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Volume Five.

Chapter XLVII.

From Rosings to Longbourn, 7th-10th October 1820.

The Darcys and Mr Bingley set off early from Rosings Park the next morning. Theirs was not the first departure, Richard Fitzwilliam had been before them, quitting for London late evening, despite the advice of his mother in law to wait until the morrow as 'the roads are apt to be most disagreeable when travelling at night'.

He was in no mood to be persuaded by such advice however. His reasoning was left unexplained to everyone but himself. He wished to try and dissuade his contact from the delay that he had put upon the truth being released, at least to the Bennet family.

Lady Catherine was thus a little out of humour when the Darcys announced their departure the next morning. "I have barely seen you nephew," she argued to Darcy. "Surely you can be spared a few days longer."

Darcy was firm in his refusal. "I am afraid not Aunt. This visit was pure spur of the moment as you know. News from Longbourn or Netherfield has been absent of late, unnerving both of us. Charles is anxious to see his wife, and we are anxious for news."

"Well, it is a most disagreeable business," her ladyship finally remarked by way of consent, however reluctant such consent was. "Now, you will change horses at Bromley?" She added, with only a slight twinkle in her eye to indicate it a joke and not an order as her voice betrayed otherwise.

The conversation drifted then into the various aspects that travel could entail. The conditions of the roads for example, are apt to be troublesome in the winter months and reliable horses can often be affected by the sharp frosts, as her Ladyship was wont to point out.

Thankfully for the rest of her company the eminent- and the author means this in its most ironic sense -Mr Collins was not there to add his vigorous assent to the conversation,- although he and his 'dear Charlotte' had been invited to spend the afternoon at Rosings -to which his patroness contributed the most.

Elizabeth and Darcy helped to keep it going, as Bingley was impatient to be on the road and see his beloved wife and children, and Anne's thoughts were too much full of Richard's fond farewell to contribute to the conversation.

Morning repast was soon pushed aside and preparations to get under way were begun in earnest. Servants were sent to assist the Darcys in clearing their apartments, footman to collect the strongboxes from storage. Stable hands to ready the carriage and four that were to convey them as far as Bromley before being changed for the original four that escorted them from Netherfield almost twenty days ago.

Elizabeth in particular was most astonished to realise that many days had past since she had last seen her family. True, a part of that length had been spent upon the road, especially by her husband, but to not realise that twenty days had past until now was most unlike her as she was only too aware. She opened once more the last correspondence from Netherfield, dated nearly eight days ago. It was from Jane and ran as follows;

 

Netherfield
Hertfordshire
29th Sept

My Dear Lizzy,

Since my last to you, circumstances here have changed drastically. Do not worry, nothing is wrong with Lawrence, or indeed the rest of our family, save Lydia.

Two days after my last letter Lydia came back from Longbourn in tears. She shut herself in her apartments and requested to have dinner in her room. The next day, aside from being very withdrawn, nothing could be seen to be wrong. We all tried to prise the cause from her but without success. Not one of us, even Georgiana, would she confide in.

For days nothing could be done. Then Georgiana finally managed to get her to confirm what was already a suspicion of mine. It was Lawrence. Apparently for some time she had gleamed from their frequent conversations that he was concealing something from her. Yet the nature of it he would never disclose.

Eventually on the 28th she asked him outright. And he lied. Since her return to Netherfield he has not paid call. Even now, that this is relatively over, his visits have declined and are of short duration. Lydia herself, seems somewhat better, but we are all concerned that her outward appearance is just a mask, and her disappointment over Lawrence's deception runs deeper still.

If I felt for certain that you could help, I would ask for it, but I fear it is beyond all of us, save perhaps the culprit who first caused it. Father is beginning to lose patience with him. His movements restrict themselves more and more to his study, venturing out only when the occasion calls for it.

If it were not for Mr Fitzwilliam's request for delay, he would have confronted him days ago. I wish we knew why he urges this. What possible motive could Lawrence have that makes him an honourable man and yet allows him to deceive us?

I feel dreadful for writing to you with only sad news to relay, as I know you cannot return for several days. My hope is that this matter between Lawrence and Lydia is merely minor misunderstanding which will resolve itself in time. Lydia's emotions have been strained a great deal since her return to us. Perhaps this is just an excuse to release some withheld frustration. Things will right themselves and this worry will all be for nothing.

Yet, I know you, Lizzy. If you were with me now your thoughts would all be in opposition. I have always been disposed to think well of everybody have I not? You would tell me this and that Lydia's grief is probably greatly concealed. Well, I shall try to follow your counsel over the next few days and see if Lydia chooses to confide in us.

With wishes to all at Rosings and my brother in law.
Yours,
Jane Bingley.

Elizabeth folded the letter with the same amount of dissatisfaction as when she had first done so. Jane was right. She would oppose all views of optimism. Lydia may have been disposed to sadness lately, but she had displayed great strength in holding up for her children, indicating that whatever her quarrel was with Lawrence, it was something far worse than a simple misunderstanding.

Had Fitzwilliam been with her upon the first reading she would have urged him that they returned to Netherfield instantly. But as she read a second time her thoughts became more rational. Lydia would not allow her to help unless she felt she needed it and any attempt without that consent would be ineffectual. No, it was something that, like Jane, she would just have to hope was resolved by the time they had planned to return to Hertfordshire.

This hope was to occupy all the adults of the travelling party throughout their journey, regardless of any others that might want to intrude.


Longbourn, 9th October 1820.

If only Lizzy had known what was to occur, she would have obeyed that first impulsive decision. For matters during their absence were about to rapidly escalate. Only on the outside would nothing be seen to have taken place and there was one person who was determined to keep it that way.

Mr Bennet was not that person, but his subsequent actions would draw him in as an unnecessary and unwilling accomplice. For several days he had been contemplating a course of action that was, in all probability, to have many unforeseen consequences. However, at this precise moment, not one of those mattered. As far as he was concerned, they all paled in comparison to his present state of mind. For his patience had finally run out. He could no long wait for the delay that Richard Fitzwilliam seemed to think was required. He had to confront this impostor now.

Of course, such a confrontation had to be planned before being carried out. The questions needed to be ones that could not allow for any avoidance of answer and every outcome and response had to be considered. Timing also had to be taken into account. The morning would not be wise as his family would doubtless hinder it. Likewise the afternoon was eliminated. The evening after dinner when the rest of the family had retired thus, was chosen to set things in motion.

Finally he also had to have a reason for wishing to speak to the impostor. That reason had to be a deception within itself, as the truth would no doubt served to prevent the meeting and the trap would fail before it had even been attempted. It also could not be due to estate business as he had successfully avoided such meetings in the past.

Mr Bennet was beginning to concede that nothing could be thought of to bring the impostor to confessional, however contrived. Then, fate, that inconsequential controller of all things, came to be of assistance. Just as all plans seemed to be in vain, a knock on his study door sounded loud and true.

"Ah Lawrence," Mr Bennet remarked as the door was opened. "You are just the person I wanted to see. Sit down, we have much to discuss."


Chapter XLVIII.

Netherfield, 10th October 1820.

A carriage carrying many people and bearing the Darcy crest arrived upon the front drive of Netherfield just in time for a late luncheon on the date above. All were greeted with the greatest of enthusiasm by the occupants of the house, conveyed in and treated to the finest meal that could be had upon short notice. They were also provided with the thing they had wanted the most; news.

Indeed, many things happened during the course of their absence. The situation with Lydia could not be discussed, as she was in the room with them, but the news that was of a more general nature could be, such as an gossip of events in Meryton which had occurred in their absence, along what news there was from London that they had not heard. The majority of it was provided by their kind hosts and the Blakeneys, as Bingley could not tare himself away from his wife and Jane was in a similar position.

After the meal Elizabeth took the opportunity to walk to Longbourn, knowing her father would be grateful to see her the day she arrived. She also wanted to deliver an assurance that she had been given by Richard Fitzwilliam before he left. That Lawrence was someone they could trust.

The man himself arrived at Netherfield to visit his youngest sister just as she was about to leave and greeted her most heartily, seeming to be his usual self. Elizabeth attempted to greet him with the same emotions, carefully hiding the suspicion that she still held. She trusted her cousin. If he said Lawrence was an honourable man, then he was. The only thing that concerned her now was the secret that had led him to this deception.

Lydia was outwardly happy to receive her once more normal daily visits from her eldest sibling. Inwardly however, she was still conflicted, in both thoughts and emotions. Lawrence was someone she had come to care a great deal for, but this new certainty that he was deceiving not just her, but her whole family at large had done considerable damage to that affection. It had not eliminated it, indeed it was perhaps too deep for that to occur, but it had put a strain upon her, making her struggle to appear contented every day for her children and immediate family.

Her long and hard marriage with Wickham had taught how to maintain the upkeep of such a mask, but the upheaval of his death and her first removal to Derbyshire, combined with the steady support and friendship of her father, Georgiana, Elizabeth and Jane, had served to create cracks in that once formidable veneer. She had begun to let people in, to learn to trust and confide, when previously she had been afraid to trust anyone.

And Lawrence had been one of those people to which she reserved that privilege. Now that he had failed in his loyalty, Lydia could only begin to wonder if the others would eventually fail as well. Was she being too particular, were there some things that people could not voice aloud? Or, worse still were they keeping things from deliberately, concerned that she might be able to handle the truth?


Mr Bennet was infinitely glad of Elizabeth's decision to visit him upon her return to the neighbourhood. He had been left alone with his thoughts far too long.

"My dear girl," he began in a tone betraying all his relief as she sat in arm chair opposite him by the window that looked upon the drive of his estate. "It is good to see you at last. Your mother's attentions are in need of a respite."

"Indeed I am most glad to see you as well, papa," Elizabeth replied, noting her father, despite his relief at her arrival, seemed more contented than when she saw him last. "Has anything occurred during my absence?"

"Oh, nothing of great importance," Mr Bennet answered, perhaps a little too quickly. Thankfully his daughter seemed not to notice the mistake. "Jane has told you of Lydia's brief collapse?"

"She has," Elizabeth replied, her face losing its smile. "And after seeing her today, I'm not so sure that its over."

"Neither am I," Mr Bennet agreed, allowing his mood to dampen also. "She has not recovered, despite all of mine and your sister in law's attempts. Lawrence has started visiting her again, but I do not think they are as close as they once were. I cannot think of any solution, save the one your cousin has ordered me not even try."

Elizabeth noted the frustrated tone of the last part and inwardly sighed. She knew all too well that her father disliked being 'ordered' to do anything. She could only hope that this stubborn nature had not led him to anything rash.

Edmund detected his daughter's inward sigh and privately breathed a sigh of relief. So far the part that, as of last night, he now had to play, was going well. He did not like deceiving his daughter, but he knew that it was necessary in order to keep alive a deception he was now a willing participant in.


The Cunning Fish, Meryton.

He had failed. Failed.

The stranger that reader last heard of ten chapters ago had not done anything since that time to change his situation. This choice had by no means been of his own volition. Indeed, if the opportunity to escape had arisen, he would have taken it instantly. But, much to his frustration, it never had.

His Watch were the most vigilant in their duties. They worked in twos in shifts of night and day, always outside the door to his room. His meals were brought up his room and water was the only beverage provided. A guard always stayed outside while they were being delivered, preventing any attempt to overwhelm them with a fist. His windows were locked and of too great a distance from the ground to be attempted jumping from. There were also no pipes or trellis of any sort to assist him in a climb to safety. And nothing in his room to help him in that way either.

Thus, on his seventeenth day of incarceration, the stranger had reluctantly come to one disappointing decision. He was stuck here for good. His mission had to be given up as a failure. It had gone past the point of prevention and now he to accept defeat.

He had failed. Failed. The word was like a sword thrust to his heart. He had never failed before. Never. That was why he had been trusted with this great task, a task which he had assured his superiors he could be relied upon to achieve quickly and successfully. And he had failed on both terms.

He knew what was to come, no matter how everything ended. Either side would be, for once, in complete agreement about his fate. As yet however, he could not even think the word, let alone utter it allowed. It was inevitable and unavoidable though. Impossible to prevent or to attempt to fake. He was watched during all his meals. He could not do it himself. He must wait for someone else to do it for him.

And by then, he had to accept it readily. He could not attempt escape then, for his honour would be the price to forfeit. No, a far greater honour would be achieved by facing it with willingness and dignity. And he would also gain the satisfaction by learning at last the identity of the man that had foiled his plans.

That was providing that it was his enemy who did it to him first.


Chapter XLIX.

Netherfield & Longbourn, 12th-15th October 1820.

The first morning that welcomed their return was taken up by a breakfast discussion that for once did not refer to the situation at Longbourn in any way. Instead it was a topic of a much more frivolous nature.

Lord Devereaux had been persuaded by his wife that the time had come to hold a ball. Their duration of time in the neighbourhood absolutely prohibited them from holding it off any longer. This was not a sudden decision on his part,- indeed the gentleman in question rarely made a decision, sudden or otherwise -but had been reached by a long debate on the part of his wife and in even greater degrees, his children.

After all, it was- and perhaps still is -rarely in a gentleman's nature to propose a ball, particularly if the gentleman considers himself past the age to enjoy all the activities that such an event entails. This is often seen as a selfish notion of the gentleman's part, but be assured that it is not. For the gentleman knows perfectly well that his peers and friends who meet his age- or indeed are past it already -will not be inclined to hold a ball either, let alone attend one.

For more less strenuous activities required their fascination and kept their interest, such as shooting, hunting, fishing and the like- the author shall refrain from mentioning more in fear of either boring the readers to death, or insulting some gentlemen who might be reading this work, and because she is of the opinion that her point has been achieved and the inclusion of any other examples shall result in a drift from the main subject of this day in the lives of her characters - of which all gentlemen are known to enjoy.

A ball holds no such fascination as it often requires conversation on politics, the state of the roads, the weather and dancing with gentleman's significant others, all of which will also press the gentlemen to stand and listen to their discussions- although whether the gentlemen fulfils the latter part of these duties is another matter and best left to the gentleman in question to answer.

In the case of the gentlemen that have children of an age old enough to attend a ball- again such gentlemen are often inclined to think that there is no age when their children are old enough to attend such a function, particularly their daughters, unless chaperoned at all times, with perspective partners being either distant relatives or persons the gentlemen has known for such a time as to be of a trustworthy nature -the requirements on them to make necessary introductions, prepare dance cards, supervise dancing, etc. are liable to cause much of a strain on the gentleman's mind- again the author means no slight on a gentlemen's character whatsoever.

To resume. The announcement that such a function was to be held caused varying reactions by their house guests, particularly when the date for the event was declared. It was to be, by extraordinary coincidence- and of no design on the author's part whatsoever, -on the evening of the twenty-sixth of November.

The Bingleys were naturally overjoyed by such a happy coincidence, as that night happened to signal one of the happiest nights of their entire life. The Darcys were likewise pleasantly surprised and pleased for it gave a chance on their part to make the night a far more enjoyable occasion for themselves. The Blakeneys, having no history with the date in question, chose to treat it with nothing more than usual pleasure.

Thus the rest of breakfast was taken up by many happy- and some less happy -recollections of the same night nearly nine years ago. Requests for certain pieces of music which had been played then to be executed once more were put forward and granted- a certain maggot in particular, the identity of which most here undoubtedly know was also planned as a dance for the evening -incurring more reminiscing and explanation as to why they had a predilection for the piece in question.

Lord Devereaux quickly left the breakfast room as soon as propriety allowed, calling most of the gentlemen with him for some shooting- whether these gentlemen left willingly or were obliged to depart is for the reader to decide -leaving the rest with a grant to join as soon as they wished. The ladies quitted the room half an a hour later, still discussing the arrangements needed to be made, the relative invitations to be sent and those which might be safely discarded by accidentally being sent to the wrong address, or having written so ill as to be redirected several times.

Jane, Lizzy and Georgiana were reluctantly left by their husbands- who felt themselves obliged to join their host -to seat themselves in a comfortable drawing room and discuss their memories of the last ball. Georgiana listened with great interest to the topic, laughing in surprise when she heard the contrary nature of her brother that night and the antics of a certain Miss Bingley- who, for the interests of the reader, has married twice since last seen, first to the elderly but wealthy Baronet of Longsford who died a year later, leaving no heirs and her as the only recipient of his fortune, and then, most surprisingly, to the handsome, younger son of the Earl of Batchworth, who is still alive and is said to be besotted with his wife, and she likewise with him -and Mrs Hurst.

The embarrassments of Kitty and Lydia were also mentioned, but with less concern this time of a repetition of such behaviour. A fervent and silent prayer was expressed on the part of Mrs Darcy for her mother to be more restrained than she was last and for Mary to either refrain from singing or to be much improved if nothing could prevent her from doing so.

Just before luncheon an envelope from Longbourn arrived, carrying inside a invitation for the Darcys, the Blakeneys, Lydia and the Bingleys to join the rest of their extended family for an evening meal the following eve. Elizabeth happily sent back their acceptance, grateful such a thing was required on her part, for she was most anxious to talk with her father over the events concerning Lawrence Bennet which could have occurred during her absence at Rosings.

Her father's neglect to write any letters to her during that time, had, at first, been put down to stress and lack of freedom with which to accomplish such a task. But when the delay ceased leave to be awarded such a title, Elizabeth had become to be very concerned, knowing well her father's stubborn nature and often reluctance to heed warnings from others who suggested patience was the better part of valour. Added to this was his apparent lack of concern about Lawrence during her visit yesterday, the suspicions of which he had avoided to discuss altogether.

Her rationale tried to dismiss this concern, especially when careful discussion with Jane and Georgiana revealed that nothing of significance had occurred, but it soon returned when she realised that if something had indeed happened, her father would prefer to debate his actions with herself first, before announcing to his family then the neighbourhood at large his justification and any evidence that could not be discounted to prove its truth. Yesterday's visit had been short, entirely too short to even try and approach her father on the subject, especially when her mother had entered the room before she could begin to comment on his use of the word 'ordered'.

Thus the remaining hours that were left until their departure the next day, were divided between concern over the above circumstances and an effort to distract herself from dwelling on such concerns until it was considered necessary to do so.


Longbourn, late evening, 13th October 1820.

The soft light of many candles emanating from the front windows of the estate were the only evidence of habitation that night at Longbourn. Darkness had settled early upon the outside world, causing many a person to seek the comfort of their home fires.

Main course was in the process of being eaten, accompanied with the hushed tones of conversation. The main contributors were Mrs Bennet, Lawrence, Mr Bingley, Mrs Darcy, Mr Darcy and Mr Bennet- in that order. The latter tended to confine his comments to his favourite daughter and her husband, only raising his voice to mildly rebuke his wife when she became too insistent in having her point achieved.

Elizabeth had much to be astonished about over the evening, although she did much to keep this emotion from becoming apparent. There was only one thing which produced it, but it was of such a major significance that it caused to be multiplied in her mind. She observed the interaction between her father and Lawrence with this emotion. For their relationship seemed radically altered since her last visit to Longbourn. It flowed more smoothly and had none of the underlying tones of sarcasm, caution, attack or suspicion.

Her father was no longer watching his every move, in fact he seemed to be avoiding it altogether. Likewise Lawrence's conversation also went unobserved. His manner was more relaxed than it had been in the last dinner occasion. Elizabeth did not know what to make of it. She was not only puzzled, but also concerned, for her mind could not help but wonder if her father had gone against Richard's wishes and confronted Lawrence. If so, what possible reason had procured so a calm reaction? Elizabeth knew her father, his response to a deception would not be like this.

Supposing this to all be true, would Lawrence really be deceiving them? Would he instead turn out to be her brother? As soon as this supposition expressed itself in her mind, Mrs Darcy discounted the possibility at once. The one certainty her father had assured her from the beginning that this Lawrence was not his son. How could he be doubted? Yet, he was human, capable of making mistakes. Perhaps the gentleman was his son. But why this change of manner now, if only to hide such a fact? She knew not what to think.

And she was not the only one. Lydia also had her suspicions. She attempted to keep her manner as close to normalcy as possible, but could not deny herself a great deal of contemplation over it. She found her father to be observing her most of the evening. At first she put this down to his natural concern over her recent behaviour, but when she observed more closely, she realised that this could not be wholly the case.

For he seemed to be watching her interactions with Lawrence only. This puzzled her greatly for she had done everything to assure that her actions towards him had not altered since their minor misunderstanding, and that they continued to be as they had always been, those of a sister and friend to her brother.

Lawrence's manner also seemed altered, again particularly concerning herself. Before this dinner his time spent with her had been of shorter duration than usual. They did not talk as they had used to do so. Personal subjects were avoided, almost discouraged, in favour of more general ones, a change to which she had attributed herself as the one to blame, for her stupidity in presuming he could confide in her.

Tonight however had produced a marked alteration. He seemed to be concerned in only talking to her, finding out only her opinion. Normally such a reversal would have made her happy, but she found herself continually growing suspicious of it, especially as her father was observing at its every turn.

Despite her ignorance of the full nature of her family's suspicions concerning Lawrence, Lydia was fully aware that her father was not allowed to confront him just yet. But if tonight's behaviour was anything to go by, he seemed to have disobeyed that order.

Like Elizabeth, Lydia found herself puzzled by this. Why would her father be so calm? He had been anything but calm when she had deceived him eight years ago after marrying Wickham. Either he was restraining himself or he had not confronted Lawrence at all, although this latter explanation brought her back to square one. Lydia sighed. Like her elder sister she knew not what to think.

When dinner had at last drawn to a conclusion, Elizabeth managed to secure a moment alone with her father. She asked him instantly what had happened.

His explanation was this: "No, I have not confronted him, Lizzy. I am merely giving him space. The continued surveillance has not prompted him to confess or commit an error, so I have decided on a new form of attack."

Elizabeth found herself unable to discount this excuse for it completely answered all the questions her mind had produced. Later though she was to ponder on it a little more, due to the events that were to come.


Netherfield, 14th October 1820.

Lydia met Georgiana eagerly the next morning for her now regular piano lessons. True to Mrs Blakeney's advice, she had grown fond of the pastime, no longer finding it a tedious bore as she had done in the days of youth. At this she chuckled, remembering that she was only three and twenty, hardly ancient by any comparison. She found that she could lose herself in the music, forget her troubles, her past and think of nothing but the next note or scale which needed to be performed. She left each lesson happier than she had ever truly been, with the confidence to face her troubles, not avoid them.

Despite the short duration of this confidence, she found herself still pleased by the effect the pursuit had on her. She was also grateful of the company and friendship that Georgiana offered her, not because they had both experienced discomfort at the hands of the same gentleman, but because they had much in common and dispositions designed to compliment the other. Georgiana taught Lydia to find the ability to laugh once more and in turn Lydia was able to offer advice on children and married life, which Georgie found wonderfully useful as she was sometimes too nervous to ask Elizabeth.

The lesson passed without incident, and afterwards the two retired to the window seat and began to compare their observations of last night's dinner party.

"Did you see the marked alteration between Lawrence and my father?" Lydia asked after a while. She choose her moment carefully, taking care to make it known that there was to be no significance attached to the question.

"I did," Georgiana confessed, watching her friend carefully. Since her discovery of Lydia in tears some days ago, Mrs Blakeney had done everything in her power to see that such a reaction to Lawrence did not repeat itself. To do so discreetly she had been obliged to take up her brother's habit of observing, mixing it with her sister in law's, in order to achieve what she hoped would be a sound conclusion. Last night she had watched Lydia carefully, and by default, Lawrence as well. "His manner did seem much easier than when I saw them together last. What do you think produced such a change?"

"I know not," Lydia replied. "I can only speculate that father has perhaps confronted him and found the truth to not be what he expected."

Georgiana looked at her friend in surprise. "You mean that Lawrence might really be your brother?"

"No, I do not mean that. I mean that the truth is perhaps something that none of us have imagined it could be. That Lawrence is not my brother, but not an impostor either. That his reason for being in Meryton is something else entirely."

"What you do think it is?"

"Your cousin confirmed that he is a military man. Perhaps he is investigating some military matters down here. Matters that are of such a grave nature that it forces him to adopt a cover story."

Georgiana looked at her friend carefully. She did not like where this train of thought was going. She feared that she already knew its destination. "Lydia, you do not mean that he is here to investigate you?"

"It is not so improbable," Lydia argued, "it would explain why he visits me all the time and why he is so interested in me. What other reasons could he have?"

"Several," Georgie insisted. "He could be concerned because of your past. He could desire to restore your faith in people. He could be in love with you."

Lydia chuckled, much to her friend's relief. And distress. "In love with me? Really, Georgie, whatever possessed you to think that? No, I am of the opinion that he has confided in my father and procured his assistance to the plan."

"Lydia, if what you believe is the case, I do not believe that your father would assist him in any way. Whatever his feelings were towards your late husband, he would support you. You are his daughter. Has he not tried to improve his relationship with you?"

She sighed and took her friend's hand. "Lydia, please have faith. Whatever his past mistakes, your father truly loves you. As do the rest of your family. They want nothing more than for you to regain your confidence and trust. There is not some secret mission to investigate you because of your husband. Wickham, had not the talent for espionage, or indeed for anything but raking up dates. And I am sorry if that pains you."

"Oh, Georgie," Lydia began, ashamed. "I do not mean to bring you distress by speaking of him. I am completely of the same opinion of him."

"The only distress you have cause is by being so cruel to yourself, when you have no reason do thus."

"You are probably, right Georgie," Lydia finally agreed. "I am worrying myself over nothing."

With that the conversation came to an end but it left both wondering whether either had been really truthful throughout it. Only later were they to discover what was the truth and what was to be false.


Somewhere on the countryside surrounding Oakham Mount, 15th October.

"Sir?"

"What is it, Sergeant?"

The man shifted his feet uncertainly. He was reluctant to voice his thoughts, even though he had just begun the task. The man standing before him was not a man to disagree with. His reputation spoke for itself. Yet this task. Something was not quite right. Not that the sergeant was a man to second guess his superior. No, he followed orders without question. Usually. And this situation was anything but usual. "I was just wondering, sir, as to when we will carry out our orders."

His superior turned to survey the prospect. To the sergeant he appeared reluctant too. And preoccupied. Not that the sergeant was study of character, but any one can recognise the usual signs. "And do you know our orders at this moment, sergeant?"

The sergeant should have recognised the warning signs. However, perhaps due to his preoccupation, he ignored them. "Well, yes, sir. You told us....."

With lightning speed his superior turned round, put himself face to face. Speaking in a harsh stage whisper, the anger within him was clear to be heard. "Listen to me. You follow my orders. If I tell you to wait, you wait. If I tell you to watch him, you watch him. If I tell you to let him go, you let him go. And the one thing you do not do, the one thing that you never do, is question me." He grabbed the sergeant by his cravat. "If you do this again, I shall see to it that you never set a foot alive again. Do I make myself clear?"

Choking, the sergeant could only nod. His superior released him, pushing away, dismissing him. He went without a fuss. He knew when not to question.

Lawrence Alexander Bennet sighed as the surrounding countryside became quiet again. There were times when he hated his occupation. Times when he had regretted ever accepting this task that lay before him. The task that now only needed one word from him to be finished.

He wished to heaven that it did not. That there was someone else who could complete it for him. But there was no one. He had known that from the beginning. At the time he had thought, believed, that it would be easy. That he could accomplish it smoothly. He had no idea that it would turn out to be this hard. That this one task would turn out to be the one thing that would change his life forever. That he would meet.....

Resolutely, he shook the last thought away. He could not think about that. It was no longer probable. In fact, it had never been, at least not beyond the realms of his imagination. Instead, he reflected on the evening that his father- for lack of a better word -had called him into his study. He had been expecting such a call for quite some time.

Nonetheless, it had been a surprise, as he had been led to believe that they were waiting for someone else to come before confronting him. He had also expected more than just his father to be present. Perhaps this was why he had forgone his usual plan of denial. Why instead he had confessed everything. Everything. Not just the deception, not just his task. But other things as well.

To his surprise, his father had taken the confession well. Not one part of it had varied from what he had suspected, at least, that was what he had said. He had been pleased in fact at how well it had all gone. He had expected an outburst. Shouting at the most. But instead he had been met with calm silence and logical, rational questions. And willingness to not only keep what he had been told to himself, but to assist in any way he could.

In both matters. Lawrence had never expected that. The first was absolutely necessary, but the second was something that, recently, he had become to realise that he did not deserve to even contemplate. Yet his father approved. Approved and was willing to help him in achieving it.

He had been trying to restrain himself. To accept the fact that it could never happen. Until that night. Now though, doubts had begun to invade once again. What right did he have to even try for it? Lawrence was convinced that he had none. The moment he came clean, the moment he revealed himself, it would be impossible. The bond would be broken. He had told his father that much that night.

"Maybe it will be," Mr Bennet had replied. "But there will also be a chance to build a new one. A stronger one."


Chapter L.

Netherfield, 16th October, 1820.

When the next day dawned Lawrence left Longbourn soon after breakfast with only one intention in mind. To heal the breach between himself and Lydia. Mr Bennet had given him the courage to try, now it was up to him to follow it through. He had to show her that despite all that was about to come, he was not deceitful.

His arrival was certainly a surprise to Lydia when a footman announced him to her. Laying aside her book, she cast a glance at herself as the footman departed to let her visitor in. What on earth can he want? Did we not talk enough two nights ago?

"I hope I'm not disturbing you?" Lawrence asked as soon as the door had closed behind him, leaving the two of them alone.

"Not at all," Lydia replied, managing to keep her puzzlement out of her voice. "What can I do for you?"

If you only knew. "I actually came to apologise for my recent behaviour concerning you," Lawrence began, seating himself on the sofa opposite her. "I know that ever since you asked me a particular question, you feel that I have been avoiding you. This is not an opinion I am disputing. I have been avoiding you, and I am sorry for it."

"I do not need your apology," Lydia rejoined. "All I require is an explanation." To what I thought had been a completely innocent question. Since I had no difficulty in confiding in you, why could you not do the same for me?

"Which is what I am about to give you," Lawrence assured her. And himself. At least, part of an explanation anyway. What I am doing? "I could say that due to my upbringing I am not used to confiding in people, but I am not fond of making excuses for my actions. I always strive to be honest with the people I regard as friends," what irony that emotion is right now, "and I regard you as such." If you only knew how much and more how I do regard you.

Lawrence sighed. "I wish I could tell you everything, Lydia. But most of it is out of my hands. Yes, there is something I have been concealing. Not just from you, but from everybody. Such concealment has been necessary. There is something here, a task that I have to do. This task has to be kept secret from everyone. What I can tell you though, is that it has nothing to do with you or your late husband. It is something different entirely.

"And it until it has been completed, I can tell nobody of it. Nothing. Not even the fears, or the doubts that I constantly have about it, myself and my ability to go through with it. And the harsh knowledge that once it has become clear, everyone here will look at me in a different light. And they will not see my real self, all they'll see is a monster.

" I do not deny them that right, I know it is to be expected. It is because of this that I hold myself back, hoping to somehow lesson the blow that I know I will receive, and the one that I will deliver to everyone. I have no desire to hurt anyone," you most of all, "yet I know that I will."

Lydia listened to this impassioned speech with mixed emotions. At first she could feel nothing but anger at him, for treating her no different from everyone else, when they were meant to be friends. Then, as she heard him speak of the task that he could tell no one of, one that would drove people to regard him as a monster, she felt she could listen no more. "Lawrence, I may not have any knowledge of this task that you seem certain will damage your character in this neighbourhood forever, but I can reassure of one thing."

At least I hope I can. "You could never be a monster. I, more than anyone who lives here, knows what a monster is and that is something you could never be. Whatever your task, whatever your deceptions, I for one will not think that of you. These past few days since I have come to know you, convince me so. You are too kind, too thoughtful to be a monster. Once this is over, you will still have my friendship. This I promise you."

Lawrence took her hand in his, smiling at her in relief. "Thank you," he replied. "You have no idea how much your assurances mean to me. My only hope is that, once this is over, you still feel the same way." Indeed, if you do, I shall be lost forever.


Netherfield, 17th October 1820.

The next day brought a thick bundle of mail to Netherfield Hall. The majority of it was nothing more than acceptances to the invites that had been sent out some days ago for the ball in just a month's time. Mr Blakeney's parents were among this number, adding the promise to arrive a day or so before, if the fates allowed. The rest of the mail were replies from various correspondences to the occupants of the house.

One of these was for Mrs Darcy, from her dear friend Mrs Collins. It ran as follows;

 

Hunsford Parsonage
Kent
Oct. 14th

My Dear Lizzy,

Events here at Kent have been of little consequence since your return to Meryton. I miss your company daily, but cope as best as I can with the return to the normal life I now must lead. Mr Collins remains convinced my wish for solitude is due to the knowledge that we have no longer his inheritance to look for to, but you know me better than that.

He is much the same as he was when you saw him last, if somewhat less discontent with his situation in life. I myself am more than content that things will remain the same. Alex is a far more worthy recipient of Longbourn.

But to resume with my original purpose. Mr Fitzwilliam is still in London and is not expected back for some time. His reasons according to Anne are that he is securing permission for the full story concerning Lawrence Bennet to be revealed earlier than planned to your family.

What this story is however, is something that none of us here are clear on. Mr Fitzwilliam refuses to tell us, however much it distresses him. The news must be of a very serious nature to affect him so. Forgive me, I have no desire to distress you, merely to inform you of what is happening.

I thank you for the invitation to the ball. I wish we could come, but Mr Collins has several important functions to perform in the day, that he cannot leave in the hands of anyone but himself. I know however that you will enjoy it far more than the one that graced the same date almost nine years ago.

Lady Catherine sends her regards. And her regrets as well. She fears that due to the conditions of the roads and estate business that she must go over with her steward, she will not be able to attend either.

She does however send Anne and her husband in her place, if they have an invitation of course, and providing Mr Fitzwilliam has, and I quote, 'the power to deign himself a return to our presence.'

I am sure her presence will be greatly missed!

I cannot help but imagine what could have occurred had she been present nine years ago. Can you, Lizzy? Would it have changed anything do you think?

At this juncture, I must leave you.

My regards to you and all at Netherfield and Longbourn

Charlotte Collins.

Elizabeth chuckled as she contemplated the possible future that might of been, had Lady Catherine de Bourgh graced the Netherfield ball. Certainly her presence would have overshadowed the antics of her sisters then, as well as her mother's actions. Her husband might not have been able to ask her to dance, but then neither would have Caroline Bingley. It was certainly an intriguing prospect.

She folded the letter away and turned back to her husband children, whose presence she would not change for the world.


Longbourn, 18th October 1820.

Lydia left Netherfield the next day for a visit that she felt was long overdue. She and Kitty had been friends for so long before and briefly after her elopement that to not confide in her now would be insulting and hurtful to her sister.

She entered the drawing room with her children in tow to find her sister surrounded by her own and- much to her disappointment -their mother. Lawrence was also there.

"Lydia," Mrs Bennet cried joyfully. "It is so good to see you. And my grandchildren," she added, as the children in question looked upon their grandmother with nothing short of bewilderment and fear. Eagerly they attended to the entreaties of their cousins and sat down to play.

Lydia seated herself next to Kitty, offering her a smile of compassion. Her sister returned it with fervour. "And how are you, mama?"

"Oh, I am well," Mrs Bennet replied. "But your father still continues to vex me daily. He refuses to tell me if he has made dear Lawrence official inheritor of this estate. And you my son, do exactly the same," she added, looking expressly at Lawrence. "And if he does not do it soon, he might die before it and then what are we to do? Mr Collins will throw us out on to the street and if my daughters do not help me, I..........."

At that moment Mr Bennet came in, saving his 'son' and daughters from their mother's peals of worry. "Lawrence, could I speak to you for a few minutes?" He inquired.

"Of course sir," Lawrence answered eagerly. With a smile of sympathy to Lydia and Kitty, he bowed to Mrs Bennet and left the room.

"And now he deprives me of his company," Mrs Bennet exclaimed dismayed. "Where is your husband, Kitty dear? We must have some male company."

"He is attending to his business letters," Kitty replied gently. "And Mary and her husband are at Ashcroft for a few days so he can deliver his service for All Hallows and All Saints Day to his parishioners."

"Well it is all extremely vexing," Mrs Bennet concluded sadly. She glanced at the timepiece on the wall above them. "Gracious me, why has not Hill come yet? I am meant to be discussing today's menu with her. Excuse me girls, I shan't be long."

Kitty breathed a sigh of relief as soon as the lady of the house had quitted the room. "She has been like this ever since our arrival," she remarked to Lydia.

"I am sorry, I have not been able to relieve you of it," Lydia replied. "I have not meant to forget or ignore you, Kitty. I have no excuse for it. Other than perhaps my own fears. I thought you might not wish for my company."

"Not at all," Kitty exclaimed. "I know we have barely kept in touch these past years, but you are still my sister. And my friend. I feel guilty myself for not being able to help you."

"There was nothing you could have done," Lydia assured her sadly. "There was nothing anybody could have done. I know it is wretched to say this, but the only person who could help was Major Vaughan." Lydia smiled. "You can help me now, Kit, by being the person that you always are, my friend. I want to know my sister."

"And you will," Kitty replied earnestly.


Longbourn, late evening.

Lawrence joined his sisters not more than a hour before dinner was announced. He seemed distracted at first, but soon managed to pull himself out of it.

After the dinner when Lydia and her children had returned to Netherfield, he made his own departure for Meryton, seen off only by Mr Bennet.

Edmund himself had not called Lawrence into his study to confront him. Indeed, it was only to learn of what progress he was making and relay in return the news he had received from London from Elizabeth's cousin in law, Richard Fitzwilliam.

Apparently, the man had just received permission to deliver the real story of Lawrence Alexander Bennet on the night of the Netherfield ball, by which time any impediment would be powerless to prevent the success of the mission. Lawrence had been grateful for the information, thanking his 'father' before they moved on to other matters.

When he left, Mr Bennet had leant back in his chair and contemplated the state of affairs before him. If things went as hoped, he would soon have the power to sort out his estate, as well as a few other things. All however, depended on how Lawrence was regarded when the entire story was revealed to the neighbourhood at large. Or rather, the Bennet family.

If his reputation, ignoring the act that would add to it, remained unaltered in the eyes of his family, all would work out well. If his act could not be ignored though, circumstances would be uncertain. Mr Bennet had examined all worst case scenarios for the latter and none seemed to contain even a glimmer of hope regarding the one matter that Lawrence cared the most about.

That matter. It had surprised Edmund most completely when Lawrence confessed it to him after he had finished telling his story. What had surprised Edmund most of all though, was that he was not displeased by it. Quite the contrary, in fact. He approved. Despite all, he liked the man, even though he was required to do so harsh a mission.

Due to his fondness for character study, Mr Bennet had also been able to view the matter from an outsider's perspective and, as a result, was able to reassure Lawrence and himself that the matter was not entirely impossible, and had much to gain from becoming reality. True, a bond would be destroyed, but, as he had said to Lawrence, there was a chance to build a new and much stronger one. And Mr Bennet wished him luck with it.


A Deserted farmhouse, outside Meryton. 19th October.

The prisoner sighed and turned away from the opening held by four iron bars that sufficed as a window. He had been trapped in this deserted farmhouse for almost four days. They had moved him from The Cunning Fish and placed him here in the middle of night. He knew only too well the reason why.

His time had now run out. All possibility of escape had long disappeared from his mind, along with the hope that his mission had not been in vain, and that someone else would be able to carry the news back. But that was impossible now. The number of bodyguards had increased upon his arrival here. They worked in shifts, assuring that they would be alert if he tried to escape, and by default, convincing him that such an escape was impossible in the first place.

It was official now. He could no longer deny it to himself. He was doomed. All that awaited him now, was the one thing that he, that no one, could escape.

Death.


Chapter LI.

Rosings Park, 20th October.

Richard Fitzwilliam paced the grounds of Rosings Park with little care for the damage he was doing to the grass with every angry thrust of his boots. He had arrived home from London late three nights ago in a frustrated mood. It was a mood that he really had no need for, as he had achieved the task he had set himself; to be allowed to let the Bennet family learn the truth of Lawrence before the rest of the nation could.

Yet the delay in telling them which had been imposed on him, had been unexpected, and thus caused this mood to come upon him. It was a delay that, as a military man, he could see the logic of, but it angered him nonetheless, because, metaphorically speaking, it tied his hands. Until the day arrived when he could tell, he was powerless to do anything save wait.

And he hated waiting. In the army he had been taught the value of patience, to wait for orders before going into battle, but the battle or the command had always come soon, rapidly drifting into silence as it became a matter of every man for himself. Any comparison to this present state of affairs was as pointless as a broken pencil.

Anne Fitzwilliam watched her husband from the windows of her mother's library. A place rarely frequented by her ladyship, always by her late father, hence she suspected her husband's preference for the particular piece of ground which it overlooked. Anne knew Richard all too well, especially when something was bothering his peace of mind, thus she had come upon him soon after his first arrival in the grounds outside.

What it was that was bothering him she had no knowledge of, for he had refused to tell her any of it when he had first returned to Rosings some three days ago. But she could grasp at the essentials. He knew now the reality behind Lawrence Bennet, but was prevented by his superiors from dashing to Longbourn and revealing the whole.

Anne could also see that it was a delay with which her husband's mind agreed with, thus the reason for his obvious frustration. Thirty years spent annually in his company and seven years of marriage to him, had taught her what he did whenever he needed to resolve his troubled mind.

A day of pacing outside in some idyllic countryside always served as his time-honoured solace. Until now. Three days he had been at it, and still no sign that he had found peace. She rose up from her chair and walked to the doors.

Richard came to a halt the moment he heard the click of the lock. Schooling his features into an agreeable mask, he greeted her. "Anne, forgive me. I had not noticed the time. Has Lady Catherine been looking for us?"

"Richard," Anne rebuked, coming to stand before him, "I know you too well for such a mien to succeed. It is pointless dwelling upon a delay that has not been imposed by you and one that you can do nothing about."

Her husband smiled, his first real smile of three days. "How did you know I was doing exactly that?"

"I know you," Anne answered simply.

Richard clasped his wife's outstretched hand, bringing it to his lips. "Very well, my dearest, I am all yours. What do you require of me?"

"An easy task. Your company. Michael, Juliet and Charlotte are missing their father."

"Ah, a woman's usual trick. Emotional blackmail." Richard grinned wickedly.

"Blackmail? Just for that, Richard Fitzwilliam, I shall tell my mother what you have done to her formal gardens."

"Do, do," he replied, catching her in his arms. "She has not a had a good debate in months. She must be missing them."

Anne laughed with him as he brought her face level with his own. Their lips touched and the world for a brief moment slipped away.

It was broke all too soon. A servant appeared before them at the entrance of the Library, a square piece of paper in his hands. "An invitation has just arrived from Lord Devereaux, sir and ma'am. Shall I leave it with you?"


Netherfield, 21st October 1820.

"I do not see why you place such interest in this. Surely two people are entitled to a walk now and then?"

Jane Bingley turned in her window seat to face her husband. "Charles, have you forgotten how we began?"

"We, are a different case. They, are brother and sister," Bingley pointed out.

"Could be brother and sister. Neither of us believe that as well you know." Jane turned to the window again. "There is something there, or at least the potential for something, I am certain of it."

Bingley joined his wife at the window. Silently he followed her gaze to observe the couple again. "Even if there is," he allowed, "I do not think it will be easily achieved if it turns out that he has deceived us."

"He will have a hard time of it," Jane acknowledged, "but I think it will be the end result. It will just need patience."

Both turned away as the couple outside came to face the house once more. "It will certainly surprise your father if it does come pass," Bingley commented.

Jane chuckled. "Yes indeed it will. I do not imagine that there will be anyone who will not be more surprised."

"Except perhaps the couple themselves."

Jane shook her head. "No. Lawrence I think, already knows, and as for Lydia, she will learn of it through his actions."

"Do you think she will accept it though?" Charles queried. "She has had so much sadness in her life. Do you really believe she will want to risk herself again?"

"Coming to us after Wickham's death has already put herself at risk. Realising Lawrence's feelings will be easier. It is herself and her situation that she has to reconcile with more than anything. She needs to see that just because she has eight children her life is not over." Jane sighed. "She is only four and twenty. That is too young to face a life of solitude."

Charles drew his wife into his arms. "I worry about her too, my love. And you are right. It is herself that needs to realise the possibilities instead of the harsh reality that tends to consume her." He paused to kiss her hair. "What does Georgiana think of it?"

"Georgiana is concerned that Lydia thinks too much about how she appears to the world. She tries to distract her, but she fears how long she can succeed in doing so. And if she is even succeeding at all."

"Perhaps Lawrence will help in that," Was her husband's last words upon the subject.


22nd October.

"Are you busy, m'dear?"

Georgiana looked up from her seat where she had been helping her daughter and son on a puzzling piece of dissected map to find her husband's head had appeared by one of the doors. "Not for you. What is it?"

Michael Blakeney stepped inside, and abruptly halted as his children rushed from their mother's side to ambush him. Once they were satisfied that he had acknowledged their presence, they returned to their map, while he walked to seat himself by his wife. He held up the thick bundle of small paper in his hand. "I have just had my father's confirmation that they will come to the ball. He also hopes that we will return to Richmond with them afterwards."

"That would be wonderful," Georgiana consented happily. "For how long?"

"As long as we wish," Michael continued. "Father knows of our plans to spend Christmas with the Matlocks and is agreeable that that week will be our leaving date." He looked at his children who had returned to playing before them. "Of course we might only be going alone. You know what my parents are like with those two."

"Indeed I do." Georgiana leant back into his arms, letting a comfortable silence settle over both of them. Idly she wished for some material with which to sketch the scene before her. Her water-colours had been rare of late due to the demands of Matthew and Annette, something she knew had to rectify before teaching either of them the accomplishment. With a smile she quietly spoke of her thought to her husband.

"I was thinking exactly the same," Michael replied, stroking her hair. "Though I daresay my skill is far from your excellence."

"I love your sketching," Georgiana replied, remembering well that a mutual love of art and music had begun their courtship.

"Much to the astonishment of my parents," Michael added. "Father always asserted that drawing and music were not the ways to woo a woman."

"That was only because he had used the more traditional way. I remember one evening when we did a duet. His eyes were always upon us."

"Your brother was surprised as well," Blakeney pointed out.

"His reason for it was different. His talent for them had always been pushed away by our relatives, for fear he would neglect the estate. Elizabeth tells me he has returned to them though, to amuse their children." Georgiana smiled as she recalled one instance that she had discovered herself; when Heloise and Lawrence were young.

She had found him teaching them a song their mother had loved in the early hours of the morning while Elizabeth had to consult with Mrs Reynolds on the daily menu. That memory brought to her mind another reminder and she realised it was the perfect time. "Of course, if Matthew and Annette decide to stay with their grandparents, we will not be alone on our journey to Matlock."

Michael turned to find his wife looking back at him with a significant smile. Pausing all thought to marvel at her beauty, he almost forgot her unusual choice of words that had made him turn in the first place. Then his found his hand moved by hers to rest upon her waist. His immediate joy was enough to call the attention of their children as he embraced her.


23rd October.

Fitzwilliam Darcy entered his wife's rooms to find a most pleasing sight. Pausing at the door, he watched with admiration as Mrs Darcy described the view from the windows to their attentive youngest child, who watched her mother and the prospect with rapt fascination.

To a man who found himself falling more and more in love with his wife by the hour the scene was too lovely to interrupt, let alone even disturb by his presence. He forgot the reason he needed her, remaining in this position until she noticed him standing there, some five minutes later.

At her look, Darcy joined her quietly, coming to a halt just in front of the window seat where she and Imogen knelt. Bestowing a kiss upon his daughter, he gazed intensely at his wife, his eyes conveying all the depth of emotion that words only cover so far. She met his gaze, returning the devotion as the world tried to slip away. Imogen shook her hand, and her parents came back to the scene before them. "What is it?" Elizabeth asked.

Darcy paused for a full five minutes as his mind rapidly tried to recollect what it was that had brought him back to his wife, other than a need to simply be in her company. "The Matlocks confirm the plans for Christmas. I have just received their reply. A poor excuse to see you, my love, but I must try to think of some for appearance's sake."

Elizabeth eyes sparkled with humour. "Yes indeed you must. Are they well?"

"Very well," Darcy replied, setting himself opposite her. "Uncle is considering handing over part control of the estate fully to Martin in the new year. Actually considering is not the right word. His physician is insistent upon it."

"Is there any worry for his health?"

"Worry certainly, but you know my Uncle. He hates winter. Lack of activity ails him rather than the reverse. I think Dr Mitchell will change his mind as soon as some sun appears in the county." He paused as his wife seemed distracted. "What is it, Elizabeth?" He added, unconsciously speaking her name with reverence, as he always did.

"I am concerned that this matter with Lawrence will not be over before we leave for Matlock," She confessed.

"We have had nothing from your cousin bar his acceptance for the ball and father seems to have lost his enthusiasm for confronting Lawrence altogether. Unless of course he already has and is under orders not to say anything to us until Richard's arrival."

"I fear you might be right m'dear," her husband replied. "In both respects. Though I hope for all our sakes that the former is proved wrong soon."


Chapter LII.

The Countryside of Meryton, 24th October.

Lydia smiled as she gazed at the view before her. It was the first smile of contentment that she had had for quite some time. Why, she knew not, and at present did not possess the care to wonder about it. Instead she just allowed the beauty of the view to wash over her, like a soothing balm, wiping her troubles away.

Lawrence observed her out of the corner of his eye. He too felt some contentment. Since that almost fateful day when he had come to her with his part confession, hoping she would forgive him and ignore the fact that he still had yet to tell her what she had asked for in the first place, he had thought that they would never feel at ease with each other again. Yet here they were, eight days later. It was a remarkable achievement.

There was a part of him however, that could not help but worry about what was to come. He should have left Meryton weeks ago. His delay was costing him everything, no matter how much his mind seemed not to care. There was really now only one thing keeping him here, the one thing that, had he been able to think rationally, would not be something he should even attempt. But his feelings would not allow him to stop, to accept defeat and turn away. He would always be wondering if he did.

Lydia felt her companion's introspection and silently sighed. She respected Lawrence's apparent wish for reticence, yet she also wished he would choose to confide in her as well. It was obvious that his thoughts were troubled by some thing. She longed to ask him about it, but at the same time she knew what would be the outcome if she did. He would hide from her again. Gone would be the ease that was between them now, leaving in its place the silence that had existed between them eight days ago. And she had hated that silence.

So she kept silent, waiting for the time when it would all come out. She feared that time. She had assured him that she would never think him a monster, but later her mind had begun to wonder why he was convinced that image would be the result. What task could there be that would make him appear thus?

Lydia was almost afraid to think about it, for fear that she would break her promise to him. Yet the question would still bother her, whispering away at her mind. Like it was doing so now. Resolutely she pushed it away and turned to her companion. "I think it is time for us to go back."

Lawrence came out of his reverie. He drew out his time piece. "Yes, you are right."

Lydia took his proffered arm and together they walked back down Oakham Mount, each trying to think of something that would distract their minds the entirety of the journey back to Netherfield.

Some one however, did that for them, though to the opposite of what they were hoping. He came upon them suddenly, just as they had reached the path. Lawrence looked up and immediately paled. What was he doing here?

"Sir, I must speak with you," the stranger began, coming to a halt in front of Lawrence.

Lydia glanced at her companion, whose pale face had begun to cause her concern. He seemed to be struggling to keep his emotions in check. Anger flickered briefly over him, then he turned to her. "Lydia, would you go on? I will join you in a few moments."

She obeyed. It was the only thing she could do.

As soon as she was out of sight, Lawrence grabbed the man by his cravat. "Never do that again, do you hear me?" He let him back down. "I thought I told you we were to never meet in day light."

The man stood, struggling to catch back his breath. From her hiding place Lydia gasped. Doubts began to form in her mind. Fearing to see anymore she slipped away.


Netherfield Grounds, 25th October.

Lydia found herself still haunted by the image the following day. She had never seen Lawrence angry before. A part of her had doubted that he was capable of it. Until last afternoon. Seeing him almost strangle a man had brought back memories, memories that she did not like. Times when Wickham had been angry. Did all men possess such an emotion? Was she to be forever haunted by it?

And they will not see my real self, all they'll see is a monster. Lawrence's words made sense now. What was even more terrifying was that until now, Lydia had never thought he would be right. If only she had not remained behind. Not seen him do what he did. I have no desire to hurt anyone, he had said, yet I know that I will. Why could he not? What task forced him to go against his nature? Could she trust him, knowing that he was capable of such an emotion?

Lydia wished she knew. She wanted to trust him, but the event that she had witnessed was hard to ignore. She could not help but think that he could become angry at her. Wickham had never been angry at her until she knew him better. Would Lawrence do the same? Was there something about her that caused men to become angry? That last thought had scared her, driving her away from the house, hoping a change of scenery would push it away from her mind.

It had yet to depart.

"Lydia," a voice suddenly called.

She looked up to find Lawrence walking towards her. She came to a halt and tried to give an appearance of content. "Lawrence," she began as soon as he had reached her. "How nice to see you again. Is there some thing you wanted of me?"

Lots of things, Lawrence's mind silently replied, before he roused himself to notice her manner. Something was wrong. "Just your company. Is there anything the matter?"

"Am I allowed to ask who that gentleman was that came across us yesterday?"

"Of course you're allowed," he began jovially, trying to give the appearance that there was nothing to be concerned over. "He thought he had seen me before. I set him straight then came to find you. Where did you go?"

"Oh, I had begun my walk when Henry came up to me," Lydia replied, hoping her son would forgive her lying about his whereabouts. "Beth had fallen over and was calling for me. I spent the rest of the day with them, cheering them up."

Lawrence accepted her excuse. "Give her my best hopes for a speedy recovery. I also wanted to ask you something. I know we are brother and sister, but I was wondering if you would be willing to overlook that and agree to dance the first set with me at the ball?"

"I would love to," Lydia replied, forgetting her worries for a moment. It had been a long time since someone had asked her to dance with them. She smiled happily at him.

Lawrence rejoiced to see it. He wished he deserved it.


26th October.

Good news travels fast, as the saying goes, and the Blakeneys were happy for it to do so, at least as far as their immediate family. This in mind they went to seek them out.

The Darcys were in the library, a room that had been much improved since its last tenant gave up the place six years ago. Ensconced together upon a sofa, Darcy was quietly reading aloud to his wife and youngest child, taking every turn of a page as an excuse to kiss the former's hair.

Upon finding this scene the Blakeney's had little desire to disturb it. However the interruption was now out of their control. The door behind them closed loudly, and Fitzwilliam looked up to find his sister before them.

"Georgie," he began in surprise. "Is something the matter?"

"Oh no," Georgiana assured them quickly. "We just have some news, but it can wait. We'll leave you in peace."

"There's no need," Elizabeth remarked. "What is it?"

The Blakeneys sat down, Michael taking his wife's hand in his. "In the spring of next year, Imogen will have another cousin to play with," he uttered simply.

The Darcys looked at each other and smiled. "Congratulations," Fitzwilliam said to his sister, who smiled happily in reply.

"We wanted you two to be the first to know," Georgiana began. "And to tell everyone else when I start to show. Would you mind keeping this to yourselves for now?"

"Not at all," Elizabeth replied.

Georgiana thanked them and then departed the room with her husband. Her brother turned to his wife when the door had close. He saw her troubled face instantly. "What's wrong, Elizabeth?"

"It nothing," she replied, gazing down at Imogen thoughtfully.

Darcy persisted. "Yes it is. Tell me."

Elizabeth turned to face her husband, still hesitating. Darcy's face betrayed concern however, making her decision, knowing that if she did not, he would jump to the worse possible conclusion. "I want Imogen to be my last child."

"Why?" Darcy began gently, puzzled.

"I see the worry upon your face every time I tell you I am with child. I worry myself that there will come a time when I won't be able to survive. I love them dearly, but I fear the day that I will lose them." She paused to gaze him mutely. "Are you angry?"

Darcy put an arm around her, carrying her into an embrace. "Elizabeth, my darling, I could never be angry with you. I love it when you tell me I am to be a father again, but I also worry about it. I never told you this, but my mother became very ill after I was born. Before Georgiana, there were at least two times that I am aware of where she miscarried.

"She died giving birth to another sister two years later. The babe was stillborn. That's what I fear. Seeing that happen to you. I could not bear to lose you like that. I made a vow that I would not the day Imogen was born." He leant forward and kissed her tenderly. "Now, my love, is that all, that is troubling you?"

"You know me too well," Elizabeth mused, leaning back into his arms. "I do not want this to mean that we sleep in separate rooms or that we no longer........" she trailed off, blushing.

"I did not think I could make you blush any more," Darcy commented. "And with regards to that, let assure you that there are ways and means." He dealt another kiss to hair. "And I will happily show them you later. For now I think Imogen wants us to continue with this," he finished, picking up the book he had lain aside, glancing at their very much awake young daughter. "I love you, Elizabeth," he uttered reverently.

Mrs Darcy happily replied the same, leaning back into his loving embrace.


Chapter LIII.

Longbourn, Meryton, Netherfield, and Rosings,
1st November - 25th November 1820.

All Saint's Day dawned, signalling five and twenty days before the Netherfield ball. It seemed to call to time, urging that thief of moments to quicken the days. And quicken them it did, for all parties concerned.

As the days settled into a pattern, conversations became less important and more routine, as each of the houses prepared themselves for the first ball hosted by the Devereauxs in years. The fine autumnal weather dissolved into the beginning of a mild winter, the calm before the storm it seemed.

Lawrence was one of the few who dreaded the fast arrival of the ball. Its date signalled to him a far more deadly task than preparing to socialise with Meryton's finest. His time was almost up. His men were getting restless, as the untimely intrusion while he was with Lydia showed. If he hesitated any longer, he could have a rebellion upon his hands. And the matter would fall out of his control, a state of affairs which, no matter how much he dreaded taking up the solution, he could not live with.

Lydia. For a brief moment Lawrence allowed himself to dwell on his chances. He knew all too well that it would be a miracle if his hopes were granted when he finally confessed the truth. But no matter how he tried to prepare himself to look upon that almost inevitable eventuality, he found he could not. A part of him still hoped all would turn out well, even though it faced a continuous attack from his other more realistic half to allow the possibility that it would not.

He feared not just Lydia's reaction. The Bennets he had come to learn were loyal to a fault when it came to their family. If by some chance he managed to achieve his dreams, would it be accepted by the rest of the family? Mr Bennet's approval he had, but the others still remained unaware. What would their reaction to be? He feared being shunned by all, even though it was the most likely outcome. Their views would no doubt sway Lydia and he would be forced to attempt to pick up his life elsewhere, a task that he knew that he deserved, but dreaded to face all the same.


 

At Rosings Park the household rapidly began to prepare for the departure of the Fitzwilliams, or Miss Anne and Master Richard as they were affectionately referred. Even though the couple were not to leave until two days before the ball, Lady Catherine insisted that everything must be prepared the morning of All Saints, and as you know, she is not a woman to trifle with.

Anne was happy to see her husband calm down as the days hastened. His restlessness had not completely disappeared after we saw him last, but instead slowly lessened until his adrenaline awoke in preparation for the announcement he was to make.

Mrs Fitzwilliam looked forward to the ball, for such occasions were considered rare events by her, as she had not attended her first until some months after the Darcys' wedding. Since then she had only been to six, a figure which would have been rapidly reduced if her mother had had any say in the matter. Instead she had been forced to surrender to her brother the Earl's requests until she saw for herself how much good they did her only child.

Her husband was of the same mind, despite his task that was before him. Before his marriage, balls had also been a thing to avoid, although he had dodged them by choice rather than by health. One might think that as a second son he had no need to fear matchmaking mothers or Aunts, but indeed he did, due to his handsome red coat and impressive active rank. This rank was often a saving grace, for it enabled him to be abroad when the London Season was usually in full flow. And on the occasions that it was not, he often cancelled his leave accordingly. The Balls he did attend were only those held by his family, the Duchess of Richmond's in 1815 being a notable exception, and one which he was most grateful that it ended when it did, though it had been a damned nuisance that it was due to a battle rather than anything else.

They had agreed to stay a few days afterwards and help deal with the repercussions that would occur when Richard made his announcement. Mr Fitzwilliam had debating the best time and the best words since the moment he had learnt he was allowed to make it. Especially as he knew the man he was to denounce. A man that even now he still held a great respect and admiration, for possessing the courage to carry out a task even himself would have had difficulty in agreeing to. Richard also feared his families' reaction to this man. He knew his cousins would come to accept it, along with the Bingleys, but the rest were an unknown quantity, whom he had had little contact with since their marriages.

Above all, Richard hated to do this to a man he called a friend, but the man would soon no longer be a friend if he continued to deceive his extended family.


 

As preparations for the ball were begun in earnest, plans for the departure of the Bingleys, Darcys and the Blakeneys soon afterwards were also put in motion. The three families were to say until the end of the month, whereupon the Blakeneys would depart to Richmond, the Darcys to Pemberley and the Bingleys to Pearlcoombe.

Only Lydia knew not of her plans. She feared to impose on anybody, even her parents, though to stay at Longbourn would be a last resort on her part, for she knew that the influence of her mother would do more harm than good to her children. She also did not wish to return to Newcastle, as the place would hold too many bad memories.

Upon the first of November, Lydia began to explore her third option; employment. She soon found that success of this was almost an impossibility, due to her eight children and her neglect of her education. As the days sped by, she began to feel even concerned about her future and the mask of contentment that she kept up for the sake of her family started to slip.

Her eldest sisters soon noticed it, and instantly resolved among themselves to provide a solution. A day later Jane declared to Lydia that she and her children should consider themselves guests of Pearlcoombe for as long as they needed.

This was a welcome comfort to Lydia, who began to look forward to the ball once more, glad that she had at least the promise of one dance partner for the night.


 

Thus the families prepared themselves with clothes and dance cards as the household aired the ballroom, hung decorations, cooked food, learnt required music and dressed their masters and mistresses.

And at last the scene was set.

 


Chapter LIV.

The Netherfield Ball, Part I:

The Darcy's Suite, Netherfield Hall, Late evening, 26th November 1820.

Elizabeth was surveying the glowing lights outside the window of her bedchamber cast by the increasing number of candles fastened upon the building, lights carried by footman as they waited to receive the guests, and arriving carriages, when a strong pair of arms wrapped themselves round her waist, the hands closing over her own. A clink sounded as they did so, the clash of metal upon metal, created by two wedding bands and an engagement ring landing on top of each other. For Elizabeth, a single glance at the signet ring that lay of the last finger of the left hand determined to her who had his arms around her. Her husband's voice whispered in her ear, confirming her thoughts, which were by now of anything but the ball they were about to attend. "May I claim the first two dances, my beloved?"

"You may," she replied, leaning back into the loving embrace. Darcy bestowed a kiss upon her neck in gratitude, noticing with pride that she was wearing the sapphire and diamond necklace he had given her for no other reason than that she was his wife two days ago. "And the next two dances, my love?"

"Yes," Elizabeth replied as her fine eyes returned to surveying the arriving carriages.

Darcy dealt another kiss, this time upon the other side of her neck. "And the two after that?" He asked, his lips brushing her skin just above the rim of her dress, which bore, in his opinion, far too low and at the same far too high a neckline. The first because he wished no others to gaze upon his wife's beauty, and the last because he alone wished to feast upon such beauty.

Elizabeth tried to keep herself calm as she voiced her acceptance once more. She felt her husband's breath as his lips brushed the front slope of her shoulder in reply. A shudder passed through her as he bestowed another kiss at the rim of her dress and undid the first fastening clip at the back. She turned round and captured his lips in a passionate kiss. As the kiss broke she felt another clip being loosed. "Fitzwilliam," she began in what was an attempt at mild chiding, although she had no objection to his present actions in general, as his arms pulled her closer, "we have barely five minutes. And in front of a window, I might add."

"Surely, we can be fashionably late," Darcy returned, running his fingers down the part of her back that was now exposed, making her look up at him with a gaze of anything but disagreement to his verbal suggestion. "As for your objections to the window, my love, I can soon remedy that," he added, sweeping her off her feet and into the safe carriage of his arms.

The Darcys were slightly more than what could be considered in public- or indeed in any -society as fashionably late, but thankfully for the couple, it was unnoticed by most of the company in the Ballroom as they took a place in the third dance set of the evening.


 

While Mr Darcy delighted in a display of 'ways and means' with his wife, the ball had continued its good beginning, managing a fine number of persons to incline themselves to open the dancing under their kind hosts.

Lydia and Lawrence were just two of these personages. The former had entered into the dance with some concern, for since she witnessed the latter's anger some nights ago, Lydia had been experiencing second thoughts about her agreement to dance with him. Caught up by the idea of dancing after a long period of being forcibly induced to give up such frivolity, she had been unable to refuse his tempting offer, yet after his departure, the scene which she had bore witness to the day before had invaded her mind with such force as to make Lydia wish she had refused him. Throughout the coming days her doubts had continued to rise, even though she knew it was terribly impolite to retract her acceptance. So it was that she entered into the first of their two dances with some degree of trepidation.

Lawrence, although blind as to why, was not blind to her distraction as they took their place in the set. At first he tried to ignore it, thinking it was his own worries that were producing such an illusion. However, by the fifth slight shudder of her hand when she took his, he resolved that it was no mirage. Gently, he inquired, "is there anything wrong?"

Yes, Lydia could not help but think, I wondering whether I can trust you. "I apologise," she replied instead, "this is the first I have danced in a long while. My ability to perform the required steps is making me nervous."

"Well, such neglect does not show, I assure you," Lawrence replied, his concern over her deepening when he noticed her flinch as she spoke of it. What did her husband do to make her like this, he wondered, feeling sick at the thought of it. "Tell me," he added, in an effort to drive the image out of his mind, "what are your recollections of the last ball you attended here? Does this one differ much?"

"A very great deal," Lydia replied, her memories of her past fading away as she thought of the ball nine years ago, when she had been happy. "For one, my sister Elizabeth was dancing this first with Mr Collins, whose skill in dance was severely lacking!" She chuckled at the memory. "He spent most of the time colliding into other dancers!"

"And who did you dance with?"

"With Captain Denny, my favourite officer at the time. He reminds alittle of you, for he was always well mannered and witty. I wonder what has happened to him now." Lydia paused at this point as they parted briefly. When they had resumed their place at each other's side, her conversation was centred on the present. "I wonder where my sister is. She and Mr Darcy were to dance the first set."

"I daresay one or other well-meaning guests have caught them in conversation," Lawrence remarked, as Sir William Lucas passed into his view.


 

Sir William Lucas has not altered both in appearance and manner since our last meeting with him, and did indeed manage to catch the Darcys when they retired for a break from the end of the fifth set of the evening.

"Ah, Mr Darcy, I am quite delighted to see you and your lady wife repeat your actions from the last time," he began as the couple reluctantly came to a halt in front of him. "I'll wager you had no idea of what was to come that night?"

"You will get no argument from me sir," Darcy replied, with a smile to his wife. "I knew not what I was about nine years ago."

"And it was beholden to me to make him realise," Elizabeth teased back. "You indeed had the right mind on what was to come, Sir William."

"Yes I did indeed," Sir William replied. "I saw both yours and your sister's unions that evening. Ah, if only you had consulted me, Mr Darcy. Perhaps it would not have taken so long, hey?"

"Oh, on that I beg to differ sir," Darcy replied, with a wicked grin at his wife, "Mrs Darcy can be quite determined when she puts a mind to it."

Elizabeth knew what he was about. Pretending to be affronted, she exclaimed, "Just for that, sir, I shall retract my acceptance for the sixth set."

Darcy humbly bowed. "Will you excuse us, Sir William? I need to dissuade my dear wife of that notion immediately."

Once away, and alone in a nearby room that was devoid of people, but not of comfortable sofas and chairs, it must be said that Darcy took quite some time in his task, much to the delight of Elizabeth, that both he and his wife missed the sixth set of dancing altogether.


 

Chapter LV.

The Netherfield Ball: Part II.

As we reach this chapter, the author has realised that she has neglected to mention much, if indeed anything, of the guests. She shall attempt to remedy this circumstance now.

The Bennets had come of course, bringing with them the Guests, the Smythes, the Gardiners- of whom the author is fully aware that she has abused dreadfully, referring only to their arrival and then ignoring them until this moment, for which she apologises most heartily -and the Phillipses. So far and, perhaps thankfully, for all parties concerned, a certain member of the foremost mentioned of the above families had been very much restrained. Whether this was due to her being in awe of the hosts, decorations, guests, or her husband, or indeed all of these things, one cannot say. Perhaps it is a mystery best left unsolved. Of other Meryton acquaintances that we are familiar with, only the Lucases had graced the ball with their presence, as you doubt noticed by Sir William's appearance some moments ago.

Apart from the Darcys and the Devereauxs, all the other guests of the house had attended as well, the Bingleys, Lydia and the Blakeneys, who were most pleased to greet their father when he and his wife were among the first of the arrivals that evening.

In a quest for solitude, Lawrence came to a halt in the entrance foyer, where he stood for some time at a window, mulling over his situation and the immediate future. A future which he knew, that, as of tonight, was uncertain. All was out of his hands now. His mask would be dropped this night, it unavoidable to keep it up any longer. He would not be the one to reveal himself, that task lay at the feet of another, who had only sent word of his delay the morning of this day, an item of news which he had managed to obtain from eavesdropping on conversations. This delay did not give him relief, in fact it only gave the opposite. Lawrence had long since decided that it needed to be done and got over, even though he knew that once the truth was revealed, the recriminations would be eternal.

Lawrence pulled himself together at this point and returned to the ballroom, with all the attitude of a man about to face certain death, a state with which he could not help feeling certain empathy at this present moment. His eyes sought out Lydia, finding her still with Mrs Blakeney, not seeming to have noticed his disappearance at all. Dare he ask her for another dance? No, perhaps not, he decided, remembering the task he had to complete within the hour. Instead he sought out one of the Devereauxs and endeavoured to involve himself in the scene at hand until he had to make the temporary departure.


 

"Are you certain?"

"I could not be more certain Aunt, I saw the event all too clearly. What am I to do? I thought he could be trusted. How am I supposed to behave to him, knowing he has done this?"

Mrs Gardiner looked comfortingly upon her youngest niece, wishing she knew what advice would be the most helpful at this moment. She had only recently joined the discussion between Lydia and Georgiana, after the latter had appealed to her wisdom and judgement in a matter with the former found unable to keep to herself any longer.

Lydia feared herself on the verge of a breakdown. The scene of Lawrence's anger had been replaying itself over and over in her mind from the moment they had left the dance floor. Unable to cope with it any longer, she had confided in Georgiana, who had in turn persuaded her to tell Mrs Gardiner, who would better know how the land lay in such matters than herself. "Please help me, Aunt," Lydia pleaded now. "I know not what to do."

"I am afraid that beyond trying to ignore it, I know not either," Mrs Gardiner replied sadly. "If he will not confide in you, Lydia, what else can you do?"

"Its too hard," Lydia uttered in the same emotion. "I have played a part for so long. When I was married, when I was with the children after his death, before I broke at Pemberley........ I hate the mask, Aunt. It is bad enough displaying it to mama and others of Meryton. I thought I could count on Lawrence to accept the real me. If I have to present a mask to him as well......." she trailed off, tears flooding her voice.

Mrs Gardiner did the only thing she could do. Wrapping an arm around her niece, she discreetly escorted her out of the ballroom. "Come my child, let us go see your children. You need a break."

"I'm sorry for being such a nuisance, Aunt Gardiner," Lydia replied as they ascended the stairs.

"Do not worry about it my dear," Madeline replied comfortingly. "You have good reason and I daresay time will heal the remaining wounds. You may look back on this and laugh one day."

"I hope you are right, I really do."


Volume VI.