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A Long Road To Happiness

Chapter Thirteen

One of the maids returned with a damp cloth and Mrs. Gardiner placed it upon Elizabeth's forehead. As she sat with her she noticed that her eyes had closed and soon after her shaking had stopped. Her breathing was deep and regular; Mrs. Gardiner assumed she had fallen asleep. With whispered assurances from the maids, she left to return downstairs.

What passed between Mr. Gardiner and Darcy was a gentlemen's agreement and was respected as confidential; they spoke no more of it when Mrs. Gardiner was once again in their company. Wickham and his flight became the source of their discussion. It was a disjointed conversation; there were many points to ponder and in reality, little that could be done. Opinions of where he might have gone and by what means were greatly bandied about.

Scotland and Ireland were considered. Darcy was of the opinion that he would flee the country entirely now, especially if he had somehow been able to secure much of the money that had been put forward to help him. So then the Continent and even America were suggested. When the matter of money came up Darcy was thankful Elizabeth was not in the room. He was not of a mind to have her understand just how all the financial arrangements had been sorted out.

In the end it was decided that Mr. Darcy would write to the regiment to see what had become of the commission that had been purchased for Wickham. Perhaps more significant, he would make a trip to the docks in the morning. While his focus would be on the passenger ships to see what could be learned of any passenger lists of ships that had sailed in the last two days, he would go armed with Mr. Gardiner's name to use as an introduction when he explored the possibility of freighters, for they could not be ignored as a mode of transportation for a fleeing man.

To Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner was left the task of revealing the news to Lydia. In the midst of their discussion, they were interrupted by the announcement of the doctor's arrival. Elizabeth's condition was explained and Mrs. Gardiner accompanied him upstairs to conduct his examination.

Once again, Mr. Gardiner and Mr. Darcy were left alone. A substantial silence that graced the room. The thoughts of the gentlemen migrated not to the most recent conversation about George Wickham, but to the prior one regarding Darcy and Elizabeth. However, at some point Mr. Gardiner's thoughts strayed even further back, for when the quiet interval was broken, Mr. Gardiner's reflections took a turn that Darcy did not anticipate.

"Pray sir, there has been something on my mind for a good while. I would hope that you might be of some service in putting my curiosity to rest."

"Indeed, I will do whatever I can." "Did I not see you in the lane at Lambton when our carriage was quitting that fair village?"

Mr. Darcy hesitated only for a split second before he nodded. "In fact it had been my intent to call upon Miss Bennet that very morning. I witnessed your departure." He reply was tactful and discreet.

Mr. Gardiner wasted no time in making a point. "Mr. Darcy, my niece is a very bright, intelligent young woman. Surely, I need not tell you that!"

Her suitor shifted his gaze down to his glass, uncertain of what it was that Mr. Gardiner was pursuing with the direction of the conversation.

"She is level headed and sensible. Most importantly, she has an equable personality and is not prone to emotional reactions. May I assume that you witnessed her unwell state as we departed that morning?"

Darcy nodded in concurrence.

"I can only conclude that the source of all of this," and here they exchanged looks expressing their shared loathing for a certain gentleman, "initially touched something inside her and now, as it looks again to be unresolved to the satisfaction of her family, especially her sister Lydia, she has let it overcome her normal disposition and taken it much too close to heart."

Mr. Gardiner hoped that Mr. Darcy already shared an insight into the points he touched upon regarding his niece. He suspected as much; he believed the reticent nature of the gentleman was simply the surface of an intelligent man who had the resources to make sound judgments on his own accord. In any event, his point had been made; an uncle had done his duty and spoken in support of his beloved niece.

Mrs. Gardiner preceded the doctor into the study and there began a discussion of Elizabeth's condition. His examination had uncovered no physical symptoms to imply any malady. Darcy's physician was under the impression her affliction was a temporary condition, one that would resolve itself with rest. It was recommended that the young lady be left to sleep undisturbed and that she avoid those matters that had set off her distress.

With this advice he bid those concerned adieu to hurry off a few streets away where a pair of twin boys, it was suspected, had come down with the measles. With the diagnosis of Darcy's physician quite clear, he offered what was only appropriate for Elizabeth's best interest. "If Mr. Gardiner and yourself, as her guardians while she is here in London, would permit Miss Bennet to stay here overnight, I am of the opinion that it would be best to follow my physician's advice. She would be best served left undisturbed." Elizabeth's well-being was foremost on his mind.

Mr. Gardiner hesitated and cautiously looked to his wife.

She was thinking, "Would it due to allow Lizzy to remain overnight in the home of a gentleman who was so hopelessly in love with her?"

While he was thinking "Is it proper and will there be any risk for Elizabeth?"

It only took another appraisal of Mr. Darcy's face to conclude that he was as worried for Elizabeth as they were. There was no doubt his motives were sincere and they realised that to even entertain notions concerning her welfare were unwarranted.

If the distressed expression Mr. Darcy wore wasn't enough, Mrs. Gardiner need only remember her words a short while ago to her niece: "I am greatly impressed by Mr. Darcy and his actions towards you Lizzy. He cares for you deeply and desires to please you. I suspect there is nothng he would not do for you! There is no doubt that he is a man severely in love. I believe that he could make you a very happy woman."

Indeed, she believed that Mr. Darcy would in no way abuse the trust they might place in him by allowing Lizzy to rest there until the morning. She made her approval known and when Mr. Gardiner agreed as well, they received assurances from him as to the safety and care their niece all the way through the hallways, across the foyer and down the steps of the townhouse entrance until they were secured in their carriage. Once they were on their way home, Mrs. Gardiner made her thoughts known to her husband, "I am not mistaken my dear or has Mr. Darcy formed a certain attachment to Lizzy? What say you?"

"Do you think so my dear?" his eyes twinkled merrily concealing knowledge had been disclosed to him alone. Mr. Gardiner relished the unusual position he was in; rarely was he privy to intelligence unknown by his wife.

"Husband, the poor man is beside himself with a violent love for her. I only hope they can come to some resolution soon." She smiled and patted his hand.

"Perhaps they will then," he said mysteriously. "But what of Lizzy? Has she spoken of her feelings towards the gentleman?" he fished.

"Well, if I am not mistaken my dear, I believe that Lizzy may have formed a certain attachment to Mr. Darcy."

A satisfied grin spread across Mr. Gardiner's face. He knew now his niece was destined to a happy life with a good man. "You know my dear, Mr. Darcy is an astute man," he replied to his wife with a pat of her leg.

"In what way? Because he appreciates the excellence of our niece?"

"Well, that too I suppose, but I was actually thinking, he has volunteered to do the easier of the tasks that must be done. He searches for Wickham while we talk to Lydia!"

As the young lady began to stir, the maid remaining in the chamber quickly went to the bedside. She watched carefully until her eyes fluttered open. A reassuring smile greeted Elizabeth. "So, how are we feeling now ma'am? Much better I hope."

It was through a fuzzy head that Elizabeth recalled where she was, and then she inwardly winced. She was most displeased with herself. To have fallen so ill in front of Fitzwilliam, and in his home, was a dreadful business.

Elizabeth pushed herself up so she was sitting upright. The cashmere rug was crumpled under her and she pulled it free.

She looked at little out of sorts and the maid offered some water. "Don't get too busy there so quick now, just sit 'til you get your wits back."

This was sound advice. She laid her head back down, closed her eyes and actually dozed off for a moment or two before opening them again and asking, "What time is it?"

The maid went to a long dresser against the wall and looked at a timepiece. "It is just after ten o'clock!"

This news stirred Elizabeth to action. My heavens, I must get myself together for my aunt and uncle will need to return home. She swung her legs over the side of the bed and stopped as she felt the room sway back and forth.

Quickly the maid came to assist her and she implored, "Please, you must help me get downstairs."

Mr. Darcy was still working in his study, for he had been coming up to the room quite regularly every twenty minutes to check on the young lady. Each time he softly knocked on the door, the maid would open it a crack, observe his worried face and assure him that the young lady was resting peacefully.

"She is sleeping very soundly. She has not stirred a bit." The maid found his obvious partiality for this young woman most endearing. Addressing the young lady she said, "Very well ma'am but you must take it slowly. And, if you don't mind me suggesting, perhaps we should take you into the dressing room and help you freshen up."

Lizzy thought this was an excellent idea as she could only imagine what she must look like; the other maid appeared and the trio proceeded to the adjoining room.

Elizabeth descended the stairs very slowly with the maids hovering next to her. Her head had cleared and it was her aim to allow her aunt and uncle to get back to Gracechurch Street.

Standing alone at the doorway to Fitzwilliam's study, she saw him sitting at his desk, head down in deep concentration, with papers scattered about. He was in the process of writing in a ledger and did not notice her. He knew not he was being observed.

This was another side to the man that she had never before witnessed. She found the scene before her captivating. Her aunt's words about the responsibilities he held and his maturity came to her at this moment.

Belatedly, she scanned the room for more people. Where are my aunt and uncle?

Mr. Darcy had been going through correspondence and attending to matters that he had left for too long. He had delayed some pressing business and he had been of a mind to attend to it tonight. It only served to remind him that his presence was required at Pemberley for there was business there that had been set aside when he departed for Netherfield. It was not a thought he welcomed.

He suddenly felt compelled to look up and was caught by surprise to see Elizabeth in the doorway. He jumped up quickly; pushing his chair back so hard it very nearly tipped over. Striding rapidly over to her side, he took her arm protectively and addressed her. "Elizabeth, what are you doing down here? My Lord, you should not be up."

She was gently but firmly led over to one of the sofas. When she had been seated to his satisfaction, Mr. Darcy stood before her, looking at her, and scolded her, "You should be resting. Are you of a mind to repeat what happened this afternoon? I knew you to have more sense than this." But his voice was not too stern as he could never really be angry with her.

"Please, where are my aunt and uncle?" Elizabeth found it strange not to see them.

"Miss Bennet," he addressed her as such only for the benefit of the maids, who were just outside the doorway, "they returned home hours ago. It was under my physician's advisement that you rest undisturbed until the morning." Then he looked at her in mock disapproval, "And now see what you have done? You have disrupted the plan."

He could not help but smile at her and he caught sight of one of the maids close by and had her approach. "Miss Bennet will require some tea and something to eat." Turning to Elizabeth, he asked, "What would you like? It matters not, I will have the cook prepare whatever you wish."

"Oh no! Do not go to such a bother for me. I would like the tea, thank you. But, I am not really hungry."

"Nonsense, you must eat or you will only fall ill again." He then turned to the maid and said, "See what the cook can arrange. Some meats and bread perhaps. Are there still have the strawberries from Pemberley? Tell the cook I want a plate of fruit as well. And bring Miss Bennet her tea immediately." The maid curtsied and quickly set about her task.

Mr. Darcy then sat next to Elizabeth and looked at her closely. "I am afraid you have me quite worried by your turn this afternoon. How do you feel now?" As he searched her face tenderly his arm found its way to rest behind her, draped causally on the back of the couch. His fingers, brushing against the fabric along her shoulder, were distracting in the extreme and Elizabeth found herself envisioning what it would feel like were the to venture slightly higher onto her bare skin.

"I am well now, thank you. I am sorry to have caused everyone this inconvenience. And I fail to understand why I would have reacted as I did." She wanted him to understand; she felt foolish about the entire episode. "I am not one to allow my emotions to overcome me in this way."

He did not believe that she was fully recovered but he addressed instead what was causing her present angst. "Indeed, but you have not just had one afternoon of anxiety; it has been many days, even weeks, of this trouble. I think you reached your limit this afternoon." Then he told her truthfully what he had already known but was reminded of by her uncle, "I know you are not one of those young ladies prone to swooning and fainting!"

Then she was blessed with one of his striking smiles and she could not help but relax even now with his hand more firmly on her shoulder.

The maid then returned with a tray of tea things and Mr. Darcy relieved her of it to assist Elizabeth himself and insure their privacy.

While he was preparing her tea, Mr. Darcy thought about the determination he had to propose again to Elizabeth. Asking her tomorrow, now with all that had happened, will not be possible. There would be no time for them alone. Even time together was highly unlikely. These thoughts nearly crushed him. He did not realise that his irritation showed upon his face.

But Elizabeth immediately saw his look change. She was uneasy, for she thought that she might be the cause of some irritation. To be sure she was, but not for the reasons she suspected. "Fitzwilliam," she said to him, "this must be your private study."

When he acknowledged it was, she continued, "It is a comfortable room. There is a certain atmosphere to it that is very pleasing. I find that it suits you well."

"I spend a great deal of time here. Very few people of my acquaintance have actually been in this room. Georgiana and my cousin of course, your future brother in law Bingley and now you."

She held that he was making a point here and was flattered.

"You forget my aunt and uncle," she reminded him.

"Ah yes, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner also," he handed her tea and sat back to watch her. Perhaps I will ask her now! What a thought! Lord, he did not know if he was prepared. But he wondered as to her emotional state. She seemed fine, but what if she accepted, only to discover later she was somewhat deluded and had answered against her wishes. Under such circumstances one ought not proceed.

Elizabeth saw upon his face the strangest of looks. She recognised it, for she had seen it upon him before. She was about to remark as to his health when the maid returned with a tray bearing more food than Elizabeth could eat in a week.

Mr. Darcy thanked her, and requested that she remain in the kitchen until summoned, as Miss Bennet would need help returning upstairs when she was tired.

Once again they were alone. Mr. Darcy would not allow Elizabeth to help herself. He prepared everything she desired and even held the plate for her until she reminded him she was not an invalid.

As she ate, he once more deliberated about asking her now. The moment might not be better. He need only gather his thoughts, for he had been rehearsing for tomorrow, and plunge forward with it. Unfortunately, another doubt crept into his mind. She might not be emotionally upset any longer, but what about her physical health? She was still pale and seemed drained. Perhaps she would agree to his offer and realise later he had caught her in a state of unwellness and found she was revolted by her answer.

His mouth became dry and his skin clammy upon these deliberations. He again was unclear about how to proceed. Such possibilities make the matter something of a dilemma.

Watching Fitzwilliam, Elizabeth noticed again the strange look upon his face. Obviously, something was on his mind, quite possibly his work that she had interrupted.

He suddenly stood up and began to pace around the room. By George, he is an excellent pacer!

"I am afraid I have disturbed your work, Fitzwilliam, for that I apologise. If you would like to resume, I will gladly retire."

But this produced a degree of agitation from him. "No, Elizabeth, certainly not! I could not think of another way to pass the time more agreeably," admitting rather sheepishly, "I receive some satisfaction in however little I may be able to help you." He cleared away her plate and cup, for she had all she wanted, and called for them to be removed.

As the maid left with the tray, he closed the doors, secluding them away from prying eyes. Fitzwilliam again settled next to her. She looked quite fragile sitting there and his instinct to protect her surfaced once more. He put his arm around her shoulder again but this time drew her close as there was no chance of their being disturbed. He felt her sigh and then relax. "When you want to retire, you need only tell me and I will call fort the maid."

"I am quite content here with you Fitzwilliam." She bestowed upon him a look filled with warmth. Her eyes were shining at him with what could only be described as open affection.

"Those words are sweet music indeed; I am glad to hear it. Perhaps you would be more comfortable to rest against me." He leaned back into the corner of the sofa and waited for her to follow his example.

She studied him openly; this was the first time such an offer had ever been made to her. It was an extremely intimate proposition. She looked around uneasily. But when her gaze returned to Fitzwilliam she saw only an expectant look of tenderness. It was an inviting prospect to let him comfort her with his embrace. When he stretched his arms out, beckoning her to come to him, she could find no reason nor will to resist.

Elizabeth reclined effortlessly against his chest. She contemplated the feel of his body and concluded it was marvellous. As she tucked into him more snugly his hand slipped down and draped along her waist, rising and falling with her rhythmic breathing. His other hand reached for hers and he tentatively played with her fingers. Darcy enjoyed this to no small degree and he understood his contentment to be great. He judged himself a fool if he did not take this opportunity before him to secure the woman he loved. He nervously began to gather his words together.

Elizabeth was becoming very tired again. When Fitzwilliam had embraced her, she welcomed his soothing touch and she submitted to him gratefully. She wanted to fully appreciate the setting she currently found herself in, savour it and let it continue as long as possible, but her eyes were so heavy. They would not cooperate and began to droop. She did understand an unusual undercurrent running through Fitzwilliam. He is in an strange mood tonight. And the way he suddenly began pacing around the room. It reminded her so very much of something. She hoped it would come to her. Maybe tomorrow, she thought sleepily.

Darcy took a deep breath and committed himself to action. But then he stopped short, for Elizabeth had moved her hand to his chest and burrowed closer to him. Stray fingers found their way inside his vest, slipping into the seam where it buttoned. What's this? I can only take this as an encouraging sign of her true affection. Her head rested on his shoulder and he could see the thick dark lashes of her closed eyes. The full implication of their closeness momentarily distracted his purpose while other thoughts gallivanted through his mind.

Allowing them to play out with some gratification, he wasted no more time with guarded hesitations; Darcy hastened himself into action. "Elizabeth, you have made me very happy with the time we have spent together these last weeks. I believe you have enjoyed it as well." He paused, for he was unsure he was pleased with this discourse. He regrouped his thoughts.

Elizabeth was drifting off very slowly. How nice to hear that Fitzwilliam took as much pleasure in their time together as she did. She was still thinking though about the look on his face. And the pacing. The pacing. She had a revelation as she fell asleep. Pacing, pacing, pacing. Hunsford!

Darcy had now decided on the direct approach. "Elizabeth, you overwhelm me. I am lost when I am not with you. I cannot imagine my life without you in it. It is not possible for me to describe how deeply I love you. Please, dearest Elizabeth, will you be my wife?" And then he held his breath while he waited for her reply. But, eventually, he had to release it when still he had no reply. He ventured to look down at her and say, "Elizabeth, can you not answer me?"

Still no response came from her and he then knew what had happened. All his courage and attempts at eloquence had been wasted for his sweet Elizabeth had fallen asleep before she could hear it. Oh Lord! He was inclined to be exasperated but it melted away as he gazed down upon her. The poor woman has suffered through more than she could bear. He reluctantly acknowledged that it was best she did sleep again, regardless of the untimely manner in which his proposal had been thwarted. But, instead of calling for help to have her taken upstairs, he settled lower on the sofa and allowed her to recline even further into him. I am no fool. This opportunity will not be interrupted. Darcy had every hope that there would be nights like this between them for the rest of their lives. Still, with her hand unsecured, he had no way of knowing it to be the case. If this be the only night in my life that I might hold her close, by God, I will have my night.

Chapter Fourteen

Darcy was dozing. There was a weight upon his body that was hindering his movement. As he emerged from his slumber he was engulfed by sensations of warmth and tranquility the likes of which he had not experienced before. One fact was evident; a feminine body was draped around him, agreeably resting upon him. This met with his complete approval. He was extremely comfortable and couldn't bear the thought of opening his eyes.

The spell would be broken and action would have to be taken once he allowed himself to fully wake up. As long as he kept his eyes closed he reckoned the moment might last forever. Indeed I have had my night and it has served a purpose. It has only confirmed that I can never live happily without Elizabeth. I must have her as mine, to love and care for as my wife and the mother of my children. He was prepared to wake her at that moment and ask for her hand. Darcy was also concerned that, were she to say yes, he would lose all control. He could feel down in the depths of him a weakness that only needed an excuse to surface. Laying here as they were, he judged this might well be the situation that could do it. In the end, they would have no choice but to make haste to Gretna Green.

That will never do.

It was at this moment that Darcy reined in his highly intuitive feelings that were aroused by Elizabeth sleeping against him; he pulled himself together. The responsibility he felt for her overtook what he deemed his own selfish interests. The promise he gave to the Gardiners was fresh in his mind. They had his word. Oh why can I not be a dishonourable man?

Darcy was committed to do what he must. He would free himself from her embrace and let her rest until morning in peace. Safe from his deep love and the physical longings it produced. There would be no risk to her from spending the night in his home. Elizabeth would be safe. As he took inventory of the situation on the sofa his heart began to pound.

Darcy immediately questioned his judgment when he ascertained the full implications of their repose. I might not ought to have had my night. Elizabeth was no longer simply tucked into his side with his arm around her. Were things that innocent he would breath easy. In fact the woman had managed to curl herself around him in the manner of an exotic snake. A leg was flung over his and her foot linked around his ankle. Most of her torso rested upon his, with one of her arms in a space behind him while the other was up to the elbow under his vest, which had somehow become partially unbuttoned. She was much more dangerous than a poisonous reptile. Indeed, she could be deadly in this situation. If it was within his power to keep Elizabeth from knowing they had lain like this he felt it might be in his best interest. She may not view this in a light-hearted way. And keeping their intimacy from the servants would best serve them both. Thank God they dare not to enter a room where I have shut the door.

With these goals in mind he tried to come up with some way of getting off of the sofa without waking her. Once that was achieved, he wanted to settle Elizabeth comfortably in bed and freshen up in his rooms. It is best to advance one step at a time. He couldn't reach his pocket watch so he craned his neck up to read the clock on his desk. With the room still partially lit he could make out the face 4:20!!! Good Lord! It will be dawn soon and the household will be up and about. Darcy was not prone to panic although if ever there was a time to go to pieces he suspected this was it. However, he forced himself to deal with this in a calm and rational manner.

Slow and easy man.

He tested the depth of her sleep by shifting slightly away from her. She did not appear to rouse but it had the opposite effect he had hoped for; Elizabeth pursued him to remain close. Her arms tightened around him in an effort to keep him next to her. Darcy could not but smile at this. Ah, the pleasure of such intimacy between a man and a woman is now known to Elizabeth. She seeks it out even though she sleeps. His confidence in their relationship grew with her cuddling and as his imagination began to go to work, Darcy paused to reflect with some satisfaction on the images that flashed before him.

Suddenly, the south of Scotland didn't seem so unappealing. Unfortunately, it is out of the question. This situation had to be resolved now. He bent his head down and placed a kiss on her head. He began to play with the strands of her hair that fallen loose and spread across his chest as he decided how to proceed. First things first. Disentangle.

He quickly found that, if he was to keep from waking her, this was much more difficult that it might seem. With considerable dexterity he extracted her arm from underneath his vest and in doing so immediately felt a void. He sighed, knowing there was nothing else to be done. As soon as he set it along her side it came gravitating right back to his chest. Right, Let us approach this another way.

Using her hold on him to his advantage, he rolled them both ever so carefully to position them side-by-side. Darcy perceived a much better chance of success in disengaging himself from this position. She now had an arm trapped under him and, lifting his weight up off the sofa, she moaned simultaneously as he removed it. But still she did not wake.

Well done Darcy. Carry on! Inching back away from her body he suddenly faced resistance. He could move no further away from her. Looking down between them he saw the source of the problem. The loop of a ribbon in Elizabeth's dress had twisted round a button on his vest effectively binding them together. Deftly, he unwound the offending ornamentation until he was free.

Now he slid back in an unhurried pace to put more distance between them. As he reached the edge of the sofa the smoothness of the leather rapidly increased his progress and, before he knew it, Darcy had slid over the side and landed flat on his back. The floor was heavily carpeted and there was only a muffled thud as he landed.

Bloody hell. He bit his lip to hold back a curse.

It became apparent his feet had not followed; they had become entwined within the hem of Elizabeth's skirt and slip. Silent thanks were sent up to the ancestors from whom he had inherited his long legs. He was able to liberate his feet, still in their boots, with a series of stealth movements that before tonight he might not have thought possible to execute while lying prone on his back.

And through it all Elizabeth lay with her cheek resting against the palm of her hand, sound asleep.

I need a brandy. As Darcy stood up he wiped his damp brow with his handkerchief and stole across the room. He had his drink and contemplated his options from here. But he wasted little time for he knew he must make haste.

Elizabeth woke up slightly confused as to her surroundings. She found that she was once again in the bedchamber where she had rested previously. There was sunlight coming through a gap in the draperies. She decided she felt much better and rose to stretch; as she did she looked down in confusion for she was no longer in her dress, she now wore a nightdress. She recalled what she believed to be a dream for surely nothing in life could be so wonderful.

Elizabeth had been cradled in Fitzwilliam's arms, sleeping contentedly. At some point his voice floated down to her and he told her to wrap her arms around his neck. His words had been filled with gentle affection and she did as he requested. Then she felt him lift her effortlessly and she was safely in his arms as they walked up the stairs. Her eyes remained closed but as she rested her head against his shoulder, she sensed him hold her even closer although she was in no danger of falling. Too soon the softness of the bed was underneath her. His embrace did not break off immediately and she felt herself drift asleep in his arms as he softly nuzzled her ear. She did not recall how she got into the nightdress and with some trepidation began to go through her dream again to see if any answers came to her. She could recall nothing in that regard. Other thoughts came readily into her head though, including Hunsford and Mr. Darcy's first proposal. Very strange! Soon one of the maids from last night cautiously peeked into the bedchamber and upon seeing the young woman awake, entered and offered to assist her with her morning toilette.

During the course of her bath, Elizabeth discovered that it was the maid who had helped her to change. After she put on her dress, which was freshly pressed, and was having her hair arranged there was a knock upon the door with word that Miss Darcy and Miss Annesley were waiting for her in the dining room.

Georgiana and Miss Annesley both fretted over Elizabeth when she appeared, for Darcy had informed them of her sudden illness yesterday. When pressed by the ladies for details, Elizabeth was guarded with her explanations; it would not due to mention Wickham.

As she accepted tea Elizabeth could not help but sneak frequent glances to the doorway at the possibility of seeing Fitzwilliam enter. Each time a servant was spotted, her heart sank. Having no knowledge of the plans made the previous evening, she could not know that he would not appear.

At that moment he had reached the Thames and was making his way along the waterway in the hope of gaining information about Wickham. With her second cup of tea finished, she was about to inquire about returning to Gracechurch Street. Before she could raise this subject to her hosts, Mrs. Gardiner was announced.

As she has not made the acquaintance of Mr. Darcy's sister some introductions were made. Mrs. Gardiner had to refuse the hospitality that was offered and gathered up Elizabeth to accompany her back home. It was with some reluctance that Elizabeth made her farewells to Georgiana. Immediately when they were in the carriage, Mrs. Gardiner studied Elizabeth to ascertain if she had recovered. Feeling somewhat satisfied with her inspection, her aunt thus began to enlighten her to all that had occurred when they had returned home the previous evening. She began, of course, with the events that unfolded when Lydia was told of Wickham's disappearance.

Lydia did not gather that anything was amiss when confronted with the facts from the day. Upon the particulars being repeated and expanded upon, she still did not fully grasp the significance of all that had passed. She was of the opinion that Mr. Wickham would never leave her and that, in fact, he must have made other lodging arrangements for the last two days. She would not accept any conclusions that had been drawn by others, and became quite irritated with her relations when they tried to press the point with her. She fully expected him to arrive at the church at the appointed hour. To that end, Mr. Gardiner had agreed to be at the church in case Mr. Wickham did turn up. Lydia claimed that it would be a disgrace if she were not at the church, but her aunt and uncle would hear none of her arguments. It would not due to have Lydia dressed in her wedding gown, waiting at the church, with no groom to meet her.

The Gardiners had also wisely determined that they would wait to send any news to Longbourn about what had occurred, until they were one hundred percent certain that Wickham had indeed fled.

So it was that they had to hurry back to Gracechurch Street, as time for the ceremony was drawing near, and Mr. Gardiner wanted the carriage to take him to the church.

When Elizabeth and Mrs. Gardiner entered the house, a departing Mr. Gardiner quickly greeted them. Before he left, his eyes glanced towards the stairs and then he raised them to the heavens. But, he smiled at his wife and even managed to give her a kiss before he left.

Immediately, they saw what he referred to. For Lydia had dressed herself in her full wedding outfit and was coming down the stairs with a look of some displeasure on her face. "There you are! A fine thing you holding us up this morning Lizzy. After all, we will have some trouble today as it is, for my uncle will have to come all the way back here to fetch us for the ceremony when he discovers Wickham at the church. Your visit to Mr. Darcy's house could have made us late." She paused only to get her breath. "I dare say, you seem to have made a rather permanent guest of yourself. Staying the night? What will Mama and Papa say to that I wonder? Hmmm!" One of Lydia's bug-eyed looks crossed her face.

Elizabeth rubbed her fingers across her forehead and willed herself to remain silent. She knew it would be but a short time before her sister would have to face the truth about Mr. Wickham and she felt that was going to be cruel enough without any harsh words from her. They are hardly necessary at this point.

But Mrs. Gardiner would not tolerate her outburst and proceeded to remind the girl of her sister's illness. Lydia merely listened in silence with a look of disbelief upon her face.

Mr. Darcy had left his townhouse early that morning. Before he left, he could not help but sneak a look into the room where Elizabeth was sleeping. He only got a quick glimpse at her form resting under the covers, for the maid quickly came to assure him that she was well. He had accepted the irony of his aborted proposal and had vowed he would speak to Elizabeth again to ask for her hand. Regardless of the outcome of today's events, he was determined to find an opportunity before the sun set on another day.

A smile played upon his lips at the recollection of last evening. So desperately did he desire to be near Elizabeth, he had been unable to let her retire. When finally he did take her upstairs he had held her close while he carried her to bed. He found he was unable to break off the embrace immediately.

His hand caught a bit of her hair that rested against her cheek. Between his fingers it felt like velvet. In her slumber he studied her closely; his face was so near to hers that they were almost touching. Her dark lashes were so long and thick that they came to rest on the top of her cheeks, now glowing and flushed from her sleep. She looked very tranquil as she rested. Before he rose to leave, he placed his lips next to her ear spoke words to her that would caress her heart if she had but heard them. "Sleep well sweet Elizabeth. I will declare my love to you again and on that day I will never let you go." Then he felt the warmth of her cheek as his lips lightly kissed her good morning. Then he had left to get the maid to see to her needs.

He was jarred out of his recollections when the carriage abruptly stopped. Darcy had reached his destination: the Port of London. He had crossed the Thames and was on the south side of the river. From where he sat he had a view across the water. The London Bridge was to his left and the Tower was far down and on his right. He was facing the West India Import Docks with their huge warehouses and wet docks that extended a half a mile along the north side the river. It was this side of the Thames where he would concentrate, in the Pool of London, a stretch of river below the bridge that was crammed with hundreds of lighters, barges and hoys, colliers and finally, great ocean-going ships moored in the deepest waters.

It was a daunting task. The wharves of the riverfront stretched for some miles down to the Isle of Dogs, and there were ships moored in the waterway all down the river. The activity was frantic with people coming and going, for the Port of London was immense by any standards and it was a sight that both native and foreign visitors most wished to see.

Suddenly, Darcy spied a group of boys, none of whom could be more than twelve years old, loitering off to one side. He astutely reasoned that these youngsters would know their way around the docks and get further faster than he would, so he struck a bargain with the gang. After giving a thorough description of Wickham, he offered payment to any boy who could find a trace of the man having either been around the docks or departed on a ship over the last two days. He agreed to meet them again in the afternoon. Deciding not to leave any possibility unexplored, he directed the driver to cross back to the north side of the river and he then spent the next few hours questioning anyone he could engage at the West India Docks, for the rogue Wickham could have hopped a trade ship departing for the East.

Mr. Gardiner stood out in the warm sunshine. It had turned into a fine late summer day. He looked at his pocket watch for the tenth time and decided he had waited long enough. It was nearly three-quarters of an hour past the time the ceremony had been scheduled. Time enough for Wickham to have arrived if he had intended to. Now it was left for him to return back to Gracechurch Street with this news.

Elizabeth had changed her clothes and sat with her aunt while Lydia walked from room to room. She was unable to sit still. She glanced frequently at the windows facing the road and hurried to look outside whenever she heard a carriage pass by. As each one brought no Mr. Wickham to her, she grew a little less bright and cheery. A look of some worry had begun to creep upon her face. Finally, Mr. Gardiner's carriage did pull up to the house and all the ladies rushed to the windows. They could see quite clearly that Mr. Gardiner was alone. With this, Lydia turned and ran up the stairs whereby they heard a door slam.

When he entered, Elizabeth's uncle confirmed that which they already knew to be the truth; Mr. Wickham had fled. He was a rogue who, under the pretext of eloping, had stolen away with Lydia and lived with her as husband and wife. He was an underhanded sneak who made an agreement with the family to marry her. He was a ne'er-do-well who had run from his duty, probably a richer man for his trouble. He was the worst of men.

Elizabeth excused herself to go up to Lydia. She knocked on the door and when she heard no answer, she opened it ever so slightly. "Lydia, please, may I come in?" She did not wait for her reply. Lydia was out of her dress and changing into the clothes she had laid out to wear for the trip to Longbourn after the wedding. She looked up miserably at her sister. She spoke not a word but broke down in tears. Elizabeth guided her to the bed and let her have a good long cry without saying a word.

When she had calmed down, Lydia announced, "I want to go home, Lizzy, today, now, in the coach that we have hired. You will come with me, won't you? Please, Lizzy?" She stared pleadingly at her.

Her sister did not want to deny her this request. Yet the idea of leaving London now was most disheartening to Elizabeth. She found that she desperately wanted to see more of Fitzwilliam. To leave now would not even afford her the opportunity to say goodbye. Her heart was beginning to feel as if it was slowly being ripped out and she quickly excused herself on the pretext of discussing the situation with Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner.

Elizabeth fled to her own room where she sat for a good while and recited all the reasons why it was best that she go with Lydia. She knew her own regrets about leaving London would have to be put aside. As she went to speak with her aunt and uncle she reasoned that she was quite like a sacrificial lamb. She returned to the Gardiners who, upon hearing Lydia's request, agreed that perhaps it would be the best course of action.

But neither aunt nor uncle for a moment forgot about what had developed between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. Mrs. Gardiner offered to help her pack her trunks and when they were alone, she spoke to her niece. "How do you feel about leaving London just now Lizzy?" she began gently.

"I had come to believe that perhaps you had settled upon your feelings in certain matters." She smiled furtively at her. Elizabeth projected the appearance of outward calm and seemed to be unaffected. Her words, however, revealed her true feelings. "I sincerely desire to stay Aunt. I am most clear about my regard for Mr. Darcy." She turned away from her aunt to place some garments in her trunk but continued, "I have come to know him quite well these weeks and I recognise that he has gone to great lengths to change what I criticised about him."

Her aunt heard the reasoning of a mature young woman as Elizabeth spoke.

"But, there is more. Mr. Darcy is a man very different from what I believed him to be. Regardless of the attention he paid to my remarks, had the excellent qualities not always been within him, he could not have shown me who he really was. I judged him unfairly. My prejudices were equal to his."

For a brief moment, Elizabeth let all the heartache she felt overtake her features; she told her aunt with some force, "I was so very wrong about him." Then she regained control of herself and locked her emotions away.

"Lizzy, we can talk to Lydia and see about you staying for a while longer if you wish."

After a long silence her aunt heard her hushed reply. "I think Lydia should go home."

So it was that not more than an hour later Elizabeth and Lydia were settled in the coach. Their trunks had been loaded onto the back and their goodbyes had been said. The driver pulled away and they moved quickly along the street. It was not too long before Elizabeth noticed the turn to take to go to Fitzwilliam's townhouse. But the coach went on past that street and too soon it had disappeared from her view. The road to Longbourn was longer than either could ever remember experiencing. It was littered with regrets and dashed hopes. The ruts and potholes along the highway could be avoided no less than the emotional pain they contemplated. The carriage bounced relentlessly over the hurt they suffered. Each was lost to understand just where their lives were headed from this point.

Chapter Fifteen

Darcy had spent a good many hours searching the West India Docks and had found not a trace of Mr. Wickham's movements. The time was growing late so he thought it best to proceed back to the other side of the river where, he acknowledged, his best chances for success lay. When his carriage slowed it was rushed upon by the eager boys. As Darcy got out, they all started shouting to him at once.

"Whoa, hold on! It is impossible for me to understand you. I shall take you one at a time," and he pointed his walking stick to the left for the farthest child to begin, listening with care to each of their stories and interjecting a question now and then.

While several did speak of men that could have been Mr. Wickham, each story had a futile end. Just when he believed he had heard from all the boys, the smallest child of the group was pushed forward, for he had been overlooked in the excitement. Darcy kindly looked down upon him and asked to hear what he had learned.

The boy was quite frightened, for never before had he been in the presence of such a gentleman. He spoke solemnly as his dirty face peered up to Darcy. But what the boy had to say immediately caught his attention.

As the other children were dispatched with a farthing each, given by the driver, Darcy was led a short way to the river by the small boy. There, the boy pointed excitedly to a large passenger ship. There was much activity here; Darcy concluded the ship was preparing to depart soon. Along the dock were stacked any assortment of crates and barrels full of every kind of provision necessary for a lengthy ocean voyage.

They were being ferried over to the ship in a continuous stream. Darcy found that he had stopped next to several crates of squawking chickens and immediately moved away. He watched the child approach a dockworker, pulling on his sleeve to gain his attention. The man was in fact a sailor on the ship and was led back to Darcy. After repeating what he knew and answering some specific questions, the tale he wove confirmed to Darcy that he should next speak to the captain of the ship, who was identified as one of the men seated in a small vessel currently crossing the river.

Darcy once more showed his gratitude by reaching into his pocket and procuring a coin. A gapped-toothed smile was returned in appreciation as the coin disappeared into the sailor's pocket with some speed. When the boat reached the dock, Darcy saw that the captain had the careworn face of a man who had spent his life out in the elements. He imagined him to have battled gales and endured arctic temperatures as well as the tropical heat of the South Seas. He appeared to be in something of a rush when Darcy stepped forward and blocked his path.

"Excuse me, sir. Might I have a minute of your time, please?" And with that, the two men entered into a conversation that enlightened and satisfied Darcy immensely. Certain facts were made known to the captain, who readily agreed to help the well-spoken gentleman before him.

His business for the day finished, Darcy turned towards his carriage but paused as he spied the small boy standing off to the side. Motioning for the boy to come to him, he reached into his pocket. The only coins he had left were of a much greater value than was necessary to give to the child, but so pleased was he with this turn of luck that he placed a sixpence in his palm. The child's mouth flew open with surprise at his benefactor's largesse; he glanced up briefly while closing his hand tightly around the coin and running off to disappear amongst the crates, barrels and wagons in search of his friends.

As his carriage pulled away Darcy leaned back into the comfortable seat. He knew the ship that Wickham had booked passage on was to sail with the tide the next day, but it was highly unlikely that Wickham would now be on it.

The Bennets had been anticipating the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Wickham for the entire afternoon. Mrs. Bennet was in a high state of anxiety and her family found it impossible to share the same room with her and difficult to even be within the confines of the same house. Mr. Bennet was fortunate to have his study to use as a retreat, but for his daughters there was no such escape. Jane, Mary and Kitty all sat and listened to her ramblings. Jane, with some astuteness, had wisely advised Mr. Bingley not to call Longbourn today.

When the afternoon had worn on to the point that the light was about to fade and they thought they might never receive the happy couple, the crunch of wheels rolling upon gravel was heard. The approach of the carriage was confirmed and everyone rushed from the house to stand expectantly in the drive.

Lydia's profile was visible from the window but she had not turned to greet them with her usual exuberance. A man set a step for them to climb down and Lydia was first out to be greeted warmly by her mother, who in her excitement, failed to notice the downcast mood of her daughter.

Ignorant of the new misfortune that had befallen their family, she scurried up to Lydia and cried, "Oh, there she is! And how beautiful you are, Mrs. Wickham!" She smiled to her other daughters to show her approval and then gave her youngest daughter a big hug. "But where is my son-in-law? I must give him my congratulations."

She began to look past Lydia to locate her husband, as had all the other Bennets. By now Jane had spotted Elizabeth alone in the carriage. She spoke for everyone when she asked simply, "But where is Mr. Wickham?"

Kitty and Mary peeked inside and saw that the carriage was indeed empty, save for their sister; no other had travelled with them.

Mr. Bennet displayed a look of annoyance with the entire affair and replied, "Indeed, Jane, I do believe that is the question of the day."

All eyes turned toward Lydia, who burst into tears and fled inside the house. This left Elizabeth alone to face the family with the explanation they all awaited. Watching all of this from the interior of the carriage made Elizabeth wish vainly she might stay in the compartment indefinitely. She was greatly tempted to instruct the driver to just keep going, preferably all the way back to London. With a powerful reluctance she climbed out and looked around at her family. Their faces wore an assortment of emotions: confusion; disbelief; worry and wonder.

She had received no welcome at all from any them for it was not she they had expected. Everyone stood waiting for another to begin when Mrs. Bennet turned to her daughter and allowed her emotions to spill over. "Lizzy, Lizzy! What has happened? Where is Mr. Wickham?" her mother trilled. "Oh, Lord, I fear the worst. Where is Mr. Wickham?" And as she attempted to gain some relief by fanning herself with her hankie, she began to whimper.

"Mrs. Bennet," her husband said rather sharply. "Please! Let us go inside." He wanted no scenes acted out in front of the servants that might be repeated with loose tongues. He continued to his daughter, "Lizzy, am I correct in assuming that Mr. Wickham has not travelled with you today?" When he saw her nod her head he told her, "Very well, perhaps you would like to come into the study."

Mr. Bennet took his wife, who was now sobbing quite openly, by the arm and led her into the house as he felt certain she was about to collapse onto the drive. Jane quickly went to Elizabeth's side, while Mary and Kitty joined Lydia upstairs. "Lizzy, please tell me the worst has not happened." Jane appealed to her.

"Oh Jane," came her rushed whisper, "it is true! Lydia and Mr. Wickham are not married, for he disappeared two days ago." They had reached the study door and Elizabeth gave Jane a rather pained look before she repaired to the room to face her parents.

"Close the door, please," her father instructed as she entered his sanctuary. Her mother was sitting over in the corner, sobbing rather sedately. "Now, Lizzy, sit down." Without further delay he instructed her, "Please tell your Mother and I exactly what has happened and leave out no details."

"I have a letter here from Uncle Gardiner, if you would like to read it." She pulled the sealed correspondence out of her pocket and passed it to him.

"Thank you, I will read it later, but now I would like to hear from you." Looking across his desk, she studied her father's tired features.

It was with a heavy heart that she broke the news. "Well, father," she began with a deep breath and thus unfolded all the details of the last days, from Mr. Wickham's last visit to Gracechurch Street to her concerns which then led to the discovery of his disappearance up to and including his absence at the church today. She was left to tell her tale uninterrupted although Mrs. Bennet would let loose with intermittent wails, varying their pitch higher and lower, softer and louder, depending on which particularly dreadful part was revealed.

Sensibly, Elizabeth chose to leave out of her narrative the part about her taking ill and falling asleep in Fitzwilliam's arms as they lay together on his sofa.

"So, the unthinkable has happened. Mr. Wickham has tipped his hand and it is now certain he never had designs to marry Lydia." Mrs. Bennet did not try to contain her emotions. From her corner she lamented over the fate of her daughter, meted out liberal invectives against the fugitive Wickham, and complained of her own mistreatment and suffering throughout this ordeal. First addressing his wife, Mr. Bennet declared, "Mrs. Bennet, I daresay your babbling is nothing but useless racket. Quiet Madam!"

She looked a bit like a naughty child, but her husband's admonishment had the desired effect; it did quiet her down somewhat.

"Lizzy," he turned his attention to his daughter, "there are three things I wish to put to you, and you may answer them in any particular order. Firstly, what is being done now to find Mr. Wickham? Secondly, why was I not informed when his disappearance was exposed? And, finally, how has Mr. Darcy come to be involved in this matter?"

"Papa," she looked to her father for some moments as she formed answers to his first two questions. "I believe that my aunt and uncle did not want to give you the occasion for any further grief should Mr. Wickham have appeared at the church today. There was some small chance that he might have been there."

Before Elizabeth could continue, her mother interrupted. "Oh, I knew we should have never allowed Edward to handle this. Look what has become of it all. Mr. Wickham has gone. Lydia is not married. Our family is disgraced. But who will find him now? And fight him to make him marry her? Whatever shall we do?" She returned to her wailing.

"Mrs. Bennet!" her husband scolded her again, "I am afraid that you will have to leave if you cannot contain yourself."

Elizabeth turned to see her mother hiccupping as she tried to calm down. As she returned her gaze to her father, she saw him looking expectantly at her to continue. She was slightly embarrassed with her next admission. "I am sorry to tell you that I am not certain what is being done now to find Mr. Wickham. I know that my aunt and uncle discussed this with Mr. Darcy but I know not what plans had been formulated. When the news was broken to Lydia that Mr. Wickham had failed to arrive at the church, she insisted on leaving for Longbourn immediately. I admit in my rush to pack I neglected to inquire," she finished lamely.

Offering up no further narrative, she waited in silence for a response from him. Her father peered over the top of his spectacles at her with a stern look upon his face. Elizabeth was unsure if any of his displeasure was directed at her.

"And...?" he prodded as if he held a large stick. "And...?" She was quite sure of his meaning but had held out some hope he might have forgot the last point he had raised. She was trying to avoid the topic of Fitzwilliam with her parents.

"Mr. Darcy, Lizzy."

"Oh, Mr. Darcy." She blushed somewhat as his name escaped from her lips and averted her eyes to avoid her father's scrutiny. "Well, um, I am unsure of this also. Although, from Jane's letter, I know that Mr. Darcy was here at Longbourn the day Mr. Collins called. According to Jane, Mr. Collins was quite zealous in relating the events about Lydia to Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy. Perhaps we should call for Jane to explain."

She began to rise when her father told her, "Stay where you are. That will not be necessary." Mr. Bennet offered up suggestion. "Perhaps some speculation on your part will produce a theory for us."

"Oh well, maybe Mr. Darcy felt he had some knowledge about Mr. Wickham that would assist in locating him."

"I fail to see why Mr. Darcy should inconvenience himself in our family business, Lizzy," Mr. Bennet said. "Do you?"

"Papa, he grew up with Mr. Wickham. Perhaps he felt some sort of, oh, responsibility for the man's actions," Lizzy suggested.

Doubt spread across Mr. Bennet's face at this idea. He arched his eyebrows and inclined his head towards her. He looked as if he was waiting for her to carry on.

Lizzy sat across from her father, looking at him before admitting, "Papa, it was actually Mr. Darcy who located Mr. Wickham and Lydia in London."

"Mr. Darcy!" her mother shouted from over in her corner. "Is this true, Lizzy? That horrible man was responsible for locating my daughter?" Mrs. Bennet came over to where Lizzy sat and glared down at her.

Once again a rosy hue flourished across Elizabeth's face; this time she was unable to hide it. She could barely manage to reply with a simple, "Yes," to her mother's question. Elizabeth was reluctant to discuss Fitzwilliam with her parents, she believed her feelings for the man would be easily read were they to enter into a discussion of his character; she knew that this was neither the time nor the place for any such discovery.

"I find this entire situation unacceptable!" continued Mrs. Bennet, who seemed to lose any appreciation she might have with her role in the current matter, which was none. The part she had played for the previous sixteen years was never examined; her extreme deficiency in recognising her own ill-judged indulgence of her daughter was a point never raised in her own conscience. "And I agree with your father. I see no reason why that terrible man, so full of pride, should have any concern for our family's trouble." Mrs. Bennet was fanning again. This time the hankie was aimed at her bosom.

"Mrs. Bennet, I have not slandered the man. I am simply at a loss to see why he would make our business his." He was staring quite frankly at Elizabeth now.

"You need not voice what we already know. Mr. Darcy is an awful, arrogant man."

Caught up in the moment, Elizabeth rose from her chair, compelled to defend the man she loved. She blurted out, "Fitzwilliam is not a terrible man. Why he took the best care of me when I was ill." She abruptly shut her mouth when she realized what she said and sank back into her seat. Her colour grew a deeper shade of red that matched the roses on her mother's favourite bush.

Elizabeth believed that there had never been a silence as heavy as that in her father's study at this moment. Her mother's eyes were glazed over; her fanning had been abandoned entirely as she now swayed back and forth in the manner of one who might faint.

"Mrs. Bennet, please return to your corner before you collapse. I would hate to have the floorboards damaged." With the spell broken, she once again focused on Elizabeth but before she could speak, her husband said, "I for one would be most interested to hear you expand upon your last statement Lizzy. Proceed."

She watched her mother return to her seat and, with a squeak as she settled down, she dared a glance at her father. He was sitting back in his chair, fingers of both hands resting against each other and a direct gaze levelled at her. Resting upstairs, resting upstairs, UPSTAIRS! Elizabeth was petrified she might say something that would be less than well received by her parents. And his name is Mr. Darcy, Mr. Darcy! "With all that happened yesterday," she paused, considering that it had only been but one day ago, "I allowed the strain of events to get the better of me. We had returned to Mr. Darcy's home to discuss what action might be taken when I became so ill it was necessary for me to be taken to room upstairs. Aunt Gardiner sat with me and later Mr. Darcy's own physician came and examined me. At his recommendation, I was left to rest there until the morning."

Mr. Bennet looked to be absorbed in her story; his faced showed not disapproval but something that bordered on amusement. "And pray, Elizabeth, you are well now?" His voice lacked a serious degree of concern.

"Thank you, yes I am."

"I would hope that the amenities of Mr. Darcy's home met with your approval?"

"Certainly, sir."

"And, as you stated, Mr. Darcy behaved most suitably and saw to whatever you required in your recovery?

"Indeed he did." She looked up then and seemed to not see her parents but to look past them, perhaps all the way to London, as she spoke with some emotion, "He is a decent and honourable man who has done us a great kindness in helping with Mr. Wickham." Elizabeth was unexpectedly touched by the sadness she carried with her from quitting London prematurely. She reached in her pocket for her handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes. She then spoke to her parents in a very subdued voice. They had to strain to hear, for she was looking down into her lap. "He is the very best of men." Elizabeth then begged to be excused and left the study.

Mr. Bennet responded dryly, "Well, it certainly looks as if more has happened in London than we anticipated."

Darcy wasted no time reaching Gracechurch Street. When he discovered that Mr. Gardiner was at his warehouses he decided to hasten there without delay to speak with him. He was quite impressed with Mr. Gardiner's business, for it was a vast enterprise. Were the circumstances for his visit anything other than the distasteful affair at hand, he would have requested a tour of the facilities.

He put to Mr. Gardiner what he had learned during the day and they once again discussed how best to proceed. It was during this conversation that Mr. Darcy learned that which gave him considerable pain; Elizabeth had returned to Longbourn with her sister. He did his best to hide his disappointment, although he succeeded poorly. It was clear he was crestfallen, although he made a valiant attempt to hide it. Mr. Gardiner made no comment, although he felt deeply for the young man. They agreed upon a course of action and Darcy bade Mr. Gardiner farewell.

That night, Elizabeth and Jane had a long, sisterly talk that allowed both young women to catch up on all that had happened over these many weeks, for letters can only convey so much. Both had missed these talks; Elizabeth found that the hours passed with Jane, sharing confidences and secrets, did much to restore her natural spirit. She cautiously kept some particulars about Fitzwilliam to herself, although Jane was left in no doubt about her sister's changed partiality for Mr. Bingley's best friend.

The young ladies talked until the early hours of the morning and had only just extinguished their candles when there was a loud knock upon the door. The entire household was roused, finding at the front door an express from London. As Mary held a candle close, Mr. Bennet opened it; many pairs of eyes were upon him, anticipating news they were sure would be about a certain missing fiancé. As Mrs. Bennet held her dear child close, Mr. Bennet looked upon her and announced, "Lydia, it looks as if you will be returning to London tomorrow to attend your wedding. And this time, I will be travelling with you."

Chapter Sixteen

There had been no explanations in the express from Mr. Gardiner; those at Longbourn knew not whether Mr. Wickham had been found. The hurried message from London requested that Lydia return there without delay as it was expected that the ceremony would take place the next day. In fact Mr. Gardiner and Darcy could not be certain that it would occur, but if all went well and Wickham was successfully apprehended, they did not want any hindrance to interfere with the wedding. Therefore the slightly premature express had been sent, without a hint to the recipient that the outcome might not be favourable.

It also stated that the Wickhams would be travelling north immediately after the ceremony and no visits to Longbourn could be enjoyed. Word had come through to Darcy from the agent with whom Wickham's commission had been purchased that it was still intact. The sooner he was safely with his regiment the better for all concerned.

Back in London Mr. Gardiner had crossed his fingers, hoping the plans they had discussed would succeed and this business would once and for all be put behind everyone. While he was keen to assist his family in any way he could, his patience with the disruption of his household from the high drama and frayed emotions was wearing thin.Darcy had an entirely different agenda. Not only did he refuse to consider failure in the apprehension of Wickham, he was at a point he believed himself capable of almost anything to unsure such an outcome.

His goal was to gather up all the loose ends concerning this mess with him, tie it into a neat bundle and send him and his bride off to the North. After the newlyweds were gone, his attention could be fully directed to his own life, his own happiness. And that of Elizabeth's. He eagerly awaited her return to London the next day with her sister.

When all had retired once more in the Bennet household, Elizabeth found she could not sleep. After the express had been read, she and Jane had whispered back and forth in the hall before they went into their own rooms. As she lay in the dark, her thoughts chased her. They were exclusively of Fitzwilliam.

Because he had captured her heart, she now knew what it was to love. The joy this brought her was indescribably wonderful. With each thought of Fitzwilliam, her heart soared. It was a physical reaction; she could feel it surge through her as she laid her hand upon her chest.

And yet, for all the joy that was to be found, there was equal misery. Being apart from him was a torture Elizabeth had not expected it to strike so brutally. Indeed, my longing for him weakens me. She wondered if this new kind of hurt was something that he too experienced. The ache in her heart was only getting stronger with each passing hour.

As Elizabeth lay in bed and was initiated to the emotional extremes of love, she wondered how joy and misery could both dwell simultaneously in the recesses of her heart. She sighed as no answer came forth. Perhaps another evening like last night would help me unravel it all. She focused on their time alone in his study. Visualizing his strong hands and the safety they expressed through his touch made her sigh once again. When his arms were around her in a protective embrace, she believed that he could keep her safe from any threat that might appear. She lifted her fingers to her lips as she remembered the way her skin shivered when Fitzwilliam had just barely brushed his lips against hers.

Tossing and turning, what came to her mind was beyond her power to stop. For Fitzwilliam had awakened other sensations within her. As Elizabeth remembered his light touch down the length of her arms or his warm breath falling on the curve of her neck, she found herself in the grips of desire. And when he had displayed more ardour with his kisses, stirrings she had never known before threatened to render her wonderfully helpless.

The combination of it all overtook her, much like the heat emanating from a roaring bonfire. It could only be described as feverish. She had only one thought. I want more. But, it led to another. And I want him.

Abruptly Elizabeth wondered, Is this love? Perhaps it was the evil she had heard of so often at Sunday sermons. Her imagination paired her with other young men of her acquaintance: the parson's son; the new solicitor in Meryton; officers from the regiment recently departed and even Colonel Fitzwilliam. Relief spread through her when they all displeased her in the extreme. I am not prone to becoming a licentious woman! While she had never expected this to be the case, confirmation of the improbability of such a transformation was welcomed in the darkness of her room.

The idea of anyone other than Fitzwilliam caressing her was revolting. She wanted only his whispered adorations and sweet kisses. She had assured herself that her thoughts were of a woman in love. They were not sinful nor unusual, though perhaps brazen when one was not secured to the gentleman in question.

I could be more than secured now had I accepted him at Hunsford. I could be Mrs. Darcy. I could very well be sharing the same bedchamber with him at this precise moment. Mercy!

These particulars occupied her mind for a long stretch of time. Possibilities of what it would lead to, when occupying a darkened bedchamber with a most agreeably pursuant Fitzwilliam, came forth in a muddled procession. Oh my, my, my! In fact, Elizabeth knew only enough to take her to a certain point; from there onwards, all she might envision was no more than the vivid ideas of an innocent young woman. But her imagination had always contained an adventurous twist. Had Darcy been privy to her estimation of what might occur between them, he would judge that the woman had a propensity to concoct some highly unusual, but terribly agreeable, scenarios.

As she tried again to fall asleep, she was abruptly jolted fully awake from a thought that had come forward from the recesses of her mind. She sat upright.

"Hunsford!" It sounded quite loud in contrast to the quiet that encompassed the sleeping household. Staring out into the darkness, with her mouth open in shock, she repeated the word in a whisper this time. "Hunsford." She threw back the covers and went to the window. With the light of a half moon shining across her face, realization dawned with an assured clarity.

The garden of Longbourn was bathed in lunar light; the heavy, fragrant perfume of the night blooming jasmine floated up to her. Breathing in the heady scent, she recalled the evening that was only the night before, when she sat in Fitzwilliam's study. He had been pacing, slightly nervous, looking at her peculiarly.

The pacing, the pacing. I know what it reminded me of! It was exactly as he had looked and acted at Hunsford. Before he had proposed. Elizabeth tried to recall what he had done last night, but she had been so tired. He had sat next to her and drew her close. Then he had her rest against him while he held her hand and they had been talking and, that was it. She could remember no more. I fell asleep. Oh no, oh no! I only hope he wasn't going to propose again! Surely I could not have been so unlucky!

She stopped and made herself amend that thought. I hope he was going to propose again but didn't when he saw I was asleep. The last thing she concluded, before she went back to bed, she believed was vital to her future. I must get back to London. The next morning saw a calm settled over the household, even with the prospect of Lydia leaving and probably not returning to Longbourn for a very long time. Mrs. Bennet was weepy and sad, no longer upset with Lydia, but now mourning the departure of her youngest and dearest.

Mr. Bennet had been prepared to leave when the sun had just risen, but out of consideration for the rest of the family, he left them to share one last breakfast together before Lydia departed. He chose to wait in the garden and admire the riotous mixture of flowers along the far garden wall.

"Papa?"

He was started out of his reflections by the sound of his daughter's voice. He turned to Elizabeth and smiled meaningfully. "Well Lizzy, it looks as if I will pick up matters where you left off yesterday." "It does appear that way. Let us hope that by the end of this day Lydia will be Mrs. Wickham."

"Let us hope indeed, Lizzy. But what a resolution to desire. I can find no peace in the knowledge that one of my daughters will be bound to such a man."

He sighed and began to take a turn around the plum trees. As Elizabeth fell into step with him, she suggested optimistically, "Perhaps he will prove to be a much better husband than he is a suitor." He looked to his daughter, whom he knew to be wiser than many and judged she could not truly believe her charitable suggestion. "Honour and shame from no condition rise; Act well your part, there all the honour lies." **

Lizzy smiled as her father quoted one of his favourite poets. She stole a look at his profile and, before she lost her nerve, raised the subject she had come to discuss. "Would you like some company in London? I am not averse to travelling with you. Surely you do not want to make the trip alone?"

Mr. Bennet stopped and turned to face her. "Lizzy my dear, I fear I am an old man." He held up his hand when she attempted to argue. "No, please, let me continue uninterrupted. The point I am about to make is, while I may be aging even more rapidly than I had ever expected, I am not blind yet. I can see with clarity that something more has occurred during your stay in London. Would you like to tell me about it?"

"I would surely tell you anything Papa. But, in fact I have nothing to tell." Elizabeth doubted her father would believe this. She was correct.

"Well, it cannot be ignored that you have become friends with Mr. Darcy. And that you hold him in high regard."

"Indeed, I do."

"You would have me believe that there is no more to it than that?"

She nodded her head.

"Remember, I am not your mother. She took away nothing more from that discussion in my study than the facts about Lydia. By her estimation, Mr. Darcy is nothing more than the same vain, arrogant man she chooses to dislike. One who cares not for anyone's opinion but his own. A man who believes, as a result of his wealth and position, he is above all others."

As he spoke Elizabeth became indignant again. Her reaction was that which Mr. Bennet had expected. She had fallen straight into his trap. As he continued she became ensnared. "He is simply the man who slighted her daughter at an assembly when he haughtily---"

"That is enough Papa!" she broke in with more emotion than was necessary. As she looked up to him, the twinkle in her father's eye revealed his ploy. With a sigh she said, "Oh Papa, I still can tell you no more. I do hold him in the highest esteem. He has helped our family with Lydia much more than he need ever have done."

"Exactly Lizzy! Now, why do you suppose that is?" His question hung in the air. He regarded her frankly until she broke his gaze to stare down and the wild violets long the pathway. Mr. Bennet continued, "Well, perhaps while I am in London I will ask him."

Elizabeth looked up quite startled.

"What do you expect him to say in reply?"

She merely shook her head but was clearly unnerved. "So, shall I come with you?" she put forth hopefully.

"Not this time my dear. But, never fear. I will make inquiries as to the health of a certain gentleman on your behalf. In fact, I look forward to a nice long chat with our Mr. Darcy. Perhaps when I come back, I can give you some answers to these bothersome questions."

Elizabeth spied Lydia standing close to the carriage as the trunks were being loaded. Regardless of all that had passed between them in London, she could not let her leave without speaking to her. She called to her and they found a secluded spot where they were unobserved.

As they sat, Elizabeth began, "Lydia, it is very cool this morning. Where is your shawl?" Her sister made no reply. "Lydia, please tell me what you are thinking?"

"Lizzy, how can I marry Mr. Wickham?" she looked dejectedly at Elizabeth. "I cannot believe that he loves me any longer. Perhaps he never did." Lydia was completely disillusioned.

"Lydia," Elizabeth began to lecture her and then stopped. It crossed her mind what was in store for her in the future. She correctly guessed that soon enough Lydia would be faced with some harsh realities about Mr. Wickham. She saw no point in putting any further pain upon her sister.

They had to marry; no other outcome was possible. So instead, she tried to cheer her on her wedding day, this of all days that was supposed to be special. "I cannot believe that Mr. Wickham did not love you. Why would he have asked you to elope? Nor do I believe that he may have fallen out of love with you. Would you like me to tell you what I think? I believe that he got a big case of nerves. It is called "pre-wedding jitters', and I would venture, he was affected quite severely to have gone to such an extreme and leave his intended bride." She smiled at Lydia to see how she was taking all of this.

She seemed to be listening so Elizabeth continued. "No doubt when you see him today, he will be full of apologies and begging your forgiveness. My advice is, don't give in too quickly and make him understand that he cannot behave in such a way. Let him give you an ample apology and then forgive him and enjoy your wedding."

"Do you really think so Lizzy?" she asked, regaining a bit of her natural energy. After a moment's consideration, she said to her sister, "Lizzy, I am sorry if I have behaved badly. I did not wish to. And I do not want to go away knowing you are angry with me."

Elizabeth put her arm around Lydia's shoulder and squeezed her tightly. "Lydia, no one is angry with you. We all want to see you happy. And I truly wish you joy."

Lydia took hold of her sister's hand and gave it a robust squeeze. "I wish you were coming Lizzy. I would dearly love for you to be at my wedding."

Elizabeth thought she detected some tears threatening to spill out of Lydia's eyes. It only served to weaken her already shaky frame of mind, so with a quick kiss to Lydia's cheek, she said her farewells and hurried inside.

The carriage was packed and Mr. Bennet was waiting beside it, looking about for his daughter so they might depart without further delay. All her sisters waved Lydia goodbye while Mrs. Bennet sniffled into her handkerchief. As she watched the carriage pull away, Elizabeth caught the unreadable look of her father as he found her framed in the upstairs window.

Soon after the carriage had slipped past the end of the drive, Mr. Bingley called and partook of morning tea with the women. Elizabeth had not yet had the opportunity of congratulating her future brother and did so with genuine delight. She was pleased to watch Jane in his company now; the certainty of their feelings made it possible for each of them to openly express their devotion. No one who might observe them together could doubt that they were destined to be happy.

The engaged couple rose from the table to take a walk, for Mr. Bingley had to return to London this very day and it would be their last time together until next week when Mrs. Bennet and Jane would be going to London, at Mr. Bingley's particular invitation, to shop for Jane's wedding trousseau.

Darcy had concealed himself behind a large pile of crates, just off of the pier used for access to ferry passengers over to the ship. He was early, but it had been necessary to confirm the particulars with the captain, who had arranged for several good and able men to assist Darcy with his subterfuge.

In his idleness, he began to think about Elizabeth. She was, he assumed, waiting at the Gardiner's home with the rest of her family. He was edgy and anxious to have this wedding ceremony over, so he might finally be able to speak to her privately. It had to be today. His business at Pemberley had become urgent and it was to take him there as soon as this matter with Wickham was resolved. If all went to plan, he would leave this very afternoon.

Why is there always an obstacle placed before me when it comes to proposing to Elizabeth? He glanced at his pocket watch as he counted down the minutes until he might be with her. Good God! It has only been a day since I saw her. And yet, it was as if years had passed from the last time he had looked upon her mesmerizing eyes and her radiant smile. He remembered how it felt to have the weight of her body against him as they lay on the sofa. Oh, the sweetness of the moment when he held her delicate hand in his. For Darcy, things could not be worse. Before all that had happened with Elizabeth, he would have believed that to hold and caress her would have left him satisfied and peaceful during the interludes they were apart. But he had come to realise it was a curse, only to torment him to new heights of suffering.

It was no longer only his imagination; he knew what it was to feel an intimacy with her as he enfolded her in his arms and held her close. He wanted to immerse himself in her and know her in every way possible. It was too much to bear. As he thought of her, in all the ways he knew her and those he yet had to experience, he felt a warmth spreading through his body. It was not from the temperature outside.

Lord, if I cannot secure her hand today, I think I will go quite mad. He hoped against hope that she would agree to his proposal this time. And even more so, as he considered his current state from simply thinking of her, he desperately wished she would prefer a short engagement. Very short.

It was these heated thoughts, sometimes almost physically painful, that Darcy was reflecting upon when he was suddenly brought back to the present. His eyes narrowed and all the emotional and physical turmoil that churned within him now was directed to the image of the man he had been waiting for. Wickham had stepped from a carriage and was dressed in all his finery. He supervised his trunks and bags being deposited upon the wharf and acted the part of the true gentleman to all that helped him. With a leisurely step, he strolled around giving a look to the bustle and energy of the river.

Darcy confirmed to those he was in confidence with, giving a slight nod, that this was indeed their man. No one yet made a move, as it had been prearranged for the captain to intervene. They had not long to wait for as Wickham paid the carriage driver, the captain ambled towards him.

"Mr. Wickham, sir, I see you have found us, and in good time," Darcy heard him begin. But no sooner had those words left the captain's mouth than did a half a dozen massive, muscled sailors lunge onto the gentleman and subdue him.

Wickham managed to stay on his feet and, as he was a clever man, made no move to struggle when he realized there was no chance of escape. Immediately he looked around to find the man he was certain must be responsible for his capture. He spotted Mr. Darcy striding towards him with a venomous look upon his face. Wickham glanced to the ground, for he knew what fate would surely befall him; marriage to Miss Lydia Bennet. But he was only partially right, for Darcy had something else in mind for him.

"Wickham, you.....," and Darcy rolled off a particularly foul phrase that he had once heard at a carriage stop. All the sailors smiled approvingly, for this was in fact the kind of language they would have chosen under such circumstances, or most any circumstance.

"Well, Darcy, I see that it is impossible to avoid you when you are determined. So, I await my fate. Take me to the church for I know that is where I am headed."

"Oh no sir, it will not be that easy for you," was his menacing reply to Wickham. He looked to the captain. "Let him go, if you please, for I am going to give this man a chance to flee, and if he can escape me, then he shall have his choice of what he prefers to do, marry his intended or sail to America."

The captain motioned to the sailors to let the man loose, and although reluctant, they let go of their hold upon him. But they still surrounded Wickham, as they really had no intention of letting him go anywhere.

But Wickham made no move to run, for he felt it a trick. "I said "Go' Wickham," Darcy practically snarled at him, "and I meant it. Run, now you rotten piece of work."

When still he would not move, one of the sailors lifted his boot and gave him a swift push on the backside. This sent Wickham straight towards Darcy, which was exactly what Darcy had wanted. With a tight, solid fist and a will like he had never known before, he connected to the scoundrel's chin in one swift blow.

"That was for my sister," he growled as the jolt sent Wickham backwards.

The brawny arms of a couple of sailors caught Wickham but pushed him forward again at just the right moment, for Darcy had pulled his fist back and announced, "And this is for Miss Lydia Bennet," whilst hitting him across his cheek and landing a blow hard on his nose. Wickham could not retain his balance and sprawled onto the wooden planks of the pier. The sailors nodded amongst themselves, approving highly of Darcy's actions.

He rubbed his hand unconsciously as he studied Wickham, who was reduced to a heap upon the ground. Still feeling a seething anger within him, Darcy watched as blood oozed from an open gash across Wickham's cheek and dripped from his nose.

"Now sir, what say you? The church or America?"

"The church, Darcy, the church," Wickham was heard to mumble.

"Excellent. Here man," and Darcy offered his hand and pulled Wickham up and then passed over his handkerchief to him, for Darcy was in fact a gentleman through and through.

The sailors quickly regained their hold upon Wickham and hustled him over to Darcy's carriage with no pretence of gentleness. There, Darcy had arranged for two burly men to accompany them on the ride back to the church, for he and Mr. Gardiner had arranged that the ceremony would take place without any delay. After thanking the captain, Darcy wasted no time in hurrying back across the river.

The gentlemen did not speak during the ride, as each had much to consume his thoughts. Darcy was actually preoccupied with the idea of his sudden turn towards physical violence. He had no remorse; Wickham deserved far worse than he had given him. But he was not a man to resort to this method. Darcy questioned what it was that had pushed him to act as he had.

As the carriage pulled up to Gracechurch Street, Mr. Gardiner and Mr. Bennet came rushing down the steps to meet it. Darcy opened the door and spoke with them only enough to confirm that Wickham was now ready and willing to participate in the wedding ceremony. With that, Darcy glanced to the house, willing Elizabeth's face to appear in one of the windows. But, as they drove off to the church, all he saw was the gentlemen hurrying back inside. Finally, Darcy looked upon Wickham and decided to satisfy his curiosity.

"I know the current state of your finances. I have seen a summation of the debts you left in Meryton. Where did you get the money to finance a trip to America?"

"I got lucky and had a big night at the tables," his eyes twinkled in recollection. "I made the right bets at the right times. It happens," Wickham shrugged. He exhibited no signs of shame for his actions.

At this point Darcy believed the man before him to be completely void of a conscience. He could barely contain his distaste. When he addressed Wickham again it was to deliver an ultimatum. "Let me be very clear with you. I will be watching you. I intend to make it my business to know what you are doing and how you are treating your wife. It would be my greatest pleasure to see you fail in any respect for it would allow me to finish what I started today."

"Indeed Darcy. I do not know what got into you. Lowering yourself to the level of the common man with your actions at the dock. It was, dare I say, rather primal. I wonder, how your upper class acquaintances would view your display?" He was sneering at his former boyhood companion, not at all concerning with common courtesy.

"I believe they would agree that there are times when men must bring themselves down to the level of the scum they are forced to deal with, for, in certain situations, it is the only way to achieve one's goals." Darcy cast him a cold, steady stare and held it until Wickham looked away.

They sat in silence for the rest of the trip.

When the church was in sight, he suggested that Wickham might like to go inside and find a room where he could freshen up in. Darcy lingered only long enough to insure that the escorts he had engaged would remain just outside the church, although at a spot that was not so noticeable. Then he climbed the steps and went to find Wickham. It was not but a few minutes later that the rest of the small wedding party arrived. Their footsteps echoed through the church as they approached the waiting gentlemen.

Darcy turned towards the sound, eager to see Elizabeth. His eyes glanced over each person in the party, and, and as disappointment began to overtake his anticipation, Darcy's appearance grew grim and gloomy.

No one noticed his state though, for all had their attention focused on Wickham. There were audible gasps when they drew close, for his face wore the full burden of the morning's activity. An open cut on his cheek and an obviously swollen and discoloured nose made speaking of the cause of his injuries unnecessary. A few random drops of blood that had landed upon his stark white linen shirt further accented his dishevelled appearance.

Darcy pulled himself out of his sadness enough to alleviate the moment by addressing Lydia. "Miss Bennet, may I say that I have not seen a more beautiful bride. I wish you joy today."

She smiled in thanks to Mr. Darcy and then stared daggers to her husband-to-be. Wickham made a request, "Might I have a moment to speak with Lydia before the ceremony?" When there were no objections, he led her to the far side of the church where a discussion of about five minutes took place. Lydia's shrill voice was unmistakable although what words she chose to impart to her beloved were a mystery to all but her intended.

Darcy lost himself in his thoughts while they waited and dismal they were. He was barely aware when the couple returned to the group and proceeded through a very quick ceremony. He only focused his full attention back onto the events unfolding in the church when Wickham gave his bride his arm to lead her towards the door.

Mr. Bennet turned to Darcy and offered his hand. "Thank you sir. I know not the full extent of you part in all of this, but I am aware that I am greatly indebted to you," and with that he shook Darcy's hand but quickly noticed an acute wince upon his face. Mr. Bennet looked down to see the grazed and bruised knuckles of the gentleman. He released his grasp and apologised. The encounter had not passed Mrs. Gardiner's notice and she too saw the injuries Darcy had acquired.

"Please, will you not come back home with us? I fear you need to have your hand attended to."

"Indeed sir, if you can spare the time I would value the chance to have a few words with you," Mr. Bennet added cryptically. Certainly, the dangling incentive of visiting with the father of the woman he loved was enough to insure there was no chance he would refuse such an offer.

**Alexander Pope, English poet and critic (1688 - 1744), from Essay on Man (ep. IV, l. 193).

Chapter Seventeen

Darcy had held out some slim hope that Elizabeth had chosen to wait at her relatives' home instead of attending the wedding ceremony with the rest of her relations. He knew it was a pitiable position to take, yet until they returned he could still hold some small hope that he might see her. Too soon he had to accept that which was clear; Elizabeth had not travelled to London.

As Mrs. Gardiner sent Mr. Wickham off with a servant to have his face tended to, his new wife was upstairs changing into her travelling clothes. She took it upon herself to see to Mr. Darcy and was very careful to hold his hand quite gently. As she worked, she was thanked for her effort. "Mr. Darcy, you need not thank me. Your benevolence is something that could never be repaid. But rest assured, the heartfelt gratitude we have for your efforts today will never fade." His answer was no more than a modest nod and she ventured a closer look at the gentleman. She judged that he would appreciate what she next said. "Elizabeth was very disappointed that she was unable to say goodbye to you and your sister before she returned to Longbourn. I am afraid it was not possible for her to do so as they left rather suddenly." She lowered her voice as she spoke, "Lydia insisted upon returning home yesterday and Lizzy felt she could not refuse her sister's request." Then she resumed her normal tone, "She very much wanted me to express her appreciation for your kind attention to her while she was ill."

Darcy fidgeted in his seat. He focused on Mrs. Gardiner's ministrations to his hand. There was no desire on his part to draw attention to his role in this affair. But, more than that, merely hearing Elizabeth's name brought his emotions to the surface. A casual observer would not notice the changes that such remarks had upon the gentleman, but Mrs. Gardiner was specifically looking for signs from him.

She saw quite clearly that a softer expression had crossed his face when her niece's name was mentioned. With it also mingled something more. It appeared he was experiencing some discomfort. She could not be sure, perhaps she was being too rough with his hand. Or possibly the absence of my niece is testing the man's disposition today.

He did respond to her mention of Elizabeth, but it was a subdued and careful reply. "My sister was disappointed to hear of..." and here he stumbled over Elizabeth's name, "...Miss Bennet's return home. She has especially enjoyed making her acquaintance and hopes that it may continue."

"I have no doubt that the sentiment is mutual, sir." A daring comment rolled off of Mrs. Gardiner's lips before she let any second thoughts intrude. "Despite the unpleasant business that brought her London, I believe that much good came of her time here, for not only was Elizabeth able to enjoy the company of Miss Darcy, she was able to appreciate the exceptional qualities in her brother." She scrutinized the bandage on his hand one last time.

Just then Mr. Gardiner interrupted them and Mr. Darcy was rescued from trying to form a response to such a statement. The newlyweds were ready to depart; their journey was a long one and Wickham had been made to understand could not be delayed. Their send-off was somewhat restrained. The Gardiners were torn between pitying their niece, who was being led away to a precarious future, and sighing with great relief to at last have their household return to its familiar routine. Mr. Bennet saw his daughter's marriage as the beginning of a new life for her that was sure to be filled with no small amount of discourse and unhappiness. Regardless of the headstrong and impetuous nature of his daughter, he would forever look upon her fate as his failure. Each time Darcy's gaze rested on the newlyweds he pictured Georgiana in Lydia's place. He could only thank providence that he had been able to intervene before she had fallen victim to Wickham.

But, despite what each was thinking about Lydia and her impulsive behaviour, all were of the opinion that marriage to Wickham was a harsh lot in life for the young girl. "Goodbye Mrs. Wickham, I wish you a safe journey north." Mr. Darcy was the first to address Lydia by her new name. As he did, he pressed into her hand a cloth bag, tied closed with a satin cord.

Its heaviness weighed in her hand, and as she lifted it up to examine the gift, coins jingled together inside. Lydia's eyes brightened. "A small gift for the new Mrs. Wickham," he said making reference to the amount Wickham had paid for passage to America. The captain had returned it to Darcy. "This is for you; I would hope that you spend this money only on yourself." A grand smile appeared upon Lydia's face, indicated those were her thoughts exactly. Darcy did not speak to Wickham but farewelled him with a stern look.

Mr. Bennet gave his daughter a final kiss as she climbed into the carriage and, with a last look at the assembled group on the steps of Gracechurch Street, the Wickhams were carried away into the traffic.

Mrs. Gardiner invited Darcy to return inside and join them for tea before his departure. Mr. Bennet looked expectantly for him to precede him inside while Mr. Gardiner simply looked hungry. Once they were settled and served, she took the opportunity to call her husband away on the pretext of some domestic matter. Mr. Gardiner was not of a mind to leave his plate of savouries and cup of tea. After looking to his wife and back to his plate, he quickly gulped down half his cup and popped two delicacies in his mouth before excusing himself.

This left Mr. Bennet and Mr. Darcy to themselves. Darcy had settled in his mind what subject Mr. Bennet would be likely to introduce, and, discovered he was correct when the gentleman spoke. "I fear sir, you have put yourself in a dangerous position today. You might have been in some peril. Am I correct in assuming your injuries are not of a serious nature?"

Gesturing with his hand, he answered with a modest smile. "It is nothing more than some scratching and bruising. I assume that most labourers sustain similar injuries quite regularly and think little of it."

"Please Mr. Darcy, I would appreciate an honest reply. Did Mr. Wickham attempt to evade you? Was a physical confrontation the only means to succeed in having him fulfil his obligation?"

Avoiding an immediate response, Darcy turned away. His pensive demeanour suggested that he wanted to answer carefully. "Perhaps not," Mr. Bennet at last heard him say. In a level voice without emotion, Darcy admitted, "My behaviour this morning is in need of analysis sir. When he was at last before me, I could have easily bundled him into my carriage with the encouragement of a few strong men. He had given up. And yet," Darcy explored his actions once again, "I did not allow it. I drove him to into the position whereby I could justify brutality."

Both men were silent for sometime. Lost in thought, Darcy raked the back of his uninjured hand across his mouth before he uttered his next statement. "But, what is possibly even more worrisome was the satisfaction I received from it. Even now, I feel no remorse. I believe I would do it again." He looked to Mr. Bennet and wondered, "Is this a hatred, pure and wicked, that I have let loose?"

"I have been told you grew up with Mr. Wickham; you were boyhood friends at your family's estate. Your characters have taken vastly different turns in life. Could it be that you feel betrayed by his rejection of what you both were taught to be a moral and upright way of living?" As Darcy examined his injured hand, Mr. Bennet added, "It was once said, hatreds are the cinders of affection."

"To be sure, whatever friendship existed between us has long since vanished. And yet, that is no excuse to take my fist and strike him in the face. Twice." He accented his statement by swinging his bandaged hand just as he had earlier.

"None of us are perfect, sir. And, what would life be like to live it amongst perfection? Somewhat dreary and predictable I would say. Do not criticize yourself too severely. You are human! You feel Mr. Darcy! And, when you acted upon those feelings today, the outburst lead to a passionate display. My advice, if I may offer it, is to learn what you might from this and use the knowledge to continue to live an honourable life." He closed his eyes, trying to recall a favourite passage. When they looked upon Darcy again, they shone in merriment behind his spectacles. "'We are ne'er like angels till our passion dies.'" **

Mr. Bennet watched Darcy digest the meaning of his quote. "But surely, one must be able to control one's passions."

"Ah, sir, now you veer slightly off onto another topic," he noted.

"Passions! What man has not been affected by his passions? And not paid the consequence in one manner or another?" Mr. Bennet paused, only long enough to give Darcy a confidential nod. "We all fall to our passions at one time or another. It is our fate. And sometimes, it is also our pleasure."

Mr. Bennet had led Darcy's thoughts to Elizabeth. As he sat there delving into some very pleasurable passions that had everything to do with his daughter, Darcy was overcome with guilt. He looked up and saw Mr. Bennet studying him.

"Which reminds me," Elizabeth's father continued, "I am meant to pass along regards and inquire after the state of your health on behalf of one of my daughters. Forgive me, for with all that has happened, I quite forgot. I'm afraid my mind is not what it once was," he suggested none too believably.

As if they both didn't know exactly whom they were speaking of, Darcy politely enquired, "Indeed sir, which daughter might that be?"

Mr. Bennet merely smiled before he continued on. "In fact, I have heard a rather astonishing tale about the other night." Darcy sat stark still waiting to see where the man went with his narrative. Parts of this topic were strictly taboo. "It seems that my daughter, and in fact her mother and myself as well, are greatly indebted to you for more of your kindness. I have been informed that you saw to Elizabeth when she fell ill."

"Well, umm,....I personally did not,....that is to say,...I only insured she was looked after with the best possible care.....by my personal physician. You are not indebted to me. I was glad to offer any assistance that I could. I trust Miss Bennet is fully recovered?"

"Oh indeed sir, she is as lively and challenging as she ever was."

"Well, you must thank her for asking after me." After he sat quietly for a moment, Darcy ventured to add, "And please, express my pleasure in hearing she is well." The expression the gentleman wore was priceless. He had the characteristics of an abandoned puppy with his downcast and cheerless face.

It was all Mr. Bennet could do to keep from first, chuckling, and second, suggesting he make a visit to Longbourn. Of course, he did neither. It is up to Mr. Darcy to pursue his future. If he had any particular reason for wanting to go to Longbourn, he would have to initiate it on his own. With that, Mr. Bennet switched the subject, hoping to catch the gentleman off guard. "Sir, you have gone to great lengths to assist with this business. You have given much of your time to the task. I would again like to say that you have my utmost appreciation." Mr. Bennet noticed he still looked ill at ease. This amused him somewhat, for he found this inconsistent with a man of his position.

Darcy did feel uncomfortable. He wanted no recognition for the part he had played. He was grateful that Mr. Bennet seemed unaware of the monetary aspect of it all. That, to his way of thinking, would only make matters worse. "I have done no more or less than anyone else would do in a similar situation. Mr. Bennet, had I not been so concerned with my own position and how it might appear to others....," and here he stopped and began again to avoid any mention of Wickham's dealings with his sister. "I ought to have done the right thing when first I saw Wickham in Meryton, and by this I mean exposing what I knew of his true character, for your daughter might never have been involved with him. The responsibility is mine and I accept it fully." His true belief in this was emphasized with the conviction by which he spoke.

Mr. Bennet thought this way of thinking a bit harsh and continued his observation of gentleman as he posed a question, "There is no other reason sir, for your intervention, other than your perceived responsibility?"

Darcy looked up abruptly. Mr. Bennet was smiling at him with all the appearance of the cat that got the cream. He hastily regained his composure and responded, "Certainly not sir. I was only too glad to be of some help."

But the strangely awkward attitude of Darcy told him something quite different. Answers to some of those nagging questions Mr. Bennet had been discussing with his daughter only this morning were emerging by the young man's responses to his questions.

Darcy took his leave soon after this and Mr. Bennet was left with the company of Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner. Mr. Bennet was not altogether displeased with their chat. He was beginning to wonder of all that he had heard of Mr. Darcy from his time in Hertfordshire, for the description presented to him did not fit the man that had sat before him.

He observed this over another cup of tea. "That was the first opportunity I have had to speak more than a passing word of greeting to the gentleman. I must say I had been prejudiced against the man from remarks made about him. He doesn't seem to be at all what I supposed." He paused and looked directly to the Gardiners. "There is one point however, with which I believe he was not completely honest."

"Pray, what might that be?" Mrs. Gardiner requested. "He would have me believe that his only motivation for supplying his help with Lydia and Wickham was knowledge of Wickham's character and the fact that he withheld the information. He felt the

responsibility." He looked to Edward Gardiner, "Did he tell you this also? Yes? Well, I have the distinct impression that there is some other incentive behind all of this." He looked to them both awaiting their response.

Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner glanced at each other and the back to Mr. Bennet.

"Actually," Mr. Gardiner began, "we have formed the opinion that Mr. Darcy has a very strong attachment to Elizabeth."

"And," Mrs. Gardiner continued, "unless Edward and I are very much mistaken, we believe that Lizzy has come to regard him quite highly as well."

Keenly eying them both, Mr. Bennet blurted out, "Passions!" It was all that he said, but he repeated it several times as he tapped his fingertips together. Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner were at a loss to understand his meaning and he offered no explanation.

Darcy sat in his study with his eyes closed, shoes off, feet up and a broadsheet across his lap. He balanced a large brandy, cupped in his unhurt hand. It was his second of the night, for he had found it difficult to unwind from the day's events. They had been somewhat unprecedented. With his chat over tea, it had left it until too late for him to depart for Pemberley; he had delayed his return until early the next morning.

A hesitant knock on the door told him that Georgiana was there and he immediately brightened.

"Come in, please," he called. His sister entered and settled across from him, sinking into the comfortable leather of a deep sofa. She smiled but did not speak.

Darcy now lightly rubbed his sore hand, bandaged with care by Mrs. Gardiner. His sister's eyes fell upon it and she gave him a questioning look. "I told you I did not wish to talk of it Georgiana," he said gently to her. Then he noticed a resigned kind of sigh escape from her and he realised that he had spent little time with his sister these last weeks. For that he felt at fault. "Would you not reconsider travelling with me tomorrow? I have not had the opportunity to see much of you lately and we might enjoy some time together at Pemberley. I plan to inspect quite a good portion of the property next week. You could ride with me."

She shook her head. "No, thank you." His look dimmed somewhat and she hastily added, "I would dearly love to spend time with you Fitzwilliam, but I do not wish to make such a trip again so soon. You will come back though, won't you, before too long?"

He could not answer that with any certainty. His life was in turmoil and he was determined to sort it out. "I will endeavour to spend time each day writing to you until I might return."

A caller had arrived and as a livered servant appeared in the doorway, bearing a silver tray and a calling card, in charged Charles Bingley before he could be properly announced. His face was beaming and his mood was bright.

"Lord, Darcy! You look like my grandfather propped up there! Hello Georgiana," he said as he went over and gallantly kissed her hand, whereby the girl blushed at the attention. He then stood in the middle of the room and openly surveyed them both. "It seems that I came at just the right moment. The mood in here is dismal. I consider it my duty to liven you up."

"Congratulations Charles, Miss Bennet has told me about your engagement." Darcy had jumped up and quickly extended his hand, forgetting about his injury. "I am very happy for you," at which point Charles grasped his hand and then immediately let it go.

"What in the world has happened?" he queried to his friend looking at his well-bandaged hand. "Do you not know about the dangers involved with placing your hand under moving carriage wheels?"

"You needn't bother to ask him, Mr. Bingley, for he is secretive about it," Georgiana courageously interjected. She gave her brother a look that was meant for him alone. "Perhaps he will enlighten you when I am gone." And she rose to leave but added before she left, "I too would like to congratulate you on your engagement Mr. Bingley." Here she hesitated before adding quickly, "While I have not had the pleasure of making Miss Jane Bennet's acquaintance, I do very much like her sister, Miss Elizabeth." She then smiled at the two gentlemen and left the room.

Darcy had plopped back down into his seat and motioned for Charles to find a spot. "Well, you do surprise me for I had thought you would be too pleasantly occupied in Hertfordshire to come into the City."

"I would not have come if I did not have business to be attended to with some urgency." Charles was still intrigued by Darcy's injury. "But, I would dearly like to know the story behind your hand."

So, the business with Wickham was related to him. Charles had known part of it, of course, but the stratagem from this side of things was definitely more fascinating. He would have found the story about fighting him impossible to believe had he not the evidence here before him. It was most uncharacteristic of Darcy, especially as it seemed to be unprovoked.

Charles always enjoyed a good story and was quite caught up in Darcy's narrative. "Lord, so you punched him twice? Humm, that is amazing. Oh, how I wish I might have seen it." He mulled over a thought or two of the event and then said, "But it is very unlike you, man."

Darcy set down his empty glass and looked to his friend. "I am well aware of that, for it was on my mind almost immediately afterwards. I have tried to put it down to an unusual reaction to an unusual set of circumstances." A recollection made him add, "Passions!"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Perhaps I was slain by my passions," Darcy said almost to himself. He passed his glass over for a refill.

"Are they off north now then?" Charles referred to the newly married couple. He poured generous helpings of Darcy's brandy for them both.

"Yes, they departed almost immediately after the ceremony." Darcy chuckled slightly, "You should have seen Wickham!" He gestured with the injured hand, "Big cut across his face and a huge swollen nose. He was a sight for his own wedding." Darcy's face darkened and he told Charles, "I made it very clear to him that should he step out of line in any way, he could expect to see me again."

"You do mean your fist, don't you?" Charles joked, and then more seriously he said, "Darcy, the man will be my brother-in-law very soon. You must realise that I have a responsibility in all this. More so than you. That is of course, unless there might be some news which you have not told me."

With an eyebrow arched skyward, Darcy looked to his friend without replying.

"Well, you did have an opportunity to see Miss Elizabeth while she was here, didn't you? Georgiana obviously has met her, hasn't she?" Charles questioned him with some impatience. He waited but no response came from his friend. Finally he blurted out, "Speak man or I might punch you myself!"

"Yes, I did have the pleasure of Miss Elizabeth Bennet's company on several occasions." He searched for what he wanted to say. He could tell him about the carriage, the walk in the park, or the time in the Gardiner's study.

"Am I correct in assuming that you are now on better terms?" Charles probed.

"Indeed, we got along rather well, if I do say so," Darcy replied as a smile curved at the edge of his mouth. "Unless I am very much mistaken, her opinion of me has improved of late."

"Very good man," his friend replied. "And? May I be so bold as to...?" Bingley began, but then stopped for he did not want to overstep their friendship. He merely bestowed a look to his friend intimating the gist of his query.

"I know what you mean to ask Charles," Darcy sighed. He flexed his fingers gingerly and pointed to his empty glass. One more might be in order the way this conversation was going.

Charles refilled both glass and sat silently watching his friend, who was obviously struggling with some inner conflict.

After some moments, Darcy said, "We actually got along better than I could have ever imagined. I felt confident enough to put to her another offer of marriage." He stopped then to look at his friend.

Charles had taken on a very anxious expression, for he felt certain that Darcy was not now engaged. He expected to hear the worst.

Darcy watched him squirming, and when he felt his anticipation had reached its height he said, "But she fell asleep in the middle of it and didn't hear me!"

Charles expression didn't change. He still looked anxious. Then he gave Darcy a look of incredulity. Surely I heard wrong.

As a smile began to form and his amusement grew, Darcy was asked, "Am I to believe this? Fitzwilliam Darcy proposes marriage to the beautiful Miss Elizabeth only to have her fall asleep on him?" Laughter was only a moment away now when he said merrily, "Oh, this is fantastic! This is hilarious!" He could not contain himself. "Lord Darcy! Remind me never to ask you for instruction regarding the fairer sex." Peels of laughter came from Charles now at the expense of his friend.

In fact, Darcy knew this is how his friend would respond and he did not really mind. He needed some cheering up with all that had been happening. The mood needed to be lightened and Charles had done that. He even smiled slightly at the idea of it all. It was impossible for Charles to take a drink of his brandy; he simply could not manage it, as he was unable to contain his laughter.

Finally, he asked Darcy to enlighten him as to how she could have possibly fallen asleep. Thus, the story of Elizabeth's illness was related. Charles forced himself to calm down and when he was finally able to speak he demanded a promise. "Give me your word Darcy!"

"And what might you like me to guarantee?"

"Promise me that you will marry Miss Elizabeth, for this story is so priceless that I must be able to retell it for many years to come." And with that he began laughing all over again.

I am working on it Charles, thought Darcy. With a passion.

** Thomas Dekker, The Honest Whore (pt. II, act I, sc. 2)

Chapter Eighteen

As a rule, this time of year brought days that were transitional, wavering between the loftiness of high summer and brisk reminders of an unavoidable retreat into autumn. In Hertfordshire, or more particularly, at Longbourn, one glorious day had followed another. Each had been brimming bright and fair, ideal for long walks and time out of doors without hinting of the cooler days to come.

Always one to appreciate the splendour of nature, Elizabeth did her best to enjoy these golden days. There had been excursions to Meryton with her sisters and solitary rambles through the countryside. But, despite the grand display of sunshine that reappeared each morning, there was an element missing for her. She was unable to fully enjoy them, for she was reminded almost every minute of a void that could only be filled by the presence of one special person. Fitzwilliam. With no certainty of when she might again see him, life was bittersweet and the sting of their separation dulled the thrill of remembering their time together in London.

Mr. Bennet had remained silent about his short trip to the City. No amount of effort, devious or direct, could extract intelligence regarding Darcy. Elizabeth was under the impression that her father secretly enjoyed her attempts to obtain information from him. While she left in frustration after each effort, he appeared spirited and jovial.

Elizabeth knew that Jane too, was pining for Mr. Bingley to some extent, although she would be seeing him in London in a few days time. Long talks with her about the wedding and all that had to be planned was the only thing that let Elizabeth's thoughts wander to pleasant diversion.

So it was one afternoon that the sisters were up in Jane's room thus engaged in discussing yet again their different ideas for Jane's wedding dress. Elizabeth was of a mind that it should be trimmed in fine lace while Jane had a preference for a skilfully embroidered bodice. Both agreed that simplicity in design was paramount, and to that end they knew that there could be some disharmony with their mother.

"Lizzy, if only you were able to go with us!" Jane began. "Not only could you help me to stand up for my ideas about the wedding, but surely you would see Mr. Darcy if you were in London."

Elizabeth was stretched across Jane's bed and she was fiddling with fringe of her sister's favourite coverlet. She chose her words very deliberately. "Perhaps Jane, the regard that I witnessed in Mr. Darcy was no more than what my mind invented. Perhaps my head was led by my heart." She could not look up at her sister for she was afraid to see agreement upon her face. Elizabeth did pose a pivotal question. "Do you not think, that if he felt as I perceived, we might have welcomed him to Longbourn by now?"

Jane did not hesitate with her reply. "Lizzy, there could be no poorer person to ask that of than me! Look at Mr. Bingley and all I thought throughout the winter and spring! I was as wrong as I could possibly have been."

"But Jane, as you are well aware, it was not as simple as that!" In fact Elizabeth knew much more about this particular matter than Jane did.

"In your situation with Mr. Darcy though, my opinions are based solely on what I have learned from you. To that end, the gentleman showed you a regard that I can only conclude is much more than casual friendship." In her thoughtful approach, Jane did add what she hoped would be some comfort to her dear sister. "Lizzy, remember, Mr. Darcy is a man with many responsibilities. You told me yourself how you came to truly understand that when you observed him at his desk. Remember, it has only been a week. That is not so very long. Do not yet despair."

Elizabeth let out a tortured sigh. "Well, Jane...," she started to answer, but was cut off with a quick knock upon the door before Mrs. Bennet entered.

"Jane, dear, you have a letter. The writing is difficult to make out. Pray, open it now!"

A glance at the sealing wax alerted Jane to the sender. She carefully unfolded the note. It was short and she quickly scanned the page.

"It is from Charles," she announced as she moved across the lines. "His writing is most careless. I believe he says..." but before she could reveal the contents Mrs. Bennet snatched the page from Jane's hand and read it for herself. "Well," she looked to her second daughter, "this is interesting. It appears that he has written to include Lizzy in his invitation to stay at his house in London. His penmanship is quite appalling. It definitely says 'your sister' and since it could not be "Mary' or "Kitty' it must be Lizzy." She then continued without sincere thought, "Of course Lizzy cannot go. She will be needed here with Kitty and Mary while we are away."

Jane and Elizabeth both looked crestfallen.

Jane took a hint and ventured, "Oh, Mama, I am sure that all will be well here if Lizzy were to come with us. I would very much like it. Papa could not object, do you think?"

"Oh, I am sure your father would not give his consent. After all, Lizzy has just returned from the City. In any case, there is no real reason that she need join us."

No more was said to her daughters and Mrs. Bennet left the room with Mr. Bingley's correspondence. They heard her voice ring out in the hallway when the sound of Hill's boots came up the stairs; she had some questions about the laundry. The sisters did not need to voice their opinions; they were both of one mind and confirmed it with an exchange of piqued looks. Still, when Elizabeth spoke, she could not avoid a shrewd observation. "I believe that Mama still holds some resentment towards me in refusing Mr. Collins. It can emerge at the most unfortunate times."

"Lizzy, let us go and speak to Papa, for I am sure he could have no objection to such a plan."

"I would not wish to look to be disregarding Mama's wishes, Jane, for that could not be to my advantage." "Then I will ask, for she can find no reason to fault me these days with my engagement to Mr. Bingley so fresh on her mind. Come with me though, please."

They searched for Mr. Bennet and located him overseeing the removal of a dead willow in the far end of the established gardens. Jane waited patiently by his side while the labourers manoeuvred to remove the stump. "Papa," she was finally able to address him when his attention was upon her, "Mr. Bingley has written today to invite Lizzy to join us in London." She glanced back at Elizabeth. "Mama did not think you would allow it. Would you mind terribly if she went with us?" Jane's faced beamed up at her father.

Elizabeth wished most fervently to be invisible at this moment as her father studied her over the rim of his glasses for some time. Finally he asked, "Lizzy, what would you prefer? To stay at home with an old man and two silly girls or to spend time in the City shopping and organizing a wedding?" She noticed that his eyes were twinkling merrily as he posed his question. "I would not wish to leave Longbourn if you felt I was needed here, sir."

"Ah, Lizzy, your good sense will always be needed here, but the time will come when I have no choice but to watch it go, along with you. Pray, go to London and enjoy yourself." Although Elizabeth said nothing, the look upon her face when he announced his approval was more than enough to satisfy Mr. Bennet. To Jane he said, "Tell your mother you have my consent for Lizzy to join you." With his hands clasped behind his back he turned his attention once again to watch developments with the stump. The sisters linked arms and made to leave. Over his shoulder, Mr. Bennet called, "And, Lizzy!" "Yes Papa," Jane and Elizabeth both stopped. "When you see Mr. Darcy, kindly give him my regards!"

Upon hearing this remark Elizabeth replied red faced, "Certainly Papa," and she escaped with Jane up to the house while her heart began to skip every other beat in anticipation of seeing Fitzwilliam.

The fine weather of late summer had reached across to also engulf the north of England and Pemberley was basking in the delights of the season as well. Darcy had spent several full days actively overseeing the many facets of his estate, for he was an owner who was most assuredly occupied in all that might occur upon his property. While it was impossible for him to make himself available for each and every decision that might be made at Pemberley, Darcy did not desire to leave details of a certain importance to others. This afternoon he was riding across the most southern part of the property along with his manager. There were some tenants who wished to extend the land they were working. The manager had informally approved it, but Darcy was concerned that they would encroach upon some delicate woods that especially interested him. He would walk the new division himself, with prudent attention to the new section to be laid out, and assure that all were in agreement over the boundaries.

The midday temperature had increased; it was unusually oppressive for the season. Mr. Darcy stopped his horse under the shade of some large oak trees and dismounted. He motioned for the manager to continue on and waved in acknowledgement that he would follow momentarily. His mind was brimming with many details of his estate. He had been inundated upon his return from London and in this week it seemed he had seen to business enough for a month. And still, there was a month's more waiting for his attention.

From this vantage, an expansive view of Pemberley was laid out before him. Certainly not all of the property was visible; it stretched too many miles to the north. Darcy was surveying a gently sloping valley dotted with groves of trees that rose up onto a level plain where, beyond lay the house and further extensive woods. He knew every inch of his land, from one end to the other, and he felt an intense passion for it.

He wanted Elizabeth to know it too, for he judged her to be a woman who would grow to feel about it as he did. It is yet another reason why she belongs here with me. His desire for an agreement once again threatened to overtake his thoughts. With a heavy sigh, he again focused his mind upon his personal life. He could see himself able to travel next week if he put in long days until then. With the two days it took to reach Meryton he could place himself there at the end of the week. He silently agreed to work towards just that and with any luck and a generous amount of good fortune he would be with Elizabeth by the following Friday.

Perhaps I will just steal her away and we might hide from the world for Saturday, Sunday and every day from then onwards. At this prospect, Darcy smiled a most engaging smile to his horse, who had no appreciation for his owner's handsome dimples. Before he remounted and rode on to meet his manager and the tenants, he unconsciously turned and looked off into the distance, in the direction where he believed Greta Green to be.

Mrs. Bennet had been flitting around the house for two days in a high state of nervousness over the preparations for London. She fretted about the day dresses and the evening dresses and the amount of trunks with which to bring items for the wedding home in. She worried about room in the carriage and how Mr. Bingley's sisters would take to them being there for two weeks. After reassuring her over each distressful thought, all in her family had tried to cease listening any further to her from the first day. Avoidance was the best course of action and all practiced it as best they could. It was not, therefore, without some relief that Mr. Bennet stood back from the carriage and waved a cheerful goodbye to all three as they began their trip to the City.

Over breakfast that same morning Caroline Bingley was in a foul mood. To her sister she indicated her full displeasure with a day that had only just begun. Serious discussions had already taken place between the women about the guests who would soon begin descending upon the household. They could not understand what they might have done to now be paying the price of gaining such ghastly in laws. Both agreed it was not to be borne and that they were very much put out by their brother. They were displeased to the highest degree.

So it was when the party from Longbourn arrived Jane's zealous fiancé and his dour sister greeted them. Mr. Bingley was open and welcoming with an easy manner even to Mrs. Bennet, who exclaimed about each room she was led through. Miss Bingley, who was on her own owing to her sister's departure, said very little, but there was no room for misunderstanding her feelings.

When Mrs. Bennet asked to rest before dinner, Miss Bingley escorted the ladies upstairs to their rooms. She was quick to say, "Now, Mrs. Bennet, if there is anything you need to not hesitate to ask. My brother and I always take great care that our guests enjoy their stay while they are in our home." Then she turned to Jane and Elizabeth and continued down the hall to them, "And of course Miss Bennet and Miss Eliza that extends to you also. We want you to feel most welcome during your visit." And she gave them a squinty smile that seemed most artificial.

Elizabeth joined Jane in her room after Miss Bingley had returned downstairs. Elizabeth felt like bursting with laughter at Miss Bingley's insincerity but she controlled her emotions for Jane's sake until she saw Jane smile and then they both enjoyed a good giggling session. It helped to ease the discomfort that Jane felt coming into a house with Caroline Bingley in charge. "It seems that Miss Bingley would not have us forget that we are indeed guests here," Elizabeth noted. "It is quite likely that she is worried what will become of her once you and Mr. Bingley are married."

Jane readily admitted that she had some uncertainties about taking her place as mistress of the house. She had anticipated that Miss Bingley might be reluctant to give up her position. Confirmation of the apparent insecurity she felt with her situation did nothing to boost Jane's confidence; she grew wary of what a woman like Caroline Bingley might do when she alleged to be under some sort of attack.

Elizabeth tried to put her mind at ease with the most obvious fact that Mr. Bingley would no doubt take his sister to task if it were required. "Jane, Mr. Bingley holds you in the highest regard. You will be his wife and as such, you will be the mistress of all this and Netherfield. He would never allow you to be treated unfairly, especially by Miss Bingley. Do not worry." Then as an afterthought she added, "And Jane, do not ever let her overstep her position once you are married. I worry you will be too nice if the situation arises."

It was at tea the next afternoon that Miss Bingley mentioned calling upon Georgiana Darcy that very day. "Poor girl, she has only Miss Annesley to keep her company these days with Mr. Darcy's return to Pemberley." Elizabeth received her comments with some great disappointment, for there had been nothing spoken of the gentleman during their visit prior to this. But she did her best to appear undeterred while in the company of so many. It was not without much effort that she remained poised and agreeable for the remainder of the evening. That night when she was alone, she mourned Darcy's return to Derbyshire and her very bad luck. She also began to doubt again the feelings she thought he held for her. Is Fitzwilliam interested in pursuing a relationship with me? Why has he returned to Pemberley?

The days that followed found Mrs. Bennet and her daughters spending a tremendous amount of time out and about in the City, searching the warehouses and shops along the best streets of London. Mr. Bingley's carriage was at their disposal, much to Miss Bingley's annoyance. They were shopping for Jane's wedding dress, of course, but there was also her trousseau to purchase. Mr. Bennet was very generous with what Jane would be allowed to spend; there was also the pin money that was now hers from her future husband. Bingley had already discussed it with Mr. Bennet and Jane, although the future Mrs. Bingley preferred to practice prudence with this allowance. It was proving to be a formidable task; Mrs. Bennet was determined that she should be well outfitted as Mrs. Charles Bingley and even Elizabeth thought that Jane might expand her wardrobe. She kept making the point of how different Jane's lifestyle was to be from that in Meryton.

In the end she did agree to some extra purchases and no one was more delighted in it than Charles Bingley himself. It was one afternoon several days into their stay that Jane had a visit from the housekeeper Mrs. Tate. She and Elizabeth had been admiring some of the more delicate items that had been purchased that day. Elizabeth was particularly taken with one ivory silk and lace piece that she thought exquisite. As she held it up and studied her reflection in a mirror, there was a knock upon the door.

"Come in," Jane called as she motioned to her to put down the item in her hands.

Mrs. Tate's smile was open and friendly. "Pardon me Miss Bennet. Am I disturbing you?"

"Not at all," Jane replied. She tucked some of the new garments discreetly under their wrappings while Elizabeth put the one she was holding behind her back. "What might I do for you, Mrs. Tate?"

"Mr. Bingley suggested that during your stay I might give you a tour and familiarize you with the house and certain aspects of running the household. I have not yet spoken to you about it."

Jane's eyes widened as she looked to her sister. Elizabeth gave her a bright smile of encouragement.

"Well, certainly Mrs. Tate. Had you a specific time in mind?"

"Oh no ma'am. Whenever it might suit you."

"Well, I am able to do it now," Jane said as she tried to control the excitement she felt. "Would it disrupt your duties?" "Certainly not. Now would be fine ma'am."

She smiled again. "Since we are already upstairs we might as well start from the top and work our way down." With that she left the room and Jane mouthed to Elizabeth,

"Come on!' and waved her hand for her to follow. Elizabeth in turn mouthed back, "No, you go!' whereby Jane grabbed her wrist and dragged her along through the doorway as she dropped Jane's new lingerie on a chair.

Both quickly recovered to smile sweetly to Mrs. Tate. She then led them to the end of the hallway and up a set of stairs that was narrower than those from the ground floor. They found themselves at the top floor of the three-story townhouse, or the second floor. It was not as elaborately decorated as the two floors below. Much of it was used for staff quarters and Jane was shown the staircase that the staff used to gain access to every floor in the house. The other rooms on this level included several that were used for storage and one at the farthest end of the hall, accessible from a private staircase in the master suites below, that had once been the sunroom Mr. Bingley's mother had especially enjoyed.

They descended back down to the first floor and were shown many bedchambers, and the children's nurseries and playrooms from years past, when they finally reached the master suites. Mrs. Tate swung open the double doors and they entered into a vast room that had sweeping views across the City and the park, exactly like the sunroom one floor above. The most prominent feature within the main room was a gigantic four-poster bed that caught the eyes of both sisters immediately. Closer to them was a grouping of over stuffed chairs and sofas arranged around a fireplace. There was a discreet doorway along this wall that, when Mrs. Tate acknowledged led to 'the Master's rooms', Jane squeezed her sister's hand. Along the opposite wall was another doorway that Mrs. Tate had opened which was another huge room, void of furnishing. This, the sisters were told, was to be Jane's dressing room.

Then Mrs. Tate surprised them both when she said, "Mr. Bingley especially wanted me to show you these rooms. He was very specific in his instructions ma'am. He wanted you to have a very good look over them and then he wanted you to order all new wallpaper, linens, and fabrics for the furniture and the draperies. For the sunroom too," she added as they all glanced over to the ornate spiral staircase in the corner of the dressing room. "He said that it was to be left up to you what was chosen. He also wanted you to pick whatever you might like to use in your dressing room. My instructions are to pack away all of these old things and send them upstairs." She indicated to the main room and looked expectantly to Jane.

"But Mrs. Tate, this room is very nice as it is. Are you certain these were Mr. Bingley's instructions?"

"Oh, yes indeed. You see ma'am, this room has not been used since Mrs. Bingley, that is, Mr. Bingley's mother, was alive. That has been a good many years now. No, Mr. Bingley was most precise in his instructions." She paused and then suggested, "Perhaps you would like to return here when we are done and have a good look around?'

"Yes, Mrs. Tate," Jane answered, "I think that is a very good suggestion."

The tour then went to the ground floor where they passed many of the finely decorated rooms they had already seen during their stay, although they did peek into the ballroom for the first time, where they were treated to the wondrous sight of the afternoon sun sparkling on the crystal chandeliers and sending flecks of lights scattering across the parquet floor. Then they were led into the kitchen, for although it was rare that the owners would ever venture back into this section of the house, it would do the new mistress well to at least know its location. From there, Mrs. Tate lead them through the maze of rooms used by the staff and served every capacity necessary to run the household efficiently. They stopped, at last, in her office and while tea was brought in, she began to go into some very specific details about the household routines.

Just as she had reached the weekly calendar for baking, Caroline Bingley appeared in the doorway. "Why, Mrs. Tate, whatever is going on here?" She looked to Jane and Elizabeth with some amount of disapproval. "May I ask why you are in this part of the house? It is really not for guests," she lectured.

Before Mrs. Tate could be blamed, Jane answered simply, "Mr. Bingley asked Mrs. Tate to give me a tour of the house and to acquaint me with its' routines. We have now reached her office."

"The running of this household is not any of...," but then she stopped for she had spoken before she thought. "I see. That is most thoughtful of Charles," she said flatly and then looked to Mrs. Tate. "Please Mrs. Tate. Do not give Miss Bennet too much to remember at one time. She comes from a very small household and will surely be overwhelmed with the details our way of living." And then she turned and left the kitchen without the courtesy of a goodbye.

Mrs. Tate looked to Jane with some amount of confusion. Jane calmly said, "Pray continue Mrs. Tate and when we are done you must give me some suggestions where I might begin to shop for the master suite."

When the sisters were returning upstairs, Elizabeth made a point of stressing her earlier comments. "One hint of weakness in you and she will take control. Remember that, Jane."

Darcy had thought this day would never arrive. As he slowed his horse he could just make out Netherfield across the pastureland. It looked as it did a year ago, when he and Charles had first seen it, riding along this very spot. How much had changed for both of them since that day. Who would have believed the events that have unfolded all from Charles taking this country house? Darcy shook his head when he thought of fate and how it had played such a large part in his life. He was anxious to call in to Longbourn. But, he needed to first go to Meryton and take a room at the local inn, as there was no one in residence at Netherfield. However, the pull of Longbourn was too great for the impatient man and he decided to stop there immediately. As he rode up to the house, he saw one of Elizabeth's sisters spot him and run around to the garden. He assumed that Elizabeth would appear momentarily, but to his surprise it was Mr. Bennet who came round the side of the house and approached him in greeting.

"Mr. Darcy, my word, what a surprise it is to see you here." Mr. Bennet was very diverted to see the gentleman for he felt sure there was a purpose to his visit. His day had just taken a most welcome turn. It was all he could do to keep from rubbing his hands in glee. "Pray, come inside a have some refreshment sir, for you look to have been travelling a good distance."

"Thank you Mr. Bennet," he replied looking around for signs of other Bennet daughters. The house was especially quiet and Mr. Bennet led him into an empty sitting room. He invited Darcy to sit and rang for tea. Then he gave the gentleman his full attention.

"So, sir you have just arrived then?"

"Yes indeed. I thought to stop in at Longbourn before I went into Meryton."

"Oh?"

"Yes, there is no one at Netherfield and I will be staying at the local inn while I am here."

Mr. Bennet was enjoying this greatly for he could see Mr. Darcy was stealing glances around to the doorways, hoping to see one daughter in particular at any moment. "And sir, is it business or pleasure that brings you to Hertfordshire?" he asked unnecessarily.

Darcy did not answer immediately. He looked down and then rubbed a hand across his mouth, a gesture that Mr. Bennet recognized as one of some hesitation. When he met Mr. Bennet's gaze, there was some uncertainty in his eyes. Not having intended to put the gentleman in so much difficulty, Mr. Bennet volunteered, "Mr. Darcy, sir, I may be somewhat presumptuous in what I am about to say. Please feel free to soundly upbraid if that is the case. But I would venture to guess that you have come to call on Elizabeth. Am I correct?"

Mr. Darcy looked almost relieved at the discovery and acknowledged,

"Indeed, I have come in hopes of seeing Miss Elizabeth." He again took up his vigil of searching the entrances.

"I am in the most unenviable position then sir, for it is left to me to tell you of her trip to London."

To say the gentleman was disappointed when made aware of the circumstances of her absence did not do justice to his reaction. He was depleted nearly to the point of abject despair. Looking upon Darcy at that moment, Mr. Bennet was stirred to recall some feelings from long ago that he had all but forgotten. He made the gentleman a suggestion that succeeded raising his emotional state to mere bleakness.

"Sir, I would be most honoured if you would stay here at Longbourn for I see no reason to deprive myself of your company. Pray, if you would agree, we might enjoy a hearty meal and a good chat afterwards."

Darcy could see no reason to refuse and indeed began to think that perhaps there were some advantages to a quiet evening with Mr. Bennet.

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