Friday, March 10, 2006

The Rich Are Always Respectable, Part III

Prologue

When did it begin?

When Bingley confessed, he would never have dared approach Jane again, had Darcy not encouraged (prodded) him? Jane wonderingly said, “I didn’t even think he liked me.”

Or the day Elizabeth spoke of gratitude and indebtedness, and he turned pale and looked away? It took him three times before he managed a grave acceptance of her thanks and dismissal of the debt.

The hours they spent chaperoning, free from the suspicions of the neighbourhood? Conversation had been awkward, to be sure, until — strangely — the Collinses arrived. Mr Collins’ suffering at the loss of proximity to the Fitzwilliam bloodline, so ably represented in the august form of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, was incalculably great, as was the delight which set him aflutter the instant he caught sight of the tall, upright figure so characteristic of that family.

Mr Collins began blathering at Darcy, whose expression within a few minutes altered from reserve, to contempt, then annoyance, and finally only boredom. Lady Catherine was officious and overbearing, to be sure, but at least she was not vulgar — nothing at all to the combined forces of Mrs Bennet and Mr Collins. Even Elizabeth’s joy for Jane could not fully counteract the waves of humiliation as she returned to the parlour after twenty minutes with her father, to find Mr Collins still talking away. It was almost painful — she could see the slight, proud, arch of his brows, the barely veiled disdain, and she knew him well enough to see what it meant; and then he glanced up, at her, and it melted away as his lips curved in a smile of sudden sharp sweetness, which she returned in full measure. He returned to Mr Collins, listening rather more tolerantly; she poured tea with slightly trembling hands — no-one noticed the interchange, nor paid either the smallest amount of attention.

After that, she could not keep from talking, when they were alone; and, thanks to Bingley and Jane, they were thrown together often. He was always quiet in company, but she drew him out easily enough as they walked through the park with no company but Jane and Bingley.

“I am terribly sorry about Mr Collins.”

“It is quite all right.”

“No, he is really a dreadful man.”

“He is certainly a very enthusiastic person.”

“He is rather more enthusiastic about Lady Catherine than his parishioners,” she said, sharply, then caught herself and prepared to retract the manner if not the sentiment; but he laughed, for the first time in her memory, then stopped, looking startled, and she determined to continue as she had begun.

“There is no doubting his gratitude to my aunt,” said Darcy, then sighed. “Bingley!”

“Jane!”

Their charges separated with penitent expressions and Elizabeth shook her head. “I would never have thought it of Jane, she is so saintly.”

“Bingley is not exactly discouraging her,” he remarked, as the man in question briefly pressed his lips against his fiancée’s cheek. Darcy opened his mouth, then shut it again with a faint smile. When each slipped an arm around the other’s waist, however, both chaperones exclaimed,

“Jane!”

“Bingley!”

And so they talked, speech broken only by rebukes to the engaged couple. At first, Mr Collins supplied most of the conversation, followed by reflections on Mrs Collins’ situation, among various other civilities. At first she was not certain whether Darcy’s quiet, oblique replies constituted disapproval of her own frankness, but quickly understood otherwise. His reserve did not permit him to speak as freely as she did; everything with him, apparel, humour, conversation, was understated. As she thought of their past conversations, she realized that he had always been circumspect in this manner, never quite saying exactly what he meant but fully expecting to be understood. Only in his letter had he been truly forthright.

With conversation came ease, and with ease friendship, but their peculiar relationship, if indeed relationship it could be called, did not ripen any further. Both veered away from the topic of their own feelings, Elizabeth not daring to lay any claim to his affections, after everything that had happened, and certainly not daring to express, or even suggest, her own. After all, what if he no longer cared? How humiliating it would be, for them both. Darcy’s native reticence was explanation enough for him, if he even felt anything more than friendship and perhaps a slight partiality. It was afterwards that she remembered Charlotte’s words from the year before, disregarded at the time — there are very few of us who have heart enough to be really in love without encouragement.

Yet that was not when it began. Even then, she might have had happiness, if she had dared reach out and grasp it. It was later.

They, Bingley, Darcy, and the Bennets, had gone to London for Jane’s trousseau and some business regarding the settlements; the Gardiners were to return with them. She was enjoying the time well enough, although admittedly preoccupied. It was five days into their visit that a servant in the Darcy livery arrived to give Bingley a note. She was curious, far more than anyone else, as he opened it. The expression on his face was one of the most peculiar she had ever seen. First, it went blank, then his jaw dropped open, and his eyes widened. After a moment he shook his head, brows furrowing, and re-read the short message, as if he could not believe his eyes. She felt a little cold.

“I hope nothing is wrong?” Jane asked gently, and Bingley came to with a start.

“No, nothing — at least — ” he gave the note a dubious look. “It’s just — Darcy is married.”

Catherine and Mrs Bennet gasped as one. “He eloped?” Mrs Bennet cried, with a distinctly malicious gleam in her eyes. Bingley scowled. This was astonishing enough to silence most of those present.

“No, of course not.” He frowned. “He was married in town, with a bishop and special license, and, and — all of that.”

Of course. Elizabeth’s mind spun a bit — she could scarcely conceive of it. The faint chill now encompassed her entire body, as she struggled to look indifferent. That evening, she lay awake, as she had so many times over the last year. He had not been engaged, she was certain. After all, he had proposed to her, not so very long ago. No, it was not that. Nor was he at all impulsive or whimsical. She struggled to consider the matter rationally, but came to no conclusion. There was no answer for it.


Elizabeth had never thought it would be such a relief to cry, not quiet picturesque tears, but broken, anguished sobs that tore out of her as she clung to her aunt, allowing herself to be held and comforted and pitied for the first time since she was very small. For the week since Bingley’s announcement, she had been frozen in place, unable to be properly happy but certainly incapable of giving into her feelings, for she would not allow her selfish grief to intrude on Jane’s joy now. Mrs Gardiner, however, understood, and her sympathy was enough to send her over the edge, crying into the larger woman’s shoulder for what seemed like hours.

“Lizzy, my dear Lizzy,” Mrs Gardiner said gently. “I am so sorry.”

“I have no right to be disappointed,” Elizabeth confessed. Ever since Pemberley, she had longed to confide in her aunt, but given the unsettled state of her own feelings, had not dared.

“Was there no understanding at all between you?” Mrs Gardiner asked. Elizabeth shook her head.

“No, not at all. At least — I cannot say everything, but in April, he — I know he loved me in April. I did not like him then; we quarreled. At Pemberley, I was so surprised — there was no reason for him to be — kind. I had never been kind to him. Yet he never said anything. He doesn’t, you know.”

Mrs Gardiner’s expression was most unlike herself, indecisive, uncertain. Then she gently pushed a light curl off her niece’s cheek and said, “Lizzy, I must tell you something. Mr Gardiner and Mr Darcy became — friends, over that dreadful business with Lydia. Your uncle asked his advice on a matter of business, and invited him by to discuss it. I was not certain he would, but he did. And their -- our -- friendship has progressed from there, and I expect it will continue to do so. The children are very fond of him.” She inhaled deeply. “He came here, after his — marriage.”

Elizabeth stopped, looked up. “With her?”

“Yes, with her.”

She hesitated, then indulged her morbid curiosity. “What is she like?” Somehow, she had envisioned a pale, sickly creature like Miss de Bourgh, or a handsome, spiteful one like Miss Bingley. At once she wanted him to be with someone who would make him miserable -- how dare he be happy, without her, when she was not? -- and yet she wished him every happiness the world could afford. She could understand, it was not him — she had no resentful feelings for him, for after her cruel refusal in April, what right did she have? If he was not previously engaged, however — and it seemed impossible that he could have been — she knew perfectly well who to blame. There was no picture, or name, to attach to the unknown woman she could only call ‘her,’ but she was quite certain the whole affair had come about because of her.

“Pleasant,” Mrs Gardiner replied bluntly, after a pause. “She was a very pleasant sort of young woman. Handsome, agreeable, sensible. It would have been easier if I could dislike her.”

“The perfect wife, I suppose.” She remembered how lightly and easily she had dismissed Mary King, how she had declared that if she had actually been in love, she would have detested the other girl and wished all manner of evil on her. It was all a little silly, how even her most flippant remarks came back to haunt her.

“The perfect wife for a good many men, yes. I do not think for him.”

Clearly she was attempting to soothe her. Elizabeth laughed a little shrilly. “Does he love her very much, then?”

Mrs Gardiner considered. “No. Not in the manner that you mean.” She looked a little distant. “He loves her, I suppose — as a child might love a bird he had saved from the very jaws of a trap, perhaps.” Elizabeth glanced at her in bewilderment, then repeated,

“Saved? What do you mean?”

Mrs Gardiner sighed. “Lizzy, I do not have leave to speak of the matter, and doubtless it must seem utterly inexplicable to you. All I can say, now, is that a man like Mr Darcy, a man of honour and integrity and loyalty, could not have done anything but what he did.”

She thought of Lydia and Georgiana, of the debts he had discharged, Mrs Reynolds’ commendation and the good he did among the poor. And even Bingley, for if he had been right about Jane, Darcy would have saved his friend from a life of misery and regret. An understanding of this strange, austere man she loved flashed into her mind — she felt as if, for all her affection and admiration, she had been fumbling about blindly, as if he were three or four different people — and then all the disparate parts assembled themselves together into a single coherent picture, and she could see with perfect clarity.

“He saved her,” she said, looking down at her clenched fingers; “he was protecting her, wasn’t he? He did not want to love her, he wanted to save her.”

Mrs Gardiner wiped the tears off her cheeks. “My dear Lizzy,” she said, “you have learnt, I hope, that there are differences in temper and disposition. Surely you know that there are differences in affection as well? You do not love Jane as you love Lydia, or your father, or Edward, or Mr Darcy. No, he does not love her as a man loves a woman — not as he loves you — but he cares for her, in his way.”

“They shall be in Hertfordshire, for the wedding,” Elizabeth said, catching her breath. “I suppose I shall see her then.”

“Yes.” Mrs Gardiner touched her cheek. “I am so sorry, Lizzy. But perhaps all will turn out well, someday.”

Elizabeth gave her a frankly incredulous look. “Perhaps.” If she had encouraged him, she wondered, would he have proposed long ago? If she had shown even a fraction of the affection she felt? Could this all have been avoided? And she wondered, although she would not force Mrs Gardiner’s confidence, what had the other woman done? It must have been very bad. And what was she to Mr Darcy, that he felt an obligation to her?

---

Chapter One

The weeks turned into months, summer into autumn, and, slowly, Elizabeth recovered. The doctor was an excellent one, although his abrasive manner did little to endear him to his patient, or indeed, anyone but Jane. Even worse was the condition of her throat; after weeks of coughing, it was so raw that she could scarcely speak in anything above a whisper. Jane, as saintly as ever, spent more time than she could spare at Elizabeth’s bedside, leaving the placation of Mrs Bennet and, when present, Lady Elliot, to her husband. The children were delighted to have Aunt Lizzy with them, even two-year-old Bennet who could barely say “Nant Lizbet,” although Jane shooed them away the instant she perceived any sign of weariness in her sister.

One morning in October, not long after the early snow had first fallen, Elizabeth -- inwardly railing against her enforced imprisonment -- found Jane reading her correspondence, and wrapping her shawl around herself, cheerfully greeted her.

“Oh, good morning,” Jane said, smiling. “How are you feeling, Lizzy?”

She had grown more tired of that particular phrase than she would ever say. “Very well, thank you. Are you very busy?” No one else, except possibly (but not probably) Bingley, could read Jane’s expressions as well as she, and the small crease between her brows spoke of considerable vexation on her sister’s part.

“No, no, I am only a little -- undecided.” She bit her lip, frowning at the letter in her hand -- a single sheet of paper, covered with a close, neat hand.

“May I help you decide, then? You know, Jane, that I have never have any difficulty with that.” Jane smiled a little uncertainly.

Elizabeth looked through the books covering the shelves. Bingley’s collection was far more extensive than she recalled, although certainly still diminutive. Neither he nor his wife were particularly scholarly, so there was little to reason to acquire books except for the sake of posterity -- or appearances, were they more akin to his sister.

“I -- I do not know, Lizzy. You see, it -- at least partially -- in a way -- concerns you.” Jane chewed on her lip, and Elizabeth raised her brow.

“It concerns me? Well, then, you should certainly speak of it to me.” She settled down and looked at her sister expectantly.

“It is from Mr Darcy, about Lydia,” Jane said hurriedly. Elizabeth's eyes widened, and she plucked at the fringe of her shawl a little.

“Mr Darcy is writing to you, Jane?”

“No, no, to Bingley, but -- well, it is really to me -- I mean, not addressed, but -- oh!” She stamped her foot, and Elizabeth fought back the instinctive smile.

“Jane, what has Lydia done?”

“Oh, she took three of her children and left Mr Wickham, when you first took ill. I feel responsible, you see, because I was the one who urged Mr Darcy to go back to Pemberley, and if he had not, I am sure she would have eventually returned.”

Elizabeth put one hand against her head, struggling to make sense of this all. “Jane -- Mr Darcy was here? When I was ill?”

“Oh, not for very long,” she said distractedly, “just long enough to send for Dr Thompson. He wrote Bingley about Lydia when he first found her, and we agreed to let her stay with him, for your sake -- ”

Lydia is at Pemberley?” Elizabeth tried to imagine this, failed, and shook her head. “Dr Thompson -- Mr Darcy sent for him? Jane, I don’t understand, at all.”

Jane glanced up as if really seeing her for the first time. “Oh! I should not have said. You should not be distressed -- that’s why I encouraged him to go, and why he thought he ought to -- ” She bit her lip. “I was not at all certain what to do, because the letter -- mamma almost read it and Mr Darcy snatched it up before, I think, even he realised what it was -- but what I do not understand, Lizzy, is why -- if it is that letter -- why did you -- oh, I am trying not to be impertinent, but he has been so kind to us, and to me in particular -- when Mr Taylor was stealing from us -- that was the lawyer, not the steward -- even Bingley started asking me if I’d misplaced the money, and Mr Darcy was the only one who refused to believe a word of it all on his own -- and I had always liked him so much anyway, so -- oh, he has been so good, and he is such a nice man, and so lonely, but you are my sister, of course, so I shall do whatever you want.” She looked at her expectantly.

“Jane,” said Elizabeth firmly, her mind whirling with this influx of information, “what are you speaking of? What does Mr Darcy have to do with me?”

Jane looked faintly reproachful. “Well, of course you know, Lizzy,” she said infuriatingly.

Elizabeth gathered the shreds of her patience and said, “No, Jane, I do not.”

“Well, he loves you,” she said matter-of-factly, “that is why he came as soon as he got the letter, and sent for his own doctor and paid for him and everything -- and I don’t think he would let Lydia stay at his house -- he is very particular about his privacy -- if she were anyone else’s sister, because he doesn’t like her very much. And perhaps even that terrible business with Caroline -- of course his cousin is married to Mr Crawford’s sister -- ”

“Mr Crawf -- ?” Elizabeth echoed confusedly. “Dear Jane, will you please slow down? What do you mean, he loves me?” She thought of the silent years spent at home, her father’s wit growing more acidic with each that passed, until she almost resented him as much as she loved him -- of the third and fourth proposals she had refused, of how the memories had, impossibly -- or at the very least improbably -- become fresher and clearer with time, until she wanted nothing more than escape. She would not demand Pemberley -- all she wanted was to be free of Longbourn. And yet Baildon, even with its beauties and Jane and Bingley’s kindness, was becoming another cage, she could almost feel the walls closing in around her. You are so slight and frail, Lizzy, Jane said, and so --

Jane blinked. “Well, Lizzy, he proposed to you. Of course he loves you,” she said.

Elizabeth shut her eyes. “He proposed to me six and a half years ago, Jane. And considering everything that has happened between then and now -- between then and that fall, for that matter -- ”

“Well, I don’t think he’s the sort to change his mind. I think he would have asked you again, if it hadn’t been for that dreadful business with his cousin. And I know that by the time she was dead and he’d mourned her properly, he thought it too late -- he said that much -- not to Bingley, of course, but he and I -- Mr Darcy and I, I mean -- talked a great deal over that business with Mr Taylor -- and of course, you were so busy with papa, and he had a little girl to take care of.”

“He said -- ” Elizabeth, her head whirling, gathered her shawl more closely about her. “Jane -- ” she look plaintively at her sister, feeling more like seven than seven-and-twenty, “My dearest Jane, I just -- he said that he -- he told you?”

“Oh, Lizzy,” Jane said, overflowing with compassion, “I am so sorry -- I shall make him stay away, I promise -- ”

“No!” Elizabeth grasped her sister’s hand tightly. “No, Jane, please -- please do not do that.”

Jane looked at her consideringly. “Lizzy, will you tell me why you returned for that letter?”

Elizabeth sighed and looked away. “Jane, I cannot explain it. I -- ” She looked at her sister, as beautiful, as angelic, as ever, with her adoring husband and properly-behaved children. Dearest Jane. In five years, had anything worse than the misappropriation of funds happened here? Did she dare cast a pall on that happiness by trying to put her own grief into words for her, when she had not even done so for herself? No, she thought, I do not dare. Oh Jane. “You know that he cares?” she asked insistently.

“Oh yes. He was terribly distraught -- when you were taken so suddenly ill, that is -- worse than I had seen him before, even at Lady Rosemary’s funeral.”

Elizabeth’s lips thinned slightly. “Oh?” she said, trying not to appear too eager.

“I don’t think he’s been very happy,” Jane confided happily, more than pleased to speak of her friend now that she supposed there was some hope, however thin. “Of course there’s his little girl -- he simply dotes on her -- and she on him -- she’s the spitting image of him and they are just that darling together. I know that the Gardiners are very fond of him, too, but it isn’t the same, of course. And of course there’s the other child -- his nephew, he has practically raised him too, and I daresay could not be any fonder of him than he is, but it’s still rather sad that he -- the little boy, I mean -- has been left to his own so much. And I know Mr Darcy was estranged from nearly the whole family when he supported one of his cousins when she married a poor curate -- or was it that he arranged the marriage himself? I don’t recall exactly, but I know he was involved, and everyone was very angry at him -- angrier than they were at the curate himself, actually. Oh, and he gave him a living. He is very generous.”

“Yes, I know,” said Elizabeth quietly. “You are quite certain, Jane, that he still loves me?”

“Oh yes. We all, the Gardiners -- Margaret and Amelia even -- and I, know about that -- your feelings are the only ones that have ever been in question, Lizzy. Of course he hasn’t the slightest idea how you feel.”

“How could he?” Elizabeth asked, a little dully. What a pair of fools we are. “He hasn't seen me in five years, nor talked to me in six.” And it isn't as if I ever gave him slightest indication of -- fondness. Six years. What a terribly long time that is.

“You have been very sly with us all,” Jane agreed serenely. “I really thought you disliked him, even with what Bingley said about Pemberley, until I saw Mr Darcy with his letter, and I suppose he did too.” She smiled absently, as she looked over her own letter again. Elizabeth fidgeted. “If he'd had any hope, I daresay he would never have married her. Even Mr Darcy has limits. But -- ” she smiled happily -- “everything shall be perfectly well now.”

“My dearest Jane, you are beyond compare. What ever did you do to deserve such a fate, relegated to the company of we mere mortals?” Elizabeth sighed and looked away. “What does your letter say, Jane?”

Jane coughed. “Oh, he asked after your health, and said that, er, he would only be too glad to personally deliver Lydia and the children here at our earliest convenience.”

Elizabeth bit her lip, and could not restrain herself from a mischievous sideways glance at her sister.

“He did say it -- those were almost his exact words,” Jane assured her earnestly.

Elizabeth laughed outright at this, only too able to imagine his quiet, dry voice. “I am certain they were.”

---

By dint of much persistence, Elizabeth was able to convince her brother and sister that walking would be beneficial to her health.

“But what if it snows, like it did last week?” Bingley asked.

Elizabeth, secretly hoping it would, replied patiently, “I am perfectly well, even Dr Thompson said so. Nothing will happen even if the unspeakable should occur and a few wayward flakes fall on my nose.”

Bingley smiled; but Jane said, anxiously, “But Lizzy, you are so delicate --”

“I was delicate, but I am well now, Jane,” Elizabeth said in exasperation; then feeling the weight of ingratitude, she softened her voice. “Please, I have not taken a walk for so long -- and your park is so lovely. I promise, I will take care.”

Grudgingly, Jane conceded, and Elizabeth fled out of doors. Baildon was half-again Longbourn’s size, but between the Elliot children and Mrs Bennet -- who had grown far more vociferous since the death of her husband -- it seemed so small and confining that she thought she should go mad were she kept inside for another minute. The predicted snowflakes began to fall, and Elizabeth hurried down the path that led into the woods, before Jane could hurry out and usher her back in.

---

Elizabeth was enchanted by the small wood, snow whirling about, catching on her eyelashes and in her hair. Nobody was around to see — so she laughed out loud, twirling around and around. It would not do for a respectable maiden aunt of seven-and-twenty to be seen in such childlike abandon; but she was safe here. The otherworldly sense of — yes, enchantment, that was just the right word — persisted. She was perhaps not in her own world, it did not belong to her — rather the reverse, and who knew who else might belong here?

When she caught sight of a small slender figure, warmly and finely dressed in fur-lined blue, it seemed only part and parcel of the entire bewitchment. The snow crunched underneath Elizabeth’s boots, and the child turned to gaze at her soberly. She was, in a distant, ethereal, even cold, fashion, quite, quite lovely — a winter fairy or spirit created out of the enchantment of the day, someone she felt almost that she knew. There was certainly something very familiar about her. Elizabeth laughed at her own fancy and gaily greeted the child, “Good morning.”

The little girl blinked, and replied gravely, “Is it? I have not yet decided. My papa says that you will always be dissatisfied if you are not prepared to be pleased, though, and that you cannot be happy unless you try very hard at it, so I think you are right and it is a good day. I do love the snow. Last year I was ill all through the winter and never saw any of it. It was dreadful. But papa says I should be grateful I can see the snow this winter and never mind the last one, because I very nearly died and then I would never have seen any snow again.”

“Your father is very wise,” Elizabeth replied cheerfully. “Do by any chance know where we are?”

“Oh, yes. Mr Bingley is my god-father but there is so much noise and, and — it is too much. You understand?”

Elizabeth thought of the constant derisive witticisms of Lady Elliot, formerly Miss Bingley; of her mother’s incessant complaints; of how she missed her father even after all these months, of how, without the alliance of like minds that had characterised that relationship, even Jane’s sweetness and Bingley’s amiability wore on her, impatience eating at her. Even despite her growing discontent and disillusionment at home, she had been able to be happy, it was in her nature to be so, regardless of disappointment. But now —

“Yes,” she said softly, by instinct reaching out to caress the girl’s rosy cheek, “yes, I understand.”

The child smiled radiantly, and the sense of familiarity only increased. “That is what papa does!” she cried happily. “And then he says he loves me or kisses me. Papas are very nice, don’t you think?”

“Yes, very nice,” Elizabeth said, smiling. “I fear I am rather lost. Could you help me find my way back?”

“Oh, yes.” Graciously, the little girl offered her small, warm hand, and pulled her along, seeming almost to dance amid the whirling snow. Elizabeth thought, dazedly, that here was the author of the enchantment, there was something about her — she had almost recognised her, she had thought she ought to, ought to know her, and yet it was not — she did not know.

After several minutes, she felt slightly uneasy, not recognising any of the paths the child led her so confidently through. “Are you certain . . .” she began.

Black plaits flew as she tossed her head, blue eyes sparking icy indignation. Elizabeth knew that look, the proud arch of the brows, the fine striking features, even the slant of the eyes as they flashed in disdain. She remembered watching as her cousin bowed and scraped, waves of humiliation blunting her joy for a beloved sister — and then meeting those same eyes, with the same expression, from across the room, and the sharp unreasonable anguish of the moment broken by a sudden brilliant smile.

“Of course I am certain,” the little girl replied haughtily, marching forward with utter confidence.

Yes, she ought to have known her, known by her own feelings of half-reluctant fascination — known at least that no-one else’s child could share such manners, gracious and imperious in equal measure. The connection made, the little girl tugged at her heart even more, as her own nieces and nephews could not, even as she pulled her forward, towards the house just made visible through the trees.

Then the tight grip slackened, there was a whirl of deep blue out of the corner of her eye — whether a child’s dress or man’s coat, she could not tell — and warm laughter rang out from this most unlikely source.

“Papa!” the cry of delight came.

Elizabeth gathered her courage and turned, with a smile, to face the pair. She had expected, she had thought, that the enchantment would break then, that she would be pulled back to earth with a sharply unpleasant jolt; but it was not like that at all. The little girl, clinging to her father’s side, long limbs dangling down haphazardly, still seemed the half-fairy creature who had dropped into this world, lightning out of a clear sky — and he was himself and yet he belonged as well, almost as well as he belonged at Pemberley.

It was like Pemberley, all over again, only that bit less awkward. She blushed and exclaimed, “Mr Darcy!” His colour was nearly as high when he returned the greeting. Otherwise he appeared very much as he ever had.

“Miss Bennet, this is an unexpected pleasure,” he said earnestly, his eyes intent on her. The small Miss Darcy tightened her grip about her father’s neck, contentedly pressing her cheek against his coat. Elizabeth wondered if it was very silly to envy the liberties a small girl might take with her father. “You are Miss Bennet still?” he added, his expression gaining something of trepidation.

Elizabeth smiled. “Yes, thank you, sir.”

“I — ” he glanced down at his daughter, and smiled involuntarily. “I see that you have met my Anne.”

“I have.” Elizabeth turned her gaze on the child, and addressed her once more. “Thank you, Miss Darcy, for your kindness in helping me. I was quite lost, you see,” she explained to the bemused Mr Darcy, “and your daughter was good enough to help me find my way.”

“You’re welcome,” Anne replied sleepily. “You are much nicer than Lady Elliot, Miss Bennet, she always fusses just because her brother is my god-father.”

Elizabeth could not keep her brows from quirking a little at this. She thought she could think of a few more reasons that Lady Elliot might fuss over Miss Darcy, particularly if Sir Walter was in as poor health as Jane said. It seemed that Mr Darcy could as well by the sudden deepening of his colour. “Anne,” he said halfheartedly, “you should not speak about Mr Bingley’s sister in such a fashion.”

“Why not, papa? She is unkind, I have heard the servants — ”

“And you most certainly should not repeat servants’ gossip,” he interrupted, suddenly very stern. Anne pouted and vindictively pressed her cold nose into her father’s neck. Elizabeth could not conceal her smile at this, and, rather awkwardly, he smiled back. “It is very cold, we should probably return to the house,” he said, and added hesitantly, “May I escort you in, Miss Bennet?”

She knew the quality of her expression changed perhaps too much at this, she ought not to be so happy at mere politesse. But it was an indescribably lovely day; and Christmas was approaching quickly; and she felt happiness, glimmering and vast, so close, she could almost touch it. Her smile deepened.

“I would be honoured, Mr Darcy.”

---

Chapter Two

“I -- I hope you have been well, Miss Bennet -- that is, better -- than you were, before,” Darcy floundered.

Elizabeth smiled. Clearly, his conversational skills had not improved. She had never dreamed such maladroitness could be endearing. “I am quite well, now, thank you.”

“I -- your sister -- ”

“Jane is very protective,” Elizabeth supplied. “I am really very well.”

He smiled brightly, with a brief glance and a flush. “You -- I am glad to hear it. Er, I do not know if Mrs Bingley told you, about your, your other sister ...?”

“Lydia?”

“Yes.” He looked down, his colour even higher. “I -- I brought her, and your nephews and niece, with me.”

Elizabeth bit back the reply that instantly sprang to her lips, and instead said, “Yes, Jane mentioned that you intended to. I must apologise, sir, for her terrible impertinence in coming to Pemberley the way she did.”

“It is quite all right,” he assured her.

“No,” said Elizabeth, looking him in the eye, “it is not all right.” At his astonished expression, she hastily added, “I beg your pardon, sir, for my frankness, but it is really -- it is beyond the pale, that she should importune you, after what you have already done for her. I must apologise, since she will certainly never do so herself, nor understand the necessity.”

Darcy did not seem to quite know how to take this. “Miss Bennet -- ” He sighed, shifted Anne’s sleeping form, and said carefully, “Miss Bennet, I hope you understand that I do not wish for your gratitude. However, if it will relieve your mind at all, I will accept your apology, with the understanding that it is solely on Mrs Wickham’s account.”

She could not keep from laughing, softly, at his response. Nothing is ever simple with you, is it? “Very well, then.” She sighed. “You have seen her and I have not, sir. Is she very much changed?”

“I -- ” a fleeting frown crossed his face -- “in essentials, I believe not. But -- Miss Bennet -- I believe you should be warned -- ” he turned slightly towards her, absently caressing Anne’s hair, “Miss Bennet, in externals, your sister is very much changed. Her life has not been an easy one, nor a happy one, and she deserves pity if not respect.” There was no rebuke in his tone, nor did she believe any was intended, but nevertheless she felt it.

“Is it that bad?” she asked softly, and Darcy looked at her with a troubled expression.

“Yes. And there are children -- she only brought the eldest with her, but there are others. These three are better, now that they have been properly clothed and looked after. For the first month complete, all that was required on my part was to feed them three times a day, and they were content.”

Lydia, oh, you poor, stupid girl. Why did you do this to yourself? But you are not the only one concerned in it. These poor children, and dear Jane, who will never convince herself that anyone could be so bad as this, and Mr Darcy, who will never convince himself that he is not responsible for it.

“Those poor children. Surely something can be done?” At his grave look, she turned her head away, and said, “But what of the other three months, sir?”

Darcy smiled reluctantly. “Children will be children, Miss Bennet.” Awkwardly changing the subject, he said, “How do you like Baildon? It is not Netherfield’s size, but more pleasing, I think.”

“Yes, it is very lovely,” she said, raising her eyebrows to make certain he knew she was not fooled. “The woods are pleasant to walk in, although I never had the opportunity before today.”

“But you have been here since June!”

Elizabeth’s lips thinned. “Yes.”

“I beg your pardon -- but I thought -- you used to enjoy walking so much,” he said confusedly. “At Rosings -- ” colour rose in his cheeks, his eyes widened a little, and he stopped talking.

“I still do,” she said hastily, disliking the pain and uncertainty frozen on his face. “I could not -- Jane is so -- ” she stopped, uncertain of whether such frankness would be welcomed, but only saw him watching her with a look of polite interest. “As I said, Jane is very protective.”

“Oh,” he said, and smiled a little. “I’m sorry.” She arched a brow, not able to believe him, and he explained, “I too have a sister.”

Elizabeth could not imagine that sweet, frightened Miss Darcy could ever treat him as Jane did her; but six years was a long time, and even longer for a girl of that age. Miss Darcy was older now than Elizabeth had been when --

“When I was a little unwell last year, she was so fierce, she quite frightened me into submission,” he said, smiling rather shyly. Elizabeth tried to picture this and failed.

“Fierce? Miss Darcy?” She almost added, submission? You?

“Lady Westhampton now,” Darcy said ruefully. “She married not long after your sister and Bingley. Ah, here we are.” He gently woke Anne up, setting her down, and helped Elizabeth up the steps, earning a smile from both. Shrill voices could be heard even from here, one easily recognisable as Lydia’s. Elizabeth inhaled deeply.

“I should, er, probably not intrude,” Darcy said, but even as he stepped away, Elizabeth reached out one hand and said,

“Don’t!”

The look of mixed surprise and pleasure on his face forced her to explain herself. “Please -- ” she took a deep breath -- “I do not wish to face them alone.” He, thankfully, required nothing further.

“Anne, go play with Sarah, she is in the nursery.” Anne ran off, and Darcy after a pause offered his arm, which Elizabeth gladly took. She had not even thought of her youngest sister in years -- had not considered Lydia nor her children -- and the terrible guilt she felt for this, as well as for her old failure in regard to Wickham, was almost paralysing. Darcy’s arm was warm and real beneath her fingers, and she forced a smile on her face as she entered.

“Lizzy!” Lydia leapt to her feet. “Well, I am glad to see you. You are looking very well. I thought you should be all old and washed-out, but you are almost pretty.” Old and washed-out described Lydia far better than Elizabeth. It took all she had simply to keep her countenance, when she looked at Lydia, tired, worn, and bruised, and yet still the same selfish, unfeeling girl she had always been.

“Thank you, Lydia,” she said dryly. “Where are your children?”

“Oh -- ” Lydia flapped a hand -- “running mad somewhere, I’m sure.”

“In the nursery, Mrs Wickham, with the other children,” Darcy interjected austerely, and Elizabeth, knowing that every eye would be on them, reluctantly dropped her hand and moved to her sister’s side. Lydia was a little different; there was a self-consciousness to her brashness that she had lacked before -- as if her intent was to make life as unpleasant as possible for everyone around her. And yet she treated Elizabeth with more warmth than she had ever shown before, and towards Darcy there was something like deference. Bingley and Jane, however, received a thoughtlessness bordering on contempt, and Elizabeth winced more than once for their sake.

She thought it could not possibly be more excruciatingly painful; then, Lady Elliot descended, and after one derisive look at Lydia, addressed herself solely to her brother and sister and Mr Darcy. Surprisingly, the latter exerted himself to defuse the situation somewhat, treating both unwelcome ladies with forbearance, joining Jane in the effort to include disparate parties in the conversation. By the time Lady Elliot departed and Lydia gave a large, theatrical yawn, Jane looked tired and worn, and Darcy still worse.

He is so different -- and the thought took her by surprise. There was a cold reserve to his speech still, particularly when he spoke to Mrs Bennet or Lady Elliot, yet the veiled barbs and faintly satirical eye were gone. Most noticeable was his manner towards Lydia -- unvaryingly gentle, as if she were a fragile doll -- and which she, astonishingly, responded to. There was a rather pathetic gratitude, and even awe, in her behaviour towards him, in the way that she would turn, wide-eyed, to him and appeal to his opinion -- “you do think so, Mr Darcy?” Elizabeth could not help but wonder.

Yet even while she liked him better for his more compassionate ways, she missed the flash of sudden sharp brilliance that had always startled her before. Perhaps it could cut -- but it had been him, and -- by the end, at least -- she had loved all of him, just as he was. Their union -- for, according to Jane, he would have asked her, and she certainly would have accepted -- would not have been easy, they were such difficult, obstinate, headstrong people, but it would have been -- she searched for a word. Beautiful -- and strange -- and -- oh -- sweet and gentle and overwhelming and intense altogether. Oh -- why?

She looked at him, sitting a little away from all the others, quiet and quiescent, the candelight reflecting on his cheek and hair, making him appear somehow otherworldly. She felt a sudden urge to reach out and touch him -- imagined, with a smile, what chaos would ensue if she did -- and, fixing her eyes on him, felt such life running through her veins, as she had thought drained out of her long ago. If, six years ago, she had but reached out her hand -- and now?

---

Elizabeth laughed to see Jane creeping into her room, as if they were girls again. “Jane, will not Bingley miss you?”

“No,” said Jane, smiling, “he sleeps very soundly.” She looked at Elizabeth earnestly. “You were very quiet this evening, Elizabeth. You are well?”

“I really thought I talked as much as ever,” Elizabeth said, and Jane smiled, shaking her head. “Oh, dear. Do you think anyone noticed?”

“Bingley did, and probably Mr Darcy also.” Jane hesitated. “I did want to speak to you about him. Mr Darcy I mean, not Bingley.”

“Yes, of course.” Elizabeth wondered if she was about to be asked if her intentions were honourable. Jane twisted her fingers together.

“I know I am not very clever, Lizzy, and can be rather fussy on occasion, but I am very concerned for you. Do anything rather than marry without affection. Mr Darcy is -- oh, he is a fine man, and I do not think you shall meet his like again -- but if you cannot care for him (and I do not -- will not -- blame you if that is the case), then . . .” She frowned, then looked up again. “My dearest Lizzy,” she said affectionately, and reached out to clasp Elizabeth’s hand. “We -- all of us -- only wish you to be happy. You were so unlike yourself this evening that I did not know what to think. On your walk, did anything happen? -- oh, I do not mean to be impertinent, truly, I am only so worried for you both.”

Elizabeth smiled, stroking her sister’s hand, then raised her head to meet Jane’s anxious, loving eyes. “Oh, Jane -- that you need not worry about -- a lack of affection. That is -- ” she laughed a little shakily -- “not the -- difficulty.”

Jane’s dark brows drew together. “I do not understand, Lizzy. Do you -- ” she hesitated -- “do you care about him?”

She felt all of her feelings, hidden for the years, those that had made her weep with shame, and those that she had treasured, as if she could put them in a box with jewellery and an old letter, rising up within her, and looked at Jane. Then, with a queer blend of resignation and elation, she tightened her hold on Jane’s strong, narrow fingers, and closed her eyes. “Yes, Jane, I do -- a great deal,” she said steadily.

“Oh, I am so glad!” Jane took a deep breath. “Then, Lizzy, why do you not -- that is -- ” she faltered. Elizabeth smiled and lifted her head.

“I -- I’m afraid, Jane.” There. She had said it. “Jane, it has been so long since I dared do anything for myself -- and I have no right, no claim on his affections -- and what if . . .”

“What if . . .” Jane echoed, a little confused.

“If I show my -- affection -- oh, I do not know -- Jane, what do I do?” She searched her sister’s eyes. “He loved me seven years ago, and he loved me five years ago, and two years ago -- but what if he doesn’t anymore? What if -- what if there’s someone else. Even that woman he married, he is so -- steadfast, what if she is the one he truly loves? How can I expose myself to him, after all this time? Jane, I do not dare -- I can scarcely keep myself from shaking -- oh, I know it does not seem so, to him particularly, but if I do it, if I make my feelings known -- what if -- it is terribly silly, I know, I really ought to laugh over it, but I confess, I cannot find much amusement in it -- but this way, there is still hope -- do you understand?”

“Not entirely,” Jane confessed, with a shy smile, and both laughed. “Elizabeth, would you mind very much if I -- if I offered you my opinion?”

Startled, Elizabeth replied, “Of course not.”

Jane took a deep breath. “If you do not express your feelings in some manner to him, neither of you will ever be able to do more than hope. And hope is a marvellous thing, Lizzy; but it is very cold comfort sometimes, when the reality is so close. I know, Lizzy -- our situations are not the same -- but all those months that he was gone -- he truly believed me to be indifferent, because I did not dare risk myself. It is a terrible thing, to live with a broken heart, but still worse is to know it could have been different.”

“Yes,” said Elizabeth, a tear sliding down her cheek, “yes, yes, it is.”

“I think -- of course this is only my opinion, and I would not presume to tell you what to do -- ” Elizabeth, through her tears, bit back a smile at this -- “but somehow, you must tell him how you feel, or he will never know.” Conspiratorially, she lowered her voice and added, “Men are very obtuse sometimes.”

Elizabeth laughed. “Yes, they are. Then, wisest of sisters -- ” she smiled to make certain Jane realised the gravity beneath her words -- “that is your advice?”

“You have only to reach out to him,” Jane said gently. “Do you love him, Lizzy?”

“Yes, yes, I do.” Her grip on Jane’s fingers was mildly painful, but Mrs Bingley was not about to mention it.

“Then -- ” she smiled, and kissed Elizabeth’s cheek. “You must only be brave for a little while. He is a great man, Lizzy, and I do not speak of his consequence. I am so very happy for you.”

And the truth shall make you free. Elizabeth returned her sister’s embrace, and once Jane left, blew out the candle. I need only dare.

---

Chapter Three

Elizabeth entered the library, seeking some peace and quiet after a thoroughly hectic morning, only to find a small, slender figure standing in the centre of it, her hands over her eyes. With the air of a displaced fairy, she proclaimed,

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

Elizabeth could not keep herself from laughing at this pronouncement and the child whirled to face her in astonishment, dropping her hands.

She cheerfully greeted her, “Good morning, Miss Darcy.”

“Oh! I didn’t know anyone was there,” she said, the fairy-quality fading. Despite her rare beauty, she was simply a child -- his child. “I have been trying to remember my verse and I keep forgetting.”

Elizabeth smiled in amusement as Anne shut her eyes again. “Surely you could try and remember with your eyes open?”

“Oh, no,” the girl said earnestly, “because there is a Bible in here, and I know I would just have to go and look, and then I would feel dreadful and I’d forget again. I promised my aunt, you see, that I would remember before I came back for Christmas, and I must not disappoint her. Papa says I must always keep my promises, and so I should never make a promise I do not think I can keep.”

“Your papa sounds very wise,” Elizabeth agreed gravely, kneeling down to look at the child directly.

“But I thought I could remember it, I did! And I did remember it, you heard me!”

“So I did. And it is a proper compliment to your aunt, that you went to all this effort to remember your verse. I am an aunt myself, you see.”

Anne clasped her hands. “Do any of your nieces memorise verses for you?”

“Not one of them.” Elizabeth laughed. “Still, you should probably be with the other children. What if you had gotten lost?”

“Oh, I never get lost. And I should have told my papa where I was, but I didn’t think he would let me go, and I don’t like Caroline.”

“That was very naughty of you. Your papa is doubtless worried sick about you.”

“Oh no!” She covered her mouth with her free hand. “He will not get sick? My mama got sick when I was a baby and died, I do not want anything to happen to papa. You see, he is the best man in the world and I love him more than anything, I could not bear it if something bad happened to him.”

Elizabeth smiled reassuringly. “It is only a turn of phrase, it means that he would be upset because he didn’t know where you gone or what had happened to you.”

“Oh, well, I shall tell him next time,” said the little girl, tossing her head. Elizabeth smiled once more. “Do you belong to the house? I have not seen you before, but we don’t come here very often, they usually come to us, because Mr Bingley is my god-father.”

“Mrs Bingley is my sister,” Elizabeth said quietly. “I am come to stay with her for a time.” She thought of her father, dead these four months, and blinked rapidly, pressing her fingers against her black skirts.

“I am sorry you are sad,” the child said unexpectedly, and Elizabeth stared down in astonishment. The little girl’s icy blue eyes were of a shade particularly unsuited to warmth, and yet there was no doubting it; without warning, Elizabeth was thrust back seven years, to the inn at Lambton, and another pair of dark eyes were gazing at her with the utmost compassion.

She caught her breath. “Thank you,” Elizabeth said softly. “I am not so sad anymore, now that I have my sister.”

“I wish I had a brother or sister,” Anne replied, looking up at her wistfully. “Lady Elliot is dreadful to Mr Bingley, but papa and Aunt Georgiana still write to each other all the time.”

“Perhaps you shall, someday,” Elizabeth offered half-heartedly.

“Not unless papa marries again,” the small Darcy before her said, and Elizabeth flinched slightly. “I do not think he shall. I heard my aunt say he would not, because he only married mamma because she needed a husband to protect her from something, I don’t know what, and he was lonely and they liked each other, and there was no-one else like that and he could not be with the one he really wanted. So he shan’t marry. But I have some cousins who are very nice, and Aunt Georgiana misses Pemberley a great deal so she visits quite a lot, and because she does not want to leave papa all alone, although he’s not alone because he has me. And Stephen, he’s Aunt Georgiana’s son, he is more like a brother than a cousin really, because he is more like papa than my uncle Westhampton and likes him better too, and he spends so much time at Pemberley because he is unhappy at Aincourt and he loves papa so very much, and me too, of course.” She took a deep breath. “Are you an angel, Miss Bennet?”

A laugh bubbled up in Elizabeth’s throat. “Certainly not, why do you ask?”

Anne shrugged, glancing longingly at the family Bible. “Mr Bingley says Mrs Bingley is one, and if she is an angel, and you are her sister, shouldn’t you be an angel too?”

“He only means,” said Elizabeth, smiling, “that she is like an angel.”

“Well, she looks like one,” Anne said matter-of-factly. “Like papa.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I think papa is like an angel too. Don’t you think?”

“I -- ”

She was saved by Darcy himself, who entered at that moment, and cast a stern look at his daughter. “Anne,” he began, then caught sight of Elizabeth, his face lighting up. “Miss Bennet! I -- I did not know you were here. In here, I mean -- of course I knew you were here, at Baildon.”

Anne giggled. “You are very silly, papa. But I memorised my verse for Aunt Georgiana, Miss Bennet heard me. Didn’t you, Miss Bennet?”

“I did,” Elizabeth agreed, smiling first at Anne and then at Darcy. “Good morning, Mr Darcy.”

“Oh, good morning,” he said, rather wryly. “I hope your sister is . . . better?”

Lydia had woken early from a nightmare, her screams alerting all nearby to her distress. How Darcy had discovered it was anyone’s guess, as his chambers were quite on the opposite side of the house. “Yes, I believe so,” she said tiredly. “As much as she can be, I suppose.”

“Is Mrs Wickham really your sister, Miss Bennet?”

Elizabeth and Darcy both turned to Anne, looking at her small uptilted face, wide, fearless blue eyes, and Elizabeth felt a vague unsettled guilt. Two children -- one wild, resentful, and rather stupid, the other prim, happy, and clever -- they could not be more different, although they were near to the same age. Surely she ought to resent little Anne Darcy, for having everything -- every happiness, worldly or otherwise, that a girl could desire, for having everything that her poor niece lacked? Yet she did not. She could not even convince herself to care for Betsey, for her own namesake, Lydia Elizabeth, beyond the call of duty and family, not anything to what she felt for this delightful little girl who would never know what it was to fear her own father -- who thought him like an angel --

“Yes,” Elizabeth said, her voice choked a little. “Yes, she is.”

“And Mrs Bingley’s?”

“Yes.”

Anne frowned, clearly puzzling over this revelation. Thankfully, Darcy intervened once more. “Anne, you should not be here, you were told to stay with the others in the nursery.”

“But papa, Caroline is there, and she is dreadful!”

“I daresay you and Jenny can manage her, Anne,” Darcy replied dryly; “if anything serious occurs, send a servant.”

Anne wrinkled her nose, but obediently dropped a curtsey with an impudent, “Yes, sir,” before whirling away.

“Are you well, Miss Bennet? You looked distressed a moment ago.” He looked at her intently, and Elizabeth raised her chin.

“How can one not be distressed?” She softened her voice slightly. “It is only a matter of time, sir, before Lydia shall have to return. Mr Wickham may do whatever he likes to her, and to those children. Whatever we do, it is -- oh, it will only make it that much worse, when he reclaims them.”

“When?” Darcy raised his eyebrows. “Forgive my bluntness, but from what your sister has told me, Mr Wickham is more than half out of his mind. Even if he realises their absence, he is hardly likely to care. He gains nothing from their presence, that he cannot just as easily find elsewhere. If he does sober enough to come here, your brother and I shall simply have to explain that it is in his best interests to let her alone. But I do not think he shall. He is, I understand, in very ill health.” The faint smile accompanying this spoke volumes.

Elizabeth stared, her mind spinning. “But -- then, what is to be done? They cannot stay here interminably -- even Lydia would not ask such a thing of Jane and Bingley, would she?”

“I hardly know,” Darcy said uneasily. “The matter is still unresolved. Has not Mrs Bingley spoken to you of it?”

Elizabeth’s lips tightened. “No, she has not. There is a great deal, it seems, that Mrs Bingley does not speak to me about.” Then she recalled her situation, and penitently added, “I should not have said that. I’m sorry.”

Darcy hesitated, and said, apparently apropos of nothing, “I do not visit Baildon as often as I ought, fond as I am of the Bingleys and their children. Somehow, after living so long at Pemberley, it seems rather confining.” At her startled look, he added, “I am used to being alone. Being with so many people in so small a space . . .” He shrugged, looked around a little, and sat down, gazing at her expectantly. “What would you like to know?”

Elizabeth felt more obtuse than any man as she stood there, staring at him. “I -- beg your pardon?”

“Well, Mrs Wickham is your sister as well. Mrs Bingley must be very preoccupied, surely she would have told you all otherwise.”

She could scarcely conceal her sceptical expression, and Darcy dropped his eyes. “In any case, you should know, and I am under no obligation to keep any of it a secret. Bingley is arranging for your mother to live in Meryton, near Mrs Phillips and Mrs Witherspoon. I, erm, have offered Mrs Wickham and her children a home.”

“Not at Pemberley!” Her voice rose shrilly on the last, and Darcy very obviously bit back a smile. “I beg your pardon, but -- surely, you would not have her at your home -- any longer.”

“No, I think not. There is, however, some property in Ireland, which should be perfectly convenient for, er, all concerned.”

“Ireland,” she repeated. “Ireland!”

“We thought it better that she not be, er, too near. Even if Wickham looks for her, he is unlikely to consider -- well, I daresay it is the best option.”

“It cannot be inexpensive, to send her, and maintain her -- and the children -- ”

“Oh, it is nothing of consequence really,” he assured her. She rather suspected that Darcy’s definition of nothing of consequence was decidedly unique.

“Thank you, then.”

With a distant look, he said, “You are welcome.” Elizabeth sighed. She had never met anyone worse at accepting gratitude. Although, perhaps it was only from her. He loves me, she informed herself sternly. And who knows what insanity is passing through his mind each time he gets that dreadful cold, pinched look?

“And I?” she inquired helpfully, trying to think of a way to redirect the conversation to more fertile grounds. He looked at her blankly. “In what manner am I to be disposed of?”

“You will stay here, of course.” Hastily, he added, “At least, that is Mrs Bingley’s wish. And Bingley’s, naturally.”

Elizabeth inhaled deeply, then lifted her head to look him directly in the eye and said, “And is it yours, Mr Darcy?”

He flushed, but after swallowing once, he replied steadily, “Yes, it is -- at least, so long as I also am here.”

“How long do you intend that to be?” Her blood was singing in her ears.

“I must return to Pemberley for Christmas, I have already invited Georgiana and her family.”

“Six weeks, then?” She felt her cheeks burning.

“Yes, but . . . I have also invited the Bingleys. You, naturally, are also included in that invitation, and I would be . . . more than delighted, if you were able to accompany them.”

At seven-and-twenty, with four marriage proposals to her name, Elizabeth Bennet had never been properly courted. Her flirtatious relations with Colonel Fitzwilliam, Wickham, and John Lucas hardly qualified, as none of those men intended marriage; the three other suitors did, but were in themselves perfectly inadequate; Darcy remained in a category by himself, but the peculiar vicissitudes of their relationship could hardly be termed a courtship.

I think I shall enjoy this, she thought, wondering if she would need a fan every time they occupied the same room. Elizabeth gave him a look that Jane would certainly not approve of, and said demurely, “I would be honoured, Mr Darcy . . . is Pemberley as lovely in the winter as in the summer?”

Darcy hesitated only a moment. “Far lovelier, Miss Bennet.”

---

A/N: The second half of this chapter has some material which the more delicate readers may find slightly disturbing -- probably equivalent to PG-13 for "thematic elements".

Chapter Four

They met almost entirely on accident. Elizabeth, perhaps, elected to walk on those paths she thought him more likely to frequent; but certainly it went no further than that. Nevertheless, with very little trouble, she happened across him leaning against the side of a tree, looking very handsome indeed as he gazed off thoughtfully. No wayward branch interrupted her enjoyment of the view, and after several moments, she announced herself with a bright smile.

“Good morning, Mr Darcy.”

“Miss Bennet!” He started, a familiar expression overcoming his severe features as he turned towards her. It was a contentment just this side of joy, and Elizabeth could not help laughing at his transparency. “What an unexpected pleasure.” Then, a little slyly, he added, “Almost unexpected, that is.”

“Fate has been uncommonly kind to us today, hasn’t it?” she said, trying for a look of innocence. He bit his lip. “You may smile, sir, I shan’t slap you.”

He complied, and said wryly, “I somehow doubted you would. You never have before, even when my behaviour warranted it.” A shadow crossed his face at this, and Elizabeth sighed.

“If we were to strike one another every time our behaviour warranted it,” she said, “you and I would have probably killed each other by now.”

Darcy smiled unrestrainedly this time. “You are very kind.”

“Not very,” Elizabeth said, accepting the offered escort. “Thank you, sir. Truly, though, I have to constantly guard against unkindness. I am nothing like Jane.”

“No,” he said, with a warm look, “no, you are not.” Elizabeth blushed at the implication, something she had never expected of any man, even him. “I am very fond of Mrs Bingley, naturally -- how one not be? -- but she is . . . perhaps it would be more accurate to say that she is not like you, Miss Bennet.”

Her head whirled a little, and she decided to think about the matter at greater length later; but instead of leaving it there, he tried to explain himself:

“There is much to be said for kindness -- for,” he hesitated, “selfless consideration for the feelings of others -- ” Elizabeth’s eyes widened, both at the transposition of her own words and the clarity with which he remembered them -- “but however praiseworthy, it can only go so far. Goodness is more than a tendency to think the best of everyone and a desire to make them all happy, I think -- meaning no affront against your sister and my friend, but there is no struggle there. They will never be less than amiable and kind to those within their sphere; and they will never consider those without it.” His head was lowered, his hands fiddling absently, and rather anxiously, with a handkerchief.

“Their perspective is a little narrow,” Elizabeth conceded. “Is that what you mean?”

He made a sudden sharp movement with one hand. “Yes -- perhaps -- I do not know. Only -- Miss Bennet, there is something, something more appealing, about one who -- who can, and does, remain true to his -- or her -- knowledge of what is right, when it is not easy, not what he would wish; the goodness of one who fully comprehends what he is doing when he does it -- that is more powerful, somehow, to my way of thinking, than a more thoughtless goodness, that of someone who knows nothing else.”

“That,” said she, “sounds more like you, sir, than me.”

His eyes widened. “Oh no. I am not at all -- well perhaps a little -- I try for that, but I do not always succeed.”

“Oh?”

“If I did,” said Darcy, “you would probably have one more niece or nephew than you do right now. However, I was not speaking of myself.”

Elizabeth frowned. “I am hardly perfect, sir.”

“No,” he said, with a slow smile, “no, you are not, thank heavens. I do not think I should care to spend a great deal of time with a woman not my equal. I am reminded of my own imperfections often enough as it is, simply by the company of Bingley and your sister.”

She laughed outright at this. “Somehow, you always manage to surprise me, Mr Darcy. I never know what is going to come out of your mouth next.”

A look she very much recognised passed over his face, as if he longed to vocalise some stray thought passing through his mind, but did not dare. After a moment, he said, restrainedly, “I cannot possibly be as much of an enigma to you, as you are to me.”

“I?” She stared a little, then laughed and took his arm (out of regard for his handkerchief, which did not seem long for this world if his movements grew much more intense). “I defy any of our shared acquaintance to acknowledge that, sir.”

“Oh!” Darcy shook his head. “You may not brandish the opinions of our acquaintance at me, for they have known you much longer than they have me, and still do not bother to look past what you choose to show them.” With an intent look, he added, “You still do not perform to strangers, do you, Miss Bennet?”

“No,” she said, far more softly than was her wont, “no, I do not.” Then, with a smile: “Have you always been so perceptive, sir, or I am only just noticing?” Even as she spoke, however, she recalled the earnest young man he had been, dancing with her at the Netherfield Ball, and heard his voice, saying gravely, I could wish, Miss Bennet, that you were not to sketch my character at the present moment, as there is reason to fear that the performance would reflect no credit on either. The present Darcy, however, actually laughed, a startled rich sound that she did not think she had ever heard before, but which was certainly not unpleasant. His face alight with humour, he said,

“Perceptive? I? Now I know you are mocking me, Miss Bennet, and to my face no less. But I may answer your challenge, if you allow me to summon Mrs Reynolds. You quite bewildered her -- and occasionally she will still ask about that strange young woman who stammered and blushed all through her visit at Pemberley, but would not confess to more than a slight acquaintance with me; however I daresay she knows my thoughts as often as not before they have entered my head.”

“It was a slight acquaintance,” Elizabeth defended herself, but smiling at the last -- “that is, I said that I only knew you ‘a little’ -- and I was quite right. I scarcely knew you at all, and nearly everything I did know turned out to be false.”

Darcy opened his mouth and shut it again. “A necessary caveat, I think,” he remarked quietly, and turned as snow began to fall in rapidly thickening flakes. “May I escort you to the house?”

She raised an eyebrow. “I did not know that I intended to return just now.”

He looked uncomfortable. “Bingley will probably force me to drink hot milk and sit in front of the fire if I am out too long,” he said, and added rather vexedly, “I cannot believe Georgiana actually told him, even only a part.”

Elizabeth stared. “Is there something I ought to know, Mr Darcy? Are you subject to fainting spells?”

His start and burning cheeks answered her well enough, and she vacillated between concern and laughing delight at the mental image this conjured. “I hope it was not anything serious?”

“No, not -- my daughter and nephew were both caught in a blizzard, and very ill by the time I found them.” His expression was particularly forbidding, until he added, a little sheepishly, “I was only a little tired, but Georgiana has become unreasonably over-protective.”

Elizabeth wondered just how unreasonable it was. Once, finding the Bingleys in the parlour, she had overheard Mr Darcy’s name, and her attention caught, had stopped in the hall to listen. All she had caught was he drives himself too hard, and will not admit to -- but it had been enough to cause her a moment of alarm, before realising that, her feelings notwithstanding, she did not have the privilege of responsibility for him. But now, she thought, and gave him a stern look.

“If you were that exhausted, sir,” she said acerbically, “your sister was quite right to worry.”

“Well, yes,” he conceded, “but that was then -- an entire year ago -- not now.”

Elizabeth frowned, mulling the matter over. His reaction was startlingly like her own, in response to Jane’s fussiness, and she was not enough of a hypocrite to press him any further. Nevertheless -- her situation had been almost entirely beyond her control. She certainly had not driven herself to exhaustion! Elizabeth carried on the conversation lightly as they returned to the house, but most of her mind was occupied in stealing sideways glances at him to see how he looked. In most respects he was the same, almost exactly the same, as she remembered him. He was perhaps a little thinner, his expression a little more receptive -- most of the changes were in manner. He was far more anxious to please than she ever recalled, even at Pemberley, but also more thoughtful, and nervous enough to teach her mother a few lessons in that regard. She kept a firm grip on his arm to keep him from destroying gloves, handkerchiefs, or other assorted objects that seemed to find their way into his grasp.

“Lizzy?”

Elizabeth broke off in the middle of a sentence to stare at her sister. “Lydia, what are you doing out here?”

“You are not the only one who gets tired of being imprisoned in that house,” she said off-handedly. “And I have not been ill.”

Elizabeth sighed. “I was only concerned, Lydia.”

“It is a pity you were not concerned earlier,” snapped Lydia.

“Mrs Wickham,” Darcy said harshly, suddenly every inch the master of Pemberley, “you should not deceive yourself into believing you know everything, or even very much -- of what your family has endured in the last few years. You owe your sister more than you will ever know.”

Elizabeth was not entirely certain what this last meant, but stared as Lydia blushed, lowering her eyes. “I beg your pardon, Mr Darcy. I did not mean -- ”

“You should not be apologising to me, Mrs Wickham,” he said sternly. Lydia chewed her lip.

“Lizzy, I’m sorry. I should not have spoken so -- to you. I’m sure you did as much as you could, in your situation. Mr Darcy, the others, where are they? ”

“Susan and Frances should arrive this evening, Mrs Wickham,” he replied. “Your mother is leaving in a few hours -- Bingley has purchased the lease on a house in Meryton for her, just across from the Witherspoons’ home, so if you wish to spend much more time with her, I would suggest returning to the parlour.”

Lydia nodded meekly, leaving her sister uncertain whether to be horrified or pleased at her compliance. Then she stopped and blinked, apparently only now taking in the strangeness of Elizabeth and Mr Darcy taking a walk in the snow, quite alone. Something almost like suspicion entered her dull blue eyes. “You must have met on accident,” she said slowly.

“Yes,” Darcy said instantly, “yes, we did.”

This time, thought Elizabeth.

---

She woke up at a particularly ungodly hour to the sound of light tapping on her door.

“Lydia?” she asked sleepily. “What is it?”

Her sister did not seem to have fallen asleep at all, her hair still neatly braided over one shoulder. “Lizzy,” she said, very seriously, “I need to talk to you.”

“Oh,” Elizabeth said blankly, “come in and sit down, then.” Although midnight talks with her sister were not a wholly unprecedented experience, never had it been with Lydia, even when they were both girls.

She looked positively girlish in the candlelight, but her unsteady step gave her away, as did the worried expression on her face. “Lizzy, I had to talk to someone, and Jane -- oh, she wouldn’t understand, would she? What does she know of it?”

Elizabeth rubbed her eyes, and sat on the bed. “Lydia, I don’t -- ”

“She never asked, or did anything, and even now whenever I try to talk about it she says I ought to pity him -- something about it not being his fault. And if it isn’t his fault, whose is it?”

“Lydia -- ”

“And of course I wasn’t sure if I could talk to you, your being an old maid and all -- even if you won't wear a cap -- but what Mr Darcy said made me think -- he always does, and it’s so unpleasant -- but I am, I think -- I think things might have been very bad, worse than they were, I mean, without him, so I always try to do what he wants.” Elizabeth felt a moment of gratitude that it had not been a less scrupulous man who had “saved” Lydia. “Mr Darcy says I’m to go to Ireland, and that I shan’t have to see Wickham again. Is that true, Lizzy?”

Elizabeth looked at Lydia’s weak, vulnerable face, and felt tears pricking at her eyes. “Yes, Lydia, it is.”

Lydia sighed. “Oh, I am so glad. I don’t know what I might have done, you see, if I had to. He did things to me -- oh, Lizzy, I shouldn’t say, but, but you won’t tell?”

Confusedly, Elizabeth said, “Of course not.”

“I liked it at first,” Lydia confided. Elizabeth suddenly realised what she was about to hear and flushed deeply in the candlelight, grateful that this would not be her first exposure to the subject. “It was so -- well, you wouldn’t be able to understand. I don’t think you’ve ever even been in love, have you?”

“I -- ”

“Anyway, it was so pleasant at first, I suppose I thought it would always be like that, but apparently men can’t be satisfied with just one woman, at least, that’s what Wickham always said. And he liked some rather odd things, but I didn’t mind, at first. And I think I must have conceived before we were married, Betsey was born so early, but anyway, when we found out I was going to have a baby, he didn’t really care, but I saw less of him, and I heard . . . things -- apparently he visited brothels, and there was a lieutenant’s wife -- well, I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but of course, later, I guessed, but that was fine, because he became very rough later on and -- ”

The conversation proceeded in like vein for at least five more minutes, Elizabeth listening in mute horror. When Lydia had finally exhausted her supply of reminiscences, she said, “Lydia, I -- I’m so sorry -- ”

“Oh, it’s not your fault,” Lydia said breezily. “But I really didn’t think I could manage it another day. I kept imagining doing some dreadful things to him -- not that kind of thing -- hitting him with the vase or something -- or maybe shooting him with his own gun. That would have been rather funny, wouldn’t it? Except I’m sure bad things happen to you if you kill your husband, don’t they?”

Elizabeth felt something of Anne Darcy’s astonishment that she, Jane, and Lydia should all be sisters. “Yes,” she said, not trusting herself much further.

“Anyway, that night, that was the first time I thought of Mr Darcy. Of course I knew that he couldn’t be that bad after all if Wickham disliked him, and at the wedding -- well, if he knew what Wickham was like -- that’s probably why he tried to keep me from marrying him.” The flow of words halted, Lydia looking pale and despondent suddenly. “I, I wish I had listened to him, Lizzy.”

Elizabeth thought of any number of remarks in response to this, but instead held her sister’s hand and said, “I’m sure you do.”

“Anyway, I thought of him -- and he always seemed -- so respectable -- even if he wanted things, because Wickham said all men did, that they wouldn’t do anything without being -- paid, in some form or another, and of course I had no money and the children -- anyway, I thought they couldn’t possibly be half so bad as living with Wickham, so I went to his house. I had to walk a bit, of course, but Jane had sent some money that Wickham hadn’t spent yet, so I used that, and of course he wasn’t there, and his servants were the proudest, most disagreeable people -- ” She took a deep breath. “But, Lizzy, I don’t understand, and I thought you might explain it, because you’re so clever, and you seem to talk to Mr Darcy quite a lot, even though you don’t seem well -- I don’t think it’s very warm at all.”

Elizabeth bit her lip. “What do you not understand, Lydia?” she asked patiently. Lydia wrung her hands.

“Mr Darcy was, he was . . . kind,” she said, trying out the last word as if it were in a foreign tongue. “And I don’t understand why. He hates Wickham and he said that he wasn’t helping me to upset him and I don’t think he likes me much -- but he didn’t ask for anything, and when I offered -- ”

Elizabeth stared, horrified. “You didn’t -- Liddy, you did not -- surely you did not -- proposition Mr Darcy!”

“Well, not exactly. I am a lady, Lizzy,” Lydia said indignantly. Elizabeth could scarcely hide her incredulity at this, and was forced to look away. “I supposed he would want something, though, and he didn’t -- I meant that I offered -- well, I implied that I would be willing to -- oh, never mind. You’re an old maid, you can’t understand.”

Elizabeth could only imagine how subtle one of Lydia’s implications would be -- rather akin to having an anvil thrown at one’s head. “What did he say?” she asked, trembling at the thought.

“He was really very gracious about it. He just said, ‘Thank you for the compliment, Mrs Wickham, but I am not in the habit of ravishing my houseguests’ ” -- Lydia’s gift for mimicry almost made Elizabeth smile at this -- “and asked me not to mention it again. He seemed very surprised, really.”

Elizabeth wondered how she would ever look him in the face again. “What do you wish me to explain?” she asked, clinging to the shreds of her composure. Jane, I have never properly appreciated you before.

“Well, I simply don’t understand why he should help without getting anything in return. And then I thought -- he was the one who did everything for my wedding, and he didn’t ask for anything then either. But Wickham said that all men -- ”

“Lydia,” Elizabeth said firmly, “you should forget anything Wickham ever told you, particularly about what men are like or what they want, because he was -- is -- a selfish, depraved man who assumes everyone is as bad as he is.”

Lydia tilted her head to the side, considering this, and Elizabeth almost laughed, for it was exactly the same gesture Darcy used when thoughtful. “Oh,” she said, after a moment. “I did know that they weren’t all quite like Wickham -- some men are not really -- they don’t like to hurt things. There was a merchant in Newcastle, he always missed whenever he hunted, not because he was a poor shot -- he missed on purpose -- but because he couldn’t stand to kill anything, even spiders and things. His wife told me that he liked to fish but always let them go. That’s why I decided to go to him, you know -- Mr Darcy, not the merchant -- because I didn’t think he was the other sort, like Wickham. I never heard him raise his voice or anything, even when mamma practically insulted him to his face, so . . .” She shrugged.

“Mr Darcy helped you, Lydia, because he -- because he felt that he ought to.” Lydia simply looked blank at that, and Elizabeth struggled to simplify the matter still further. “Mr Darcy is a little like Jane. Do you know how, when something bad happens, she always seems to think it’s partly her fault, that she should have done something about it before it happened?”

“Oh yes. She’s very silly that way,” said Lydia thoughtlessly, and Elizabeth felt her head begin to ache from clenching her teeth together so long.

“Silly or not, that is the answer to your question. He feels responsible for what happens to the people around him, and he tries to help.”

“Oh.” Lydia chewed her lip. “Well, it is silly, but it’s . . . rather nice too, isn’t it?”

Elizabeth took a deep, steadying breath. “Yes, Lydia, it is.”

“I think he likes you, Lizzy.” Elizabeth blinked, thrown a little off by the incomprehensible turn of subject.

“I beg your pardon?”

“I think Mr Darcy likes you. Just -- the way he looks at you -- it’s not the way Wickham looked at me, before we went off to London, but a little bit the same -- interested, I suppose. He is really a nice person even if he is a man, and of course if you mean to be married it will have to be some man or another, and it would be very unpleasant if he fell in love with you and you still disliked him.”

Elizabeth looked at her sister’s vacant expression, and got to her feet, her patience nearing its end. “Lydia,” she said firmly, “I think we have talked long enough.”

“You should think about it,” Lydia said off-handedly, flipping her braid over her shoulder. The sudden movement was so like what she had done as a child that Elizabeth felt a brief surge of tenderness and pressed her lips against her sister’s forehead.

“If it gives you any comfort, dear sister, I am madly in love with Mr Darcy, and I know that he loves me, and if anything comes of it I shall write you directly.”

Lydia’s face was suddenly wreathed in smiles, and she hugged Elizabeth tightly. “That would be lovely, Lizzy. I should like to see you happy. You see how happy Jane is, after all, and she is only married to Mr Bingley.

“Good night, Lydia,” said Elizabeth.

---

Chapter Five

“Goodbye, Jane, Lizzy, Mr Bingley!”

“Goodbye, Lydia!”

“Farewell, Mrs Wickham. I hope your trip is pleasant.”

“Goodbye, Mr Darcy. I will try and be good, I promise.” Darcy flushed deeply as Lydia impulsively flung her arms around him and kissed his cheek. “I think you are the nicest man I have ever met,” she whispered. “Marry Lizzy soon, won’t you?”

“Thank you,” said Darcy.

“Bye-bye Aunt Lydia,” chorused the Bingley children.

Anne and Betsey examined each other. “Goodbye, Miss Wickham,” Anne said, imitating her father’s cold civility.

“Goodbye,” said Betsey, and stuck her tongue out.

“Betsey!” Jane exclaimed. Anne sniffed and retreated behind her father’s leg. The five children, two nursemaids, and Lydia herself were piled into the carriage, and with one last “Goodbye!” set off.

---

Darcy and Elizabeth were far less circumspect once Lydia was gone, although still discreet out of regard for propriety. When possible, they met outside, taking long walks around Baildon. For the first time, Elizabeth lamented the comparatively small size of the park -- although larger than Longbourn, it was much smaller than even Netherfield, let alone Pemberley or Rosings. The grounds were so neat and trim that it was impossible to unfortunately lose their way. Even worse, as autumn was left firmly behind, there were fewer and fewer opportunities to walk outside, and they were forced to happen across one another within the house.

Nevertheless, Elizabeth decided, there was something to be said for the library. Neither Bingley nor Jane nor Lady Elliot nor any of their children were in the habit of frequenting that room, while Darcy spent hours at a time there -- even when she was not present. There was a sort of intimacy fostered by their shared delight in its contents. She remembered the first time she found him there, seated near a window, sitting perfectly, inflexibly, upright. His eyes were fixed on the book he was reading, the only sound the loud, contented purring of Mrs Burrows’ mouser, which was curled on Darcy’s lap. There had been something so domestic about the scene that she could almost imagine they were married already --

“Hello, Mr Darcy,” she said, and he started, jerking his eyes up to meet hers with a delighted expression.

“Miss Bennet! What a -- ” he disengaged the cat and scrambled gracefully to his feet -- “pleasure.”

There were, it seemed, a hundred little things she could not but help find endearing. That day, it was his fondness for cats, and it took very little effort on her part to draw out the childhood tale of his first feline, the recalcitrant Alfred. His eyes danced as he spoke, enchanting her anew, and he seemed at least as delighted with her. She rather thought that he would be content to simply enjoy her company, listening to her voice and gazing at her face. However, much as she enjoyed reciprocating the attention, such complacence was not for her. She did not dream of contentment but joy.

Anne -- for she had to be considered, even were she not so attached to her father -- accompanied them about half the time, and Elizabeth found her to be wilful, haughty, clever, and delightful beyond belief. In many ways, Anne was more like the Darcy she remembered than was Darcy himself. It seemed, sometimes, that all but the bare essentials had been burnt away. She was pleased to see him growing a little more like his old self, more like his daughter, who often watched her with a curious expression, as if not entirely certain what she was about. Despite Anne’s friendship with Jenny, she seemed happiest when in her father’s company, and often fell asleep at Darcy’s side or in his arms.

She realised, then, that the matter was not so simple as she had at first thought. He loved her, and she him; that much was plain. However, his heart was not the only one she had to win over, nor was his the only opinion she need consider. She did not care to think of Anne’s mother, and it was not a difficult feat -- Anne and Rosemary were nothing alike, in manner or countenance -- but if he did propose -- again -- she would have to think of her predecessor. She knew nothing of her ladyship’s ways, what example she had set -- although she was certain the other woman had been a model of decorum and propriety.

After fretting herself awake one night, she grew impatient and when speaking with Darcy the following day, turned the conversation in that direction. “What was she like?” Elizabeth asked. “I scarcely exchanged five words with her, but she seemed very . . .” she forced a complimentary word out -- “well-bred.”

Darcy looked startled, as if she were speaking of a stranger. “Rosemary?” He shrugged. “She was kind, and sweet-natured, and quiet -- a little like Mrs Bingley, but --” he hesitated -- “not quite so . . . modest. And --” he smiled, with a trace of affection in his look -- very like how he appeared when he spoke of his cousin or his grandmother -- “she was very different before Anne was born. She actually tried to cut my hair off.”

Elizabeth stared. “I beg your pardon?”

“Her moods were very strange that year, but the rest of the time I knew her she was usually serene and even-tempered.” He turned his head to look at her, his expression intent. “Why do you ask?”

“I was only wondering if Miss Darcy was much like her mother.”

“Not at all,” Darcy said cheerfully. Then, cautiously, he added, “Anne and I both favour the Fitzwilliams, but she has a -- a vivacity -- that is very unlike both her parents. I -- I am not very lively, myself.” Then, speaking so softly that she could scarcely hear him -- she was quite certain he did not mean to be heard, and perhaps did not even realise he was speaking aloud -- he added, “She is more like you, in that way.”

His look was distinctly strange -- somehow distressed, although she could not imagine -- she stared, her brows drawn together, wishing not for the first time that she could hear his thoughts.

---

The entire party at Baildon -- the Bingleys and their children, Lady Elliot and her children (who could not be civilly excluded from the invitation), Mrs Gardiner and the girls, Darcy, Anne, and Elizabeth -- fortunately divided into two carriages, all travelled the thirty miles to Pemberley in late November. Elizabeth was eager to see it again, and felt like a child as she peered out, feeling distinctly silly next to the elegant Lady Elliot. Jane had insisted upon bundling her so thoroughly that she was shaped rather like a teapot, but as soon as they reached the last peak, and looked down at the valley, she forgot everything but Pemberley.

It was more beautiful than she remembered -- perhaps it was the effect of winter rather than summer, the snow covering everything in a layer of pristine white -- but somehow the image she had carried in her mind was pale compared to the reality. Amidst the cold purity of the grounds, the house seemed warm and welcoming, and the entire party hurried out of the carriage, Darcy following last and offering his arm to Elizabeth and his hand to Anne.

As the servants helped them undress, Elizabeth turned and caught the sight of a tall, stately woman walking towards them. She was vaguely familiar; but it was only when she stood at Darcy’s side and graciously joined him in welcoming them all to Pemberley, that the close resemblance between the siblings gave her identity away.

“It’s a pleasure to see you again, Miss Bennet,” Lady Westhampton said kindly, the expression in her dark eyes not so much suspicious as contemplative, and a little anxious.

The prospect of staying at Pemberley as a guest was a daunting one, but she quickly adapted. Avoiding Lady Elliot was not nearly as difficult, as Pemberley was well over twice Baildon’s size; even without leaving the house, it took no great effort on her part. The unfortunate effect of this was that she saw less of Jane than she would have preferred, since Lady Elliot had taken a firm liking to Mrs Bingley after the wedding -- a liking which, surprisingly enough, persisted to this day, and which had affected Jane’s perspective of her sister-in-law rather more than it ought, in Elizabeth’s opinion. The two women, both up to their ears in all matters domestic, spent their time together swapping advice and opinions, and their friendship -- if friendship it could be called -- did not seem to have had an ill effect on either. Elizabeth, however, trusting Jane’s discretion but not her composure, avoided their little gatherings, as she was certain Lady Elliot’s icy civility would degenerate into something worse if she ever guessed at the truth.

To make up for that difficulty, however, there were Mrs Gardiner and the girls. Elizabeth had never had much to do with her cousins, as she was not someone with a great natural fondness for children, but she now found Margaret and Amelia to be a delight. That they referred to Darcy as their ‘uncle’ and Mrs Gardiner by his Christian name befuddled her for a moment, before the five of them laughingly explained how the situation had developed. Amelia, the most like Elizabeth, had -- for that reason or others -- always been Darcy’s favourite among the children, and although she would no longer suffer herself to be whirled into the air, she could not restrain herself from clapping her hands at the simple trinkets bestowed on herself and her sisters.

Quiet little Margaret was nearly fifteen, and dreading her coming-out like nothing else. She also seemed to be struggling with a tendre for Darcy, which could not help but remind Elizabeth of poor Tom. She was not sure when or how it had happened, but the young stableman was utterly devoted to her, and seemed perfectly content to worship from a distance. It was rather unsettling, really, particularly given his clear antipathy towards the Collinses. She was glad that everyone else, including Darcy, seemed oblivious to Margaret’s feelings.

The Westhamptons left only two days after her arrival -- they had been at Pemberley for far too long, as Darcy prudently sent for his sister as soon as Lydia took up residence. Lady Westhampton, although reserved, seemed as sensible and good-humoured as Elizabeth recalled; her husband was a charming, easy-mannered man, and Elizabeth quite liked them both. Their son she neither saw nor heard of; apparently due to his painful shyness, he preferred solitude. She caught the end of a conversation, and knew Darcy to be worried over his nephew’s unshakable solemnity --

“Georgiana, even I was not like this.”

“What am I to do?” Lady Westhampton inquired. “You know very well that there is nothing to be done. We can only wait for him to outgrow it. I cannot understand why you seem determined to --”

“He’s getting worse,” said Darcy, “not better. I am certain, something is wrong, he will not speak even to me -- ”

Elizabeth could not bear to eavesdrop on such an intimate conversation, and cleared her throat. Brother and sister whirled around to stare at her, Georgiana looking distressed and Darcy relieved.

“Miss Bennet,” they chorused, and she smiled.

“Mr Darcy, Lady Westhampton. Please excuse the intrusion -- I had no idea anyone was in here -- ” she threw a longing glance at the books against the wall, making both siblings laugh despite their earlier intensity.

The three Westhamptons left early in the morning, and so she never saw little Stephen Deincourt; but the snatch of the conversation she had overheard told her the reason for Darcy’s occasional preoccupation, and the worried line that formed between his brows when left silent too long. Nevertheless “the courtship” proceeded properly, and more easily than it had at Baildon. She was quite certain from some of the looks he gave her, and from the wash of heat that so frequently overwhelmed her -- sometimes at the most inappropriate moments -- that only her state of mourning kept him from renewing his proposals.

However, were matters not convoluted enough, they received company after only a mostly blissful fortnight at Pemberley. Elizabeth was just escaping the obligatory hour or two with Lady Elliot and Jane, when she ran almost directly into a party of three, two gentlemen and a lady. Despite the passage of years, the elder of the two men was immediately recognisable. He blinked.

“Miss Bennet?”

“Colonel Fitzwilliam,” she said politely. His companions were clearly brother and sister; they were both dark and slightly-built -- in fact they were very like all in all -- but in something of a reversal of the usual way of things, he was by far the less handsome, the features so suited to her earthy, irregular beauty, somehow unbalanced and even plain on his face. The servant accompanying them looked distinctly overwrought at this interruption to his usual procedure, and she said kindly, “I believe Mr Darcy is in his study.” The lady’s neatly-arched dark brows rose, and she gazed at Elizabeth with clear curiosity before following the servant. Elizabeth continued on her own way.

---

Mr Darcy, it transpired, was not in his study but the ever-useful library, and as Elizabeth slipped in, she smiled at his faintly startled expression, and after exchanging greetings, said, “Mr Darcy, did you know that Colonel Fitzwilliam is here?”

Astonishingly, an expression of dread came over his face. “Oh? Did his wife accompany him?”

Elizabeth blinked. “I believe so.”

The horrified look grew even more pronounced. “Ah. I -- oh, hello, Fitzwilliam.”

The colonel and his companions entered the room, trailed by the harried-looking servant. With a very faint smile, Darcy said, “Diggory, you may go.”

Grateful, the servant obeyed, while the two cousins shook hands, Darcy retreating, by instinct, it seemed, to his old unsociable habits. He pointedly ignored the other pair.

“Miss Bennet, I do not believe you have been introduced? This is my wife, Mary, and her brother, Mr Crawford.”

She pleasantly greeted them, wondering at Darcy’s antipathy. Mary Fitzwilliam was in colouring not dissimilar from herself, and there was a liveliness in her manners that was also eerily familiar; but something about her dark eyes -- a hardness absent from her brother’s -- Elizabeth could not help but find repellent.

“I must leave immediately, Darcy,” Fitzwilliam was saying.

“So soon?” Darcy inquired, looking only a little disappointed. He took a step closer to Elizabeth as Mrs Fitzwilliam smiled at him, toying with his pen.

“Would you mind excusing my cousin and me?” Fitzwilliam asked of the others. “There is some business I must speak of him on.”

“Of course,” the Crawfords said, and Elizabeth hesitated only a moment before joining them, although she had no desire to be left alone with the siblings, whose very air denoted them the sort of people she least liked to associate with, not excluding Lady Elliot.

---

The colonel had business elsewhere -- apparently some sort of military duty -- and was, apparently, inviting his wife and her brother to Pemberley until he could fetch them back again. Elizabeth found herself dreading the following weeks, with good reason. It was clear that Mrs Fitzwilliam and Mr Crawford were not unduly burdened by scruples, and she certainly did not find her wedded state to be much of a hindrance in her pursuit of -- of all people! -- her husband’s cousin. To make matters worse, Elizabeth frequently found herself being watched by the brother, and sympathised strongly with Darcy’s plight. The only positive aspect to it all was that she and Darcy, with the solidarity of the hunted, had grown closer together; although, she did not realise how close, until late one evening, about a week before Christmas.

It was like something out of a novel that she would not have admitted to reading. She was not sleeping well, her thoughts whirling round and round, and the sound of a carriage arriving -- in the middle of the night, no less! -- did nothing to help. Eventually, she swung her legs around, pulled on a robe, and departed for the library, intending to see if Darcy’s extensive collection extended to conduct manuals. To her astonishment, a woman ran by her, tears streaming down her face -- it was, without a doubt, Lady Westhampton. Those features could not be mistaken -- but she was so altered from when Elizabeth had seen her two weeks earlier that she could scarcely comprehend it. Dreading what she would find, Elizabeth pushed open the library door, and found --

Nothing. Or so it seemed at first. It was only as her eyes adjusted to the dim light that she recognised Darcy’s tall figure.

“Mr Darcy?” she asked tentatively, not remotely afraid for herself, but uncertain about him. He remained motionless, but responded,

“Miss Bennet.” Although his voice was level, it was harsher and more dispassionate than she remembered, except perhaps at the very earliest stages of their acquaintance -- but no, not even then, had it been like this. Elizabeth approached, throwing propriety and caution to the winds, until she could clearly make him out. He stood very still and upright, like a statue, apparently oblivious to his state of partial undress -- indeed, to hers as well. One arm was lying on top of the mantle, and he looked -- she searched for a word, and the one she found terrified her. He looked, his strong masculine frame notwithstanding, frail.

From the door, another voice, gravelly with sleep, said, “Mr Darcy? He shall be well -- in body -- but Lady Westhampton thought -- ”

For the first time, Darcy moved, approaching the stranger. She could see him, a blur of white, reaching his arms out, and cradling a slender dark form in them, turning to approach his chair.

Anne! Elizabeth’s breath caught, even as the stranger retreated, but Darcy looked up. “Miss Bennet, are you still here?”

“Yes, Mr Darcy,” she said tremulously. “Is she well, sir?”

He lifted his head up, and out of the corner of her eye, she noticed that the night was beginning to fade. She could now see him well enough, see his face, which looked, not older, as she had expected from his manner, but younger -- pale and frightened, almost like a child -- and she looked down, and stared. The long slender limbs, untidy black hair, the lashes long and dark against an ashen cheek -- they were all familiar to her, she knew them almost as well as her own face. Except it was not her own, it was Darcy’s -- and yet not quite his, but close enough that she knew who it must be.

“My nephew,” Darcy explained tersely, stroking the dark hair away from the boy’s strained features. The pain and fear and longing written on Darcy’s face told more than he knew, and Elizabeth struggled to keep herself from reaching out to the pair. Jane had once said that bearing children changed one forever -- one was never the same person afterwards -- one’s identity was forever wrapped up in mother -- and somehow Elizabeth had never understood, until now. It was bizarre, because Darcy was certainly not Stephen’s mother in the respect that Jane meant -- but she knew, as she watched the startlingly incongruous picture -- tall, austere Fitzwilliam Darcy, gently rocking the little boy in his arms, Stephen’s cheek pillowed on his shoulder. There was both wonder and tenderness coupled with the heart-wrenching horror and guilt in his face, and Elizabeth's breathing stilled for a moment. He felt as much towards this child as any father could -- as any mother could --

The moon passed in front of a cloud, and light spilled through the window, onto the two dark heads; and she saw what she had never noticed before, white growing in Darcy’s dark hair. An intense, irrational fear took hold of her then, and she could not stop herself from kneeling beside him, briefly laying her head against his leg, trying to offer whatever comfort and strength she could.

“What happened?”

“He hurt himself,” Darcy said brokenly. She felt as if it were the Lambton Inn all over again, except there was no letter, and it was he, not her, who sat there, at the brink of some awful precipice, looking like he might fall down, or shatter into a thousand pieces, if he were pushed the slightest bit further. He was not weeping, as she had -- at least -- his head was bent -- she looked up into his eyes, and he was, soundlessly, his whole body trembling. Elizabeth, scarcely knowing what she did -- knowing only that she must do something -- gently stroked the small colourless face, and asked softly:

“It must have been a dreadful accident?”

Darcy laughed humourlessly. “No, no. See -- ” He reached out, and turned one of the little boy’s pale wrists about. She gasped, raising horrified eyes to meet his own. “He is not well,” said Darcy; “he never has been.”

His body was shivering even more violently, and Elizabeth, acting on instinct, helped hold Stephen still. “Let me help,” she said; “you cannot do this, you are not str -- steady enough.”

There was a pause, in which a dozen lurid fears passed through her mind. Then he allowed his eyes to close, and rocked a little. “Please help --” he said, “I can't -- please -- Elizabeth -- ”

---


Chapter Six

Two hours later, Elizabeth’s throat ached from constantly speaking in a low, soothing murmur, and she was beginning to nod off. She left to refresh herself, and upon returning to Stephen’s room, smiled as she saw uncle and nephew sprawled across the bed, both breathing deeply, their faces relaxed and free of pain. Elizabeth sighed, scarcely believing the tangled web she had woven herself into, and departed, briefly leaning her aching head against the door.

A tall, grey figure, black hair spilling down its shoulders, could be seen walking down the hallway, and Elizabeth started, her tired mind instantly supposing a ghost had joined their party. Sense instantly returned, however, and she quickly made out Lady Westhampton’s familiar features. Elizabeth straightened, and the younger woman, her dark eyes shadowed, gazed at her in weary confusion.

“Lady Westhampton,” Elizabeth said gently, “your son will be well, and Mr Darcy is with him.”

Lady Westhampton’s shoulders sagged. “You are certain?” she asked, in a bare whisper.

“The doctor said so; and Mr Darcy and Stephen are both asleep, in this room. They are both -- weary.”

Lady Westhampton’s brow creased and she looked away, one hand pressing against her back. “What am I to do?” she asked plaintively. Elizabeth could not conceal her startled expression at the sudden confidence, but the other did not seem to perceive it. “I love him -- I do!”

She sounded more as if she were trying to convince herself, or someone else, than Elizabeth, so she simply waited. “I should not have -- what should I have done? I don’t know. At first -- oh, that wretched, wretched woman! Fitzwilliam says he saw -- do you think he did?”

“I hardly know,” said Elizabeth, wondering if she were the only sane people left in this house.

“I suppose it’s impossible to know,” Lady Westhampton agreed. “Is it because I allowed him to stay here too long? He loved it so much -- from the first -- just like Fitzwilliam. Oh! they are too alike -- it was easier, to let Fitzwilliam take care -- he always does -- and by the time everything was set in order again, it was too late, I suppose. Stephen always preferred Fitzwilliam to everyone else, even Anne -- but he was only a little boy. I do not understand, why could he not adjust? We all do -- but even if he missed it all, there was none of this until she took them.” Vindictively, she added, “Oh, I hope she is suffering for what she did to him. He was perfectly fine before she died!” Then she seemed to wilt a little, her expression growing confused and lost once more. “Except -- perhaps -- I do not know.”

Elizabeth could make very little sense of all this. “Lady Westhampton, it is nearly dawn, and you must be very tired. You need to keep your strength up, your son will need you, and so will your brother.”

“My brother?” Lady Westhampton’s brow furrowed, and she laughed humourlessly. “Fitzwilliam? I fear you misunderstand, Miss Bennet -- my brother, he is -- he doesn’t need anyone, we need him.”

Elizabeth’s eyes flashed, and she replied sharply, “I fear you misunderstand, Lady Westhampton,” before bearing in mind the younger woman’s circumstance. She deliberately turned away, recovering herself, then gentled her voice and manner. “Mr Darcy is a remarkable man, but he is also a mortal one, and he is subject to the same fears and temptations and frailties as the rest of us. You have already said that your son and your brother are too alike -- do you not understand what that means?” She searched the other woman’s eyes, and added, “Mr Darcy is so very exhausted, your ladyship -- I am afraid for him.”

Lady Westhampton looked horrified. “Fitzwilliam?” Her voice instantly went shrill, and Elizabeth could perceive, with some relief, that beneath the reliance and admiration and gratitude, there existed a deep, sincere, steady affection for her brother. “Miss Bennet, you do not mean -- Fitzwilliam is -- he would not hurt himself in that way, surely!”

Elizabeth touched her shoulder. “You are quite right, he would not hurt himself in that way. You were the one who warned my brother about his fainting spell?”

Lady Westhampton turned white. “Yes -- that -- he pushed himself too far.”

“Yes,” Elizabeth said patiently.

“You do not think he shall do so again?”

Elizabeth sighed. “I think he already has -- that he has been doing so for longer than I care to think about.”

Lady Westhampton tilted her head to the side, considering. “Oh dear,” she said confusedly, then seemed to regain her sense of themselves and their surroundings. She looked at Elizabeth in some perplexity. “Miss Bennet -- forgive me, but -- what are you doing here?”

“Mr Darcy invited my family,” she replied.

“No, no -- here, right now. You know what the doctor said -- and what happened -- and you must have been with my brother when -- why, it must have been quite three o’clock in the morning.”

Elizabeth bit her lip. “It was an accident. I could not sleep, and went to the library to find something to read.”

“Oh.” She actually looked disappointed, then cheered slightly. “But -- he told you -- and you were in Stephen’s room -- with them, quite alone?”

“Yes.” She could not help but stare, as Lady Westhampton seemed somewhat relieved at this. Smiling tiredly, the marchioness said,

“I hope you will forgive the impertinence of this, Miss Bennet, but . . . has my brother, has he made you an offer of marriage?”

It was on the tip of her tongue to say “No” or even “Not exactly.” She thought, of how little comprehension Georgiana -- anyone at all -- seemed to have of Mr Darcy's state, of how no one saw the need to care for him in any way; and of how propriety would keep them apart -- at this time, when he needed her so much -- when he had asked, with a weary desperation that still frightened her. She hesitated.

“Miss Bennet?” Lady Westhampton inquired softly. Elizabeth took a deep breath, nervously twisting a lock of hair around one finger, and replied, truthfully but not honestly,

“Yes, he has.”

---

Elizabeth accompanied a bewildered Lady Westhampton to her room, and left with strict instructions that she sleep for what remained of the “night.” She was startled at how easily, even eagerly, the other woman responded to a direct order; but Elizabeth recalled the girl she had once been, tremulous Miss Darcy, and thought that now, she could see more than a hint of that girl in dignified Lady Westhampton.

It was difficult enough to follow her own advice; Elizabeth tossed and turned, planning and considering and simply worrying, the moment when Darcy had looked up at her and said her name imprinted on her mind. Any doubts she had ever harboured, even if only for a bare fraction of a moment, were disregarded; she knew him, better than any -- except, perhaps, the Gardiners -- and she knew that he needed her, at least now. Once this was over, doubtless he would be his old self again; but, she could not help but ask herself, would it ever be over? Georgiana seemed to think this was nothing more than a temporary aberration -- or at least she wanted to think so -- but Darcy’s weary comment belied that. Stephen had never been well; quite probably he never would be. She wondered what he was like -- she had seen him, had nearly wept for him -- for a child with every worldly happiness, whose mind could be so overburdened -- yet she knew nothing of him, beyond his intense attachment to Pemberley and Darcy. Did he even separate the two? Did Darcy?

After a few fitful hours of sleep -- at least, it felt like hours -- she arose, dressed, and wandered about with apparent aimlessness. It was not very long before Darcy, apart from his pallor looking very like his usual self, appeared, just around the corner. Elizabeth gathered her courage.

“Mr Darcy,” she said forthrightly, “there is something I must speak to you about.”

He gave her a look of mingled anticipation and dread, and after a moment of hesitation, escorted her into the library, where they would be afforded privacy. Elizabeth played a little with her skirt, trying to think of the proper way to frame the question. “I happened across your sister very early this morning -- she saw me coming out of your -- Stephen’s room.”

Darcy sighed, but did not seem unduly disturbed. “I daresay I can come up with some sort of explanation, Miss Bennet.”

So it is “Miss Bennet” again? We shall have to see about that. “That should not be necessary,” she said bravely; “I already have; or rather, Lady Westhampton did, but I -- encouraged her, in . . . coming to the conclusion that she did.”

His eyebrows rose. “I do not quite understand . . .”

Elizabeth raised her chin, and clasped her hands behind her back, feeling absurdly like a young girl being called to account for some misbehaviour. “She asked if -- well, she meant, I am quite certain, to ask if we were -- engaged.”

Darcy stared. “You said that -- you and I are . . .?”

“Yes, although I -- what she actually said, was -- she asked if you had made me a proposal of marriage.” Darcy winced, but Elizabeth laughed outright at his stunned look. “Do not fear, if the idea is that unpleasant to you, I shall not hold you to it, once -- all this -- is past.”

“But for now, you shall take care of me, whether I wish it or not?”

“Yes, sir.”

He gave her a look expressive of his wonder, and briefly glanced down, his pale cheeks flushed. “Unpleasant,” he repeated, then, inhaling deeply, took one step closer, and reached out one hand to her. It was steady this morning, and on the surface he seemed much recovered from the night before. She knew better. Elizabeth allowed her fingers to curl against his in mute encouragement, luxuriating in the sensation of touching his flesh, without any inhibiting gloves in the way, her hand, encased in the coolness of his, no longer so burningly hot, but simply exuding an agreeable warmth.

When he spoke, it was in a quiet, caressing tone she had never heard from him before, or indeed from any man, but which could not have left the most disinterested woman unaffected, let alone one so positively disposed towards him as herself.

“As far as I am concerned, nothing could be less unpleasant. My dear Elizabeth,” he said, his dark blue eyes intent on her face, “you know -- you must know -- ” He looked away, breathing quickly, and Elizabeth tightened her grasp on his hands. “You must know, Elizabeth, how greatly I esteem you.” At her astonished look, he hastened to say, “I am inarticulate -- as usual -- but please, allow me to express my -- ” he stopped, slowed, caught his breath, and began anew: “Elizabeth, my love, in four months, it will be seven years since I last asked you to marry me, and I hope you realise that my affections and wishes are unchanged. One word from you will silence me on this subject forever, but . . . ” He swallowed.

“Oh!” Elizabeth exclaimed, blushing fiercely, and far too embarrassed to look him in the eye. It was only then that she realised she had just received a proposal of marriage, hopefully the last. She longed to see how he looked, but could only reply, awkwardly, “Please, sir, I would rather not -- that is -- I -- you are -- Mr Darcy, this would be a very poor time to be silent.”

She glanced up in time to his apprehensive, tired expression transform into one of heartfelt delight, and despite everything -- the predatory Crawford siblings, Georgiana and Lydia, poor Stephen, his own distress constantly bubbling somewhere no longer very far from the surface, her fears and anxieties that someday she would speak to him of -- nothing could keep her from returning it tenfold as he said what he had never dared to before, what he had concealed even from himself, and what he had never supposed she would ever endure -- how incalculably precious she was to him, how beautiful he found her, how desolate he had been without her, how much he loved her -- how, even when married to another woman, a woman he was fond of, who society called a good match for him, he had been unable to stop thinking of her, dreaming of her, wishing only to be with her --

She finally relaxed her grip on his hand, instead opting to lay her cheek against his shoulder, lifting her arms to hold on to him. For Elizabeth, and she was quite certain for Darcy also, it was a moment of exquisite bliss, as she felt one hand against her back, the other tenderly stroking her hair, his heart racing beneath her.

---

Chapter Seven

The world would, and did, intrude; reluctantly, they separated, Elizabeth seeking out Mrs Gardiner, and Darcy returning to Stephen’s room. Her aunt was an early riser, and had already settled into a lonely yellow parlour, which she and Elizabeth both preferred. Quite apart from the colour — her favourite — it had a fine view of the wood, and above the mantelpiece was a painting which had drawn her from the first. It was a portrait of a young woman, presumably one of the generations of Darcy women, about a century old. She was a bare slip of a girl, perhaps fifteen years old, with reddish-gold curls and brilliant blue eyes; but it was something about her face that compelled Elizabeth to return, time and time again, searching for she knew not what. Although there was only a little resemblance to her descendants, the vibrant smile, punctuated by a dimple in her right cheek, was the very image of Darcy’s, and Elizabeth could not help but wonder what she had been like, whether she was a proud Miss Darcy or a slightly overwhelmed Mrs Darcy. Or, she thought, Lady So-and-so, who knew perfectly well who she was, and what she was doing here.

“Lizzy!” Elizabeth kissed her aunt and joined her, simply indulging in idle chatter for the few moments it would be allowed.

“Where are Margaret and Amelia?” she asked, and Mrs Gardiner laughed.

“They are being entertained by Lord Westhampton; did you know his family arrived in the night? He seems nearly out of his mind with worry, the poor man.”

Elizabeth hesitated. “Yes. Yes, I did.”

Mrs Gardiner’s eyebrows rose. “Oh?”

She was deeply grateful that there had been enough presence of mind between them, that they had settled what was to be told, to whom, before parting. “I am engaged to Mr Darcy,” she blurted out. Mrs Gardiner coughed.

“Oh? That’s wonderful, my dear.” She politely refrained from remarking on how long it had taken them to reach this point. Elizabeth told her, then, of how it had come about, and of the situation now facing them.

“That poor boy,” Mrs Gardiner repeated, several times. “And poor Fitzwilliam — how does he manage it?”

Elizabeth shifted uncomfortably. “Last night, I truly thought he might collapse at any moment. No-one else seems to understand how unwell he is, and I really wonder if they would care, even if they did.” She laughed a little. “Except you, my dear aunt — he said that he didn’t think he could have endured it, without your friendship, and my uncle’s.”

Mrs Gardiner smiled. “It has been our pleasure. I daresay he is improved, now, with the knowledge of having won your affections? Surely that cannot but help?”

Elizabeth hesitated. “He seems much improved, yes.”

Mrs Gardiner gave her a piercing look. “You do not think — ”

“Oh, aunt, if you could have seen him! No, I cannot think — I cannot help but worry. He will push himself beyond endurance, if no-one stops him — and none of them seem to see the need, they only . . .” She bit down on her lip, frowning. “I cannot understand them.”

“You cannot help but look at the situation from a different perspective,” Mrs Gardiner said gently. “You are not one of them — yet. None of these people know anything else, in particular poor Lady Westhampton. You see more clearly, because you love him, without expecting anything in return. I am very proud of you, my dear Lizzy. You are a remarkable young woman.”

“Not so young anymore,” Elizabeth said ruefully, but smiled and clasped her aunt’s hand in thanks.

“You are no older than Fitzwilliam was when he met you. When you are approaching forty, as I am, then you may speak of a past youth. Take care of yourself, Lizzy, and of your young man.”

“I shall,” Elizabeth promised, and kissed Mrs Gardiner’s cheek. As she stood up, the portrait caught her eye once more, as the girl smiled warmly at all the world. “Do you know who that is, aunt?”

“No,” said Mrs Gardiner, glancing over her shoulder. “She seems a very happy young lady, doesn’t she?”

Elizabeth smiled. “Yes.”

---

About an hour after breakfast, Elizabeth determined to endure Lady Elliot’s company in exchange for the pleasure of Jane’s, but as she approached the parlour her sister favoured, a plaintive sniffling distracted her. She turned — no-one was there. One door was slightly ajar, however, and she opened it, discovering a plain room, and one small girl trying not to cry. She sat curled in the corner of a chair, her hair loose and tangled, looking pale and tired and unhappy.

“Anne — Miss Darcy, good morning,” Elizabeth said gently, and Anne jerked her head up, instantly leapt to her feet and rubbed at one eye.

“Oh, good morning, Miss Bennet.” At Elizabeth’s look, she said defensively, “I have dust in my eye.” Then, horrified, she added, “That was a falsehood, wasn’t it? Oh dear. Papa will be angry with me, angrier than he is already — ”

“Angrier? Miss Darcy, your father is not at all angry with you. I just spoke to him not very long ago, and he was — perfectly happy.”

Anne brightened, then wilted again, looking as downcast as a elfin five-year-old could. “But . . . but he didn’t read to me, last night.”

“He was very busy,” Elizabeth said. Anne looked at her reproachfully.

“He never forgets. Ever! He is never too busy for me, he said so. But he wasn’t in the library, or the study, or at breakfast, or anything!” She sniffled. Elizabeth hesitated only a moment before seating herself by the girl, and inviting her to do the same. Anne huddled in the corner of her chair, gazing at Elizabeth suspiciously.

“Miss Darcy,” said Elizabeth, “do you know that the Westhamptons are here?”

Anne nodded. “I heard someone bringing something to my aunt, and my uncle playing the violoncello. He plays very nicely.”

Elizabeth took a breath. “They are here because your cousin is -- ” she remembered Darcy’s phrase -- “unwell. Your father has been with him almost all of last night, and most of this morning too. I am sure he means to explain, when Stephen is a little better -- ”

“Why do you call him ‘Stephen,’ and me, ‘Miss Darcy’?”

Elizabeth did not quite think she ought to explain that it was impossible to think of that pale little boy as “Lord Stephen Deincourt,” while Anne was every inch a Miss Darcy of Pemberley. “I supposed that’s what I am accustomed to hearing,” she said vaguely. It only occurred to her at that moment that Anne might feel something like sibling rivalry in response to being abandoned for her cousin’s sake.

“Oh. Well, if he was with Stephen, that’s different,” Anne said, regaining her customary cheer. “Do you think he’ll be sick very long? I should like to talk to him, once he’s better.”

“You will have to ask your father,” Elizabeth prevaricated.

“Is it his head or his body that is unwell? Because I remember after grandmamma died and Stephen stayed with us for months and months and he was so odd, jumping and frightened of every littlest thing -- of course I was a little scared too, but I was fine once I got back at Pemberley and papa was here and everything was normal -- and I asked why, and papa said he was a little unwell, but because he didn’t have a fever or cough or anything, I said that he didn’t seem sick really, and papa said his head was a little sick. He’s a little bit odd, not very much -- not like grandmamma -- but I am sorry that he’s not feeling well because he’s the nicest person in the world after papa, and maybe Mrs Bingley because she is very nice too, but of course Stephen’s my cousin so I ought to like him better, and I think I do, but you are also very nice, as nice as Aunt Georgiana.”

“Both his head and his body are unwell,” Elizabeth said, “and thank you for the compliment.”

“Oh, it wasn’t a compliment, I really meant it,” said Anne artlessly. “Is Aunt Margaret in mamma’s parlour? Papa said she likes it there -- Aunt Margaret, I mean, not mamma, mamma is dead, of course.”

Elizabeth stiffened. “Was that your mother’s?”

“Yes, well, it was re -- re -- re-somethinged, for her. She used to get dreadful headaches so they had the curtains closed, but it made the room dark, so they painted it yellow, that was her favourite colour.” Elizabeth almost started; it was a mere coincidence, naturally, but that she and Lady Rosemary should share something so elemental as a preference for yellow was somehow disturbing. “Papa stayed away because mamma liked to be alone,” Anne rambled on, “and papa too, except with people he really loves like me and Aunt Margaret and you and -- ”

“And I?” Elizabeth knew perfectly well that he loved her; but he had told his daughter? Impossible, surely -- she had asked, and he had very definitely said that he had only told two people, besides Elizabeth herself --

“Well, why else would he spend so much time with you?” Elizabeth choked, and Anne looked horrified, blushing fiercely. “Oh dear, that was offends-if, wasn’t it? I didn’t mean it that way, really, it’s just he never spends much time with people he doesn’t like, and he spends so much with you that he must like you a great deal -- I am always saying things like that, I just say what I think but it comes out wrong and offends people, you wouldn’t believe what I said to Lady Metcalfe when we were visiting my aunt Lady Catherine.” She straightened. “Papa says I got it from him. Of course, I got pratally everything from him, Aunt Cecily says I’m a chip off . . . a chip off . . . well, a chip off something that has to do with papa, that I’m just like him, except of course I talk more, but she says he talked more too when he was my age and they couldn’t ever get him to stop asking questions but he never talked in front of strangers because he was so shy and didn’t really like people and just wanted to read or something, except when it was family -- ” She stopped, taking a deep breath. Elizabeth took advantage of the respite to say,

“Miss Darcy, surely you have something to be doing this morning?”

“No, I finished all my lessons ages ago, I like to read just like papa -- Aunt Georgiana says he used to read me Euclid and Isaiah and all sorts of things, and that’s why I’m so clever now. But if Stephen is sick Aunt Georgiana must be very upset, she always is -- when he gets sick I mean -- so maybe I should go see her and try to make her feel better?”

Elizabeth smiled, and impulsively pressed her hand against the little girl’s round cheek, leaning down to place a kiss against the smooth black hair. “I think, Miss Darcy, that you could make anyone feel better.”

Anne beamed. “Please call me Anne, Miss Bennet, because if you’re papa’s friend you’re my friend too. And I shall call you -- oh goodness, what am I to call you? Mrs Bingley and Aunt Margaret call you ‘Lizzy’ but that doesn’t seem to fit, I don’t think, and when I asked papa he didn’t think either, so --”

Elizabeth headed off the impending monologue. “My name is Elizabeth.”

“Oh, that’s much better. But I mayn’t call you just ‘Elizabeth’ because that would be disrepecful, because you’re all grown, so I shall call you ‘Miss Elizabeth.’ Don’t you think that shall be nicer than plain ‘Miss Bennet’?”

“Yes, I do,” Elizabeth said, and stood. Anne bounced up.

“You must come and see my aunt too, Miss Elizabeth.” She tugged at Elizabeth’s hand; but along the way, they were distracted by a vaguely familiar male voice, only vaguely familiar, and a woman gasping out something between loud wrenching sobs. Elizabeth sighed, and knelt down.

“Anne,” she said seriously, “why don’t you go to your aunt by yourself? I had better see what this is.”

Anne cast a glance at the door. “Mrs Coofitz must be upset, the doors are very thick,” she remarked. “Oh! I’m not supposed to call her that, that’s Stephen’s name for her.” Elizabeth found it somehow fitting. “Papa doesn’t like her though, so she can’t be a good person, but you had better take care of her for cousin Richard’s sake, because he and papa used to be great friends.” Anne only hesitated for a moment before embracing her, then hurrying down the hallway to Lady Westhampton’s room.

Elizabeth could only imagine what newest disaster had come to roost, but she was absolutely certain that it must not touch Darcy. With her face set in grim lines she herself would not have recognised, she knocked firmly on the door.

---

Mrs Fitzwilliam was sobbing into her brother’s arms; Mr Crawford looked as serious and severe as she had ever seen him, and brushed his sister’s hair back, murmuring comforting, nonsensical words. Standing a little apart from them, looking very large and awkward and confused, was Roberts, Darcy’s omnipresent valet. She thought he was a valet -- whatever he was, he always seemed to be there. Before, she had always found his silent, intense devotion a little unnerving; but now, it was somehow reassuring.

“What on earth has happened?” she demanded. Roberts looked pained, as he replied,

“There’s been a terrible accident, ma’am. Colonel Fitzwilliam was in a hurry to return ho -- here, and accidentally startled a rider who was galloping very quickly past, and -- ” Roberts gulped -- “the carriage completely turned over, it looks like, and was dragged . . . a bit. The horse and the lady -- the rider was a lady -- were caught in it.”

Elizabeth felt the blood draining from her face. “The colonel? How is he?”

Roberts dropped his eyes, while Mrs Fitzwilliam pressed her face into her brother’s shoulder, apparently havng exhausted her tears for the moment. “I’m sorry, miss, but he isn’t -- he didn’t -- it’s a miracle that the driver survived to tell us what happened, ma’am; no-one else did.”

She caught her breath, her mind whirling. It was instinct or intuition or, perhaps, simply logic, that led her to the immediate conclusion. “The lady, the rider whose horse was startled, who was riding so quickly -- do they know who she was?” Roberts, white-faced, looked away. “Roberts?”

A small, trembling voice came from the doorway. “Mi -- Miss Eli -- Miss Elizabeth?”

Elizabeth turned, feeling as if she were pulled from all directions.

“Yes?”

Anne looked pale and frightened as she said, “Miss Elizabeth, Aunt Georgiana isn’t in her rooms -- they said, Mrs Reynolds says, she says that Aunt Georgiana went for a ride, to clear her mind -- because she was so upset and worried about Stephen, and she thought she’d done something bad -- but she hasn’t come back and -- ”

---


Chapter Eight

Elizabeth instantly realised that Roberts was within a hair of telling Anne precisely what had happened. “Excuse me,” she said, and took Anne’s hand, half-leading, half-pulling her out of the room.

“Miss Elizabeth, what’s happening?” Anne wailed. “What’s wrong with Aunt Georgiana?”

Elizabeth’s head was spinning a little. It was almost impossible -- nothing like the long, drawn-out death of her father -- she had seen her, that very morning. I thought she was a ghost. Elizabeth shivered; yet Georgiana had not been a ghost, she had been distraught and wan, but nothing worse; she certainly had not intended to be killed. And Colonel Fitzwilliam -- Elizabeth had not, frankly, given him much thought, except to consider the woeful lack of perception in his choice of a wife. He was not someone who left a great mark; one enjoyed his presence while it lasted, and forgot him once he was gone. And now, she thought, he is gone.

“Anne,” Elizabeth said, “you must be very brave, and very strong.”

Anne’s lip wobbled a little, then she stood up very straight, lifted her chin, and acquired a stern expression somewhat at odds with her pixyish little face. “Yes, ma’am,” she said, then added, “for papa?”

Elizabeth felt her breath catch in her throat, and knelt down. “Yes, for your papa. You see, your aunt -- ” Elizabeth swallowed, uncertain how to phrase it -- “your aunt was out riding, and a carriage went towards her too fast. Her horse was surprised, and all of them fell down together.”

“Oh, is she hurt?” Anne’s dark eyes opened very wide. Elizabeth sighed.

“Yes, Anne. The carriage -- your cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, was in the carriage. And they are -- they are both -- ” Surely there was a gentler way to phrase it? “They were hurt so badly that they died. Do you understand?”

Anne blinked. “Aunt Georgiana -- and cousin Richard -- they’re gone, like mamma?”

Elizabeth shut her eyes briefly, determined not to falter, but feeling a great upwelling of grief. She straightened and said, “Yes, they are.”

“Oh no -- papa,” Anne cried, and begun tugging at Elizabeth’s hand. “Miss Elizabeth, we have to see papa -- and Stephen -- oh, Miss Elizabeth, you will stay and help, won’t you?”

“Yes, I shall, as long as I may,” Elizabeth promised, and quickened her steps, scooping Anne up in her arms. Darcy was not in his study or in Stephen’s room; but a servant said tearfully,

“He is in the library with Lord Westhampton, Miss Bennet,” and sniffled. It was clear that the news had already reached here -- Roberts had probably told Darcy first --

She had no thought for anyone but Darcy and Anne when she entered the library; but to see Lord Westhampton’s large, tall form shaken by near-silent sobs, his face contorted by grief, was an almost physical pain. Darcy was next to his brother-in-law, at first oblivious to her presence; he was speaking in a low, soothing voice, and seemed perfectly composed. Too composed -- Elizabeth glanced at his hands, which were usually a better sign of his mood than his face; he was slowly and methodically shredding a handkerchief into smaller and smaller pieces. His face was pale, and his eyes rather too bright --

“Papa!” said Anne, and hurled herself at him. The two men took notice of her, and stood up, Westhampton rather slowly and dazedly. Anne wrapped her arms about her father’s neck, burrowing against his shoulder; Darcy, with a little sigh, laid his cheek against her hair.

“I have to return to Aincourt,” Westhampton said woodenly. “The arrangements -- ”

“I can -- ” Darcy began.

“No!” Westhampton lowered his voice. “I beg your pardon, Darcy, but I -- I would like to -- to manage it. I wish to do something -- one last thing -- for her.”

Darcy looked at him steadily, then inclined his head. “Very well. And what of Stephen?”

A look of such fury entered his eyes at that moment, that Elizabeth took a step backwards. “Keep him out of my sight.”

Darcy’s eyes flashed, but his voice was calm. “It isn’t his fault. Georgiana could never stand to be cooped up -- she was often restless indoors, regardless of what Stephen may or may not have done -- and always a reckless horsewoman.”

Westhampton’s lips twisted bitterly. “For God’s sake, Darcy, she is dead! Have you no delicacy whatsoever? Can you not keep from criticising your relations for one moment?”

Darcy lifted his chin. “Stephen is alive.”

“Do what you like with him. I will keep you apprised of how the arrangements are going.” He brushed past Elizabeth, slamming the door shut, and Darcy took a deep breath, turning to her with a blank expression. She felt vaguely intrusive, and nearly inquired if she should leave --

With an unsteady sigh, he reached out one hand, and said, in a tone that anyone else would have taken for dispassionate, “Elizabeth. I . . . I am glad you here.”

---

The next few days spun past. Lady Elliot was persuaded, primarily through Jane’s means, to return to Somerset for a time. Elizabeth scarcely saw hide nor hair of the Crawfords; she would have thought them gone as well, had she not heard Mrs Fitzwilliam’s lonely weeping during her nocturnal wanderings. She was secretly glad Lord Westhampton had determined to manage the arrangements for Georgiana’s funeral, which meant there was one less thing for Darcy to do.

From what she had seen the evening the Westhamptons came, she would never have supposed Darcy to remain so composed and competent under such strain. Those first days were nothing short of chaotic; and although she did what she could, the primary burden lay on his shoulders. True, there were moments where his expression grew tired and numb, his eyes a pale lustreless blue, but invariably he straightened his spine, pressed his lips together, shredded a handkerchief, and forged on. They did not see each other often, for with the hours he spent with Stephen, and then making arrangements for Colonel Fitzwilliam, he was locked up in some form or another for most of the day. Only in the early morning, and sometimes the late night, as neither slept very well or very long, did they meet for any length of time.

They did not discuss the tragedy, or anything disagreeable at all, during those meetings, by Elizabeth’s dictate. Instead it was simply a time of respite. The only time it was touched upon was when, in Mrs Gardiner’s parlour — she refused to think of it as Lady Rosemary’s — she asked who was the woman in the portrait. Darcy looked down, rubbing the material of his sleeve between his fingers.

“Fitzwilliam?” she asked gently, and Darcy said, quietly,

“That is my great-grandmother. Her name was — ” he swallowed — “her name was Georgiana. Georgiana Elizabeth Elliot.”

Elizabeth hesitated, then decided it was better, after all, not to pretend it didn’t exist. “Tell me about her.”

Darcy relaxed slightly, smiling a little as he raised his eyes to meet his grandmother’s. “It was not a — a good match for him — that is, his family did not think so.”

Elizabeth’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh?”

“I don’t recall how they met,” he continued, his voice steadying, “but she was only fifteen and he eighteen, and they apparently fell violently in love almost from the start. She was a baronet’s daughter — not wealthy, no connections — so, naturally, although her people were delighted with the match, his were outraged. I daresay his father would have disowned him, had the estate not been entailed. They were forced to live apart and only correspond for three years, but my great-great-grandparents were convinced by their steadfastness — and gave their consent at the end of it.”

“There is something about her — she looks very happy,” Elizabeth said, at the end of this recital.

“I understand that she was always a happy sort of person,” Darcy said, tilting his head to the side. “My great-grandfather was certainly very fond of her — you should see the letters he wrote her! They only had the one son — my grandfather — for years. He was nearly of age, I think, when my great-uncle was born — you have never met him, have you?”

“I did not even know you had a great-uncle,” Elizabeth said, with some asperity. Then — “Wait a moment. Did you say that Pemberley is entailed?”

“I said that it was,” Darcy corrected. She breathed a sigh of relief.

“What is he like? Your great-uncle, that is?”

Darcy considered. “I have always been fond of him. He is a little idiosyncratic, but at seventy, that is to be expected. He shall be here for . . . in a few days, and so shall my uncle and his family. Cecily you have already met, of course.”

Cecilia Hammond had been a permanent fixture since the cousins’ deaths; from anyone else, it would have been intrusion. From Cecily, it was concern and affection. She and Elizabeth had become friends and allies almost immediately, and the older woman joined her in taking most domestic burdens off of Darcy’s shoulders, and leaving him to manage the estate and the disposal of Colonel Fitzwilliam’s earthly remains. It took no great effort on Elizabeth’s part to discern that Cecily was “the other” — he had said, that he had only told two people of his affection for her; one was Jane, and the other undoubtedly Cecily. She was the only person who disliked Mary Fitzwilliam as much as Elizabeth herself (although for propriety’s sake both attempted to conceal it), and more importantly, the only person who was able to influence Darcy in any way. Elizabeth was glad — more than glad — that Cecily was only a few miles away, for even if all went well, she and Darcy could not be married for six months at the least, and she would not be able to stay at Pemberley with him for all, or very much, of that time.

After several anxious conversations with his wife, which Elizabeth only heard bits and pieces of, Bingley took his friend aside and directly said that he did not wish to intrude, but whatever Darcy wished, he would do it -- stay, or leave, or anything at all within his power. Darcy was within a hair of asking them to leave, for their own peace of mind; Elizabeth persuaded him out of it. When the Bingleys left, she, Elizabeth, would be forced to go with them.

Mr Gardiner had intended to join his wife and children at Pemberley only two weeks hence, before taking them back to London with him; he cut his business short and arrived only eight days after the tragedy. He embraced his wife, his children, his nieces; and after one look at Darcy’s strained colourless face, said, “My dear boy” and embraced him as well.

That day was the one that Elizabeth was for the first time introduced to Stephen Deincourt. The little boy sat very upright, pale but composed. He gazed at Elizabeth with clear curiosity, which could not but be a good sign, and she smiled at him in return. He had his uncle’s stern good looks, and although his wide eyes were grey rather than blue, in shape and expression they were very much the same.

“Stephen,” said Darcy gently, “this is Miss Bennet, who shall be your aunt.”

Stephen, clinging to his uncle’s hand, bowed politely. “Good morning, Miss Bennet,” he said gravely. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. Should I call you ‘Aunt Elizabeth,’ as Jenny does, since you will be my aunt too?”

“You may,” said Elizabeth, “if you would like. I have heard a great deal of you from your uncle.”

Stephen smiled shyly. “So have I -- about you, that is. Uncle Fitzwilliam likes you a great deal.”

“I hope as much as he likes you,” Elizabeth returned. Stephen looked up at his uncle hopefully, and seemed somewhat comforted by what he found there. He chewed his lip.

“Shall you stay with us, Aunt Elizabeth?--before you are married -- shall you have to go away?”

“I hope not,” said Elizabeth, “although I may have to go for awhile. I shall certainly stay once we are married.”

“My mamma went away, and she didn’t come back,” said Stephen, “and my papa has gone away, because he doesn’t like me anymore, because he’s upset about mamma, and my grandmamma died too -- that’s what it’s called when you go away and can’t come back. Uncle Fitzwilliam, is mamma with grandmamma, since they are both dead?”

Darcy looked briefly perplexed. “I rather doubt it,” he said, after a pause.

“I hope not, because grandmamma always made mamma unhappy. Is mamma happy now?”

“Yes, she is,” Darcy said firmly, “although I’m sure she misses you.”

Stephen blinked. “Can you miss someone and still be happy?”

“Yes,” Elizabeth and Darcy chorused, then smiled at each other. Elizabeth knelt down, and continued, “You see, my papa died, and I loved him very much, so I am sorry; but I am glad, because he is happier now. And I am happy because I am going to marry your uncle.”

“I am not marrying anyone,” Stephen informed her. “Except I think I would like to marry Anne, if I must marry.”

Darcy cleared his throat. “You may worry about marriage when you are older.”

“As old as you, Uncle Fitzwilliam?”

He flinched. “Perhaps not quite that old.”

---

“He is far better than I expected,” Elizabeth remarked, as Darcy escorted her to the green parlour. “Despite everything, he seems a very well-mannered, sweet-tempered boy.”

“Yes, it’s been a good day,” Darcy said; “that is why I wanted you to meet each other now, before -- well, it varies.”

“Lord Westhampton still blames him?”

“Undoubtedly.” His fingers tightened against hers, and Elizabeth gently stroked his hand.

“People always want to blame someone, I believe. It is perfectly natural.”

“His own child?” Darcy glanced at her sharply, then looked away. “I am sorry, Elizabeth, I should not speak so to you.”

“At the funeral, will they -- ”

“If Westhampton says anything to Stephen,” Darcy said fiercely, then stopped -- “Still, it is in a way fortunate that Stephen shall not have to go to Aincourt again; I do not think I could bear to send him away, knowing how unwell he is.”

Elizabeth did not think he could bear it either.

---

Chapter Nine

Darcy had once mentioned that his father used to call his mother’s family “variations on a theme,” and Elizabeth found the derogatory remark strangely apropos. With the single exception of the late Colonel Fitzwilliam and his mother, the entire family were both in carriage and countenance astonishing similar, none more so than the triad of Lord Newbury, Mr Fitzwilliam, and Darcy. In fact, most of the family seemed unable to distinguish between the two young men when they were not standing next to one another; she had no such difficulty -- quite aside from the simple fact that he was not Darcy, Mr Fitzwilliam had darker eyes, a broader frame, and was some two inches the shorter.

Oddly, the presence of the extended Fitzwilliam clan did not seem to place any very great strain on Darcy. He was clearly a favourite of sorts with them; despite his comparative youth, all relied heavily on him, and he, bizarrely, seemed to draw some sort of reassurance from it. When he informed them of his engagement, his expression just this side of defiant, it was the old countess, Lord Newbury’s mother, who broke the sudden heavy silence.

“My dear -- my dearest --” she said brokenly, tightly embracing Darcy, who placed a kiss on her brow. “I am so pleased.” She took Elizabeth’s hand and looked deeply into her eyes. “I hope you will both be very happy.”

The others were less enthusiastic; only Mr Fitzwilliam seemed really pleased, although all but Lady Catherine were perfectly cordial, and even she was civil; she seemed to have softened with the years. Elizabeth saw them infrequently through the week following the funeral; she could not but be put off by their lack of warmth -- and worse, by the suspicion with which their manner betrayed when Darcy was not present. Only her knowledge of Darcy’s inexplicable fondness for them allowed her to tolerate the veiled impertinences with courtesy and composure. They were so very like how she had originally thought Darcy to be, cold and proud -- she could not see that they felt anything at all about the tragedy that had brought them here, barring the two Lady Newburys.

Once, as she briskly walked past Ro -- Mrs Gardiner’s parlour, she heard the most wretched sound, a man’s deep sobs, sounding as if they had been torn out of his throat. Fearing it was Darcy -- that he had hidden such feelings even from her -- she hurried to discover the source of the sound, and found Lord Newbury, the coldest and proudest of the lot, actually bent by the force of his grief. Elizabeth hesitated, feeling, somehow, that any offering of compassion or comfort from her would be instantly and indignantly rejected. She was not one of them; not yet. She quietly retreated, and by chance or fortune, nearly bumped into Darcy as she went looking for Jane.

“What is it?” he asked, steadying her. Elizabeth pushed a loose fair strand of hair out of her face, and said incoherently,

“It’s Lord Newbury -- at least, I think it is . . .” The tall, large frame and thick dark hair could have been anyone in the family; only the heavy threading of grey gave him away. Darcy, with a look of near panic, raced in the direction she had come, and Elizabeth sighed, approaching more cautiously.

She was astonished to see Darcy slowly enter the room, and say, in a calm voice, “Uncle? Uncle, are you well?”

The earl looked up with red, swollen eyes. He said, in a harsh, weary voice, “When your mother died, I thought -- I thought I could not bear it. That I should see Anne, my youngest sister, dead -- but this -- this is incalculably worse. To see her daughter buried -- ”

Darcy hesitated, then reached out a hand, helping the older man to sit erect. Lord Newbury clung to Darcy’s supporting hand, and with a look that quite broke Elizabeth’s heart, said -- “Fitzwilliam, marry that girl as soon as you can -- give me a troop of children to spoil -- we need more children -- and happiness, you deserve it as much as anyone -- ”

“I shall,” said Darcy, and the earl patted his hand.

“My dear son -- ” he said brokenly, and both, with embarrassed expressions, looked away. Elizabeth tactfully retreated. When she recalled the scene, she did not know who had received the greater reassurance from that brief interchange; and she realised that the Fitzwilliams had come to give consolation as much as to receive it. They loved Darcy, as a son or brother, and although they would never be easy in the expression of it, she could then understand what they meant to him.

As for herself, she had the Gardiners’ warm support, and more surprisingly, that of Darcy’s great-uncle, Sir James. He took to her immediately, partly on her account, but more, she suspected, to irritate the Fitzwilliams -- there was, evidently, some sort of long-standing feud there -- and she could not help the fondness she felt towards the clever old man. He delighted in bringing a blush to her cheek, and told any number of stories, many of which she was quite certain were unsuitable for a young lady’s ears. Many, however, were of Darcy’s youth, and she was able to draw a picture of the young Fitzwilliam, a pale solemn boy delighting in his cat and birds and studies, and of the household dominated by the brittle, unsteady marriage of George Darcy and Anne Fitzwilliam*. Pemberley, Elizabeth thought, had come a long way.

“Fitzwilliam changes things,” said Sir James, “wherever he goes -- nothing is the same, simply by his being there. Some are like that -- you, for one. I always loved Pemberley, but it was never the same, after it fell to him. It was a pretty piece of property -- but there is something more these days.”

“Yes,” said Elizabeth simply, looking out the window. The first crocuses were blooming.

---

In late February, urgent business summoned the Bingleys home, and Elizabeth accompanied them. The morning before her departure, he astonished her by cupping her face in his hands and pressing his lips against hers, briefly and intensely. Elizabeth did not have even enough time to appreciate what was occurring before the attention ceased.

“Do not allow them to ride roughshod over you,” he warned. Elizabeth smiled ruefully.

“You know me too well.”

“They mean well, but that does not make it less . . .”

“Irritating?” she offered, burying her head in his shoulder. “I shall miss you.”

“I certainly hope so. You will write?” he added, with a sudden anxiety. Elizabeth smiled brilliantly.

“Of course.”

“Then -- we will be ready for you, in June.”

“I shall have to tell my mother.”

“Via letter,” he advised. “Shall she like such a son-in-law?”

“Once she sees Pemberley, she shall.” Elizabeth laughed a little tearfully, and Darcy caressed her hair.

“You had better go.”

“I know.” She fought back a sniffle. “Fitzwilliam -- ”

“My dearest Elizabeth -- ” he stopped, caught his trembling breath, and continued steadily, “We shall be waiting here for you, when you return.”

---

Chapter Ten

Her first letter had arrived by the time Elizabeth reached Baildon. He must have sent it before she even left. Elizabeth hurried to her room to read it in privacy, eagerly breaking the seal. Another letter dropped to the floor, written in an unfamilar hand. Unlike Darcy, the writer was not careful of his paper, and the two sheets were covered in a bold masculine script. She immediately caught it up, wondering why on earth Darcy should have included a letter from another man, and caught the first few lines --

My dearest Lizzy,

I have longed, my love, to address you as such -- and although this separation tears at me, I delight to be able to write this name freely. My darling Lizzy, who can keep pace with the fluctuations of your fancy, the capprizios of your taste, the contradictions of your feelings? You are so odd, and all the time so perfectly natural! -- so peculiar in yourself, and yet so like everybody else! It is very, very gratifying to me to know you so intimately. You can hardly think what a pleasure it is to me to have such thorough pictures of your heart. You seem a different person every time I see you -- even in my thoughts, you alter from day to day -- to-day the wilful girl Lizzy, and tomorrow that gracious, confident woman, “Ana.”--Never, never “Eliza” -- such a name, so staid, so commonplace -- utterly unlike you, my darling. You see, Miss Elliot, what a laughably foolish, fond creature I am by way of a lover -- but lovers are never sensible --


Elizabeth found her eyes brimming with tears, and the flamboyant signature, Francis Darcy, was blurry. She still remained uncertain as to why that long-ago Mrs Darcy, pretty Georgiana Elizabeth, so touched her heart; but she was far more affected by the knowledge that Darcy had perceived it, with so little information from her. She put Francis’ letter aside, and turned to the other. Darcy’s neat, economical handwriting, and coherent, forthright manner, were as great a contrast to his great-grandfather’s as could be imagined, but she smiled at the similarity in address nonetheless:

My dearest Elizabeth,

You have not yet left me; I can hear you speaking with your aunt. I only wished that you should not have to wait, when we have only just parted; and I thought you might enjoy this correspondence. I have thought a great about Francis and Georgiana as of late -- not only because of my sister, but because, in some way, you remind me of her. You are not alike -- not in face, but something about her manner and carriage reminds me of her. I have found myself in the parlour, looking at her, and thinking of her, and wondering what sort of person she was, really -- more often than I daresay I have ever done in my life. Sir James says that she was always high-spirited, always laughing -- next time, I shall enclose her reply. I am a poor lover, without the gift of pretty words perfectly suited to the occasion; but perhaps Francis and Georgiana’s words shall keep the memory of what we share fresh in your heart. Your mind, I hope, does not require them. My grandparents were in their way fond of each other, and my parents certainly did not want for passion; but I like to think that we have more of Francis and Georgiana's attachment . . .


The letter was not as long as the other, and the tone, by and large, could not be more different. Yet the care taken with the words, the consciousness of how they might be received, the restrained feeling behind them, and most of all, the peculiar bittersweet quality, reminded her very much of the first one, which had so upset her life. She took it out of the drawer in which she still treasured it, and looked at them side by side. The older letter, yellow and charred, was a stark contrast to the crisp white sheets, although the handwriting had hardly altered at all; a slightly greater precision was the only noticable difference. It was somehow surreal, to look at them together; the people who had written and received the two letters were so very different now. She had hated him -- she, who had never hated anyone in her life -- and he -- she shied away from thoughts of what his feelings had been upon writing that letter, and worse, what they had been afterwards. He had alluded but once to that time, and refused point-blank to speak of it again.

Elizabeth swallowed. That is over, she told herself sternly, and soothed her turbulent feelings by dedicating herself to the other letter. There was a wistful contentment pervading the entire epistle -- nothing of the sharp joy which often overtook him in her presence, at Pemberley -- but also nothing of the anguish and despair she had seen in him. It was not a conventional love letter, in that he spoke as often of others as themselves; yet casual expressions of affection were scattered throughout it, warming and reassuring her.

She sighed, feeling for a moment rather lost and lonely. There was nothing for her here; her brother and sister and their children, fond as she was of them, had no need of her. In fact, they seemed quite aggravatingly comfortable with settling her affairs, independent of her own thoughts, or even her presence. They meant well, to be sure, but she felt as if she were waging a constant war against their sweet determination to arrange her life for her. She was so accustomed to the command over her life, and even others’, that had been hers at Pemberley, that adapting to Baildon was a great deal harder than it had been when she first came. Elizabeth immersed herself in the letters once more.

She wrote a reply, as open and affectionate as she could make it, and sent it with Lydia’s the next morning. His reply arrived promptly, and she set Georgiana’s letter aside, her eyes eagerly flying to Darcy’s.

My dear Elizabeth,

My delight at receiving your letter so promptly was such that my relations -- at least, those of my own generation -- have been relentlessly mocking me all morning.


Elizabeth laughed outright. She had tried, futilely, to quarrel with Jane the evening before, over a matter that in the light of morning seemed quite inconsequential -- simply one of a thousand tiny, trivial things -- and woken in a foul humour. The arrival of Darcy’s letter had been more than fortuitous; she thought she should go mad with only the Bingleys’ repressive kindness for company, and felt such a rush of guilt at her ingratitude that her thoughts seemed only to circle endlessly.

. . . Stephen was unwell last night, I honestly thought him almost -- a word was crossed out there -- ill -- he was very unlike himself, pitching tantrums and throwing things -- not at me, but at Cecily. I am not certain why, because she is a great favourite with all the children, including Stephen, and with no sons of her own has a great fondness for him. I can only imagine that her resemblance to my sister in some way upset him. He was completely better this morning, and seemed scarcely to recall his behaviour the evening before; he let Cecily kiss him and his manner was open and cheerful all day, even when I left the house for several hours on urgent business at one of the mills. He asked just now after “Aunt Elizabeth,” and wishes to know when you will be returning to us; he did not understand why you could not simply stay here, and propriety is a difficult subject for a boy of his age and disposition; in this matter, it is difficult enough for me to accept . . .

. . . Anne finds it unfair that Stephen may call you “Aunt Elizabeth” while she may not, since you are to be her mother and only Stephen’s aunt; I told her that you could call her simply by name, if she wished, but never to repeat the sentiment again. I try to avoid the same mistakes my own parents made, not only with me but Georgiana; I think I shall do better once you are here, Elizabeth. Somehow there seems to be a greater brightness, or perhaps clarity, to the world when you are here, even if I am not with you precisely; I cannot explain it properly, but despite all that occupies my time, and the constant noise and -- company, everything seems exhaustingly dull and grey and blurry.


Elizabeth fervently seconded this. It was a blustery day; the wind rattled against the house, rain fiercely attacked the windows, and she lay curled on her bed, wrapped in a shawl, and longing for his company. The letters, delightful as they were, remained a poor substitute. She felt rather ridiculously forlorn, a silly girl like Lydia -- she glanced at the few lines that comprised her sister’s latest letter, and reconsidered. Perhaps not quite like Lydia, but . . . oh, what did it matter? At least there is someone to miss, she comforted herself, and after lingering over several choice lines, picked up the faded enclosure -- and laughed. That effervescent young girl, with her laughing eyes and bold smile, had addressed her besotted fiancé with a restrained,

Dear Mr Darcy,

I am in excellent health, and all my family, thank you. My parents and siblings all send their best wishes . . .


For the entirety of the first page, the dainty girlish handwriting proceeded in like vein. Elizabeth looked curiously at the next sheet, and smiled.

Do you suppose I have now convinced your mother, that I am a respectable young lady and worthy of correspondence with her precious son? I know the look you will get on your face now -- but I know she does it, I have seen her myself -- she always looks at the first page, and no farther -- if your father’s correspondence bores her, what must she think of mine? Of course, nothing will convince her that I am not a fortune-hunter of the worst kind -- she would really prefer it, I think, if you had attached yourself to the daughter of an impoverished baron, or even a rich tradesman’s daughter -- with them, she could at least have the satisfaction of catching them at it! I am just respectable enough that she is denied that pleasure -- not low enough to properly look down her nose at, and not high enough to be a desirable match. How does she bear it?

I know, I should not speak of Lady Isabella in such a disrespectful fashion, as she would be the first to inform me. She is, after all, the daughter of a peer, and she is not about to let anyone forget it. Do you remember how I looked askance at how you used to speak of her? I understand better now. Even so, I would tolerate anything, if I could only be with you; even here at Kellynch, with all my family -- my brother is the greatest fool who ever lived, and I am filled with dread every time he opens his mouth in your presence, dearest -- and mamma admiring her reflection in the silver -- I truly would have eloped with you that evening, had you asked me. I daresay your revered mother would have taken an even greater dislike to me than she already has. Oh, I know what you will say -- she does not really dislike me, she would be the same no matter who I was, etc, etc -- but she does, not only for my family, but because she simply doesn’t like me. I don’t mind -- truly, Francis, I only mind for your sake, and your father’s, because he always was at least kind to my face, whatever else he may have said out of my presence. Still, I would endure the torments of endless hypocrisy and conversation I cannot ever quite understand, if only I could be at your side!

Somehow, my love, whenever I try to express my feelings for you, without levity or mockery, they sound trite, even trivial. I can only say, Francis, that I love you, so much that I feel I have become a stranger to myself -- nothing seems to matter but you, there is nothing I would not do for you. I wish to give you something wonderful -- something in return for this incredible gift you have given me -- I wish there was some way to silence all the suspicious glances and wicked insinuations, to proclaim, “oh, what do you know of it? I am to marry the best man in the world, and I would not care -- much -- if he had not a cent to his name.” I am happy simply knowing that you are there, somewhere, and perhaps thinking of me. You see? You say I have made you silly -- but you, Mr Darcy, are hardly one to accuse me of such a transgression, when I am singing and dancing all the day long (except when I go into a decline at the loss of your greatly esteemed presence, which is the other half of the time), and cannot stop even when my mother sits me down to tell me the horrors I should expect on my wedding-night. I shall never look at papa the same way again!


---

The first days were the worst; slowly, Elizabeth became accustomed to life at Baildon and everything it entailed. Accustomed, in a way -- she spent more time alone than in her life, in her room poring over her letters and composing new ones. In particular, about six weeks past her departure, not long after the Fitzwilliams had left Pemberley, the tone of Darcy’s letters altered dramatically. His expressions of regard for her did not alter, except to grow rather more passionate and intense, but there was a weariness and distress she could not have failed to detect. The mood varied slightly, lightening to a peaceful resignation, or darkening to an anguish that tore at her heart. The first time she caught the pained quality to his words, she was tempted to abandon Baildon and propriety, and go to Pemberley by whatever means possible; but she reconsidered. She was certain he would not wish it; likely he would only worry himself sick and do something eminently male and foolish.

Instead, she wrote, enough letters that her hands and arms grew sore. Her first instinct was to continue her light, chatty, unaffected letters, to veer away from the matter -- thinking directly on it could only distress him further. Nevertheless she decided that avoiding thinking directly on unpleasant matters had not done either of them any good. So she told him stories of the newest steward, whose appearance of goodness was sufficient to rouse her immediate suspicion, she told him of her faithful swain who still called her “Miss Elizabeth,” of the escapades that her nephews and nieces got up to, and even of how Lydia fared. She also told him of the conscience-stricken resentment that seemed to boil within her every time Bingley or Jane simply decided something for her, and of the constant frustration that seemed to eat at her; and she asked questions. She asked after Kitty and Cecily and Stephen and Anne, and as subtly as she could encouraged him to tell her about whatever preyed on his mind. His replies were at first vague and unsatisfactory, and she pressed further; she asked him to tell her about what he did -- nothing, she insisted, was too trivial, and she knew his time was not entirely taken up in perfecting his handwriting. Slowly he responded; she heard of the farmers who worked his land, of the quarrel between young Reynolds and the second cook that had escalated to such proportions that it was brought to his notice, of the schools and mills and the poor and all the concerns that occupied his daily life.

She asked about his family; and he talked, first of Sir James, Lord Newbury, his god-children; then of the others, wild Mr Fitzwilliam who had died when Darcy was only a child, Lady Catherine and how he quarrelled with her over Cecily’s marriage -- and she heard the full tale of that -- of his grandmother, Lady Newbury, then his colourless aunt, and finally, a very little of his mother and father. Elizabeth told of a life growing up with a temperamental, silly mother and witty, irresponsible father, who had as little to do with one another as a man and woman living under the same roof could; Darcy told of a giving, charismatic, careless young man, who had never been denied anything in his life, of the clever, wilful, beautiful woman he had married, who had been petted and spoilt by an adoring family. She knew what it was to be the child of a vastly ill-suited marriage, and the dread that such a fate would be hers; she would never have taken such care otherwise. She was not romantic -- nor was he -- but the desire to escape the life of misery and regret that she had witnessed at such close quarters, which had been with her since she was a very young girl, was perfectly sensible. She had not been looking for love, as such -- she wanted mutual respect and affection, and she wanted a gentleman, with a comfortable income. She suspected that Darcy’s expectations had not been very different, except, obviously, upon the latter point.

Finally, he spoke of Georgiana, who he had not so much as alluded to since his mood first darkened. When he first mentioned his sister, Elizabeth wept unashamedly at the all-encompassing grief, and wished for nothing more than to be at Pemberley and hold him. Initially, he talked of nothing but her end; of the room that had once been hers, how Anne had awoken crying for “Aunt Nana” -- and with a peculiar combination of anger and sorrow, of the carelessness that had led to her death. Then, more gently, he spoke of the young girl she had been, the sweet little sister he had so adored -- of teaching her to play the pianoforte, as their mother had done with him, of the way she followed him around like a duckling, of how his temperamental pet cat had come to terms with the attentions of a three-year-old. He even told her of how, not long after their father’s death, Georgiana awoke with blood on her sheets and a pain radiating from her belly to every part of her body (or so she insisted). The young siblings were both absolutely convinced that she was dying. Elizabeth laughed a little tearfully as the anecdotes unfolded, perfectly able to see the sheltered, motherless pair, a girlwith only a bewildered young man to guide her into womanhood, and a Fitzwilliam who was suddenly Mr Darcy with an estate and a dying father and a child-sister all dependent on him.

Although the grief and pain still remained, it seemed to lessen by the time he confided his fears over Georgiana and her marriage and his nephew, how he knew something had gone wrong, but even now, he did not know how else he could have acted. Elizabeth was strongly reminded of Georgiana’s own words. By the time he came full-circle around to her death again, the anguish had given way to sorrow. He no longer avoided speaking of his sister, but the topics of his letters shifted back to what they had been; assurances of his affection, information about his life, and questions about her own.

As they neared the time of Elizabeth’s return to Pemberley, the constant reassurances of how much they missed one another, and longed to be together once more, almost disappeared entirely, to be replaced by nearly incoherent expressions of anticipation and excitement at their imminent reunion. Even Mrs Bennet’s arrival and shrill, petulant ditherings could not quench Elizabeth’s high spirits. In the middle of June, the entire party arrived at Pemberley, Elizabeth feeling like a young girl, almost bouncing in her seat as she looked around the place that had already become her home. Mrs Bennet was actually rendered silent, which was an unforseen benefit, and both Mrs Reynoldses and the butler greeted her warmly, Mr Fairweather with unexpected cheer.

“Aunt Elizabeth! Aunt Elizabeth!” The clear boyish voice had Elizabeth turning, smiling as a flushed Stephen slid on the polished floors, followed more sedately by Anne, who added her voice to the furor,

“Elizabeth, you’re here, and you’re going to stay, and I’m so glad!”

---

16 June 1819

In the company of every member of their respective families, from the newly-widowed Lydia to the Fitzwilliams and Wentworths, Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy were married. Elizabeth had attended many weddings and could have recited the entire ceremony by heart; yet she felt the old words sinking into her bones as her brother-in-law read the service.

Her hand was placed in Darcy’s, and he said unhesitatingly, his eyes bright and clear of all but her, “I, Fitzwilliam, take thee, Elizabeth, to my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth.”

She curled her fingers around his, unable to keep from smiling, and only just able to restrain the joyous laughter which threatened to burst out, and replied, “I, Elizabeth, take thee, Fitzwilliam, to my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish, and to obey, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I give thee my troth.”

She allowed her eyes to close briefly as he slid the ring on her finger. It had been re-set for her, but it was the same that had been worn by all the Darcy brides, Lady Anne, Lady Rosemary, Lady Alexandra, Lady Isabella -- and Georgiana, that laughing girl whose portrait now hung in the mistress’ bedchamber.

Darcy’s voice was lower and richer as he said, “With this ring, I thee wed, with my body, I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods, I thee endow: in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”

Mr Hancock declared, “Those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder. Forasmuch as Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth have consented together in holy wedlock, and have witnessed the same before God and this company, and thereto have given and pledged their troth either to other, and have declared the same by giving and receiving of a ring, and by joining of hands; I pronounce that they be man and wife together, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost, bless, preserve, and keep you; the Lord mercifully with his favour look upon you; and so fill you with all spiritual benediction and grace, that ye may so live together in this life, that in the world to come ye may have life everlasting. Amen.”

Mrs Bennet, Mrs Gardiner, and old Lady Newbury wept profusely; in private, Lydia and Jane offered wildly differing advice on how to comport herself that evening, both which were wholly disregarded by Elizabeth; Sir James startled Elizabeth by kissing her soundly; the Fitzwilliams, not to be outdone, greeted her as one of their own; and Anne made everyone, even Lord Westhampton, laugh by her demand for a brother.

That evening, Elizabeth lay happily awake, long after even Darcy had fallen asleep. She luxuriated in the sensation of lying against her sleeping husband, their legs tangled together, his body warm beside her, his breathing steady and peaceful against her hair. Curious eyes had been watching her all day, and she cherished this opportunity to observe him freely, this strange, unpredictable, perverse man, who she already loved far more than she had when she woke that morning. She pushed his untidy dark hair out of his eyes, and admired his features as much as she could in the dimness, allowing one hand to brush against the high slash of his cheekbones, and then, caressing a shoulder through the silk of his robe. Her leg curled possessively against his, and Darcy’s eyes fluttered open. She enjoyed watching the expressions cross his face; from bewildered disorientation, to sleepy pleasure, and then, as he became fully aware of her presence, startled alertness.

“Elizabeth?” he asked vaguely. “Are you awake?”

She laughed as she disentangled herself, delighted with the entire world that morning. “Yes, of course. How could I possibly sleep?”

“Possibly the same way I did,” he replied, and Elizabeth stored for future use the knowledge that he was much less reserved when just awakened. He began to sit up and she pushed him back down. “Elizabeth?”

“I can admire you better this way,” she said, and after a pause, Darcy replied,

“How can you see anything at all?”

“I can see that you are blushing, dearest,” she said, resting one hand against his suddenly warm cheek. Darcy laughed ruefully. “Although not with my eyes. Which puts me in mind . . .” She slipped out of bed, and pushed the curtains open to let the moonlight in. “There. Now we can see properly.”

“Your way sounded rather more interesting,” Darcy remarked, and Elizabeth stopped, looking over her shoulder at his long body sprawled across the bed, and felt her own cheeks burning. She could not keep her lips from curving into a smile, as she approached him and said,

“Such a devoted father as you are, Fitzwilliam, would not shirk at fulfilling your daughter’s only wish?”

“I beg your pardon?”

Elizabeth slipped back into bed. “And I believe your grandmother said something about children, as well. Our chances will undoubtedly improve with . . . practice.”

“Oh.” The change in his voice spoke volumes, but he continued hesitantly, “Elizabeth, we are not too . . . your aunt said something about . . .”

She laughed, her eyes alight. “We are perfectly well, my love.”

---

Finis

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