Sunday, April 09, 2006

Season of Courtship

Chapter One

Lydia’s marriage to Mr Wickham had effectively ended a very promising source of gossip; and Jane’s engagement to Mr Bingley was hardly better. The only question was why it had taken so long, for they were without a doubt perfectly suited to one another. Even Lady Lucas and Mrs Long, with several very plain charges to dispose of, could not deny it. If anyone deserved happiness in marriage, it was Jane Bennet -- or so the Meryton matrons decreed. She was sweetness itself and so very handsome. It was not her fault that she had been burdened with such a family.

However, Elizabeth’s engagement to Mr Darcy was far more lucrative than either. They supposed, naturally, that she had only accepted him for his wealth and consequence. His motivations were not so clear; surely, a young man in his circumstances had met many a pretty young lady? How had Eliza Bennet -- “tolerable” Eliza Bennet -- snared him where so many had failed?

“I hope they shall be very happy,” Mrs James said. A tradesman’s daughter who had married into the local gentry, she was a young, pretty girl, and very much awed by the other ladies.

Insincere agreement immediately followed. Although, her chances with such a disagreeable man -- Mrs Long left it hanging.

“I never thought him so very disagreeable,” Mrs Goulding said, startling nearly all of the circle. She was very quiet, but when she had an opinion gave it most decidedly. “He was always very polite to me.”

Most of her elders gazed at her pityingly. It was a fact that young women’s heads could easily be turned by a handsome man -- and there was no disputing that Mr Darcy was exceedingly pleasant to look at. “I agree,” added Mrs James bravely. “Molly says that she’s never worked for a kinder master. Not that she works for Mr Darcy, but he is at Netherfield, so -- and her father, Smith, is the butler, and he says that Mr Darcy is the only one who ever concerns himself with the servants, and a proper gentleman.”

It had to be admitted that the servants all spoke very highly of him. “He may be a good master,” decreed Mrs Long, “but that doesn’t mean he will be a good husband. Say what you like about Eliza Bennet, but I pity her.”

The other ladies were fully prepared to follow her lead, but soon found themselves in a peculiar sort of quandary. It was difficult to pity someone who had no idea of her own misfortune. On the contrary -- she seemed quite delighted with her situation in general, and her betrothed in particular. She was absorbed in him almost to the point of incivility, talking to him when he was near, and inattentive to most else when he was not. Her eyes followed him everywhere he went, with a peculiar intent expression that Mrs Long in particular found almost indecent.

As for Mr Darcy, who they had fully expected to act the part of the besotted, distracted suitor, he was very much as he had ever been. Quiet, reserved, elegant, he was properly attentive to his fiancée, endured the attentions of local society with rather better grace than had been expected, but his composure never faltered. There was no greater sign of his affection for Elizabeth than a softness about the eyes and a distinct partiality for her company. Several of the ladies unashamedly eavesdropped on their conversations, and found them not only dull but incomprehensible.

It was decided that Eliza had chosen to marry Mr Darcy because he was the only man who could actually understand above half of what she said. Mrs James murmured wistfully,

“She loves him. I think it’s wonderful.”

Mrs Long shot her a quelling look. “It might be wonderful if he cared twopence about her,” she said spitefully.

“You must be supposing that she proposed to him, then,” returned Mrs Goulding, perfectly serene. “Why else should he propose to her? She has nothing else to offer; and if he only wished for a pretty wife, I daresay he could find plenty among his own circle of acquaintance.”

Mrs Long and Lady Lucas decided that they had never liked Mrs Goulding, who was too clever by half, and muttered imprecations against those artful Bennets.

---

In the first days of their engagement, Darcy and Elizabeth were so deliriously happy that all else faded into insignificance. The curious glances, rampant gossip, and shameless observations which followed them everywhere they went mattered not at all. For that brief time, she had him all to herself, and luxuriated in the pleasure of being so unconditionally loved. She almost solely occupied herself with acquiring a greater intimacy with his ways, her curiosity boundless as they talked, he earnestly and she joyously.

Within what seemed a very short period of time, she knew that he blinked a little when overwrought, fidgeted when nervous, and pushed his dark hair out of his eyes quite frequently for no reason at all. When he was angry, his lips compressed and his eyes narrowed. He tilted his head to the side when considering something -- usually one of her more singular questions -- and flinched very slightly, all expression leaving his face, when pained. He smiled, a bare twitch of the lips, when amused, and blushed, his eyes widening, when embarrassed (and it was very often). When at a loss for words -- also a not infrequent event -- he made a sudden sharp gesture with his right hand. She wondered if she was so easily read, and that she had ever found his countenance guarded rarely ceased to amaze, he had become so transparent to her.

There was one little quirk, however, which, while quite endearing, and indubitably amusing, hindered a rather different sort of intimacy. The earnest, almost reverential, respect in which he held her did nothing to alleviate his native primness -- for really, there was no other word for such great physical reserve, and his constant deference to her wishes in that regard -- real or imagined -- had her quite envious of Jane for almost twelve minutes, until she hatched a plan.

“Aunt Phillips,” Elizabeth said sweetly, “Mr Darcy and I should like to walk to the Mount again, but I fear it will be too much for you. You don’t mind if we just go on without you, do you?”

Sometimes Mrs Phillips’ senselessness was more welcome than at others. Their theoretical chaperone, with a speculative remark about the attractions the Mount must have for such a handsome young couple, unashamedly left them to their own devices. Elizabeth flinched and glanced up at Darcy apprehensively, and was pleased to see nothing worse than fierce embarrassment written on his face. She proceeded with her plan.

“I saw you talking with John Lucas, Fitzwilliam,” she said lightly, looking about to make sure they were quite alone. “Did you have a pleasant conversation?”

“No,” said Darcy, quite happily. “He had some very ridiculous opinions.”

“You enlightened him, of course.”

He smiled very faintly. “Naturally. We were speaking of the conditions in the north, and he claimed that the poor were responsible -- solely responsible -- for their plight, and that any attempt at assistance would only breed indolence and discontent among their ranks.”

“I beg your pardon?”

Darcy grimaced. “It is not the first time, either -- that I have come across that opinion. My uncle claims that I am young and idealistic -- even naïve and ignorant when he is particularly displeased with me -- and he also disagrees with the likes of Mr Lucas on that issue.”

Elizabeth considered asking about Darcy’s uncle, for she had gathered enough to realise that the Earl was unlikely to approve of her, but dismissed the idea. That could come later, and it would only distract both from the present possibilities. She clasped his arm more tightly, and smiled up at him. “Mr Lucas looked quite chastened by the end. I daresay you thoroughly educated him?”

“Yes.” He turned his head to smile warmly and openly at her -- a smile she never saw, except when they were alone -- which event rendered her positively unsteady. Elizabeth guessed at his height and lamented it for quite the first time. If only he were that bit shorter, this would be so much easier --

“I was glad to find that your uncle agrees with me,” Darcy said unexpectedly. Elizabeth, still considering the logistics that Darcy’s six-foot-three-inch frame necessarily entailed, absently asked,

“Mr Phillips?”

He looked startled. “No, I meant Mr Gardiner. During -- my business in London -- ” (he had a ready supply of euphemisms for all matters which he did not care to discuss explicitly) “we spoke of it. He, too, felt strongly about the matter -- but of course -- ” Darcy looked faintly vexed -- “he is not so young as to be accused of ignorance and naïveté, when he espouses unconventional opinions.”

Elizabeth smiled, at both the sentiment (she herself had found that particular phenomenon intensely irritating on more than one occasion) and the faintly petulant expression of it, and gazed at him fondly for a moment, briefly relishing her good fortune before acting. “Fitzwilliam,” she said, and he stopped, glancing at her quizzically.

“Yes?”

She placed one hand against his cheek, and met his gaze as directly as she could without paining her neck. He looked faintly startled, but not displeased, and so she stood on tiptoe and firmly pressed her lips against his. For one moment, she was afraid that he would step away, horrified at her forwardness -- but after all, did he not admire her for her liveliness? -- and so she was not too surprised when, after only a brief hesitation, he reciprocated enthusiastically, his lips parting beneath her own. Dizzy and disoriented, she felt her eyelids flutter and -- solely for the sake of stability, of course -- kept her hands firmly attached to his shoulders.

Breathlessly, they stepped back, Darcy’s pale complexion flushed -- but not, she trusted, with embarrassment, as his expression was nothing short of delighted. She could feel heat in her own cheeks, after all, and she was not remotely embarrassed.

“I love you,” she said lightly, and he simply stared for a moment, the other emotions dancing across his face overlaid with utter astonishment.

“You -- I -- how -- why -- ” He stopped, and then, struck, it seemed, by a fit of coherence, said, between kissing her hands passionately, “You are inimitable, irresistible. You are the delight of my life. You are -- ”

Elizabeth briefly touched his head, startled and touched by the intensity of his response to her careless declaration. She was not quite certain how best to manage the situation, until it occurred to her that his face was conveniently near at hand. She tangled her fingers in his hair and kissed him again.

Not since the day he had proposed to her had she seen him so voluble and incoherent, nor had she been so quiet. Elizabeth’s feelings were overwhelmed and disordered enough that she could not understand them with any clarity; but his were easier to comprehend. He seemed taken by a violent delight, overflowing with admiration and a little feverish in the expression of it, stripping off his glove and hers with a quick, breathless, “do you mind?” and lacing his fingers through hers almost before her smiling acquiescence.

Elizabeth laughed at her own silliness in the pleasure she took at the sudden contact, his fingers entwined with hers -- at one point she sat beside him on a strategically-placed log, turning his hand over in hers and admiring it, making him laugh a little. His was much larger, although more in length than in width -- he was a slender man, and correspondingly, his hand was long-fingered and narrow.

“You are so small,” he said in his quiet voice, tilting his head to the side as he looked at her own hand. “You have such presence that one forgets, sometimes.”

“My mother has bemoaned my size more than once,” Elizabeth told him, with a faintly mischievous smile. “She wishes that I were more like Jane, or Lydia.” The look of heartfelt horror on Darcy’s face sent her into gales of laughter. “Although for years she has comforted herself that I shall undoubtedly grow stouter with children -- ‘if only she could get me married!’ ”

Rather than laughing, a peculiar expression came over his face, one she had not yet identified. He caught his breath, eyes misty, lips parted, and at once he seemed intimately, powerfully near, and far too distant and remote for comfort. “Fitzwilliam,” she laughed, tugging at his sleeve, “where are you?”

He came to with a start. “Oh! I was only thinking.”

Elizabeth shook her head. “Should I be afraid, losing your attention so early in our engagement? What does this bode for our marriage?”

Alarm flashed across his face, but was as quickly dispelled by her teasing look. “Oh, I am easily distracted,” he said, smiling. “It is better you discover it now, rather than later.”

“Not according to Charlotte,” Elizabeth said absently, wondering what precisely he meant -- for once he was set on a course of action, there was no stopping him. But then, perhaps the distractions heretofore had not been enticing enough. Elizabeth dimpled happily, and laid her head against his arm, clasping his hand once more.

“I can well imagine what your friend may believe, but then, she is married to Mr Collins,” Darcy said thoughtlessly, then gasped as he realised he had actually spoken aloud. Elizabeth laughed heartily.

“You are far superior to Mr Collins, my love,” she said, once she had regained herself. “I think I may safely say that I would prefer to acquaint myself with your idiosyncrasies as soon as possible, so that I may become accustomed to them before we are wed.” She smiled at him, a little wickedly. “And, of course, so that I may distract you at my leisure.”

Darcy blushed but only arched one brow, his response all the more powerful for its brevity.

“Oh?”

It was really more than a lady of passionate disposition, with such a strikingly handsome young man at her disposal, could be expected to endure. This time, no planning was involved, and she was not even certain if she or he had begun it; but one moment they were sitting next to one other very decorously, the next she was on his lap, and they were kissing wildly and not very decorously at all. It was, several minutes later, only the need for air that separated them, and Darcy, emitting a sound rather like a squeak, fled to the opposite side of their log, a safe distance of about five feet from her. Elizabeth was not certain whether to be offended or merely embarrassed, but the frankly yearning look he gave her returned her to her senses.

“Ah . . . Elizabeth,” he said awkwardly. “Perhaps we ought to join the others?”

Elizabeth looked at him incredulously.

“That is -- we have been gone . . . awhile -- and your aunt . . .” Darcy floundered.

“Mrs Phillips would be delighted if you compromised me utterly,” Elizabeth said bluntly, and Darcy shut his eyes, looking pained for a moment, before regaining his composure.

“Elizabeth,” he said, gently, “we should bear in mind that we have only been engaged a week.”

“I think it a very promising beginning,” she said.

“Oh yes.” His tone, and sudden smile, had her flushing from head to toe. He coughed, then continued, “However, if one considers that we are far nearer to the beginning of our engagement, than to the end of it . . . the inevitable conclusion one draws is, that if we continue as we have begun, the likelihood that either of us shall reach the altar with, erm, our virtue intact is . . . remarkably slim.”

“Oh!” said Elizabeth, enlightened. “You must think me terribly silly.”

“No, dear, only very innocent and very . . . enthusiastic,” Darcy said carefully. Elizabeth laughed, and recovered their gloves, handing him his, replacing her own, and taking his arm.

“We must, then, distr -- ” Elizabeth stopped. That word would never have quite the same meaning again. “-- occupy ourselves with other activities.” She cast a sly glance at her fiancé from under her lashes, and added, “Most of the time, that is.”

“Elizabeth!”

She laughed, delighted at his prudery, and said, “Come, Fitzwilliam, let us talk. Really, I know very little of you beyond the essentials. Where is your favourite place?”

“Pemberley,” he said instantly, and she laughed.

“I should have guessed at that.”

“And you?” he asked, surprising her. With a faint flush, she said,

“I think -- I must choose Pemberley also.” His eyes widened, and for a moment she stopped walking, lost in the intensity of his gaze, before looking away.

“We are incorrigible! Very well. Are you accomplished, sir?”

“I beg your pardon?”

She had only mentioned it because she had to say something, but liked the idea and gamely went on. “You already know that I am not, at least by Miss Bingley’s standards. I daresay you speak the modern languages well enough, and you most assuredly have, what did she say? -- a certain something in your manner of walking.”

“Miss Bingley!” he said derisively, and Elizabeth bit back a smile.

“Poor Miss Bingley, she shall be my sister now, and worse, yours. Her suffering must be acute. But you have dis -- misdirected me! Do you play, do you sing?”

“Yes, and no,” Darcy replied, courteously helping her down the steps. Elizabeth was indeed distracted by this sudden information.

“Really? I daresay I have embarrassed myself dreadfully before you, for you are undoubtedly far more proficient at the instrument than I. Is it not so, Fitzwilliam?”

“Of course not!” he said warmly. “Your performance is far more pleasing than mine could ever be -- not that I would perform.”

“Oh yes -- you do not perform to strangers, do you? But we are hardly strangers -- shall I ask you to play for this evening’s entertainment?”

He looked paralysed for a moment. “Certainly not! I should refuse in any case.”

“I should like to hear you -- ” she wrinkled her nose at his obdurate expression. “There must be some way to persuade you.”

“None at all.”

“Not even pleasant distractions?”

Darcy prudently stepped away. “Not even those.”

“If you do not wish to perform, and do not practise, I wonder that you took the trouble of learning?”

“I never said that I do not practise,” he said austerely, “but it was not my idea. My mother began teaching me almost as soon as I could speak properly -- I was three or four, I think. She adored music and had always wanted a daughter she could mould into a musical genius. Lacking that, she satisfied herself with me.”

“I never guessed,” said Elizabeth, “but of course, you did not wish to perform.”

“No, nor my father; he did not consider it an appropriate past-time for his heir; he forbade me from playing altogether after mother’s death.”

Elizabeth listened eagerly. Darcy rarely spoke of his father, and then with only a distant sort of respect, and his mother he did not mention at all. She could not help wondering what sort of standard she would be held up to. “You have not played since then?”

“Actually, I have; mother was only dead a few weeks before I was sent to live at Rosings, and I was permitted, even encouraged, to practise all I liked. Lady Catherine is really fond of music, her pretensions notwithstanding. I did not take a great deal of pleasure in it myself, at that time, but continued practising for mother’s sake; and when Georgiana and I were re-united, I began teaching her, as mother had intended to do herself.”

“Your mother must have been very accomplished.”

“Oh yes, she painted fairly well, and danced beautifully, and could manage the estates at least as well as my father when circumstances called for it -- he was often away from home; but music was always her first love. She played the pianoforte, and the harp, and the violin.”

She sounds terrifying. “What did she look like? Was she handsome?”

Darcy looked uncomfortable. “I -- I suppose so. She was said to be very beautiful.” Smiling slightly, he added, “My uncle says that she broke the hearts of half London without even realising it.”

There was a laugh, and a slightly dishevelled Bingley emerged from a path just to the right. “Who are you talking about, Darcy? Lady Eleanor?”

“Certainly not,” Darcy said with dignity, and bowed to Jane. “Miss Bennet.”

Jane smiled warmly at her prospective brother, and returned his greeting. Surprisingly, he seemed a little troubled, and briefly Elizabeth’s protective instincts towards her sister warred with the love and trust she felt towards her betrothed. I will not leap to any conclusions, she told herself firmly, and determined to speak to him about it as soon as the opportunity would allow.

---

Chapter Two

As soon as they entered Meryton, however, they were bombarded by the attentions of their erstwhile chaperone, alone with less good-natured well-wishers. Darcy put up with it very well, although he instantly reverted to his usual grave composure, his face blank of any emotion to all but those who knew him well. He endured the inevitable impertinences better than Elizabeth had expected, responding quietly and civilly when addressed, and only wincing once or twice. Only the grip of his hands and a tightness around the eyes betrayed his discomfort. Jane and Bingley, naturally, were as blissfully unaware as ever and cheerfully entered into conversation with Mrs Long and her three nieces.

The friendly ambush was of a piece with their lives for what seemed the next eternity. Little if any time was spent alone. Elizabeth, although she had never been particularly fond of the gossiping ladies of Meryton and their insipid offspring, was at first only upset for Darcy's sake. She did her best to protect him from the worst of it, but only so much could be done. Later however, the trying company, particularly the incessant questions of the ladies, put such a strain on her, that she wished for nothing so much as to be free of it all. Some days she wondered how she had ever endured them for so long; and the promise of Pemberley was never so enticing as at the present.

She marvelled at her good fortune, as she watched Darcy struggling through a conversation with Sir William Lucas. She caught the words "brightest jewel," a gesture in her direction, followed by "St James," and sighed. Darcy maintained his composure admirably, but -- Elizabeth stifled a giggle -- shrugged his shoulders dismissively when the pretentious knight turned his back. At least he waited. Not only had she found an honourable man of decidedly comfortable means, but one more than handsome, and peculiar enough in himself to provide her with an endless source of amusement -- every earthly blessing tied up in one neat little package.

"I wrote Charlotte of your engagement, Miss Eliza," Lady Lucas said, "I am sure she will congratulate you on such a fine catch."

Elizabeth cringed, for once glad that her intended was distant from her. "Thank you, Lady Lucas," she replied graciously. She glanced briefly at the other side of the room, where Darcy and Mr Bennet stood. Over the last few days, as, it seemed, every corner of the house was invaded, the latter had grown quite disgruntled. For his daughter's sake (and also out of sheer desperation for even somewhat sensible conversation), he had approached his reserved son-to-be, and was astonished to find a kindred spirit in him. Equally unsociable, the two men had formed an alliance of like minds over fine sherry, Greek philosophy, and rare books.

"Ah, Lizzy, there is little worthy of mockery in him," said Mr Bennet, "which is his greatest failing, I fear." He did not quite comprehend the nature of their attachment, for Darcy scarcely spoke of Elizabeth, and then with -- as far as Mr Bennet could tell -- no great feeling, while Elizabeth could and did wax eloquent on the subject of her beloved. Nevertheless, Darcy's actions spoke louder than his words, and Mr Bennet accepted it.

"I am content with my choice," Elizabeth said mildly, but Mr Bennet caught the defensiveness in her look, and raised his eyebrows.

"You are very serious, my dear. Is he rubbing off on you, or has the company of your mother's friends overwhelmed your delicate sensibilities? Ah -- I see, I have struck near the mark. Come, Lizzy, enjoy the absurdity while you still may. You shall be free of it soon enough."

"Two months!" she said dismally.

Mr Bennet laughed. "Lizzy, my love, these nine weeks will be over before you know it."

"Three weeks has been long enough," said Elizabeth, smiling. "I am young and callow, papa. Nine weeks of this is a lifetime."

Mr Bennet conceded that the latter was undoubtedly true. "Your intended certainly seems to think so."

Elizabeth smiled. "Poor Fitzwilliam. He does try, for my sake, but he really detests all of it. You and he seem to be getting on well, though." She raised her eyebrows and waited.

"He is rising every hour in my esteem," Mr Bennet assured her. "I admire all my three sons-in-law highly. Wickham, perhaps, is my favourite; but I think I shall like your husband quite as well as Jane's."

---

Elizabeth's thoughts were in a whirl. She thought of Darcy's frown when he looked at Jane, of the "Lady Eleanor" Bingley had mentioned, of the peculiar uncertainly in his manner to her, so unlike him; and then, brushing her lips with her hand, she shut her eyes and remembered the tentative, gentle first kiss, then, his dark hair soft against her fingers as she drew him in for another, and finally, later -- Elizabeth's lips curved into a slow smile. Most of her had been flooded by curious new sensations, but a small part was inexpressibly curious to see how he looked, and so she opened her eyes, eager to see what her touch did to him. It was impossible not to be affected; his own eyes were closed, head tilted back, the lashes long and dark enough to inspire as much envy as admiration, and colour had burnt itself along his high cheekbones. She had never seen him so beautiful, and, overwhelmed by emotion, she pressed her lips against his forehead, lips, throat, whichever part of him she could reach, his silent encouragement eroding any sense of themselves as still separate, of where they were, who they were --

"Lizzy?"

Elizabeth started violently, eyes flying open. "Jane!" she exclaimed, flushing deeply. "I didn't hear you."

"I wasn't very quiet -- you looked rather strange, Lizzy, just now."

Elizabeth laughed. "I daresay I did." For a brief moment, she tried to imagine a similar scene between her sister and brother-to-be. Perhaps, in a moment of thoughtless passion, Mr Bingley had lost himself and allowed his teeth to scrape against Jane's pale throat. Elizabeth suppressed a giggle and a blush, the former in incredulity at the very idea, and the latter in pleasurable reminiscence of exactly that. Jane would never, she was certain, behave as shamelessly as Elizabeth did. She smiled again. Darcy would never behave as shamelessly as she did.

"Lizzy? Lizzy?"

"Oh! I am sorry. I have so much to think on these days -- but I am very glad to have you to share it with, Jane." She looked affectionately at her sister.

Jane clasped her hand, then smiled contentedly. "Oh Lizzy, I could not be any happier."

Elizabeth gazed at her, wondering not for the first time at how different they were. Jane's happiness was undoubtedly full and complete; but it was not what she, Elizabeth, would wish. She wanted -- joy, and laughter, and passion, along with the gentle, mild, sweet affection that subsisted between Jane and her betrothed. And she had it. There was certainly a gentle quality to Darcy's love for her, not unlike Jane's, but it was not the same, either -- there was almost a childlike simplicity to it, really -- particularly at first, when he could not comprehend his own happiness, and did not dare so much as take a step out of rhythm for fear of upsetting her and losing her regard. But there was also an all-encompassing intensity, a passionate attachment so wildly different from what she perceived in Jane and Bingley, and every couple among her acquaintance, and what she herself had always imagined, that she could scarcely conceive of it.

"I am glad for you, Jane," she said, after a moment's silence.

"And you, Lizzy?"

She blinked a little. "I?"

"Are you happy?" Jane pressed. Elizabeth's eyebrows flew up.

"Oh yes." She smiled ruefully. "I will be happier when I am away from all this, at Pemberley, with Fitzwilliam." Her eyes softened, and she gazed towards the window, a little dreamily, before snapping back to the conversation. "I think you and papa are all that I shall miss, Jane. Otherwise, these shall be the longest two months I have ever lived." Except, she thought, after I left Pemberley and thought I should never see him again.

Jane looked politely bewildered.

"Oh, well -- all the ladies, they do not like me, you know -- and it is so difficult for Fitzwilliam." She sighed. "He is not at his best, you know, in -- these situations. With strangers, and always being watched and judged and -- it exhausts me, and I am not anywhere so retiring as he is."

"Yes, it is difficult," Jane agreed. Cautiously, she added, "I was so glad to go to London, when -- that dreadful business happened last year -- simply to be away from all the . . ."

"Prying eyes?" Elizabeth suggested.

Jane flushed. "Well, yes. They meant well, I am sure of it, but it can be so trying when one is not accustomed to it."

Elizabeth smiled a little sadly. "Yes, I think so. But I am happy, and when we are together -- just us, or with you and Mr Bingley -- I have never been happier in my life, and I feel every day as if I could never be so happy again. Except -- I am -- more so every day. He is -- he is so -- I would never have dreamed it, that it would be like this." She laughed. "I am terribly silly over him -- I tell him, that it is all his fault, he has made me so silly, so unlike myself."

"You could never be silly, Lizzy."

"If I told you half the things that pass through my mind, you would not be able to say so," she replied, flinging herself back on her bed. "I am ridiculously happy, just knowing that he is there -- somewhere -- and that every day I shall be able to look at him, and tease him, and if I like, touch him, however I please."

Jane gasped. Elizabeth sat up straight. "Did I actually say that aloud?"

The other nodded, and Elizabeth covered her mouth, dissolving into giggles. "Oh, I'm so sorry -- I didn't mean to embarrass you -- but, dearest Jane, surely you have --" She stopped and considered what might constitute a romantic interlude for Jane and Bingley. A few stolen bird-like pecks; holding hands when certain no-one would see -- agreeing on every conceivable subject -- no, somehow she did not think Jane's experience was quite the same as hers, for all that it was longer in duration. "Well," Elizabeth conceded, "perhaps not."

"Lizzy, what have you done?" a scandalised Jane protested. Elizabeth could not keep herself from laughing wickedly, falling back again. She flung one hand against her forehead, with a melodramatic sigh, then looked sideways at Jane.

"You must prepare yourself for something very awful, dear sister."

Jane bit back a smile. "Lizzy, please be serious. What if someone had seen you?"

"Oh, I made certain that could not happen." She covered her eyes. "He is so -- careful, with me, that I was beginning to be afraid I shouldn't be kissed until the day of the wedding, and I would really rather have time to work up to --" She coughed. "So I took him to the Mount and kissed him instead."

Jane's mouth dropped upon. "Why, Lizzy -- what did he say?"

Elizabeth smiled mischievously. "Very little, as I recall."

"He must have been very surprised."

"Not really." Elizabeth giggled into her pillow. "He knows me fairly well by now, I think."

"And --" Jane hesitated -- "it that all?"

Turning her head to the side, and blushing a little -- "No. I just said I loved him -- very absently, not really thinking. I didn't realise -- he didn't know --" She frowned a little, recalling how he had looked. Radiantly happy -- transported by such intense joy that -- it was almost painful, really. He had been so very surprised. She briefly chewed her lip.

"He didn't know?" Jane said bewilderment. "But, wh -- oh."

Elizabeth looked up. "What do you mean, oh?"

Jane dropped her eyes. "I shouldn't say. I don't want you to feel -- of course you were right, but still, he can't help but be -- if it is anything like what I feel, then . . . oh, I'm sorry." She took a deep breath, and turned Elizabeth's hand over, looking up at her anxiously. "After all those months of believing Bingley didn't care for me, that he never had, sometimes it is difficult to really believe that -- well, that he does care. Of course, he always did, and I know that, but I don't always feel it, if that makes sense."

"Yes," said Elizabeth, vey soberly, "yes, it does."

"It helps," she added blushingly, "that he is so affectionate, but I must confess, Lizzy, after being unsure for so long, feeling so --" she moved her hands in a quick gesture startlingly like Darcy's -- "desolate, that is exactly it, it is always so astonishing. And -- " She looked deeply uncomfortable -- "I know that he really loved me all along, so it is not quite the same." At Elizabeth's stricken expression, she earnestly said, "I do not blame you, I am certain he does not blame you, and he would not want you to make yourself unhappy over it -- I am sure you were right; really, believing what you did about him, it would have been wrong to accept -- it's just, I know what it is like, loving someone so much, and yet -- " tears actually rose to Jane's eyes, and she turned her head away, "Well, all I mean is that it can be very difficult sometimes."

"Oh, Jane." Elizabeth put her arms around her sister, who gasped a little, and allowed herself the luxury of crying one last time. "Jane, I am so sorry."

"I am well, truly, and so happy," Jane said; "it's only sometimes that one cannot help but -- I am so glad I have had you with me. I do not know what I would have done without you, dearest sister. Only -- you will write, when you are at Pemberley?"

Elizabeth pressed a kiss against Jane's fair hair. "I certainly shall. Oh!" She suddenly remembered Darcy's cryptic response to her questions about his peculiar behaviour around Jane. "Jane, Mr Darcy would like to speak to you tomorrow, if that is acceptable to you."

"Well, of course," Jane said in bewilderment, "he may speak to me whenever he wishes."

"No, not with the others. Alone." Elizabeth remembered his preoccupied, somehow guilty, expression, and restrained her impatience. "Perhaps on the way to Meryton, I shall walk with Mr Bingley and tell him stories about what an ill-behaved child you were?"

Jane smiled absently. "Oh yes, that would be delightful."

"You must tell me, if it is not a great secret, for I am quite overwhelmed my curiosity," Elizabeth said. "He started to tell me, but Mrs Long interrupted us, so, you see, I do not know either."

"I will tell you all," Jane promised. "What could he have to say, that he could not mention before any of the others?"

---

The next day dawned bright and clear. As it was still earlier than Bingley or Darcy were usually expected, Elizabeth joined her father in the library, and after their normal conversation, Mr Bennet remarked casually, "I hope Mr Darcy's letter did not contain bad news."

Elizabeth stared. "What letter? Did he write? Is something wrong?"

Mr Bennet chuckled. "I would not be young again for all the world. No, I meant the letter that Mr Darcy received last evening. Did he not mention it to you?"

"No, I did not know -- " she frowned. "I did not even see a letter."

"Undoubtedly because he ripped it up and threw it in the fireplace before he had read five lines," said Mr Bennet dryly. "Are you certain he did not mention it to you? He certainly intended to."

"No, he -- " Elizabeth remembered, when the gentlemen had rejoined them, Darcy had seemed tense and preoccupied, more than usual, but she had attributed that to a particularly close press of neighbours; in general, he disliked being close to other people, and particularly being touched by strangers. There had been a moment of brief respite -- he had looked rather more intense than usual, had said, "Elizabeth, I have to tell you -- " but they'd been interrupted yet again, and she had not guessed that it was anything of import. "I think, he meant to, but there were so many people . . ."

"Ah, that explains it."

"Did he say who it was from?" Elizabeth tried to think of any of his acquaintance who had the power and inclination to write something that could so disturb Darcy, and soon found herself at the inevitable answer, even as Mr Bennet replied, with great amusement,

"His aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. He wrote and sent the reply immediately."

"I wond -- " Elizabeth stopped as the sound of a carriage arriving could be heard, and raced to the window. "Oh, it is only the Lucases," she said, disappointed. Mr Bennet laughed.

"Lizzy, they are never here before breakfast."

"I know, it's just -- " Elizabeth shut her eyes, shook her head, and looked again. "Papa? Did you invite Mr Collins to the wedding?"

Mr Bennet considered his response to Mr Collins' diatribe. "No," he decided. "Why on earth do you ask?"

"Because, unless my eyes deceive me, he is walking up the drive this very moment. And Charlotte! Charlotte is here!"

Elizabeth arrived, breathless, in the parlour, just in time to greet her friend.

"I am so pleased for you, Elizabeth," Charlotte said, with a warm smile. "I always said he was partial to you, did I not?"

"Yes," laughed Elizabeth, "yes, you were positively prescient, Charlotte. And how are you? Is your chicken laying well? Oh! Mr Collins. It is lovely to see you too."

"Cousin Elizabeth," Mr Collins returned, bowing ponderously. "I, too, offer my congratulations on a most advantageous connection, despite the distress -- the very great distress -- inevitably caused to my noble patroness, Lady Catherine de Bour -- "

"I'm certain Eliza knows all about her ladyship's objections," Lady Lucas interjected, with a braying laugh. Elizabeth sighed, then smiled at her friend. At least there was one person whose company was not trying. Nevertheless she was uncertain whether the pleasure she obtained from Charlotte's company quite compensated for the sight of Darcy and Mr Collins in one room, the latter having evidently taken her father's advice as far as he was able.

The younger generation all opted to walk to Meryton, Charlotte and Elizabeth trying to cover as many matters as possible in a brief amount of time, Bingley being his usual agreeable self as he endured Mr Collins, while Jane and Darcy lagged behind, speaking softly and earnestly to one another. Darcy and Elizabeth only had a brief moment of somewhat private conversation.

"Your sister is the most saintly woman I have ever met," said he, looking almost stunned. Elizabeth laughed.

"She is positively angelic," she agreed. "Should I be jealous?"

"Jealous? You?" Darcy scoffed. "What reason have you to be jealous, Elizabeth?"

Elizabeth glanced at him, but his expression was perfectly serious. "Fitzwilliam," she said carefully -- as it would not do to encourage his vanity over-much -- "you have looked in the mirror lately, have you not?"

Darcy seemed merely perplexed by this, and Elizabeth sighed.

"I mean, you are . . . you have . . . you are very pleasant to look at."

His eyes widened, and he coloured deeply. "Oh, that," he said dismissively; "it doesn't matter. I am yours now."

Elizabeth beamed at him, but before the conversation could follow this promising path, they were interrupted by Mr Collins' raptures over the bare one hundred feet between himself and such a near relation of his patroness -- both sighed, unexpectedly joined by the long-suffering Bingley.

---

Exhausting as the previous days had been, this one was only more so, and Elizabeth gratefully retired to her room for the night, having parted from her betrothed with nothing more than a decorous kiss on her hand. Before she could so much as sit on her bed, however, she was joined by Jane, who had been far quieter than usual since her discussion with Darcy. Her golden hair was loose and tangled enough that it was clear she had been running her fingers through it in agitation -- she was clearly in a state of what passed for high dudgeon with her.

"What is it, Jane?" Elizabeth's mind went back to the conversation with Darcy, and she stepped forward, alarmed. "Jane, what did he say to you?"

"What did who say to me, Lizzy?" Jane asked, looking away.

"Mr Darcy, of course!"

"Oh, that he was the one who convinced Bingley I did not care for him, and he knew I was London, and never mentioned it." Jane waved her hand at this, her expression closed. "He apologised for that, and I asked him to use my Christian name." In a faintly wondering tone, she added, "He really felt very badly about his part in it."

Elizabeth sat down. "He told you? But wh --"

Jane lifted up her head, perfectly still except for the fingers clenching and unclenching the skirt of her shift. "Because, he said, I am to be his sister." There was no trace of accusation in her tone, even as she added, "He did not think it right, you see, to conceal such a thing from me, when we are to be so closely related."

Elizabeth stared at her. "Jane?"

"Elizabeth," said Jane, her dark eyes bright, "I can understand why Mr Darcy did what he did, and I understand why Bingley did what he did; but could you please -- " she briefly chewed her lip -- "could you please explain why, if you have known since April that Bingley truly cared for me, you never told me?"

Elizabeth sighed. "Jane, Bingley was already gone by the time I found out. Telling you the entire tale would do no good -- it could only add to your regret. It was Bingley's place to tell you what had happened."

Jane turned her head away. "I was right, then," she said softly.

"I beg your pardon?"

Jane lifted her chin. "I supposed," she said, "that you did not tell me, because you truly believed it best -- because you could not possibly understand that -- that --" she clasped her hands -- "that I would have given everything I own to know that he had felt something -- anything -- for me."

"Jane -- "

"That is why he understood," she continued reflectively; "Mr Darcy, that is -- I suppose that is why he still feels so badly about it. I tried to thank him for Lydia, you know. He said he did not deserve my gratitude -- just laughed rather queerly and called it a penance for his sins. I do not think, somehow, that he meant the money."

Elizabeth did not entirely understand Jane's meaning, but she accepted that her silence had hurt her beloved sister, and apologised. Jane smiled wearily.

"It is quite all right," she said. "That is all over now, and I hope we have all learnt something from it. Lizzy --" there was a moment's hesitation -- "take care."

Elizabeth lifted up her eyes. "Why, what do you mean?"

Earnestly, Jane said, "I know you only meant it for the best, but . . . but if you keep things from Mr Darcy, I think he will be far more upset than I am. I only want you to take care, Lizzy."

"I shall," Elizabeth promised.

---

Chapter Three

Elizabeth woke the next day, tired, sore, and in a decidedly ill humour. She was mad to get out of the house, and absconded with Darcy as soon as she found him. She knew he was an early riser, and that he spent his mornings walking or riding about the countryside. Fortuitously, he had opted to remain on foot this morning, so there was no equine monster to disturb her equanimity further.

Of course, such a surreptitious meeting was decidedly improper. In her present mood, that was enough to recommend the activity to her, but she knew Darcy’s deeply-ingrained sense of decorum could not so easily be set aside. She was thus rather irritated with him, but knew her feelings all out of proportion -- she had knowledge of how quickly matters could escalate between them, and realised Darcy’s caution was far from unwarranted. Nevertheless, when all the tension of the evening and morning combined to a boiling point, she lost control of her temper, but she wished the words unsaid immediately, even before catching the telltale flinch and expressionless look in his eyes.

Oddly, it was he who diffused the situation, quite without intending to. “Elizabeth, are you, er . . .” he began hesitantly.

Since everyone else either ignored her or snapped back at her at such times, she was faintly bewildered at his reaction. “I’m very sorry,” she said penitently.

“No . . . that is, I meant . . . are you . . . er . . .” He blushed deeply.

Elizabeth sighed. “I am in a very poor mood this morning, Fitzwilliam,” she said shortly. “Please say what you mean outright.”

“Ah . . . I don’t know what it’s called, exactly. Mrs Reynolds never said, when Georgiana . . .” He flushed even more. “Is it . . . that time?”

“I do not understand you,” she said.

“Of the month -- that time when you, er . . . ” His fingers were tightly clasped and his eyes steadfastly fixed on a rock near his foot.

Elizabeth stared, then laughed as she comprehended his meaning. “How do you know about that?”

“Well . . .” He looked slightly less uncomfortable, and after one awkward glance, forged ahead.

---

Georgiana Darcy awoke, shifted uncomfortably, looked down, and promptly fled the room.

“Fitzwilliam, Fitzwilliam!” she shrieked, running into the library. Her brother had been so busy lately that he was often still awake at two or three o’clock, so she did not bother looking for him in his bedchamber.

“Georgiana, what is it?” he asked.

“I’m dying,” she declared, eyes overflowing with tears, “and I don’t want to die. Oh Fitzwilliam, can’t you stop it?”

“I -- what? You can’t be dying, Georgiana, you’re not even twelve yet.”

“I am!” She flung herself at him and began sobbing. “I’m bleeding to death, I’m sure of it.”

“You’re . . . bleeding?” Fitzwilliam, at three-and-twenty, was still overwhelmed by what parenthood to an adolescent entailed, and also was very tired, which must explain the slowness of his thought processes. “But -- from where? I don’t see any . . .”

“Um,” said Georgiana, flushing a vivid red.

Oh,” said Fitzwilliam. He was, as it happened, not very familiar with female anatomy, and even less so with female reproductive processes. “You’re sure you’re bleeding from, er, there?”

Georgiana nodded, and clung to him once more. He noted a certain odour, like and yet unlike his own experience of blood, and patted her dark head awkwardly. It seemed a terribly ignonimous way to go, but -- Fitzwilliam regained his senses. “Dear Lord, you’re bleeding to death!” he declared, and briefly at a loss, summoned Mrs Reynolds.

“Mrs Reynolds, Georgiana’s bleeding,” he said, and the housekeeper, after one glance at Miss Darcy’s pristine appearance, looked sympathetic.

“Shall I order her sheets changed, then?” she inquired. Both siblings blinked at this.

“I’m going to die!” wailed Georgiana.

“It may feel like it,” Mrs Reynolds agreed. “Lying down may help.”

“What can I do?” Fitzwilliam asked, wringing his hands.

“Very little. You’re a man,” said Mrs Reynolds. The relevance of this observation quite escaped him.

“No, I don’t want to die by myself,” cried Georgiana.

“I don’t want her to die at all,” Fitzwilliam intervened. “Surely something can be done?”

Mrs Reynolds, after a look at the distraught pair, recalled their motherless state, and young Mr Darcy’s austere manner of living, and comprehended. “Ah,” she said, “Miss Darcy is not dying, sir. Perhaps you might wish to leave her to a woman’s care, until she is recovered?”

“Certainly not,” he said, and Miss Darcy clung to her brother fearfully. Mrs Reynolds sighed, but persevered.

“This is a very ordinary event that all women endure, but it is not something men should be, or ought to be, concerned with. Since you have no mother, Miss Darcy, and it has come so early for you -- ”

“Fitzwilliam, please don’t go,” Miss Darcy begged, just as her brother said firmly,

“I am staying with Georgiana until she is better, ma’am.”

“But -- ”

“What is happening to me?”

“Ah -- ” Mrs Reynolds coughed. “Miss Darcy, in the course of a young lady’s life, when she comes of childbearing age . . .”

---

Elizabeth laughed until tears ran down her cheeks. Darcy looked sheepish as he continued ruefully,

“It was one of those times, that I rather wished I had my mother, or one of my older sisters had survived, or . . . something.”

“Older sisters?” Even imagining Darcy with parents was difficult enough.

“Oh, my parents had five children before me,” he said breezily. “Two were daughters. None of the girls lived more than a few weeks, they were born too early. We all were, but I lived anyway. Then there were seven after me; four that died and three that were lost early in the confinement. And then -- ” His brilliant smile seemed at odds with the subject matter, until he continued in a softened voice, “then there was Georgiana.”

Elizabeth stared. Somehow this picture was so contrary to the vague sketch she had in her mind -- For the first time, she thought of his parents, his family, as not simply the dim shadowy figures that had produced Darcy, vague ideas in her mind, but people as real as Lydia, Mrs Gardiner, her father. She thought of a young woman whose wealth and beauty and accomplishments were not enough, who had borne so many children, and lost them all -- but for one frail boy, and she could only imagine how dear he must have been to her.

“Your poor mother,” she said sympathetically.

“Yes,” said Darcy gravely, before turning the subject; “speaking of Georgiana, I received this from her. I thought you might like to read it.”

Elizabeth smiled to herself as she saw the letter. Prolific correspondence seemed to be a family trait; four sheets were insufficient to contain Miss Darcy’s delight at her brother’s engagement. Elizabeth was pleased, for her sake and his, that at least one member of his family approved of their attachment; but she was struck by the manner in which Georgiana addressed her brother. The deep affection that obviously subsisted between the siblings was easily and immediately apparent; what affected her even more strongly, however, was the almost reverential respect accompanying it. Halfway through her perusal, it was clear that Miss Darcy worshipped the very ground her brother trod on; he was to her what Elizabeth had mockingly called him, a man without fault.

Pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked, she thought whimsically. I am glad that he has faults and foibles enough to make up for actually living up to such an ideal.

---

“Actually,” Elizabeth confessed, several minutes later. “I was in an ill humour because of my mother.”

Darcy opened his mouth, then shut it again, and simply waited for her to continue, and Elizabeth impulsively stepped closer, absently playing with the sleeve of his greatcoat. While she certainly preferred conversation to silence, one of the very great pleasures in their mostly solitary walks was that there was no struggle to make herself heard. There were few, if any, exclamations or interruptions when she spoke, and he certainly never ignored her. His responses, although occasionally slow in coming, were always thoughtful and well-considered. Moreover, she never needed to sift through well-meaning omissions, careless words prompted by the impulse of the moment, but regretted later, or outright falsehoods. Darcy never said a word he did not mean.

Contemplation of her fortune instantly improved her mood, and Elizabeth felt more disposed to speak of it. “She is set on going to town, for our trousseaux. All of this has rather gone to her head. Of course, Jane and I do not want to be separated, so we joined with papa in trying to convince her, but . . .” She shrugged eloquently.

“Why would Jane be separated from you?” he asked, looking faintly perplexed. Elizabeth blushed.

“Not from one another -- from you,” she said instantly, then added as an afterthought, “and Mr Bingley, of course.”

“Oh, I see. Well . . .” The faint widening of his eyes told her that he was anxious, doubtless over some imagined insult he had inadvertently dropped.

“Fitzwilliam, what is it?”

“I -- actually, Bingley and I were talking, and . . .” He cleared his throat. “That is what we wanted to talk to you about.”

“What is?”

“Town -- going to town. We both have some business -- not urgent, but then there are the settlements -- ” he looked deeply embarrassed at even so indirect an allusion to the disparity in their situations. “We thought you might find it convenient to accompany us.”

“All of us?”

“If the Gardiners consent, I suppose so.”

Elizabeth smiled a little to herself. “Mamma will be pleased. She has already complained to my aunt and uncle enough that they offered to let us stay with them.”

“And you?”

Elizabeth glanced up at his face, which was rather too composed. “Of course,” she said, “the only reason for the disagreement was that we wished to be with you. And Mr Bingley.”

Darcy smiled, and upon their return, it was decided, amid vociferous complaints, that Mrs Bennet should take Elizabeth and Jane to town, and stay for a fortnight, while Bingley and Darcy completed their business. Despite the painful prospect of a journey during which Mrs Bennet and Darcy were both present, Elizabeth anticipated the brief freedom from Meryton, and wrote an effusively grateful letter to her aunt.

---

Chapter Four

When Jane walked into her sister’s room, per their usual habit, she saw to her astonishment her sister kneeling near the fire, her hands shaking violently as she held several sheets of paper towards the blaze. Then, at the last moment, she snatched them back, with an expression at once whimsical and uncertain. She repeated this action some three or four times before sighing and rocking backwards on the balls of her feet, staring into the flames.

“Lizzy?”

Elizabeth leapt up, holding the letter against her. “Oh, Jane,” she said in relief. “I am so glad you are here.”

Jane raised her eyebrows. “I am pleased to see you, as well, of course,” she agreed cautiously, and Elizabeth laughed.

“I am in desperate need of counsel,” she continued, making her way to the bed. She tentatively bounced a little.

Jane accompanied her. “Well, what is it?”

“I promised Fitzwilliam I would burn this,” she said, turning the letter over in her hands. “I did mean to. The only thing is . . .” She frowned. “I can see why he wished it burnt. It is not a proper love-letter.”

“It's a love-letter?”

“No, no, it isn't.” She unfolded the letter, and Jane could see how worn it appeared, although it was of thick, expensive paper, as if it had been anxiously read and re-read by a careless recipient. A line formed between Elizabeth’s dark brows as she looked down at it, fiddling nervously. “There are parts that are very . . . painful. I understand, I really do, why he is afraid I should have the power of re-reading it. But there are other parts, too -- and I am afraid of not having the power of re-reading them. It is very silly,” she continued hastily, with a light laugh, “I am sure he will speak them to me should I desire it.”

Inspiration struck. “Is this -- that letter?”

Elizabeth nodded, her eyes lowered. “Jane, am I very different -- from a year ago?”

Her sister hesitated. “Well -- you are the same -- in essentials,” she said. “You are still Lizzy.”

Elizabeth smiled tiredly. “But . . .?”

“You are quieter, more thoughtful, and when you laugh, it is not so -- well, not at other people so much, but more just . . . because you seem . . . happy, pleased. You are . . . softer.” Jane looked anxious. “I mean no offence, Lizzy . . .”

“No. I was only wondering how I might seem from another perspective. I feel as if I am someone else entirely, sometimes, and other times as if I have not changed at all.” She looked down at the letter, and sighed. “When he left me, at Lambton -- I knew I had no right, no claim on him; but this was such a -- such a comfort. He was very angry, and hurt, and bitter, when he wrote it, I think.” There was a peculiar un-Elizabeth-like detachment in her voice, before she regained something of her customary demeanour. “And yet -- in spite of all that -- I think -- I think he must have loved me very much, when he wrote it.” She looked pensive. “Not that he does not now, of course, but . . . differently. That was more . . . bittersweet. When he wrote this, he loved me without . . . without hope of return, without anything. And he trusted me.”

“Goodness, what was in that letter?” Jane flushed deeply. “Oh, I am sorry, I should not have asked.”

Elizabeth handed her one of the pages. “Read the last line.”

Mr Darcy had very neat, elegant handwriting, as unlike Bingley’s treasured but careless lines as could be imagined. The ending read, very simply, I will only add, God bless you, followed by his signature, Fitzwilliam Darcy. “He used his whole name,” she said irrelevantly.

“I beg your pardon?” Elizabeth could scarcely believe her ears, and Jane blushed again.

“I was simply wondering -- why he did not use his initials. It would have been safer -- if someone had found it . . .”

“He assumed I would burn it.” Elizabeth tilted her head to the side. “I am glad he signed it properly. There is something more intimate about that.” Absently, she traced the signature with her fingers.

Jane looked at her sister curiously. “Do you always use his Christian name, Lizzy?--he calls you ‘Miss Elizabeth.’ ”

Elizabeth blushed and played with the fringe of her shawl, before confessing, “He always calls me ‘Elizabeth’ when we are alone, from the very first, but he thinks it is improper and disrespectful to do so before company. I told him that he could call me whatever he likes, ‘Lizzy’ or ‘Eliza’ if he wanted to, but he prefers ‘Elizabeth’ -- he is the only one that always uses it, and he thinks it suits me better. I thought it rather strange to be ‘Elizabeth’ and ‘Mr Darcy,’ but I knew his name from the letter -- ” she nodded at it -- “so I started calling him by it, and he was so delighted that I kept on doing so.”

“That is lovely,” Jane said dreamily. “I cannot imagine calling Bingley ‘Charles’ -- of course, that is what his sisters call him. Although we knew his name earlier -- Mr Darcy’s, I mean.”

“I beg your pardon?” Elizabeth stared at her. “I never saw it, or heard it, before his letter.”

“But Mrs Gardiner mentioned it -- before . . . well, before. Remember, you asked her -- it was before we went to town and you to Kent, and she very clearly said that he was ‘Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy’ when she lived in Lambton . . . do you not remember?”

Elizabeth, somewhat befuddled, shook her head. “No, I had not the slightest idea. Well, in any case, it took a while to grow accustomed to using it. I really could not imagine shortening it -- anything else would be dreadfully common and . . . well, just not him -- and he said that his family did use his Christian name -- all of their Christian names, actually, because he has four cousins with the same surname, not including the ladies, so it would have been dreadfully confusing not to. And now I cannot think of him by any other name. Even ‘Mr Darcy’ does not seem quite . . . him. He will always be ‘Fitzwilliam’ to me now, I suppose.” She looked at the letter. “Jane, do you think I should burn it?” She looked at her plaintively.

“Well, if you did promise . . .” Elizabeth flinched. “But did you say when you would?”

“No, or I would have done it earlier.”

“Well, perhaps . . . I am not sure, because Mr Darcy is so different from Bingley, but . . . why don’t you just tell him?”

Elizabeth looked blank. “Tell him what?”

“That you would like to keep it, of course. After all,” she added, fixing a stern eye on her sister, “you should not have to make all the concessions, Lizzy. If it is that important to you, he should understand. And if he does not, I shall make him understand!”

Sometimes, Elizabeth reflected, Jane was more like Mrs Bennet than at others. Certainly she could be as fiercely protective. Somewhat comforted, she leaned over and kissed her sister’s cheek.

“Thank you, Jane. Oh -- what shall I do without you?”

“Write,” said Jane succintly.

---

Elizabeth was not certain whether she was going to die of embarrassment or repressed laughter first. Mrs Bennet had found nothing new to say to Bingley, and quickly bored even herself; therefore, she turned her attentions to her other prospective son. Darcy, while too reserved to display his feelings before her, was to Elizabeth’s eyes deeply uncomfortable; the empty politeness in his voice and the blank expressionlessness on his face said as much, more loudly than any words could do.

“This is a lovely carriage, Mr Darcy. So large, and comfortable, and rich!” Mrs Bennet said brightly. Darcy’s relentlessly well-bred manners, accompanied by somewhat less reserve than had been his wont formerly, had unfortunately encouraged a certain familiarity in his mother-in-law.

“Thank you, Mrs Bennet.”

Her eyes grew sharper. “We know all of Mr Bingley’s relations, but not yours. You must tell me all about your family, sir, since they are soon to be ours as well.”

He winced. “I’m afraid I shall have to disappoint you, ma’am, for there are only two of us -- my sister and myself.”

“Oh, so your mother is dead?” she inquired tactlessly.

“Yes, she passed on fifteen years ago.”

“You must have been very young, then,” Mrs Bennet observed. “Why, you are quite a young man yet -- pray, what is your age?”

Darcy glanced at Elizabeth -- she shrugged helplessly -- then an unfamiliar expression crossed his face, his eyes alight with what would have been mischief had they belonged to anyone else. “With a grown-up sister over ten years my junior,” he said gravely, “you can hardly expect me to own it.”

It’s going to be from not laughing, then. Mrs Bennet looked merely bewildered, and unconsciously provoked her daughter still further, by saying dismissively, “You cannot be thirty, I am sure, so you need not hide it.”

Elizabeth choked, Bingley and Jane looked merely curious, aware that they were missing something, and Darcy gave Elizabeth a conspiratorial smile before relenting. “I am eight-and-twenty.”

“Then you were really only a boy. How did you get along without a mother to guide you?”

“I was, er, blessed with several other women in my family,” Darcy said dryly.

“Yes, we met Lady Catherine. A remarkably elegant lady, did you not think, Lizzy?”

Darcy and Elizabeth exchanged pained glances. “She is certainly very . . . splendid,” she managed to say.

“My aunt and I are estranged,” Darcy said briefly. It was the first time he had publicly acknowledged it, and Elizabeth fidgeted unhappily. She had no fondness for Lady Catherine, who was absurd, impertinent, and arrogant; she certainly did not wish for Darcy to choose his family over her! Nevertheless, she disliked being the cause of a rift in his family, and she could only hope this was not a harbringer of things to come. Lady Catherine, for all her failings, could not be so easily dismissed as Mrs Bennet. She was not so insensible, and she was by a stroke of fate a person of some consideration in the world. And she was his mother’s sister. As long as his anger remained fresh, he would not lament the loss -- but his protestations notwithstanding, it would fade in time. Elizabeth frowned, mulling the matter over.

“Oh, that is unfortunate, family quarrels are such dreadful things, one often doesn’t manage to outlive them,” Mrs Bennet said cheerfully. “Surely she is not your only relation, is she?”

Darcy smiled faintly. “No, far from it.”

“Your family must be very rich and grand,” she continued speculatively. Only a little flushed, Darcy said simply,

“We have none of us ever wanted for anything money can buy.”

Mrs Bennet gaped, and embarrassed as she was, Elizabeth comprehended the sentiment, and even felt something of it herself. She was still rather uncertain about his precise income -- he had vaguely mentioned ‘the other properties’ in speaking of his business affairs, but he was not wealthy enough to support a life of dissipation and vice; such was the extent of her knowledge. She did know, however, that in some ways his was an incomprehensible way of life. He was prudent out of inclination, not necessity; when she tried to explain why she did not like to buy anything very expensive, he simply looked blank and bewildered, as if she were speaking in a language he did not understand.

“Do you have any unmarried cousins?” Mrs Bennet demanded. Darcy smiled.

“Yes, ma’am -- six on my mother’s side alone.”

She looked about to swoon at such unforeseen bounty.

“Two of them are ladies,” he added.

“Four,” breathed Mrs Bennet. “Are they all as rich as you, sir?”

“No, I’m afraid not.”

She wilted.

“One is a barrister, one a clergyman, one an officer -- ”

“An officer!”

“-- in the army,” Darcy continued imperturbably, “but Milt receives a generous allowance from my uncle.”

“Your uncle? What is his income?” She stopped. “What an odd name.”

“Milt is my eldest cousin, Viscount Milton.”

Mrs Bennet had no difficulty putting two and two together when it came to eligible gentlemen. “Your uncle is an earl?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Her eyes gleamed. “This would be . . . a relation of one of your mother’s sisters?”

“No, ma’am, she had none besides Lady Catherine. Lord Fitzwilliam and Lady Anne, my uncle and my mother, were brother and sister.”

“Goodness.” Mrs Bennet smiled beautifically at Darcy. “You must tell me about the rest of your family.” Sotto voce, she added, “Grandson of an earl! Lizzy, did you hear that? You have done very well for yourself!”

There was a choked sound from Bingley’s direction, Darcy could not keep himself from colouring deeply, while Jane and Elizabeth blushed nearly as fiercely. This cannot be over soon enough, she thought.

---

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