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A Question of Entail

Volume Two.

Chapter XII.

Longbourn, 16th August 1820.

"I suppose the earliest memory of mine is the day I was transferred from the orphanage to my new family," were the words with which Lawrence Alexander Bennet began his tale as soon as Mr Bennet had gotten over his surprise and was sitting down his armchair, a glass of cognac beside him for the moment untouched. As for his dearly lady wife, Mrs Bennet was fanning herself on a sofa opposite them, throwing every now and again the occasional motherly glance in Lawrence's direction.

"Although I had no recollection that I had had a family at the time. To this day I do not know who took me from here, even though I can remember this place vividly. But to resume. The family, by the name of Calverley, were not affluent, but they had enough to install for me a tutor and, when the time came, to send me to Oxford. At the end of my schooling, I decided that I could no longer go on without making them proud of me, so I joined the army. They had been kind to me, and I wished to earn that kindness by whatever means I could. Later I was to learn that my desire need not have been thought of.

"I returned to their home to find a gentleman waiting with- if you will forgive for using this term for them, for indeed they have been such for as long as I could remember -my parents. He had come to inform them apparently that his employer no longer desired to pay for my upkeep. I did not realise until then, but it turns out that control of my upbringing was in fact attended to and financed by another and one who had no wish to see me, nor continue with his support."

"This gentleman's name?" Mr Bennet asked, speaking for the first time since his arrival. The words and tone were careful, for he was still on his guard.

"I was informed that it was a Mr Alan Collins, sir," Lawrence replied. His tone was respectful, betraying no sign of deceit, or any sign that he was acquainted with the gentleman in question.

"I knew it!" Mrs Bennet cried out at that moment. "I knew that the Collinses were mixed up in this dreadful matter! Why........."

"Please, Mrs Bennet, calm yourself, you are speaking ill of the dead," Mr Bennet commanded, before gesturing to Lawrence that he could continue.

"Well, as the Calverleys had no option other than to turn me out, I shifted myself instantly to my regiment and travelled with them to France. I was involved in a few of the battles, - Vimeiro, the retreat at Corunna, the sieges of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, Salamanca, Vitoria, Toulouse and of course Waterloo -before I was discharged, whereupon I began my search to find my real parents. It was long, as I had no idea where to begin, and not all the information I could find was reliable. I must confess it was pure luck that I learnt of Meryton, sir, and when I did, I could do naught but travel immediately to here. I do hope I did the right thing, Sir." With this last Lawrence looked directly into Mr Bennet's eyes who gave a slight acknowledgement of the gesture.

As for the man himself, Mr Bennet had hardly changed his countenance throughout the entire tale. His face was composed, showing no surprise, no distrust, in fact no emotion of any kind. His mind was in deep contemplation. Slowly he asked, "what are your intentions now, Lawrence?" The words were uttered again with calmness, betraying nothing beneath them.

"As I have left the army, I hope, sir, to stay here with you and try to pick my life up. Not exactly from where I left off, but........" Lawrence trailed off, looking hopefully at Mr Bennet.

"Of course you can stay, can he not Mr Bennet? He is indeed our son, after all, this is his home," Mrs Bennet cried, before her husband could get a word in.

Mr Bennet just nodded in reply, glancing at the clock as he did so. The lateness of the hour was noticed immediately. He turned to Lawrence. "Yes of course. You will always be welcome here. Now, if you do not mind, I believe we had all better retire. I shall hear more from you tomorrow, I hope, Lawrence?"

"Of course, sir," Lawrence replied before respectfully wishing them goodnight.

Mrs Bennet departed some minutes later.

Edmund Bennet remained in his armchair, the light of the fire sufficing as his only vision guide. His mind however, was not focused at all upon the fire, or the lateness of the hour for that matter. Instead it was mulling over again and again the events of the evening. The tale he had just heard was foremost in his mind. He replayed Lawrence's words verbatim continuously in his heard, recalling each action, each reaction, every gesture, every tone, that he had displayed while telling it. There was no denying that the man was good. His every action had a purposeful intention, however insignificant. He truly believed in his tale. Mr Bennet dwelled for a while upon that story. It was a good one, like the man himself. It spoke of detailed research, careful rehearsal, and above all it actually sounded like it had occurred.

Mr Bennet sighed and finally took up his drink. He downed it in one, as his mind formed his conclusions. He would need help, if he was to succeed in his plan. Lawrence Bennet, if indeed that was the man's name, would prove a difficult foe. Of course he was lying. The only problem was how to prove he was.


Chapter XIII.

Pemberley, August 20th 1820.

When the Bingleys, Wickhams and Blakeneys sat down with the Darcys to dinner, it was obvious to all that four more days since Jane's last communication had done nothing to alter Lydia's disposition. She was still as silent, and still as self-contained since the last time they had seen her and for a while, it did not seem that the evening would bring any change to her manner.

For a time her silence threatened to inflict the whole of the sumptuous dining room, but the host soon managed to come with something suitable to compensate for it. Thus the entire meal passed agreeably enough for all parties.

The party then separated, the gentlemen to Darcy's study where their port awaited them, the ladies to the music room. This at first did not bring the hoped for altercation to Lydia's disposition. However, just as the outcome had begun to look bleak, a change took place.

At first it was not noticed by any of them, for they were too busy trying to compensate for the lack of Lydia's involvement as to rarely glance at her. Georgiana was the first to notice it. She had, by mere chance, anxious as much as her sisters were over the state of Lydia, turned to look at her with a mind to offering her sympathetic condolences, as she had not seen Lydia at all since her arrival. Although she rarely thought of her own time with Mr Wickham, she still understood the affect he could have and her heart had gone out to Lydia's ever since she had been informed of the story. She had been looking at Lydia kindly, with a view to tentatively addressing her when, without warning, Lydia returned the gaze.

Georgiana was startled and instantly she spoke to her. "Mrs Wickham, are you all right?" She asked.

Lydia's reply drew Jane and Lizzy's attention instantly. "I would prefer it if you did not address me by that name, Mrs Blakeney."

"Why, Lydia?" Elizabeth instantly asked. This was what they had been waiting for. The moment had come. Lydia was out of her shell.

"I am no longer Mrs Wickham. He is dead, I am no longer his property." Lydia looked up at Elizabeth and Jane. Suddenly tears formed in her eyes and she began to cry, pouring out her grief.

Elizabeth and Jane rushed to her side, embracing her instantly, as the gentlemen walked in. They did so silently, for they had heard the crying begin just as they reached the door to the room and, guessing the identity of the person, did not wish to disturb what might finally be a cure for Lydia's ills. They remained by the door, uncertain as to whether to remain, fearing their presence might alter things for the worse. Georgiana looked up at them kindly, inviting them to stay. They accepted and began to slowly approach the sofas.

Lydia's tears began to abate and slowly Lizzy and Jane drew back from her to give her air. Lydia took a deep breath and spoke a third time. "I am sorry, Lizzy. I'm sorry Jane. I did not mean to be like this for as long as I have. It was just difficult......." She trailed off to blow her nose and then glanced up at the gentlemen. "I apologise for my lack of propriety, Mr Darcy."

"There is no need for you to do so, Lydia," Darcy replied gently, crouching down so his head was level with hers. "We all understand your reasons for being so."

"We are just grateful that you took the courage to come to us," Elizabeth added comfortingly.

"I have treated you all abominably though," Lydia continued sadly. "Not to mention neglecting my children. I hope they have not been too much trouble, Mr Bingley?"

"Not all, Lydia, they have been angels," Charles replied reassuringly. "You raised them well."

"The only thing I have managed to do right with my life then," Lydia concluded bitterly.

"Do not be so hard on yourself," Jane uttered immediately.

Lydia would have said more, had it not been for a knock upon the music room door, interrupting the entire proceedings. Darcy stood up and walked to the door. He opened it, took the note from the footman who was waiting there and then walked back to the group. He handed the note to his wife with the words, "This express has just arrived for you."

Elizabeth thanked him and looked at the direction. She recognised the handwriting instantly. "It is from Papa! What on earth can be the matter?" She turned it over and broke the seal.

The express ran as follows.

My dear Lizzy,

I hope this letter still finds you all health. Forgive my method and abruptness in this letter, for I have little time to relay all of the story. Suffice it to say, you need to come Longbourn as soon as possible. Be not alarmed, your mother and myself are quite well. However, circumstances have changed a great deal since I saw you last.

Once more, rest assured that there is no dreadful news awaiting you, only a mystery that I need all of you to help me solve.

Mr Edmund Bennet.

"What on earth can father mean by this?" Elizabeth cried aloud. She handed the paper to her husband, who likewise after reading it became puzzled.

"What is it, Lizzy?" Jane asked.

"Papa summons us all to Longbourn," Elizabeth replied, before reading the letter aloud to the rest of the occupants of the room.


Chapter XIV.

Longbourn, August 26th 1820.

The Darcys, Bingleys, Lydia and children, were the last to arrive at Longbourn. After receiving the letter almost a week ago, they had all separated instantly to begin packing for the journey.

When Charles, Jane, Lydia and their children had returned to Pemberley, for it had been agreed that they would all travel together, the problem of accommodation was first addressed. Longbourn could not contain them all, and, presumably, there would also be the Smythes and Guests to consider. After a detailed search for a hotel or Inn which could provide a suitable number of rooms, Michael Blakeney came up with the solution.

He was acquainted with the family who now owned Netherfield. The Devereauxs, had always been owners of the place and had leased it eight years ago to Bingley with a view to selling, which was later changed when Charles and Jane quitted the place for Pearlcoombe. Between the Devereauxs and Blakeneys there had been a long history, - the main estates of both families lay with in twenty miles of each other at Richmond, -thus Michael had no concern in imposing upon them.

An express was instantly dealt to the Devereauxs, who wasted no time in replying back, offering all of them- including the Blakeneys -accommodation for as long as they needed it.

Once that problem was solved the Blakeneys travelled to their own estate to pack, and Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam began their own packing, readying to travel as soon as Georgiana and her family returned to Pemberley.

After a smooth journey they arrived at Netherfield to a warm welcome from the Devereauxs. They made sure their luggage was unloaded and their rooms sorted, before departing for Longbourn that very evening.

Thus when Elizabeth stepped out of the Darcy carriage it was with relief that she saw only the carriages of the Guests and Smythes parked on the Longbourn drive, and luggage being unloaded from both of them.

She had been married to Darcy for nearly three years when letters arrived, announcing Kitty's engagement to Mr Edmund Guest. Mr Guest was a man of modest fortune, but enough to afford him a comfortable home, and an inheritance of three thousand pounds per annum from a distant aunt awaited him. She had met him apparently, at a Meryton assembly scarcely a year ago, and their attachment, as Mrs Bennet was sure, had been there from the first. Kitty had changed a great deal since the marriage of her sisters and it was to her credit. She had at first barely noticed Mr Guest until he had asked for her hand for the last dance. She had been flattered when he confessed during it that he had all evening working up the courage to ask her. Mr Guest continued his attentions, by paying call on the family the next day. Evening upon evening of engagements attended by the both of them for a twelvemonth was enough to secure an attachment on both sides. Kitty fell in love with her gentleman and her frank confession of it one night, encouraged him to reveal his own affection. Mr Bennet's consent was applied for and granted and they married in autumn of 1815. Mr Guest gained his inheritance a year later. Since then they had had two children, Thomas, born in 1816 and Rebecca born in 1819.

Scarcely a month after the wedding of Kitty, letters arrived announcing to the Darcys the engagement of Mary to a Mr Smythe. The Rev. Smythe had recently arrived in the neighbourhood as the replacement parish priest for Meryton's neighbouring town; Ashcroft. Smythe was a respectable man with a comfortable income of four hundred pounds a year, despite his rather passionate religious nature. He was extremely devoted to his profession and this was possibly the main reason for Mary to be attracted to him in the first place. Since her sister's marriages she had become slightly more bookish- if this was indeed possible -and Mr Smythe's opinions on the disgrace of recent literature appealed to her own. They began to meet quite frequently, much to the disappointment of Mrs Bennet whose plans for her last unmarried daughter lay in quite another direction. Mr Bennet was equally surprised at the attraction of Smythe for he found the man rather infuriating at times, but nonetheless gave his consent to the match when it was called for, only an evening after Kitty's young man had come a calling. Since their marriage four children decided to grace their household; Faith, Hope, Charity and Samuel, all with a year separating them.

At this moment the former of the above Bennet girls came outside to greet her sisters. Elizabeth immediately called out in greeting.

"Lizzy! Jane! We were wondering when you were all going to arrive," Kitty Guest remarked as she embraced Elizabeth, carefully minding the sleeping babe in her arms. "And is this Imogen?" Elizabeth replied that she was. "Oh, she is so sweet!"

"Kit, what's wrong? Why have we all been called down here?" Elizabeth asked as Kitty looked at her new niece.

"Well, it is not anything bad," Kitty replied cautiously, "but it is rather complicated. I do not know the whole of it. Only Papa does, and he is not saying anything." Kitty paused and then added, "let's go inside shall we, and let the gentleman himself explain everything."

With this Kitty turned to go and after standing puzzled for a few minutes the Darcys, Bingleys and Lydia followed her. When they reached the entrance to the drawing room Elizabeth finally managed to get her sister's attention. "Kitty, what is going on?"

At that moment however, another voice saved Kitty from replying. "Oh my dear dear Lizzy, you are here are last."

"Hello Mama," Elizabeth replied resignedly as Mrs Bennet embraced her. It was a short embrace, for Mrs Bennet was anxious to do several things at once. First she exclaimed over Imogen who was, despite all odds, peacefully still asleep in her mother's arms, then she greeted Darcy, who put on a brave face and tried to greet his mother in law with the best of his manners. Then she did the same with the Bingleys before finally spotting Lydia, whereupon her cries changed. "Oh my dear Lydia!" She cried, pulling her into a comforting- and suffocating -embrace. "Oh my poor girl, what must you have gone through!"

Much to Elizabeth and Jane's surprise, Lydia managed to cope well with the ordeal of her mother's inquires to her health. She willingly submitted to all of Mrs Bennet's entreaties and if she had anything to conceal, it was kept very deep.

Mrs Bennet then turned to the other person in the room, who had judged it wise until this moment to keep silent.

"Now, you can all meet Lawrence, who has been returned to us!" She cried in happiness.

"Lawrence?" Elizabeth and Jane both cried out in puzzlement.

"Yes, your brother, my dear girls!" Mrs Bennet kindly replied as though they knew the entire history. "Lawrence, these are Jane, Elizabeth and Lydia."

The gentleman himself , who had rose upon the mention of his name now hesitantly stepped forward to greet the new arrivals who were just as astonished as the first ones had been.


Mr Bennet was in his favourite and frequently used retreat, a book in his hand, waiting for the best and most intelligent of his offspring to arrive and help him out. He had not planned on sending for all of them, that had been Mrs Bennet's doing. She, not suspecting, had decided on the arrangements even before he had been confronted with the mystery and he had been forced to accept, else risk the inquisition of his at the moment unfounded but nevertheless deeply held mistrust.

This deeply held mistrust had appeared in his mind ever since he had been confronted with the tale. If he had valid evidence, he would have confronted Lawrence immediately, but unfortunately he did not. Therefore, the occasion called for an appeal to someone he could trust with anything, someone he knew from previous experience would help him acquire the proof he needed, whether it convicted or released the gentleman that was sitting in his drawing room. It was this belief that caused him to retreat to his library until everyone had arrive, for fear of facing the rest of them.

Suddenly a knock at the door disturbed his reverie. It was no ordinary knock, for it began with two quick knocks, then a pause, then repeat, leaving no doubt as to the identity of its owner. Mr Bennet closed his book and called out, "come in, Lizzy."

Elizabeth had been at her ancestral home for half an hour now and was still no closer to understanding the surprise she had just been confronted with. As soon she had been able, she had carefully handed Imogen to Darcy, then slipped out of the room to find her father. If there was anyone that could explain it, it was he. "Hello, Papa," she began, closing the door behind her and sitting down.

"I knew that when you arrived you would come and seek me out," Mr Bennet replied, making an effort to sound more happy than he was. "It was really only you and the Bingleys that I wanted the news to be released to first." He paused, and Elizabeth waited it out, wanting him to explain in his own way. She knew her father well, and to interrupt him now might prevent half the story.

"Before I go any further, let me make one thing clear. Longbourn is still for Alex, whether this succeeds or not."

Despite her resolution, Lizzy could do naught but ask a question now. "Papa, what is all of this about?"

Mr Bennet leant back in his chair and......... was about to begin his story when another knock sounded upon his door. "Come in!" He called out rather curtly.

Darcy came in carefully, looking sheepishly at his father in law. Suddenly he felt like he was a child again facing his father's wrath. "Sorry to disturb, but Imogen is waking up and I thought it would be best to bring her to her mama, before others interceded."

"I do apologise Darcy," Mr Bennet began when the poor man had stopped explaining, "I thought it would be someone else. You might as well stay, actually, I need all the clear heads I can get hold to sort this out."

Darcy thanked him with a look, before handing his daughter to his wife and sitting down in a nearby chair. Elizabeth hushed her daughter back to sleep, waiting for her father to begin again.


Chapter XV.

Longbourn, August 26th 1820.

"Do you remember Lizzy, eight years ago when you came down from telling your mother about the discovery of Lydia?" Mr Bennet asked her.

"Yes," Elizabeth replied, puzzled as to why her father would start his explanation by alluding to that scene of all scenes.

"Do you remember what I said?"

"Of course I do, but........"

"No, you obviously do not," Mr Bennet incurred before Elizabeth could finish. "You remember, I am sure, me ridiculing myself for not having the foresight to lay aside...... or rather as I put it then, "a certain sum". I then went on to say the following;" Mr Bennet paused here and when he began again, he tried to put his voice and tone how it was then, so Elizabeth might remember the slip he made and had afterwards hoped she would not pick it up. " "But of course I hoped to father another son. That son would inherit the estate, no part of which would be entailed away, so providing for my widow and any other children. But when Lydia was born and all hope of a second son was lost, it seemed a little late to begin saving."" With this Mr Bennet paused once more, waiting for Lizzy to pick up his line.

"Papa," she began , "I really do not see........." Elizabeth trailed off and glanced at her husband who had seemed to notice it as well. "Did you say "another son"?"

"I did as it happens," Mr Bennet replied, leaning back in his chair to begin the story once more. "At the time you were, I hoped, too overwhelmed with Lydia's situation to pick up my little slip, for I had no intention of telling anyone, including you, that part of my life. At least then I did not.

"Before you or Jane were born I did have the good fortune to father a son. I named him Lawrence Alexander Bennet," Mr Bennet paused at this moment to look at his daughter and son in law with a smile, "yes, that was why I was so glad you had the foresight to name your sons by those names, although I know that was not the reason that you did it. But to resume.

"Nothing of great consequence happened until Lawrence was five, when Jane was born. It was about a day after that event when he asked me if he could go outside and play. I had no intention of refusing him, it was a perfectly normal request. But after that question, I never saw him again." Mr Bennet paused here to take a drink of his wine. Elizabeth and Darcy waited for him to continue. "At first I thought he had just gotten lost, or that he had decided to play a trick on me. But, as the days increased, I began to lose hope. Not completely, but by degrees. It was like a part of me was closing itself forever from the rest of me. I never intended for that part to be opened again. And then, six days ago, I returned home to see the gentleman you have just been introduced as a sibling. And, despite all present evidence to the contrary, I find this Lawrence Bennet extremely easy to distrust." With that, Mr Bennet went on to explain verbatim, the tale Lawrence had told him that evening.

Needless to say, Elizabeth and Darcy were both stunned by the tale they had just received. For the former it explained the lot. Firstly, the rift between the Collinses and themselves, that had been until Mr Collins married Charlotte. If Alan Collins had indeed kidnapped her brother, it would have changed considerably the relationship between cousins. Secondly, it accounted for her father's rather cynical out look on life, which she had acquired as well, although to a lesser degree. It could also explain her mother's nerves, if indeed anything could. Slowly, she looked up at her father and spoke. "Have you considered, Papa, how strangely this tale as you call it, fits in?"

"I have considered it, Lizzy," her father replied, "in fact it was the first that entered my mind. Which is why I distrust it. It is too good to be true. However, I have no evidence to disprove or to improve the story. And you, Darcy," Mr Bennet added, looking at his son in law, whose face appeared to be in great concentration of thought. "What is your opinion on this as a rational objective man?"

"It is as you say sir, rather too good to be true, but the evidence does seem to be of good authority."

Elizabeth nodded and looked down at Imogen as she asked, "what, do you intend to do then?"

"I intend to find out some certain proof to this gentleman," Mr Bennet replied slowly, looking at the both of them. "And I greatly need your help."

Elizabeth glanced at Darcy before complying to her father's wish. "Who else is to know that you suspect him?"

"Jane and Bingley may know, but no one else," replied Mr Bennet, "if the story is true, I have no desire to make Lawrence feel uneasy, for it will provide more of a hindrance than an assistance to our task." Mr Bennet paused to finish his drink, before adding with relief, "thank you, Lizzy."

Thank us when this over, Darcy replied silently, then aloud he assured his father in law that he need have no concern about Alex's future in regards to Longbourn.

"No," Mr Bennet replied, "that is not effecting me, in fact it has only made me see this more clearly. There are two questions though that I would dearly like to have answered when all of this is over. The first is how he acquired all this information about our family and lastly, if this is true, why he waited until now to spring this upon us."


Chapter XVI.

Oakham Mount, August 27th 1820.

For Elizabeth, early morning walks had the custom of clearing her mind of everything but the problem she needed to solve. She had slipped out of the bedchamber that she and Darcy shared at Netherfield early this morning with this single thought in her mind.

Now, as she came to the top of Oakham Mount, she realised, reluctantly, that her original plan was about to go completely out of her head. Sighing, but determined, she took the initiative and called out to the silhouette figure that had taken her place on the stump of the old oak tree that signified the summit. "Lawrence!"

The figure stood up and bowed instantly upon the announcement of his name. "Mrs..... I mean......." he paused, chuckling. "I apologise. I have no idea how to address you. You are my sister and yet, for years I have been an only child."

"It is strange," Elizabeth acknowledged, offering her hand. Lawrence took it and raised it to his lips as she replied, "but, please, do not distress yourself. Call me Lizzy, or Elizabeth, and all will be well between us."

"Elizabeth then," Lawrence began as she took a seat on the stump and he followed suit on a patch of dry grass nearby. "I did not realise early morning walks was a Bennet family trait."

"We are an energetic family, but it is usually only me and Jane that tend to walk in the morning, although Papa has been known to do so as well. I find it clears my head and allows me to see things objectively."

"Yes, it is refreshing," Lawrence concurred. He glanced at her as he added, almost wistfully, "I wish that somehow I had been able to sort out all of this earlier."

"Why did you not?" Elizabeth asked.

"Well, when I was first confronted with it, my regiment was called back to go to France. Then, when I finally managed to cashier myself out, it took a long while just to find any link at all."

Elizabeth nodded, at the same time though she wondered if there was something wrong as her father had ascertained. If there was some weakness to exploit, then this five year absence from the Battle of Waterloo to the present was it.

"But it is done now," Lawrence continued, using a foible of Mr Bennet, "and it cannot be undone. I will just have to use the time I have to the best advantage." Elizabeth wondered at the choice of words here but chose not to comment on it. Instead she returned her gaze to the direction of the mount that viewed Netherfield. Lawrence meanwhile lapsed into silence, his own mind equally thoughtful. He had not even entailed a thought about how difficult this could turn out to be. All that had mattered to him was sorting it out, before time prevented him from doing so. He had a debt to pay for not following his heart all those years ago when he had first found out about all of this. The only thing that bothered him was the fear in his mind that it was too late to do anything.

Elizabeth, seeing that Lawrence was thinking, - strangely enough, in a manner similar to her husband -returned her thoughts to the original plan that had occupied her this morning. She, like her father, had been immediately suspicious of Lawrence Bennet when they had been introduced yesterday evening, yet now, sitting with him upon the summit of Oakham Mount, overlooking the grounds of Netherfield, she caught herself several times looking for similarities between him and their immediate family in every gesture, mannerism, word, or tone of voice. And in general she found them.

But maybe, that was due to her purposefully looking for them in the first place. As though she wanted a brother in her life, even if he was still a mystery to them all. Yet, as she realised this, Elizabeth reminded herself of the other things she had noticed which had made her agree to her father's request. There was one feature in particular that had fixed the decision in her mind. It was still there this morning. As an observer of people's characters, she had first detected this habit last night, albeit after her father had told her the whole story. Which had been why she had distrusted it, until this morning. Lawrence, she was sure of it, was not telling them the whole story. There was something he was keeping back, and that something obviously mattered a great deal to him, for she was only able to notice instances of it.

That only gave her two conclusions; one, he had a shameful past that he did not want to reveal, or two, that he was not Lawrence Bennet at all, but instead playing a deliberate part. Both these conclusions fitted, however, to Elizabeth's mind, the latter was missing one thing. As yet she had been unable to think of a motive as to why he would deceive them all. Longbourn estate, although comfortable, was by no means a profitable inheritance, he would do better to pretend he was heir to the Devereauxs, whose fortunes had increased tenfold since their last visit to Netherfield. That left personal vendetta, which did not even seem realistic, since the gentleman was far too young to be carrying an avenging burden on his shoulders.

No, it was altogether too puzzling a situation, Elizabeth concluded as Lawrence finally turned to her, asking her if she had any plans for the day.

"I am not entirely sure," Elizabeth replied. "I really should spend time with Lady Devereaux I suppose as she is playing hostess to us, but beyond that my plans are uncertain." She paused, and then smiled as an idea came to her. "Lord Devereaux has invited my husband and brother in laws to do some shooting this morning. I am sure they would not mind an addition to the party, and then you could join us for luncheon."

"That sounds fine, I would be honoured," Lawrence replied.


When Elizabeth arrived back at Netherfield she encountered the most pleasing sight. That was her husband quietly talking to their latest daughter, who lay in his arms in their bedroom. He looked up at her entrance. "Good morning, Mrs Darcy."

"Good morning," Elizabeth returned to the both of them.

"Did you know that this is the same chamber that I slept in when I was here over eight years ago? It took the sight of this beautiful one to make me realise that I had not just dreamt us."

Elizabeth smiled as she leant to kiss him, before remarking, "my dearest Will, you really worry far too much. We have been married for nearly nine years now. This, I assure you, is not a dream."

Darcy smiled a smile which she cherished. "I love it when you call me that." He paused, turning to Imogen who was looking up at the two of them with wide eyes. "One day soon my pet," he whispered softly, "you are going to realise just how wonderful your mother is."

Imogen just blinked in reply, before closing her eyes to sleep once more. Elizabeth took the opportunity to ask her husband a favour. "Fitzwilliam, could you do something for me today?"

"Anything, my love," was the reply.

"Lawrence Bennet is joining the shooting party today. I would like you to keep an eye on him if you could."

"Of course, but why do you ask?"

"I saw him this morning while I was walking. We had a conversation and...... there is just something about him that does not sit well with me. He's hiding something, Will."

"I understand," Darcy replied sympathetically as stifled cry came from his lap. "Oh, I think little one is ready for breakfast."

Elizabeth took Imogen in her arms. "Thank you Fitzwilliam. I hope this stay improves your memories of this place."

"It already has, my love."


Chapter XVII.

Netherfield, 27th August 1820.

It is a truth not necessarily universally acknowledged that in times when shooting was one of the only accepted landowner sports, it becomes an event that calls those gentlemen early from their beds.

So, when Mr Darcy ended up joining the party rather late, it brought a lot of questions from the others, in particular his host, who inquired after the lateness of his guest with more than a passing curiosity.

Darcy's reply was........ well you can hear it yourselves and judge it as you choose. "I am afraid I was unavoidably detained by my distracting wife, sir."

Lord Devereaux, a very respectable man, also had the advantage of a loving marriage, and chuckled at his guest's reply. "I am well aware of those temptations and so shall forgive your lateness."

It should be noted here that Lord Devereaux should be considered as the most affluent gentleman of the assembled party. His fortune doubled Darcy's by a clear thousand or two and three well proportioned states accompanied it, Netherfield being only one of them. He was married to an heiress, -who had brought with her hand the third- and had an heir who was as yet unmarried. Added to this was his three nearly married daughters, of which, all bar one were presently engaged while the other was indeed of the attached state. He was a man of amiable features, and equally amiable manners, with a sardonic quip that kept him in Mr Bennet's good company, and thus had been pleased to let the majority of the Netherfield rooms to that gentleman's extended family.

Darcy had replied to Devereaux's response with a slight acknowledgement and then turned to look at his brother in laws Bingley and Blakeney, before finally coming to a rest on Mr Lawrence Bennet. It was time, his mind had decided, to take stock of the gentleman and see if his own judgement of him agreed with his wife's and his father in law's. Having decided himself upon such a task, his mind set to immediately.

The first thing he took in was appearance. After all, if Lawrence was Mr Bennet's son, then logic dictated that some resemblance must remain in their features. After a detailed and discreet examination, Darcy concluded that there was a similarity, by way of the manners and features of the mien, and he could see that the dark hair of Lawrence could have once been Mr Bennet's own.

All this judgement had been ascertained without attracting Lawrence's suspicions, for Darcy, although less reserved since his marriage, still had the habit of something resembling a spy when he could be called into it. The next judgement he made however, did meditate an awareness, for it was completely unexpected.

Lawrence had at that moment fired a shot, which no one could deny was of remarkably good aim. It spoke of rather decidedly a military origin, which Darcy, from his long history with his cousin, had had a great deal of experience of observing, and one that had been in long standing. Of course, Darcy knew from Mr Bennet that Lawrence had claimed- this word should be noted- to have served under Wellington, but it was a claim anyone could make, providing they never had to prove it. This shot however, not only told Darcy that it was true, but also required him to remark on it. He inquired in the general way, as if the inquiry had no special preference.

"Yes, I did serve," Lawrence replied. "How did you notice?"

"My cousin is in the profession," Darcy returned with the same degree of normality. "May I ask which regiment you served in?"

"I had the honour to serve in the Oxfordshire 52nd Foot as an Ensign and eventually a Captain," Lawrence informed him before returning to address the young Mr Devereaux with a remark.

Darcy however paid no attention to it. All his attention to the party had ceased in fact, when he heard Lawrence's reply. The regiment had chosen well, it served a lot in the fields of Spain and if it did not have awakened a connection in his mind, Darcy would not have put too much thought on it. However, the 52nd was known to him only too well. It was the first regiment his cousin had joined, then a lieutenant, before moving into the intelligence section of Wellington's staff.

It was therefore with great rapidity that after the shooting party had retired to the house, that Darcy set down to write his cousin a letter which contained the following request:

....... Rich, I am sure after reading all of this you will not hesitate in lending your assistance to this matter, so I shall ask what I want without delay. Did Lawrence Bennet by any chance, serve when you served in the 52nd? I know this is going out on a limb as it were, but I think your reply will prove invaluable to all of us as a sign of proof or disproof to the validity of this man's assertions.

I remain, etc.
Fitzwilliam Darcy.


Chapter XVIII.

Netherfield, August 28th 1820.

The rest of the twenty-seventh passed without nothing of significance taking place, save what I have already mentioned. Darcy informed his wife of what had occurred that morning, along with his intention- for only intention it indeed was at that time -to write to his cousin. Elizabeth agreed wholeheartedly with his plan.

Thus, nothing to do with Lawrence Bennet could be done until a reply arrived, so the Netherfield occupants occupied themselves with the other equally pressing matter that concerned them all. That matter was of course, Lydia's situation, for it was determined that something had to be decided now, as they might not have another opportunity to conference together as it were.

Accordingly, Mr Bennet arrived early the next day to have a conference with his eldest daughters and family in the Netherfield Library. He too was grateful to have another matter occupy his mind other than the one that had been there for days, without any sign of marked improvement. Since the marriage of his daughters he had tried to be a better father as far as he could with the two that remained, but until now, the one that he had most heartily wished he had taken the time to improve, had been too far out of his reach from him to do so.

It was determined early on that Lydia could not, within all reality, stay at Pearlcoombe for the rest of her and her children's lives, as much as Jane and Charles tried to assure Mr Bennet that it would be no hardship to them.

"No Jane, on this I am quite resolved," were Mr Bennet's final words on that matter. "Lydia, if she has that sense, will soon come to look on it as charity."

"Then, if I may suggest," Darcy voiced, "a house on my estate has recently........"

"No, Fitzwilliam," Elizabeth interrupted. "If Lydia regards Pearlcoombe as charity, then a living on Pemberley she will also. Besides, you have already done far too much." She turned to her father. "But the same cannot be said for Longbourn."

Mr Bennet looked at his favourite daughter solemnly. "Lizzy, I wish it could be that easy. But you know your mother only too well. Lydia and her children would be spoilt utterly, if they remained here."

"Then, father," Jane asked tentatively, "what can you suggest? All reasonable offers, save giving Lydia money enough to afford a living, have been rejected."

Mr Bennet could only sigh. "I believe you are right my dear." He paused then added, "Now, before Darcy offers that very thing, I venture the thought that until we come up with something else, the only solutions are those of a short term nature. She may as well stay at Pearlcoombe."


It can only be supposed that naturally, while this discussion was taking place, what occupied Lydia's own thoughts was connected to this. And indeed those who supposed that would be correct.

Lydia was seated in a drawing room of Netherfield, with her youngest child Louise asleep in her arms. Her mind however was as far away from that room as it possibly could be. She was contemplating what her future would be. It was not a pleasant prospect. She could see nothing reasonable other than being a burden to her family. She did not wish to impose herself on Jane and Mr Bingley forever. Nor did she wish to do the same to Elizabeth and Mr Darcy, as kind as the latter had been these past few days. She also did not wish to live at Longbourn. Eight years of marriage had been enough to make her realise where the faults of her upbringing lay, that is with herself and her mother. She did not wish her children to suffer such a fate. Marriage, the only other option bar one -that of servitude- was also out of the question. For indeed, who would even consider a widow of four and twenty with eight children?

So, like the rest of her family had come to realise, her situation was a complicated one indeed. She wished she knew a solution to it. Now, she could only dwell on it in all its distressing glory.

The sound of the drawing room door opening broke those thoughts. Lydia looked up, expecting it to be Lady Devereaux, or one of the Miss Devereauxs, or one of her sisters. Indeed anyone but the one person that it was.

"I am most sorry for disturbing you," Lawrence Bennet replied as he came in, closing the door. "I had no idea anyone was in here."

"Please, do not trouble yourself," Lydia replied distractedly, her self esteem at its lowest ebb.

Perhaps it was that reply, or perhaps Lawrence noticed the distressed and lonely heart inside her. Whatever it was, he walked to the sofa and seated himself beside her, took her free hand in his, and remarked with words of the greatest tenderness, "be assured, that whatever is troubling you, if you choose to confide in me, I will not give it away to anyone. Indeed, I will do my utmost to help you."

Lydia looked up at him in surprise, then glanced away, back to Louise. "I wish you could help."

Lawrence waited silently for her to continue.

"I made something of a scandal in this family by eloping," Lydia began after a short pause, "I married a man I knew absolutely nothing about and what I learnt later gave me much to regret by it."

"Surely you loved him though if you were willing to do that," Lawrence tried reassure her.

"At the time I thought I did, but I realise now that I was far too young to know what love was. Anyway, that has no relevance now. My actions before my marriage do though."

"Why?"

At this point Lydia looked up and gazed at his face. "Why do you care?" She asked frankly, her piercing eyes burrowing into his soul.

Lawrence did not buckle under their gaze. "For a number of reasons, most of which are not important right now," he replied after a pause. "But first and foremost, you are my sister, and what ever troubles you, troubles me."

"Thank you," Lydia replied. "I am grateful to know that someone cares for me."

"I am sure your other siblings feel the same."

"I rather think not." Lydia paused "I am outsider in this family, Lawrence. And not just because of the man I married, although I am sure that made matters worse. I have always been regarded as one who is beyond hope of a change."

"Do you have any idea why you feel this way?"

"That's just it, I do not."


Chapter XIX.

Netherfield.

Lawrence would have done a great disservice to Lydia if he had not acted as he did so after hearing this information. For indeed, who could keep silent after hearing such a tale of woe? As soon as he could he sought out the members of his family that were staying at Netherfield, determined to get to the bottom of the matter. He soon discovered their whereabouts.

"Ah, Lawrence," Mr Bennet began when the gentleman had entered. "What do you do here?"

"I have just had a most troubling conversation with Mrs Wickham," Lawrence replied, noticing as he had suspected to do so, a change of composure on the faces of several people in the room the moment he pronounced the name. He voiced this observation instantly. "Now," he added, vehemently, "would someone favour me with the reason why that name inspires dread in almost all of you?"

After awhile the silence in the room began to turn oppressive, so Lawrence tried again in the same tone. "Look, Lydia is distressed enough as it is. Feeling like an outsider as well cannot help."

The word outsider triggered a response. "Why does she feel like that?" Jane asked.

"I think it has something to with the matter of who she married," Lawrence returned. "Now, please would someone tell me? Believe me, I have probably heard worse, serving for as long as I did in the army. What is Wickham to you?"

Elizabeth turned to her husband whose face remained impassive. "Will, what harm can it do? Everyone concerned in the matter has recovered from it, including you." At her husband's apparent hesitation she persisted thus, "if you are unsure, you need only ask her permission. And if Lydia's behaviour these past few days is anything to judge by,........ surely her very manner tells you she has changed? She needs to recover, Fitzwilliam, and I for one think that a knowledge of her late husband's past would help her right now." Elizabeth stopped for breath and took her beloved's hands in hers as she uttered her final words. "It might even provoke her to confiding in us."

Darcy's eyes had remained with his wife's from the beginning of this speech and it was through them that Elizabeth had learnt to understand his soul. It was a soul she had come to value highly, treasure even, and now as she looked into his eyes she saw the beginnings of an acceptance to her plea. The tragedy of Georgiana and Wickham he had related to few people, not trusting their discretion enough to do so. Even when he had been negotiating with Mr Gardiner all those years ago, the true circumstances he had never revealed. Until Elizabeth, no one had known, and after Elizabeth he had by degrees, let others into the circle; namely Mr Bennet and his brother in law and friend; Charles Bingley. Was it now time to let Lydia learn of the past dealings between him and Wickham? Also, was he wise to trust Lawrence with the information, being as he was, as yet, a unproved relation to the family? These were the doubts that haunted Darcy and his wife's plea had managed to temper them enough to make Darcy consider the gravity of the present situation. It was then with this in mind that he stepped forward and slowly related the entire story to Lawrence Bennet.

And what can be said of Lawrence's reaction while he listened to Darcy's story? Well, firstly, it must be noted that not once did he choose to interrupt the story, nor did he voice aloud an guessed inference or opinion on anything that Darcy said. Instead, he remained silent until the end, his gaze never leaving the glances of his present company. His thoughts however, constantly drifted. They first drifted to Lydia, and indeed she remained a factor throughout the entire tale. His thoughts drifted then to imagining what Wickham must have been like as Darcy's tale went from the accepted to the scandalous events in their Cambridge days. Finally, they came to rest on his sister in law, Georgiana Blakeney.

Lawrence had not yet the time to make her familiar acquaintance, as he had only dined with the Netherfield family once. Yet he had already determined her to be as sweet and as kind as his eldest sister Jane. To know that a man like Wickham had tried for her and failed, due to her brother's interference, was not only a proof that Wickham was not someone who could never be recovered from, but also a testament in his eyes to the assumption that he had previously determined, that if one girl was capable of suffering nothing from an experience with Wickham, then so was another. He looked at his brother in law and when Darcy had finished the story he calmly replied with this last thought in mind. "I thank you for telling me. I promise you on my honour that it will go further. However, after hearing this, I think it wise that you at least tell Lydia the story, or let your sister tell her. The knowledge that she is not alone in this will be beneficial to her, and, I believe, will go a long way in prompting her to recover."

Darcy looked at his immediate family, then at Lawrence. Then he decided.


Chapter XX.

Netherfield, 29th August 1820.

After the conference of yesterday, dinner had been announced, leaving any possibility of talking with Lydia alone unlikely. The Bennets had left soon afterwards for Longbourn with every intention of returning on the morrow. Lawrence had made the Darcys aware of his promise to Lydia and they had agreed that it would be best if he was present to explain his reasons for not keeping silent.

They duly met the next day in the drawing room where Lydia happened to be alone. Lawrence went to her immediately upon his entrance. He sat down next to her as Darcy and Elizabeth seated themselves opposite.

"Lydia, in doing this I am about to break my promise to you that I would keep whatever you told me secret," Lawrence began, looking very shamefaced. "But, after hearing what I did, realised that you needed help. I heard this story yesterday and I think you ought to hear it as well. Please listen to what your brother in law has to say."

Lawrence's well chosen words had certainly got Lydia intrigued. She looked to her sister and then Mr Darcy, waiting for him to begin.

Darcy took a deep breath and met her eyes. Elizabeth took his hand in hers as he began the story once more. It remained in her comfort throughout.

Lydia's reaction to the story was one of a mixed nature. At first she was shocked. Insensible as she had been eight years ago, she had no idea that Wickham had even known Mr Darcy until he had come upon them at the time of her elopement. Now, she learnt of their long acquaintance, she began to understand and interpret many of the things that had occurred during the negotiations of her marriage. That Wickham had never loved her, a suspicion which she had ascertained a few months after the wedding, she now knew for absolute certainty. In a way, she realised, it made things somewhat easier in her mind. However, it also made things a lot harder. Then, as Darcy reached the story of Ramsgate, her shock increased. She had never really gained Georgiana's acquaintance, for she had missed both weddings of her sisters. To learn that she, Darcy's sister, had been sought after by Wickham for purely financial reasons..... well, it was, to the say the least, shocking. Her heart went out to Mrs Blakeney, as her own self blame increased. She realised now more than ever, why Elizabeth had been insistent that she did not go to Brighton and rather wished that she had obeyed that advice.

When Darcy came to the end of his story Lydia needed several minutes to recover before she began her own tale. She knew now, that it had to be told. "Thank you, Mr Darcy," she began, when she had gathered her thoughts, "I am most grateful that you told me this. Lawrence, please do not distress yourself. You did not betray me, in fact I think I needed to hear that. It gives me the courage to tell you what I have been longing to tell someone; that is the true history of my marriage to Mr Wickham.

"It began well, mainly because of my own self delusion that I was suffering under. I thought Wickham loved me. I realised not long after the birth of Henry, that he did not. Indeed he as much confessed it once. But to resume.

"Wickham began to gamble away our income as soon as he could. I tried to keep him from spending all of it, but his debts at the mess soon turned him to drink. Naturally, his tendency to drink shortened his temper. I tried to avoid him as much as I could, but that soon it became impossible. I soon realised after a while that as his wife I had to submit to his desires." At this point Lydia stopped. She turned to Darcy and added, "please, Mr Darcy, do not blame yourself for making us marry. I was as much if not more to blame for my actions. I should never have gone to Brighton."

Darcy reluctantly acknowledged Lydia's plea, keeping his face impassive. His own thoughts at the moment were providing swift competition to counteract any cure the plea could have given him. He should have told the neighbourhood from the beginning. He should have made Wickham's true character known. But, due to his mistaken pride, he had declined and now Lydia was suffering for it. He felt his hand being squeezed and turned to see Elizabeth looking at him with eyes that carried the message of her own opinions, which would be voiced later. She was determined that her husband would not slide into despondency concerning who was and who was not to blame for Wickham's involvement with her family.

Meanwhile Lydia's story continued. "I soon learnt that providing I submitted quickly, he tended to leave me alone. I took advantage of this, and made sure I had friends who could be relied upon as excuses to call us out to dinners. One of these was Mrs Lawford, a woman a year or two older than me and unfortunately, had also eloped with her husband. Although hers was much more a case of affection. She saw my marriage as the same, indeed that was how Wickham presented it in public and I, enjoying her company, wished never to dissuade her from that delusion.

"Thankfully, Mrs Lawford had experience of managing money and between her and I, the little money I had was managed well enough to provide my increasing family and myself for several years. I realise I could have wrote to all of you, but I had no desire to let Wickham know I was doing that. Also I did not wish to appear greedy and wild, like I had once been.

"When the regiment was recalled to France, I hoped at first that we would stay behind for I feared for the children's safety. I soon began to regret this desire as Wickham blackmailed his way up to a captaincy. His referee was Major Vaughan, whose name might be familiar to you all. At the time I had no idea it was blackmail, for the Major was far too scared that his scandal would be made known to fight back.

"The captaincy gave him more freedom to gamble. As I carefully made sure he never had all of our income, he soon ran out of cash and turned to blackmail once more, after I refused to give him any more, despite all his persistence. That drove him to the most profitable of his blackmails; Major Vaughan. Needless to say the Major soon became tired of Wickham's pressure and called him out. It was the day I gave birth to Louise. And god forgive me, I so relieved when I learnt the Major had been successful." It was with this last that Lydia finished the tale. For their own sakes, she had left most of the details out, for she had no desire to make any of them feel more guilty than they already did. As far as she was concerned, when it came down to her, they were all blameless.

As for Lawrence, he had remained silent throughout the entire tale, and when Lydia had come to the end he had carefully taken her hand in his, offering support. He would realise later that it was today which would eventually change his life forever.


Chapter XXI.

Netherfield 31st August 1820.

Rosings.
29th August 1820.

Darce,

I am afraid to inform you that during the time I served in the 52nd, a Lawrence Bennet was never in the ranks of Ensign, Lieutenant or Captain. Of course, if you recollect, I did not stay long in the Oxfordshire, as Wellington soon spotted me at the siege of Ciudad Rodrigo and enlisted me on his intelligence staff. So he could have joined after that.

I must say Darce, that this story of yours intrigues me, so I will seek out a few old army friends of mine and see if they can help you.

With regards, etc.
Richard Fitzwilliam.

This was the short reply which Darcy received this day from his cousin. It confirmed all he had expected instantly. His cousin's memory was one that could never be doubted on, even when you wanted it to be- I refer here to some rather embarrassing stories of Darcy's youth which he swore and did pay Fitzwilliam back tenfold on his bachelor night. These are of course, another story -and as such Darcy took the information as certain. He was now faced with the unhappy task of informing his wife of Lawrence's first mistake.

He accordingly and reluctantly did so after breakfast when he joined her in their bedroom, attending to Imogen's needs. "Elizabeth," he began cautiously, "I received Richard's reply this morning."

Elizabeth looked up from Imogen and saw in her husband's face the nature of the news he feared to relay. "Judging by your face, Fitzwilliam, I presume it does not confirm what Lawrence told you?"

"I am afraid that is the case, m'dear," her husband replied. "Are you disappointed?"

"I am glad we learn now, rather than later," Elizabeth remarked, "however, I fear my father's response. I know, despite his denials, that he secretly wished Lawrence is who he says to be. As far as I am concerned, I hope the gentleman's real story is not too shameful."

"I confess that is what I hope, my darling," Darcy replied. Against his better judgement he had grown to like Lawrence Bennet, especially since his assistance with Lydia had achieved so much. It was only two days gone past Lydia's story and she had improved much the better for it. She never returned to her trances and the mention of Wickham had not once caused her to shudder.

"I like him as well, Will," Elizabeth replied, interpreting her husband's enigmatic glances once more. "What else did Richard say?"

"Only that the story intrigued him enough to seek out some of his army contacts to see if he can find anything out. Comes from being an intelligence officer for far too long I think."

"It is just as well we have his assistance, Fitzwilliam. He might find the damning proof we need to credit or discredit Lawrence Bennet's assertions."

Darcy acknowledged as he had intended to, that Elizabeth was right. The information that Lawrence had not served in the 52nd when his cousin had, did nothing really to prove the falsity of his story one way or another.


Elizabeth went early in the afternoon to Longbourn in order to tell her father the news. She did not announce her arrival, wishing to avoid her mother's pleasantries and the company of Lawrence until her father allowed them to confront him.

She found her father for once walking in the grounds rather than his study. He spotted her arrival instantly.

"Lizzy, my dear, what brings you here?"

"Papa, you remember some days ago me telling you that Fitzwilliam had written to Richard at Rosings for some information about his military days?"

"I remember well. What was his reply?"

"That he does not recollect a Lawrence Bennet ever serving in the 52nd during his time in the regiment."

"Is his authority good?"

"The 52nd was the first regiment he served in. He left after Ciudad Rodrigo. Lawrence has claimed to have served both before and after that siege."

"I see," Mr Bennet replied in his usual abrupt way. His own thoughts sang with relief that his suspicions had been justified.

"Are we to confront him with this information?" Elizabeth asked.

"Yes," Mr Bennet replied after a pause. "But we are to do it with discretion. If he does have something to hide I have no desire to alarm the gentleman just yet. Not until we have definitive proof." He turned to his daughter and took her hand in his. "Thank you, Lizzy, for telling me. You did right in doing so. Do not fear, I am glad you did. It gives me relief for having my suspicions."


Chapter XXII.

1st September 1820.

One can hardly suppose that in such a neighbourhood as Meryton the events at Netherfield and Longbourn would not remain in those locations only. And indeed, they would be right in their suspicions.

After Mrs Phillips had been treated to the chance introduction of Lawrence Bennet, the news that the long lost son of the Bennets of Longbourn had returned to the family fold, had spread around the village in lighting speed. Of course, they had all heard of the history, and they had all been most saddened for Mr Bennet's loss all those years ago. Then, when the marriages of the eldest daughters had come about, the neighbourhood had secretly rejoiced that the majority of them had the one thing that Mrs Bennet lacked to make her life complete. It was not that they did not like Mrs Bennet, indeed she was a great source of gossip and news from time to time, but her incessant talk of Mrs Darcy and Mrs Bingley in the recent years had become...... well, somewhat tiring. So, while they grieved for poor Mr Bennet,- such a nice, if rather eccentric gentleman, which was high praise according to them,- they consoled themselves with the knowledge of Lawrence Bennet's disappearance when Mrs Bennet proved to be too taxing. The village at times tended to have a malicious streak when the occasion called for it.

But to resume. Mrs Phillips had barely begun to rejoice with her sister- hoping that this show of emotion might entice her sister to let her see the man himself- when Mrs Bennet sent her away, her excuse being that until she had greeted Mr Bennet with "the darling child", no one else was to meet him. Mrs Phillips reluctantly left, and the servants who escorted her to the door, swore later that many a number of mutterings under breath had accompanied the woman's departure. Needless to say, Mrs Phillips was not very happy at only being able to spread the news of Lawrence Bennet's return, and not what the gentleman looked like. However, spread the news she did and by the time the Darcys had arrived at Netherfield, Meryton was alive with gossip.

As the days went on with no sign of an invitation from the family to any of the citizens of Meryton to see the fabled- and hopefully single, as there were still some unmarried daughters of Meryton,- Lawrence Bennet, there was a natural inclination to come up with some form of an invitation themselves. After all, Mr Lawrence Bennet could not, absolutely could not remain incognito for any longer. It was unthinkable to a village such as Meryton. At first there was some difficulty in procuring a reasonable excuse for sending such an invite, particularly to Netherfield, as the Devereauxs were in residence, and to refuse them, while asking their guests was impossible. This meant that it could be no ordinary assembly, but a quiet evening at the next highest residence.

So, it was with mixed reactions that the occupants of Netherfield and Longbourn received invitations for an evening at the Lucas Lodge an evening hence. The latter commented upon it their normal way; Mrs Bennet rejoicing at the chance to show her dear Lawrence off, Mrs Kitty Guest looking forward to seeing Maria Wexford nee Lucas once more, her husband having not the heart to refuse their acceptance, the Smythes deploring at the probable lack of Christian civility to be had during the evening, and Mr Bennet retreating to his study and a nice bottle of his best brandy. His thoughts about it concerned whether or not he should introduce Lawrence as his son, when he was not sure he was himself. It might help Lawrence to relax his guard, if indeed he had anything to hide, but on the other hand it had the possibility of making the search for the truth altogether harder. He had yet to confront the man yet with the mistake he had made in choosing the 52nd Regiment, an situation which Mr Bennet found himself dreading, all the more he thought about it.

After all, the man must have had a reason to put his history with the military, and his son in law Darcy had assured him that Lawrence was definitely of that ilk. Mr Bennet had come to trust his son in law's opinions and judge of character much of late; although Darcy always tried to insist that Mr Bennet's opinions were often more sound than his own. Mr Bennet however, had become convinced that they had a cynical edge to them and recently he tended to seek Bingley and Darcy's opinions about someone before making a final judgement. The son in laws of course, always returned the favour.

So, it was with the surest trust that Mr Bennet placed in Darcy's opinion that Lawrence had had, at some point in his life, military training. As a man who once had a Colonel for a cousin, his authority could not be doubted. Thus, while Mr Bennet knew that Lawrence had lied about the Oxfordshire, he had not lied about the army roots.

Naturally, this conclusion, brought to Mr Bennet some discomfort. If Lawrence had to lie about that, who knew what else he had lied about. It also brought up the question of why. Why would a man lie about something like that? What reasons could he possibly have? It was these questions which Mr Bennet had been troubling himself over the past few day since he had received Lizzy's news and the longer he dwelt upon them, the more he dreaded to confront the man. Despite all his distrust Mr Bennet had come to like the gentleman who was pretending to be his son, so much so that sometimes he had to remind himself that Lawrence was indeed pretending.


The Netherfield occupants meanwhile greeted the invitation with slight discomfort, the expectation of being sociable for an entire evening in the company of Sir William Lucas, was more often than not a prospect to be endured rather than enjoyed.

The Devereauxs felt themselves unable to escape the invite; there was nothing that could possibly send them to town by chance on the same day that would delay their attendance, nor was there anything wrong with the other estates that they held. How much they wished right now to be at those estates, either would do, the Richmond one and the one in Norfolk being so very far from Netherfield as to prevent them attending an evening at Lucas Lodge.

The Darcys were also greeting the invitation with mixed feelings. Elizabeth was worried about the children as they rarely left them alone. Imogen in particular was far too young to go anywhere and would it not be better if they stayed with her? As much as Elizabeth and Darcy desired to do this they found they could not refuse Sir William, even if it meant leaving Imogen with the Devereaux nursery maid all evening.

Fitzwilliam was of the same opinion, although his thoughts mingled with memories of previous evenings there, most of all the one which had occurred before his character change. It had been an evening which at first he had looked on with joy, as it had been the first occasion he realised his attraction for Elizabeth. Recently though these feelings had turned to regret at the conduct of himself that evening and many events after it.

Despite trying to learn Elizabeth's philosophy- think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure- Darcy often found himself reflecting a lot upon the past mistakes of his life, which had impeded his courtship of Elizabeth. Their constant reminder did have one benefit for the good, it helped him to refrain from making the mistakes again, yet they did have a habit of depressing his often jovial nature, as they were doing so now. It drove Darcy to seek a respite and just as he was about to do so, in it came; in the form of his wife and youngest child.

Elizabeth had had the suspicion that her husband would indeed be thinking such thoughts when she received news of their impending engagements. It had been her first mission to find him, before she informed the Bingleys, who memories of that evening eight years ago would prove to be more pleasurable. Now, as she came to seat herself by him, she instantly began to try and cure her husband of his reproachful tendency.

"My dear," she began, "I beg you to refrain from remembering a certain evening at Lucas Lodge which has less happy memories for yourself."

Darcy looked at his wife in awe. She always seemed to know what he was thinking. "I do try, my love, but it is difficult to do so."

"Have not eight years been enough to fade them?"

"Eight years have certainly decreased them, Elizabeth, but some are still vivid. However," he added, as he placed a hand on her cheek, caressing her softly, "there is but one aspect of that evening which I can never forget."

Elizabeth tried to answer in the same light tone, none withstanding the feeling that his touch had produced and mindful that Imogen was in her arms. "What aspect was that, pray?"

"It was the evening when I confessed to myself and to someone else that my thoughts had become occupied with the meditation upon the pleasure that a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow."

The inference was unmistakable. Elizabeth blushed. "Who did you say this to?"

Darcy's features had a wicked tint to them. "Caroline."

Elizabeth smiled, then, at the same time as her husband, burst into peals of laughter.


Chapter XXIII.

Lucas Lodge, 2nd September 1820.

It was with mixed reactions that Lawrence Bennet met the neighbourhood of Meryton, that night at Lucas Lodge. He had been introduced as Mr Bennet's long lost son, a title for which he was grateful to have acknowledged at last.

The delay in its announcement had left him feeling unsettled, even now he still felt a little uneasy in the role. Of course he had anticipated a little reluctance, suspicion even, from the family as well as the village, but he had not desired this much delay in his acceptance. However, his adjustment to this delay had not taken too long; his mind putting his surprise down to spending too many years on the continent.

Now, as Lawrence looked around the room, his trained eyes taking in every person that was there, he saw that the delay had not done anything to alter the nature of his plans. His quest, judging by the lack of other newcomers in this social evening, was yet to begin. Lawrence sighed and took another sip of his wine. He rather wished something had occurred, he would like to have this finished quickly, before he grew an attachment.

Elizabeth watched her new brother taking in the occupants of the room and smiled to herself. His manner was almost a copy of their father's. If indeed they had the same father........ no, this was ridiculous. Why did she have to keep reminding herself of that? She turned back to the fascinating- and it must be noted that Elizabeth used that term in the most sarcastic sense -conversation which Sir William Lucas was holding.

"Capital, capital. Do you not agree, Mr Darcy?"

Darcy tried to restrain the first comment that came into his head. "Quite," he replied, desperately wondering why he would ever think that this evening would resemble any of the others that he had been to. Sir William was always slightly more........., no, Lizzy must forgive him for saying this, but there was only one word to describe him; annoying. He felt a hand brush his arm and he turned to see his wife standing next to him, her eyes sparkling. She knew what he was thinking, for she was of the same mind. The evening would be over soon. At least he hoped it would.

Surprisingly, the evening had gone remarkably well so far for all those intended. The hosts had not been too annoying, and the introduction of Lawrence Bennet had passed without too much notice been taken. In fact it must be said that most welcomed him like someone would welcome an old friend. Lawrence Bennet had been accepted quickly and warmly.

Of course, the gentleman had many assets with which to assure such a reception. He was a pleasant, well-mannered, young, with a pleasing countenance and a handsome mien. He was to inherit Longbourn, saving Meryton from the future presence of Mr Collins, -for which they were all eternally grateful for- and best of all, he was single. He was to the entire population of Meryton, most pleasingly available in every respect and they could not wait for the next assembly in order to show him their unmarried daughters.

The other acquaintance that had took Meryton by surprise was Mrs Wickham, or Miss Lydia Bennet as she preferred to be called. They had least expected her to arrive, especially widowed and with, -it was rumoured- eight children. They had not seen her since she had returned from London with that dreadful Mr Wickham, whom they now all detested, even if he had stayed loyal to the poor girl.

Indeed they felt quite sorry for Lydia. To have been married to such a man and in such a situation! With an increasing number of children as well! It must have been quite dreadful. They had all determined to offer their most heartfelt wishes and condolences to Lydia, as soon and as frequently as they could.

Lydia herself was at this moment wishing herself far away from Lucas Lodge. Anywhere would do, as long as it was as far from here as it possibly could be. She was not enjoying the evening. From the minute she had arrived, she had had not one instance of peace.

Everyone wanted to offer their condolences and their judgement on the situation. No doubt they wished for gossip........ a gossip which she used to indulge in herself. How she wished she could go back and change her behaviour then! It was her fault and her fault alone. Her character had been beyond correction, beyond alteration. She had been left to learn that herself through Wickham's......... treatment.

Lydia inwardly shuddered as she thought of the man- for gentle he was never -who had been her only companion for eight years. There had been rare glimpses of kindness in the early years, followed by a desire and need to avoid him as much as possible in the months that followed. He had tired quickly of her, if indeed he had ever wanted her in the first place.

Lydia was now quite sure that he had only seen her as something to take along for the ride. A bit of comfort, while he escaped from his debts. His debts........ the ones which both times Mr Darcy had taken care of, was still taking care of. She felt so guilty and so incapable of the gratitude that she wanted to bestow on him. He was too good a man.

She wondered how long he had been in love with her sister. Had he loved Elizabeth that night she had caught him gazing up at the window of their lodgings? Was that why he had come to find them? Why he had succeeded where her uncle and father had failed? It was exactly the sort of romance she had craved for herself all those years ago.

Eight years, nearly nine. It seemed like an eternity. She thought she would achieve that love with Wickham, but no, she never did. Even when it was the happy years, there had always been something missing. Lydia now knew what that was. She had never loved Wickham. He was a fancy, not a feeling. She may have thought she loved him, but at sixteen she had no idea of what love could truly be like. All she had then was a misguided idealisation taken from any novel she could have laid her hands on, aided by the romantic notion of elopement.

She had yet to fall in love. It was something Lydia now realised that she could not do without. The loneliness which lay deep down inside her, which had been there since the beginning of her marriage and before, was one that not even the children could heal. It was eating away at her, not with a great deal of speed, which might have been easier, but slowly, gradually, day by day, she felt a piece of herself being destroyed. It was tortuous, terrifying, and right now it seemed impossible to rectify.

At first it had hidden itself from her, or perhaps she had been deceived by her imagination into not noticing it until her life had become unbearable. She had developed a method to avoid trying to dwell on it for too long in the day. She had to survive for the children's sake, and, when it came down to it, her own as well.

If she was to ever have any idea of what love could be like, she had to survive each day with the loneliness inside her, eating away at her, until there was no need for her to be in the world any longer. She would care for the children, tailor to their every need, give them every bit of love she held for them, until they were beyond the need for a mother's love, whereupon her life would be over. It was an alarming prospect, but at the moment, it was all Lydia could foresee.


For Mr Bennet the evening at Lucas Lodge had begun with a hope and ended with a prayer. The hope was that Lawrence would make some mistake, would know too much of one person, thereby proving that he could not possibly be his son. All evening he had been looking for a sign, however small, however seemingly insignificant, that might enable him to label Lawrence Alexander Bennet an impostor.

Yet there had been none. Mr Bennet had trained so much on this hope that he had begun to wonder if the fact that there had been no sign was indeed a sign. Certain he was that Lawrence was not, nor never could be, his son, he was now beginning to become impatient of waiting for the evidence to prove so. Indeed he had begun to worry if they ever would find any evidence. True, he had lied about his past, his military background, but that was circumstantial. It did not prove either way. It required something more, and that something was slow in its coming.

Mr Bennet could not explain why he trusted the thought in his mind that told him that Lawrence was not his son, when every instance disproved it. He just felt so certain in it, that with every increasing sign of resemblance, he put more faith in it.

End Of Volume One.

Volume III.