state to continue the distribution of his wealth and estates. Upon her godson's departure this attention to Elizabeth's care was bestowed upon Mrs Jenkinson, whom Lady Catherine entrusted to relate to her maid the wisdom which she laid out.

Securing a moment alone with his cousin's companion, Darcy was able to ascertain for himself the state of Elizabeth's health, which required her to remain for a few days in the rooms he requested to be given over for her use. Knowing that any further inquiry would doubtless draw the attention of his Aunt, he waited until the morning before paying another call upon the Countess.

He found Elizabeth attired in some fresh clothing which her household at Blisstham had the kindness to send over the night before, seated in a chair by the window, where the light of the sun was cast upon the open pages of the leather bound volume within her hands, from which she looked up, at his entry.

"Good morning, Mr Darcy," she greeted, in a lighter tone than she had possessed the evening before.

"Good morning, Countess," Darcy returned. "I came to inquire if you are feeling better."

"Thank you, I believe I am a little better," Elizabeth replied. "I hope there was not too much concern expressed regarding my absence."

"Naught but the usual which my Aunt is used to dispensing," Darcy informed her, as he took the seat which she silently indicated that he avail himself of. "I hope your needs were well attended to."

"Yes, thank you, your Aunt's staff were most solicitous," Elizabeth answered. Nervously she glanced at him, attempting to assess his emotions before she issued her next inquiry. "May I ask how my husband took the news of my absence?"

Darcy steeled his composure as he replied. "With his usual forbearance, milady. My Aunt and I took care to make him aware of our concerns."

Elizabeth caught the hidden meaning behind his response. "I fear my husband's temper is apt to rise on the slightest provocation, such as attention paid to myself by another gentleman."

"I gave him to understand that he must practise a greater restraint," Darcy revealed, "or else precipitate certain events."

His meaning here was unmistakable, and Elizabeth found herself imagining the event with her creative eye, wondering who would emerge the victor of the field and the prize such a joust would entail or claim. Though from general observation of Mr Darcy's appearance she could conclude him to be in the best of health, such an attribute was not usually an asset to affairs of that nature, where a certain possession of skill and luck usually presided. For the Earl had a healthy disposition too, along with a dissolute lifestyle which might incline him to act in a dishonourable manner. In short, she feared that the outcome to the affair would not meet with her satisfaction.

Just as his words, however seemingly innocent in their appearance belied the strength of his convictions behind them, Darcy found an equal concern in her silent response. He knew that she was capable of understanding what precisely had passed between himself and the Earl, but beyond that he could only speculate as to the rest of her thoughts. Concluding that the most likely source behind her silence was fear, he decided to assuage such an emotion as best he could.

"I assure you, that I will endeavour to achieve an satisfactory outcome, to the best of my ability," he said. "And you have that of my cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, who has always leant his support to all my endeavours."

Elizabeth received his words with a modicum of relief, but she felt that her fear was not entirely assuaged. Such emotions would not be given leave to depart until the event was over and she was living with the consequences of it, a notion which she feared just as equally as the event itself. Yet she knew that there was nothing within her power with which to prevent them from occurring, for there was something of a steadfastness in Darcy's demeanour that left her in no doubt of such a certainty.

"Will the Earl pay call on you before his attendance at dinner this evening?" Darcy asked, for the Earl and Elizabeth were invited to dine at Rosings with far more regularity than his Aunt's vicar and his family.

"I do not know," Elizabeth replied, with a glance directed at the window, a view which Darcy now realised displayed the driveway into Rosings, thus enabling him to conclude that she had deliberately seated herself by it in order to be prepared in case such an event arose.

Seeing the fear in her fine gaze which accompanied the thought of his visit, Darcy made an attempt to change the subject of their discourse, turning her thoughts to far more pleasurable things. However the event continued to prey upon his mind throughout the course of the day, and it was scarcely with relief that he quitted the Countess's company upon the entry of his valet to remind him that he needed to dress for dinner.

How he had managed to escape spending until the evening in the Countess's company without an enquiry as to his whereabouts from his Aunt was nothing short of miraculous, but as Darcy soon concluded from Lady Catherine's enquiries as to his wellbeing during the evening, she had presumed him to be spending the day elsewhere, outside of the house, as he usually did so. Though disguise of every sort was his abhorrence, he had been forced into a general practise of such a mask, and therefore allowed her to continue to believe in that presumption.

The Earl came for dinner that evening, as indeed came Mr Collins and his family, whose usual attentions to his patroness allowed Darcy a certain liberty in his occupations. Although it did not grant him the freedom of visiting the Countess, he was able to prevent her husband from doing so as well. After hearing him enquire as to her wellbeing from Mrs Jenkinson, Darcy saw to it that the Earl's attention was claimed upon by his cousin and her mother.

He knew that it would be impossible to prevent the Earl from seeing his wife again, at least until she agreed to his proposal, but while she remained under the roof of his Aunt, he would do all that lay within his power to part the two of them, however much such schemes might prevent himself from spending time with her.

Silently he reflected over the pleasure of her company which he had enjoyed during the course of his days at Rosings. He had not expected her to be visiting the godmother of her husband, but the knowledge of her presence incurred a feeling of relief, along with other emotions which he hardly ever experienced each year in his stay in Kent. Not for the first time he realised that taken in another context the walks which they had spent together were a form of courtship, which but for her marriage he would have happily allowed to be publicly acknowledged.

His heart was certainly engaged, far more than it ever had been in the company of a lady, though her own feelings were less certain. She appeared to enjoy his company, there was an ease of conversation and good humour between them which had risen from their first acquaintance in London. But how far such accommodation extended into her mind and heart was quite another matter.

If she were unattached, he would be more able to show her the degree of his attentiveness towards her, the heartfelt delight he experienced whenever he held the pleasure of being in her company, the deprivation felt when they were parted. From the earliest moments of their acquaintance, his initial feelings of pity at her situation had been borne away into an admiration of her courage for enduring such conditions with a composure which shielded her more vulnerable self.

As he spent more time in her presence, this admiration grew, coming on gradually into a depth of feeling which he now felt to such an extent that he could not fix upon the spot, or the look, or the words which had laid the foundation. He had been in the middle before he knew that he had begun.

Her resemblance to his sister Georgiana, not in terms of the colour of her eyes or hair, for in that their appearances were wholly disparate, but the look within them when he first laid eyes upon her, the similarity of height between them which enabled him to comfort the one while he dearly wished to relieve the sorrow of the other.

Elizabeth's disposition yesterday had enabled him to achieve a partial success in that endeavour, but until she agreed to his proposal he could not come to know such a feeling again. In but a few days she would be recovered and able to return to her husband and his estate, where he dared not speculate what she would find herself enduring, lest he be forced to break the vow which he had made to her and his cousin regarding the level of injury he would inflict upon the Earl, should the occasion arise in which he would be able to do so.

That occasion proved to arrive sooner than previously he had allowed himself to believe, for shortly after the Countess was well enough to consider returning to her husband's household, the Earl was invited over to escort her home, as his godmother advised him.

Allowing herself to enjoy what little pleasure could be derived from grounds which had been designed to a taste too ornate for her liking, Elizabeth was walking within the gardens which lay immediately before an entrance into Lady Catherine's favourite drawing room, with Mr Darcy in attendance. About to turn round and take another turn in the park, they were suddenly prevented by the sound of a shout, echoing from that room within the house. Even from outside, Darcy could identify the owner as his Aunt, and, having a suspicion as to what was the reason of her shouting, led the way up the steps and into the house.

Lady Catherine was holding court, her daughter, Mrs Jenkinson, the Earl, Miss Lucas and Colonel Fitzwilliam in attendance. The positions of the latter two, standing close together and directly in front of his Aunt, confirmed to Darcy his suspicion, along with what he now began to hear of her conversation.

"Oh, such a girl to be my nephew's wife! Richard, can you not see what she is about? Her arts and her allurements have made you forget what you owe to yourself and your family! You are descended, on both sides, from ancient, respectable and noble Earldoms. Do not put them to ruin because of the upstart pretensions of a young woman without family connections or fortune! Richard, do not forget the sphere in which you were brought up!"

"On the contrary, Lady Catherine," Richard replied, his voice tempered with anger at her insults and presumption, "in marrying Charlotte I would not consider forgetting that sphere. Although I am the son of an earl, she is the daughter of a knight of the realm. We are not so wholly unequal.”

“But who is her mother? And what of the rest of her family? We are entirely ignorant of their condition.”

"Whatever my connections may be," Charlotte said, "if Richard does not object to them, they can be nothing to you."

" You can have nothing further to say to either of us," Richard remarked crisply. "You have insulted us in every possible method. We are both resolved to act in a manner which constitutes our own happiness, without reference to you, or to anyone else who finds a fault with this match."

"And these are your final resolves?"

"Yes," Richard and Charlotte declared in unison.

"Very well," Lady Catherine replied. "I shall know how to act." With a motion of hand to her daughter and Mrs Jenkinson, Lady Catherine swept out of the room. The latter silently followed, leaving only Anne to add a quiet sentence of support and congratulations, before doing the same.

Richard turned to face his cousin. "Well Darcy," he began in an attempt to be cheerful, "do I have your approval? Or shall you cast me aside in disgust?"

Darcy chuckled and shook his head, pulling his cousin into a brotherly embrace. "My congratulations, Fitzwilliam. I have every belief that you will be very happy together. And I shall defend you with all that I have to all who say otherwise." With a slap on the back in further confirmation of his support, he stepped back, and took Charlotte's hand. "Miss Lucas, my utmost felicitations. My house in London and Pemberley shall always be open to the both of you."

"Thank you, Mr Darcy," Charlotte replied, blushing when he kissed her hand. She then moved out of their company to stand before her friend. "Well, Lizzy?"

Elizabeth smiled and embraced her. "You have my support and my congratulations, Charlotte. I am very happy that you have found love at last."

"My dear," the Earl began then, "surely you do not mean that?"

"Why would I have any objection?" Elizabeth countered, facing him.

"Because your husband happens to agree with his godmother. Have you forgotten our marriage vows? Love, honour and obey!"

"If I have," Elizabeth returned, her courage high, "then I am not the only one. To love, to honour, to cherish. These I believe you have disregarded for a long time now, sir!"

"Enough!" The Earl shouted, causing all in the room to focus upon the confrontation. They stared at the both of them, one in surprise, two in concern for what could come of it. "We shall make our farewells to Lady Catherine and return to town upon the morrow." He turned and swept out of the room.

Elizabeth shyly met the eyes of the remaining occupants. "Excuse me," she uttered, before also, though reluctantly, quitting the room.

Darcy made a slight move to follow her, then realised that he could not. She was married to the man, and while he disagreed with her reluctance to leave him, he could not act upon his own authority until he received some proof of the very thing which he had threatened the Earl to prevent. He had no wish for her to suffer such ministrations, but it seemed after such a disagreement that those injuries and their consequences would inevitably follow. With a deep breath he turned back to his cousin and affianced. "Well, I can foresee us being turned out of the house soon enough. Do you intend to give our Aunt that satisfaction?"

"No," Richard replied, "I was hoping we could depart tonight. I had hoped that the Countess and the Earl would be able to give Charlotte suitable escort to town and stay at their house, but I see that we must throw ourselves upon the mercy of my bother and his wife, who are staying in the townhouse at present."

"Elizabeth's Aunt and Uncle Gardiner," Charlotte remarked, "did offer a room at their house for me when I chose to return to Lucas Lodge. I am sure they would not mind me arriving a day earlier than planned."

"It is settled then," Richard declared. "We shall convey Charlotte to the Gardiners, and then I shall inform my brother of our engagement."

There was something of a stony silence all the way through the drive from Rosings Park back to Blisstham Place. Elizabeth avoided the Earl's angry gaze, fixing her own on the passing countryside, until the open coach and four came to a halt in the drive. Then she opened the door, jumped down, and dashed inside.

Unhappily, she only managed to reach the first landing of the grand staircase before the Earl caught up with her. He grabbed her dress and shoved her against the wall. Holding her neck with one hand in almost a strangling move, he began, "how dare you disagree with my opinion on that subject!"

Elizabeth had had enough. Her absence from his side while she recovered at Rosings had given her a taste of freedom only known to her when she was a girl at her father's estate, and now she was determined that her hunger for such liberties was quenched no longer. Her legs were free of his restraint, she used them to strike him. Winded, he move away to recover. "How dare I? Have you forgotten who I was before I married you? I had even less than Charlotte!"

"Forgotten!?! I am hardly likely to ever forget that!" he countered back. A moment later he had recovered from her strike, and he moved to impede her escape once more. He grabbed her neck again, and used his body to press her against the wall. "Indeed, I chose you precisely because of it. I thought that a woman with your kind of connections would never dare to defy any will of mine."

With a sudden, cruelly deft movement, he moved her from the wall to the stairs standing to left of them. Elizabeth just managed to prevent herself from receiving any injury, before he was upon her again. He forced her body against the stone steps, preparing to lift her skirts, when she fought back again, rolling him over, then jumping over him to seek the sanctuary of her apartments. He was after her within a moment, managing to avoid ending the chase with being confronted by a locked door. He fought his way in, and secured it from the outside world himself.

"I see," he began, "that wifely submission was something else you were never taught. I shall just have to begin the instruction myself."

"What of the care to yourself?" Elizabeth countered. "Do you desire such an dishonourable end upon a grassy knoll in the dawning mist, the beams of the rising sun reflecting off the steel?"

He stiffened, but his course never wavered, as he grabbed hold of one of the fastenings from the bed curtains. "I see that you know of the challenge my godmother's nephew had the presumption to make to me. I wonder what possible motive could lie behind his desire to champion your state." He clutched at her wrists, fastening the rope around them. "Have you dared to cuckold me whilst abed at Lady Catherine's house?"

Despite the restraint about her hands, the knowledge of what was to come, Elizabeth felt her courage rising. "Given your practise of terrifying me, I am hardly likely to seek the state with another willingly. Nor was I even in a condition to do so."

An expression of disgust crossed his face at her last reference. "I do hope, madam, that you have recovered from such indignities."

"Not every occasion can rise to the level of potency required," Elizabeth took a perverse pleasure of informing him, leaving aside the question as to whether she had recovered, knowing from past experience that such a state would not serve to protect her.

In response to such an insult the Earl delivered a slap across her face which had the strength to press her upon the bed. Within a moment he was above her, lifting her skirts with one hand whilst he released the fall of his breeches with the other. As she began to recover from the blow which he had inflicted, he grabbed hold of her bound wrists, placing them as once he had before, entering her with a single thrust that shocked the breath from her.

"Is this potent enough for you, madam?" he hissed at her, the violence of his ministrations preventing her from answering. The sudden surrender of her body to his attack soon invited his disgust and barely did he allow himself to finish before removing himself from her presence, loosening her wrists from the restraint upon his way.

Once alone Elizabeth's hands sought out the small token of protection which her champion had once given her, now knowing how she would act.

Chapter Text

Chapter XVIII.

The journey back to Hanover Square was conducted in a strained silence which in a way far rivalled the previous time spent in the carriage from Rosings to Blisstham the night before. The carriage made its way through the passing countryside without the notice of either of its occupants, and the pedigree of the horses which carried it, was such that they needed no rest along the way.

This was a fortunate thing in the eyes of the coachman, who, upon encountering the stormy expression of his master, and the masked grief in that of his mistress that morning, felt extreme reluctance to suggest such a notion in the first place. He, like the rest of the household, was not at all ignorant of the state of affairs between their master and mistress. And, though he and his ancestors had served the Cavendish family for many years now, he felt more inclined to be loyal to the mistress than the master.

Elizabeth, if she had known of the coachman's feelings, would no doubt have expressed her gratitude at having his and many others of her husband's household support, but nothing could penetrate her thoughts today with any noticeable degree of success. The events of last night still prayed heavily upon her mind.

She could not remember a time when he had ever been more violent to her. Even in the early days of her marriage, when she had still possessed enough of her old self to fight him, she could not recall having endured such abuse as he had set upon her last night. She still did not know how she had managed to rise this morning, partake of a light breakfast, and mount the steps to the carriage seats. She had been most grateful for the assistance of her maid with her travelling attire.

He had even forgone his usual concern to shield any part of herself which was visible from injury, the evidence of the strike of his hand to her face had yet to fade. Her gloved wrists ached, her arms, her neck where he had grabbed her in a strangling hold, not to mention the rest of her body.

Yet, she now reflected, as the countryside rushed by outside the confines of the carriage, not once had she surrendered. Every single time she had struggled, resisting him until and beyond the last move that she could. That fact was one thing to be grateful for, despite all the pain he had inflicted upon her. It was the instance which she had to focus on, in order to keep up that resistance, during the days ahead.

She had walked into this fight with her eyes open. She had known of its inevitability from the moment she had voiced her objection to his opinion on the match of Colonel Fitzwilliam and Charlotte Lucas. Until, and probably even beyond their marriage, she would have to endure more of the same.

Either that, or give into the temptation of accepting Mr Darcy's offer of sanctuary. After the injuries of last night, her reasons for staying with the Earl no longer seemed as important as they once were to her. After all, what was the point of avoiding scandal if one had to face the likelihood of dying in the attempt?

As selfish as it may seem, Elizabeth was now having difficulty in seeing the logic of that. Her alliance with the Earl had hardly brought any benefit to her family's situation. Her mother's hopes of that one rich match would throw her other girls into the path of rich men as well, had proved to be unfounded, as Lucius had refused every entreaty to invite her sisters to town for the Season.

Obtaining permission for Jane to spend a few days with them had been a battle within itself. And Elizabeth's hope that she could improve the value of her sisters' dowries was also quickly dashed away in the first moment she had asked. Finally, in all her two years of marriage, the wedding of Charles and Jane had been the only occasion in which she had been able to see her family, not once had they sojourned in Stoke Edith until then.

Thus, during the few short hours in which she had been able to escape the Earl's 'ministrations,' Elizabeth had debated silently in her head upon the nature of the possible scandal that her decision to leave her husband could inflict upon her family. Meryton was usually far more concerned in spreading around the gossip created by its own inhabitants, let alone anyone who now lived outside its environs.

Though the Earl might be inclined to travel to there in order to hunt her down, he would soon abandon that intention when he discovered no trace of her travelling to Hertfordshire by post, which is what she would have to do, if Longbourn was the only place to which she could go. And, if he did reach the place, and managed to explain what had happened, Elizabeth doubted that she would end up as the one who was considered the most evil by those who lived in the village.

Meryton's inhabitants had never held a high opinion of the Earl, not even when he had first arrived in the neighbourhood. While Jane had been considered the most beautiful by those who lived in the village, Elizabeth had earned the title of most sensible. If she did leave him, Meryton's inhabitants would debate over a reason why, before exclaiming at the shame of it all.

As for her family, their opinions were also something that she could predict with some certainty. Her mother would rant and wail, wondering what would become of them, while her father would quietly worry until he had heard from her, whereupon he would become her staunch defender. Mary would extol some biblical judgement, while Kitty and Lydia would only wonder at her giving up the wealth. As for Bingley and Jane, like her father, they would worry until they had heard from her, then offer their full support.

In short, she had little to lose by accepting Darcy's offer. And all the more to gain.

The carriage reached Hanover Square late afternoon. Its sudden stop caused the Earl to wake from his slumber, and fix his stony gaze upon Elizabeth. She felt its power for a minute, then was able to make an escape, as the carriage door was opened and she was able to climb down. Her appearance in the urban scenery of London was brief, as the entrance was already open to admit them, with footmen at the ready to take their coats and hats.

Elizabeth handed hers to them, ignoring their shocked expression at the sight of her face. She waited at the foot of the staircase, to see what the Earl's next actions would be. She was soon granted discovery, he began almost at once, hardly bothering to wait for the servants to depart.

"Are you still firm in your opinion concerning the marriage of your friend?" he asked in a imposing authoritative tone.

"Yes I am," Elizabeth replied, fully determined to resist him still. "Your actions so far have done nothing to persuade me to support any concern of yours."

"Why should you need to be persuaded?" he bellowed, making the rapid departure of the servants unnecessary, as they could now hear the whole thing. "You are my wife, and as such, your support should be unconditional!"

"Why," she returned, "when yours is hardly ever bestowed?"

He strove forward suddenly, and grabbed her wrist. "Do not ever suppose our situations to be equal! You were far below my circles in life, something which you should never forget!"

"Believe me," Elizabeth countered, her temper too far gone to care about the further pain he was currently inflicting upon her, "that is something which I never could forget, as you constantly remind me of it every day. Although, your actions rarely answer the superior description!"

His only reply to this, was to pull her closer towards him, using the strong grip he had on her wrist, then abruptly fling her to the stairs. Elizabeth put her uninjured hand out to prevent the full impact of her fall, then surprised him by rising quickly up to face him once more. Her courage was high within her, making the past pain which she had endured seem far more distant than it actually was. Her eyes bright with resistance, she stared him down.

"I see that my lesson to you last night has made not as much impact as it should have done," the Earl commented in a deadly tone. "I shall have to try again."

"Try with all your might," Elizabeth calmly remarked, "you shall never again control me as you have done before."

She surprised him then, by running up the stairs so fast that by the time he had recollected the need to chase her, she was on the landing. Reaching her chambers before he was even half way up, Elizabeth entered them in a rush, and immediately locked the main door.

A moment later and the dressing room doors, the one which connected to his room and the one that connected from the room itself to her bedroom, were also locked. Now there was no way in which he could get to her, for she had the only set of keys for all of the three doors. It was a matter she was glad now that she had insisted upon, with the housekeeper, from the beginning of their marriage, once she had been released from his rooms, the full horror of the nightmare she had just entered still upon her. Until now she had never acquired the opportunity to use them.

Some minutes later, just before the mantle clock announced the quarter hour, she heard him arrive at the door to her room. She watched with silent prayers, followed by a sigh of relief as he tried the lock and was unsuccessful. She moved away from the other door into her room, and watched it too when his actions tried to open that as well, after the clock had finished its chiming.

Then both doors stilled, signalling her escape for the rest of the day. Elizabeth felt herself smile, then she shoved all thoughts of relief aside and set about her next actions. Taking her portmanteau out from the chest at the foot of the ornate four poster bed, she began sorting through her drawers.

All the clothes in her bedroom were a mixture of those from her marriage, which favoured the extremely low cut and transparent material fashion, and the far more sensible ones from her life before Hanover Square. Selecting the only one of the former in which she felt comfortable, and which he had not touched her in, Elizabeth put it in, then discarded the rest in favour of as many of the latter as her bag could contain.

Then she packed away all her correspondence with her family, thankful that he had never given her a study, so he would not be able to obtain her families directions without some cost, and a long search. These were followed by the small collection of volumes which she had managed to take from her father's library, having been unable to acquire any herself during her marriage.

She did not sleep that night. Her emotions were too high, her fear of discovery too great. Instead, she watched from her window seat as darkness fell upon the city, and waited for the sound of her husband going to bed to fade into silence. Only then did she rise from her temporary refuge, and change out of her clothes.

It was a slow process. Her bruises from the night before had yet to fade entirely away, and many parts of her body still ached. Nonetheless however, she was soon attired in a light green dress from home, which was sturdier than the one she had been wearing before, and much warmer. Then she resumed her seat, and waited for dawn to come upon London.

As that early morning light gradually fell upon Hanover Square, Elizabeth rose from her seat. Grabbing her portmanteau, she quietly made her way to the door, and stealthily unlocked it. Slipping out of the bedchamber, she made her way to the servants quarters, where she carefully woke her maid.

Sarah had accompanied her from Longbourn, and had always remained her loyal anchor in this two year storm. Understanding her mistress instantly, she hurriedly packed her own things, then followed Elizabeth back down to the ground floor.

The front door had already been unlocked by the butler upon the first stroke of dawn. He was still in the kitchen when Elizabeth opened it, and they made their way out of the house. With the card carrying his address secure in her hand, Elizabeth led the way to Grosvenor Square.

At the front door she hesitated, a sudden fear of being unwelcome creeping into her mind. Then, as if detecting her silent arrival, the entrance was opened, and the kindly senior face of the butler was displayed. With a smile did he greet them, opening the door fully, and ushering them inside.

"My lady Georgiana is at the Earl of Matlock's," he began when they had entered the large marble and white entrance hall, which, when compared with the Earl's, was a great deal more elegant and welcoming, "but my master is at present in the Drawing Room, if you wish to see him."

"How did you know who I am?" Elizabeth began, just now handing her card, while Sarah took charge of the portmanteau.

"My master told us to expect you," the butler replied, still looking upon her kindly. "If you would like to come this way. If your maid does not mind to wait, I shall return to take her to her room presently."

Sarah blushed at the contrast in attention she was receiving, while Elizabeth followed the butler across the pink and white marble floor to one of the white panelled doors. He knocked, waited for a voice from behind to utter "come in," then pressed the handle down, and opened the door.

Darcy was up from his chair in a instant, dashing to the entrance before his butler had even finished announcing her presence. Dismissing his servant, who led her maid away to the rooms below, he put an arm around her and guided her into his Drawing Room.

Once there, all her mask of composure was dropped as Elizabeth collapsed. Darcy swept her into his arms and then down on a sofa, covering her with a blanket he somehow had to hand. He knelt beside her, smoothing her hair back with a protective caress, silently wishing that he held the power to make the red mark which was revealed disappear. "It is all right, it is all right. You're safe now, I promise you. He'll never harm you again."

She nodded, tears sliding down her face, her energy reserves now all quite depleted. Darcy remained beside her, stroking her face until she had exhausted her grief, calmed, then closed her eyes. When she had fallen asleep, he quietly slipped out of the room and commanded the nearest servant to fetch his butler and housekeeper.

"The Countess is a permanent resident from now on," he instructed them when they had arrived before him, "to be quartered in the second of the state suites. If her husband should call, you are to forbid him admittance and entrance. Neither she or myself are at home, understand?" He paused to wait for their nod before adding his final requests. "Please instruct the household to do the same. She is to be treated as mistress of this house."

Darcy did not wait for their shocked assurances, returning instead to the Drawing room.

When Elizabeth woke, the first thing she encountered was two long legs crossed, clothed in black trousers. Raising her eyes upwards, she found the comforting figure of her champion, reading; although unbeknownst to her he had never turned a page since picking the volume up some hours earlier.

Seeming to sense her sudden movement, he looked up and met her gaze, laying aside the book in order to lean forward and talk to her. "How do you feel?" he softly asked.

"Awake," she answered, "safe."

He smiled at that. Gesturing to a table beside her, he asked, "Are you hungry?"

Elizabeth nodded, and timidly partook of a tea and some sandwiches which he had had prepared for her by his kitchens. When she had eaten and drunk all that she could, she leant back into the comforting confines of the sofa, and roused her courage.

"What will happen now?" she forced herself to ask.

"I have spoken to my household," he replied, as if what was taking place was completely normal and commonplace. You are to treated with the respect your rank deserves. He," he emphasised the word, meaning her husband, "is to never be allowed admittance. Any servant who sees him at the door, shall say that no one is here, and turn him away. If indeed he ever discovers you are here."

He paused to take a sip of his own tea, before adding, "Georgiana is with our Aunt and Uncle Matlock, and shall return upon the morrow. Until then we have the house to ourselves." He set his empty cup down. "And you, shall be treated as an honoured guest."

Darcy then rose from his seat, and held out an arm. "Do you feel up to a tour of the house before dinner? We shall limit it to just the principal rooms for now, ending with your bedchamber so you can do whatever it is your ladies do before dinner."

Elizabeth felt secure enough to laugh at that, and consented. She took his offered arm, and quietly listened as he began to describe the history of the house, which family member commenced the design and built, what changes his descendants had made. His eloquence upon the subject, displayed a thorough knowledge of it, as well as a love for the magnificent home which he owned.

The rooms were lofty and handsome, and their furniture suitable to the fortune of their proprietor; but Elizabeth saw, with admiration of his taste, that it was neither gaudy nor uselessly fine; with less of splendour, and more real elegance, than the rather imposing furniture she had seen in Rosings, and in the houses of the Earl, the furnishings and decoration opting for the more subtle approach of simplistic sophistication and comfort. There was no over usage of finery, no overflow of gilding in the wood cravings in gold or white plaster. Elizabeth could not find a fault. And nor did she wish to.

His bedchamber and dressing room were shown only in passing, giving no time to Elizabeth to entertain a fear of what obligations he may expect from her, now that she had placed herself under his protection, the evidence about her body imposing another debt of honour which he would soon force the Earl to collect upon. Then they halted briefly outside a door nearby.

Darcy turned to her, pressing the handle down and opening the door. "And, these are your rooms."

He led her into a spacious ante room, in which there was set two sofas, some chairs, a table and a small bookcase against the wall. Then turning to his left, he opened a door located in the middle of that wall, to reveal a small space, containing access to two doors. He pointed to the furthest one, proclaiming it to be her dressing room, and then opened the one directly opposite them, which proved to be her bedchamber.

Elizabeth gasped as she stepped inside. The layout of her rooms were the exact replica of his own. As he began to relate the history of the room, she found her suspicions confirmed. This was the suite intended for the mistress of the house.

She turned to face him. "Sir," she began cautiously, "you do not need to give me this distinction. I shall be quite content in one of the guest rooms."

Darcy shook his head. "I would not be content in giving you one," he replied, "for this is what you deserve." He took a step forward towards her. "Please, have no fear of my disturbing you here. You are under no obligation. I only wish for you to feel safe and content."

"Then, thank you, sir."

He took another step forward, and took her hands into his. "Fitzwilliam, please," he requested. "There is no longer any need for such formality here."

Darcy raised those hands to his lips, bestowed a kiss, then bowed and left her alone.

Compared to all that had passed before, the remainder of the evening passed away normally. She sat to the left of his chair at the head of the long dining table for dinner, where the servants did not stare, nor whisper, but behaved as the best example of servitude under a good and kind master, attending to their every need, and disappearing when they were no longer required.

After dinner they retired to the library, where Elizabeth was given the chance to peruse all the volumes contained therein at her leisure. Selecting one which she had been obliged to part from when leaving Longbourn, a long held favourite selection of Cowper1 and secured herself a deep armed pillowed chair, before opening it to read.

He likewise took a volume down to peruse, but soon found the task a difficult one, often turned from for the more pleasurable notion of observing her. He watched with gladness her face lose the fear, and the glory of contentment come into her fine eyes. Hours passed, but his enjoyment in such a pursuit did not cease.

Soon, as it became very late, he saw the book come to rest upon her lap, and her eyes begin to close. When she had been asleep long enough to make removal not a disturbance, he rose from his chair, lifted her into his arms, and carried her to her room.

1. William Cowper was a favourite of Jane Austen's and she quotes from it in some of her novels. In Emma Thompson's adaptation of Sense & Sensibility, Marianne quotes the following from him;

No voice divine the storm allayed,
No light propitious shone;
When snatched from all effectual aid,
We perished each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelmed in deeper gulfs than he.

The Castaway 1799.

Chapter Text

Chapter XIX.

The sight of a Colonel in the uniform of the Guards raised hardly any astonishment from the cigar fumed rooms of the Four Horse club. Such officers were members and thus needed little introduction. Few paid him more than a cursory glance, and those who did found nothing remarkable with which to give their distraction focus.

He inquired after the Earl of Saffron Walden, and was directed to a private room. Dismissing the attendant, the Colonel entered without prior notice, and the scene which met his disapproving glance was one which would have drawn shock at its vulgarity, had he not been a hardened soldier. Clearing his throat caused the men within to realise his entrance, whereupon his patience was tested as they attempted to assume some degree of dignity, whilst the girls scrambled into their shifts and exited through a side door.

With all the precision of his military bearing the Colonel placed a piece of folded paper embossed with the Darcy seal before the Earl, who attempted to treat it with disdain as he viewed the words contained therein, while his company visibly blanched from recognition of the crest.

"Is he serious?" queried the Earl imperiously, turning his gaze from the note to the man who had couriered it. "A gentleman farmer seeks to challenge me?"

"My cousin may be a gentleman farmer," the Colonel remarked, "but he is nephew and grandson to Earl whose reputation is far superior to your own. He is also the scion of one of the oldest families in England." Resting his hand on the grip of his sword, he leaned forward to add. "And yes, he's entirely serious."

Saffron Walden took a noticeable breath, his eyes unable to resist catching sight of the sword and the Colonel's experienced grip. For the first time the reality of his situation began to sink in, and the image was not one which his mind desired to become or remain truth. Then he asked quietly, “What are his conditions?"

"You'll meet on his estate in Derbyshire," the Colonel replied. "Some sword practise will be in order, and I would advise you to find your second, unless either of you gentlemen would care to volunteer?"

It was hardly surprising to either the Colonel or the Earl that the gentlemen present declined that honour. Resuming his previous position, Richard bade them farewell, his parting words directed at the Earl. "We await your pleasure, sir."

Elizabeth woke the next morning with a deeper feeling of contentment than she had ever known before, even prior to her marriage. When she had first arrived at his door, she had felt all the fears which, during the journey from Hanover Square, she had been trying so hard to ignore, abruptly take hold of her. About what he might expect from her. About what she might be obliged to do, since she owed her present sanctuary entirely to his goodwill.

But she knew now that what she had imagined could not be further from the truth. He was truly the best man she had ever known. He had given her far more than she had felt any right to even hope for, let alone expect. For the first time she actually believed in the noble truth of his declaration to her in Kent.

It was Society and the Earl who would judge her circumstances and conclude accordingly. She had abandoned her husband's bed and household for another man. She had thrown away all the advantages she had gained by marrying into one of the richest Earldoms in the kingdom, to live with a man worth not half his value. In the eyes of Society she was Mr Darcy's mistress.

But in truth, she was not his mistress. He had not even suggested that idea to her. Nor dragged her out of her husband's house. Nor forced his intentions in any way on to her. She was simply a companion for his sister. Their guest. His home was truly her sanctuary, with no other motives involved.

The mantle clock chimed the hour, and upon glancing at it, Elizabeth reluctantly withdrew from her thoughts. Morning was almost over. She was suddenly aware of how little sleep she had gotten the night before she had left Hanover Square.

Obviously her subconscious had already adjusted to the feeling of safety that was to be derived from having her own chamber without the duties of marriage attached to it, given the length of sleep it had taken. She reached out and rang the bell for her maid, before realising what she had done. Scarcely had she time however to worry if that was acceptable, before there was a knock at the door, and Sarah had entered at her answer.

She was full of all the joys at the novelty of a new household to greet and know, and Elizabeth was content just to listen to her joy, as she described how kind the housekeeper and butler, as the heads of the household staff, had been, as well as the rest of the servants.

Instead of sharing, as she had done at the Earl's, Sarah explained that she had her own room, and was given equal precedence to Miss Darcy's maid and the master's valet, a respect that the Earl's servants had never given, even though it should have been her due, as maid to the Countess, the lady of the house.

Even Mr Darcy, or the master as he was called, with a sort of strange mixture of affection and respect, had come down to inquire as to how she was settling in, and whether there was anything else she required or could want.

Through Sarah, Elizabeth learnt that Miss Darcy was already home from her stay with her Aunt and Uncle, the Earl and Countess of Matlock. She wondered whether she should make her presence known to her first, or inform Mr Darcy that she was up, and let him announce her to his sister.

For the first time that morning Elizabeth wondered whether Miss Darcy would really welcome her as her brother had said she would. Surely she had every right to be scandalised by her presence here, her brother's obvious affection for her, and his involvement in the escape.

Added to this, was her occupation of the rooms that were once Miss Darcy's mother's. She had every right to resent her presence in them. Elizabeth remembered having a good conversation with her at Jane's wedding, and being able to make her come alive from the quiet, shy person that she had first been introduced to. But she had been with her husband then, living a non-scandalous life. And that could make all the difference.

These musings were brought to an abrupt halt at that moment, by a knock on the door. Sarah ceased putting the finishing touches to her hair, and went to answer it. Elizabeth turned at the sound of the door opening, to fix her eyes upon the very person who had been occupying her worried thoughts. And the contrast to them, if her outward appearance and facial expression was anything to go by, was exactly the opposite of all her imaginings.

"I thought I should come to welcome you to our home, Countess," Miss Darcy began in greeting, making her way to stand by the dressing table that she was seated at. "I hope you have had a comfortable night, and that everything was to your liking?"

"Indeed," Elizabeth managed to get out. "I could not have had a better one, thank you, Miss Darcy."

"Oh please, none of that. If we are to be friends, which I am determined that we are, then you must call me Georgiana, or Georgie, as my brother does."

"Then, please call me Elizabeth, or Lizzy, as my sisters do," Elizabeth entreated, her fears fading away at such a welcome.

"I shall be delighted to," Georgiana replied, smiling. "Now, would you like some breakfast? I can have it prepared in a moment."

"No, just something light I think, if you do not mind. It is too near luncheon to have a full breakfast."

"Of course, I shall arrange it directly. You could have it in the Music Room with me and my brother. We have been quartered there all morning. He has insisted on hearing me play a new piece that our Aunt Fitzwilliam gave to me, even though I have barely even begun to master it."

"I'm sure you are already an expert at it."

Georgiana blushed. "William must have informed you of his opinion of me. He is too good to me sometimes."

"Oh, no," Elizabeth assured her, "I remember hearing you play at Netherfield when you came for the wedding of my sister. And I have heard nothing the but highest praise of you from Kent, and the Bingleys. I should dearly love to hear you again."

"Well thank you. I shall try. If I can hear you as well."

"Oh, I play very ill."

"Not according to my brother. I have heard nothing but the highest praise of you from him, and he plays much better than me." Georgiana paused, as Sarah finished attending to her mistress and excused herself from the room. Then, advancing closer to the chair Elizabeth was in, Georgiana added, "Lizzy, please do not worry about whether I resent your presence here. For, I can assure you that that is not the case.

"Ever since I heard about you from William, I wanted to meet you, and when I did, I wanted us to be friends. My brother spoke to me about you before he ever went to Kent. He loves you so much. I could never disapprove of you, because of that. Indeed, it is unchristian for me to say so, but I wish you were free of the Earl, so you could," she blushed, "be my sister. I could not want for a better one."

Elizabeth could not be anything but touched by this statement. She looked up at her new friend with a smile full of gratitude. "Thank you," she softly uttered.

A short while later, they came downstairs together, arm in arm, much to the happiness of the master of the house, who stood up as they came into the Music Room. At ease was Elizabeth soon able to feel, as she sat down in the sofa nearest the pianoforte, with Darcy to her right and Georgiana to her left. They welcomed her into the conversation without any awkwardness or difficulty, ensuring that within minutes Elizabeth felt completely at home in their company.

Luncheon came and went without any change in occupation, or absence of any of the trio. To her relief Elizabeth heard nothing to indicate that her husband had learned of her presence in Grosvenor Square, and she soon felt confident and safe enough to sing for the Darcys when she was entreated to do so in the afternoon.

They spent the rest of the day together; each entertaining the other two with their performance on the instruments. Elizabeth heard them both play much to her liking, and to the compliment of their talent and skill for the vocation. Both played with feeling and artistry, and each performance was to Elizabeth, too unique in its own right for one to be judged the better, or more talented, of the two.

When the day had darkened into night, and Georgiana retired for the night some hours after dinner, Darcy remained with her, seating himself at the piano which his sister had just given up, his hands absently fingering out a tune as he talked with Elizabeth. She thanked him for the day, telling him how much she had enjoyed it, and how much she had been glad of his sister's welcome of her.

"I thought she was going to resent me," Elizabeth confessed.

"It is not in her nature," Darcy replied, not in the least offended, having suspected that she might think that. "She thinks well of everybody, everyone that knows her thinks well of her too. Her loyalty once given is rarely retracted, and she inspires a desire to protect her in everyone, without knowing it."

Her eyes drifted to his fingers, unconsciously admiring their supple nature as they danced along the keys of the instrument. An image of them gripping a sword abruptly flashed into her mind and she allowed herself to ask the question which concerned her the most.

"When is the duel?"

Darcy's hands stilled, and he turned to face her. "Not for some time. My cousin went to see him at his club with my note, and apprise him of the conditions. But until he has found himself a second, there is nothing to be done." He paused, regarding how she took in such news, before adding. "It shall take place on my estate, I hope before Richard's wedding."

Elizabeth nodded, unable to refrain from flinching a little at the suddenness, for that event was due to take place soon, before the Colonel's regiment were ordered back to Spain. If she had been with the Earl he would have likely refused their attendance, however much she wished to see Charlotte happily married. Now, she wondered if she could attend, given her soon to be scandalous reputation. It was not unheard of for ladies such as herself to flout the notoriety of their scandalous circumstances by appearing in public, but the motion was frowned upon and likely to be much talked of.

"You must be wanting to inform your family," Darcy remarked suddenly, causing her to rouse herself from her thoughts. "I understand you have a Aunt and Uncle in town, and of course there are the Bingleys, as well as your parents and sisters."

"Should I be so bold?" she queried. "I would hate to place them in the position of being able to inform the Earl as to where I can be found, though he will most likely surmise my location in any case."

"I have no desire to keep you from your family," Darcy replied. "But their concern will naturally be aroused if the Earl goes hunting for you, or if the scandal sheets learn of your presence here. I leave the decision to you, however."

She laughed at that, causing him to smile in hearing such a musical tone which could not fail to gladden his heart, however confused as he might be towards the source of her humour. "I have never known such freedom. Even when I was a girl, my choices were guided either by my mother or my sisters, occasionally by my father. The constraints of family and tradition consign such liberty to the winds."

"I grant you, it is impossible to act without some restraint," Darcy agreed. "One is bound by either their family or their tenants, or their land. We are tied by the weather, or the law, even the calendar to consign ourselves to the routine of tradition, of custom. Our actions presumed, the judgement upon us if we do otherwise often prejudiced in the extreme." He paused, musing over the thought. "But without those restraints, would we not feel a bereft of any care for us? Would we not experience a certain loneliness?"

"However much the care is misapplied or maligned by such a term of its truth?" Elizabeth queried, thinking of her marriage, of Maria Lucas' marriage, and the years of her youth framed by her parents' mismatched union.

"I don't believe that could be called care," Darcy answered. "I think that must be a greater loneliness than what is usually couched in such a term. It exists in many forms; even when one is amongst a crowd of people one can feel entirely alone."

"One can be imprisoned by such a word, however much liberty it professes to provide," Elizabeth remarked. "The very nature of it is solitary and confining."

"Have I given you liberty?" Darcy queried. "I've placed you under my protection, given you little option for an alternative retreat from your husband, setting you up as my mistress in the eyes of society. There are those who would view my actions selfish rather than chivalrous."

"You have not been selfish," Elizabeth assured him. "Where else could I go? I cannot go to my family, bringing the shame of leaving my husband upon them, leaving my mother to despair over their misfortune, the constant concern that the Earl will dare to seek me out and take me back. Nor could I stay with my husband, who has abused his office as such and as a gentleman. I came to you of my own free will, and you have respected such a privilege by living up to your promises."

"But I cannot claim that there are any disinterested motives in my behaviour," Darcy remarked. "I cannot deny that I do not desire you to begin to feel some affection for me, if only a little. In that respect, I have been selfish, by denying you once more the liberty to choose whom you wish."

Elizabeth rose up from her place on the sofa and came to stand before him at the instrument. "But you have, for I confess that I have felt an admiration for you from the beginning of our acquaintance, which I have no doubt will continue to grow." She inclined her head towards him by way of farewell, and left the music room.

Chapter Text

Chapter XX.

Despite her confession, little changed in the way Elizabeth was treated or regarded in Grosvenor Square. As the days passed without a call from her husband, a member of her family, or even a curious member of the Society, the three of them settled into a routine which was largely pleasure bent, save for when Darcy was required to deal with matters of business, or one of Georgiana's tutors called.

On one such occasion, Elizabeth was left alone to seek her own enjoyment, which came to be a solitary tour of the house. Inclement weather kept her indoors, but served not to prevent her desire to ramble, and the framed illustrations of countryside occasionally served to satisfy her preference for the source of their depictions.

Surveying just such a prime example, her attention was suddenly drawn from the oils, towards another part of the house, from which a peculiar sound was emanating, a sharp contrast to the peaceful scenes which had so recently held her imagination and focus.

The sound was unfamiliar, it caught her curiosity, drawing her from a solitary tour of the house towards the expansive ballroom. Inside she found herself witness to a most unusual scene, the clash of steel upon steel, held in the hands of two men, one clothed in a loose shirt and breeches, the other only the latter, whose handsome, if somewhat dishevelled appearance could not fail to catch her eye.

All the mechanics of a sword fight soon became familiar to her as she watched the participants dance back and forth across the room in a set piece few couples could prove themselves expert in. Parry, thrust, spin, the foils moved with lightning speed between them, the sound of collision its own musical accompaniment.

Both were well matched, to her untrained eye, though she knew that one must be the superior, having fought his way through the fields of Portugal, Spain and France. Yet he did not seem to have the advantage which his cousin possessed at times, catching him in moves that for all the brutality of the sport, had a certain something in their air which was elegantly refined.

"I tell you, cousin, you will not be able to be this free upon the field, 'tis not the done thing," the colonel remarked during a brief pause from the bout.

"Really?" Darcy queried. "I have heard otherwise."

"Still, you had better become accustomed to it, especially as we will have observers," he said this with a look towards the door, causing his cousin to turn also.

Darcy caught sight of Elizabeth, his astonishment at her arrival nearly preventing him from catching the shirt which Richard hurriedly flung at him. Clothing himself within the garment he advanced towards her, refraining from fastening it as he observed that her fine eyes were still fixed on his person despite the harsh sound which accompanied his blade as it fell to the floor.

"Is there something I can do for you, Elizabeth?" he asked softly, the tone of his voice as he caressed the syllables of her name undeniably intimate.

She blushed at the depth which it held before replying, "No, forgive me for disturbing you." Withdrawing her gaze from his finely toned figure, she made move to leave and would have succeeded, had it not been for his hand gently preventing her.

"There is nothing to forgive, my lady. Indeed, I find such an event a pleasure which I savour daily," he replied, causing the colour of her skin to deepen. Bestowing a kiss upon the hand which he held in his own, he quietly released her and walked back to face his cousin, picking up his sword on the way.

Elizabeth watched as the two combatants raised their weapons before them in a salute, before sweeping the blades towards each other with deft decisive strokes. Silently she recalled the many evenings Colonel Fitzwilliam had joined them for dinner, realising now the motive behind his visits. Clearly there was a great deal of preparation to be had about a duel, which caused her to wonder if her husband was practising similar methods in Hanover Square, or in one of his clubs, which was perhaps a more likely location.

In her father's library there had been a book on fencing. She recalled exploring the leather bound volume once, noticing that the gentlemen before her used swords of a heavier weight without small metal balls decorating the tips. Doubtless the intention was to simulate the conditions of the duel, though she doubted her husband possessed the skill which the colonel was displaying.

She wondered whom he would choose for his second, for she knew none of his close acquaintance. He had come alone to Hertfordshire to court her, and no one stood up with him at their wedding. During their marriage she had never been asked to entertain dinner guests, nor had any made themselves known to her when she was presented at court. Mr Darcy had spoken of his cousin confronting him at his club, where she supposed a second would be found, yet the days had passed without a word from him of a date for the duel so none must have come forward.

It was a day which she tried not to contemplate, for often her worst fears were imagined through dwelling upon what would happen in the event of her husband winning. Equally there were concerns of a different victory, the sudden freedom which it might grant her. Though she was under Mr Darcy's protection now, her husband's defeat would grant her the liberty to return to her family, or a place of her own choosing. Whilst she was assured of being welcome as guest here or at Pemberley for as long as she desired, Elizabeth did not wish for the taint of scandal to linger upon a family who had done so much to broker for her happiness.

Yet the thought of leaving their company was almost unbearable. Mere days had she spent with them but already she felt a greater sense of contentment and belonging that not even her innocent youth could measure up to in comparison. But she could not lessen the scandal which would arise if she remained. Even if she kept herself hidden from society rumours would circulate, as they had done so about her marriage.

Of course, she could let the rumour become truth, offer herself to her champion as the spoils of a duel concerning which he did not deny possessing a certain selfish interest in winning. That she felt some attraction towards him was undeniable, her eyes were still lingering over his uncommonly handsome figure, observing the taut, toned sinews of his muscles in his sword play with his cousin. In his loose shirt and breeches he was nothing more than a gentleman farmer, despite the elegance which shone through his deft fencing, but it was always the man she had yearned for, not the estates that may or may not accompany him.

With her husband it had been different. She could not recall a desire to see him so simply attired, even before the full horror of their wedding night unleashed his true character from the trappings of company and gentility. Nor could she recollect herself finding a fascination in his occupations, only a preoccupation about their duration serving to save her from becoming the object of his abuse.

However while this contrast existed, she felt nothing but fear regarding such a prospect. Though Mr Darcy had been nothing but a gentleman towards her, professing a disgust at the abuse which she endured, rescuing her from any repetition of them, ensuring such by challenging her husband to a duel, she could not convince herself that such evidence would lead to a difference in his bed. Her life had given her few examples of contented marriages; the Gardiners' were a notable exception and she not yet witnessed that of her sister's. She knew that there must exist some attraction within the union, for else few would choose to seek it outside their marriages of convenience or disenchanted affection.

But how could it be a joy to her, after what seemed a lifetime spent in absolute terror? No matter how much gentleness or tenderness accompanied the caresses, there would still be the rough thrusting amid the growls and moans in quest for the bloody milky fluid that was the seepage of fulfilment. She would still be pressed beneath a crushing form, surrounded by the darkness of the original sin contained therein, obliged to surrender to a further form of blackness, until his need was spent inside her.

Frowning at such thoughts she left the combatants alone in the ballroom, not knowing that despite their apparent focus upon improving their technique, her sudden absence from their company would insert a pause into the proceedings. Darcy's gaze remained fixed upon the doors which her hands had served to touch and close, whilst he took a towel from a nearby chair and proceeded to rid his body of the toils from his exertions.

He wondered what made her frown, hoping that it had not been his confession concerning how much her mere presence disturbed him daily. In hindsight it was an ill-timed compliment, spoken heedlessly, without care for what horrors she had endured in Hanover Square. Born out of him from delight in catching her interest in his form, the fascination which her fine eyes held for the sight of him without the formal trappings required of fashion. Though he had caused her to blush and linger as opposed to darting away, now he inwardly rebuked himself for the thoughtless remark.

Even with the threat of the duel hanging over them, nothing had served to disturb the easy camaraderie which the three of them had cause to find within each other's company. Days were spent in quest of naught but their own enjoyment, save for when his estate required attention or his cousin commanded some sword practise. In her he had pleasure to witness the emergence of a lively wit, an intelligence and a set of accomplishments which few of his female acquaintance possessed. And all without ceremony or a desire to please or offend.

It was such an intoxication which had roused his interest in her firstly, and now served only to increase the depth of devotion he felt for her. With the Earl's absence, along with only the colonel's intrusion by way of society it was all too easy to imagine a relationship enshrined by church and law, which not even their parting in order to retire for the night could cause to fade away. Though there was no display of touching affection, there was a tenderness that existed in both his manner and tone towards her, ensuing reciprocation of the same, however unconsciously portrayed on her part.

Yet he held himself back from taking such tendre further, though he had little comprehension of what she had endured within the marriage bed, other than the terror and the bruising that he witnessed within and without the Earl's company. A part of him longed to show her that such unions need not be a prison born from Hades, but he wished to receive a form of blessing or attraction from her regarding the act first, rather than stoking the embers utterly on his own.

Such was impossible, a part of him often rationalised, for what examples of contented marriages had she witnessed to compare her own with? Neither of them had seen the Bingleys since their wedding, though he had the occasional scrawled and blotted note from his friend, and doubtless she received such missives from her sister before she left her husband, though hopefully more elegantly conveyed. He had not wished to burden his friend with the scandalous dilemma which this affair would create, even though they would eventually learn of it through the rumour mongers of society, and despite his offer to her upon the second night of her stay, she had yet to write to any of her family in order to inform them of her whereabouts.

At times he contemplated doing so on her behalf, but he had no wish to take away the luxury of liberty which his offer of protection had bestowed upon her, however much a part of him might seem selfish in doing so. Though she had declined to call his actions such, he was well aware that they were not all born out of a noble disinterestedness on his part. He wanted to earn her love, but he also wanted her respect, and it was that desire which kept him from demanding more from her than she could yet learn to give.

Brighton may be a fashionable spa town, the embodiment of every pleasure which Prinny enjoyed in his spectacular confection of a beach hut, otherwise known as the Marine Pavilion, but to the Earl of Saffron Walden, it was nothing more than port in a storm, as he rested in an exhaustion brought on by a vigorous Four Horse meet.

At present he found the place even more vulgar than he usually did, overflowing as it was with the sight of red coats, gold braids and gilded steel, reminding him uncomfortably of the incident in London when he encountered his challenger's second in all the military regalia of a Colonel of the Life Guards. The contrast between that battled hardened individual and the drunk, gambling, carousing men around him could not be more harsh, yet the similarity of their coats served to remind him all the same.

Nursing his own ale, he reluctantly considered once more the task that the officer had bestowed upon him, wondering where he would find a man of such calibre willing to perform such a duty for him. Certainly not amongst his friends at the Four Horse club, nor were any of the colleagues from his other clubs likely to volunteer. This was not something which he could just pull a fellow off the street for, and yet this was precisely what he contemplated doing.

But who among them would be brave enough to challenge Darcy, a man who despite his determination to disregard society was nonetheless highly respected by members of the same, the noble scion of a name as old as that of their sovereign's, whose reputation was as remarkable as his desire to remain unremarkable.

"Did I hear you say Darcy?" a voice murmured beside him, causing the Earl to realise that he must have spoken at least some of his thoughts aloud.

Rising from his drink, his gaze met another member of the swarm which had infested the spa town this summer; a red coated, gold braided lieutenant, whose adornments had yet to be completely tarnished, indicating that he was new to the life of a soldier. Added to that there was a certain something in his air which hinted at an upbringing worthy of sons from the first circles, a incongruous contrast to his lowly rank.

"If I did, why should such a man interest you?" the Earl murmured.

"He once cheated me out of an inheritance which would have saved me from this life," the officer replied. "I thought him a friend, an impression in which I was gravely mistaken."

The Earl was astonished, this was the first occasion he had heard something other than praise concerning the man who dared to challenge him. He was intrigued by the story that the words hinted at, the ambiguous expression contained within his companion's genial gaze. While he may not have found the equal to the officer who called him to account so recently, he may have found one as desirous to dish out revenge.

Marine (Brighton) Pavilion: In mid 1780s the Prince of Wales rented a farm house overlooking a fashionable promenade in Brighton. After pleading with Parliament to clear his debts, he hired architect Henry Holland to transform the farm house into a villa, which became known as the Marine Pavilion. It was not until 1815 when the Prince Regent hired John Nash to transform the modest villa into the oriental palace we see today.

Chapter Text

Chapter XXI.

The note came during the morning, as they gathered at the breakfast table, and though Darcy took care to conceal the effects of its contents from them, both Georgiana and Elizabeth could not fail to realise its significance. Deliberately he lingered within the room, laying the note with great care carelessly aside, folded into its original thirds as if such protection would protect the two he loved most in the world from seeing its contents.

That one line of ink could serve to drive such terror into the hearts of two women and such trepidation into his own would have been considered laughable was it not for the meaning behind its vague innocuousness. A mere notification it seemingly appeared to be; consisting of the discovery of a second and a meeting declared to occur within a few days hence. The second was not named nor indeed was the letter signed, but there was no doubt as to whom the sender could be.

Arrival of such a note required him to send a few notes of his own: an acknowledgement to the sender of the first, then one to his cousin informing him of the first and the occurrence of the meeting in a few days hence, followed by another to his solicitors, just a precautionary one they must understand, and finally an express to his housekeeper at Pemberley for it would not do for the gamekeepers to be chasing after their own master should an alarm was raised that several personages were witnessed to be fighting on the estate.

Colonel Fitzwilliam visited the townhouse in due course, and soon it was no longer possible to conceal the departure of the master of the house and his cousin for the former's estate in the north country for a unspecified number of days. As the valet and various other servants concerned themselves with the master's luggage, those servants by no means unaware of the frequent amount of sword practise taking place in the ballroom or the reason for it, a fair amount of discussion was undertaken regarding the event within the kitchens, whilst the butler admitted one of the solicitors concerned with the Darcy estates into the master's study.

Meanwhile the ladies of the house were left to amuse themselves, though such in itself was not without some difficulty. Neither could be easy until the matter concerning the gentlemen was over and done with, but nor could either of them wish for the matter to begin any sooner than it was arranged to do so. Each feared that the other would suffer some resentment and ill feeling for the existence of such a meeting, and both wished most earnestly to assure the other that such would not be the case. A certain dread in talking of the matter also existed, but just as much there was an embargo on every other subject, leaving them to find consolation in a book or wandering about the room in a silence which both desired to remain undisturbed by anything except the entrance of the gentlemen to announce their departure.

That event was feared equally by the ladies and when the moment arrived both tried to pretend to those involved that no trepidation was felt. Understanding and respecting their mutual desire to appear steadfast before them, the gentlemen took care that their farewells were not of long duration; the meeting was only to result in au premier sang after all. Even so, the brother was surprised by his sister's heartfelt embrace just as much as he was by the Countess's appearance within the entrance hall only a moment after they had left the drawing room.

"You will take care of yourself, will you not?" she quietly asked him, as he and the Colonel halted by the half opened door, from which a view of the carriage could just be descried.

"I will," he replied to her in the same manner, taking her hand in his, "I swear it." He followed this vow by raising her hand to his lips where he pressed a further assurance on her slender fingers.

Then with one last parting look exchanged between them, so full of unspoken eloquence yet failing in being immediately comprehended, they were gone.

Due to the generosity of the Darcy family a tenant cottage upon their Derbyshire land was a highly prized commodity, eagerly sought after and feverishly taken residence of whenever the privilege was granted. Though there was scarcely a scarcity of families or cottages, it so happened that a dwelling upon the estate chanced to be unoccupied at this time which entirely suited the purposes of its master and his cousin.

In terms of a dwelling for themselves it was hardly adequate for more than an occupation of passing duration, yet it would suit as a place to house them for the length of their visit to Derbyshire, whilst allowing their arrival at the estate to remain unnoticed by those belonging to the surrounding families, who would desire to pay call on the master if they learned of his presence within the neighbourhood.

Leaving the carriage at one of the Inns outside Ashbourne the gentlemen had switched to horses, arriving at the cottage as fast as such steeds and the changing of them at the various staging posts on the way would allow. Their valet and batman were likewise left behind, for neither gentlemen were incapable of attending to themselves, nor did they desire to involve more people in this matter. That both men were not in ignorance of the duel was clear, however each chose to respect their master's wishes and kept to their own counsel concerning the event.

Arriving but a day before the intended meeting was scarcely enough time to survey the lay of the land and prepare themselves for the duty, but Darcy had not spent five years being master of his own estate without acquiring intimate knowledge of the property. In his youth his father had encouraged him to take an interest in every particle of the estate he was to inherit, establishing not only a knowledge of the land and its tenants which was to prove invaluable, but a pride and a love for a property which had belonged to his family for centuries.

Thus he knew before his and his cousin's arrival that the dwelling they were to take temporary possession of was currently vacant, as well as being situated within a considerable distance from the other occupied houses upon the estate. He also knew that it was surrounded by fields which were not used for grazing or farming, allowing for an appropriate field of battle on which for the duel to take place. These fields were further enclosed by the large circle of woods which marked the limits of the environs for the Darcy estate, and the trees would help to prevent the sound of the duel from being carried towards the more populated areas.

Upon arrival the cousins tested this theory by engaging in a light sword practise until their limbs lost their stiffness from being astride a succession of horses for so long. Satisfied that none save their opponents would serve to disturb them, both undertook to survey and prepare the cottage for the length of their stay, before taking in some sustenance and performing their ablutions in order to refresh themselves for the ordeal ahead of them.

Neither expected the duel to proceed smoothly, indeed it was common knowledge that few duels rarely did, for though the gentlemen involved could reasonably be expected to conduct themselves in a gentlemanly manner, the reputation of their opponents was both unknown on the one hand and utterly reprehensible on the other. That the Earl had undertaken to behave himself in a manner best befitting his rank once the challenge was presented argued well in his favour, but his treatment of Elizabeth as well as his reputation in being a member of the Four Horse Club, a gambler and a rake caused a concern in the cousins about the possibility of ungentlemanly conduct once battle commenced.

Nevertheless, there was considerable surprise and a healthy amount of concern felt by both cousins when the Earl's second became recognizable.

"Wickham," Colonel Fitzwilliam growled as the pair brought their horses to a halt and dismounted to greet their opponents on equal footing.

That the newly commissioned Lieutenant was a little discomposed by the sight of the two cousins caused some satisfaction to Darcy and Fitzwilliam, but did nothing to lessen their concern. The Colonel's grim gaze remained upon him as he and the Earl made their way towards them, coming to a halt two paces before each other, before the latter handed his weapon of choice to the Colonel for inspection.

Reluctantly removing his eyes from Wickham, Colonel Fitzwilliam took the other sword from his cousin and held both weapons before him, surveying their weight and appearance, making sure that they were similar in all respects so as to deny both combatants an advantage from their choice of steel. The sight of him holding both swords aloft spoke well of his career in the army as a man of not just rank but ability as well.

After some minutes the Colonel handed the weapons back to his cousin and the Earl, before asking the latter if he wished to make an offer of appeasement, as was customary in such proceedings. That such offer was declined caused little surprise, whereupon Colonel Fitzwilliam laid out the rules of conduct for the duel.

"Gentleman, I require you to shed your coats, jackets and waistcoats, as well as any other weapons which you may have about your person that could provide either of you with an unfair advantage in respect of your opponent," he intoned. "When ready, salute each other both allowing your weapons to meet, whereupon my sword shall hold yours steady, until I raise it, declaring the commencement of the duel. The engagement shall end when one of you delivers au premier sang to the other in such a manner as to declare that honour is satisfied. Are both of you agreeable to these conditions?"

Both Darcy and the Earl declared that they were, whereupon both disarmed themselves, handing their weapons over to their seconds so they could shed their appropriate garments. When they were ready the swords were reclaimed and the seconds retrieved the garments to remove them to where the horses were stabled, so the piles of clothing would not impede either combatant. Colonel Fitzwilliam and Wickham then returned to the field of battle, the latter taking up a distant position from the Earl so as to not hinder him. Meanwhile the Colonel waited for his cousin and the Earl to make themselves ready, so he could advance his sword for commencement of the grim business.

In due course both combatants pronounced themselves ready, and the Colonel withdrew his sword, placing the curved blade underneath and in between theirs. With a look towards both in order to ascertain that they were indeed ready to face each other, he raised the trio of weapons to the heavens, and then took his own away, before assuming a suitable distance.

The duel had begun.

Wickham's hand shook as he attempted to take aim. Though his pistol possessed a rifled barrel and the benefit of sights, his nerves were such that both advantages were rendered useless in his constantly shaking grip. His distance from the gentlemen did little to reduce the fierce sight of their combative movements, or the harshness of the duel, which perhaps was the origin of his condition.

It had started out reasonably enough. Within a few moves both opponents were determined to be equally matched in skill and strength, parrying each other's weapons with an elegance which belied the brutality of the engagement. In time however their circling of each other became more pronounced, their thrusts and parries turning fast and vicious. A grim silence settled over the field, broken only by the steel which sang its cruel accompaniment to the battle.

Eventually the seconds were obliged to increase their distance as the duel gradually transformed from an elegant fencing display into an engagement more familiar of a war torn bout. Colonel Fitzwilliam was no stranger to such sights, indeed his vigilance increased as he was well aware of the brutality that would come to plague the duel and while he knew his cousin would be able to handle the matter, having fenced with him on many an occasion, he was unsure as to what the Earl might do if the opportunity arose. As for Wickham, nothing in his life had prepared him to witness such a sight.

Although this turn within the duel relieved him from the Colonel's grim and distrustful gaze, Wickham was unable to quell the rising fear within himself regarding the fight. Ever since he had heard about the event from the Earl of Saffron Walden after their initial encounter in Brighton, he had become determined to reap some benefit from the ordeal, as well as seeing it as an opportunity to avenge himself upon the man who was the means of ruining his best chance for happiness in life.

Retiring from Ramsgate, annoyed by the ill timing of his arrival and thus disruption of his sister's seduction by which he would gain her fortune of thirty thousand pounds, Wickham found himself forced to seek another form of living which would grant him access to society, the only circle in which he could hope to better his reduced circumstances. The desire to revenge himself upon Darcy could have been accomplished by such a goal, for the knowledge that they would exist in the same circles would no doubt be galling to his former childhood friend.

Yet it did not grant him complete satisfaction, for it would not serve to diminish anything which belonged to Darcy, or belittle his reputation as one of the richest and eligible men in Derbyshire. Seducing Georgiana would have accomplished such, while achieving his aims, although he would have preferred the girl to possess a little more spirit, as he would have needed to secure himself with a child to ensure Darcy would not be able to rid his sister of him and he did not fancy bedding a shy young woman. To be thwarted at the last hurdle was thoroughly distasteful to him and his desire for revenge only increased.

Encountering him again in Meryton had been an unexpected surprise. If it had not been for his meeting with an old friend who was a member of the militia, Wickham would never have joined the regiment. As it was he barely had enough money for the price of an officer's commission. While such employment allowed him to mix in society, he was also required to perform various duties that vexed him greatly, until he learned how to delegate most of them to his sergeant.

The Militia's station in Meryton served to allow him access to pleasing society and naive yet knowing ladies, though none with a fortune that served to tempt him. Not even Miss King and her ten thousand pounds was consolation for losing out on Miss Darcy's thirty. However, it did provide him with another encounter with his former childhood friend, and the chance to learn that Darcy was not perfect, having witnessed how his seemingly arrogant behaviour disgusted all of Meryton.

However it was not until the militia moved to Brighton that he acquired more information about his former childhood friend. That Darcy had lowered himself to the consideration of taking a mistress was astonishing, though from what he knew of Miss de Bourgh, Wickham was not wholly surprised. But to take her now before he was even married to his cousin, and without any consideration for his most beloved sister, was astonishing, not to mention the determination to fight a duel with the cuckolded husband. Upon being asked to act as second, he realised the opportunity it would give him to rid himself not only of his former childhood friend, but to avenge himself as well, by marrying Georgiana and through her inherit Pemberley.

The pleasure behind such a possibility caused him to ignore the fact that he knew Darcy was a skilled fencer and Colonel Fitzwilliam would doubtless be his second, both of which were proved within minutes of his and the Earl's arrival upon the field of combat. As his fear in witnessing the ferocity of the duel grew, so did his determination to follow through with his plan, for he would never forgive himself if he missed out upon this opportunity.

Steeling himself, Wickham continued the observe the parries and thrusts exchanged, the slight tightening of their garments as sweat soaked their shirts and breeches. Anxiously he examined both the Earl and his former childhood friend, searching for the first signs of exhaustion to appear within their expressions or figures.

Then suddenly with one bold stroke, the whole duel turned. Deftly, his former childhood friend managed to trap the Earl's sword with his own, before sweeping the weapon in an upwards motion, to stroke apart the shirt sleeves, letting blood from the flesh once concealed beneath.

Saffron Walden dropped his sword as his hand moved to clasp the wound. Darcy rested his own weapon whilst Colonel Fitzwilliam broke from his place of observation to examine the cut. A few minutes later he turned to his cousin and uttered a few words, though from his distance Wickham could not hear their import.

As Darcy began to talk, his former childhood friend had little time to spare any curiosity for what he might wish to say. Seeing the Colonel still engaged with the Earl, leaving Darcy unprotected, Wickham realised now that this was the perfect moment in which to carry out his revenge. Steadying his hand, he raised his weapon, his fingers cocking the trigger.

Within seconds the sound of gunshots thundered through the surrounding countryside.

Chapter Text

Chapter XXII.

At the Darcy townhouse on Grosvenor Square two young women anxiously awaited the return of the gentlemen who had been obliged to leave the house so suddenly. Though it was not usually so reasonable as to expect their return from such a distance, the circumstances of their absence rendered its length to be of as short a duration as possible.

It was the circumstances behind their absence which caused the concern over their return, preventing either of the ladies capable of finding anything to occupy their mutual preoccupation. Not one of their many accomplishments could serve to garner their attention for no more than a brief attempt, nor could any member of the household tempt them to partake of sustenance.

By the evening of the last day they were reduced to wandering the length of the drawing room, whose windows happened to provide a good view of the road, should a certain carriage bearing a certain crest, happen to arrive. Outside in the privileged area of Grosvenor Square, the residents were all close to retiring, allowing for the sounds of the vehicle to be immediately ascertained upon its as yet hoped for arrival.

Whilst Georgiana managed to inject a little serenity to her features which her companion found to be eerily similar to that of her elder sister, Elizabeth's anxious was easily betrayed by her anxious expression and restless pacing, broken by the occasional lingering at the window, though her fine eyes had yet to remove themselves from a close examination of the glassy panes even when she was walking.

As the shadows lengthened her mind became plagued by the worst imaginings, that the duel would not end with au premier sang, but in the death of her champion, whereupon her husband would come to seize her from this refuge and drag her back to the marriage bed and all its horrors. Or her champion were declared the victor but the courts discovered the duel and decided to make an example of him. She knew not what to hope for, even victory would open up a window into the unknown for her, for while it perhaps granted her a freedom, it would be at the behest of one man making demands on another.

So much was to be decided, and without leave or consideration granted to what she might wish. Yet she did not know what she desired to happen, which frustrated her just as much as the fact that the decision was out of her hands. In being her father's favourite she had acquired an independent spirit which was so fiercely crushed by her husband these past two years that she had been forced to rely on others to affect her wishes, even live in ignorance of what those wishes were. She held little doubt that Mr Darcy was acting in her best interests, but even when she herself knew not what they were, it was difficult to derive comfort from that.

In the hearth flames crackled against the combination of wood and coal, producing a heat which neither of the women appeared to feel. Turning mid pace, Elizabeth caught sight of the flames and for a moment watched them dance to a tune none could hear. Within them was a certain pulse of their own, almost hypnotic in the attraction and her gaze remained fixed for a time until she realised that the beat she heard belonged not just to the flames, but to a series of hooves and carriage wheels.

Both women rose from their seats as they heard the equipage come to a halt outside the house, the noise of the servants as the household dealt with the arrivals. Driven to give a mite of comfort to each other in this moment where everything was both hoped and despaired for, Georgiana went to Elizabeth's side and took her hands in her own. It was in this pose that the grim features of Colonel Fitzwilliam greeted them as he entered the room.

From the first stroke of blades Darcy knew he was facing a formidable opponent. The Earl possessed an elegant but firm style, with a hint of barely restrained steel, similar to his cousin who would return from the continent sometimes needing to vent his emotions in a pitched engagement in which few would chose to bear the brunt of. He had been on the receiving end of such many an occasion and the one which he was facing now was different in only one respect; he knew he cousin's moves. Saffron Walden was unpredictable in that he had never faced him before.

A silence settled over the field of play, broken only by the striking of blade against blade, as each of them closely observed the other, waiting for each facet of their fighting style to be revealed. Education in fencing begun from youth allowed for the gentlemen to develop a certain way of mastering the skill, one which was honed by their lives and shaped by their characters, calling for them acquire certain habits of reflex or technique which inevitably became the hallmark of their victory or defeat. Whilst the Earl's displayed the fierceness which he had occasion to vent upon his wife, Darcy's was one which belied his usual abhorrence, for his elegant and gentlemanlike nature disguised the sheer skill with which he now fought.

That Saffron Walden was initially surprised by his opponent's style was evident, but soon the peer became accustomed to the hard firmness which his own ferocity had unleashed. What he meant to achieve in this bout few could discern including himself, least of all Darcy, despite being privy to the Colonel's description of the disdain with which he had received the note. Honour alone dictated that the Earl must conduct himself as any gentleman would in such an encounter, no matter distasteful a duel was considered by them. Sabotage was out of the question, as was the failure to appear or allow an unfair advantage to be gained by either side.

With every stroke it became clear that cowardice would not feature in this engagement, which seemed determined to lengthen as those involved continued to exchange blows. As soon as it appeared that one had gained an advantage, it would be evened out by a move from the other. Responses sharpened, the speed of the strikes increased as each resorted to the hope that if skill would not determine the result of this duel, fatigue would.

Despite his focus on the Earl, Darcy was aware of his cousin withdrawing to stand a further distance, and Wickham likewise some space away from the fight. His presence at the engagement had served to distract him from the moment he and his cousin first caught sight of him. That his former childhood companion would allow this entanglement to proceed without some deceitful action on his part was impossible, but nor could Darcy pay the attention he deemed necessary upon that scoundrel without disadvantage to himself within the duel. Ramsgate had been a close run thing, occurring only last summer, an affair which was doubtless still haunting their minds. So thwarted from having nearly achieved all his desires, Wickham would undoubtedly be eager to ensure nothing would stand in his way a second time.

But for now, he would have to rely on his cousin to keep watch on the scoundrel, while he attended to prevent the Earl from achieving the revenge which was desired by his second. Darcy wondered briefly if Saffron Walden had been treated to the tale of the soldier's misfortune, but ignorance or no, it would not lessen the peer's desire to rid himself in some honourable fashion of the man who had made himself his wife's champion.

Au premier sang, whilst being nothing in terms of wounds as to account for full revenge upon either opponent, it would at least leave both alive and able to continue managing their estates, the memory of the encounter haunting them for the rest of their lives, depending on which result they achieved. Few soldiers took pleasure in killing, gentlemen even less so; though the hunt was a part of their daily lives, there was more a sense of providing industry within ones' estate rather than sport about it. Thus the sight of blood was what some became accustomed to, though it maybe their first letting of such liquid via the blade of a sword.

In time the weather turned the light about them into a contrary fellow, uncertain and inconstant. Perhaps it was that instant which caused the following for with one bold stroke, the whole duel turned. Deftly, Darcy found a moment to trap the Earl's sword within his own, before sweeping the weapon in an upwards motion, to stroke apart the shirt sleeves, letting blood from the flesh once concealed beneath. The Earl dropped his sword as his hand moved to clasp the wound, while Darcy rested his own weapon as his cousin broke from his place of observation to examine the strike.

"A clean cut," the Colonel reported to both parties, his experience on the battlefield answering as credit for his judgement. "I hope we can agree that the terms for the conclusion of the duel have been met gentlemen?" Receiving nods from both, he turned to his cousin. "Do you have anything you wish to say, Darcy?"

"Yes, if the Earl would consent to the following, then I will consider my honour satisfied," Darcy replied, before taking a moment to compose himself, as a part of him idly wondered where the other second had disappeared to. He was not comfortable with the idea of Wickham being about his lands once more unobserved, but there was little he could do about it at present. One scoundrel at a time.

"Firstly, I would have him relinquish all of his wife's possessions over to her care. For the time being she is a guest of my sister, so I would wish that these were taken to my house in town as soon as possible. Second, I would have him to take the trouble of never contacting his wife again, either by sight or epistolary form. All further necessary communication shall be dealt through my solicitors."

Whatever Darcy had been about to say next was lost, not to due any objection on the Earl's part, but by the sound of gunfire. Within seconds the sound of gunshots thundered through the surrounding countryside.

Barely had the cousins chance to ascertain the source of the first, before a second sounded, this time from a more immediate range, as they caught sight of their companion swiftly withdrawing a previously concealed weapon from the sash about his waist and firing. The direction of the gun sufficed to pinpoint the source of the first shot, and they turned in time to see the shooter receive the second, collapsing where he stood. Despite his injury the Earl kept his weapon poised upon the fallen scoundrel in the event of the fellow rising to cause injury again.

"I agree to your conditions, Mr Darcy," the Earl said. "I apologise for my concealing a weapon, gentlemen," he further remarked to his companions, "but in light of my short acquaintance with my second, I thought it a wise precaution."

"I think, sir, that neither my cousin or myself would argue with that sentiment," Colonel Fitzwilliam replied. He turned to his cousin. "Darcy, did you happen to see where the first shot fell?"

Some distance off, his cousin shook his head, glancing about the ground as he did so, managing to catch a glint of something small and metallic in the afternoon light. Bending down, he picked it up with care, knowing the bullet would be still be warm. Examining the object in his hand, it was astonishing to consider how small a thing could be responsible for ending a life. A close run thing it had been as well, landing in the long blades of grass before his feet.

"Honour is satisfied, gentlemen," Darcy remarked, feeling that there was nothing more to be said or done by any of them. His gamekeepers would take care of the body. "Let us quit the field."

Georgiana gave a grateful cry when she saw the figure of her brother emerge from behind their cousin's form. As the siblings embraced each other, Elizabeth's gaze remained fixed upon the colonel, fearing to ask what was the source of his discomfort.

"I am gravely displeased, ladies," the Colonel remarked, "to find you both awaiting our return. Have you not glanced at the fine timepieces which grace this and many other rooms, that display the lateness of the hour?"

"Do save your admonishings when we are all in more of a humour to deal with them, Richard," Darcy replied quietly, "you're beginning to sound like our Aunt, or her parson. And the ladies are not the only ones in need of sleep. I suggest we all retire, we can discuss everything in the morning."

Colonel Fitzwilliam executed a perfectly military salute before his cousin, finishing the move with a bow, making Georgiana laugh, if a little nervously, for the countess was not the only one who detected there to be some unease about the gentlemen. "I bow to my General, and shall obey his orders with equanimity."

The three remaining followed him into the hall and up the grand staircase to the bedrooms above, Georgiana's arm in the crook of her brother's, Elizabeth a little distance behind them. Upon the landing, the Colonel bade them a good night before retiring to the room usually reserved for him. Darcy escorted his sister down the hall to her own, then returned to the Countess, whose anxious gaze he had been aware of ever since he had first caught sight of it upon his return.

Coming to stand before her, he reached out and took her hands in his. "He will never trouble you again, I swear it." Seeing her countenance was yet to be comforted by his assurance, Darcy raised her hands to his lips and bestowed a gentle kiss about the slender fingers. "Goodnight, Elizabeth."

How long she stood alone in that hallway after he left would forever be insensible to her, although it could scarcely have been a matter of minutes. Barely able to believe all that had occurred she turned to enter her chambers somewhat at a loss with what to do with herself. Sleep was out of the question; though she knew that her body and mind were doubtless in need of the rest it would provide, she felt unable to compose either of them to perform such an endeavour at present.

She was grateful that Mr Darcy had sought to reassure her concerning the Earl, but her mind still hungered for a more complete understanding of what had happened to make him give her such an assurance. The Colonel's grim visage still preyed upon her thoughts, causing her to speculate at the cause, unable to help herself from imagining that something grave must have occurred, that he disapproved of all his cousin had done in regards to her situation.

Distractedly she prepared herself for bed, knowing that she would be unable to sleep but at a loss for what else to do with herself. Catching sight of her form within a nearby mirror, her fingers paused in their movements, as she suddenly recalled what a part of her had resolved to do upon his return. Though she felt in no way prepared for such a notion, she doubted time would reconcile her to the idea either, and if it would serve to the make the hours pass by more swiftly, as well as perhaps settling forever how she was to spend the rest of her life, it would suffice.

Turning, she walked towards the door that led into his chambers, trying to ignore the abrupt pounding of her heart as her shaking hands turned the knob and entered the room.

He was situated upon one of the armchairs by the fire, an open leather bound volume in his hands, from which he looked up in surprise at her entrance. Before he could lay the book aside and rise to his feet, she advanced to stand before him, her hands clasped before her waist.

"You must have had a difficult day," she uttered hesitantly, uncertain as to how she should initiate matters, for her husband had always begun first, she had become accustomed to responding, or enduring his ministrations as was usually the case when he was involved. "I came to offer you comfort."

Darcy gazed at her, observing the nerves splayed about her form, from the shaking of her hands to the fear in fine eyes, his mind at loss as to her meaning. Then her fingers clasped the gown she was wearing, whilst her head turned slightly in the direction of the bed, and suddenly he realised her intentions.

Rising from his seat, he crossed the room to fetch his dressing grown, which he swiftly placed about her, before taking her hands in his, tenderly prying the material of her gown from their grip. "No, no."

Elizabeth paled as she looked at him. "Do you not desire me, sir," she found herself asking, even though she could not deny herself to be relieved that he refused to follow through with her request.

"I do," he confessed, causing her to raise her eyebrows in shock at his quietly spoken candour, "which is precisely why I refuse. I would not have you come to me as the spoils of war."

"How else should I come to you, sir?" she uttered curiously.

With care he raised her hands gently to his lips, repeating his actions from their last encounter in his hallway. "As a consequence of your own desire and affection."

She glanced at him incredulously. "How can I feel such an emotion? There is nothing within the act which I cannot fear."

"I do not deny possessing some apprehension of the event myself," Darcy remarked quietly. "I desire nothing more than to give you pleasure, yet I worry that my attentions will remind you of that person whom I wish you to forget."

Elizabeth stilled, startled by a single word of his, that she barely comprehended the rest of his speech. "Pleasure?"

Darcy nodded, before guiding her to join him in the armchairs before the fire. "As I foresee neither of us accomplishing a great deal of sleep tonight, perhaps you would wish to hear about the result of my encounter with him earlier today."

She turned to him in surprise. "You do not wish me to leave?"

"I would not have a distance grow between due to any embarrassment either of us might suffer from this conversation," he replied.

"Thank you," Elizabeth acknowledged the sincerity in his response.

She remained seated as he related the details of the event which had called him away from the townhouse. The tale roused from her several emotions, astonishment at the presence of Mr Wickham, concern over the Earl's formidable nature as an opponent, relief in hearing of her companion's deft winning stroke, followed by the details of his demands made to her husband and the Earl's agreement. Horror at the way in which his second attempted to revenge himself, surprise at who had calmly returned the gunfire. Though the act was shocking, it was a facet of gentlemanly conduct which she had never expected from her husband. For the Earl to protect her champion and agree to his conditions was quite incredible.

"What happens now?" she asked when her companion reached the end of his tale.

"In a few days, we shall attend my cousin's wedding," Darcy informed her. "Richard informed me that the date has been set and the special license obtained. He asked me to tell you that Miss Lucas requests the pleasure of your company upon the day, she would be honoured if you would stand up with her."

"Are you sure my presence will not disrupt the ceremony and its celebrations?" Elizabeth queried.

Darcy shook his head. "Though you may find it difficult to believe, few have heard of your removal from the Earl's house. Aside from visits to his club he has rarely been seen himself. No invitation has been sent to his place and since he has accepted my conditions, I doubt he will try to attend the event himself. Only family and friends have been invited, despite the protests of those refused from the ton. Your solitary appearance, even in the company of me and my sister will attract little attention."

"And afterwards?" Elizabeth questioned.

"I would like to show you Pemberley, if you would wish to see it," he revealed. "It has many woods and hills, full of untamed beauty, nature and culture in harmony, wildness and artifice, which I hope you will enjoy."

Relieved that he held no desire to be rid of her, she replied, "then I shall not be happy until I have seen it."

Chapter Text

Chapter XXIII.

A few days later, at the barracks of the 2nd Life Guards, the marriage of Miss Charlotte Lucas to Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam, took place. Though the groomsman was the younger son of one of the most illustrious personages in the land, invitations to the ceremony and the celebrations after it had been reserved for family and friends only, making the occasion a quiet and intimate affair, one whose peace was not at all disturbed by the presence of the Countess of Saffron Walden without her husband.

Those present were happy to be introduced to her and not one inquired after her husband, a lack of concern which Elizabeth would have found strange and curious, if it were not for her preoccupation concerning what they thought of her arrival in the company of Mr Darcy and his sister.

Since that night, when she woke to find herself reclined in an armchair across from his sleeping form, much of their conversation continued to occupy her thoughts. That he would do so much for her without expecting anything in return, save perhaps for her affection, despite her actions, was remarkable. He had every reason to dispose of her, having been presented with her distrust of his noble motives in becoming her champion. She realised after he had gently refused her, that her actions could have offended him, thus she was highly relieved to learn that he still wished for her company, even intended to take her to Pemberley.

His behaviour to her never wavered from its gentlemanly manner during the days which had followed that night. When she woke that morning to encounter his sleeping form seated across from her, the desire to study him had overcome her self-conscious embarrassment at the possibility of being discovered by him or by a member of the household in such a situation.

here was a vulnerability of youth about him which his waking form rarely displayed, serving to remind her just how young he still was, though older than herself, but still two years the Earl's junior. An uncommonly handsome man, she was unable to deny that she found him so, intelligent, cultured, elegant, and a gentleman. His responsibilities were many, acquired by him so soon after his coming of age. He was the only heir to all the wealth and property that his family inherited, yet unlike the Earl and many others, he refused to squander or neglect what he was entrusted with. Instead he had nurtured everything, improving and adding, whilst still retaining all the goodness within his character.

As she gazed upon his youthful handsome form, considering all of this, Elizabeth could not deny that she possessed a certain fascination, an attraction even, for him, which might be called a promising inclination for love. She did not doubt that if she had met him before the Earl, she would have allowed herself to care for him, perhaps as deeply as he professed to care for her. But she could not deny that the influence of her husband's behaviour towards herself had tainted her own feelings to such a degree that she felt unable to allow them free reign over her, as she once did.

Before she had met Mr Darcy, she had despaired of ever finding contentment, let alone happiness in her life. Even in the early days of their acquaintance, as he continued to cultivate her company, she had no expectation of acquiring such emotions. But now she could not deny that she was approaching the former, or the possibility that time could induce her into the other. He had given her the hope and the confidence to believe so.

And would time also give her the chance to love him, as he desired? To approach him with a view to pleasure not just for him but for her also? At the moment Elizabeth did not know, but for the first time she could not deny that it was a possibility, and a tempting one at that. Yet, she was still married, though the Earl chose to disregard those holy vows, and a part of her hesitated to do the same. However, she could not help but consider the price her feelings would pay upon such an activity nor why she should continue to stay true to a man who did not honour her with the same fidelity. Especially as she had already cast aside the seeming appearance of such faithfulness by leaving him.

Rousing herself from her thoughts, she followed Mr Darcy and his sister out of the church into the carriage for the short drive to the Fitzwilliam family townhouse, where the wedding breakfast was to take place, in a vast ballroom that rendered the one in which she had witnessed Mr Darcy and his cousin taking sword practise rather small until the former informed her that his an ancestor of his uncle had ordered his architect to enlarge the room in question.

Once there, she was kindly received by the Uncle and his wife, who made little mention of her husband other than that his father had been a great man, and it was a shame that his son had not succeeded such expectations. Charlotte was very glad to see her, having last parted from her at Rosings uncertain as to what the Earl might do.

"There was nothing that could be done, which he did not do himself," Elizabeth spoke of Darcy as she replied to her friend's enquiry. "I wonder, has your husband confided in you regarding recent events?"

Charlotte nodded. "I must say that I am surprised, Lizzy, for I recollect that you once saying that you would never marry but for the deepest love. Yet the behaviour of the Earl is such that I do not blame you for leaving his household. Considering his character even when compared to his connections and situation in life, it is unfair in comparison to what most people can boast upon entering the marriage state."

Elizabeth smiled. "I recollect you saying once that you were not romantic, that you only ask for a comfortable home!"

"I know," Charlotte conceded. "But I think in such cases as these, a good memory is unpardonable." She chuckled before adding, "in all seriousness, what do you intend to do now?"

"I do not know," Elizabeth confessed. "In a few days we travel to Pemberley, where I imagine my days will be spent until....." she paused, unsure as to what would occur.

"Do you see a future in this?" Charlotte queried. "The Earl is not without funds and he is in need of an heir. Has...." she paused, uncertain of airing the question.

Elizabeth was not insensible of what her friend was reluctant to say, though it was something which she had not considered herself. Before her marriage divorce was something she knew to be impossible through her gentle but impoverished circumstances. Faced with the example of her parent's marriage every day, she had resolved to marry for love. The Earl had robbed her of such innocent naïveté, but still her mind had not considered forming an opinion upon it. "I don't know, Charlotte. Mr Darcy has never suggested such to me. As for the Earl, in our last conversation he was more concerned about bending me to his will than granting us the freedom to marry elsewhere."

"And if it were to happen?" Charlotte queried.

"I still don't know," Elizabeth replied. "Mr Darcy may be certain of his feelings for me, but I do not know my own with regards to him for certain, and I doubt such trials would allow me to realise them. I need time, Charlotte and that what I hope the woods and hills of Pemberley will give me."

Whilst Elizabeth was contemplating her feelings, her champion's mind was equally preoccupied, though his emotions were more concerned with the fanciful possibilities which his former childhood friend's attempt at sabotage had prevented him from voicing. But for Wickham's interference, he would have surprised the Earl and his cousin by asking the former to divorce his wife, a notion Saffron Walden could easily afford, though Darcy feared to impose upon Elizabeth, in view of the difficulties which the civil and ecclesiastical trials would place upon her.

Despite his previous resolve of demanding such an act from the Earl, Darcy felt a little relieved that he was prevented from mentioning the matter to Elizabeth. Divorce would have required that an impartial witness observe their 'improper' relationship, though it was hardly such in any sense of the word, and report it to the courts, where they would be required to endure lengthy trials. That the result would grant her a freedom to marry made the act tempting, but the publicity of the affair would forever taint them far more than their current situation would.

Throughout the day of his cousin's wedding, anyone who spoke to him would have found him a distracted object. All through the ceremony, and the celebrations which followed, Darcy's mind was frequently elsewhere. At first it alternated between wondering what the woman he loved was thinking, and what their own ceremony might be like, if he was ever lucky enough to be allowed to ask for her participation in one. Such an occasion could only arise from the Earl's demise, an act which he had prevented himself from performing only days ago.

Performing his office as his cousin's groomsman, he was in an easy position to picture himself at such a ceremony, with Elizabeth by his side. He had rarely called by her first name since he had first confessed his feelings, using it only when they were alone, and even rarely then. He knew not what kept him from doing so, but he suspected that the fact that they were not married, and, at present, had little hope of ever being so, had something to do with it.

Yet despite this, the image of what she might look like in white lace, was imprinted upon his mind during the entire ceremony of his cousin's. Already, he had sworn to himself that he would try to spend the rest of his life with her, no matter what possible scandal would be created in Society from it. He loved her too much for prudence, too much to care what anyone else thought of the sight.

When the ceremony was over, he reluctantly came out of his dream, and followed the rest of the guests out of the church, his eyes keeping close watch over his sister, presently talking with their Aunt Matlock, and for a possible sight of the Earl. If he had found out about this- indeed it was impossible for him not to be aware, the notice having been contained in the national broadsheets for some time -then the less chance could be entertained of him showing up at Grosvenor while they were out. Not that he doubted the ability of his staff to refuse the Earl admittance, he just preferred that they were not tested in such a fashion.

By the time he had emerged on to the street, he had discerned no sign of the Earl. Darcy collected his sister and the Countess, then directed their carriage to the Matlock townhouse, where the celebrations were to take place.

At the home of his Aunt and Uncle's, the trio made his way to his cousin and his bride, presented their felicitations, wishing them every happiness. He repeated the message to Sir William and Lady Lucas, introducing his sister, before granting her wish to participate in the dancing that was taking place.

He managed to keep his attention occupied upon Georgiana during that dance, but it drifted once again when they separated to mingle among the guests. Darcy asked Elizabeth if she would care to dance, assuring her that the sight would not be talked of as improper or extraordinary, but was still forced to accept her gracious refusal. She confessed herself not inclined for such amusement, causing him to remain by her and Georgiana's side instead, as they talked with their mutual acquaintances, until his attention was called to a commotion which had flared up at the entrance to the Ballroom, which several footmen had gone over to try and sort out.

His eyes followed their journey, and perceived instantly the trouble that was to come before anyone else was even aware. Carefully, his mind considered the options available, before he made his way over to the source.

"Is there a problem, Milburn?" Darcy questioned the butler, when he had arrived at the scene.

Mr Milburn, having known his master's nephew almost from the moment he was born, gratefully turned to him now. "This gentleman insists being admitted, Mr Darcy, but we have no notification of his invitation to this event."

Darcy, keeping his face expressionless, turned to the Earl of Saffron Walden, the origin of this possible crisis, who was at present in the middle of the secure grip of several footmen, who despite their restraint were unable to prevent the figure of the peer from displaying his inebriated condition.

"Lord Saffron Walden," he began in a composed voice, "do you perhaps have some paper about you that gives legitimacy to your admittance here? The event was so rapidly arranged that I fear my Aunt and Uncle had not the time to send proper invitations to everyone."

"I have my wife's invitation,” the Earl replied angrily, thrusting a piece of embossed card in front of Darcy's face, "which as her husband I should have been included on, as a matter of courtesy."

Darcy took the card from him, pretending to carefully examine the words. A moment's glance was all it took to realise the error. "This is your card, my lord, no invitations were sent to Hanover Square for this affair."

"May I ask then," the Earl began, his tone still threatening, "if my wife is here? Because, if she is so, I would like to speak to her."

"Do I need to remind you of the conditions which I imposed upon you but a few days ago, your Lordship?" Darcy remarked imperiously. "I shall speak frankly, for you reek of wine and perfume and your inebriated figure would be better occupied at either a club or a brothel, I suggest you return to which ever establishment previously entertained you today."

"Please, your Lordship," Milburn began respectfully, "you must leave now. You have no reason to be here."

"No I will not," the Earl began, resisting the outreached hands of the footmen surrounding him. "She is here, I know it! I want to see her!"

"I am afraid you will have to look elsewhere," Darcy replied, before silently motioning the butler and footmen to use all necessary force in order to evict the intruder.

The Earl continued to resist a while longer, until he accepted the futility of escaping the footmen's grip. He was dragged out of the house, crying aloud for his wife the entire time.

When he was out of his sight, Darcy turned back round, and to his relief, saw that the incident had not been noticed by any of his Uncle's guests, or indeed the Countess. Taking to account the proportions of the vast ballroom in which the reception was being held, this was no extraordinary notion. Then, after praising Milburn for his proficiency, he walked back into the crowds, making his way to his sister.

"Georgiana," he uttered when he had reached her and Elizabeth who were still in the company of his Aunt, Uncle, Charlotte and Richard.

"What is it, William?" Georgiana asked, turning to face her brother and seeing his concerned face.

"I am afraid we must be going," Darcy remarked, turning include all in the farewell he was making. "I apologise for us not being able to stay any longer. I have a business appointment to attend to."

"Georgiana," their Aunt began, "if you wish you could stay with us, and return to William tomorrow."

"I am afraid that will not be possible," Darcy replied, as Georgiana encountered his look, understanding at once. "My steward has expected us at Pemberley for quite some time. I had planned for us to leave for Derbyshire on the morrow."

"Then we expect to hear from you both by pen soon," the Earl of Matlock remarked, granting them leave to depart.

Darcy repeated his congratulations to his cousin, then made his farewells, followed by sister and the Countess, before quietly leading her out of the Ballroom, and then, when he had made sure the road was devoid of the Earl, to their carriage outside. Only once inside there, did Miss Darcy feel that she was allowed to speak her mind.

"What is the matter, William?" she asked as the carriage set off. "Why the sudden desire to go to Pemberley?"

"Elizabeth's husband appeared,”Darcy replied, causing Elizabeth to gasp as he told them both what had happened between him and the Earl only a few minutes ago. "He was drunk, a state which I have seen him in before, which causes me to doubt that we have seen the last of him. I had planned for us to go to Derbyshire soon anyway." He turned to Elizabeth. "Do you object to our leaving town so soon?"

Elizabeth shook her head. "Not at all. I told you that I would not be happy until I have seen that untamed beauty which you spoke of. I have seen Charlotte married, there is little to keep me here."

"Then to Pemberley we go," Darcy declared.

Chapter Text

Chapter XXIV.

Elizabeth, as they drove along, watched for the first appearance of Pemberley Woods with some perturbation; and when at length they turned in at the lodge, her spirits were in a high flutter which had nothing at all to do with the intrusion of the Earl at Charlotte and Richard's wedding breakfast only the afternoon before. As she had not set eyes on him, and her departure with the Darcys occurred almost immediately, she felt little need to acquire a fear over what might have happened had they remained at the townhouse.

The park was very large, and contained great variety of ground. They entered it in one of its lowest points, and drove for some time through a beautiful wood, stretching over a wide extent. Though Elizabeth's mind was too full for conversation, she saw and admired every remarkable spot and point of view. They gradually ascended for half a mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound. It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills- and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned.

"What do you think?" Georgiana asked her, knowing that her brother never would, not while he remained content in staring at their guest in silent awe, the beauty of his home paling in comparison to the brightness of her countenance.

"I do not think that I have ever seen a place for which nature has done more, or where natural beauty has been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. I like it very much indeed."

Georgiana smiled at the praise. "We always advise guests to see this prospect of it, because it shows the house to its best advantage. Modesty aside, we think that it is a beautiful home also."

"I can see why." Elizabeth turned to look at the view once more.

"You truly like it?" Darcy asked, still looking at her.

"I fear you would find me over extravagant in my praise, when I have barely seen any of it, sir," Elizabeth replied in a teasing manner.

"But your good opinion is worth the earning," he returned, causing her to blush, and his sister's smile to widen.

Another minute was spent in silent appreciation, then the carriage continued its journey. They descended the hill, crossed the bridge, and drove to the door. As the view appeared before Elizabeth, the carriage stopped once again, and the footmen and stable hands came out of the servants door and entrance to unpack and help the occupants exit to the ground. When she had touched the stone cobbled floor of the courtyard, Elizabeth took another chance to gaze at the building, detecting the signs that showed the house being remodelled over several generations, until the front of the present design had been added. So far nothing had appeared to change her initial impression of the building.

Darcy came to her side then, and Elizabeth followed him and his sister up the staircase to the entrance. Here they were greeted by the housekeeper; a Mrs Reynolds, a respectable-looking elderly woman, much less fine and more civil, than she had any notion of finding her, who looked upon her master and young mistress with a mixture of motherly devotion and true appreciation of the characters they had come to be.

She greeted Elizabeth with a knowing expression, one which put her in mind of her Aunt Gardiner; a most perceptive relative, whose advice Elizabeth had contemplated consulting on more than one occasion since she left the Earl's house. Her hesitancy on initiating such a correspondence however was her concern over how her Aunt would react to what she had done. She had no desire to lose the woman's previously good opinion over something which might be resolved in time, as she had said to Charlotte only yesterday.

Mr Darcy had introduced her with her full title, mentioning her stay to be of an indefinite nature, as a guest of himself and his sister. Whether Mrs Reynolds actually believed that, seemed to be by her look, another matter, but she merely nodded before proceeding with her traditional conversation for when the master returned.

They made their up the stairs to their rooms to change out of their travelling clothes. Mrs Reynolds came with them, talking with her master about all that had occurred upon the estate in his absence, and detailing any thing which could be counted as business that would immediately require his attention.

Elizabeth's own attention meanwhile was divided between Georgiana, who pointed out an object or two now and again which she thought her companion might want to have a look at, and observing the relationship between the two people in front of them. Mrs Reynolds had clearly been with the family for quite some time, probably since Mr Darcy was very young, that much could Elizabeth gather from their manners to each other. He respected her judgement, and she his. The country household obviously were of the same opinion as those of the town; in that their current master was the best they had ever known.

At this moment they reached the room that was Mr Darcy's, coming to a halt as he delivered his final instructions to his housekeeper, and told Elizabeth and Georgiana that he would be in the music room, when they wished to join him. He then entered his room. Miss Darcy continued on with them, until she came to her own chambers, and then Elizabeth was left alone with Mrs Reynolds.

"May I confirm, ma'am, that you met my master when he was in London after a short stay with Mr Bingley?"

"Yes, that is right," Elizabeth replied, surprised. Mrs Reynolds smiled at her, noticing the sentiment.

"I have known him since he was four years old," she explained, as they continued to walk down the corridor to another bedchamber. "And I have had the privilege of his regular correspondence whenever he is away." She paused then, bringing them to a halt. "And these are your chambers, ma'am. I shall wait for you so you won't get lost trying to find the Music Room in this big old house."

"Thank you," Elizabeth replied, putting her hand on the door. Before she opened it however, she turned back to the housekeeper and added, "Mrs Reynolds, I was wondering if you could call me Miss Elizabeth? Whenever I hear the word ma'am I always feel positively ancient."

"Of course, Miss Elizabeth," she replied, smilingly. "I would be happy to."

Elizabeth nodded in thanks, then opened her door and stepped inside. Once again, she found herself uttering a gasp in appreciation at the sight which came upon her. The room was beautiful. Lofty and handsome, with furniture of suitable wealth to its proprietor, all of it far more elegant and tasteful than the furniture of his Aunt's, and those of her husband.

Untying her bonnet, she handed it to Sarah, who had been waiting for her arrival, her happy face and chatter instantly conveying the impression that she was just as pleased with their new location as her mistress was.

Elizabeth soon discovered that nothing had changed in way her maid had been regarded from the town to the country; again she had a room to herself, and was treated with the precedence as befitted her position as a maid of a Countess. A great contrast once more, to how those in the Earl's households had treated her.

When Elizabeth had finished dressing, she met Mrs Reynolds outside once more, her nervousness a little lessened by the housekeeper's welcoming expression, and the treatment of Sarah. Mrs Reynolds informed her that she would be available whenever Elizabeth might need her, for any reason, no matter how insignificant it may seem to her, and that she could ask anything she liked of her.

"I was wondering," Elizabeth began then, emboldened by this warm reception, "if you would be so kind as to give me a tour of this house when you are free?"

"Of course, I shall be happy to," Mrs Reynolds replied. "But the master or Miss Darcy would be just as happy to show you the place as well you know."

"I do not wish to trouble them," was the quiet reply.

Mrs Reynolds refrained from mentioning that it would be no trouble, realising privately that it would have the added benefit of her gaining an opportunity to learn more about this young woman that her master had mentioned in almost every letter to her from the moment he had met her. "Would tomorrow morning be agreeable?" she inquired instead.

"If you are free, then yes, that would be wonderful."

By this time they had reached the Music room, and Mrs Reynolds opened the door, ushered her in, and then departed. Elizabeth entered the room just in time to see Mr Darcy bestow on his sister the present of a new grand pianoforte. She watched him lead his sister into the room, with her hand covering her eyes, whilst the other was clasped by her brotherly guide, before he took her hand away from her face. Georgiana at first was surprised then overjoyed at the gift, exclaiming over it, before going to embrace its bearer.

Elizabeth could not help but smile at such a lovely family scene. Here was a gentleman who clearly adored his sister, and to whom the affection was not only readily returned, but also deserved. He was fast becoming, she realised suddenly, the best man she had ever known.

Mr Darcy noticed her presence then, and the moment was forgotten. "Were you pleased with your chambers?" he asked in greeting, while his sister came to lead her friend to a seat.

"Yes, they were lovely, thank you. But I would have been just as content with a guest room. There was no need to open up one of the principal chambers."

"No more than what you deserve," he replied, before offering to ring for a light tea, as they had taken luncheon at the Inn in Lambton, which had been their last stop before reaching the estate.

They spent the first evening much as they had spent their last proper one in town, the day before the Fitzwilliam wedding. After dinner, in which Elizabeth found her admiration of the place and its master rising once more, for every inclination of hers, his sister and himself had been catered to, they retired to the Music room, where Georgiana honoured them with a recital.

Darcy persuaded her to honour them with one herself, before they mutually agreed to call it a night, in accordance with the great number of hours spent travelling that day.

Elizabeth conducted her ablutions, then sank into the fine four poster bed, all the while thinking how much she liked the place, and its owner. And how safe she felt, both in Pemberley, and in his presence.

Far away from the principal chambers, in the servants quarter of the house, Kate Reynolds heard the clock on the mantle of her hearth chime the hour, and laid aside her book. Silently, she rose from her chair and made her way out of her rooms, in search of her master.

Attuned as she was to his habits, she knew that despite the hour, and the noise which indicated that the maids who attended to the Countess and Miss Darcy had been sent for, her master was not yet retiring to his bedchambers. She also knew that he would want talk to her.

Kate Reynolds had become the housekeeper after the death of her predecessor, Mrs Ellard. Her character, and the late Lady Anne's had naturally complimented each other, which had led to her forming a close relationship with her master and mistress. She had helped the young Mr Darcy though the loss of his mother, when he was only a lad of fourteen, and through the gradual transition of control over the estate, until he had assumed final authority, five years ago.

If this experience had taught her anything, it was that her master was often a very lonely young man. And sometimes, too used to his own company. Over the years Kate had earned the privileged position as one of his confidants, a place hard to earn from a man who had been dealt somewhat of a harsh and tragic past.

She admired the man he had become, and respected his authority as master of the family estates, but at the same time had earned the right to confront him when he was wrong, and guide him when he felt out of his depth. She also had that rare ability among servants; the gift to anticipate his wants, and have them answered as soon as they were asked for.

Kate reached the Study and knocked upon the dark wood of the door. A strong male voice, her master's, called her in a few moments later.

"Ah, Kate," he began when she had closed the door, "I am glad it is you, for I have been meaning to talk with you."

"Yes I thought you might," she replied, coming to take the offered seat nearby him. He turned to face her as she settled into the confines of the armchair.

"The Countess is not just here as our guest," he said. "She is also here under my protection."

"Protection?" Kate repeated, knowing her master wished to confide further, and thus encouraged him to do so.

"Yes. You recollect that I once wrote to you about my suspicions regarding her husband? Well, in Kent, she confirmed them."

Kate gasped. "He has actually been abusing her?" Despite knowing he master's suspicions when she had been in the company of Miss Elizabeth, Kate had forgone looking for signs of evidence to support his theory, as she had wanted to make sure of her own impressions regarding the young woman.

"I am sorry to say that he has, almost from the first day of their marriage, as far as I can gather from the little she has felt able to tell me. In Kent I offered her the chance to leave him, if she wished. She came to my house but a day after we had returned to London."

He paused there, and Kate let him remain in silence for a while, as she gathered the conclusions she had drawn so far together. She recognised at once that there was a lot which her master was not telling her.

She knew him to be a kind and generous man, gallant almost to a fault at times, and, while little practised in the art of performing to strangers, reluctant to trust until it had been earned, his loyalty, once given, was everlasting. His concern however, had always been to present himself to society as nothing more remarkable than a rich gentleman, devoted to his sister.

Yet, the position which he had put himself into now, was a complete contrast, which had the possibility of resulting in damaging consequences, not only to his reputation, but that of his sister and that of the Countess as well. This would present quite a puzzle to any of those who did not know him as well as Kate herself did.

To wilfully abandon his previous exemplary conduct in order to take up with the wife of one of the richest Earls in the Kingdom, would appear shocking to every judging member of Society, and would instantly lessen his and his sister's chances of marrying into material and respectable families, equal to their own wealth and pedigree.

This was an opinion which her master could not fail to be aware of, otherwise he would not be the man that Kate knew him to be. She also knew, that, in respect and out of devotion to his sister, he would never have considered entering into such an arrangement, unless he had another reason than gallantry behind his motives. Such a reason she intended to discover if she could, during this conversation with her master, however unconsciously or purposefully he allowed her to.

Mr Darcy spoke once more. "Since then, she has remained under my protection. I had intended for us to remain in town longer, but when the Earl appeared at Richard's wedding, I realised that it would be best if we left when we did. I would ask that if anyone does inquire after her, anyone that you do not know to be of my acquaintance, that yourself and the rest of the household staff refrain from revealing her presence here, and bar that person from admittance."

"Of course sir," Kate replied. "Anything else?"

"Yes." He paused, and spoke the next words uncertainly, as if he already knew what impact they would make. "She is to be treated not only as an honoured guest, but as the mistress of the estate. This is not something she requires, but I wish it to be so."

"I understand, sir," Mrs Reynolds allowed herself a small, knowing smile. She then rose from her chair. "Goodnight, master William."

"Goodnight Kate," he replied, smiling at her fondness for that particular title of his youth, "and thank you."

Mrs Reynolds closed the door, and made her way back to her rooms. As there were still other servants about, even at this late hour, she refrained from letting her feelings show until she had entered the little sitting room that she was entitled to as Pemberley's housekeeper. Then she allowed a smile to grace her features, as she recalled the softness about the master's features when he spoke of her, the tenderness in his voice, the sincerity and wistfulness in his instructions concerning the Countess' role whilst she resided in the house. Whether he was aware of such emotions or not, it was clear to her that he cared very deeply for the Countess. All that remained now, was to determine if such a degree of attachment was returned.

Chapter Text

Chapter XXV.

"And this is the Library," Mrs Reynolds declared, opening the double doors to the large grand room, with the many bookcases which covered all of the walls. Once more, she discreetly observed the Countess, watching her reaction and manner, as the young woman made her way over to one of the shelves, and read the titles there on view.

Already, Kate felt no need to disregard her first impression of this young woman. The Countess presented such a contrast to the usual female guests that her master was often obliged to invite, because of the friends they were related to. Quiet, kind, intelligent- judging by her close preoccupation with the leather bound volumes which she was presently perusing -and not at all constantly conscious of her station.

Indeed, she was a very intriguing young woman. Kate had seen her genuine appreciation of the house, but only hints of the other sides to her personality. Occasionally, she had been close enough to be able to observe the fading bruises on her arms, which were uncovered due to the warm summer weather.

Kate had felt disgusted the moment she caught sight of them. Miss Elizabeth was such a nice woman, and did not deserve to be handed such a terrifying first marriage. By the time they had reached the last room to see, the Library, Mrs Reynolds had resolved to help her master with the protection of the Countess as much as possible. As to the future, if she was ever able to rid herself of her scoundrel of a husband, she would have no hesitation in welcoming her as her master's bride.

As Kate continued to observe this young woman, she was forced to quit her occupation, as through the open doors of the Library came her master. He had evidently been searching for the Countess, a conclusion Mrs Reynolds reached by observing the expression on his face as he set eyes on her.

With a silent nod to his housekeeper, the kind that, between masters and servants who have lived under the same roof for so long, cannot fail to be understood. Mrs Reynolds calmly bowed her head and made her way out of the room. She had shown the Countess all over the house, a journey of sufficient length to observe her character properly, and be content with the result. Now she would willingly let the romance continue.

Darcy watched with fascination Elizabeth's movements as she read the titles in the shelves, fingering a certain volume when one caught her attention. He had been closeted with his steward for most of the morning, as he strove to catch up on events he had missed during his long absence from the country.

The estate was running as efficiently as ever though, which had thus given him the liberty to enquire after the Countess' whereabouts, causing him to be standing where he was now. He had been most pleased to learn that she was touring the interior of the house with Mrs Reynolds. Kate's quick approval of her he had been pleased to receive, knowing that it would go a long way to giving Elizabeth the ease she needed to find peace in this strange county.

It had also eased his own mind considerably. He had been so concerned for her safety, that he had not thought of how it might be regarded by his household until they had arrived at Pemberley. As usual, Kate had anticipated him, and had already bestowed her approval of the woman he hoped to install permanently by his side. And her approval would instantly pave the way for the rest of his household, both in town and country, where the name of Mrs Reynolds was regarded with the highest respect.

All this occupied his thoughts for but a moment. Now Darcy moved to be near Elizabeth, making sure he did not startle her until he was standing beside her. "If there are any volumes which you would like to read, please feel free to do so at your leisure," he remarked by way of greeting.

Elizabeth uttered a quiet gasp, then turned to face him. "Thank you," she answered, his blessing encouraging her to take out one of the books she had been fingering, for a closer inspection.

"Have you enjoyed your tour?" he asked, his eyes watching avidly the movements of her fingers, and the turn of her head, she opened the book in her hands.

"Pemberley is truly a beautiful house," she replied, the appreciation clear in her tone as well as her words. "And Mrs Reynolds was a most capable guide."

"Indeed, you cannot praise either of them too highly for me. I have known both for as long as I can remember, and regard each as my anchors in an often chaotic world." He paused, in order to fix his eyes upon her own. "Will you allow me to spend the rest of the day with you?"

"Have you not business with your steward?"

"It is done. I am fortunate enough to have a most efficient household. My steward keeps me up to date through correspondence whenever I am away, ensuring that when I am here, there is not much left that has not already been dealt with." He changed his tone to one of profound earnestness. "Please, allow me to keep you company. We may do whatever you wish to do." He smiled at her, then held out his arm for her to take.

Elizabeth turned to window, observing the glorious view it beheld. "It seems such a pity to waste this fine day in doors. Let us go out." She took his hand.


As the days in Derbyshire turned into weeks, Elizabeth felt a change come over her. Or rather, a reversal. Before her marriage, she had considered herself as lively, witty, intelligent, and of equal worth in the company on men. The Earl had changed all that, forcibly transforming her into a silent creature, afraid to speak even when away from him.

Now however, she seemed to be coming out of that spell, and into another, altogether more pleasant one. Even in the days of rain, Pemberley still produced its marvellous wonderment; a stark contrast to the gloomy estates of her husband. Its location, set as it was in a valley, presented the illusion that it was shut away from the rest of the world, in its own private existence, where nothing could tarnish its beauty. Nothing could touch it, even in bad weather it still shone to all who resided upon its lands. Elizabeth found herself feeling safe, whatever part of the ten mile round estate she happened to be in.

Emboldened by the security she felt, shades of her old character were now tentatively let out, first for a trial showing, proceeding into a continued presence when no one displayed any disapproval or objection to them. Even her wit, which had been one of the first traits she had been obliged to discard upon her marriage, could reign free here, and was even returned and responded to, as she found that her hostess and host could be just as proficient in the art.

As the weeks continued, Elizabeth finally felt sure enough of herself to explore what had long been apparent to her: Mr Darcy's feelings. Since their time spent together in Kent, she had been aware of his love for her. But until now, she had not felt the liberty needed to explore it, or to try to perceive her own. It was a love like nothing that she had ever witnessed before. Even between Jane and Bingley, a match she knew to be a happy one, Elizabeth had never seen such a depth of devotion.

He seemed to convey it almost without any effort, and in every single glance he bestowed upon her. At times, she risked being lost in his gaze, as his dark brown eyes fixed upon her own, calling her soul to answer his own. It was a rare occasion to find him not looking at her when they were in each other's company. The love was not demanding, nor desperate, nor an unhealthy obsession. Rather, it seemed to benefit the both of them, a daily proof she was given whenever she happened to overhear one servant remark to another how happier their master seemed to be since her arrival.

When she had become accustomed to its constancy, Elizabeth began the uncertain task of exploring herself, and seeing if she could return any of it. She found that if nothing else, she liked him. His company was always pleasant, his opinions always well-informed and well thought out. She admired the way he handled his estate, and his conduct with the servants.

She began now to comprehend that he was exactly the man, who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her. His understanding and temper, though unlike her own, would have answered all her wishes. She found herself blushing whenever she received his praise or whenever he uttered her name. He addressed her by it only when they were alone, and in a way that Elizabeth had never experienced before. The tone was always reverent, conveyed like a caress. As though it was an intimacy which he rarely trusted himself to use without losing control over his actions and emotions. There was not a time when she could fail to be moved by it.

Yet, while there were many positive signs of what she felt for him, there were also many negative ones. The shadow of her time with the Earl loomed over her, haunting her at the most inopportune moments, frequently making her doubt herself in everything. This past would serve to remind her what little experience she had had with love, and what horrors had awaited her when she had believed herself to be in that state before. Added to this, while she enjoyed his company, she did not find herself suffering from a loss when she was deprived of it.

True, she had worried about him when he was fighting the duel, but she was uncertain whether this was due more to her own concerns over what would happen if he lost rather than whatever feelings she might have for him. She could not escape the reminder of her husband everyday, the comparison her thoughts often drew between them. Whether to abandon the vows which she had already seemingly given up, on the uncertainty in her heart, the curious possibility of pleasure against her current distaste. These doubts plagued her mind, forcing her to question everything she had ever known, and all she came to learn, all the while keeping her from accepting that which those around her already knew.

"Let us hope, therefore, that her being there may teach her own insignificance. At any rate, she cannot grow many degrees worse, without authorising us to lock her up for the rest of her life."

It was not until she had spent a se'nnight in Brighton that she understood the truth behind her father's words. Before then her rapture on the occasion of her going, her adoration for Mrs Forster, were scarcely to be described. She had flown about Longbourn House in ecstasy, calling for everyone's congratulations, laughing and talking with more violence than ever. In her imagination, a visit to Brighton comprised every possibility of earthly happiness. She had seen with the creative eye of fancy, the streets of that gay bathing place covered with officers. She saw herself the object of attention, to tens and to scores of them at present unknown. She saw all the glories of the camp; its tents stretched forth in beauteous uniformity of lines, crowded with the young and the gay, and dazzling with scarlet; and to complete the view, she saw herself seated beneath a tent, tenderly flirting with at least six officers at once.

Before Brighton she had spent her days and evenings in the company of these gallant gentlemen, flirting and dancing and talking and playing games, running between Longbourn and Meryton to catch them unawares in their quarters or about the villages. She had become the invaluable friend of Mrs Forster, a very young woman and lately married, through the resemblance in good humour and spirits which recommended them to each other, and out of their three months acquaintance, they had been intimate two, and it was on the strength of this relationship that she was invited to accompany her and her husband to Brighton.

It was to be her first excursion away from Longbourn. Mr and Mrs Gardiner had yet to invite her or Kitty or Mary to London, preferring the steady comfort of Jane or Elizabeth before she was married. Upon the occasion of that union with one of the most illustrious personages in the land, Lydia had fully expected to be invited to London to stay at the Earl's house. But two years of her sister's marriage had gone by with no invitation forthcoming. When she did see Elizabeth again, it was but a brief encounter during the wedding breakfasts for Maria Lucas and Mr Collins, then Jane and Mr Bingley, who had likewise gone to London for a brief spell after their wedding, without inviting her or Mary or Kitty to accompany them.

This was why when she received her invitation to Brighton from Mrs Forster, her rapture had known no bounds. Only one element concerning the affair caused her disappointment; the repining of Kitty, whose terms were as unreasonable as her accent was peevish.

"I cannot see why Mrs Forster should not ask me as well as Lydia," said she, "though I am not her particular friend. I have just as much right to be asked as she has, and more too, for I am two years older."

In vain had Mrs Gardiner sought to make her reasonable and Jane to make her resigned. Her Aunt had even gone as far as to speak with their father upon the matter, advising him not to let Lydia go. She had represented to him all the improprieties of Lydia's general behaviour, the little advantage she could derive from the friendship of such a woman as Mrs Forster, and the probability of her being yet more imprudent with such a companion at Brighton, where the temptations must be greater than at home. He had heard her attentively, and then said, "Lydia will never be easy till she has exposed herself in some public place or other, and we can never expect her to do it with so little expense or inconvenience to her family as under the present circumstances."

Such words had been intended by Lydia's Aunt to be spoken to her father in secret, and had she not been passing by her father's book room that day, she would never had discovered the substance of Mrs Gardiner's conference with their father, and her indignation would hardly have found expression in her volubility. Incredulous at such a betrayal, she had lingered in the hall, listening further.

"If you were aware of the very great disadvantage to us all, which must arise from the public notice of Lydia's unguarded and imprudent manner; I am sure you would judge differently in the affair."

"Already arisen!" her father had repeated. "What has she frightened away some of the other girls' lovers? Do not be cast down. Such squeamish youths as cannot bear to be connected with a little absurdity, are not worth a regret.”

"Indeed you are mistaken," Mrs Gardiner remarked. "It is not of peculiar, but of general evils, which I am now complaining. Your family's importance, your family's respectability in the world, must be affected by the wild volatility, the assurance and disdain of all restraint which mark Lydia's character. Excuse me - for I must speak plainly. If you will not take the trouble of checking her exuberant spirits, and of teaching her that her present pursuits are not to be the business of her life, she will soon be beyond the reach of amendment. Her character will be fixed, and she will, at sixteen, be the most determined flirt that ever made herself and her family ridiculous. A flirt too, in the worst and meanest degree of flirtation; without any attraction beyond youth and a tolerable person; and from the ignorance and emptiness of her mind, wholly unable to ward off any portion of that universal contempt which her rage for admiration will excite. In this danger Kitty is also comprehended. She will follow wherever Lydia leads. Can you not suppose it possible that they will not be censured and despised wherever they are known and that their sisters will not be often involved in the disgrace?"

Her father had replied, "We shall have no peace at Longbourn if Lydia does not go to Brighton. Let her go then. Colonel Forster is a sensible man, and will keep her out of any real mischief; and she is luckily too poor to be an object of prey to anybody. At Brighton she will be of less importance even as a common flirt than she has been here. The officers will find women better worth their notice. Let us hope therefore, that her being there may teach her her own insignificance. At any rate, she cannot grow many degrees worse, without authorising us to lock her up for the rest of her life."

Lydia had not known whether to be relieved or offended by her father's words; his manner of trivialising her many sources of enjoyment were usually thus, but she had not expected them to be proven true within weeks of his speaking them. Arriving at Brighton she rested a little before being swept to a party by her friend Harriet, while the Colonel saw to the arrangements of billets for the men. His officers were obliged to assist him, leaving her forced to find new acquaintances, a task which was most taxing in a room where it seemed everyone knew everybody else but she.

With the arrival of every new day Lydia's disenchantment continued; as Wickham had forgotten her in favour of Miss King and her ten thousand pounds in Meryton, so too did Denny, Saunderson, Chamberlayne and Carter in favour of other ladies with similar fortunes. No one, not even the gentlemen present who were not in any way connected with the regiment paid her even a scrap of attention. What was worse, what was far worse, she had heard talk from those officers who had so tenderly flirted with her before, that they would do well to secure her as a brief source of intimacy before they left, for she possessed not the wit or the manners, or the sense or the beauty, or the wealth, for any other union.

Disgusted, she had gone to Harriet, who after condoling with her woes allowed her to understand that such remarks were nothing less than she could expect, for had she not came to Brighton with such an object of intention in mind? She was astonished and hurt that her dearest friend could suspect her motives to be thus, and declared as much. But Harriet felt no such compunction, as she proceeded to describe her own amusements before marriage to be the same, that she would tarry with the officers now if any offered themselves.

Shocked by her friend's confession, Lydia left the house, seeking the delights of the assembly rooms, where it was customary to promenade during the day, until the dancing was to be held in the night. Receiving little attention from any of her acquaintances there however, she moved on to the building which stood beside it. Though a tavern, it was a respectable place, full of friendly society, where she had always been assured of a warm welcome, ever since the day she and Harriet had ushered themselves inside on the pretext of seeking shelter from the rain, though in verity the weather delivered a suitable excuse to gaze at the handsomely attired officers within.

Here her imagination of being surrounding by a uniformity of beauteous redcoats, tenderly flirting with at least six officers at once, was briefly fulfilled, in between their attentions to drinks, provided by the serving ladies whose lively natures no longer appeared as scandalous as once they seemed. However, as she sipped her own liquid refreshment now, absently wishing for some fresh amusement to restore her previous good humour, she was entirely unaware that such a wish would very soon be granted.

"Why if it is not my dear sister in law!" a voice cried, drawing her attention from the lemonade in her hand, to the gentleman beside her, whom she soon recollected to be none other than her brother, the Earl of Saffron Walden.

Chapter Text

Chapter XXVI.

The Earl had not returned to Brighton with the intention of encountering his wife's youngest sister. His reasons for sojourn in that bathing place were altogether quite different. Wickham's attempt to sabotage the duel and subsequent death presented a problem for him, as that officer's absence had no doubt by now been noticed within the regiment. As he could not transport the body to them, thus being required for an explanation as to how their newly commissioned lieutenant had died, when, where and for what reason, his Lordship had to hope that the disappearance of the officer would be satisfied by another motive, and this he was soon pleased to discover was indeed the case.

Within moments of his arrival he delegated the task of finding such a suitable reason to his valet, whilst his own respite from the horrors of travelling were assuaged in the nearest tavern. Which was where his manservant found him several hours later, wisely choosing to wait until his master had sobered up before informing him of what he had found out. Apparently Wickham had left Meryton with a considerable amount of debts and in the few weeks he had spent at Brighton, was on to do much the same. Many of the officers had unwisely agreed to extend him a line of credit and were now poorer than they were six months ago before he joined the regiment.

Relieved that the officer's disappearance could easily be explained by the motive of desiring to escape the threats from his creditors, the Earl prepared to return to London, although his energy about such an endeavour was severely lacking. Little remained in that town to amuse him at present, his wife having absconded his home for Derbyshire. At least he presumed she had gone to that county, for he had been informed by her champions's solicitors that their master was bound for his country estate.

Abruptly his stomach clenched as he recalled the incidents which had led to such a departure. He had been surprised by the reemergence of her bold spirit, which had so attracted him in the first place, though truth be told his motives for marrying a lowly gentleman's daughter were nothing more than the surety that she and her family would be ignorant of his reputation, whereas any debutante of society would most assuredly not be.

That he blamed himself for her absconding was entirely untrue, for he had no way of knowing that his carnal proclivities were not in the common way. It had been his father who was responsible for his education in that particular mode of deportment, when he witnessed such a coupling between him and his mother during his youth. Such a similarity existed between his mother's emotions during the event and that of his wife's that he never considered altering his methods until his godmother advised him to look towards the begetting of his heirs.

Then Lady Catherine's nephew interfered, intent on carrying through with his own amusement in Elizabeth, who seemed more than willing to let him have his way rather than her husband. Her preferment was inconceivable and undesirable at such a time as when they should both be directing their efforts toward the procreation of children. Still, he would let her have this amusement, after all she allowed him to indulge in his. If he were patient, he was sure that she would soon tire of the affair and return to him.

However, his vices did not allow him keep his patience, and taxed such calming emotions sorely. Unsettling dreams came to him of calling for her in the amorous embrace of others, encountering her lover at an society event, only to be unceremoniously removed from the premises. Often he would wake in either his clubs or his residences or his carriages with little recollection as to how, why and when he came to be there, let alone how long he had spent in such a fashion. Such inconveniences troubled him little, as did the often disapproving countenances of his fellow club members and those belonging to his household staff.

Such practices were common in the aristocracy. One either led a life of seriousness and occupation, deeply committed to their estates and the comforts of their wives, siblings, children and tenants, attended their seats in the House of Lords, their place in the court of St James. Or they lived a life of idleness and dissipation, amusing themselves about towns or spas, clubs or houses of sensual pleasures, or in houses of willing wives. It was the way of things, tradition as much as custom, which the nation so religiously adhered to.

Amusements of his club often took his Lordship to towns and spas, allowed him free reign in other houses of fellow members or sensual pleasures. If one wished to remain a member, one must adhere to the practices so often indulged. Return he must and soon to that building which housed such an organisation, to appease those members who were unfortunate enough as to witness the entry of a battle hardened Colonel of the Life Guards, carrying the note of challenge from his gentleman farmer of a cousin. Oh the nerve of it! Only such a man would give himself license to call out one so far above him for the mere excuse of stealing away his wife. As if he could hope to retain such a creature; he had not the wealth or consequence to do such a thing, nor the amusement of disposition for that matter.

Yet something must have lured Elizabeth into Darcy's company, though what the Earl could not fathom. Perhaps the novelty of the contrast if nothing else. Such novelties would fade in time, as newness often did. He could journey to the north and await her return at Pearlcoombe, the most northerly of his estates and therefore the most neglected. But there were few amusements to be had there, and since she was indulging in hers it was only right that he be allowed to indulge himself in his, once he had ascertained that no one was urging for Wickham's return.

In the long carriage ride to Derbyshire, he had provided a willing ear to that wastrel's tale of misfortune suffered under Darcy's hands. Whether he believed him or not was immaterial, but what was plainly obvious was that he could not trust the reprobate to conduct himself honourably in the role of a second. To shoot one's opponent was simply not done, unless pistols were the weapon of choice and au premier sang denied. So he had armed himself and concealed the weapon from his challenger until Wickham proved himself entirely capable of seizing his moment for revenge. He had little to regret with regards to his actions afterwards. The duel was over, with the gentleman farmer the victor, his demands not altogether unreasonable. Wickham's actions were a disgrace from which it would be dishonourable to seize any opportunity.

And now he was here in Brighton attempting to determine if the man would be missed by anyone. Or rather his valet had done so for him. With that business so rapidly concluded he should take his leave from the spa town and depart, but the idea of enduring another long carriage ride just now was repugnant. So he beckoned the barkeep towards him and requested more liquid refreshment. As the attendant withdrew having fulfilled his task, the quietude of his respite was disturbed by a laugh which sounded vaguely familiar.

Turning, he caught sight of a young woman in a low cut gown of country muslin, which displayed far more of her voluptuous assets than was warranted. Her artless manner was that of a girl wildly curious, but ignorant of the things of which her pleasing figure so enticingly promised. Her head turned, revealing a countenance of heedless enjoyment, as well as a resemblance to someone he knew, or rather presumed he had for the past two years. Silently he wondered what she was doing in Brighton of all places, until a thought occurred to his barely inebriated mind that her presence was propitious.

"Why if it is not my dear sister in law!" he remarked in a lively tone, catching her attention. Not once had he ever used such an endearment for his wife's relations before, but neither his tone nor his expression would betray how little he believed in such compliments.

"Sir!" she cried, as he rapidly searched his memory for her name. "What do you do here? Where is Lizzy? Oh I would laugh to see her in such a place as this!"

He smiled and offered a light chuckle as she intended. "My wife is at our townhouse. She is feeling a little under the weather, missing her old home and her sisters, I think. I am greatly worried about her. I happened to come to Brighton on a matter of business, and I was quite relieved to find you here. Will you not return with me to London? I'm sure Elizabeth will be delighted to see her sister."

She uttered a loud shriek which almost deafened him and clapped her hands. "London, oh how wonderful, I have always wanted to go to London. Brighton has been nothing like Mrs Forster promised. Oh, there have been balls and parties every night, but all the officers are so dull. Lizzy and Jane always enjoyed their time in town. Oh how I shall laugh if I go to town before Kitty and Mary can."

"And so you shall, Miss Lydia.” The Earl was most pleased with himself for finally recollecting her name, even if it was by process of elimination, through her own conversation. "If you can meet me here in a few hours with your travelling gear, I shall be delighted to escort you."

It did not occur to him until some hours later that he would have to endure a carriage ride with the silly girl. For that is what she was, as he was able to conclude within a few minutes of her company, for he had not had much occasion to know her when he had been going about the business of courting her sister. As he sank into the comfortable damask interior of his coach after they changed horses at Clapham, he wondered once more how it was that the girl sitting opposite him came from the same family as his wife.

Beyond her youth and flirting manner, Miss Lydia had little but her charms to recommend her. To be frank her attributes would be happily savoured by those of his club, not as a wife or society debutante. She was a passing fancy, nothing more, lacking the poise and elegance which was so sought after by the matriarchs of society. Where his wife managed to acquire such skills which she showed to their advantage on the rare occasions he had allowed her into society, her sister's lacking in such manners was rendered a mystery.

As the journey to London continued, he contemplated availing himself of what little pleasures there were to be found in her flesh. He would have to gag her of course, for he did not think he could stand to hear her laughter while he feasted on her assets, for laughter would undoubtedly be her reaction, as it seemed to be for everything. Once he had tired of her, he could use her as he intended to, by sending a threat to the gentleman farmer to return his wife or else her sister would suffer. The girl had not the sense to realise that she would be ruined just by accompanying him without a chaperone, or without notice to Colonel Forster and his wife, so he might as well make her so.

He doubted not that the gentleman farmer would agree, Darcy having the guardianship of a sister whom the Earl believed was the same age or a little older as Lydia. Miss Darcy's debut was a widely discussed event in Society; the size of her dowry was hotly debated by the men who wished to try their hand for her, unperturbed by her protective older brother, her cousin of a Colonel and her Uncle the Earl. No, Darcy would let the Countess go, whereupon he would make a gift of Lydia as hostage to her sister's permanence in Hanover Square.

Though he doubted that the experiment of having both his wife and a mistress in the same house would last for a long time, and pass itself off favourably, the Earl had always so admired those in society who could practise such a lifestyle that he was tempted to try it out, for a few months at least. At least in such an endeavour he would, to paraphrase the girl sitting opposite him, been able to do what none of his peers had done, by bedding two siblings. He even wondered if he could attempt to do both at once.

After what seemed like an absurdly long carriage ride from Brighton, the equipage at last came to a halt outside the rather large, grand and imposing facade of the Saffron Walden's London residence. The sight of such a building evoked little sense from the visitor, who cast her huge brown eyes over the place with a laugh, commenting, "Oh, la, Lizzy must be a grand lady to live in a house like this! What shall Kitty and Mary say when I tell them! Oh, how I shall laugh."

Concealing a grimace, though he doubted the girl knew what displeasure was, the Earl bore her comments with more taste than she had affected them, taking her hand as he led her into the house. Introducing her to the butler who greeted them, a note of decorum which received another laugh from the girl, he brushed Robertson's comments aside before escorting Lydia upstairs to one of the guest rooms near his own chambers.

"I'm sure you would like to freshen up before you see your sister," the Earl remarked to her, to which Lydia responded with a laugh before waltzing into her room, gasping and laughing at the richness of the decor and the proportions, the like of which she had never seen before.

Only when the sound of her raptures failed to end did the Earl take up the key and secure the door to bar her exit, before heading downstairs for his study, where the rest of his business regarding the girl would be set down.

The note arrived at Pemberley one morning in time to be handed to the master while he breakfasted. Georgiana and Elizabeth were seated either side of him at one end of the lengthy dining table. Due to their proximity there was little escaping his reaction from being observed by either of them.

In it of itself there was little to rouse concern from such a short slip of paper. One line of ink comprised the nature of the business, announcing the presence of her youngest sister in the house on Hanover Square, and the threat of her ruin if the Countess did not consent to quitting her current place of refuge in favour of her husband's house. The Earl had also made his intention of keeping her youngest sister as a hostage to her permanence by her husband's side, known and stated.

"What is it?" Elizabeth asked as her fine eyed gaze fixed itself on the reverse of the note in order that she might distinguish the handwriting. Given the solemn and grave countenance of her host, she could not help but feel a certain sense of impending doom to be originating from such an insignificant looking slip of paper.

Darcy met her gaze with his own, and after a short pause, reluctantly turned the note over to her care. A few minutes was all that it took to avail herself of its contents, and her reaction was nothing short of a horrified cry.

By now Georgiana had witnessed more than enough to have some concerns of her own, and nothing less than an examination of the note was sufficient to assuage them.

Retrieving the note from her, Darcy beckoned to one of the footmen and quietly asked him to apprise his valet, housekeeper and stable hands of their master's imminent departure. Finishing what little remained of his breakfast, he tucked the note in his jacket pocket and rose from the table.

"If you will excuse me, ladies, I have a few matters to see to before I depart to take care of this business. I shall be sure to let you know at such a point."

Affecting a slight bow to them both, he left the vicinity of the dining table before exiting the room, leaving Georgiana and Elizabeth to gaze after him, a profusion of horror and astonishment eclipsing their features.

Only a little reassured that his departure was not imminent, it nonetheless took some time for Elizabeth to compose herself into forming a desperate resolution of her own.

As much as she had often attempted to remonstrate with her sisters and her father about her youngest sibling's behaviour, and however much consternation and grief Lydia often caused her family, Elizabeth bestowed upon her each of her sisters the same degree of affection, though perhaps it might be said that she reserved a greater part of her sibling devotion for Jane. However much she might be irritated by this fresh entanglement which Lydia had no doubt entered into willingly, with no idea at all of the consequences of her little adventure both to herself and her family no amount of selfishness or horror at the prospect of returning to her husband would allow her to sacrifice Lydia to his proclivities.

With a parting look of assurance to Georgiana, an expression in which privately Elizabeth held not a particle of hope and from which Miss Darcy derived not even a smidgeon of comfort for herself, the Countess rose from her chair and parted from the girl to seek out her brother.

She found him in his study, entering the room in time to catch sight of him calmly and confidently cleaning a rather fearsome but extremely well made duelling pistol. The weapon was one half of a pair, the other of which still lay within its casing upon the desk, waiting to be submitted to the same procedure as its relation, a technique which its owner was performing with a confidence and an ability that would rival any military man.

Darcy looked up at her entrance, but made no move to conceal the weapon, even as he noted her inability to restrain her fine eyes from focusing on it. "Clearly I shall have to employ harsher methods to make your husband reasonable this time."

Elizabeth found herself advancing to the edge of the desk and laying a slender fingered hand upon his own atop the pistol. "Fitzwilliam, you take too much upon yourself. This is my own doing, and I should be the one to resolve the matter."

He met her gaze with one which was just as resolved as hers. "I am not letting you go back to that man, Elizabeth. Upon no account will you be able to persuade me otherwise. Besides, it solves nothing. Whether you are by my side or his, your sister shall still be his hostage and the damage to her reputation will be complete. I will not allow him to attempt to regain a hold over you and your family which I managed to successfully rid him of but a month ago."

Gently he prised the pistol from their joined grips, returning the weapon to its mate in the casing below with one hand, while with the other maintaining his grip upon her slender fingers. "You have my word that I will not risk any danger to myself or to any of your family. Which I would to heaven I had the privilege to call them my own."

It was as direct a reference to the depth of his affections regarding her that he had ever made and she could not help but feel the full force of it, just as much as she was aware of the warmth which emanated from the touch of his hand upon her own. "Thank you, sir, for that generous compassion which induces you to take so much trouble and bear so many mortifications, for the sake of my family."

"If you will thank me," he replied, "let it be for yourself alone. That the wish of giving happiness to you, might add force to the other inducements which will lead me on, I shall not attempt to deny. But your family owe me nothing. Much as I respect them, I believe I will think only of you."

Elizabeth was too much embarrassed to say a word. After a short pause, Darcy reluctantly relinquished her hand to resume his previous occupation. His emotions required some disciplining, it was some time before nothing was heard in the room save the quiet clicks of metal upon wood as he cleaned and checked his duelling pistols. The weapons had been a gift from his cousin Richard a year or so ago, a souvenir from the battlefield which secured his latest promotion. Despite the term used for them, their immaculate condition was not due to frequent use and upkeep, but the occasional target practice and as a means of protection during long carriage journeys, as well as the fastidiousness of their owner.

Only now were they to be used for such a purpose, with the man who bestowed them upon him in the first place as support. Darcy intended contacting his cousin as soon as he arrived in London, after establishing a watch upon Hanover Square, as well as one inside the household of the Earl. For him the mode of au premier sang would not satisfy this time, as clearly the Earl would not let something like a simple sword wound affect him. He only hoped that he would not be too late to prevent the scoundrel from taking his sister-in-law's virtue.

While his plans for his forthcoming departure were fully evolved, his current concerns lay with what Elizabeth might do in his absence. Already since learning of the threat she had formed a desperate resolution to abandon her own liberty and security for the household of her husband and all the abuses which that entailed. He was loathe to contemplate what else she might decide to attempt whilst he was gone from Derbyshire. Silently he resolved to have a discreet word with Mrs Reynolds before he left, making sure that the housekeeper kept Elizabeth too busy to form any more desperate resolutions.

Thoughts of Lydia - the humiliation, the misery, she was bringing on them all, soon swallowed up every private care; and covering her face with her handkerchief, Elizabeth was soon lost to everything else; and, after a pause of several minutes, was only recalled to a sense of her situation by the realisation that he seemed unaware of her distress, even her lingering presence. Drawing breath, she rallied herself to speak in a manner, which though it spoke compassion, spoke likewise restraint.

"I am afraid you have been long desiring my absence."

She turned away and went to the door, only for him to call her name, making her glance back. He was standing before her, and in her grief, she had no notion as to how her came to be there so quickly. In one swift motion he gathered her into his arms, laying a kiss upon her lips which was like no other. Until this moment he had been chaste and considerate of her emotions. Now however he seemed to have observed something in her which made him determined to respond with the same level of intensity.

If it had been her husband, or indeed any other man, such a force of passion would have frightened her. But in Darcy's arms, with his fingers pressed against the back of her dress, absently caressing the last of the fastenings, while his mouth seemed to drink her in as though she were a fine beverage to be savoured, Elizabeth felt a yearning of her own, which could only respond to his in the same strength. Her reply brought as much delight as could be supposed from a man violently in love, driving him to increase the display of his ardent expression.

When they at last drew a little apart from each other, his hand came up to cup her face, his thumb caressing the smooth skin of her jaw line as he murmured, "Dearest, loveliest Elizabeth. I have never desired your absence. Quite the contrary, I assure you, in that I yearn for your company. If neither of us had not a pressing concern with which to deal, I would take very great pleasure in showing you how much. Unfortunately however, such displays will have to wait until I return from London, when I hope to lead you to the altar before long."

Never had there been a more clear indication of his intentions, wishes and desires regarding her. His words had alluded to not just a proposal, but to the darker nature of what his actions were to be while in London, concerning the Earl. As much as Elizabeth disliked the notion that he was willing to commit murder for her, she could not see another way of subduing her husband for good. Yet all of this was a momentary concern as she stared into his intense gaze, attempting to fathom how she might best convey what lay in her heart.

At last she settled for simply this. "Fitzwilliam, I love you. Please come home safe."

"I will," he replied, before kissing her again.

Chapter Text

Chapter XXVII.

Darcy's farewell to his sister and Elizabeth was as tenderhearted as could be supposed from a man ardently fond of the one and violently in love with the other. Riders were sent on ahead to the various switching houses which he would arrive at along the way, so the freshest horses might be ready and waiting for him. Upon arriving at his town house, he dispatched orders to various trustworthy members of his household to set a watch on the Earl's residence in Hanover Square, and to infiltrate the household, so he might learn where Miss Lydia Bennet was held and from that information, determine the best means of rescuing her.

After that, it was simply a matter of overseeing the motions and biding his time, occupations which Darcy found distasteful in his impatient mood to have the matter settled in order to restore Elizabeth's peace of mind. He spent the rest of his first day in London idling his time between his study and his library, wishing in both rooms that he was not deprived of her company, and failing to distract himself with matters which could be found in the volumes of literature or the piles of letters upon his bureau.

He delayed calling upon his cousin at barracks, for though his intentions were arranged, his plans were not. Richard would agree to be his second once more, but Darcy was unsure if, should he challenge the Earl again, Saffron Walden would accept. He did not know what the man was about, in agreeing to give his wife into Darcy's care after the duel, only upon returning to Brighton to abduct her youngest sister in order to induce her to return to his side. Its only logic was perhaps that of a drunkard's, impetuously conceived, unwisely followed and desperately adhered to.

At times, when his thoughts were too distracted to think of anything or anyone but Elizabeth, he recalled the moment between them in his study, the passionate encounter that he had bestowed on her before their more chaste parting in the company of his sister. Her words of affection still had the ability to astonish him; he could barely believe his good fortune in earning her love. She had asked him to come home safe, and he would, even when, if, the Earl followed him in a few days for their second and final duel. Only after that would he ask her for the honour of her hand, but not before giving her the liberty which her previous husband denied her. She had seen so little of the world which she had married into, it would be selfish and unfeeling of him to deny her that privilege.

As regards to the outcome of the affair before it, he was being presumptuous in presuming his survival, for though the first had resulted in such, there was no reason to suppose that the second might. Despite all his failings, the Earl was a good swordsman, skilled in his art, a formidable opponent, though no longer unknown and unpredictable. Their second meeting was likely to last far less longer than his first, and the measure of his and his opponent's worth would be judged by the only authority which neither of them could defy.

So, while he waited for the night to darken London's most salubrious streets, he might as well put his time to good use by practising his pistol aim at the club.

Despite what her Aunt and her father, come to think of it, most of her family thought, Lydia believed that she was not unintelligent. Lacking in accomplishments perhaps, but not unintelligent. She could dress bonnets and gowns, dance, flirt and read. She could not play the pianoforte, nor could she sing, or draw, or speak a number of languages. She was sure that if she possessed the time and inclination to do so, she could acquire all these skills and more which were what others considered to form the idea of an accomplished woman. However, none of these things would help her now, except perhaps as a mode of passing the time.

Although she might not be clever, she had known from the moment the Earl had led her to her room that she was not going to see her sister. She heard the turning of the key in the lock all too clearly. As the days passed in solitary confinement with little interruption save for the delivery of meals it dawned upon her that Elizabeth's husband was not entirely trustworthy, that he had probably lied about her sister even being in the house. So instead of flouncing upon the bed or throwing herself against the door, or crying aloud her objections to this unlooked for imprisonment in the hope that a servant might come to her aid, she went to the window to assess the prospect.

Glancing beyond the pane of glass, she quickly determined that the room looked on to the square below, to which the royal house of Hanover had attached its name. Realising that the sight of her climbing down the house from this casement might attract some unwarranted attention, during the daylight hours at least, Lydia turned to the next avenue of escape, the servants' door. This took some time to discover, for the design of the furnishings rendered it indistinguishable from the decor. However after running her hands carefully along the walls for some time, she discovered the narrow band of air which signified the outline of the door.

Hopeful, she pressed her fingers against the entire length of the seam, as well as the wooden sculpting which ran across, trying to find a catch which would grant her access. After a short search however, she soon concluded this to be another vain exercise, for it soon became apparent that the door was only able to be opened from the servant's side, not the room's. This called for her to search for the bell pull, which took much longer, as there were many furnishings about the chamber which could answer for just such a purpose.

Eventually her industriousness was rewarded, she pulled at the rope and heard the faint sound of a bell tolling in reply. Anxiously she waited for a servant to appear, hoping that her patience would be rewarded, that the Earl would not have had time to warn the staff and bar them from her room.

Sure enough, a startled maid soon entered, coming to a halt at the sight of Lydia, with some noticeable hesitation in her manners before she curtseyed.

"I would like to see my sister, the Countess," Lydia stated bluntly.

Again the maid appeared startled by such an inquiry and it took some time before she answered with, "The Countess is not at home, Miss."

Lydia had suspected as much, but she was astonished to hear it all the same. "Where is she?"

Another hesitation on the maid's part. "I'm afraid I don't know, Miss."

That reply drew a shocked exclamation from Lydia, who had assumed Lizzy was merely out enjoying the shops or the parks, or indeed any other amusement which London provided. "How long has she been gone?"

"Three months, Miss," the maid answered, embarrassed.

It is reasonable to assume that such an answer drew another shocked exclaimation from Lydia, who was astounded to learn that her sister had left her husband. While her creative eye began to wildly speculate as to a possible motive, she continued her questioning of the domestic in another line of inquiry. "I would like to leave and visit my Aunt and Uncle, but I have no desire to trouble the Earl for summoning a carriage for what will be a short visit. Could you direct me through the servants passages to the streets?"

At this the maid began to appear somewhat fearful. "I'm afraid I can't, Miss."

"Why not?" Lydia asked.

"Because his Lordship would have m'position taken from me, Miss. He gave orders not to let you out of this room."

Lydia sighed in frustration at her brother in law's rapid arrangements. "What about if I were to slip by you as you opened the door? You could claim ignorance of my actions."

"I think that would warrant the same ends, Miss."

This reply produced another exclamation from the inquirer, but this time it let slip something of the frustrated emotions which she was currently experiencing. "Thank you," she said to the maid, "you may go. Be assured I will not attempt such a scheme that would risk your job."

Much relieved, the maid left, leaving Lydia to surrender to her youthful petulance and flounce herself upon the bed, in an effort to compose her mind out of its frustration into the contemplation of a fresh avenue which would enable her to escape the house. For if her sister was truly gone from the place, then she had no business lingering in Hanover Square either.

Miss Lydia was fortunate that the Earl sought to relieve his suffering from the perils of travelling from London to Brighton with such a lady as her by the application of drinks and much quieter inducements at his club. Unbeknownst to her much fortification would be required before he could contemplate carrying through with his initial desires concerning her physical attractions.

The return to his house in Hanover Square was conducted in the same manner which a certain gentleman had once bestowed upon him so many months ago, not that he recollected much of the occasion, for he had been too inebriated at the time to recall the event with any measure of success. Which in the event was just as well, for the gentleman who had seen him home before, was solicitous enough to perform the same office on this occasion.

No one was there to greet them except the master's long suffering valet, whose concern had caused him to stay up whilst the rest of the household went to bed. Too anxious in seeing the Earl to his chambers, the valet did not notice that the escort had slipped away to the entrance to the service quarters below, having been guided to such rooms by the domestic which he had sent to infiltrate the household upon his arrival in London.

Darcy's faithful servant led him up and down a variety of passages, until they reached the door which would give them access to the room where the Countess' sister was being held. Not wishing to give alarm to the household by causing the captive a substantial degree of surprise, they discovered and persuaded the maid who had been called to attend on Miss Lydia before, and with the promise of a place in his own household, on considerably more generous terms than the wages for her current position, to enter the room first and wake the girl, before leading her out.

The domestic obliged and opened the door to reveal a darkened room, illuminated slightly by the rays of light which were streaming through the window from the street lamps below, casting a somewhat eerie glow on the unmade bed. Upon closer inspection, Darcy and his companions observed that the bed was lacking a considerable number of furnishings, namely blankets and sheets, which were tied together round one of the bed posts, in the manner of a makeshift rope, which was hanging out of an open window. Clinging tightly to this rope, was a young girl, whom he could only presume was Elizabeth's sister.

"Miss Bennet," the maid uttered quietly, confirming such a deduction before rushing to the window and pulling her back inside the room.

"I won't come back in," Lydia cried in a low voice which was sufficient to carry only across the room, not to raise the alarm of the entire household and bring attention to her escape. She stubbornly gripped the coiled blankets. "I shall laugh and break my head, as I said to Kitty upon my departure, but I won't wait here for him to ruin me."

"You will not need to, Miss Bennet," Darcy remarked quietly, as he took a step towards her. "Do you recollect who I am? I stood up with Charles Bingley, at your sister Jane's wedding."

Lydia gasped. "You're that dull fellow, Mr Darcy. What a joke! What are you doing here?"

"Your sister Elizabeth sent me to retrieve you," Darcy replied, ignoring the unflattering description of himself for the present.

The Countess youngest sibling scowled distrustfully. "That's what her husband said."

Darcy suspected as much. In reply he retrieved a piece of paper from his pocket and handed it to her. "Here is a note from her, assuring you of your sister's trust in me." Elizabeth had penned such an epistle during their time together in his study, before his departure.

Lydia took a moment to read the note, then scrambled back inside. At a nod from Darcy, the maid and his man assisted her in pulling up the makeshift rope. When that was done, she came to stand beside him as the domestics went to put the bed back to rights. "Where are you taking me, then?"

"To your Aunt and Uncle's in Gracechurch Street," Darcy replied.

When the Earl woke from his alcohol induced slumber the next morning, the thought occurred that he ought to check on the girl whom he had persuaded to come with him from Brighton. His appetite for some less than complying pleasures was alive and active, and since his wife was not to be found about his house to supply as a source of fulfilment in such endeavours, her sister would have to be relied upon to perform such a task.

Rousing himself from his bed and then his rooms, he walked down the hall to her room, whereupon he retrieved the key for the door and placed it within the lock. With a quiet click the door opened to reveal an empty room, devoid of any form except that of furnishings. The windows were closed, their drapes drawn back to allow the sunlight to stream through the panes of glass upon the opulent decor. The servant's door was likewise fastened also.

Enraged, the Earl darted forward and began a rough search of the room, convinced that the girl was merely hiding in one of the large and copious wardrobes which were of a sufficient size to contain the young woman. However only a few minutes of ceaseless openings caused him to realise such a move was in vain. Wherever she was, Miss Lydia was clearly not in this room, and possibly not even in his house.

His energy suddenly spent, he sank down on the bed, glancing down at the adornments absently, as he contemplated the failure of his wild scheme. It was then that he noticed a piece of folded paper, fastened by a familiar seal, which he reached out to pick up and study.

The note contained one line of ink, which was more than enough to warrant all the explanation which his barely sobered mind might have required. Angrily he crumpled it in his fist, before rising from the bed. He would need copious amounts of wine to persuade him to travel beyond London again.

As well he would require an obliging second, one who would not attempt to sabotage the engagement by seeking revenge upon his opponent.

Chapter Text

Chapter XXVIII.

The news of Lydia's disappearance from Brighton with an unknown man had occasioned a journey to London by Mr Bennet and Mr Bingley to attempt to discover her. In their absence, Jane had come to stay at Longbourn to give comfort to her distraught mother. During a brief absence from Mrs Bennet's side, Jane learned that an express had come for her father from Mr Gardiner. Mr Bennet's stay in London proved to be short, as he soon tired from the effort of searching for Lydia.

Seeking her father out, Jane asked him breathlessly, "Oh, Papa, what news? What news? have you heard from my uncle?"

"Yes, I have had a letter from him express," Mr Bennet replied.

"Well, and what news does it bring? Good or bad?" Jane asked.

"What is there of good to be expected?" said he, taking the letter from his pocket; "but perhaps you would like to read it. Read aloud, Jane, for I hardly know myself what it is about."

Gracechurch Street, Monday, August 2nd

My Dear Brother,

At last I am able to send you some tidings of my niece, and such as, upon the whole, I hope you will give you satisfaction. The particulars I will reserve 'till we meet. Soon after you left me on Saturday, I was fortunate enough to receive another visitor to my door, in the form of Mr Darcy-'

"Mr Darcy," Jane cried. "What can Charles' best friend have to do with the matter?" She had little correspondence from her sister, nothing since her marriage, therefore knew nothing of what had occurred between Mr Darcy and Elizabeth.

"Read on, Jane," Mr Bennet merely instructed his daughter.

"Apparently he had been escorting a gentleman to his home in __________ Square, when he caught sight of a young woman attempting to climb down from the window of a neighbouring house. After helping her down, with the assistance of his coachmen, he attempted to ascertain her identity. Upon learning of her connection to ourselves, he offered to escort her to our house, an offer which, was gratefully accepted.

After seeing your daughter was safely in the care of my wife, I took the liberty of receiving the gentleman into our confidence. He assured me of his discretion regarding the affair, and further offered his assistance in seeing that matter remained largely unnoticed so as not to ruin your daughter's reputation.

This graciously rendered offer was not within my power to refuse, his motive is pure disinterestedness, it seems, although he made some allusion to his friendship to Mr Bingley, I was forced to accept that there appeared to be no other motive in the affair. As for our niece, she is well, and very desirous of seeing you all, and begs to be dutifully remembered to you and her mother.

Yours &c

E. Gardiner.

"Is it possible?" Jane murmured, surprised by the account of an affair which brought relief after many days of suffering endured by herself and her family. "My dear father, I congratulate you. Have you answered the letter?"

"No; but it must be done soon."

Most earnestly did she then entreat him to lose no more time before he wrote.

"Oh my dear father," she cried, "come back, write immediately, Consider the politeness of an early reply. Let me write for you, if you dislike the trouble yourself."

"I dislike it very much," he replied; "but it must be done."

And so saying, he turned back with her, and walked towards the house.

"What do you believe happened, sir?" Jane asked him.

"I am uncertain," Mr Bennet replied, "and it at this point it would be a useless endeavour to speculate. However, I will not trust her so near Brighton again for fifty pounds! No, I have at last learnt to be cautious, and the rest of my girls shall soon feel the effects of it. Balls will be absolutely prohibited, unless they stand up with either you or Lizzy, and they are never to stir out of doors, till they can prove, that they have spent ten minutes of every day in a rational manner."

Her father left her then for the library to write, and Jane went to the shrubbery behind the house, her thoughts in a state of confusion as to what had just occurred.

She recalled the first night she had learned of her sister's disappearance, when a servant from Longbourn had come to Netherfield shortly after twelve, just as she and Charles had gone to bed, to take them both to her father's house, where they learned of the arrival of an express from Colonel Forster. His note informed them that Lydia was gone off to London to see her sister Elizabeth.

However, no invitation had come to him or his wife, or to Lydia to request her sister's presence in London, and the report from one of his men of the girl travelling in an expensive looking carriage, which led to the Colonel taking alarm, and setting off from Brighton to trace her route. He could trace her easily to Clapham, but no farther; for on entering that place he learned that was the last place after Epsom where the chaise changed horses.

After making every possible enquiry on that side of London, Colonel Forster had come into Hertfordshire, renewing them at all the turnpikes, and at the inns in Barnet and Hatfield, but without any success. With the kindest concern he had come on to Longbourn, and broke his apprehensions to her and her family in a manner most creditable to his heart.

In all haste Jane had sent off an express to Elizabeth, and upon receiving no reply, her concerns increased, particularly in when checking through her last piece of correspondence from her sister, she discovered that nothing had been heard from Elizabeth since she went to visit Mrs Collins and her husband's godmother, Lady Catherine de Bourgh of Rosings Park.

Attempting to reassure herself that she had merely wrote the direction very ill, Jane sent off another flotilla of letters to every house which belonged to her brother in law's estate, all the while her concern about her siblings mounting. Her mother became really ill and kept to her room, while she had never seen her father so affected. He could not speak a word for full ten minutes. He and the Colonel set off for London instantly to try and discover her, as did her dear husband, for the Colonel was obliged to be at Brighton again by the evening of the next day.

Upon arriving in London, Mr Bennet had written to her a few lines, as had her husband to say that they had arrived in safety. He merely added that he would not write again, till he had something of importance to mention. He meant to go to Epsom and from thence to Clapham, the place where the coach last changed horses, see the postilions, and try if anything could be made out from them. His principal object was to discover the owner of the private coach which took her from Brighton. He was in such a hurry to be gone, and his spirits so greatly discomposed, that she had difficulty in finding out even so much as this.

Anxiously Jane waited for word from her sister, her husband, her father or her uncle, whilst attending to her mother, whose hysterics warred from being indignant that Lydia had been invited to Elizabeth's house before she, to despairing over her daughter going missing in a foolish attempt to avail herself of the amusements of London, and complaining over the care of the Forsters, whom she was sure had not properly cared for her girl, who was not the type of person to do such a thing, had she been properly looked after.

Charles soon wrote to her that Mr Gardiner had persuaded them both to come to Gracechurch Street, that he and her father had been to Epsom and Clapham, but without gaining any satisfactory information; and that they were now determined to enquire at all the principal hotels in town, as her father thought it possible her sister might have gone to one of them, on her first coming to London, after discovering the Earl's house in Hanover Square to be shut up. Although her husband and her uncle did not expect any success from this measure, her father was eager in it, so they meant to assist him in pursuing it.

Every day at Longbourn and Netherfield was now a day of anxiety; but the most anxious part of each was when the post was expected. The arrival of letters was the first grand object of every morning's impatience. Through letters, whatever of good or bad was to be told, would be communicated, and every succeeding day was expected to bring some news of importance.

Her uncle soon wrote to inform them of their father's return home on the following day, which was Saturday. Rendered spiritless by the ill-success of all their endeavours, he had yielded to his brother-in-law's entreaty that he would return to his family, and leave it to him and her husband to do, whatever occasion might suggest to be advisable for continuing their pursuit. When her mother was told of this, she did not express so much satisfaction as her children expected, considering what her anxiety for his life had been before.

"What, is he coming home, and without poor Lydia!" she cried. "Surely he will not leave London before he has found her. Who is to fight who ever it is that has her if he comes away?"

When her father arrived, he had all the appearance of his usual philosophic composure. He said as little as he had ever been in the habit of saying; made no mention of the business that had taken him away, and it was some time before his daughters had the courage to speak of it.

It was not until the afternoon, when he joined them at tea, that Jane ventured to introduce the subject; and then, on her briefly expressing her sorrow for what he must have endured, he replied, "Say nothing of that. Who should suffer but myself? It has been my own doing, and I ought to feel it."

"You must not be too severe upon yourself," Jane replied.

"You may well warn me against such an evil. Human nature is so prone to fall into it! No, Jane, let me once in my life feel how much I have been to blame. I am not afraid of being overpowered by the impression. It will pass away soon enough."

"Do you suppose her to be in London?"

"Yes; where else can she be so well concealed?"

"And Lydia used to want to go London," added Kitty.

"She is happy then," said her father drily; "and her residence there will probably be of some duration."

They were interrupted then, by Mrs Hill, who came to fetch Mrs Bennet's tea.

"This is a parade," cried her husband, "which does one good; it gives such an elegance to misfortune! Another day I will do the same; I will sit in my library, in my nightcap and powdering gown, and giver as much trouble as I can - or, perhaps, I may defer it, till Kitty runs away."

Upon which prediction her sister had assured their father rather fretfully that if she went to Brighton, she would behave better than Lydia, causing Mr Bennet to embark on a crusade of words similar to the embargo he had expressed to Jane after reading the letter from Mr Gardiner just now. Kitty had taken the threats in a serious light and began to cry, whereupon her father had promised that if she were a good girl for the next ten years, he would take her to a review at the end of them.

And now Lydia had been found, and by Mr Darcy of all people. Jane could only presume that her husband had confided in him upon discovering his friend to be in London. She had nothing but the firmest belief that Mr Darcy was someone whom her family could trust to keep this matter to himself, he had his own sister to protect who was the same age or a little older than Lydia, after all. But Jane could not help but wonder at the providential nature existing in how quietly the affair had been resolved, without a loss to their family's reputation, for not even her Aunt Philips or Lady Lucas had been invited to Longbourn during their suffering, thus avoiding the risk of all of Meryton learning of the matter.

Her presumption was put aside however when she was able to welcome her husband and her sister home, Charles having offered to provide Lydia with appropriate escort from Gracechurch Street to Longbourn. Jane dreaded her sister's arrival, giving Lydia the feelings which would have attended herself, had she been the culprit, and was wretched in the thought of what her sister must endure.

They came. The family was assembled in the breakfast room, to receive them. Smiles decked the face of Mrs Bennet as the carriage drove up to the door; her husband looked impenetrably grave; her daughters alarmed, anxious, uneasy.

Lydia's voice was heard in the vestibule; the door was thrown open, and she ran into the room. Her mother stepped forward, embraced her, and welcomed her with rapture; gave her hand with an affectionate smile to Mr Bingley, who followed her daughter, a gesture which he managed to return before greeting his wife.

Their reception from Mr Bennet, to whom they then turned, was not quite so cordial. His countenance rather gained in austerity; and he scarcely opened his lips. The easy assurance of his daughter, indeed, was enough to provoke him. Even Jane was shocked. Lydia was Lydia still; untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy, and fearless. She turned from sister to sister, demanding their admiration over adventure, and when at length they all sat down, looked eagerly around the room, took notice of some little alteration in it, and observed, with a laugh, that it was a great while since she had been there.

Observing his wife's distress and frequent blushes regarding her youngest sister's manners, Bingley elected to announce their departure for Netherfield, a statement which caused Mrs Bennet a little regret, which was assuaged by the rapidly consuming sole attention on her youngest daughter, who was happily expounding upon her adventures in Brighton and London, without the least regard for the disgust at her entirely unaltered manner, that was inwardly felt by all her sisters.

Their carriage was still outside, enabling a rapid conclusion to their short journey over the five miles which separated the two estates. Once they were established in the peaceful surroundings of Netherfield's drawing room, Jane inquired as to how her husband's best friend came to learn of Lydia's misadventure.

At which enquiry Mr Bingley frowned, confessing himself at a loss as to how his friend knew, for it appeared that he had been only in London for but a few hours before showing up at the Gardiner's house in Gracechurch Street, with the errant but entirely unrepentant Lydia in tow. When he attempted to secure a moment alone with his friend in order to ask him such a question, Darcy proved extremely reluctant to elaborate beyond his previously expressed motives to Mr Gardiner. Nor did he stay in town long enough for Bingley to attempt further enquiries, claiming that pressing business required him to return to his estate in Derbyshire immediately.

"I can only conclude that he merely wishes to spare us the full distressing details of the affair," Bingley remarked. "In which case it might be best to not inquire for anything further from him."

Jane nodded, before adding, "Oh, Charles it is not just that which distresses me. I have, as you know, written to all of the houses owned by Lizzy's husband in an attempt to discover where she might be, but as yet I receive no reply, and more than enough time has passed for me to receive one from even the remotest estate, Pearlcoombe Abbey."

Her husband's countenance formed another frown as she said this, and he spent some time searching his memory before replying. "Pearlcoombe Abbey, did you say? Is that in Derbyshire?"

"I believe so," Jane answered, "why?"

"Because I think I recall Darcy mentioning the place on one occasion, probably in answer to some enquiry from Caroline about the society which surrounds Pemberley," Bingley replied. "I do believe it is no more than thirty miles from Darcy's estate. Perhaps that is how he learned of your sister, although I do not see how such an event came to pass, though he has been at Pemberley since his cousin's wedding, I believe."

After further thought upon the matter, Bingley added, "Darcy did request that I write to him after I returned here, most particularly. Perhaps, if you will allow me, my love, I shall inform him of your concern regarding Elizabeth. He may be able to confirm if she is or is not at Pearlcoombe. We could then travel to the rest of them, if you wish?"

Jane readily agreed to such a plan, and her husband sat down at the nearby writing table, to set out a remarkably clear letter to his friend at once.

Chapter Text

Author's Note: I must warn you of the violence in this chapter, as death comes on wheels to a certain character. Despite the implication, no horses were harmed in the making of this scene. Enjoy.

Chapter XXIX.

"Its an absolutely stupid idea, Cavendish! Particularly in your condition!"

Lord Saffron Walden gave his fellow member of the Four Horse Club a glance full of disapproval. Despite the fact that he had swallowed copious amounts of wine, port, brandy, and whiskey, he still felt and believed himself to be in full possession of his sensibilities.

Now he stood up from his chair, looked down his fine, patrician nose at his colleague, and snorted derisively. "Such concern for my safety, Winslow! Afraid I might win?"

Whether or not Lord Winslow privately agreed with this opinion of Lord Saffron Walden's, did not matter. However, that he was to accept this slur at his skill as a carriage driver did. He too rose up from his chair, a little unsteady, it must be said, drained the last contents of his glass, and tossed it, with good aim, into the fire. "I can race you any day, Cavendish! Sober or drunk! And still beat you by a yard too, I'll wager!"

Thus challenged, Lord Lucius was not about to forsake his pride now. He too drained his drink and tossed the glass into the fire. "You're on!" he cried aloud, disturbing the other occupants of the room from their alcohol induced slumbers.

"Any one else care to join us?" he asked, giving each remaining member who was currently residing in the London residence of the club a mocking glance.

Within ten minutes all ten of them were outside the building and standing in the crisp, early morning London air, clothed in their outdoor coats, the long riding apparel of carriage drivers, and shouting for their horses and equipage. Lucius, the most richly and impressively attired of them all by far, was the first to have his wants attended to.

His yellow and black carriage, with the coat of arms of his family engraved in gold, along with four black horses, was shepherded out of the stables, its attendants quietly holding the reins, waiting for their master to take sole command.

A single, graceful- despite his quietly contained drunkenness -leap, and Lucius was aboard the step, and the reins were in his hand. He waited for the other gentlemen- in various stages of drunkenness -to also mount, then flicked his whip. Like a sudden clap it sounded in the silent cold morning air, the equivalent almost of a starting pistol; and they were off.

Through the gates to the London roads, the file of carriages rode at a sedate pace, keeping a respectable line until they had reached the boundary of the town. Now comfortably on country roads, the riders set their own pace. Lucius, being by luck of the exit from the club, in the lead, galloped ahead with his set, keeping a constant whip on their pace, and a hand on the reins.

Any evidence that a scarce hour ago he had been drinking the rest of his gentlemen colleagues under the table, was entirely gone. In its place was the exhilaration that came with the thrill of participating in such a risk-taking, high powered sport. The horses in front of him were the best trained out of all the club's steeds, having come from his own pedigree bred stables.

He gave the back of his coach a cursory glance, turning round a second later with a smile of satisfaction. No one had emerged yet from the last turn of road. He was ahead of all, including that detestable little fellow Winslow. Fancy he having the nerve to challenge a Cavendish to a race! What chance did a piffling Winslow have against him?

He reached and gained another corner, whipping his horses into a frenzy of activity. The first stage of the race was almost at an end, by his memory, the first pub out of London having always been counted as a suitable marker for all their races. Lucius wanted to be the first by a long way to reach it. He checked behind him again, and seeing nothing, allowed his horses to set their own pace. He was content to coast for a little while. After all, what was the fun in winning if there was no one behind you to witness your triumph?

As the countryside seemed to race past him in the opposite direction, Lucius felt the need to fortify his parched throat. Transferring the reins to one hand, he reach into one of the deep pockets of his greatcoat with the other. Producing a well-worn leather coated flask, he balanced the container between his thighs, and pulled the stopper his eyes not taking off sight of the road ahead for a second. He raised the flask to his lips and took a satisfying long drink of the liquid contained therein.

Elizabeth! The name suddenly crossed his mind, appearing out of nowhere in his drunken tumble of thoughts and senses. She was the reason behind this carriage race, a deception to rally some seconds to his forthcoming duel. Lucius was thankful that the damn gentleman farmer had delivered the note in private this time, for the lack of support from his peers for the first was most embarrassing.

How that Darcy fellow had managed to get her sister out of his house was incredible. In hindsight he perhaps should have expected something of that manner to occur, rather than the hoped for easy outcome of his wife returning compliantly to his side. Elizabeth had never been so willing, something which he both admired and felt irritated by in equal measures. He was almost relieved that matters had resolved themselves in such a fashion, for he was fast becoming tired of the affair.

Added to this, ever since her desertion, he had found that staying at the club catered far more for his pleasures- whether carnal or other -than returning home ever did. Unlike the other gentlemens' facilities his father's patronage had left him, the Four Horse had never once kicked him out, even though he drank more than any other member there, and refused to pay his debts, of gambling and honour. It was also easier to just collapse once drunk in the nearest armchair of whatever room he happened to be in, and he could be assured of not being disturbed until morning.

The sound around him of horse hooves galloping seemed to double abruptly. Lucius secured his flask, and turned briefly to check the identity of the carriage behind him. Why, it was that fool, Winslow! He turned, and tossed the tail end of his whip upon his four steeds, speeding them up. He would not allow that fool to outstrip him! Not on a race which he had first laid down the challenge for!

Fortunately for the Earl, the horses were well rested and well fed, having been in the care of the stables of the club for many weeks now. They quickly picked up the pace. The sound of their hooves pounding upon the hard, rough road was intense and loud now. Lucius cheered them on, turning in mid flight to check again at the distance between him and the rest, laughing when he saw Winslow attempt, and fail, to make his horses go any faster, in order to outstrip his rival.

The road however, was about to bestow Winslow an advantage. It widened, allowing space for two carriages to ride side by side. Added to this, was the early hour at which they had begun this impromptu race, meaning that few public or private carriages, would be meeting this train of ten, all in a struggle to reach the pub first. Winslow saw his opportunity, and grabbed it with both hands. He whipped at his horses, and swerved them across the road, into the empty space alongside Saffron Walden's equipage.

Whether it was due to the amount of alcohol which he had consumed, the draining of his energy reserves by the race's extreme taxing on his body, or the quickness and skill of his opponent, Lucius noticed the change instantly. One second there was nothing beside him, the next there was. Four horses now became eight, one carriage now became two.

A race for supremacy ensued. The wheels rumbled on, the hooves pounded in synchronous time. The engraved coats of arms faced each other off, preparing to join in their own private duel, while their current holders raced each other across the countryside, trusting on their steeds to edge the gap for them, at which point Lucius let out a sudden howl of triumph. as his horses had managed to edge out a lead from Winslow. Casting a glance of arrogant posturing at his opponent, the Earl flicked his whip again, making the gap widen.

Later, it was said that no one was quite sure exactly when tragedy had struck. Astutely observing all witnesses to be, quite frankly, drunk out of their senses, the investigators had been content to leave the uncertainty at that. Indeed, it could be argued that no witnesses could be relied upon to know the exact time, except for the victim himself. And he had been in no condition to answer or refute anything. Whatever the condition of the roads, or the state and energy of the horses, the hand of God had come upon the master of the lead carriage. And his command could no longer be ignored.

Lucius, still triumphing over the knowledge that he was outstripping his rival, had forgotten that there was still some considerable length of road to overcome in the race to the first pub and stables outside of London. Whether it was due the intake of alcohol both before and during the ride, or the drain upon his internal energy resources, Lord Lucius would soon no longer be in a position to comment.

The road before him suddenly quadrupled. He blinked, but his drunken stupor prevented his mind from properly comprehending what was in front of him. His horses, having better instincts than their master at present, had slowed down, but were not allowed to remain thus for long. A strike of the whip made their speed quicken once more, and they left their master to their fate.

The barrier ahead of them, was in fact, a crossroads. Divided into four turnings, it presented the choices for which county to enter next after London and its environs. And from two of the county outskirts, came two carriages, both of them post chaises and, fortunately for all concerned, devoid of passengers. The collision was now inevitable.

Lord Winslow was the lucky one. He had not consumed enough alcohol to be insensible, and had spotted immediately the obstacles which were soon to cross his and Saffron Walden's paths. He slowed down his horses, letting them remain on the other side of the wide road, but some distance behind those of the Earl. A minute or so before the crossroads, he too foresaw the inevitable. Crying aloud in horror, he halted his carriage.

The move was not a moment too soon. The other eight carriages behind, seeing an obstruction in their path, also halted, their lords dismounting from the steps in skilful leaps, their drunkenness done away by the approaching horror. They just had time to reach the edge of Winslow's carriage, and thus be in sight of the crash when it occurred. A fearfully loud crack disturbed the silence of the morning, followed by the squealing of horses. Then a thud, at the conclusion of which, all standing turned their heads away.

It was some hours later, after the authorities and coffin makers had been called to the site, that a trail of mourners followed the coffin-bearers up the streets of London to the imposing house on Hanover Square. Robertson opened the front door, and greeted the sight of the coffin with confusion.

When he learned the identity of the person inside, that confusion slipped behind his servant's mask of composure, and he swept back into command. Directing for the coffin to be laid in state upon the Dining Room table, he went below stairs to inform the rest of the household staff.

The Earl of Saffron Walden's lawyers turned up within the next hour. Seeking out the Butler, they asked if they could pay their respects to the Countess. When Robertson replied that she had disappeared, the men of law looked perplexed themselves.

Following the Butler to his rooms below stairs, they took out the long piece of parchment that contained the last Will and Testament of their late client, and consulted again the lines which spelled out the nature of inheritance. Five minutes was all that was needed to confirm their first opinions.

Their client had no living family member that belonged to the Cavendish direct line. That left the sole inheritor to be the Lady Saffron Walden, Countess. Respectfully, they inquired after her whereabouts. Robertson answered in all honesty that he did not know.

The lawyers received this reply in silence, then turned to face each other and mulled over its contents for a while. Finding inspiration, one of them turned back to the Butler.

"Do you happen to have any information regarding the whereabouts of any members of the Countess' immediate family?"

"Yes, I believe there are some letters from the mistress' father in the late master's Study," Robertson replied, before showing the trio of lawyers the way to the room. The letters in question concerned a discussion of the marriage settlements and other arrangements which took place shortly after the Earl had obtained his consent, when he returned to town in order to attend his own father's funeral.

Ten minutes later, the lawyers had found what they needed to begin their search for the Countess, and Robertson had closed the door behind them. With a sigh, he walked to the Dining Room. Standing at the head of the coffin, he reflected over the details of his master's last movements, or at least, what he had heard from the witnesses who carried him back home.

Not for one moment did Robertson feel any semblance of loss. Young his master may have been, but by no means a good one. He had been most abusive to his wife. Robertson had almost cheered when he had learned of Lady Saffron Walden's successful escape from the Earl's clutches. And now she was the sole holder of all his fortunes.

And what a good landlady of them she would make, Robertson decided.

Chapter Text

Chapter XXX.

Mr Andrew Bennet, Esquire, had been, as of almost an hour ago, comfortably ensconced within the private sanctum that was the Library of his home, Longbourn. Very few people were allowed beyond the door of this hallowed place nowadays.

Mrs Bennet, who had never thought there was a need to ask for permission in the first place, had long given up the practice of barging in unannounced to tell her husband about the latest new neighbour they had acquired, or of a new suitor for his remaining three unmarried daughters.

Netherfield, previously the only vacant property within three miles, was now let by his eldest daughter and her husband, and the event of regiments or new gentlemen taking residence in Meryton had not occurred for some months, much to Mr Bennet's relief. There had been a time when his door had not been barred to one member of his house, but that daughter was long married, and had not set foot in Longbourn since her sister's wedding.

Now, however, someone else had possessed the nerve to come into his library. The man in question had turned out to be one of the lawyers of his son in law, the Earl of Saffron Walden. Mr Bennet had been very surprised, and very concerned upon learning this information, and had forgotten for a moment, the strict instruction of who was and who was not, allowed into his Library. When he learnt of the nature of the news which awaited him, these two conflicting emotions increased in their effects, and gained a third; relief.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Elizabeth had long been her father's favourite, out of all his five daughters. This position had not changed upon her marriage, indeed quite the contrary. His need for her wit, her sense, her companionship, doubled the moment he realised that he would no longer see her every day.

Mr Bennet had been forced to resort to letter writing. It was a custom which, usually, he loathed to indulge himself in; indeed, if it had been any other person, he would not have given himself the bother, but to Elizabeth he always wrote. Out of all of his daughters, he had always looked forward to receiving and replying to missives from her pen.

However, he had noticed from her first letter to him, that something had changed since her marriage. Something of herself had been lost, vanished suddenly without a trace. Too precious to put a name towards, and too slight to be noticed by any except those who truly knew her, as he did.

Mr Bennet had naturally become puzzled by this discovery. For many a month he had tried to work it out, and reach a satisfying conclusion. The one that he did eventually reach however, was not altogether satisfying. Quite soon after the event, Andrew Bennet came to regret giving his consent to their marriage.

Something about the Earl had not sat right with him, even during the period of betrothal when his daughter had assured him that this marriage was what she wanted. This something had turned into a certainty, albeit an unidentifiable one, when he received his first letter from her after her marriage, for it was not like her usual letters to him when she was away. It tried to be, and from that attempt he caught the counterfeit nature of her new style.

Elizabeth however, had not bestowed him with a confidence as to what it was, that, her father believed, was quietly destroying her. And, though he felt that he knew the something was connected to the Earl, Mr Bennet had kept silence upon the matter.

And now his son in law was dead. The manner of his death had further confirmed Mr Bennet's suspicions, but the information which he discovered along with it, advanced them even more so. His daughter, he was now to learn, was no longer living in any of the houses of her late husband, and had not for quite some time.

Where she was living, the lawyers had absolutely no idea, and, to their surprise, neither had Mr Bennet. He did however, relieve them of the burden of finding out. Andrew thanked them for their information, and promised to have his daughter contact them as soon as her location had been discovered.

Alone once more in the privacy of his Library, Mr Bennet leant back into the confines of his armchair and pondered the puzzle he had just been set. Within moments, he had reached only one, inalienable conclusion. Only one daughter could possibly know where his favourite was.

Or at least, have a certain amount of suspicion.

Darcy returned to Pemberley shortly after seeing to it that the news of Lydia's departure from Brighton did not spread to the papers or the realms of society. He arrived alone, with assurances from his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, that he would follow when word reached them of the Earl's agreement to keep a certain appointment involving duelling pistols. Still quartered at his barracks, the Colonel was occupied in training in his men for the martial engagements in Spain. He could not while his time away in Derbyshire, waiting for the Earl to come.

He entered his home to be welcomed by his sister, who had been waiting on the landing, and descended the stairs at a hurried pace to rush into his arms. He glanced upwards as he returned her gesture of affection, to find and meet Elizabeth's eloquent glance of hesitancy with a reassuring look of his own. The Countess then quietly withdrew from her place upon the upper hall, leaving him to the task of providing comfort for his sister.

When all of Georgiana's worries had been assuaged, for the moment at least, Darcy left her to the care of her music masters, before seeking out Elizabeth. He found the Countess in the Library, pleasantly occupied in the study of one of the many leather bound volumes which belonged to that room. At least that is what he determined when he first entered, however a glance proved that her pose was merely an appearance of studiousness not unlike the occasion one evening at Netherfield, when Miss Bingley had attempted to gain his favour by studying the second volume of the work which had been held in his hands for much of the night, though he could suppose that Elizabeth's motives were beyond such scruples.

Closing the doors behind him, he advanced to seat himself beside her at the other end of the sofa, his fingers then reaching out to gently pry the book from her hand. "Elizabeth?"

She glanced at him solemnly, a little nervous and embarrassed still from the memory of the emotional encounter which had taken place between them shortly before his departure. Silently he gathered her into his arms and in a steady, softly spoken tone began to relate all that had occurred during his time in London. Nothing was concealed from her, not Lydia's impetuously reckless behaviour, the reaction of Mr and Mrs Gardiner to her arrival upon their doorstep, under his escort, their gratitude for his actions, along with Bingley's curiosity regarding how he came to learn of the affair, offset by his concern for his wife. He finished with detailing the contents of the note he had left in the Earl's house, and the short conversation he and his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam had before he left for Derbyshire.

Upon receiving the details about the nature of duel and where it was to take place, Elizabeth drew back a little to glance at her companion in some concern. "He will not come here..."

Darcy shook his head, before gently interrupting her. "No, the cottage is situated on the boundaries of my estate, a good ten miles from this house. I alerted the household when we first arrived to the dangers of his character, you can be assured that they will not admit him." He paused, as he caught sight of the other fear within her heart, captured clearly across her fine eyed countenance. "He will not harm me, Elizabeth, I will not give him the chance."

Elizabeth descried the steadfastness of his conviction in his own handsome visage, and attempted to adhere to her usual lighthearted manner. Though it was not in her nature to increase her vexations by dwelling on them, to fret over unavoidable evils, or augment them by anxiety, her present disposition was in such a turmoil over the thought of what one well placed gunshot might do to her life, as that of many others in her companion's charge and care, that such adherence proved somewhat difficult to achieve.

Darcy too was not above feeling some anxiety over the affair himself, so it was for the relief of both concerned that he sought to change the subject of their discourse. "Though I do not wish to appear arrogant in the confidence of my aim, I do propose that we discuss what will happen a year from that appointment. What is your view on the matter?"

It took a moment or two for Elizabeth to divine what he could be alluding to, for her to recall that it was a convention of society that mourning for a husband should last a year, to allow for no question or scandal to arise in determining the parentage of any heir born thereafter. That many in society refused to follow this custom was freely discussed amongst their peers, and though her companion's spoken preference might seem unfeeling in the wake of a certain intimate yet chaste exchange between them during their last parting, she knew that it was said out of a desire to cause her comfort, rather than assuaging any concern on behalf of society.

"You would consent to such a period of delay?" she asked softly, choosing her words with care, for though there had been many an allusion, formal words regarding the matter had yet to be exchanged.

"My affections and wishes will remain forever unchanged," he assured her, "Elizabeth, I ardently admire and love you. I beg of you that in a year from now, you will do me the great honour of bestowing upon me your hand."

Never before had she imagined herself to receive an offer such as this while in a position which should caution her to refuse. Feeling all the more than the common awkwardness and anxiety over their situation, she forced herself to speak, knowing that while her fluency in such might be deficient, her sentiments were of a such a similar nature to his own, that they could not fail to be understood. "Fitzwilliam, I love you, and I do believe that can I return your feelings, but to speak of such an event taking place a year from now, dependent on the pressing appointment which will determine if our marriage takes place at all......"

Her voice faltered as he brought a hand to cup her cheek, his fingers tenderly tracing her features. "I understand, my love, and I will remain true to my word, as you shall see. I merely wish to give you the liberty which your husband has long denied you, to enjoy the world which your first marriage should have welcomed you into, and which he did all he could to isolate you from. I am of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, one who would happily retreat from Society if not for the duties demanded of me by family, or the desire to show them how happy I am with you by my side. I wish you to be sure of this affection, before settling for matrimony once more."

Elizabeth managed to catch one of the fingers which traced the contours of her mouth, kissing it softly. "Fitzwilliam, I will not be settling. Nor do I have a desire to observe those customs which society deem appropriate as a mark of respect, for it is an emotion which I no longer feel for him. There will be talk, as there always is whenever a match is made, but the talk will only live as long as we allow it to affect us, so we should not let such cares dictate the timing of events."

The happiness which this reply produced, was such as he had probably never felt before, and he expressed himself upon the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do. But neither could ignore the inalienable truth that there was one event which would dictate the time of all those affairs that followed. The encounter between Darcy and the Earl, the duel that would this time end in a death.

Everyday at Pemberley was now a day of anxiety; but the most anxious part of each was when the sights and sounds of a carriage could be discerned about the estate. Through such means of transportation, whatever part of good or bad was to be told, would be communicated and every succeeding day was expected to bring an arrival of importance. Each vehicle was treated with suspicion, be it a post chaise, a privately hired or owned equipage carrying visitors to the estate, be they tenants or tourists or representatives from the neighbouring estates.

One sight and sound brought a letter from Mr Bingley, the contents of which drove Darcy to seek Elizabeth after they had parted for the morning, he being called away to deal with an affair on the estate, and happening to meet with the express rider upon his return. He found her in the sunken dutch garden which was situated by the house, a prettyish plot of land, with a fountain surrounded by knots of green and wildflowers.

"Elizabeth, I have here a letter from Bingley," he began as he stood before her.” He asks me if I learned of the affair concerning your youngest sister from Pearlcoombe Abbey, as he understands from his wife that she has had no word of correspondence from you since we were at Rosings. Why have you not written to her or your family? You know I have no objection to your doing so."

The Countess blushed. "I confess that I have been too embarrassed to do so. There is a certain amount of anxiety as to what they might think, and how they will feel about what I have concealed from them for so long. I never told Jane of my troubles, Fitzwilliam. I had no desire to burden her, or cloud her serene view of the world."

Darcy instantly understood, but placed the letter from his friend in her hands. "Write to her, my love. She may have news from other quarters that will better inform us why the Earl has not kept his appointment." In his note of challenge to her husband he had proposed a certain date, which he believed would be convenient for all concerned. This day had passed without a syllable of reply from Saffron Walden. Nor had they received any news from other quarters which might provide a reasonable explanation as to the delay regarding the Earl's response.

It was this letter which Jane received but an hour or two before her father arrived most unexpectedly.

Like his favourite daughter, Mr Bennet enjoyed walking in preference to a horse or the carriage, when the distance was not so great that the need of either became a necessity. So he walked the three miles he needed to cover, arriving at the door of Netherfield, well before any note could have been sent to let them know he was coming.

"Papa," Mrs Bingley cried when he had been announced and entered into her and her husband's presence. "We had not expected you."

Mr Bennet could not help but smile at the sight of his eldest daughter. Jane looked perfectly happy and contented with her first marriage, that was easily ascertained by her sweet smiling face, and the adoring devotion of her equally besotted husband. In this match at least, he could comfort himself that he had not erred in bestowing upon Mr Bingley his consent to wed his one of his daughters.

"I always pride myself, Jane, on coming into one of my children's houses when I am least expected. Now, I will dispense with formalities, for I can see yet without spectacles and I can see you are both perfectly well. I came to inform you of a sad event, and ask a question which pertains to it."

Here Mr Bennet paused, ensuring that he had his audience's full attention before proceeding any further. "I was informed, by one of his lawyers a few hours ago, that the Earl of Saffron Walden has passed on from the world of the living."

Jane gasped, turned to look at her husband, who was likewise amazed, then she sent a glance to Mr Bingley, full of meaning, and one which Mr Bennet had expected to occur.

"Out with it, Jane," Mr Bennet immediately remarked, causing his eldest to look upon him with surprise. "Where is she? Where is my Elizabeth?"

Jane glanced to her husband once more, who nodded solemnly. Then she turned back to her father, realising that she was about to give him the second shock of this morning. "She is living under the protection of Charles' good friend, Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy."

Andrew Bennet sat back in his chair, his expression belying the full nature of the surprise he was currently experiencing. For a full minute, he uttered not a word. Then he steepled his fingers, and remarked quietly, "Tell me everything you know, both of you."

Jane related the entire story which had been relayed within the contents of Elizabeth's letter to her, with Charles adding his own view, for Darcy had also replied to his own missive. The skill of their telling was quite lost upon Mr Bennet, too concerned as he was, with the actual events he was hearing. Elizabeth had met Mr Darcy quite frequently over the past year, first for the wedding of Jane, then at Kent, through a mutual relation, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Somehow during these meetings, Mr Darcy had discovered the secret which Elizabeth had kept from all her family, that her husband was abusing her, and had offered her an escape. Then one night in London she had walked out of Hanover Square, and into his house in Grosvenor. Since then, she had been a guest of him and his sister.

"Where is she now?" Mr Bennet asked, in that same quiet tone.

"With Darcy and his sister in his country estate. Pemberley in Derbyshire," Bingley replied.

Andrew asked for the direction, and having obtained it, took leave of his eldest daughter and son in law. Upon his return to Longbourn, he ordered for his carriage and horses, bade his wife and daughters goodbye, and set off on the road to Derbyshire.

Chapter Text

Chapter XXXI.

Andrew Bennet leaned back into the comfortable furnishings of his carriage, his mind held no humour at present for the green woods and hills of the country which was passing by him outside the equipage. Instead, his mind continued to focus upon the mystery of his daughter, and her location, which he was to visit today.

He had met Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy first at Lucas Lodge, just after Michaelmas last year. Then it had been a brief introduction, for it was rare one gained a better acquaintance with a stranger at Lucas Lodge, while beside the presence of its owner, Sir William.

That night, all Mr Bennet had been able to say for certain concerning Mr Darcy, was that the gentlemen did not talk as much as his friend, and that therefore, counted in his favour. But now however, that initial opinion was hardly one with which to form a proper judgement on the man who was, according to his eldest daughter, 'protecting' his favourite from her 'vile' husband. So Andrew thought back to the second occasion when both he and the gentleman in question had been present: at the Netherfield Ball.

Then Mr Darcy had also been silent, rarely crossing Mr Bennet's path, although Andrew could just recollect seeing him escaping Mr Collins somewhat successfully. After that, he realised, he had not seen Mr Darcy again until the gentleman had returned from London to attend his best friend's wedding.

Andrew recalled his memory of that day back to his mind, and found, to his frustration, that he had not spoken to Mr Darcy then either. He had seen his daughter talking to him, and the young girl beside him, who he had since learnt to be his sister. But not once could he recall ever speaking to the man himself.

The carriage negotiated the passage of another passing briefly beside it, then resumed its normal pace, though Mr Bennet noticed nothing of the uneventful incident. Having established that he had no personal experience with the gentleman in question to form an opinion of his character from, Andrew now set about recollecting what others had said of him.

The first comment he recalled, was from his dear wife, who had, on the first night of his being in the neighbourhood, pronounced Mr Darcy to be the most disagreeable man she had ever met! Andrew was inclined to discount that particular judgement however, on the grounds that his wife had only formed it because the man had failed to dance with any of their daughters.

So he turned to the second opinion he had heard. That also was not from one who could be counted on to give a judgement unmarred by personal emotion. His youngest, Lydia, before her misadventure in Brighton, had mentioned Mr Darcy doing something which had reduced Lieutenant Wickham to the state he was in now.

While Andrew had formed as much of an opinion about that officer as he had about Darcy, he was not inclined to accept the judgement of his youngest daughter either, for he knew that she would not give an impartial opinion on any gentlemen who did not pay the amount of attention she wished from them, or who was not wearing a soldier's garb.

Thus Mr Bennet was left with the final opinions he heard, from Jane and Bingley, just before he left their house for Derbyshire. From the friend he had established that Mr Darcy was held in high respect, and counted on for his intelligence and judgement. From his daughter, he had learnt that Mr Darcy was by nature reserved, but within the company of those he knew, could be very amiable.

Further, he was an excellent brother, and had been in the possession of his family's estates since the age of three and twenty. This amount of information, in Mr Bennet's opinion, was not enough to form an entire judgement upon his character, but it would suffice for the moment, though it came from two people who were anxious for Mr Bennet to have a good opinion of Mr Darcy in the first place, for he was Elizabeth's apparent saviour.

At this moment, Andrew was brought out of his ruminations, by the gentle rise of the carriage, as its wheels and horses passed over a bridge. He glanced outside, and uttered a quiet gasp of astonishment. This had to be his destination, and what a destination it was.

Pemberley House looked to be a fine building, situated within its grounds as if it had been there since the dawn of time, though Mr Bennet could tell from the style of architecture that only the outside at least was fairly new. As the carriage came closer, further examination proved the building to be older than its exterior facade, for the shape spoke back to the time of Queen Elizabeth and beyond. Its owner certainly had taste and discernment, if nothing else, Andrew could now feel able to conclude.

The carriage halted at the front Palladian styled entrance, and a footman came out from the inner courtyard to open the door and let down the steps so Mr Bennet could descend. Once on the ground, Andrew presented his card to the man, whereupon he was asked to follow and wait in the hall until he had notified the master of his arrival.

Silently Andrew followed the footman through the archway into the inner courtyard, up the stairs and into the Entrance Hall. All the while his mind was at work, observing the decoration, both of the exterior and interior, speculating if these could give him a clue as to character of the master who owned them.

So far all Mr Bennet could discern was Mr Darcy's taste, which, like many things he had discovered recently, was not what he had expected. Having heard from his cousin Mr Collins that his patroness Lady Catherine de Bourgh was Mr Darcy's aunt, Andrew had sometimes imagined the interior of Pemberley to be similar to what he had heard about Rosings Park. But the reality was very different, displaying a taste more suited to the current fashionable tastes, rather than the past fancy for Baroque.

"Mr Bennet?" a female voice queried now, bringing him out of his musings. Andrew looked up to encounter the gaze of the woman whom he presumed to be the Housekeeper. "Mr Darcy and Lady Saffron Walden will see you now."

Andrew followed her through various rooms, all of an equally elegant, yet understated wealth, until she halted at last, in a room which he could not fail to like.

"Mr Andrew Bennet, sir," the housekeeper announced then, just as Andrew finished his rapid survey of the finest Library he had ever seen.

"Thank you, Mrs Reynolds," replied a deep voice, which brought Andrew to take a look now at its owner. "Could you please see to it that Georgiana is informed, and that none disturbs us unless sent for?"

Mrs Reynolds merely curtseyed in reply, and Mr Bennet watched her exit the room out of the corner of his eye. The rest of his gaze was turned upon his daughter, and Mr Darcy. When he had first entered the room, he had seen them seated near each other on the same sofa.

Now however, Elizabeth had remained in her seat, while Mr Darcy stood behind, his hand resting on the ornate gilded edge. His face was welcoming, though it held a sense of caution, and the hand, Andrew noticed, frequently strayed near to his daughter.

"Mr Bennet, you are welcome," Mr Darcy began. The tone, Andrew noticed, held a modicum of caution. "Mr and Mrs Bingley, I presume, informed you of your daughter's presence as a guest of myself and my sister?"

"They did, much to my surprise," Andrew replied, his eyes flicking briefly to his silent daughter. He had never seen her expression more tightly controlled before. "I came to inform you, Lizzy, of an event which I myself was informed of only a few days ago. I decided to save the lawyer a trip, believing that I could deliver the news better than he."

This at last brought Elizabeth out of her silence. "What has happened, Papa?" she asked softly, countless answers racing through her head, none of them good, for fear of tempting fate.

"Your husband had suffered an accident," Andrew continued, observing all the while, the faces of his daughter and Mr Darcy, who had taken his daughter's hand in his. "He was racing, I believe, with his friends from one of his clubs, and his carriage collided with another. I am afraid he did not survive, Elizabeth."

His daughter heard these words with outward composure at first, Elizabeth could not believe that she was to be so fortunate. She had not thought that such an event would occur for good many years to come.

It had been three years and five months of marriage, and now, it was finally over. Three years of torment followed by five months of happiness, the like of which she had never experienced before. She glanced up at Darcy, saw the same expression of joy, relief and love as she displayed, clearly marked upon his features, as light signalling day. Thoughts and dreams raced through her mind, some turning into hopeful reality as she gazed upon his face.

Suddenly she felt a light touch on her hands, which caused her to look and see a precious gemstone entwined in a antique metal band had been slipped on to her finger.

He had not asked, nor knelt before her, but they had no need for such formalities. Since their removal to Pemberley they had carried out all the appearance of a marriage, save for the union which holy vows and their own moral principles prevented them from consummating. On his return from London, while they waited for her late husband to make an appearance in the neighbourhood for the appointment with a pair of duelling pistols, enough conversation had passed between Fitzwilliam and herself to render any further superfluous. Rising from her seat, she directed an eloquent smile towards her betrothed, then another to her father, before leaving their presence.

Back in the Library, Mr Bennet now turned his gaze from the double doors from whence his daughter had quitted the room, to the man standing before him, with a new understanding. He had seen Mr Darcy clasp his daughter's hand when he had spoken of her husband's accident, and therefore had not missed the silent movements of said hand to a pocket, drawing something out, then slipping it on one of the bare fingers of her left hand, just as he had observed his daughter's reaction to it. That Elizabeth received the gift with just as much surprise as he, could not be denied. Yet, at the same time, delight had come over her face, whereas Andrew's features had held only astonishment.

"I see my daughter has once again, managed to surprise her father," he now remarked, watching the gentleman opposite him carefully.

"I hope that this time, it does not prove to be an unhappy one," Mr Darcy said, somewhat astutely, thought Mr Bennet.

"That rather depends on a number of things, Mr Darcy," Andrew commented, resuming his seat as he did so. "But you have at least one point in your favour at this moment."

"And what is that, if I may ask, sir?"

"You may ask. An excellent Library." He smiled briefly, then leaned back, steepling his fingers together, regarding the young man before him with all the appraisal of a future father in law. "Begin your request."

Darcy came forward and sat down upon the armchair opposite. "Mr Bennet, I humbly ask you for the blessing of your daughter Elizabeth's hand. Almost from the first moment of our acquaintance, I have come to feel for her a passionate regard. I knew she was married, and therefore, I kept these feelings to myself. Now, however, that she is free, I would wish for the chance to openly express them to her, as a husband should."

"Mr Darcy, that is not a sufficient explanation," Mr Bennet said, immediately after he had discovered that those words were apparently to be all he would get without some prompting on his part. "You have neglected to explain to me why you felt it necessary to take her from her establishment to your house."

"When I realised that I was in love with her," Mr Darcy continued, clasping his hands together to conceal his nervousness, "I could not fail to observe that she was not happy. One day I saw what I feared might be a clue to her unhappiness, and could not prevent myself from asking her outright. She confirmed my fears. From that moment, I confess, sir, I was lost. I swore to myself that I would help her, using all that was in my power to do so."

He paused, his gaze turning to the hearth between them, its embers slowly dying. "I offered her the chance to escape," he continued, the tone of his voice absent, displaying to Mr Bennet that his mind was not on the scene before his eyes, but on those which had occurred in the past. "I offered it with honourable intentions, as nothing more than an opportunity for her to find some safety and sanctuary, for a long as she needed it. At first, she was reluctant, fearing he would find out. But then, when she felt she could bear it no longer, she came.

"I treated her as an honoured guest, and not once forced my affections upon her notice.........."

".........but always there was this understanding between us," Elizabeth continued, unconsciously echoing her suitor's words to her father, from only an hour before. After that he had sought out his daughter, finding her wandering the immediate grounds of the estate, a habit of hers formed at Longbourn. Upon catching sight of her, it gladdened his heart to see her doing so without that wistful nostalgia which he had so often observed upon her countenance whilst in the company of her late husband the Earl. "Both of us knew what the other felt, and I knew that he would never openly display those feelings unless I gave him permission.

"For awhile I was confused, thinking that I looked upon him with those feelings merely because I knew of his, and felt guilty of not reciprocating. But soon I realised that they ran far deeper than that. I love him, Papa. I know the difference now, between a passing fancy and everlasting feelings. He is nothing like the Earl. If you only knew his generous nature. What he did to help Lydia is not the only danger to this family which he has averted. She was in the Earl's grasp, and could have been ruined by him, if it were not for Mr Darcy's swift actions. But it is not merely gratitude which has awakened my regard for him. There is an ease between us, an empathy of understanding and intellect. In his company, in his arms," she blushed, "I have never felt so safe. He is the best man I have ever known."

"Well, my dear," said Mr Bennet when she ceased speaking, "I have no more to say. If this be the case, he deserves you. I could not have parted with you, my Lizzy, to anyone less worthy a second time, especially as I grew to hold misgivings over the first."

He remembered the first time he had heard a petition from someone asking for his favourite's hand, the doubt in his worth which he had never been able to shake from him, despite all her assurances to the contrary. The horrible feeling which grew in the pit of his stomach when he learned the vile truth of that marriage. Guilt and self-incrimination were no longer strangers to him, he had experienced the like of these emotions only too recently during Lydia's misadventure in Brighton. He was not afraid of being overpowered by the feeling, for his was conscious of all his faults.

But at least in this he could make reparation. A chance meeting in London, followed by further acquaintance at Netherfield and Rosings had given him such. Of Mr Darcy, he felt that at last, he had found a man who understood his daughter well, and loved her dearly. He could see it upon his face, and hear it in his voice all through the interview in the Library. Now with Elizabeth, he could see that all those feelings were returned. Not only that, but she was happier than she had ever been. In this union there would be no concealment, no misery, no abuse. He would be able to visit her without finding that something from her character had been misplaced. For she had found it once more, in wild and untamed beauty of Derbyshire.

Time passed on. A year of tomorrows, and Mr Bennet was called to Pemberley once more, this time in the company of all his family, along with his acquaintances in London, those who knew or could claim a kinship with the families of the bride groom, whose union was to take place in the private chapel on the estate. Once a Catholic family, an ancestor had installed such a room within his palatial home before the Reformation, which respect and tradition had kept from being transformed into a hall or ballroom or some other grand chamber which would suit.

Here amongst the oaken pews, a profusion of crimson and purple velvet cushions, the aisles, banners, craved arches, inscriptions, a couple stood before the altar to have their vows of fidelity recited and blessed by the chaplain, their mode of dress very fine, as more than one member of the attendants would comment to another during the ball which was to break the fast in celebration of the union that evening.

After the ceremony was performed and the registers signed, the groom led his bride through the upper family corridor to the bedroom wing beyond, where their chambers lay, for a more private reverence of their own. A coupling which one had once looked towards with fear, knowing nothing but abuse would be derived from it, only coming to learn later, that there was a pleasure to be enjoyed within it. This neglect in her education was remedied over a period spent in the company of her love, who sought to increase the intimacy between them by degrees, until she led him to the altar through her eagerness, instead of through gratitude or any other emotion which might have been shaped by her previous union.

Now in the sanctity of their room did he take her in a tender-hearted embrace, and bestow upon her lips a kiss of ardent passion, one which due to his careful tuition, she could not fail to return. Pressing his fingers against her back, he gently drew apart the fastenings of her gown, before taking her hands in his to guide her in removing his coat. His lips continued to caress her own as each layer of clothing was shed from their forms, until nothing shielded their flesh from each other's loving gaze.

Elizabeth found herself captured by the emotion within Fitzwilliam's countenance as he drew back from her swollen lips to seek out the adornments in her hair, withdrawing them one by one until the glorious dark locks cascaded down to her waist. Coiling one such around his finger, he brought the strands to his mouth, as though a pilgrim at some holy shrine. With another tender gesture to her wrists he gathered up her hands in his own and led her to the bed, guiding her to lie before him while he hovered above. Bending forward, he pressed them against his chest as he began an exploration of her soft skin.

She could feel the pounding of his heart as his lips stroked kisses against her neck, then to the valley of her breasts. When his mouth suckled at her nipple she could not check herself from moaning aloud in pleasure. As she instinctively arched herself towards his attentions he paused for a moment to smile at her, an eloquent response to her unchecked exultation. His hands let go of her own, allowing her to clutch at his head, coiling the dark hair she found there between her fingers, as she sought to express all the joy which his adoration arose within her.

Gradually his lips slipped from her soft full mounds to the slim canvas of her waist, rousing more cries of joy from her, even a laugh when his tongue dipped into the hollow recess of her belly. In curious wonderment she watched him descend further, exploring the most intimate folds of her body, until the tension which had been steadily building within her reached its peak and sent her into a cascade of pure bliss.

Awed by the wave of sensual feelings which he had woken within her, she could scarce believe that such emotions were able to rise inside her body as frequently as the waves of the sea would sweep across the shore. Yet when he returned to level his face with her own, as he guided her into achieving what would be the most intimate of unions, Elizabeth felt the pleasure rise inside her once again, accompanying his thrusts, until they both found that peak.

"Will it always be like this?" she asked him wondrously after he had gathered her into his arms with a brilliant smile at being able to bring her pleasure where nothing but fear had previously existed.

"I swear to ensure it is so," he whispered, before kissing her again.

Chapter Text

Chapter XXXII.

It was with great reluctance that they rose from the bed almost half an hour later. The presence of friends and family in the public rooms below could no longer be ignored. Darcy proved his worth as a lady's maid, helping Elizabeth put back on the white gown and undergarments which only minutes ago he had gently removed from her body. It was to the credit of Sarah that her hair was restored to its previous sculpture of pins and other adornments.

When Elizabeth was dressed, she turned to admire her new bedchambers, which she had not seen until this moment. Like the rest of Pemberley's interior, they reflected a subtle elegance and understated wealth, along with a sense of neutrality, making the mood of the room suitable to both night and daylight.

Her observation complete, she turned to watch her husband once more. She still could not believe what had happened only hours ago. No longer did she need to fear about the Earl finding her. He was no more. Instead she was the wife of the best man she had ever known.

She smiled as she watched him arrange his cravat without the assistance of his valet, in front of her dressing mirror. For all the trappings of his wealth, he was perfectly capable of looking after himself, unlike others who needed a servant for everything.

Her eyes ran down his body, taking note of how well he looked in his formal wedding clothes. Her mind supplied the images her eyes at present could not; of his bare sculpted chest, and the look upon his face as he took her. He had held her so gently. The memories were still so vivid, in all their senses. Of his lips upon her skin, exploring her intimately. Of the caresses his hands applied, each touch arousing her to a greater degree of passion and feeling. Most of all, how it felt when he entered her, and what a contrast his technique was from the Earl's.

What had always felt as an intrusion, now felt like the sweetest of pleasures. Combined with the expression upon his face, and the feeling conveyed by his dark eyes, their joining seemed to her almost hallowed, as profound and as deep as if it were a holy communion. He gazed at her with such intensity as they lay joined, striving for their ultimate pleasure together. In his view, she felt herself to be infinitely precious to him. And she could help but return that feeling, just as equally upon him.

He turned suddenly, his ministrations upon his cravat complete, catching her gaze. Elizabeth could not help but blush as she tried to put her delightful recollections to the back of her mind and focus on the present. Retrieving his jacket from the chair where it had been thrown shortly after they had entered her bedchamber, he made his way over to her, putting it on as he did so.

"Do I please you, my Elizabeth?" he asked her softly, his voice lingering over her name, in that way which delighted her so.

"Always, my Fitzwilliam," she replied, bestowing upon him the same endearment to his own first name, making Darcy marvel once more at how no one else could speak it and touch him so profoundly as she.

They stood there, close together but not touching, the longing desire of wanting to repeat their lovemaking evident in what little space there was between them. Their dark eyes, so in tune now with the thoughts, wishes, dreams and feelings of the other, that no more words needed to be said, conveyed their desire to the other, and the mutual regret that familial duty, along with the duty as master and mistress of the house, called them back downstairs.

Darcy bent his head so their foreheads touched, closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. He would have liked nothing more right now than to take his bride back to the bed they had only just risen from, but he knew the guests were waiting for them below. They had delayed their reappearance too long already. Reluctantly he straightened up, and resolved to take only her hand.

"Ready, my love?" he asked her regretfully.

Elizabeth silently assented, equally regretful, and allowed him to lead the way out of their room.

Upon their entrance into the Ballroom, all guests present fell into silence, their eyes eagerly turned to the appearance of their hosts. Before the Darcys' entrance, their minds had already established that this second wedding for the Countess of Saffron Walden was quite clearly a love match, making all but those who knew the couple the most wonder now what the first had been like, and speculate on how long they had been in love before the announcement of the engagement.

The eyes of the guests remained upon their hosts as Darcy took his lady out for the first dance of the evening. The number of couples would have been quite inferior to the size of the room, had not the number of those guests who were still talking been sufficient to fill the rest of the space. It was a credit to the mastery of the orchestra present that the sound of the guests' chatter did not drift above the music, enabling the intricate movements of the first dances to be performed according to each of its participants' skills in the art.

Darcy and Elizabeth themselves remained oblivious to the speculation surrounding them, and the interest their absence had attracted. They had obeyed the call of duty to show themselves present at the dance; whether their minds were actually there with them was quite another matter, and not up for negotiation. Their movements were as perfect as usual, both having become accustomed to dancing almost as soon as they could walk. But their eyes rarely removed from the countenance or form of each other, and the expression upon their faces was nothing short of pure contentment.

Around them the guests observed them, their minds busily attempting to calculate what vast amounts of fortunes were now combined. If Saffron Walden was said to be one of the richest earldoms, then so was Mr Darcy said to be one of the richest men in the kingdom. Apart, both of them could have been a very eligible prize for anyone, but together the fortune that would be bestowed upon any children from their union was even more powerful.

Already some were contemplating the worth of the next generation, trying to puzzle out if any of their families could ever hope to connect themselves so rich an alliance. As for those who were not altogether inclined towards monetary value, they watched closely the faces of the bride and groom, speculating with their creative eye how long the love which was so clearly divined from their manners and expressions, had existed between them, what the real character of the late Earl had been like, and how even more dashing the addition of a title made the master of Pemberley now.

Of the family present, there was just an equal confection of mixed reactions. Mr and Mrs Bingley stood next to their friends and siblings in the dancing line, each content with the match that their closest friends had made, and how happier each looked now. From the side lines, Mr Bennet watched them, his smile behind a face of perfect composure, as he bore his wife's ceaseless chatter about their new son in law with tolerable equanimity.

A short distance away, a equally taciturn gentleman stood with his wife, although she was far more suited to him than Mrs Bennet was to her husband. The Earl of Matlock watched his only nephew with contentment, glad that he had managed to make a match equal both in terms of wealth and a meeting of minds. His wife observed with him, her eyes generally more on her niece, as her mind foresaw the next great society hostess, her future successor.

A little distance away from them stood the Viscount and his wife, their son and heir, his own mind equally approving of his cousin's match. The Viscountess stood quietly beside him, her thoughts on her own wedding day, remembering that the new mistress of Pemberley looked just as happy as she. Like her mother in law, she pictured the future, lending her prayers that her cousins would have much happiness.

On the opposite side of the Ballroom stood Colonel Fitzwilliam, also pleased with the result of many months of private speculation and concern between himself and his wife. As for himself, he was still revelling in his own recent love match, having found in Charlotte all that he could ever have wished for, along with all the joy of discovery that she saw in him the same.

Charlotte, who had never expected to fall in love, was now pleased to note that the expression upon her friend Elizabeth was very similar to that of her own. She felt the caress of her husband's hand upon her own and looked up, quietly accepting his request that they dance the two next. Charlotte cast one final look to her friend, wishing her every happiness.

By one of the balconies nearby, stood a woman who was undecided about whether to be angry or content with this current situation. Lady Catherine de Bourgh had always entertained high hopes that her daughter would marry her nephew Darcy, and that together they would unite the two powerful estates of Rosings and Pemberley. Learning of his engagement had, understandably, given her much shock and pause for thought.

She had been quite saddened to lose her godson so soon, though equally angry at the nature of his death. She had always disapproved of his passion for that dreadful club. And now she had even more reason to do so. Now she was in a quandary as to whether or not approve of the union which had been the result of Lucius' death. That the vast wealth of the Saffron Walden's had not gone out of the family was welcome news, but that it had put an end to her own plans for her nephew was quite a different matter.

There was no one now, within the family, to wed dear Anne, which meant that Rosings would soon be lost to the Fitzwilliam family forever. Oh, Lady Catherine was shrewd enough to know that the next generation might bring it back into the family once more, but also wise enough to realise how unlikely that event could also be. Therefore, she stood before one of the balconies, her eyes constantly on her nephew and his bride, and wondering how she did not foresee this coming in time to work the match to her own advantage.

The reactions to the match of the remaining daughters of the Bennet family were just as different. Mary stood silently, refusing every request she received to dance, wondering when her mother would finally become reconciled to her wish to receive the veil. Kitty observed her sister and new brother in law with some wistfulness, hoping that, one day, she would be just as blessed as Elizabeth, and have a husband who loved her as much as Darcy evidently adored her sister.

As for Lydia, she was mourning the lack of redcoats among the guests, the caution and restrictions which her father had placed upon her behaviour after she returned from London. More than a year had passed since her daring escape from the late Earl of Saffron Walden's townhouse, a year spent in the confined and unvarying society that was to be had now at Longbourn. No walks into Meryton, no balls or assemblies, or militia quartered. She had not even been allowed to persuade the Bingleys to host a ball before they quitted Netherfield for one of the estates which Lizzy had been left by her late husband.

The music drew to a close, causing the dancing couples to part and perform their bows and curtseys. Darcy eagerly rose up to take possession of his wife's gloved hand, leading her away from the dancing, in quest of an empty balcony. The journey seemed long, as they passed guests and family on their way, all wanting to shake their hands and congratulate them on their nuptials, but eventually they reached their goal.

Darcy swept them out into the balmy night air, the curtains closing behind them, giving them a privacy albeit somewhat brief, for their duties as host and hostess forbade them from seeking to linger in such a state, however much their hearts and minds might desire it. Smiling, he took her other hand and led her to the railing before them.

"Four years ago today," he began speaking, his mouth by her ear, his voice seeming to Elizabeth a tender caress, while his hands worked an equal enchantment upon her gloved arms. "I was standing here, without any idea of the happiness that awaited me. If someone had told me what lay before me, I would never have believed them. For I could never have imagined such contentment was to come." He turned to face her, drawing into his arms. "Thank you, Elizabeth, for giving me everything I could ever have hoped and dreamed for, and more."

Elizabeth smiled, her eyes misty with tears of joy. "Four years ago today," she echoed, her own mind remembering what had happened to her then, now seeming so long ago. "I stood in my bedchamber at Hanover Square, despairing of ever escaping my husband. I had thought myself to be in love, and instead of enjoying such an emotion, I had become disillusioned with the whole idea of it.

"If someone had told me then what awaited me, I would never have believed them. I did not think that I could ever be that fortunate." She blinked away her tears, taking a deep breath, before finishing her sentiments. "Thank you, Fitzwilliam, for teaching me to believe in love again, and to know that it existed for myself, as well as others. Thank you for making me feel safe once more, and for appreciating my true self, and not the character I had put to forth in order to endure the Earl."

When she had finished, her eyes were not the only ones misty with tears. Darcy could not say anything in reply, so choked with emotion was he. Instead, his expression supplied what his voice could not, as he took her into his embrace, his lips finding hers for a long, eloquently satisfying, passionate kiss.

Later, when the day had long since turned into the next, and the ball had drawn to a close, with all its guests ensconced in their rooms, the Darcys moved once more to the bedchamber of the mistress of the house.

Darcy dismissed their sleepy servants, locking the door behind them. He stepped back up to Elizabeth, the meaning in his gaze unmistakable. At the same time, their arms drew around each other, followed shortly by a meeting of their lips. His hands explored her dark hair, seeking out hairpins, letting them fall to the floor to be tidied away upon the morrow.

Elizabeth deftly undid his cravat, then drew apart the buttons of his shirt, until the material revealed his bare chest. Her fingers slipped inside, their attentions upon his skin causing him to shiver with pleasure, in anticipation for what further delights were to come.

Silently they divested each other of their clothes, and moved to lie upon the bed. Darcy's lips sought her own once more as they covered themselves with silken sheets, rolling amongst them and the cushions in what was felt to be by now a well known dance to their bodies, but nonetheless still as enjoyable and momentous as the first which was but hours old.

Elizabeth met him move for move, kiss for kiss, caress for caress, passion for passion. She moaned her every pleasure, as his lips and hands worshipped at her breasts, her stomach, her arms and thighs, and that most secret part of her, one which he was becoming to know very intimately.

He too soon found himself moaning his own pleasure, as she returned to him the same caresses and same kisses in the same places upon his body. She felt nothing but contentment now, and of the sweetest and most profound kind. Her eyes caught and held his as he entered her, never parting from them as he began to shift in and out of her, drawing them closer and closer to mutual communion.

A long time afterwards, when they had exhausted all their strength for such delightful activity, they remained awake in each others arms, content just to hold each other, as their minds imagined their future, and what further delights awaited them.

And what a future it was to be. Their union would forever be contained in legend, to be recounted in countless different ways, never able to fully capture the joy and contentment they enjoyed, but always to be attempted. To be forever treasured by others, and held as the ideal meeting of loves, minds and souls.

The End.