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A Long Road To Happiness

Chapter One

"My love, should you not like to see a place of which you have heard so much?" said her aunt. "A place too, with which so many of your acquaintances are connected. Wickham passed all his youth there, you know."

Elizabeth was distressed. She felt she had no business at Pemberley, and was therefore obliged to assume a disinclination for seeing it. She must own that she was tired of great houses; after going over so many, she really had no pleasure in fine carpets or satin curtains.

Mrs. Gardiner scolded her niece. "If it were merely a fine house richly furnished," said she, "I should not care about it myself; but the grounds are delightful. They have some of the finest woods in the country."

Elizabeth said no more - but her mind could not acquiesce. The possibility of meeting Mr. Darcy while viewing the place occurred instantly to her. It would be dreadfully embarrassing! She blushed at the very idea, and thought it would be better to speak openly to her aunt than to run such a risk. But against this there were objections; and she finally resolved that it could be the last recourse, if her private enquiries as to the absence of the family were answered unfavourably.

She found that this course of action was unnecessary. As she prepared for sleep, there was a knock upon her door. Her aunt entered and sat upon the edge of the bed, watching her niece as she combed through her long, thick hair. "Lizzy, you must not let your uncle and I persuade you to visit Pemberley if you have reservations about it," she spoke in a gentle manner. "I do have a desire to tour the grounds especially, but we will gladly rearrange our plans if you are uncomfortable about going there."

"Aunt, you are very considerate. The lure of seeing the parks of such a grand estate is great, but I confess I would be uneasy if I were to go there." While Elizabeth could readily divulge her feelings, she could not admit why she had them. I could not make that known to anyone.

"Surely you cannot be worried about your acquaintance with the owner? It would not be out of place in the least for you to tour the estate."

As Mrs. Gardiner was ignorant of her niece's motivation to refuse the outing, she continued to try and persuade her. "It is highly unlikely that you would, meet him, even by chance. It is quite possible that the family is absent from home." But her niece would not be swayed and shook her head, confirming her resolve.

"There is no reason for you and my uncle to make new arrangements; you must go to Pemberley yourselves. I am happy to stay here and write my letters and stroll about Lambton." After further discussion her aunt could see she spoke the truth, and agreed to respect Elizabeth's wish to refrain from joining them. The Gardiners would set out early and be back in time for all to dine together.

Elizabeth spent the following day exactly as she had set out to do, answering letters to Jane and Charlotte and then taking a leisurely stroll through the village. But throughout the day her thoughts strayed more than she had expected from her business. They were not just about her aunt and uncle; they wandered to Mr. Darcy himself, and it was no small annoyance to Elizabeth that these thoughts were most persistent. Lord! I care not to think of him.

She was relaxing by the hearth, which this day was as cold as the stones that lined it, when her aunt and uncle returned. They nearly rushed into the room, filling it with their praise for Pemberley House. It had exceeded their expectations by all they could have imagined. And the grounds measured a full ten miles around the park. She listened for a quarter hour to their descriptions of the beauty of Mr. Darcy's property.

As she did, Elizabeth began to regret that she had chosen not to accompany them. Perhaps I misjudged the risk. It was then that her uncle mentioned seeing the owner.

"And as we were taking in the breathtaking vantage across to the river, who should appear but Mr. Darcy himself," her uncle revealed.

"We were unaware of his identity until the gardener addressed him." Mrs. Gardiner interrupted her husband with a touch to his hand.

"Although we did see the resemblance to his portrait, the one we had viewed in the picture-gallery."

"Yes, and our suspicions were confirmed when he approached us and introduced himself." Surely they jest. Their niece looked upon them with skepticism. This cannot be!

Elizabeth was certain that the man they had encountered was most certainly not Mr. Darcy. He would never initiate an introduction in such a manner. Without doubt he would shun such a meeting. She expressed this opinion quite strongly to her relations, and yet they insisted it was so.

"Was he a tall man?" Elizabeth asked. "Did he have a handsome face and conduct himself with stately airs?" To these queries her aunt replied affirmatively, giving compliment to Mr. Darcy's stature.

"Did his address show him to feel a sense of superiority?" she then asked, knowing that if her aunt again answered positively, then indeed, it must have been him. To this question her aunt and uncle exchanged a glance.

"Truly, we only spoke for a moment, for his business was with the gardener, but what passed between us was quite cordial and pleasant. He had a most evident ease of manner. We were not made to feel out of place nor unwelcome," came her aunt's response. "I must say Lizzy, he was not what I expected. You told me he was a very disagreeable man."

Their niece did not know how to respond to these observations. I cannot but think something amiss. Her aunt's and uncle's impressions of the owner of Pemberley contrasted so completely with her own knowledge of him. To be sure, today's meeting had been brief, and the Gardiners could very well have misjudged his civility.

Throughout their meal that evening, she could not keep her thoughts from Mr. Darcy. Surely this could not be the same man that I know to be so full of pride and disdain for those he considers beneath his acquaintance. She was unable to keep up her end of the conversation, and was forced to ask her aunt or uncle to repeat themselves on more than one occasion. When they had finished, she apologized and retired for the evening, but the change in Elizabeth's countenance upon any mention of Mr. Darcy had not gone unnoticed by her relations and was the focus of discussion over coffee.

Sleep did not come easily to Elizabeth. It was impossible to keep her aunt's words from her thoughts. "Cordial and pleasant." Highly unlikely. "Evident ease of manner." Quite absurd. But this was her aunt's portrayal of Mr. Darcy, and her uncle did not disagree.

Certainly these were not words that Elizabeth would choose to use in describing him. Indeed not! What explanation could there be for such a change in behaviour? So far removed was this from her knowledge of him that she still held the opinion that it was not Mr. Darcy they had met at all. She was so very thankful to have declined to visit Pemberley. How humiliated I would have been to come face to face with him. If indeed it was he and not an impostor! These conflicting thoughts distressed her greatly, and it was quite some time before she eventually fell asleep.

Chapter Two

One of the traveling party's objectives during their stay in Lambton was to renew a number of Mrs. Gardiner's early acquaintances. Elizabeth enjoyed hearing of her aunt's life before her marriage to Mr. Gardiner, and found her old friends to be quite pleasing. Thus they happily found themselves accepting engagements at several homes over the course of their expected stay. It was the day after the Gardiners' visit to Pemberley that an event occurred, which at first was greeted with disbelief. Elizabeth was walking along a cobblestone lane toward the general direction of the inn when she was startled by the sound of someone calling out her name.

"Miss Bennet!" A man insistently called again, "Miss Bennet!" The cheery tone was familiar, and when her name was repeated, she placed it with no little astonishment. She turned towards the voice and her surprise was easily discerned, for never had she expected to see the familiar figure that now sat before her on his black horse.

"Why Mr. Bingley!" Elizabeth was quite happy to see him again.

Pacing close behind was Mr. Bingley's black and white Great Dane, who seemed to remember her, for he wagged his tail and begged for a greeting. As she patted the dog, prudence was set aside and before she could stop herself, she asked, "What brings you to Derbyshire?" Immediately upon these words leaving her lips, she coloured. If Bingley noticed, he made no indication.

"Why I am on my way to Pemberley, with my sisters, Mr. Hurst, and Miss Darcy," he replied. Then he searched the lane and studied the people close by. Elizabeth judged the look on his face to be one of disappointment. "And what of you? Pray, you have not travelled here alone?" His eyes made another sweep of the lane.

"Certainly not, I have come with my Aunt and Uncle Gardiner," Elizabeth replied, and related the circumstances of her journey and their intended length of stay. She was pleased to hear his enquiries regarding her family, especially a certain sister. She returned the pleasantry by enquiring after his sisters and then, almost as an afterthought, added, "And Mr. Darcy, he is well?"

"When last I saw him he was very well; he arrived at Pemberley yesterday. I shall be ever so pleased to tell him of our meeting," Bingley said. They spoke only a few moments longer, and he then made his apologies and rode off to catch up with the rest of the party who had passed through the village ahead of him.

So Mr. Darcy is in residence at Pemberley. Now Elizabeth could have no doubt that it was he who had introduced himself to her aunt and uncle. Of that she was certain, but of all else she knew not what to think.

She stood on the edge of the cobble-stoned lane, overpowered now by all that had been related by her aunt and uncle the previous day. She struggled with their observations of Mr. Darcy as a well-behaved, polite and unpretentious gentleman. What should I make of all this? It did vex her greatly to find so much of her thoughts consumed by him. Especially when I hold no particular regard for him! Try as she would, she could not remove his handsome image from her mind; on the contrary, her thoughts were fixed toward Pemberley House and the spot where he might be at this very moment.

She returned to the inn more unsettled than she could have imagined, and found her interest in the company of her aunt's former acquaintances greatly lessened. She could do nothing but think, and with some wonder, of Mr. Darcy's new civility. Elizabeth had been a good deal disappointed in not finding a letter from Jane on their first arrival at Lambton, and this disappointment had been renewed on each of the mornings that had passed; but on the third her repining was over, and her sister justified by the receipt of two letters from her at once.

With a fluttering heart Elizabeth cried out to the empty room, "Oh, where, where is my uncle?" She darted from her seat as she finished the second letter; her anguished intent was to follow after her aunt and uncle without losing a moment of the time so precious. I must find them at once, without delay.

Her journey to the door was a shaky one, and it cost her some considerable effort to remain standing. There were threatening tears rimming her eyes, and it was with some wisdom that she summoned a servant to go in her place. The passage of agonizing minutes spent alone plunged her into further despair and brought on a spell of crying and wiping her eyes. Time crept slowly by as she waited in vain for her relations to appear. What could be delaying them so?

When she thought the door might never open again, it did just that and Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner stepped over the threshold to behold their beloved Lizzie experiencing what appeared to be some sort of a breakdown.

They rushed to her side, but she was too depleted to answer their pleas immediately.

"Elizabeth! Speak to me!" her aunt cried in fear at the sight of her niece sitting ashen faced with tears staining her cheeks. "Whatever is the matter? Are you ill?"

The letters! Elizabeth held out Jane's letters that were clutched tightly in her hand, and her aunt took them up and began to read.

"Please aunt, read them aloud for the benefit of my uncle," she was able to say in a frail voice. Her view of the room was merely a blur of furniture and people floating in a watery setting.

Mr. Gardiner crossed the room to fetch some water for his niece, but as his wife spoke and the contents of the letters were revealed his ministrations were forgotten, and his surprise, shock and finally horror were each exposed in due course upon his face. He then drank the refreshment himself.

Though Lydia had never been a favourite with them, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner could not but be deeply affected. Mr. Gardiner readily promised every assistance in his power. Elizabeth, although expecting no less, thanked him with tears of gratitude, and all three being actuated by one spirit, every thing related to their journey was speedily settled. They were to be off as soon as possible to return to Longbourn.

Elizabeth tried to force herself to display an outward semblance of calm, but despite assurances by her uncle that the situation might in fact be resolved at this moment, she was still in a state of high turmoil. I can hardly believe that this has happened.

She broke into fits of weeping throughout their departure preparations. Surely it is all some cruel mistake. But no matter how much she would wish it so, Elizabeth knew this could not be true. How could Lydia behave in such a way?

Now as she made to climb into the carriage waiting in front of the inn, Elizabeth realized that she still held the notes making excuses for their sudden departure that had been hastily written to their friends in Lambton. She had neglected to leave them with the innkeeper. My mind has turned into yesterday's porridge. She left the Gardiners to ascend into the carriage while she hurriedly took the letters back inside. Again she broke into tears as she returned.

This will never do. I must collect myself. She wiped away her fresh tears and strove to regain her composure. At this very moment Mr. Darcy, on horseback, turned into the lane from another and proceeded towards the inn. He was wearing a dark green jacket that had been chosen with care, and was trying to settle on what he would say to Miss Bennet when he called upon her.

If all went well, he hoped to extend an invitation for her party to dine at Pemberley. He wished to introduce Miss Bennet to his sister, at Georgiana's particular request.

He reined in his horse and went no further when he witnessed Elizabeth's hasty exit from the inn. He observed her pause to dab her handkerchief to her eyes before she quickly climbed into a carriage that was crowded with baggage. This caught him unaware; Bingley had indicated that Miss Bennet had meant to remain in Lambton for several days.

The carriage set off with a rocky jolt and he watched as it approached where he stood. It passed within ten feet of him and slowed momentarily to allow a cart to pass. He fixed his eyes upon the window and sought out the image of Miss Bennet as it came alongside, and he was not disappointed.

At that moment, Elizabeth raised her head and her reddened eyes rested directly upon him. It was the first time either had set eyes upon the other since their disastrous last meeting in Kent. They could not know that each felt the same heart-stopping lurch deep within them now.

He noticed her mouth open ever so slightly with a quick intake of breath. Her tears were flowing, and her eyes opened wide in astonishment, but she made no effort to turn away. She held his gaze freely and despite her evident grief, he thought he detected a questioning look from her. For Mr. Darcy's part, he found himself unable to do anything but stare back into Elizabeth's eyes. Good God! What has happened to put her in such a state?

Elizabeth could scarcely believe that Mr. Darcy was sitting on his horse in the lane, watching her depart. What would bring him to the inn? Even in her despair, she could not ignore his imposing figure, in a well-fitting deep green jacket, and the attention he was attracting from the villagers as they passed him.

There was a familiarity about the sight of him sitting astride his mount that came rushing back to her. She could not help but fix her eyes upon him when the carriage slowed, and only after they had passed did she think of her current condition. Oh my heavens! In my sorrow, my judgment has failed me. I have let him see me this way. Shame and vexation overpowered her. She considered how her present appearance might strike so vain a man. Oh! Why did he come? Had they been only ten minutes sooner, they would have been beyond the reach of his discrimination. It is plain he has just now arrived in Lambton.

She blushed again over and over at the perverseness of the meeting. The exchange of glances ended too quickly to suit the gentleman as the carriage lurched forward and bore its occupants away. He made no move to continue on; instead he turned in the saddle and watched the conveyance until it disappeared. Lines of concern creased his forehead and, as every other idea seemed to fail him, he suddenly recollected himself and made his departure.

"Elizabeth, what is it?" her aunt enquired, for her beloved niece had not recovered from the shocking news and the slightest provocation elicited her concern. Her appearance had changed dramatically; she now looked flushed and somewhat disturbed as she held her hand, clutching her handkerchief, against her mouth.

Elizabeth gave her aunt an exceedingly anxious look, an expression that had nothing to do with the disturbing business of her sister's behaviour.

"My dear, if I am not mistaken, I saw Mr. Darcy on horseback in the lane as we slowed," Mr. Gardiner addressed his wife, keeping his attention fixed outside the carriage.

"Did you notice, Elizabeth?" he turned and asked.

With both her aunt and uncle now looking directly at her, she was temporarily at a loss to reply.

"I did not notice, uncle," Elizabeth finally mumbled into her hand and turned her own attention out the window. It had not eluded Mr. Gardiner that more than a carriage ride down the lane had just occurred. A look from husband to his wife said there would be more to tell of this later, when they were alone. After the carriage turned the corner and disappeared from view, Darcy wheeled his horse about abruptly, left Lambton and rode swiftly back to Pemberley. His mind was so deeply engaged in his thoughts that he was unaware of the strain he put upon his mount; only when he was on his property did he slow and grasp the distress the creature was in. He stopped by the lake and allowed it to cool down. He found himself breathing as hard as the animal, and took up the invitation for a rest in the shade of the branches of a large elm that had stretched out over the bank in an unbending stance for nearly a century. Absently running a hand through his dark curls, he fell back against the soft earth and gazed across the water. He was in no mood to return to the house just now.

From the moment Bingley had told him of seeing Miss Bennet in Lambton yesterday Darcy had been consumed by thoughts of her, if it were possible to be more so than he already was. He had eaten little at dinner, been poor company to his guests and remained generally preoccupied and distant last evening. When the party had retired, he found himself unable to face his empty room for another night alone, for he knew he would only toss fitfully back and forth in an attempt to sleep. So he had wandered the great halls and rooms of Pemberley with the light of a single candle dancing along the walls as a companion, until his hounds found him and refused to leave their master.

The early hours of the morning had crept closer as they moved from room to room, his tortured thoughts shadowing him with each step. As they materialized in a never-ending procession, he examined each with frank sincerity, experiencing at times genuine pain from the exercise. Mentally wearier than he was physically, he finally sat down in the music room and watched through the window as the faintest of light appeared on the horizon, gradually turning all that was on view outside to ever lightening shades of grey. The candle had long since gone out, its short life extinguished in mere hours.

Fitzwilliam Darcy had come to a realization. The past months of struggle had been endured with some success, but he had mistaken the reasons behind the crusade. Upon his leave from Rosings Park, he had examined Elizabeth's criticisms with difficulty. It had not been a task that he had been able to accomplish swiftly; it had taken time to peel back the layers of his character for candid self-examination. But he had done some serious soul searching, and from it many truths had been realized. The result was an earnest attempt on his part to amend himself accordingly.

And why have I done all this? Certainly, to at least some degree, it was for self-improvement, but he would be deceiving himself if he did not admit that he hoped to gain Elizabeth's approval by his attention to her remarks. Then why am I still struggling to overcome my feelings for her? He could not forget Elizabeth Bennet. Nor do I wish to. He did not want to stop loving her, even now, and he desperately wanted another chance to gain her affections.

Wisdom can come at the most peculiar times; for Fitzwilliam Darcy it came while he watched the sunrise as his fingers played silent notes on his sister's new pianoforte. I have approached this in entirely the wrong manner. I should have taken this time to come to a decision of how best to win her and not wasted it in failed attempts to forget the only woman I have ever loved.

The acceptance of this had acted upon him like a tonic. He immediately felt renewed, revitalized, invigorated. And motivated. For now I have a purpose, and one that I will not waver from. As he had jumped up, the hounds sensed that their master's melancholy disposition had altered and begun to playfully run around his legs.

He had resolved to pay her a visit that very day. While he was uncertain of his reception, he would at the very least demonstrate to her that he had applied his best effort to improve in the matters she had brought to his attention. After a few hours of rest, then a good deal of particular attention to his wardrobe, he had set out and attempted to do just that. And then he was forced to watch helplessly as she left before he had the opportunity to speak to her. Now she is gone.

As he looked across the lake to his stately home he thought of all those inside, and he could not but admit that the one person whose presence he desired above all others was not there. Elizabeth. Lovely Elizabeth. She had looked very unwell, at least from the little he was able to see of her. He was deeply concerned for her. If only there were some way I might ease her suffering. Perhaps someone in her family had taken ill, or worse. What distress she must be experiencing. I would gladly bear it for her, if only I could.

He cursed the helplessness he felt. He desperately wished himself in a position to offer her support. Yet he knew not how to possibly approach such a complicated situation. His presence would most likely be quite unwelcome. And the source of her distress was a mystery.

Darcy jumped up and began pacing along the water's edge in frustration. He eyed the calm surface of the lake, then quickly ripped off his boots, jacket, vest and cravat. Before thinking any further, he made a neat dive into the cool water and found temporary solace as it surrounded him. By the time he climbed out of the lake, his groom had discovered him, led to the lake by the hounds. The servant took the horse off to the stables while his master walked the long way around, pouring out his story and seeking advice from his faithful dogs in the solitary wood before he turned his steps back toward the house.

Chapter Three

That evening the halls of Pemberley were enveloped in a subdued and bleak humour. Darcy had set the mood, and although the others in the party were unaware of the basis for his dark inclination, they comprehended that the atmosphere was not as spirited as it could be. He remained a polite and attentive host in every way, but all attempts to draw him out were unsuccessful. While the aimless chatter of Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst bounced back and forth across the table, Georgiana sat reticent and quiet. Charles Bingley was wholly unconcerned with Darcy's behaviour, for knowing his friend as well as he did, Bingley understood him to become withdrawn at times.

Mr. Hurst was merely hungry and thirsty, oblivious to the goings on around him as he refilled both his plate and his glass repeatedly. After dinner, Hurst, Bingley and Darcy excused themselves from the ladies of the party and retired to Darcy's study. Before their first drink had been half consumed, Mr. Hurst was sprawled contentedly in a corner chair, stuffed with the succulent and expertly prepared dinner of game from the estate. He would surely snore away the remainder of the evening. This was the opportunity that Darcy had been waiting for.

'Tis now or never and by God a coward I am not! "Charles," he began, "could I prevail upon you go out into the garden? I would have a private conversation."

His friend looked upon him with astonishment, for he was certain he had heard him incorrectly. Then he took in the figure of his brother-in-law slumbering in the corner.

"I do believe that in the presence of Hurst here, we could consider ourselves quite alone." Mr. Hurst let loose a gnarled snore of some volume.

For the discussion he had in mind, Darcy preferred to take no chances on being overheard. Shaking his head, he made his way towards the door and gave Bingley a questioning look.

Charles determined not to doubt his friend, but rather to follow and listen to whatever he might be made privy to. He had the presence of mind to grab the decanter of brandy off the tray on the way out.

The night was as mild as a summer night could be in Derbyshire. Neither man had cause to feel uncomfortable, for some warmth from the day still hung in the air. They were content to set out on the gravel path that began and ended at the main doors of Pemberley, circling the house and threading in and out of the formal gardens that stretched across the south facade. It was a pleasing setting, enhanced by a multitude of stars that stretched across the moonless sky. The lights from the windows cast their glow along their route, intermittently colouring the path a pale golden hue. The crush of the stones under their feet was the only sound that interrupted the tune of the crickets in the night.

Finally Darcy felt compelled to speak. "I went into Lambton today," he began, "with every intention of calling upon Miss Elizabeth Bennet." He stole a quick glance at his friend but noted nothing curious in his reaction. "I did not have that pleasure, though, for she was departing as I arrived."

"Indeed," Bingley replied, while thinking this could just as well have been discussed indoors. "Did you leave your card?"

"No, it was apparent that she was quitting Lambton altogether. I saw her entering a carriage packed with baggage." He fell silent for a moment, examining the shape of the dog rose hedgerow that formed an alley for the path along the north side of Pemberley House. It was nearly two yards tall, and while its flowering season was waning, it would soon be autumn, when the rich red oval rosehips could be collected.

As they turned a corner and came up to the crescent-shaped drive, a stable hand nearly bumped into them. "Beggin' your pardon, sir!" He had Darcy's hounds with him, as well as Bingley's Great Dane, Caesar.

"All is well, Daniel. Leave the dogs with us and be gone." The stable hand disappeared quicker than a gypsy tramp with a pocket full of someone else's money. The dogs fell into step with the gentlemen, carefully sniffing every available bush along the path. Bingley waited patiently for Darcy to pick up his tale. He had only a short delay.

"I believe that Miss Bennet must have received some distressing news. She appeared to be unwell. "

"Whatever do you mean?" This turn of the conversation piqued Bingley's curiosity. He paused to refill Darcy's glass before continuing along their circuit.

"Quite frankly, she was in tears," Darcy related. He frowned deeply as he remembered Elizabeth's face in anguish. Before his friend could respond, Darcy continued quickly,

"Charles, I would wish to extend my apology to you." This unexpected remark did draw a reaction, and Bingley exclaimed with some feeling, "Why, Darcy, whatever for?" So far, he had been unable to piece together his friend's disjointed conversation. Still, the brandy was good; perhaps this evening stroll was a simple display of previously unknown eccentricity.

"I have behaved in a manner I consider beneath myself, and it may have caused you some degree of harm." Darcy continued, holding up his hand to forestall an interruption when Charles opened his mouth to reply.

"Pray, let me finish before my resolve is lost. I was aware this past winter of Miss Jane Bennet's presence in London while we were also in town. I did not make you aware of this under a misguided belief that she held no special regard for you. I felt I was doing you some sort of service, although now it seems absurd. I had no right to interfere in your private affairs, and so I solicit your forgiveness."

His speech was delivered both more steadily and graciously than he felt.

They now found themselves starting a second turn around the building. Once again the artful splendour of the formally laid garden surrounded them. There was a substantial pause while Bingley refilled his own glass. Then he spoke.

"I see."

It was clear that Bingley's thoughts were taking him in a number of directions. After some silence, he put forth a question. "Why, may I ask, do you feel that your thoughts regarding Miss Bennet's feelings were misguided?"

Darcy was of two minds now. To answer his friend properly might lead him to disclose his own situation with Miss Elizabeth Bennet. He was also unsure about revealing what she had said to him in confidence. He made his decision with the swiftness of the birds flying across the low-lying valley of his estate.

"Miss Bennet told me," was his full and succinct reply.

Bingley stopped walking, as did the dogs. He turned to Darcy and spoke with some emotion, "Miss Bennet! Miss Bennet? Which Miss Bennet do you speak of, man? I am lost as to the direction this conversation has taken!"

The idea of his friend's eccentricity had now remoulded itself into dementia. Has he lost his senses?

Darcy let out a deep sigh and rolled his eyes. He strode off the path down a set of wide sandstone steps and settled into the soft lawn, leaning back against an obliging oak. No sooner had he reclined in the grass than both his hounds found places of comfort on either side of him. He silently held up his glass; Bingley filled it without comment, then stretched himself out on the ground and cradled the decanter in the crook of his arm. Caesar chose to disappear into the grove and begin crashing about. Bingley knew that when Darcy was ready an answer would be given. And he was correct.

"Miss Elizabeth Bennet told me as much. "

"But according to your earlier statement, that is impossible! For you just said me she was leaving when you saw her. Did you in fact speak with her?"

"Not today, no."

"Well, when did Miss Elizabeth Bennet inform you that your beliefs were incorrect?"

"When I proposed to her."

"When you proposed to her?" Silence, then, "You and Miss Bennet are engaged?"

"No."

Pause. "No?"

"That is correct. She would not have me."

Silence again.

Then, "Let me see if I understand you now, Darcy. You proposed to Miss Elizabeth; she refused you, and then she told you of her sister's regard for me. Do I have events correct thus far?"

"Indeed."

"And when was this?"

"Several months ago."

Both men now took to studying the celestial bodies twinkling in the distance while they considered recent developments in the matters closest to their hearts.

Caesar popped out of the underbrush with a huge stick in his mouth. Content now, he lay down by his master and, propping his prize between his huge paws, began to gnaw away.

Charles was the first to speak. "Darcy, what is your perception of your current state of favour with Miss Bennet, er, Miss Elizabeth that is?"

"I was hoping to come to some understanding of that today. I must be honest, though; when we last parted it was on rather unfriendly terms."

"Damn, Darcy!" Charles exclaimed. "Do you think you will want to go with me then?"

Darcy gave him a questioning look. "Where?"

Bingley propped himself upon his elbows and turned to face his friend.

"Good God, man! To Netherfield of course. If some unfortunate event has happened that affected Miss Elizabeth Bennet so severely, then Miss Jane Bennet will no doubt be suffering grievously as well."

Darcy emptied his glass. "How soon can you be ready to depart? It will take me one full day to organize my business."

"I have nothing more to do than repack. I will await your readiness."

With this pronouncement from Bingley all jumped up, and gentlemen and dogs made their way back into the house.

There was much uproar among Miss Bingley and Mr. and Mrs. Hurst upon their brother's announcement of his to depart for Netherfield. As they were not of a mind to accompany the men, they agreed to travel back to London with Georgiana, where she would have Mrs. Annesley for company, while the rest of the party encamped at Mr. Bingley's townhouse.

As they prepared to depart, there was also much speculation by two certain sisters as to the purpose of their brothers' hasty removal his country estate.

That afternoon, the gardener knocked on the kitchen door and presented Mrs. Reynolds with two crystal glasses and a matching decanter that the staff had been searching high and low for throughout the house. He explained that they had been discovered in the oak grove by the north lawn, and Mrs. Reynolds could only shake her head.

~ * ~

The ride to Longbourn was, for the most part, silent and reflective. Nothing could be gained by anyone in the party speculating on the state of events at present. They could only hope that, as the carriage drew nearer with each hour, a positive resolution had already occurred in the matter.

Elizabeth's tears had long since ceased to flow. They had been replaced by a knot in her stomach at the dread of returning home to an impossible situation. Father is gone to London, mother is locked in her room and Lydia has disappeared with a scoundrel.

Elizabeth thought about poor Jane. She had been forced to endure the situation and act to hold the family together on her own while Elizabeth and her father were both away. She could only imagine what hysterics Jane had been forced to suffer from their mother. How her heart felt compassion for her sister.

She was quite weary from her excess of emotion, but each time she closed her eyes to partake of some rest, the image of Mr. Darcy appeared before her. Why do my thoughts persist in such a direction? He had encountered her in a most dreadful state. My heavens! She cringed inwardly each time she recalled it. She had been openly weeping, unable to make any attempt to conceal her emotions. Perhaps I avoided his notice. Of course this was impossible; the carriage had passed close enough to him, and he had most decidedly returned her gaze. What poor luck to chance to see him as they were departing. He must have been astonished to stumble upon her at that moment. If he had had any regard left for her it would surely now be lost.

But what do I care of such matters in any case? She acknowledged no desire for his favour. She did not wish to entertain images of him, and yet her mind refused to comply and banish him. Be gone Mr. Darcy! Reluctantly, she admitted to herself that she held a certain curiosity as to what a pleasant and friendly Mr. Darcy might be like. In fact, I wouldn't mind meeting up with such a man. If he really existed.

It took far too long for the carriage to reach Longbourn. Once there, they quickly ascertained that no resolution had occurred. The only news of Mr. Bennet was the old news of his safe arrival in London. Beyond that, all were without any further knowledge. Mrs. Bennet kept to her rooms, making herself too ill by her lamentations to be of any use to the family. Kitty and Mary were more subdued and, wisely, stayed in their apartments. Jane showed all the signs of deep fatigue.

It was decided that Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner should return to London the very next day so that Mr. Gardiner could engage in helping Mr. Bennet to locate Lydia. Mrs. Gardiner had indicated that she would gladly stay to comfort her sister, but the group agreed that she might be of more benefit to Lydia when she was discovered. On the first opportunity that presented itself, Elizabeth met Jane in the garden to speak privately. They sat on a stone bench that sheltered them from view of the house, hoping not to be interrupted.

"Tell me everything I have not already heard, Jane," Elizabeth requested. Her sister dutifully filled her in on the details of Lydia's elopement and produced her a note that Lydia had left for Colonel Forster's wife before she departed Brighton. Much was discussed between the sisters, including the shame Lydia's actions were certain to bring upon her family.

Elizabeth pronounced, "Oh Jane, had we been less secretive, had we told what we knew of him, this could not have happened! Oh Wickham! And now to think he will be our brother. It is too much to bear. Oh, but what if he does not become our brother? That is far worse. I resolve not to think about that possibility!"

"Perhaps it would have been better..." Jane began, but Elizabeth cut her off.

"Jane, I am determined to do what I can to put an end to this dreadful situation, for I feel the responsibility of it myself," Elizabeth declared with a resolute tone in her voice.

Jane put her hand on Elizabeth's arm. "But Lizzy, we acted with the best of intentions. To be sure, you yourself knew what Mr. Darcy told you of his dealings with Wickham in confidence. And what can you do now any more than I could? We must wait for father and Uncle Gardiner to find Lydia and Mr. Wickham. Surely there will be some sign of them before long."

Elizabeth lowered her voice and looked at her sister. "Jane, I fear they may be well concealed. We cannot necessarily expect them to be discovered any time soon, although my heart would wish it so." Then she regained a determined voice. "I will go to London with my aunt and uncle, and when Lydia is found, I will be there to see that she listens to reason. I feel certain Papa will be most grateful to have some immediate support. Perhaps the presence of a daughter will be of some comfort to him."

As this matter was now firmly settled in Elizabeth's mind, she disclosed some news of her own from Derbyshire. "Jane, when I was walking in Lambton village, I came across Mr. Bingley." Since this was the very last thing Jane might expect to hear, Elizabeth was not surprised to see open astonishment upon her sister's face. Jane quickly concealed it with a mask of disinterest. Elizabeth knew her sister too well, though, and suspected her true feelings.

"If I am not mistaken, he was a little disappointed to find me without the company of a certain sister." How Elizabeth managed to look both sly and innocent at the same time was unknown to Jane, but at this moment she did. Jane made an admirable attempt at avoiding more sorrow by replying, "Lizzie, I am sure that Mr. Bingley was only performing those pleasantries that are expected when one meets an acquaintance."

"Perhaps he was," was the extent of Elizabeth's answer, for at that moment Jane hushed her on the approach of their aunt.

As Elizabeth needed to address her intent to travel with them in the morning, the subject was broached and they petitioned her uncle. Her suggestion was heartily endorsed, for the accepted opinion now was that this business might not conclude as rapidly as they had first hoped. Elizabeth spent the remainder of the day organizing the repacking of her bags for the trip to London.

The party only waited for the post the next day before setting off. The carriage was nearly overflowing, as Elizabeth's nieces and nephews were travelling home as well. The children brought a welcome diversion from the difficulties that hung heavy over them. There was a great amount of traffic upon the road, both heading to the City and proceeding in the other direction towards Hertfordshire. The Gardiners made several stops along the way to oblige their children. Elizabeth used this time to stretch her legs and walk briskly around the waiting carriages in an attempt to refresh herself.

One such stop nearly caused her injury when she alighted from their carriage and made to walk around the back of it. She had turned back to watch a dog, one that resembled the striking Great Dane that she knew Mr. Bingley to own. It was called to a carriage and hopped up next to the driver before the equipage took off with unusual haste, nearly running her down. Elizabeth stopped short and, having avoiding any harm, turned back towards the safer confines of the yard.

Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, sitting back in the comfort of the former's carriage, were unaware that their driver had executed such an unsafe manoeuvre, nearly colliding with a young lady of their acquaintance.

Chapter Four

It had not been possible to give the staff at Netherfield sufficient notice to prepare for the return of their master and his friend; in fact, no precise hour had been given regarding Mr. Bingley's impulsive arrival. Thus it followed that when the gentlemen's carriage drew up to the house, it still gave the impression of being unoccupied.

As the sun set behind the building, all was quiet within. Netherfield had a rather eerie feel to it, dispelled somewhat by Caesar's bounding up the steps before the gentlemen. Never one to let any mood descend too low, Bingley charged through the door and quickly began rousing the staff within. Lamps were lit, bags unpacked, water heated and baths drawn; soon a hearty ragout was served in the library, and the house had decidedly returned to a more cheerful state within an hour's time.

Although they were weary from their trip, they lingered after their dinner, discussing how best to call upon the Miss Bennets the next day. As the men were not familiar with the particular circumstances that affected the Bennet family, they gave thought to a wide range of possibilities.

The gentlemen were well aware that this was a most serious matter. But their fatigue from the trip south, accompanied by a liberal amount of brandy, produced some incredulous suggestions as the hour grew late. The last few scenarios brought forth hearty chuckles from them both. Only rarely did Darcy loosen his cravat and jest with his friend.

Tonight, his affable manner was due to equal parts of drink, exhaustion and nerves, and his levity was a measure of defense, meant to counteract them. They resolved not to arrive at Longbourn until midday, thereby hoping to avoid any unwelcome early interruptions they would cause in ministering to a sick family member, as they had settled upon this being the most probable crisis.

Each gentleman then retired, taking with him his own expectations as to what the next day might bring.

Jane found herself somewhat eased in her burden after her nieces' and nephews' departure the day before. Her mother imposed tremendously upon Hill and the other servants for her needs, and was also content to bestow her grief upon them. Jane needed only to appear several times each day to inform her mother of the lack of any news and generally nod her head and extend sympathy to Mrs. Bennet.

Any attempts to clarify matters in her mother's mind were futile, and Jane had long since abandoned them. Still, confined to Longbourn they all remained, for the unpleasant business that Lydia had plunged the whole family into was one of no small embarrassment for the Bennets.

As the midday meal was being laid out in the dining room, Jane went in search of Kitty and Mary, but was confronted by a startled Hill instead. "Beg your pardon Miss Jane, but a visitor has just arrived." With that she curtseyed and made a hasty exit, no doubt hoping to avoid whatever new development was about to present itself to the family. With no expectation as to who the callers might be, Jane made her way to the front door to greet the newly arrived guests. She felt no little surprise when a gentleman stepped from the conveyance. Along with that emotion came an equal dose of consternation. "Why Mr. Collins! How good to see you. Whatever brings you to Longbourn?" Jane inquired with more enthusiasm than she felt.

Mr. Collins stepped forward and bowed low in his singular way. "My dear cousin, please forgive me for the intrusion upon your house at this time. I have come only to express my sympathies and offer any comfort that I might afford your family."

As kind and fair as Jane's disposition was, at this moment she harboured some very uncharitable thoughts for Mr. Collins. Could things get any worse? She had no choice but to escort him inside and invite him to join in their meal.

As she collected her sisters, Kitty protested her lack of hunger, for which Jane swiftly admonished her thoughtlessness. "You would dare leave Mary and I alone to enjoy a visit from Mr. Collins? We would feel quite guilty about this, Kitty, for we certainly would not wish to deprive you of the pleasure of our cousin's company!"

Kitty looked at Jane glumly and supposed that perhaps her eldest sister had received a little too much influence from Lizzy as of late. Mrs. Bennet had been alerted to a visitor by the sound of the wheels. "Hill, Hill! Who has come? Who has come?"

When Mrs. Bennet was informed that the gig had brought Mr. Collins, she launched into a tirade upon how he might now be her son-in-law if not for the insensitive, unfeeling actions of her second daughter, then she moved on to what the future held. "We will all be out in the road when Mr. Bennet is gone. Oh, whatever shall we do? Oh Hill!" Mrs. Bennet wept into her handkerchief and called for her smelling salts.

After the meal, during which the sisters were quite sufficiently filled with Mr. Collins' notions of pastoral advice and consolation, he eased into a comfortable chair with every apparent intention of continuing his ministrations to his cousins.

The silent consensus among them, at least between Kitty and Jane, was to find a way to remove him from the house and send him on his way. As each contemplated this dilemma, with half an ear attending to their cousin's discourse regarding their unfortunate sister, they took no notice of the arrival of two more gentlemen as they approached the house, or of Hill when she stood in the doorway. Hill cleared her throat and announced, "Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy!" Then she stepped aside and quickly removed herself from the room.

Jane did not pay full attention to Hill's announcement; she did not comprehend that these very gentlemen were standing before her, bowing, even while she looked upon them. When she realised that her eyes were not playing tricks, she lost her breath and raised her hand up to her throat. Indeed things could, and have, gotten much worse.

She was fully unresponsive for an interminable length of time. It was Mr. Collins who broke the silence. "Mr. Darcy, what a privilege it is to see you, sir!" Collins rose and executed a bow. "I was unaware I would be afforded such great pleasure today. I would tell you that only yesterday I saw your aunt and Lady Catherine is in the very best of health. And Mr. Bingley, it is indeed good to see you sir." He smiled assuredly at the gentlemen.

They thanked Mr. Collins for his courtesies.

Mr. Darcy then made an enquiry to Mr. Collins after his wife, affording all present another long-winded and servile response. Upon inspection of the room, Collins' attendance rather confirmed the gentlemen's notion that a family member must be ill. The absence of several members of the Bennet household did not go unnoticed, and each pondered who might be ailing.

Of special interest to Darcy was the whereabouts of Elizabeth, as he preferred to think of her, and he imagined her to be upstairs attending to the afflicted person.

Jane had recovered to a degree sufficient to at least rise and properly greet their newly arrived guests. She offered them refreshment and rang for tea. Bingley settled in a chair closest to Jane, and Darcy positioned himself by a window. "Mr. Bingley," Jane began, "we were unaware that you had returned to Hertfordshire. Have your sisters joined you?"

This was a feeble attempt by Jane to regain her composure.

"No, they are in London. As a matter of fact, we only arrived last evening. It was a rather unplanned trip, er, spur of the moment so to speak." He smiled at Jane as he spoke, and he looked at no other in the room.

"I see, and do you plan to stay long?" Jane was highly flustered and barely able to continue the conversation.

"Quite possibly, yes, our plans are unfixed at the moment." With that Mr. Bingley thought it best to inquire after her family. "And how is your family, Miss Bennet? They are all well, I hope?"

"Thank you sir, yes, they are all in good health," was her reply, for this was the truth, as she knew it. She was able to look serene enough when she answered, and Bingley was completely enchanted.

But he was also puzzled by her reply. "Yes, the family is holding up very well indeed under these most trying circumstances," Mr. Collins interjected.

Mr. Darcy discreetly turned his attention to Collins when he heard this, and Jane closed her eyes in realization of the fresh humiliation that was about to befall her family. Kitty, who was carrying a cup of tea across the room to Mr. Bingley, stopped abruptly, causing the hot liquid to splash over the edge and into the saucer.

Kitty looked about from Jane to Mary, in the hope that one of them might divert Mr. Collins. She handed Mr. Bingley his dripping cup of tea. Jane did her best. "Mr. Collins..." she began, but he took no notice of her.

"Gentlemen, have you not heard of this most distressing of events..." Collins began, but Kitty now interrupted him.

"Tea, Mr. Collins?" she inquired.

"Oh, yes, uh, yes, dear cousin, thank you," he replied before taking up the conversation where he stopped. "As I was saying, a most distressing event has taken place, I am afraid. I was sure Lady Catherine DeBourgh had written to you, sir," he replied, directing his comment to Mr. Darcy.

"I must confess to neglecting my correspondence as of late," Darcy admitted. He, of course, desired Mr. Collins to continue.

"Mr. Collins..." Jane tried one more time, again to no avail. "No doubt she will inform you herself. She is quite properly attentive to all these things. However, allow me, in my capacity as a clergyman and comforter in times such as these, to relate the unfortunate events, as I am sure it would be most difficult for my cousins to do so."

With this he rose again, placed himself in front of the unlit hearth, folded his hands, and turned to face his waiting audience. Bingley still wore the same puzzled look on his face, but now there was also concern clearly written on it.

This was for Jane, for he could tell she was distressed by the direction of the conversation. Bingley would have stopped the man himself, but he was unsure if anyone else would be forthcoming with any information. "Miss Lydia Bennet..." Collins began with the sonorous air of a preacher embarking on a sermon, but again was stopped in mid-sentence.

"Milk, Mr. Collins?" Kitty asked sweetly. He nodded affirmatively.

"Sugar, Mr. Collins?" she inquired again.

"Uh, yes, please, cousin, two, thank you," he answered, and momentarily lost his train of thought. But his cousins were not quick enough, and before the topic of conversation could be changed, he picked up where he left off. "As I was saying, my cousin, Lydia, has displayed the worst possible judgment by choosing to elope with a soldier from the regiment that has been recently encamped here in Meryton. She was visiting the wife of a Colonel Forster, and in fact was in his care in Brighton, where the regiment now resides, when the sad event took place." With this he looked gravely upon his captive audience, for he knew his next words were to be the most enlightening. He prolonged their suspense with a sip of his tea. It was too hot, and he choked on the liquid for some moments.

"Mr. Collins!" Jane gave one last try at stopping him. "Yes, cousin," he answered Jane with some difficulty.

"Mr. Collins," Mr. Darcy interjected.

"Yes, Mr. Darcy," Collins turned to him.

"Pray, continue your narrative," Darcy said. Regaining his composure, Collins then resumed his telling of the saga.

"Their whereabouts are unknown, although there is a growing belief that they may be hidden in London. Unfortunately, there is now the real possibility being entertained that they are still unmarried, that in fact a wedding has not taken place! Mr. Bennet is in London at this moment trying to locate them. And cousin Elizabeth left Longbourn yesterday to join him."

Collins spoke more quickly towards the end of his story, caught up in the excitement of the tale.

"Mr. Collins!" Jane said with a great deal of force. He looked at her questioningly. "Good heavens, the time! Are you to travel back to Hunsford today?" she inquired, with much concern in her voice.

"Oh my, yes! I must make haste." He became quite flustered. "Indeed, cousin, you are most considerate. I must take my leave immediately. I am sorry," he said, addressing his cousins, "but I must go at once," and he proceeded to gather his hat and move towards the door. He bowed and scraped as he bid goodbye to Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley.

It was with no small artfulness that Jane manipulated Mr. Collins back into the gig for his return to Kent under the presumption that it was his own idea. And it was with much admiration that the men watched this transpire.

Mr. Bingley especially thought her skill most accomplished.

As the driver pulled through the gate and turned down the lane, Jane looked at her sisters. Their faces expressed exactly how she felt. I never imagined that I would be in a position to wish to avoid Mr. Bingley! Returning to the house and facing these gentlemen seemed a punishment she could hardly bear.

She need not have worried about this though, for as the young ladies watched the gig depart, Mr. Bingley appeared next to her, with Mr. Darcy following behind. "Miss Bennet," Mr. Bingley said with a degree of compassion, "would you and your sisters care to spend some time in the garden?" He offered his arm to the lovely young lady, and despite the circumstances that overshadowed the day, he could not recall being more contented. Jane could only nod her consent, so overcome was she with emotion from the proceedings within the house.

Mr. Bingley stayed at her side, and Mr. Darcy was not far behind, leaving Kitty and Mary to content themselves with each other's company.

Inside the house there was a sudden shrill call. "Hill, Hill! Where are you Hill?" Mrs. Bennet called out in a high state of agitation. When the servant appeared, Mrs. Bennet demanded, "Hill, is that Mr. Bingley in the garden with Jane? Am I not to be told of anything that occurs in my own house? I can barely see from where my chair sits."

When Hill replied that it was, Mrs. Bennet demanded, "Well, quickly Hill, move my chair to the window so I might better see them! So Mr. Bingley has returned. I knew he would come back."

Mrs. Bennet ignored Mr. Darcy, as she knew the tall proud man could be of no importance to her family. After much fuss, she was positioned directly in front of the window, with her nose nearly pressed against the glass. The three walked about the garden until they reached a stone bench.

Mr. Bingley motioned for Jane to sit, then seated himself beside her. Darcy raised an arm up to lean against a low branch of a large, old tree. There the three stayed for the better part of an hour, evidently engrossed in deep conversation.

Upstairs in her rooms, Mrs. Bennet was especially vexed, for her daughter had moved from her line of vision and she could no longer follow the party's progress around the garden. She opened the window in an attempt to have their voices travel up to her, but all she could hear was Mary lecturing Kitty on the certain consequences that come to pass when a young woman is careless with her reputation. Oh Mary, shut up!

Eventually, Mrs. Bennet heard Jane's footsteps ascending the stairs. "Jane, Jane, come here this instant!" Mrs. Bennet insisted. Jane entered her mother's room and found an expression of amused satisfaction upon the older woman's face. "Oh, Jane, did I not tell you he would return? His regard for you is too great, my dear. And how gentlemanly he was to escort you around the garden! You must be careful now Jane. Do not allow him to question your regard for a moment. Let him be well assured of your feelings." She continued on in this manner, saying nothing but the same ideas over and over.

When she began to tell Jane what to wear and how to fix her hair for their next meeting, Jane excused herself. She went to her room and sequestered herself within its walls to undertake the now pressing task of writing to her sister. As the paragraphs began to lengthen into pages and the flow of her narrative ran on, Jane wished fervently she could be in the same room with Elizabeth when she read the contents of the letter. Her reaction would be worth all the silk in China.

Chapter Five

Two days later, Elizabeth received Jane's letter in the morning post. Her father had left the house before breakfast again to continue his search for Lydia. Mr. Gardiner had gone out to attend to some pressing business at his warehouses with equal haste, although he was expected back shortly. Mrs. Gardiner and the children were walking in the park before the heat of the day set in. Rather than join them, Elizabeth had opted to stay at home and read her correspondence. She settled into a snug corner of the study and opened the envelope.

Dear Lizzy,

We have been hoping to hear news about Lydia, but must assume you have nothing to relate as yet. How is our Father? I fear he must be suffering greatly.

Indeed, for he has barely been here at all, and when in the house, he is shut up in his room. I fear I was wrong in coming to London; I can offer him little comfort.

...All is the same here. Mama keeps to her rooms. Mary and Kitty are well. Mrs. Philips comes daily to call on Mama, although I believe her visits bring little comfort. I must go soon for our meal is being set. My dearest sister, I must add a few more lines to tell you of the extraordinary events that took place here this afternoon. You must believe me that this is not any sort of joke.

Good God! What more could happen? Elizabeth could sit no longer; she rose and began moving around the room.

...Firstly, Mr. Collins came all the way from Hunsford to console our family in our affliction. He suggested that Lydia had an inherently bad disposition; he believes that we should disown her entirely.

Mr. Collins! Oh how I am glad to be here so as not to be subjected to his wretched pontifications!

...He has made Lady Catherine aware of all our trouble.

Upon reading this line, Elizabeth let out a low moan.

...But Lizzy, that is not all. As we were sitting with Mr. Collins, Mr. Bingley called. You may imagine my disbelief upon seeing him here again after so very long a time, most particularly since we had no warning as to his presence in Hertfordshire.

Elizabeth stopped pacing, glanced distractedly into a mirror on the wall before her, and exclaimed to her image, "Oh heavens! Mr. Bingley and Mr. Collins at the same time. Oh Jane!"

...Then the worst happened. Mr. Collins revealed the news about Lydia. We could not stop him, although I was able to hasten his departure afterward.

No! Oh no! This is a most dreadful piece of news! Now our shame has been made known to Mr. Bingley. Elizabeth sat down abruptly. I fear for Jane.

...After Mr. Collins left, Mr. Bingley suggested we all take a turn in the garden. It was there that Mr. Darcy learned that it was Mr. Wickham who had taken Lydia away.

Elizabeth jumped up from her seat again. Mr. Darcy! What was he doing there? Has every suitor I have ever rejected taken to visiting Longbourn in my absence? Good Lord! What could he possibly find of interest there? And accompanying Mr. Bingley! Did he not make his opinion very clear regarding Jane and his friend? It was all too perplexing.

...He was most upset when he discovered Mr. Wickham's involvement. And Lizzy, from his former knowledge of Wickham, he feels - as you do - that they may be well hidden in the City. And now Mr. Darcy knows of our troubles. It is a hopeless business for us. We are most assuredly ruined. Poor Jane. To have to cope with this alone. Oh! How I wish to be there for her!

...I confess I lost my composure momentarily when we were in the garden and began to cry. Mr. Bingley was very kind. He took my hand in his to comfort me.

What is this? I must reread these lines, for surely I mistake their meaning. She read the passage through three times. Oh Jane, it is too much. Oh! Truly how I wish to be there for her!

...Before they left, Mr. Bingley found a moment to speak to me privately. He asked to call again tomorrow. He said he hoped that in some small way he might ease my suffering even if but for a short time. Then, Lizzy, I nearly fainted, for he slowly lifted my hand and kissed the tips of my fingers. And dear sister, the look in his eyes, well, I feel perhaps I might better describe that when I next see you. But Lizzy! I have never known such happiness, and yet I must confess to feeling guilty about it when our sister Lydia is in such terrible danger.

Oh dearest Jane! Be not concerned with our selfish sister. "Be happy for yourself!" Elizabeth shouted aloud with feeling. This was too much! She would have thought Jane was playing a huge prank if she had not known her sister too well to consider such a joke. No, it must be true!

...Perhaps we were wrong to assume that Lydia's improprieties would bring shame to us all. Unless I am very much mistaken, it seems not to have put Mr. Bingley off our acquaintance.

That point does deserve some attention. Of this I wonder.

...I will tell you, Lizzy, that his return has done more to raise Mama's spirits than anything else.

I find no difficulty believing that, dear sister.

...I will write you again tomorrow.

Your affectionate sister,

Jane

Elizabeth decided the best course would be to reread the entire letter, more than once if necessary, in order to let the extraordinary events it contained sink into her mind. She rang for more hot water and settled into the sofa with a tray of tea things beside her.

In a townhouse on one of London's most fashionable streets, a brother and sister had partaken of breakfast together hours ago. Now, with morning still fresh and the sound of his sister's proficiency at the ivory keyboard filling the house, the gentleman in question sat in his study and considered what he was about to do.

From the instant of his discovery of Wickham's latest reprehensible actions, his mind had been set. Had I only made his character known, this would certainly not have happened. Darcy knew well where his duty lay. He was resolved; he would hunt down Wickham and find them both if he had to turn London entirely inside out. My pride has proven to be a stone that I have stumbled over too often. No more. Darcy was fully committed to this course of action; his honour was being put to the test. Any other motives he might have to step forward in this matter would not be consciously considered. My feelings for Elizabeth, err, Miss Bennet, have nothing to do with this.

He was unable to convince himself on this point. Well, perhaps she is in my thoughts somewhat at this time. Still, he would have gone forward with his assistance regardless of whose family Wickham had victimized with his worthless behaviour.

He pulled himself out of his thoughts and noticed that silence had descended upon the house. His sister had finished her piece and had, no doubt, moved on to her usual morning studies in French. This was a signal to him that it was time to set out on his own endeavours.

But no amount of resolve could keep him fully focused upon the unhappy business ahead of him. One woman occupied a permanent place in his thoughts, and her image vied persistently for his attention as the carriage made its way through the overcrowded city streets. The uncertainty of her presence at his destination chased him through all the lanes of London. Will I see her today?

As Elizabeth took in all that Jane's letter had to say, she heard the front door open and recognized that her uncle had returned home. She did not greet him, for her thoughts were still upon the news and she preferred some solitude to consider it.

It was not but a few minutes later that a caller came to the door and was ushered into the foyer. The steps of the servant could be heard retreating into the sitting room, no doubt with a gloved hand holding a silver tray and a calling card upon it, to announce the guest to her uncle. Elizabeth stayed concealed simply to avoid interruption, but upon hearing her uncle's quick step and his guest's greeting, she found herself again in complete shock.

"Mr. Gardiner?" The voice that spoke with some uncertainty was most familiar.

"Mr. Darcy!" Mr. Gardiner's reply was that of equal surprise, for he had been most surprised to have this gentleman's card presented to him.

Good God! What am I to think of this? Elizabeth looked down at her dress, wondering about her appearance.

"You are Mr. Gardiner, sir?" Mr. Darcy now found himself confirming the identity of the gentleman before him, for he had not realized he was calling upon the same man he met on the grounds of Pemberley only last week.

"Indeed, sir." Mr. Gardiner replied as if to confirm his query and offered his hand in greeting.

"I must apologise for my manner, but I am quite surprised to discover that you are Miss Elizabeth Bennet's uncle."

"Indeed, it has been well on twenty years that I have enjoyed that honour," Mr. Gardiner replied, in an attempt to lighten the air. He was quite curious about the purpose of this visit, and indicated that Darcy should join him in the sitting room. They retired within, leaving the door slightly ajar.

Elizabeth had not moved an inch since she heard his voice. She thought she ought to do something, but was uncertain how to proceed. I am all astonishment. She stepped out into the foyer, and discovered that she could hear the conversation in the sitting room quite clearly. She stood very still and tried not to breathe for fear of alerting the gentlemen to her presence. I will stay but a minute.

They spoke in hushed tones, but Elizabeth could not mistake their topic. Mr. Darcy had come to London with the intent of helping to locate Lydia! Who would have thought it? I must tell Jane! He seemed to have called upon Mr. Gardiner today to inquire as to the progress that had been made thus far. He planned to leave momentarily and begin his own search. He had information available to him that he hoped would aid in directing their efforts.

This is most startling. Elizabeth was unsure how she should perceive all of this. Mr. Darcy's actions were certainly unexpected. I have much to think about. Elizabeth was suddenly gripped by an extraordinary idea. It is quite bold, and possibly too forward. If she considered it closely, she decided she might reject it entirely, so she refused all but action. But first, I must freshen up.

While the gentlemen remained deep in conversation in the sitting room, she stole upstairs on the tips of her toes, changed her dress, applied a bit of rose water and checked her image in the mirror. Then, with her bonnet firmly tied and her gloves on, she returned downstairs.

Mr. Darcy bid farewell to Mr. Gardiner a few minutes later and hurried down the steps towards his carriage. He had been disappointed not to see Elizabeth during his visit. Perhaps she was out. His attention turned momentarily to the Gardiner's house as he searched the windows, in vain, for any sign of her. He recognized this action as quite pitiful and admonished himself. You are a lovelorn fool. He was halfway into the carriage before he turned his head away from the windows and realised that he was about to sit upon the very person he sought.

His face revealed the full surprise of her presence and he was momentarily without words. Then he spoke rather too loudly, if not in terms of perfect composure at least in those of perfect civility. "Miss Bennet! May I enquire as to the reason for your presence in my carriage?"

Elizabeth took a deep breath and looked into his eyes. She had a smile on her face, but also a look of determination. Her reply was more than a little audacious. "Mr. Darcy! Certainly you can afford me a more cordial greeting than this? After all, it has been some time since we have had the pleasure of each other's company!"

Chapter Six

Nothing in his previous experiences could have prepared Darcy for this particular situation. At first, he knew not what to do, other than to reach across her and pull down the shade over the carriage window to shield them from the view of everyone who might pass by. I suppose courtesy would be in order in any case. He most assuredly did not want Elizabeth to doubt that he had ignored her criticisms at Hunsford, and he had yet to exhibit his change in manner to her. "Then I must apologise, Miss Bennet. I hope you are in good health."

Privately, he considered this a very foolish remark and instantly regretted his inability to produce something more fascinating. She still stared at him; he could see quite clearly, for he was very close to her person, that her eyes were sparkling with a vibrancy that he found most alluring.

"Thank you, I am," she replied to his remark. "Are you well, sir?" "In brilliant health, I assure you. Did you have a pleasant journey to London?" "Most certainly, sir, I thank you. And you?"

"It was rather hurried, but otherwise uneventful." He paused and observed her cautiously, for the entire situation was still a puzzle. "Very well, Miss Bennet. Now that we have dispensed with the common courtesies, would you please be so kind as to tell me why you are in my carriage?"

"I am aware, Mr. Darcy, that you intend to search for my sister today. I mean to accompany you." It was not a request; it was a statement of fact. With that, she sat back and fixed her gaze forward, awaiting their departure.

Darcy smiled and said, "Miss Bennet, you surprise me." He leaned towards her, closing the scant space between them; in doing so, he detected the unmistakable scent of roses. He whispered much less formally, "You need not worry. I will tell no one of your inclination to eavesdrop on private conversations." The intimate gesture unsettled Elizabeth more than his remarks.

She glanced sideways at him, opened her mouth to respond, and then closed it. She most definitely coloured. Finally, she resorted to simply saying, "Oh really?" His twinkling eyes, raised brows and the half smile upon his lips revealed his great amusement. She concentrated on regaining her composure, then took a deep breath and spoke with purpose. "Think what you will, Mr. Darcy. Lydia is my sister and I feel some responsibility for assisting in the search. I am resolved to accompany you today."

His arm rested against the high back of the seat, near enough to her that the tips of his fingers were tickled by the loose strands of her hair escaping from her bonnet. "Are you quite certain, Miss Bennet?"

He believes I am jesting. "Indeed!" she said, and turned to face him. The moment nearly overwhelmed them both, for now their faces were far too close for even unconventional propriety. Elizabeth had never before experienced such immediate proximity to a man who was not a relative. She swept her glance over every inch of his face, finally coming to rest upon his eyes. Such nearness to a gentleman is most pleasing. There was a thrill of some unknown sort that came with it. She had yet to decide if it was the particular gentleman that was stirring up her feelings, or the danger of the situation. Perhaps it is both!

Darcy was beginning to appreciate the effect of sharing such a confined space with this particular woman. Not only was the intensity of her disposition stimulating, but the obvious appeal of a private tête-à-tête with her was as he always expected; it was pleasurably arousing in a rather intimate way. In an effort to counteract the rush of emotion that surged through him, he answered her in no uncertain terms. "I am afraid that is quite impossible," he announced flatly.

His words altered the mood most decidedly. They sat in silence, separated by mere inches, and stared at each other with unyielding obstinacy, as though they had been carved from stone.

I will not back down. Elizabeth was not going to see her one real chance to aid her family hindered at this point. She will sooner be begging for entry at the gates of hell! Darcy would never consider allowing her to accompany him.

His search was bound to take him to establishments of ill repute on the more dangerous side of the city. It was as if there was an invisible link between them that could not be broken, and its effect upon them both was compelling.

Elizabeth was unaware that her expression had softened as she again took up studying each appealing feature of his face. I do not recall thinking him quite so handsome as I see him now.

It became increasingly clear to Darcy that he was no longer thinking about the crucial matter at hand. He caught himself admiring the delicate clarity of her skin and the trace of freckles that ran across her cheeks. No doubt from the summer sun. Darcy understood well that this encounter had taken on an air of intimacy that was more than dangerous for Miss Bennet's reputation. I must get her out of this carriage, or at least gain some distance between us. He discreetly slid away from her; her skirt was lodged under his leg and he was required to pull it free. As he did so, he had a unexpected and dismal thought. It is quite possible that what is passing between us now might damage what I would wish for. More importantly, there were other matters of much greater urgency that required action.

But Elizabeth was not to be deterred. "Mr. Darcy, you may as well instruct the driver to go, for I have every intention of assisting you to locate my sister."

"Miss Bennet, this carriage will not move with you in it."

"Mr. Darcy, I have many degrees of patience. I am perfectly able to sit here as long as it may take."

"And I, Miss Bennet, am sorely lacking any tolerance for delays in my departures."

"Pray, let us go then, as I would not dream of delaying the business at hand."

"Miss Bennet, I believe this is still my carriage. As such, I may pick and chose who travels with me."

"Mr. Darcy, I will not be moved on this question. My mind is settled. Let us be off." "Miss Bennet, hear me well on this point." He paused to collect his thoughts and regain his composure.

"There are places I expect to encounter today that I have a great distaste to visit. If I do succeed in locating your sister, I am under no illusions as to what might transpire between Wickham and myself. I will never allow you to enter into any part of such proceedings. They are not suitable matters for a lady to witness. I am sorry to be so blunt, Miss Bennet, but I feel I must be honest," he ended. Elizabeth's expression softened upon hearing his words, but she maintained her resolution. "I dare say, Mr. Darcy, your concern is very much appreciated, but...."

Here Darcy interrupted her. "I assure you," he leaned in once again quite near to her person and continued as if she had not spoken. "If you do not alight from my carriage under your own power, I will be forced to remove you myself."

Elizabeth did not try to disguise her reaction; her eyes widened at the very thought. She was still unsure that Mr. Darcy would dare to attempt such an action, although he seemed quite determined.

She was still more vexed to find herself speculating on the strength of his arms and how they would feel around her if he proceeded. No doubt he would actually be quite gentle.

There was an uncomfortable silence, and then Darcy cleared his throat. "Miss Bennet, this conversation has taken a most unfortunate turn. Please, let us begin again." He added hastily, "I am not in such a rush that I would mean to ignore your feelings. I realise more fully than you suspect that this is a most emotional time for you."

His words brought them back to a safer point and eased the awkwardness of the moment. He smiled at her with a genuine amiability, and his expression struck her pleasantly.

I like this look on him. Her voice changed and the confident young woman became sad. "My father and uncle have both refused my requests to assist them." Darcy's face expressed such concern at this that Elizabeth relaxed and sank back into the plush seat. She lowered her gaze and looked down at her hands folded in her lap. He was about to speak again when she stopped him. "Please Mr. Darcy, I must apologize. I knew well you would object to my company today." She continued to stare downwards, then touched her handkerchief to the corner of her eye.

"Miss Bennet." Darcy could not help but reach out and take her gloved hand lightly into his own. Her eyes looked up to his with a question clearly posed upon them, then down at their joined hands. "All will be resolved and then you may put this matter behind you." Releasing her hand reluctantly, he apologized for being so direct.

She looked up at him, letting her mouth turn up ever so slightly in mischievous delight. "Ah, well, we have both been rather direct this morning. I thought by chance to catch you off your guard and secure your consent to join you. I had hoped we would be gone before you could consider what had transpired."

He was charmed. There was no doubt. Seeing an expression of even a little amusement upon her face gave him joy. It must have been many days since she has had a cheerful thought. She continued on a more serious note, "I am afraid my judgment has been affected by the grief we have endured this last week. I wonder now that I acted so indiscreetly." He could not but admire her concern for her sister, even if her methods were somewhat alarming. Stopping himself from the impulse of reaching out to her again, for he felt it most strongly, he said, "I refuse to find fault in your behaviour. You are under a great deal of pressure." Then he had a most delightful thought.

"Miss Bennet, will you humour me by allowing me the pleasure of arranging a small surprise?" His attempt to ease her discomfort was evident. "Thank you very much. You are most gracious." And mysterious. Darcy gave the driver a brief instruction and they hastened away. As the carriage rolled along, he seemed to shed his usual sedateness. As a result of her confession, he inquired more than once about her health, seeming to observe her for more serious signs of ill affects. It was not a long ride, but when they stopped, Elizabeth did not recognize where they were. They stepped out of the carriage, and Darcy led her up a flight of stairs in front of a stately townhouse of some proportion. He did not ring; their arrival seemed to have been observed, and as they reached the door, it opened before them. Now Elizabeth knew he had brought her to his own home. Immediately, two servants dressed in full livery hastened to confirm that all was well; another man, obviously the senior butler of the household, enquired after his master's needs.

Dismissing them all, Darcy asked her to wait in a grand foyer that was as large as all of the ground floor at Longbourn, while he sought someone out. He then strode away into one of many rooms that led off of this area. She could hear low voices in a conversation that she could not make out, although the elated exclamation of a female was distinct.

To her own embarrassment, she realised she was again eavesdropping on a private conversation. With her attention fixed towards the doors Darcy had disappeared through, she did not notice when another set opened. A gentleman's voice exclaimed, "Miss Bennet! I must be dreaming. To what do I owe this honour?" She knew the voice immediately and remarked as she turned, "Colonel Fitzwilliam. I suppose I could respond in kind!"

She was truly pleased to see him. Mr. Darcy's cousin will be most agreeable company. "I cannot answer your question, for I fear I have been brought here under unexplained circumstances. Perhaps when Mr. Darcy returns, he will enlighten us both." Just then he did return, but he was not alone. Walking before him was a girl who, in Elizabeth's opinion, looked to be around Kitty's age. She was quite handsome, with a slender figure and a delicate face. Elizabeth deduced who it was before he could speak.

"Miss Bennet, may I have the honour of introducing my sister, Georgiana. Georgiana, this is Miss Elizabeth Bennet."

Both men looked upon their meeting with great interest.

The two young women greeted each other cordially, and the Colonel remarked to his cousin, "Darcy, I thought you had pressing business that would take you away for the day? I suppose the company of Miss Bennet has induced you to change your plans."

"I'm afraid my business will not wait. However, I chanced to meet Miss Bennet this morning; since her plans were unfixed and I knew Georgiana has greatly hoped to make her acquaintance, I thought to bring her home as a surprise."

This remark did not go unnoticed by Elizabeth. She tucked it away in her mind, ready to bring it out again later and mull it over with the consideration it deserved.

Darcy continued on to his cousin, "Of course, I was certain you would also enjoy her company."

"Well, Darcy, I must say you haven't done badly thus far today. I hope the rest of your business is as successful. I am glad that I stopped in London before continuing my journey north! Now, you must take your leave. Georgiana and I will see to it that Miss Bennet's visit is most agreeable."

Darcy bowed to his guest and smiled. "Miss Bennet, if you find this arrangement to your liking, then I would leave you to become acquainted with my sister. I dare say that, between the two of you, you will keep my cousin out of trouble today."

To Elizabeth, he seemed greatly pleased with his foray into arranging social meetings. And for her part, she could not but wonder at the agreeable and attentive manner he displayed.

"Oh, Miss Bennet, may I show you something particular before I go?" He pointed toward the far end of the foyer and made as if to look with great interest at a painting. She followed him with no little feeling of confusion.

"Miss Bennet, my sister and cousin know nothing of your family's trouble. Shall we let it remain that way for present?"

She believed him to look upon her with sincere fondness now. Yet I could be misinterpreting his meaning completely.

"Leave this to me today. The moment I have any news of your sister, you will know of it." He bowed again and addressed her in a most gentle way. "And now, I really must be going."

Throughout the day, Elizabeth could not but think of Mr. Darcy's behaviour. He is so greatly altered. He had spoken to her with more kindness on this unexpected meeting than at any other time in their acquaintance. I know not what to think of that.

But think of it she did; every word he had uttered was carefully dissected and analysed as she attempted to establish just what was behind his remarks. More than that, their time shared in his carriage, although quite alone and highly injudicious, was relived and, if she were honest with herself, savoured for its poignancy.

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