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The Evening Before.

Volume II

Part VII.

For what was the second evening in a row, Darcy found himself once more preparing for a dinner engagement in Gracechurch Street. It was a location which, but a year ago, he would have thought it beneath him to even walk through, let alone make a frequent acquaintance of.

But recent months had caused many changes to both himself and those around him, and to such a degree that he now felt to have acquaintances in Cheapside an honour rather than a mark of shame.

Often now, he had found reason to disregard one of the lessons he had applied to himself after the almost disastrous affair at Ramsgate; the limiting oneself to choose friends in one's circles or positions in Society. The influence of Wickham upon his family had taught him to be distrustful of any below his station in life, now the influence of Mr and Mrs Edward Gardiner was teaching him that sometimes it was useful and worthwhile to have a wide circle of friends from any situation in life.

He remembered when he had first encountered them; after apologising to Miss Bennet for not receiving her properly, when he had met her upon his estate. He had been so determined to make a good impression for her sake; to show her that he was capable of change, that he had not even hesitated when she mentioned where her Aunt and Uncle lived in London, save for a slight wince as he detected the challenge in her tone during their introduction. Surprising her, and himself, he had not only met them, he had entered into conversation with them, thereby discovering further cause to mend his ways, as he learned the nature of their characters.

This acquaintance was now further deepened by the events in London. Though the elopement was what neither party would wish for, it had enabled Darcy to discover in his new acquaintances a keen business sense, as well as a level of trust, which their level of acquaintance did not warrant, nor did he at times feel worthy of. Both had accepted to keep his part in bringing about the marriage of their niece a secret, even though Darcy suspected they were both curious as to why such a concealment was necessary. They had even helped him persuade Lydia to conceal his presence at her wedding, despite the girl's insistence that even if she did say a word, it would not be taken seriously.

Darcy finished the final touches to his cravat- he had still not seen the need for his valet to join him in town, when he would be returning to Derbyshire so soon -as he recalled that last conversation before the conclusion of the evening. The couple were now on the their way to Longbourn, where they would reside until Wickham's regiment called him to the North country, the same time when Mr Bennet would depart from his brother in law's. His degree of acquaintance with that gentleman had also been a surprise to him. He could well see why Miss Elizabeth was her father's favourite, for their wit was almost the same, save a more cynical air in the father's, while the daughter, as he had learned, had yet to add that trait to herself.

These three new acquaintances he would now dine tonight with, and Darcy could not deny that he had rarely looked with such a degree of expectation toward a dinner engagement before. Usually such invitations he would refuse, or attend only out of a familial sense of obligation, knowing them to nothing more than something to endure rather than enjoy. At Gracechurch Street, he had every hope it would be the latter emotion tonight.

With this thought in his mind, Darcy turned at the knock upon the door of his rooms, followed by the announcement from one of his footmen that the carriage was waiting outside. He thanked the footman, and put on his jacket as he followed him out the room and down to the Entrance Hall of his townhouse.

The evening was indeed a contrast to the one which had passed before it. Gone were the awkward silences which had resulted from many deceptively charmingly phrased comments and inquiries by one of the guests before. Gone were the tense, rapidly altered feelings of shock, and anger, another result of said inquiries. Gone was the embarrassment produced by the new wife at the table, whenever she remarked something normally deemed inappropriate by Society and civilised circles of acquaintance.

With the departure of two guests who had caused all of the above sensations, the dinner passed much more smoothly, to the relief of all concerned. It was also, much more informal. Due to the absence of their youngest niece, Mr and Mrs Gardiner felt they could safely include their children at the dinner table, an addition which their guest found himself greeting as a welcome one.

Being the much elder brother of a younger sister, Darcy held fond though sad memories of his previous interaction with children. In recent years, these memories, influenced as they were by the sudden and unexpected passing of his mother, were tempered by his frequent encounters with the children of his tenants and married servants within his household, as well as his entrance into the obligations of a godparent when his eldest cousin's heir was born. It was with all of these experiences in mind that he greeted the Gardiner children the first time and now, in whom he found manners resembling those of the two eldest Miss Bennet, leaving in him the answer at last as to why there lay such a contrast of behaviour in the five daughters. Obviously the elders had been influenced by more time spent in the company of their Aunt and Uncle.

With such impressions, it was no wonder that the time before all parties entered the dining parlour passed without incident. The quartet of Gardiner children found much to delight of in their parent's new friend, and there were two beaming smiles upon the girls as they were given the honour of his escort to dinner.

Darcy felt Mr Bennet's eyes upon him once more as he saw the children to their seats before taking a seat himself, opposite the man who was the father of the woman he loved. He knew that the gentleman doubtless held many questions still as to the nature of his motives in his assistance in the affairs which had called them all to London, and it could not be denied that Darcy felt a certain sense of obligation to answer, were any such inquiries made. If any of his hopes about his future with Miss Elizabeth were to be achieved, a deeper understanding and the respect of her father must also be obtained.

Conversation was opened by Mrs Gardiner, who expressed the hope that their guest had not been too much disturbed by the comments of some of their guests the night before.

"No, I was not," Darcy replied, "I have known Mr Wickham a long time, and his comments of last night were of little surprise to me. As to those of your niece, if you will forgive me, I was only surprised at the marked contrast between her and my sister who is the same age."

"If I may say," Mr Bennet began, "I think the difference is probably based entirely on influences. My youngest has had little to vex her in her life, which has perhaps led to her present character. She is her mother's favourite, much to her cost."

Darcy inclined his head in acknowledgement. "I often wish my own mother were still alive to influence. Georgiana has not enough female acquaintances in her life."

"It is a credit to you that she has done so well without them," Mrs Gardiner remarked. "Elizabeth and I were most pleased to make her acquaintance while we were in Derbyshire."

"She was pleased to make your acquaintances as well, ma'am," Darcy returned. "And most sorry to see it cut short."

"As were we," Mrs Gardiner added. "Your return to her before now must have be a relief for her."

"It was. She is not used to playing hostess, even to the family of my closest friend, and I was glad to relieve her of the task of saying farewell to them. They departed at the end of first week of my return."

"And how is Mr Bingley?" Mr Bennet asked, deducing the identity of the closest friend. "Does he have any plans to revisit his the property of his tenancy?"

Darcy inwardly winced at these words, as he recalled that it was partly due to his own shameful actions that Mr Bingley had not returned to Hertfordshire. "He mentioned no plans to me sir, but I do plan to call on him after he returns to town from visiting his relatives in the South, with the suggestion of paying a visit to Netherfield. It does not do to neglect an estate, even if one is only its tenant. Indeed I believe we are all tenants of the land we live on, it still continuing to survive long after we have departed from it."

"Very true, sir, very true," Mr Bennet replied, his face inwardly smiling at yet another appearance of a good character trait. Despite his youth Mr Darcy seemed to be a very mature gentleman, far superior to those of his peers which Mr Bennet had at times become acquainted with, through the various lettings of Netherfield. "If you are successful in your persuasion, I can assure of at least one family's welcome to your friend's return to the neighbourhood." He paused to take a sip of wine, before inquiring, "will you be joining him?"

"I cannot say, sir," Darcy answered. "That all depends on whether Bingley feels he needs my company." And if he can forgive my actions that caused this long neglect in the first place, he added silently. He had never done anything to incur his friend's anger before, but he had no doubt of encountering such an emotion after he confessed all his actions concerning Miss Bennet, as he intended to do so.

"I see," Mr Bennet was saying, as Darcy came out of his thoughts, "I shall only add then, that if you do return to the neighbourhood with your friend, I would be interested in renewing acquaintance with you."

"That I can safely say, sir, I would be both honoured and intending to do," Darcy replied, whereupon the conversation turned to other matters.

The rest of the evening passed agreeably for all parties concerned, leaving many a source of welcome recollection for Darcy when he rose the next day. It was to be his last day in town for a while, and he put what hours he had before he left for Derbyshire to good use, by seating himself in his study and composing the following to his friend;


I hope you have arrived safe and well at your relatives. I understood from our last conversation that you do not intend to spend long in the South. Therefore, I take the liberty of suggesting to you a return to Netherfield. You could limit it to a shooting party, thereby not interrupting your sister's plans. I feel a return to the estate is necessary on your part, as it has been too long neglected, even if only to see one last time before giving up tenancy of the property.

It would also present an opportunity to renew many of the acquaintances you have made in the county, and perhaps reconsider the decision to give up some of them forever.

Yours etc.
Fitzwilliam Darcy

He knew the letter would likely present his friend with many questions, but its lack of length and confessions was necessary. Darcy felt it would not be right to present a confession and repentance of his actions earlier this years in a letter. He owed it to his friend to tell him face to face, and receive whatever penance or judgement he demanded.

Whether it forever severed their friendship or not.

Part VIII.

The end of the week procured Mr Bennet's own departure from town, he having timed it so that he was not forced to encounter his newest son in law's presence at Longbourn. By the time he returned to his home, the Wickhams would have departed for the North country.

During his welcome peace in his brother in law's house, Andrew Bennet had, at times, doubted his previous decision not to return to Hertfordshire until his youngest had left the county. Then his sister had received a letter from his eldest, describing the lack of difference in the new Mrs Wickham's character, and any such doubts were completely done away with, save for a lingering guilt that Jane and Elizabeth were having to cope not only with their sister, but their mother and the management of their home as well.

Elizabeth. Mr Bennet ceased gathering together what little home comforts he had packed a month ago as the thought of his favourite crossed his mind. He had not seen her since this terrible affair began. Often he had considered writing to her, going so far as even to put a pen in hand and scratch her name out on some paper, but to no avail. Whenever he attempted he found he had not the words nor the will to bestow on her the burdens which by rights were his alone. She had, after all, warned him about the perils of letting her sister go to Brighton. Andrew grimaced as he recalled what he had said in reply. We shall have no peace at Longbourn if Lydia does not go to Brighton. Let her go then. Colonel Forster is a sensible man, and will keep her out of any real mischief; and she is luckily too poor to be an object of prey to anybody. At Brighton she will be of less importance even as a common flirt than she has been here. The officers will find women better worth their notice. Let us hope, that her being there may teach her her own insignificance. At any rate, she cannot grow many degrees worse, without authorising us to lock her up for the rest of her life.

Never had he more cause to eat his own words than at this moment. Elizabeth's warning had not only been wise, it had also been rightly timed. Often, before all of this had evolved, Mr Bennet had wondered as to his daughter's motives behind the warning which she had given him that morning, a warning to which he now wished he had paid heed. He could deduce that something or someone had warned her about one of the officers in the militia, and the warning was serious enough for her to be concerned despite their lack of dowries. Now, thanks to these events, he knew that it had been the latter. At some point during her time in Kent, Mr Darcy had informed his daughter of Mr Wickham's character, causing her words to him after her return from Hunsford.

And the same man who had warned her, had stepped forward and helped them when events turned out to be what his favourite had feared. His motives too, had appeared elusive to Mr Bennet, at least at first. Now however, he was fairly certain that he knew what, or, more importantly, who they involved. Though whether or not Mr Darcy had his blessings in such a matter, Mr Bennet had yet to determine.

Having finished packing his personal effects, Andrew prepared to leave his room and join his brother and sister in law downstairs. As he did so, he continued with his present train of thoughts.

Andrew had nothing against Mr Darcy in general. The true character of people was often learned in extraordinary situations, and certainly, there had been a surplus of such in town, leaving him of nothing but the highest opinion of the man who had saved his youngest from the possibility of permanent ruin. Indeed, he would be proud to welcome the man as a son in law. But he had yet to learn the nature of feelings the daughter in question felt for him, and they would decide the outcome entirely.

Such feelings he would endeavour to discover upon his return to Longbourn, and it was with this notion in mind that Mr Bennet entered the dining parlour of Gracechurch Street, to find his sister and brother in law, from their similar facial expressions, in evident expectation of his appearance for breakfast.

"What ever is the matter, Madeline?" He asked, noting the letter which lay before Mrs Gardiner, as he availed himself of some food before taking a seat at the table.

"It seems Mr Darcy's wish of Longbourn remaining ignorant of his actions regarding Lydia are all for naught," Mrs Gardiner replied. She then handed her brother in law the letter she had been holding. "This arrived from Elizabeth this morning."

Mr Bennet took little time in reading the short letter. When he had finished, he returned it to his sister, before remarking, "I see Lydia let slip his presence at her wedding." He looked across at her. "What shall we do?"

"I can see no alternative but to inform Lizzy of the truth," Mrs Gardiner answered. "She will accept nothing less than a full account of events."

Andrew nodded. "I know it will mean breaking our promise of concealment, but I agree, Elizabeth will not be satisfied unless we tell her the whole. If you wish, I will wait until you have finished writing your reply, and take it to Longbourn myself."

"That would be best," Mrs Gardiner agreed, before rising from the table to commence such a task.

Sometime later Mr Bennet carried this letter to Longbourn, intending to hand it to Elizabeth the moment he had the chance.

It was awhile before he had the opportunity. Arriving at his home, he was greeted eagerly by his wife, in a mixture of exclamation and agitation, at his long absence, the union of her favourite, the delay in his departure from London, his failure to welcome his new son in law to Longbourn, and to return from Gracechurch Street to assure her of not calling Wickham out for a duel.

Andrew bore all of these protestations from his wife with equanimity, managing to greet his two eldest and then the rest of his daughters, wisely waiting for Mrs Bennet to exhaust herself before retiring to the sanctuary of his Library. There he seated himself in his favourite armchair and treated himself to a glass of his favourite port, before ringing the bell for Hill, and asking that she send Elizabeth into him.

His favourite daughter entered the room with no small degree of concern, and was most surprised when he handed her the reply from her Aunt. Andrew returned to his armchair, silently observing her as she learned of all that had occurred in London.

Elizabeth opened the letter from her Aunt with a great amount of expectation as to what it would contain. Discovering that it not only answered her curiosity as to why Mr Darcy attended Lydia's wedding, but it also revealed that he had brought the entire thing about in the first place. He had followed them purposely to town, he had taken on himself all the trouble and mortification attendant on such a research; in which supplication had been necessary to a woman whom he must abominate and despise, and where he was reduced to meet, frequently meet, reason with, persuade, and finally bribe, the man whom he always most wished to avoid, and whose very name it was punishment for him to pronounce. He had done this all for a girl whom he could neither regard nor esteem. Her heart did whisper that he had done it for her. But it was a hope shortly checked by other considerations, despite all the hints which her Aunt had wrote.

Mr Bennet watched his daughter carefully through all of this; noting her gasp as her suspicions were confirmed, followed by the realisation of the enormity of what Mr Darcy had done for their family. Therefore he did not miss the subtle expression upon her face as she considered that he had might have done all this for her, followed by a rapid disappointment as she took in other considerations.

When she finally looked up, it was to meet his eyes. "My dear," he began, "I know what you must be thinking. I had the pleasure of reaching a deeper acquaintance with your Mr Darcy through all of this. Yes, he is still your Mr Darcy. He did not say as much, but I have lived long enough in the world to discern when a man is crossed in love. I do not think that he gave any thought to what relation Wickham would become to you. And, though I do not have it as certain, I do have reason to believe that you and he will encounter each other soon." He paused to lean forward and take one of her hands in his own before he continued. "Now, I learned enough of the man to approve of him if he indeed came to claim you, but I want to know your feelings. You have been very reserved of late, Elizabeth. You have told me nothing of your acquaintance with Darcy in Kent, or Derbyshire, though as for the latter county we have hardly the time for such a talk."

Elizabeth heard the words of her father with surprise, and some minutes passed before she had composed herself enough to answer him with a review of what had happened both in Kent and Derbyshire. To his astonishment did she inform him that Darcy had proposed to her in Hunsford and that she had refused him, followed by a change of heart as she came to see his estate, to see him altered in manners, then to learn of all he had done for her in London. Her mind now recalled that morning in Lambton, when he had happened upon after she had just read Jane's letters informing her of the dreadful news. She could still feel the touch of Darcy's hand upon her own, after he had helped her back to her chair, concerned deeply for well-being. She saw now what she had been too distraught to see before; the looks of concern and care which had given her as she relayed the news, followed by an expression and a tone of restraint on grief, which had existed within him as he paid her farewell. She realised now that his hastened departure was not from a want to distance himself from her and her family, but to follow them to London, and find her sister.

"I love him, Papa," She finished, so softly that Mr Bennet had to lean forward to hear the words. "I only realised after he had left me in the room at Lambton Inn, how exactly suited we were, in both disposition and character. I had no hope of ever seeing him again. I still don't. How can a man not hesitate when he knows that his enemy would be his brother?"

"Lizzy, I do believe the man would do anything for you," Mr Bennet remarked, looking at his daughter with a mixture of happiness and regret, at seeing her in love with a man he deemed worthy of her, and the realisation that soon he would lose her. "He asked us to keep this matter a secret, you know."

"I know," she replied, "and his professed reason for it is not without merit."

"Nor is it, I believe his only one," Mr Bennet added, watching her. "If he did not care so much for you, I do not believe he would have done all this." He squeezed her hand. "Do not despair. He spoke of asking Bingley to return to Netherfield soon, and said he would join him, if he was invited. You will know then."

Elizabeth nodded, then rose from her, and still clutching her letter from her Aunt, left her father to his reflections, while she sought her room, to reflect herself.

Part IX.

Memories overwhelmed Darcy as he and Bingley arrived at Netherfield once more. His mind flicked from one to another; from the day when he had rode on horseback around the estate, to the ball, where he had danced with Elizabeth. He could still picture the moment he had seen her arrive, from the window where he had sworn moments before not to watch for her arrival. He recalled how he had seen her gazing up at him, how beautiful she looked, with white ribbons and flowers in her hair, and a clinging silk dress.

He knew now how she had not wanted to dance with him, how annoyed she had been that his presence prevented Wickham's. But the evening was still one of favourite memories from his short time in Hertfordshire, because it had enabled him to partake in a debate with her, to hear her views. He had almost smiled at her as he asked if she walked often into Meryton.

Darcy came out of his recollections, and glanced at his friend. Bingley was uncharacteristically silent as he dismounted and walked up to the open door where the housekeeper stood waiting for them. They had sent word a week before from London for the house to be opened up, unintentionally announcing to the neighbourhood that they would soon return. He suspected that his friend was also under the same influence which he had recently been, recalling memories of the last visit to his newly acquired tenancy. Guilt flashed into his mind as he realised how much those memories could have been altered if he had told his friend about Miss Bennet's presence in town. He had persuaded his friend to return to Netherfield to change all that, though Darcy doubted how successful he would be in such an undertaking.

They entered the house, walking into the large entrance hall, discarding themselves of their long coats now they were in more warmer surroundings. Bingley talked to his housekeeper for a few moments, while Darcy made his way into the drawing room, memories flooding him as he recalled the time he had spent here after the assembly. When he had made reference to sooner calling Mrs Bennet a wit rather than her second daughter pretty. How wrong he had been. About everything.

Bingley entered the room, and Darcy turned to look at him. Observing the same expression of conflicted thoughts upon his friend, he wished suddenly that he had brought Georgiana with him. His sister had been sorry to lose his company once more after he had returned from town and informed her of his plans. Her influence might have proved a much needed distraction from too many guilt inflicted memories. With her Darcy had felt far more faith in his quest to confess to Bingley and to try for Elizabeth's hand again. Now he was here and essentially alone, no one else being aware of his thoughts, hopes and dreams, he began to doubt himself.

"The guns and game are ready for us," Bingley remarked, abruptly, bringing Darcy out of his introspection. "Shall we go and try them now?"

Darcy turned to his friend, and saw within his expression the unspoken need for distraction from the memories which inhabited this house. He nodded, recognising the need within himself, and hoping that afternoon spent shooting added to a morning spent riding would exhaust him into a dreamless sleep for their first night back at Netherfield.

For three days this need for distraction seemed to be conquered by the plentiful amount of game among the acres of the Netherfield estate. The two gentleman bedded late, rose early, partaking of nourishment only when necessary, the kind of existing which Darcy had had become used to during his search for Wickham. By contrast, the grouse and pheasant were much easier prey, especially with dogs to pick up their scent and hound them out, and gamekeepers keeping track of their nests and current settlement areas. But something was missing from the hunt, which both friends tried to ignore in vain, until the subject became unavoidable.

Since their arrival in the neighbourhood, they had yet to be called upon by any of the families, a fact which both were grateful for, and at the same time, saddened by, as they realised the consequences of their sudden departure last year. For a time they welcomed the unaccustomed privacy, as they tried to forget the world surrounding them in hour after hour of gentlemanly pursuits. But as the days drifted on, the need for other company grew, to such an extent that Darcy welcomed the following suggestion from his friend.

"I was thinking we should call on Longbourn today," Bingley announced during breakfast, in a slightly nervous tone.

Darcy flinched inwardly at the underlying quest for approval which came from his friend. Not for the first time did he regret in resorting to lay such control over his friend's actions. "I am your guest, Bingley," he gently reminded him, "you do not need to ask for my approval in whom you choose to visit in your own estate."

"I do need to ask for your company, however," Bingley said.

"You have it," Darcy replied without thinking.

Only later, as he followed his friend up the driveway, did Darcy realise the overwhelming sense of nervousness which came suddenly upon him as he entered the Longbourn estate. His last encounter with Elizabeth had been barely two months ago, but that now felt like an age of time far greater than eight weeks. He felt tongue-tied, unsure of himself in every way, and an almost ruling need to turn round and head back to Netherfield. But he resisted the latter impulse. This first meeting, after all that had passed between them in Derbyshire and while they were apart would be hard he knew, on both of them. But it was also a necessary requirement, if he ever hoped to try again for her hand.

The housekeeper greeted them at the door, and they were shown into the drawing room, where the entire family were assembled. Darcy felt his gaze go immediately to Elizabeth, noticing where she had sat, her sister and father close by. Her eyes met his for a moment, then dropped to the floor, and a sense of sadness instantly filled his mind.

It was with regret that he turned his gaze away from her to her sister instead, as he measured her expression upon meeting with Bingley again. Miss Bennet seemed outwardly calm and at ease, but Darcy saw now what he did not see all those months ago, as he realised how similar her character was to his own, in their habit of hiding their feelings from the rest of the world. He saw Miss Bennet's nervousness at encountering his friend, coupled at the same time with a small flicker of hope that he had returned for her. Again he rebuked himself for the costly mistake his interference had caused.

Mrs Bennet gestured them to chairs, involving Bingley in conversation and quite ignoring him. Darcy was grateful for the motion, as it enabled him to turn to those he knew better, and could converse with more ease. He aware of how much he had to show Elizabeth that he was unchanged from their encounter in Derbyshire, that it was not just his home which made him more sociable in company. He glanced at the table between her and her father, noting the black and white figures, and choose that as his opener.

"I did not know that you played," he remarked, careful to keep his voice audible to her and her father, rather than the room at large.

Elizabeth seemed to glance at the chess pieces in surprise, then turned and slowly answered him. "My father thought me."

"As did mine," Darcy revealed, looking at her, wishing she would raise her eyes to his, but they seemed to be permanently fixed upon her hands which were clasped together on her lap. He saw the tension within that clasp, and wished he could abandon propriety and reach out and take them in his own. "I taught Georgiana, much to my Aunt Catherine's disapproval," he added, hoping further conversation would ease them both. "She believed that it was not a ladies' game."

"How is your sister?" Elizabeth asked.

"She is well," Darcy answered, glad to hear her voice again. "Mrs Annesley is with her in Derbyshire. My friend's sisters have been in Scarborough these three weeks." He paused, then forwarded an inquiry of his own. "How are Mr and Mrs Gardiner?"

"I think I can answer that with better authority than my daughter," Mr Bennet remarked, entering the conversation, a motion which Darcy saw that Elizabeth was grateful for. "They were well when I left them last."

Darcy nodded, his gaze still upon Elizabeth, wishing she would either speak or raise her eyes. He felt suddenly as if his presence was a burden to her, as though she was only being civil as far as civility would allow, and his heart almost broke at thought. He wondered if his hurried departure in Lambton had severed all connection between them forever. He turned his observation on Bingley, noticing that Miss Bennet, though seemingly focused on the needlework between her hands, was quietly listening to the conversation between his friend and her mother.

Mrs Bennet was currently telling the news of her daughter's marriage. "I suppose you have heard of it, indeed you must have seen it in the papers. It was in the Times and the Courier, I know; though it was not put in as it ought to be. It was only said 'Lately George Wickham Esq. to Miss Lydia Bennet' without there being a syllable said of her father or the place where she lived, or any thing."

Darcy shut his hearing from the conversation at that point, remembering how they had all decided that such a short notice was only right due to the situation and circumstances of the marriage in the first place. As he turned back to Elizabeth he noticed her sudden glance at him, as though she was wondering how he would react to such news. Anxiously he returned her gaze, trying to assure her that his feelings had not changed, just because his enemy was now her brother in law.

A moment later, and she was looking at her hands again, leaving him no more hopeful than he had been before. "How long do you intend to stay in the neighbourhood?" Mr Bennet asked him.

"I do not know," Darcy replied, "I am entirely at Bingley's disposal. A few weeks at least."

With that, it seemed all attempt at conversation was at an end. His friend called him briefly into a conversation with Mrs Bennet, seeking his agreement in them dining at Longbourn the next day. Darcy agreed, but his mind was on other things, as they said farewell and took their leave.

He followed his friend's steed back to Netherfield, a heavy sadness creeping over his heart. She had been grave and silent. Whatever hope he had of them finding an understanding must be now at an end.

With such emotions in his mind, the dinner at Longbourn did not pass with any greater success. Darcy found himself in different company from Elizabeth throughout, as he was left to Mrs Bennet or Mrs Long, or Mr Goulding, or some other minor acquaintance from Meryton and its environs. When he did try to talk to her, there seemed to be only time for a small conversation before others surrounded her or him, or she was required to go and serve guests their coffee or tea.

This separation between them, however painful, also gave Darcy a chance to observe relations between his friend and Miss Bennet. Despite their parting so many months ago, despite everything seeming almost against them, they appeared as much the same as they had been a year ago. Darcy watched them quietly, with a mixture of happiness and envy, as he came to several decisions about his future in Meryton.

"I shall be returning to London tomorrow Charles," he announced to his friend after the dinner was over and they were back at Netherfield.

"Whatever for, Darcy?" Bingley asked him in surprise.

"I have some business which me requires me there," Darcy replied, lying, before he added a part of the real truth for his departure. "I also feel that my presence will soon become an impediment to you, and Miss Bennet."

His friend reddened, showing him that he had guessed correctly relations between him and Miss Bennet. "Charles, I feel I must confess something to you, an event which I should have prevented from occurring in the first place." Darcy paused, to look his friend straight in the eye.

"I realised some time ago I was wrong about Miss Bennet's feelings for you. Our engagements at Longbourn since have only confirmed matters for me. I realise now that, had I told you this earlier, you would have been happier than you have all these months. I knew Miss Bennet was London in earlier this year, the same time we were, and I withheld that information from you."

"How... how did you know?" Bingley asked, astonished.

"She paid call on your sister, while you were with your lawyers. I watched her leave. Your sister returned the call, but not for many weeks."

"You tell me now," Bingley began, "that she was in London, all those months, and you concealed it from me?"

"Yes. I can offer no justification. It was an arrogant presumption based on a failure to recognise your true feelings... and Miss Bennet's." Darcy paused, looking at his friend solemnly. "I should never have interfered. It was very wrong of me, Bingley, and I apologise."

Bingley seemed completely astonished. "You admit that you were in the wrong?"

"Utterly and completely."

"Then I have your blessing?"

Darcy looked at him steadily, surprised, saddened and pleased that his friend would still ask after all that he had done. "Do you need my blessing?"

"No. But I should like to know I have it all the same."

"Then go to it," Darcy answered, and witnessed his friend acquire a grin which had been missing ever since they last left Hertfordshire. I wish you all the luck in the world my friend, he thought silently. I have no hope left for mine.

Part X.

October 3rd


[blot] hope your time in London [blot] been put to [blot] use, and that your business has [blot] concluded to your satisfaction. I also [blot] that you will return soon to [blot]erfield, and [blot]oy the delights of Meryton once more.

The [blot] you departed I went to L[blot]ourn, where I manage to secure a moment alone with Miss [blot] Bennet. Sooner than I had i[blot]ned, I offered her my [blot] in marriage, and to my greatest joy she has [blot]pted me. I instantly applied for her father's [blot]ent, which he was pleas[blot] to give, indeed the whole household is in raptures.

I have [blot]rmed Caroline and Louisa, though I have [blot] receive a reply. It seems they are not as [blot]py as I am about Jane becoming my wife. [blot] must attempt to reconcile themselves, as I will not let their disapproval stand in my [blot].

I urge your return to Netherfield, as I have many things to discuss with you, most of the [blot]ing date, for which I hope you will stand up with me.

Regards etc.
Charles Bingley

It was with an experienced dexterity that Darcy managed to decipher the following express, when his butler presented it to him in the morning. Reading Bingley's letters had become as required a course at Cambridge as the rest of his studies, when he first met his friend. And he had held an inkling as to what news this particular missive would contain.

Smiling he laid down the letter, as he pictured how happy Elizabeth must be at her sister's engagement. It was an imagining muddied in sadness, for he still held little hope over ever having the luck to place himself in the same happy circumstances which his friend had just entered. She had been grave and silent both times he had encountered her. What other answer could he derive from this evidence than that she no longer desired his intentions?

Still, he wondered at the contrast. In Derbyshire she had seemed willing, receptive to his attentions. Was she ashamed at her family's connection to Wickham? Or was she just as unsure as himself about his feelings for her as he was of hers? Darcy sighed. He had spent several days in London with the same questions repeating themselves over and over in his mind. And he was no closer to answering any of them than he was before.

What a contrast to the months before! In Derbyshire, he had hopeful, so hopeful, almost ready to believe that a few days in company together would accomplish all his hopes and dreams. This hope had not faded when he travelled to town and spent all those hours searching for sister and bringing about the marriage.

Not until he had arrived at Longbourn, had been doubtful about her feelings. He had seen enough in that long gaze exchanged between them at Pemberley to know that his hope was not even in vain. But now, faced with what he had experienced a few days ago, he was beginning to doubt what he had seen, both in that look, and during the their conversation in the Inn at Lambton, when he had wanted nothing more but to take her into his arms, and kiss away her tears.

A part of him wondered what would have happened, if he had had the same luck as he friend had, and encountered her alone during his brief time at Netherfield. Would everything be immediately understood between them? Would he be now in the same state as his friend? He had been wondering as long as he had been in town if there was anything which he could have done differently which might change everything. Now he was no longer so sure.

Just as he was unsure of everything now. He was so used to questioning his motives, his manners, his entire nature after Hunsford, that it had become an ingrained habit. The only thing he did not doubt was his decision to question everything, to view himself from another view, one different than himself, to become a better person than the one he had been until that fateful day in the Parsonage. He had become so used to improving himself, for her and for his own character that the possibility that he might never have a chance of succeeding with the woman who had made this change occur was saddening.

With his mind still ruminating upon this subject, Darcy moved from the breakfast parlour to the music room, where evidence that he was not alone in the world lay. His sister was still at Pemberley, but her instruments were here as in Derbyshire, and he hoped their presence would soothe him as they had done before.

With knowledgeable hands he fingered a few of the ivory keys, his mind too preoccupied to form a tune or movement. He had learned the instrument as his sister had, a well kept secret between the two of them, and occasionally still played, but his mind was too conflicted to focus on such a distraction now.

Or was it? Before he knew it, he was sitting down, and fingers well playing the first few notes of a piece which had become his favourite, ever since he had heard it sung by her at Pemberley. For a moment during her performance, he had imagined that she was not a guest, that her performance was at his request, not his sister's. That afterwards, if she had not been forestalled by Caroline that she would have sought a seat beside him. There had been so much to hope for after that evening. Hopes which had disappeared the moment he learned of Wickham's affairs.

He recalled now, the implication of his enemy that his elopement with Lydia had been part of a deliberate design, in order to gain his help. Though he had denied it, Darcy knew that their childhood together had taught them both an insight into the other. And it did make more sense as to why he had chosen a penniless girl as oppose to one with a fortune. If these suspicions were true, it followed that if he ignored the chance to try for Elizabeth again, Wickham would have had his revenge, and more powerfully than he ever would have that almost fateful summer in Ramsgate.

As compelling as this argument was, Darcy still felt reluctant to return to Netherfield and follow it through to its possible conclusion. Perhaps it was cowardly of him to hide away in London rather than face her, but if she did indeed care nothing for him, this absence of his would be easier on her, as the engagement of his friend and her sister would throw them into each other's company many times in the future.

Perhaps one of those occasions was all he had left to hope for. All he had left to enjoy of her company. A shiver went down his spine at such a thought. Yet he knew the necessity of thinking about such an eventuality. He needed to prepare himself.

While his heart slowly broke inside.

Part XI.

Darcy found himself airborne from the sofa the second he heard her voice. Her arrival, nay, even the notion, of her visiting him in his townhouse, took him completely by surprise.

It was several days after he had received news from Bingley, coming to a time when he was soon resolved to return to Netherfield and support his friend, even while he envied him, and mourned the loss of ever having the opportunity to experience the same happiness. During this interval he had settled his accounts, corresponded with his steward, though not with his sister, as he did not feel ready to tell her of his current state of mind, and finally, sought to prepare himself for a return to his friend's house, and to his friend's current contentment, while suffering under the opposite emotion himself.

Now however, all thoughts were scattered to the wings as he and his townhouse received a most unexpected visitor. One who never paid a call anywhere unless they were informed that the person they wished to see was unable to travel to their estate. One who was used to other people paying calls on them, attending to their views and needs, and, more importantly, agreeing with every opinion, and obeying their every whim.

Having heard and recognised her voice, he was already on his feet and still trying to recover from his astonishment when the doors to the Drawing Room opened and his butler announced her entrance.

"Lady Catherine de Bourgh."

Even his butler, one who was, on a daily basis, used to forcibly forbidding admittance to the many callers who believed themselves allowed to call on Derbyshire's most eligible bachelor whenever he happened to be in town, looked uncomfortable in the formidable presence of his master's maternal Aunt. Behind her he raised his eyes to Darcy, an apologetic glance overcoming his face, as he silently reported that he had failed to keep this visitor out of the many which had tried to see him during this sojourn in town, from entering the house.

Darcy sent an equally silent glance back, trying to convey to his faithful servant that he was not to blame himself for this unexpected occurrence. He then inclined his head, motioning him to return to the sanctuary of his rooms downstairs. Only then did he turned to his Aunt. "Lady Catherine, I must confess myself surprised at the ..... honour of your visit," he remarked in greeting, hoping his hesitation over the word 'honour' had passed unnoticed.

"Nephew, I have no time for civilities. My only reason for visiting is because my first meeting failed to result in the outcome I desired." With this she paused and sat down, inclining her head in a silent gesture for him to do the same, despite that she was a guest in his house. "I came here directly from Hertfordshire in the quest for answers which the person who was the object of my first visit failed to provide me."

Here she paused, giving Darcy time to wonder at the identity of said person. As far as he knew, his Aunt had no acquaintances in Hertfordshire. However, he could think of a few which were connected to him. A horrible feeling arose within him as he suddenly realised that notice of his friend's engagement to Miss Bennet would have inevitably travelled to Mr Collins, who in turn would have relayed such news to his Aunt. Though what connection this now had to him, he could not think.

"Before I relay to you, nephew, the account of said visit, I must ask you this. Have you made Elizabeth Bennet an offer of marriage?"

The question caught him completely by surprise. Darcy had never imagined that anyone could have had the slightest suspicions of his actions in Hunsford during April, save perhaps Colonel Fitzwilliam, whom he trusted to keep his own counsel. Though disguise of any sort was his abhorrence, he felt it best to reply with the following. "No, Aunt."

Lady Catherine seemed to breathe a visible sigh of relief at this answer. "A report containing this most alarming nature of news reached me three days ago. I was told that your friend Mr Bingley had become engaged to Miss Bennet, and that you would soon ally yourself to her sister. Though I knew it must be a scandalous falsehood, I instantly resolved on setting off for her father's house, in order to make my sentiments known to Miss Elizabeth Bennet."

Oh no. Darcy inwardly groaned, careful to keep his emotions from becoming apparent to his Aunt. He could just imagine how such an encounter had played out. Then again, he could not. He caught the disgust in his Aunt's tone as she spoke her name, and, for the first time in days, the tiny flame of hope within him, the one which had refused, despite the certainty in his grieving heart, to die, began to flicker alive.

"I found her at home with her remaining sisters and her mother. I was surprised to see that Longbourn was such a small park, I had understood from Mr Collins that his inheritance was to be greater than that. I was received into what must be a most inconvenient sitting room in the summer. The windows were full west!"

Lady Catherine paused here, seemingly insensible of the shock she was giving her nephew, before adding, "but to resume. I managed to gain an interview alone with the girl. I shall repeat an exact account of this meeting to you now, nephew, so you may understand the anger and other emotions which I am presently suffering under. Be assured that my memory of such things, is as always, precise.

"I began by informing her that I am not to be trifled with. That however insincere she may chose to be, she would not find me so. That I am celebrated in my neighbourhood for my frankness and sincerity, and such an occasion as this shall not make me depart from such a character. I then informed her of the scandalous falsehood which had been relayed to me then three days ago. She replied that why, if I had believed it to be untrue, I had taken the trouble of coming so far. What did I propose by it?"

There again, came a short pause, allowing Darcy to picture the meeting in his mind, and Elizabeth's voice as she said those words. Even though he rarely took the wisdom of his Aunt without also taking the proverbial pinch of salt, he could imagine Elizabeth replying with such a form of address.

"I replied that I had come in order to have such a report universally contradicted. She then argued that my coming to see her would be seen as a confirmation of it, if such a report ever existed! I asked her if she was ignorant of it, that if her family had not industriously circulated the report about themselves. That she had not heard of such a report being spread abroad. She replied that she had not. I then asked her if there was any foundation for it. She answered that she did not pretend to possess such equal frankness with myself. That I may ask questions which she would not choose to answer."

Darcy inwardly hid a smile at this, proud at her ability to rise to every occasion that sought to intimidate her.

"I insisted on being satisfied. I asked her then, if you had made her an offer of marriage. She answered that I had declared it to be impossible. Indeed, as I said to her, it ought to be so, while you retain the use of your reason. But that her arts and her allurements may, in a moment of infatuation, caused you to forget what you owe to yourself and your family. That she may have drawn you in. She replied that if she had, she would be the last person to confess it."

Lady Catherine paused once more, while her nephew inwardly held another smile. "I then told her, that I was not accustomed to such language as this. That I am almost your nearest relation in the world, and as such I am entitled to know all your dearest concerns. She replied that I was not entitled to know hers, nor would such behaviour of mine induce her to be explicit."

Darcy had difficulty keeping himself in check here, as he considered the effrontery which his Aunt had risen to. She had always been one of the last to know anything of him, as he realised long ago the control she was trying to subject him and the rest of their family to. Inwardly he applauded Elizabeth for her response, knowing that he could not now express the same, without risking the chance to hear what else she had said to put his Aunt in this state of mind.

"I then said to her that this match to which she had the presumption to aspire, could never take place. That you are engaged to my daughter. She said that if that were so, I could have no reason to suppose of you making an offer to her. I then outlined the full details of mine and your late mother's plans for the eventual union of you and Anne.

"I commented on the impropriety of such a prevention as the upstart pretensions of a young girl of inferior birth, of no importance to the world and wholly unallied to the family! I asked her if she paid no regard to the wishes of your friends. To the tacit engagement with Anne. If she had lost every feeling of propriety and delicacy. That had she not heard me say, that you are destined for my daughter.

"She countered what was it to her. That if there no other objection to her marrying you, she would certainly not be kept from it. That we did as much as we could in planning the marriage. That its completion depended on others. She further countered that if you were not bound either by honour or inclination to your cousin, why should you not make another choice? And that if she was such a choice, why should she not accept you?"

I could not agree more, Darcy silently answered, as that previously referred to flame within him continued to grow in strength and luminosity. Not trusting himself to speak, he remained quiet, desperately hoping that his Aunt had more to reveal.

"I responded that honour, decorum, prudence, nay, interest, forbid it. I told her that she must not expect to be noticed by your family or friends if she wilfully acted against their inclinations. That she would be censored, slighted and despised by everyone connected with you. That such an alliance would be a disgrace, and that her name would never mentioned by any of us."

Darcy found himself inwardly wincing as his mind recalled how similar his own words were to his Aunt, from that fateful day at Hunsford Parsonage in April. Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? To congratulate myself on the hope of relations, whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own? It frightened him to realise how much alike his and his Aunt's opinions had been, only a few months ago.

Again, he found himself grateful for the response he had received from Elizabeth, the words which had taught him to take a hard look at himself, and seek to change all she had found wrong. Not for the first time did he see how unjustified such opinions were, and how inferior he had been, and his Aunt still was, compared to Elizabeth.

"Her reply, nephew," his Aunt continued, causing him to come out of his thoughts, "was such as I have never expected, nor wish to hear from any young woman who had the nerve to harbour such an expectation of you. She commented that these were heavy misfortunes, but that the wife of Mr Darcy would have such extraordinary sources of happiness necessarily attached to her situation, that she could, on the whole, have no cause to repine."

If the previous comments of his Aunt had caused him surprise, this outweighed them all. Darcy found himself shocked, deeply shocked. He could almost believe that he had not heard these words. 'Such extraordinary sources of happiness.' Up until this moment he had been able to picture Elizabeth saying all Lady Catherine had testified her to have said. But this? Such a response he had never even dreamed of.

"Of course, after I had overcome such a response, I naturally concluded her and her family's monetary expectations from such a match."

Darcy outwardly nodded at this, but inwardly his mind was reeling. Unlike his Aunt, he could reasonably attest Elizabeth's response to not originating from any monetary reference, because she had refused him before, and in such a manner as to conclude that it was his character at fault, not his finances. Therefore she meant other sources of happiness. But what? Dare he hope they were the same ones as he would find if he were married to her? That her feelings had really altered that much?

Lady Catherine meanwhile, had more to say. "I called her an obstinate, headstrong girl. I was, indeed I am still, ashamed of her. I asked her if this was her gratitude for all my attentions to her last spring. I told her that I have not been used to submitting to any person's whims. That I was not in the habit of brooking disappointment.

"She remarked that this would make my situation more pitiable, but that it would have no effect on her. I then reminded her of the situations of my daughter and yourself. That you both originated from the same noble lines through the maternal side, and from respectable, ancient, though untitled families through the paternal side. That your fortunes are splendid. That you are destined for each other by the voice of every member of your respective houses.

"And what is to divide them? The upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections or fortune. That this would not be endured. That if she was sensible of her own good, she would not wish to quit this sphere in which she had been brought up.

"She replied that in marrying you, she would not be quitting any sphere. That you are a gentleman, and she a gentleman's daughter, in which, so far, you are equal. I asked her who was her mother? Who were her Aunts and Uncles? That she should not imagine me ignorant of their condition. She replied that whatever her connections may be, if you did not object to them, then they can be nothing to me."

Darcy inwardly flinched again at this, but the meaning of the reply was understood by him. That flame of hope within him was now quite large, and bright enough to cause him to blink if it had appeared within his vision. It was just within his control to remain seated, and silent before his Aunt, to wait for her to finish her account of this meeting.

"I asked her then, to tell me once and for all, if she was engaged to you. To my profoundest relief she replied in the negative. However, I then asked her if she would promise me never to enter into such an engagement."

Suddenly Darcy found himself aware of nothing more but the beating of his heart. It was pounding heavily within his chest. All thoughts, all emotions, all senses, every part of his body was abruptly called into a state of suspense as he waited for Lady Catherine to reveal Elizabeth's response to what was the most important, vital question she had asked of that meeting.

He did not have to wait long.

"She replied that she would give me no promise of the kind."

This time, Darcy could not hold back the smile. Hurriedly he put his hand up to his mouth, while he took deep breaths to calm himself. The last thing he should do now was express exactly how much that answer meant to him, in front of his Aunt. Such expressions of joy could wait until she was gone.

"She further added that she would never give me the assurances I require. That she would not be intimidated by anything so wholly unreasonable. She argued that, supposing she did indeed give me such an assurance, would that make your marriage to my daughter at all more probable? Supposing you to be attached to her, would her refusal make you wish to bestow your hand on Anne?

"She said that the arguments with which I had supported this extraordinary application were as frivolous as the application was ill-judged. That I had wildly mistaken her character if I thought she could be worked on by such persuasions as these. She said how far you might approve of my 'interference' in your affairs, she could not tell. But that I had no right to interfere in hers."

Darcy could do naught but approve of Elizabeth's response. Indeed, he resented his Aunt's interference in his affairs, but had held off confronting her about it for so long purely out of respect to his dearly beloved late mother. Lady Catherine had always maintained that she and Lady Anne had been close, and, until recently, he had never doubted such belief.

Since April however, when he had been forced to call into question so many of his convictions, he had come to realise that the entire character of his mother, as he remembered it, would be in contradiction if she was indeed as close to his Aunt as she subscribed.

"She begged not to be importuned any further on this subject. But I had not done. I pointed out to her that I knew everything about her youngest sister's infamous elopement with the son of your former steward. That I knew the affair was patched up into a marriage by her father and Uncle.

"Were the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted? She replied that I could have nothing further to say. That I had insulted her by all possible methods. She then walked off to the house. I followed her. I asked her if she was quite resolved on having you.

"She replied, that she was only resolved to act in manner which constituted her own happiness, without reference to me, or anyone so wholly unconnected with her. I asked then if she was determined to refuse the claims of duty, honour, gratitude, to ruin you in the opinions of your friends, to make you the contempt of the world.

"She replied that no principle of duty, honour, or gratitude would be violated by her marriage to you. That if resentment of our family were excited, it would not give her one moment's concern, and that the world in general would have too much sense to join in the scorn."

With this Lady Catherine now rose from her chair, to stand before her nephew's seat, giving him the full power of her imposing being. "I now ask, nephew, for you to provide those assurances which Miss Bennet failed to give me."

Darcy looked up at his Aunt. His thoughts had suddenly all resolved themselves while he had listened to the last part of her monologue. He knew now, what he had spent all his time in London attempting to figure out. What he was going to do next. Slowly he stood up, making his Aunt back away a little.

Then he showed her how imposing he could be. "Aunt, I thank you for visiting me today. Indeed, your visit has caused me to be more grateful to you than you could possibly imagine. But I am afraid that I will also have to disappoint you. You asked if I could give you the assurances which Miss Bennet could not. Let me answer these one by one. In the first, no, I am not engaged to her.

"But nor can I promise not to enter into any such engagement. While you have testified repeatedly to the belief that yourself and my late mother formed a match between myself and my cousin, I cannot remember her telling me anything of the sort, from her Will or any other legal documents incumbent upon me to obey, or through any of the many conversations I shared with her over the years.

"All I can remember, is of her asking me to promise that in choosing a wife, I will act in a manner which, as Miss Bennet said, constitutes my own happiness, without reference to you, or to anyone else so wholly connected to me.

"As for Anne and I, ever since we became aware of this wish of yours, we have contemplated what such a match would mean. However, we have also agreed, indeed only last spring did we agree, that such an union would go against our own wishes to find love, happiness, respect, and contentment in marriage. We care for each other as cousins, but that is all. And so shall it remain."

It was the first time in his life that Darcy had ever witnessed his Aunt at such a loss for words. Long after he had finished speaking did she remain silent, a stunned expression upon her face, the tight fists her hands were making the only sign of how such an answer had touched her.

Silently, he moved from his position before her. Walking to the doors, he rang the bell beside them, summoning his butler. He then turned back to her. "Lady Catherine, I think it wise that I should warn you of something. That if you continue to persist in your interference in my affairs, and if you choose to insult any future wife of mine, that all connections between us shall be severed.

" I will correspond with my cousin Anne, I will allow her to visit whenever she wishes, but I will never again allow the same liberty from you. I hope you will pay heed to this warning. I have no desire to lose contact with any of my relations. However, if they choose to continue to conduct themselves in a manner similar as you have done this evening, I shall be forced to into this action."

Timing his interruption astutely, it was at this moment that his butler chose to enter the Drawing Room. Darcy turned to him. "Sherringford, Lady Catherine was just leaving."

Lady Catherine had, by this time, only just turned round.

Sherringford, like the rest of Darcy's household, implacably steadfast and loyal to both members of the Darcy family, turned the full imposing power of himself on Lady Catherine. "This way, please, your ladyship."

Later, Darcy would reflect that he was fortunate his Aunt was still in such a state of shock as to not refuse the less than subtle demand to leave his house. All he was capable of now, though, was to run to his rooms, where he found his valet in the midst of packing up his things, tell him to finish with whatever case he had filled and take it down to the carriage, as he would send for more if he needed it, then rush back downstairs and inform his household that he was departing for Hertfordshire immediately.

Part XII.

Bingley was not surprised by his friend's arrival in Netherfield, as Darcy had promised him that he would arrive in the evening, and the matter of his being a few hours earlier than expected made no difference at all. Indeed, he was not even there to welcome his friend, having left to spend another day at Longbourn as soon as was decent the hour.

Darcy held back the smile that would have formed upon his face as he heard this piece of news from his friend's butler, who greeted him when he arrived several hours earlier than expected at said estate. Knowing that as deeply as he would like to join his friend at Longbourn, he had not been invited, so he instead tried to console himself with the knowledge that he would be able to visit on the morrow.

His valet installed his belongings upstairs, leaving Darcy free to explore the house, which he did, walking, not to the Library; his usual retreat in any house, having always had the knack to find such a room, however it might be avoided by the family in general, as he knew his friend's would be stacked of virtually anything but books; but to the Billiard Room, where he could be reasonably assured of finding the table which gave said room its' name.

He needed something with which to occupy his mind during the hours until his friend's return, some other occupation apart from riding his horse around the estate, which inevitably would see him arriving upon the drive of Longbourn. A game of Billiards,* though by no means an adequate substitute, would have to suffice.

Carefully he divested himself of his jacket, laying it upon a nearby chair. He fished the three balls out of the pockets, and placed them on the markings on the green surface. Then he fetched a cue from the rest in one of the corners of the room, and rubbed the narrow end with a piece of chalk.

Then he bent over the table, the cue beneath him, and slid the wooden device between his fingers until the end touched the cue ball. He slid it back for a second, then forward once more, with speed, sending the ball down the surface of the table, until it ricochet off the other end, and hit the red ball. He stood upright, the cue in his hands, the end almost touching the floor, waiting for the cue ball and red ball to come to a halt.

The white stopped soon after it had hit it's intended target. The red shot off into one of the six pockets.

A stray memory flickered in Darcy's mind as he moved to place his cue on the white ball again, aiming to hit the other, white spotted ball, which remained on the table. Of an unexpected visitor to his last game of Billiards at Netherfield, at about this time last year. Miss Elizabeth Bennet.

He smiled as he lined up the cue, his mind recalling how pretty she had looked in her gown for dinner, having come down from her sister's sickbed. He also remembered the vigorous denial he had placed upon himself to acknowledge that she looked beautiful. And how stupid he had felt later for doing nothing more than just bowing in her presence.

The cue hit the white ball, which struck it's intended second target, sending it close, but not in, the right corner pocket. Darcy let the white ball come to a stop, then moved to take his next shot. This achieved the desired result, clearing the table of all but the white ball. He picked that up and placed it back on it's mark, before retrieving the rest.

Thus he managed to occupy himself until his friend returned home.

To his utmost surprise, Darcy found himself to be quite calm and resolved, both in mind and body, when he and his friend arrived at Longbourn the next day.

Bingley had returned from his fiancee late in the evening before, and his contentment was such that any deviation in topics of conversation from Miss Bennet and all that their engagement entailed, was impossible. Such a circumstance Darcy had been grateful for, as he had no wish to inform any one of his plans until he knew for certain whether they had any hope of succeeding. After dinner they had retired early to their rooms, whereupon Darcy had occupied himself in a book which had travelled with him from London, until his mind was exhausted enough to let him sleep.

Now, he was walking behind his friend, who was following the housekeeper, as she showed them into the sitting room whose windows faced full west. That fact of information was not upon his mind however, as he sought, found, and fixed his gaze upon Elizabeth, who had risen, like the other occupants of the room, in greeting at the moment of their entrance.

To his immense relief, before they even were offered a chance to sit down, Bingley proposed a walk to the room at large, obeying the undeclared wish of his best friend. Mrs Bennet was not in the habit of walking, and Miss Mary could never spare the time, so the remaining five of them set out of the house together.

Bingley secured himself a place beside his angel, and allowed Darcy with the two remaining Bennet daughters to soon outstrip them. Darcy cast one glance at Elizabeth, but found her gaze to be on the horizon, so silently made himself wait and hope for an opportunity to arise which would find them alone.

They walked towards the Lucases, as Kitty informed them of a wish to call upon Maria. When that was accomplished, and they were left to themselves, Elizabeth, to Darcy's surprise, opened their conversation.

"Mr Darcy I am a very selfish creature; and, for the sake of giving relief to my own feelings, care not how much I may be wounding yours. I can no longer help thanking you for your unexampled kindness to my poor sister. Ever since I have known it, I have been most anxious to acknowledge to you how gratefully I feel it. Were it known to the rest of my family, save my father, whom I understand you met with during this affair, I should not have merely my own gratitude to express."

Darcy was astounded by these words. He not intended for her to speak first, and when she did, her first sentence had been enough to almost dash his hopes. But as she continued, and he realised that she knew of what he had done for her, he felt them return to life, if not as strongly as before.

He wondered now, horribly, if this had had an impact on her response to his Aunt, then resolutely brushed all doubts away as he sought to form a reply. "I am sorry, exceedingly sorry," he said, "that you have ever been informed of what may, in a mistaken light, have given you uneasiness." He paused, silently rebuking himself for such a formal manner of reply, before adding softly, "I did not think Mrs Gardiner, or your father, so little to be trusted."

"You must not blame my Aunt or my father. Lydia's thoughtlessness first betrayed to me that you had been concerned in the matter; and, of course, I could not rest until I knew the particulars. My father carried a letter from my Aunt back with him, which informed me of everything, and then he added some of his own views concerning your motives. Let me thank you again, in the name of all my family, for generous compassion which induced you to take so much trouble, and bear so many mortifications, for the sake of discovering them."

Her face was turned towards him, and Darcy could not help gazing back at her. He saw the gratitude reflected upon her face, but could detect nothing else, so it was with some uncertainty that he replied. "If you will thank me, let it be for yourself alone. That the wish of giving happiness to you, might add force to the other inducements which led me on, I shall not attempt to deny. But your family owe me nothing. Much as I respect them, I believe I thought only of you."

He paused, and realised this was the moment. It was time to risk everything once again. "You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections, and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me upon this subject forever."

It was shorter than his first attempt, but a complete contrast from those words which he had since regretted ever uttering. Desperately he hoped that she understood that he still felt ardent admiration and love for her, and wished for them to unite.

"My feelings," Elizabeth began, after a moment of silence which was agonising for her companion, "my feelings are.... I am ashamed to remember what I said then. My feelings are so different. In fact they are quite the opposite."

They had come to a halt a long time ago, or so it seemed, at the moment when he had revealed his true motive for his actions in London. Now Darcy felt himself truly still, as he heard her words. And wonderful words they were. Forgetting himself, he smiled, then took her gloved hands in his own, leaned forward, and placed a tender kiss upon her lips. He felt her brief second of hesitation, then she was kissing him back, and he found himself desiring the moment to go on forever.

Part they must however, if only for a while. There was so much to be thought and felt, and said. Gently he removed his lips from hers, savouring their taste, memorising the moment forever. Then keeping hold of one hand, he led them on, further up the path.

"When I said to you that I ardently admired and loved you, I had little idea just how deeply the emotions ran. It was only later, that I came understand my heart, and realise how long it had belonged to you. I have wanted, so many times, to tell you how I felt, as each time we met, how the feelings grew in both power and longevity, despite all the events which tried and failed, to throw obstacles in our paths. In Derbyshire particularly, I wanted to tell you, to take you in my arms and comfort you, to take the grief away which I saw in your eyes, and share it with you. But I had no idea of how much you felt for me, and so I kept my distance."

He paused, to steal a look at her, seeing her quiet, but content to smile, then continued. "I never intended you to find out about my actions in London, indeed I never intended for your father to do so either. I though I would only be able to deal with your uncle, though I did wonder if my level of acquaintance with him would allow me to.

"But when I saw him come to tell his brother's butler to let me in, and saw the worry upon his face, I realised how I would have felt in Ramsgate, and so I began. As for you, I did not want your gratitude. I wanted your love, though I know it was rather selfish of me to think of such a thing as I did it. But I could not get that moment in Lambton out of my mind. I wanted so much to wipe that grief from your face."

He smiled, and then, feeling the need for a new topic to be undertaken in view of their recent agreement, added, "you know, we are indebted for our present understanding, to my Aunt, whom I understand came to see you a few days ago. She paid call on me through her return to Kent, and relayed to me what had occurred during her meeting with you, dwelling emphatically on every expression of yours, so much in fact that I could imagine hearing your beautiful voice saying them.

"She looked for assurances from me, which you had failed to give. Unluckily for her, I refused to give them as well." He paused, then continued. "It taught me to hope, as I had scarcely ever allowed myself to hope before. I knew enough of your disposition to be certain, that, had you been absolutely, irrevocably decided against me, you would have acknowledged it to Lady Catherine frankly and openly."

Elizabeth coloured and gave Darcy the chance to hear her laugh as she replied, "yes, you know enough of my frankness to believe me capable of that. After abusing you so abominably to your face, I could have no scruple in abusing you to all your relations."

"What did you say of me, that I did not deserve? My behaviour to you at the time was unpardonable. I cannot think of it without abhorrence. Your reproofs, so well applied, I shall never forget. 'Had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.' You can not know how much they tortured me."

"I had not the smallest idea of their ever being felt in such a way."

"I can easily believe it. You thought me devoid of every proper feeling, I am sure you did. The turn of your countenance I shall never forget, as you said that I could not have addressed you in any possible way, that would have induced you to accept me."

"Oh! do not repeat what I then said. Such recollections will not do at all. I have long since been ashamed of what I said."

"You need not be. I needed such reproofs, though I did not realise until long after that evening was over. Before we met at Pemberley I had learned to give them justice and credence, and changed my manner to everyone. There, I was so anxious to prove to you that I had changed, that all other matters were ignored." He paused, his thoughts recalling other remembrances. "My letter," he began. "Did it, did soon make you think better of me? Did you, on reading it, give any credit to its contents?"

"At first, I confess, I was too insensible to give any of it credence. But then I read it again, and I realised how much was true, indeed almost all, from your point of view. I knew Jane rarely showed her emotions, Charlotte had even commented upon it, but I had ignored it until then. The more I read and understood it, the more my former prejudices of you were removed."

"I knew that what I wrote must give you pain, but it was necessary. I hope you have destroyed that letter. There was one part especially, the opening of it, which I should dread your having the power reading again. I remember some expressions which might justly make you hate me."

"The letter certainly shall be burnt, if you believe it essential to the preservation of my regard; but, though we have both reason to think my opinions not entirely unalterable, they are not, I hope, quite so easily changed as that implies."

"When I wrote my letter, I believed myself perfectly calm and cool, but I am since convinced that it was written in a dreadful bitterness of spirit."

"The letter, perhaps, began in bitterness, but it did not end so. The adieu is charity itself. But think no more of the letter. The feelings of the person who wrote it, and the person who received it, are now so widely different from what they were then, that every unpleasant circumstance attending it, ought to be forgotten. You must learn some of my philosophy. Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure."

"No, I have been a selfish being all my life. As a child I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Such I might have remained but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth."

She looked up at him as he finished this speech, for the first time since they had last kissed, and her look was such that Darcy could do naught but bring them to a stop, pull her gently into his arms, and show her just how grateful he was for her entrance into his life.

1. Billiards: 'A family of table-games played with various numbers of balls and a cue. English billiards is played with three balls – plain white, spot-white, and red – and six pockets. Players score by pocketing a ball other than their cue-ball, by their cue-ball going in a pocket off another ball, and by cannons, that is, striking the other two balls with the cue-ball.' Source is The Oxford World Encyclopaedia, ifinger edition.

Part XIII.

One evening passed and another arrived before Mr Bennet found himself being followed out of the parlour and into his sanctuary by Mr Darcy. The owner of Longbourn had surmised that such an event might occur soon, having observed the length of time he and his favourite were absent the day before, followed by the silence originating from both of them after their return.

Being a man of quick parts, Mr Bennet had taken care to observe his daughter's and his guest's facial expressions during the enquiries from their family as to where they could have been walking to, as well as their manner during the former's explanation. He then added these observations to the expressive and warm handshake Elizabeth had received from Bingley when the gentlemen callers had arrived that morning, to the other long walk which had followed. All of which, when taken together, had given him the foresight to see that Mr Darcy would seek a moment alone with him as soon as may be.

So Mr Bennet had not taken many steps to his sanctuary when he turned round and found Mr Darcy behind him. Observing the gentleman's serious look, he hid his bemused smile and began. "I take it that you would like a moment of my time?"

Darcy was momentarily taken by surprise, but then nodded solemnly as he answered, "yes sir, if you would be so kind."

Mr Bennet inclined his head in return and led his visitor to the Library. He felt him come to a halt after crossing the threshold, but he did not comment on such a position until he had taken possession of the armchair behind his desk, and poured them each a snifter of brandy.

"You may sit, Mr Darcy, or would you prefer to stand during your application?"

By now Darcy had accustomed himself to the fact that Mr Bennet intended and was likely to be one step ahead of him throughout this interview, and so it was without surprise that he answered him. "I will stand, sir."

Mr Bennet nodded and leaned back in his armchair. "You may begin, and I beg you to be precise as you possibly can, for I am an old man tired by the evening's recent obligations. But also be aware that you are referring to my favourite daughter."

Darcy noted the owner of Longbourn's hidden smile, and began. "Mr Bennet, your daughter, Miss Elizabeth, has made me the happiest man on earth by granting me the honour of her hand. I now come before you to humbly request your consent and blessing to the match."

Andrew Bennet steepled his fingers beneath his chin, and regarded the man before him with all the appearance of careful consideration. "Very good," he remarked. "I shall not ask how you intend to provide for her, because I am aware of the many advantages you have, by both our recent dealings in London and the reputation you have acquired in this area."

Darcy unclasped his hands and inclined his head a little. "Nevertheless, sir, I can assure you that your daughter will want for nothing both financially and affectionately." He paused to add in a devout voice, "I love her with all my heart."

This simple phrase, could not have been more well chosen. Mr Bennet lost his strive for cynical joviality, for all the usual manners of character which he had relied on all through his life, and during the last application of this kind. He realised once again that he was dealing with a man who had everything to recommend himself, and who was offering all that he possessed to the daughter he loved most in the world.

"Well," he began, in a voice which had difficulty hiding the sudden onset of emotion which had arisen within him, "I have nothing more to say. I know already what my daughter feels for you, I asked her as much when she learned from Mrs Gardiner of all what you did for our family in London. For that I would offer to pay you, but I suspect that you will rant and storm about your love for Elizabeth and there will an end of the matter."

Darcy smiled as Andrew had intended him to, before saying, "sir, I gave you one reason for my actions before, and I cannot deny that Elizabeth was another, but nor would I expect repayment of any kind from you, including her. Receiving the honour of her hand is more than I had hoped for."

Mr Bennet nodded and took a deep breath as he realised the true of sense of this occasion once more. "My consent and blessing are granted. Now, before you sit down, sir, be so kind as ring the bell and call Elizabeth into the room, so I can inform her of this news, and we can discuss the next step in this process."

It was not until the rest of the occupants of Longbourn had gone to bed, and doubtless Netherfield too, that Mr Bennet had time to sit alone in his sanctuary, and reflect upon all the events of the day. Silently he moved himself from his desk full of signed copies of settlement and such, to the pair of armchairs by the window seat, where he could gaze out on the night before him.

There was a sad smile upon his face as he availed himself of the above comfort. A year, nay, even three months ago, he would have been astonished to find himself in his current state of affairs. One daughter married before her time, and to a man whom he would never, in all seriousness, wished upon her, no matter how silly she chose to be. Another, his eldest, engaged to the man he had not expected to renew the tenancy of Netherfield after his abrupt departure the year before. And lastly, his favourite newly engaged to a man whom he had previously been convinced she hated along with the rest of his neighbourhood.

Of course a summary such as this was hardly adequate to assure proper understanding of all the events which had occurred, even to a mind which had been involved in almost every event which occurred to change feelings and circumstances. If anything it served to create more astonishment than before.

Andrew steepled his fingers underneath his chin again, and brought his thoughts right back to the very moment from which this sequence of events had began. The night he had exited his brother in law's sitting room, and crossed the entrance hall to the study. He could still remember vividly what he had intended to do, if his brother in law had not received such an unexpected visitor to his door. He had finished the one leather bound volume which he had brought with him in the rushed departure from his house to town, and was about to avail himself of one of Edward's until he had exhausted his mind enough to make it capable of sleep.

And if he had not seen Mr Darcy about to leave his card with the butler? He would have gone to bed, then left town the next day without any idea of his youngest's whereabouts, nor that they were to receive some unforeseen assistance in the search to find her. With this alternative happenstance in mind, Andrew realised that it was doubtful he would have expected Mr Darcy to visit him as he had done so this evening. Indeed, it was unlikely that he would have learned of that gentleman's actions for his family until this very night.

What a series of changes had been wrought by so little! What an understanding he had now obtained with the future husband of his favourite in a series of evenings! It was indeed a moment to wonder. And yet, though he had been given this opportunity to foresee the future, Mr Bennet found himself still unprepared for what was to come.

When Elizabeth had confessed to him her true feelings for Darcy, he had known this evening would soon arrive, else he would not be the studier of character he was renowned for. But as much as he had tried to prepare himself for this, he now found that preparation to be in vain, as the evening in question had come upon him. Truthfully, he would never be ready to lose his daughter, even if it meant gaining a son in law of whom he could not be more proud, or feel was more worthy and deserving of one of his daughters.

Andrew sighed as he looked out on to the night, and his thoughts reached this conclusion. He knew it was inevitable, even if he could not prepare himself for it as much as he would wish himself to. A piece of harmony, of understanding would be gone from Longbourn soon, leaving behind only short visits to sustain him. And inadequate though they were, such visits would have to do.

Part XIV.

Many evenings passed before Darcy ever found himself alone in Netherfield once more. After his evening spent in the company of Elizabeth and Mr Bennet, during which he had amazed both father and daughter alike by revealing the exact amounts he planned to settle on his future wife and children, and the weekly allowance and duties of the future mistress of Pemberley.

The former of which he had ratified with them and their solicitors after the news was made known to the rest of Longbourn, there had followed a number of dinners, held at various houses in the neighbourhood, as the news of the engagements came to be learned and announced.

The last of these was yet to be given, hence his solitary, for Bingley had travelled to town to tell his sisters and then fetch them back to Netherfield in time for the last dinner engagement planned before the news of the forthcoming nuptials were published in the papers and thus to Society at large.

As for his own family, Darcy already held in his possession letters of congratulation and promises to attend said wedding. His Matlock cousins, Aunt and Uncle, were overjoyed, as was his de Bourgh cousin Anne, and although Lady Catherine had yet to send a reply, both he and her daughter were hopeful that she had paid heed to the warning he had given her when she visited him in London.

Georgiana too had sent her response to his news, and her joy had been such that four pages were insufficient to contain her delight. She was also invited to the dinner at Netherfield, indeed her carriage was expected any moment, which was why Darcy had refused to stay to dinner at Longbourn, something which a year before he would never have felt so much of a temptation to accept.

Silently he stood at one of the windows of the Drawing Room which overlooked the driveway to the house, his eyes awaiting the slightest sign or sound which would tell him that his sister had arrived. A half-full forgotten wine glass rested upon the windowsill before him, the sole remnant of his evening meal. Though outwardly impatient in both expression and stance, inwardly he was turning reflective.

He felt upon the brink of so many things tonight. Peace, contentment, bliss, fulfilment, happiness. It could be defined in so many words, and yet summed up into one. Completeness.

He had never thought to reach this state. He had never believed it was possible. All his life he had been searching for what was missing within him, attending assemblies, balls, social functions, Society events which he hated, but felt obligated to attend, due to a friend or family member, when really, though until this moment he had refused to admit it to himself, it was because of the flame of hope within him which had refused to die away. That he would find someone in those crowds of debutantes and daughters, someone who would make feel what he felt to be on the brink of now.

And he had. He had found Elizabeth. Or she had found him. Perhaps even they had both found each other. Whatever the truth, despite all the once, seemingly insurmountable, obstacles between them, they had come together and found an understanding far beyond that hope of his. Which was something within itself. Something to reflect over, to marvel upon, to savour.

To cherish for the rest of his life. Indeed, he had much to cherish already. Barely had their courtship begun, yet he was wishing for more. They had kissed twice on the day he had proposed, and more had followed each day, with the kisses proving each more enjoyable and memorable, and all the more difficult to end, on both their parts. He accomplished so many things he had long wished to earn the privilege of, and in so few days!

He had heard her joyful laughter, seen her smile at him, heard her speak his first name, and in such a tone that he silently wished for no one else to speak it again, save her. She had kissed him, held his hand, allowed his to caress her cheek, and wound a curl of her dark hair in his fingers while he savoured the pleasure of her love.

He had been able to gaze closely at her beautiful eyes, to realise the compliment he had paid them at Lucas Lodge all those months ago was woefully inadequate now he knew that they were really looking at him. He had come to be able to tease her, and to be teased in return, to laugh with her, and exchange beliefs, thoughts, ideas, knowledge, and more, to a far greater degree than he had ever found with anyone.

Everyday with her he learned something new, and earned more privileges, making everyday, every hour, every second, without her, wanting. He could not wait until the day came when he would be able to spend every moment with her, and without any interruptions, when he would be able to grant her everything he had to offer, for the rest of their lives.

A crackle and rustling, sounds of wheels pressing on the pebbles of the driveway, became audible then, making him come out of these thoughts in time to see his sister's carriage drive pass the window he was standing before. Darcy straightened, brushed out the rumpled creases in his clothes caused by his stance, then left the Drawing Room and made his way to the Entrance Hall of Netherfield to greet Georgiana.

It was time to enjoy the rest of his life, now that he had someone to share it with.


The End.

© Danielle Harwood-Atkinson 20212005-2020. All rights reserved.