Sunday, April 09, 2006

Subsequent Connections

Prologue

Houghton, Yorkshire, April 1793

“Were they gypsies?” Richard demanded.

“No, they —”

“They must have been French, then,” said Ella decidedly.

“No, I —”

“Were they madmen escaped from Bedlam?” Henry burst out. “Or — ”

“Be quiet and let him talk,” Edward, at sixteen the undisputed leader, snapped. Fitzwilliam took a deep breath.

“It was just a gentleman and his wife. There wasn’t anything special about them, and I was looking for Alfred anyway. I didn’t pay much attention.”

The other five waited.

“I only noticed them at all because the lady’s voice was so loud. She said something about being nervous, I think, and went on about how unfair tails were.” He shrugged, perplexed. “I don’t know. It didn’t make any sense. I turned to look at her — I didn’t look at him at all.”

Richard leaned forward. “What did she look like? Was she ugly as a witch?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t see her very well.” Stung by the disappointment in his cousins’ face, he concentrated as hard as he could, and managed to dredge up a vague picture. “She was pretty — not as pretty as mother,” he added loyally, “but her hair was curly like father’s, and her eyes were big and blue. She was tallish, taller than Aunt Eleanor, but not as tall as Aunt Catherine, and her cheeks were pink.”

Edward looked at him intently. “Do you think you’d recognise her?”

Fitzwilliam hesitated, biting his lip. “I don’t know,” he said uncertainly. “Maybe. If she looked the same.”

“Perhaps you’ll see her again,” Richard put in hopefully.

“That’s not very likely,” said James, “is it?”

---

Meryton, Hertfordshire, October 1811

Fitzwilliam Darcy was in a spectacularly poor mood before he so much as set foot in the assembly hall. His toleration for Miss Bingley’s antics was growing thin, Mrs Hurst’s shrill laughter grated on his ears, Hurst was already intoxicated, and even Bingley’s unconquerable good cheer wore on his raw nerves. Were it not for Bingley, he would never have come to this godforsaken place anyway, certainly would not have left Georgiana.

Georgiana. Meaningless social niceties were trying enough in the best of times, but since the summer, he had found them positively maddening. He sighed. No doubt Richard was right, it was better for them to be separated for a little while, but that didn’t keep him from imagining everything that could go wrong without his presence, or detesting the sheer triviality of — everything, he supposed.

It also didn’t help that the only thing he disliked more than dancing with strange women was being gawked at by a crowd of vulgar fortune-hunting sycophants.

He easily made out fragments of conversation.

“Four or five thousand —”

“— his brother and sisters, and a friend —”

Ten thousand, I heard — ”

“Stand up straight, girls!”

He stiffened. The shrill, high-pitched voice was at least as disagreeable as Mrs Hurst’s, and he glanced over in mild curiosity at its source. She was a short, plump woman, about forty, with grey-streaked brown curls and pale blue eyes. Her face was not familiar, although he had formed a half-expectation that it would be; something tugged at his memory, but he could not recall, and it did not seem important in any case. For a moment he gazed at her with icy contempt, the intensity of his loathing surprising even him, but he shrugged it, and her, off.

---

Chapter One

Longbourn, Hertfordshire, August 1812

The sudden illness that had stricken Mr Bennet showed no signs of abating. Mr Collins hovered vulture-like around the edges of the family, barely kept in check by his wife. Lydia’s holiday was abruptly cut short, and she complained loudly and vociferously; only Kitty had any inkling of the truth, that if the express had arrived two days later, she would have been on her way to Scotland with Mr Wickham. Mary consoled herself with quoting Scripture to the rest of the family. Mrs Bennet was of course hysterical and bedridden, while Elizabeth and Jane struggled to keep order and hold the family together.

For several weeks, their lives seemed little more than unending gloom, until Mr Bingley’s sudden and unexpected return to the neighbourhood. He showed just as much favour to Jane as he ever had, while she was thrown into a whirl of confusion; but it was as agreeable a confusion as one could expect in the circumstances; Mr Bingley’s visits were the only moments of pleasure in their lives. He was very clearly courting Jane as best he could, and just as clearly had obtained his friend’s consent to do so.

One day near the end of August, as Mr Bennet clung futilely to life, Elizabeth happened to look across the room and see the unlikely pair of Jane and Darcy speaking quietly and intently to one another. Her golden head was tilted up, his dark one bent down; and something about them caught her eye, although she could not have said what. Then they both turned slightly, away from her and towards Mr Bingley, and for a moment the reserve of both dropped, their faces softening as they gazed at him with clear affection. Elizabeth stared in astonishment, for in that moment she dizzily thought that she had never seen a man and a woman look so similar. She would have thought them brother and sister had she not known better.

“Miss Elizabeth?” She turned to answer her neighbour’s question, and when she glanced back, the moment had passed; they were simply proud Fitzwilliam Darcy and pretty Jane Bennet, carrying on a mutually agreeable conversation about Mr Bingley. Initially, she thought it was simply the dim light and the similarity of expression; but when she was not tending her father, she covertly studied the two faces she had thought she knew so well. At first, she only saw the inevitable differences caused by gender and colouring; but very quickly she perceived that there was at least some similarity. They were both handsome, more than handsome, classically beautiful, with patrician features, high, fine cheekbones, and intense dark eyes.

No, it was no passing resemblance. She had noticed, at Pemberley, that Miss Darcy looked both somewhat like Elizabeth’s sister and her own brother; but Jane and Darcy were so dissimilar in temper and carriage, that their difference of expression had kept her from observing what seemed so very obvious now that she had looked for it. Elizabeth herself possessed the same pleasant regularity of feature as her sister; but, like Miss Darcy, she lacked the striking beauty of her elder sibling.

Perhaps she might have even come to guess the truth, or something of it, had not events conspired against her. First, Mr Darcy withdrew quite suddenly; he spent several days in his rooms, then departed for London, with hardly any notice. It must have been very urgent indeed, since the day after they dined at Longbourn, Elizabeth discovered a miniature of a very beautiful young lady, evidently misplaced by one of the men. At first she thought it Jane, despite the dark hair, but the lady’s dress was that of the previous era, and her expression, proud and severe, was very unlike the serene Jane’s.

Mr Bingley was rather shocked when they showed it to him and asked if it was his, or if he knew who it belonged to. His hands actually trembled as he took it. “I’ve never seen him without it,” he murmured, more to himself than the room. “I can hardly believe he simply left it here; but of course he did.” He looked up, and smiled, his equanimity recovered. “I shall return this to him as soon as possible.”

“Is it Mr Darcy’s?” Elizabeth asked curiously, before snapping her mouth shut. Mr Bingley blushed.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I just thought — yes, it’s his.”

Lydia snorted. “Who would have thought, Mr Darcy carrying a lady’s picture around!” she whispered to Kitty, not very quietly, and the two giggled together; “Who is she, do you think? Some earl’s daughter, I suppose.”

“Yes, actually,” Mr Bingley said, almost coolly; “her name was Lady Anne Darcy, and she was his mother.”

Lydia was almost shamed for a few seconds.

Then, several weeks later, as Elizabeth went through some of her father’s old belongings, she came across two old, faded dresses, one considerably larger than the other. Despite their age, the dresses’ make was far finer than anything Elizabeth remembered wearing; but a yellowed note was attached to the smaller of the two; Lizzy and Jane came to us in these, was written in her father’s bold, careless hand. Elizabeth frowned. Even the smaller of the two seemed too large to have been worn in infancy; the larger she held up, and thought looked to have been worn by a three- or four-year-old. And he spoke as if they had come together; but Jane was indisputably two years her elder.

A strange riddle, she thought, and carefully put both dresses away. She found herself thinking of what her father could have meant; but he had never woken sufficiently to so much as notice her presence, she could hardly ask. Her mother? Of course not.

“I don’t know, Lizzy,” Jane said, fingering the larger dress with a perplexed frown marring her brow. “I think I recall — yes, I remember. It was a special gift from someone. They laughed at me for being so pleased about it, except one of the boys.” She shook her head. “I don’t recall very well. It must have been a very long time ago; I could not have been more than three or four.”

“Who were ‘they’?” Elizabeth asked, looking up at her sister. “I don’t ever remember any boys.”

“Just some neighbours, I suppose. I don’t remember, either; I must have been a very little girl at the time.” She scrunched her face up in concentration, and Elizabeth laughed rather sheepishly. Perhaps it was silly to be concerned about such a triviality, with her father on his deathbed and Mr Collins counting the silverware, but somehow it was easier to think about the mystery of two old dresses than of her father’s impending death, and what would happen to them all once Mr Bennet died; and, although she told herself she did not care, what had taken Darcy to town so abruptly.

At least there was little doubt about Jane’s eventual future.

“They were dark, I think; I remember feeling dreadfully out of place. I’m sorry, Lizzy.”

It was only several days later, at the bottom of the disorganised chest that she had found the dresses in, that she discovered the letter. It was old, certainly, and addressed to herself and Jane, again in her father’s hand. After a moment’s struggle with her conscience, she broke the seal and opened it.

My dearest daughters, it began . . .

Fifteen minutes later, Elizabeth sat frozen, the fingers holding the letter trembling, and her throat so dry she could not speak. When she came to herself, she raised a shaking hand to her face, dashed tears off of her cheeks, and fled the room.

“Jane,” she cried, her voice shrill and nervous enough to do credit to their mo — to Mrs Bennet. “Jane!”

---

“It cannot be. Lizzy, it cannot.” Jane was a ghastly shade of grey. “Such a lack of decency — it is beyond imagining!”

“I would not have imagined it.” Elizabeth closed her eyes, her temples pounding. “The letter was only to be opened if papa was dead; he said, he said he did not know what had come over him — that they were afraid there would never be any children, that it was an impulse —”

“Lizzy,” said Jane, “even so — how could they abduct a stranger’s children? It is too fantastic to believed. It must not be true.”

“Do you think that papa lied, then?”

Jane frowned, clearly torn between which explanation would put their parents in the best — or least bad — light. “No, he would not have been so cruel.” She clutched her hands together. “Perhaps it is all a misunderstanding.”

“Jane.” Elizabeth lifted her eyes. “How could it conceivably be —”

“Perhaps — a joke of some sort, a servant or —”

Elizabeth sighed. “We can find that out easily enough, Jane.”

Jane looked puzzled. “But, papa does not — he cannot speak, he is still unconscious.”

“But mamma, despite her best efforts, is.” Elizabeth managed a small, brittle smile. “Shall we ask her if she kidnapped us?”

Jane paled even further. “Oh, Lizzy, how could we ask such a thing?”

Elizabeth was struck by inspiration. “You remembered something — you talked of they, and one of the boys. What if — if this is true — if so, we may very well have had brothers. Those dresses — that would explain it all. Jane —” Elizabeth leaned forward slightly, feeling rather horrified at the idea. “Jane, if this is true, we were part of a family. Can you imagine what it must have been like for them, to have their daughters suddenly gone?”

Jane blanched. “It would be too cruel, Lizzy,” she said in a small voice, but she looked uncertain. “With papa so ill, we cannot ask —”

“I shall not be able to think of anything else,” Elizabeth said solemnly. “Jane, just think —”

“I am thinking!” She looked so distressed that Elizabeth, despite everything, could not help reaching out to her. Jane hardly raised her voice, whatever the provocation. She took several deep breaths. “Forgive me, Lizzy, you are right. We must ask mamma.”

Elizabeth nodded; she still trusted her instincts, despite how wildly astray they had led her in the past year, and they told her that this letter was not the product of a warped sense of humour; her father had written it, and he written it in all sincerity. And what did that mean?

It would not take them long to find out.

---

“I am so very sorry,” Mr Bingley said again.

Elizabeth smiled tiredly. “We cannot thank you enough, Mr Bingley; you have been a great friend to both of us, and your sisters.” The last she barely managed to grate out. The Bingley sisters had, once they understood the situation, been properly solicitous; and they, determined to return to London in any case, had been happy enough to accompany their brother for propriety’s sake.

“It was nothing at all, Miss Eliza,” Miss Bingley said sweetly, Mrs Hurst faithfully echoing her compliments. “I hope you are happily reunited with your right family.”

Elizabeth’s smile became rather tight. “Thank you.”

They were delivered to the astonished Gardiners’ house; the Bingleys tactfully excused themselves, asking to be called upon for assistance should it be required.

“Lizzy, Jane, of course we’re delighted to see you — but your father, is he . . .?” Mrs Gardiner had stayed with them for the first several weeks, while Mr Gardiner had been busily arranging matters so that he would be in a position to help his sister and nieces.

“No, he has passed away,” Elizabeth said dully. Jane, at her side, was trembling so violently that their concerned aunt instantly sat them down and sent for a blanket to be wrapped around her elder niece. “It is mamma; we are no longer welcome at Longbourn. As soon as papa died —”

Mrs Gardiner could only stare. “My dear girls — how can this be? What has happened?”

Elizabeth silently handed her aunt and uncle the letter. It took them very little time to read it, their colour fading as they did so. “Oh, my dear girls,” Mr Gardiner repeated, tears in his eyes. “How could such a thing have happened? I remember that time — your parents spent a great deal of time on the Continent and travelling England, your father had inherited some money for just that purpose; we never suspected a thing when they came home from visiting Yorkshire with two little girls.”

“We never thought you were involved,” Elizabeth assured him. “You could only have been a very young man yourself.”

“Yes — oh, but never mind me, my dear. Come, of course you are welcome in our home, as long as you require one. It was very kind of Mr Bingley to bring you here.”

“Yes,” said Elizabeth, smiling wearily at Jane, “very kind.”

“Now, you must be exhausted, after such a day. Come, we shall have your room made up, and you must sleep. We will decide what is to be done in the morning.”

Elizabeth, no doubt due to her exhaustion, felt distinctly inclined towards tears, and leaned forward to kiss the Gardiners on their respective cheeks. “Thank you so very much,” she said softly.

---

Mr Gardiner spread the letter out on the table, accompanied by the two dresses. “Houghton Park,” he said thoughtfully. “Your father is — was — right, you could not possibly be the daughters of labourers or servants, or even a curate, with clothes like these.” He rubbed the material between his fingers. “Jane’s in particular is very fine. And at that time, it would have been even more expensive. Your parents must have been wealthy, quite probably members of the family.”

Elizabeth swallowed. “Mr Bingley said that the master of Houghton, for all intents and purposes, was Viscount Milton, as his father was in such poor health. I think I may have heard — the name sounds a little familiar, but I can’t place it.”

Jane shook her head.

“Fortunately,” said Mr Gardiner, smiling, “Mr Bingley also is somewhat acquainted with the Viscount; at least, I believe his note says something to that effect.”

“Uncle Gardiner,” Elizabeth said uncomfortably, “we can hardly arrive on his doorstep and announce ourselves.”

“No,” said Mr Gardiner easily, “some planning will be required, I think. If two girls truly disappeared from the estate, it would have been spoken of and known. We must find out; Mr Bingley may be able to do something on our behalf.”

“If only someone had seen something,” Elizabeth said, frustrated. “It would be so much simpler; at least we would know.”

“Ah, but there is one interesting fact in this narrative of my brother’s, however.”

“Only one?”

“Yes.” He tapped a single line. No-one, I believed, noticed us at all; unless it was the child playing outside — as your mother went into her typical effusions on the subject of entailment and so forth, he looked quite directly at her; we did not think of him until later, but nothing came of it, in any case. “Someone did see something, Lizzy,” Mr Gardiner said seriously.

“A boy glanced at them,” Elizabeth said blankly. “We shall never find him.”

“Oh,” Mr Gardiner said easily, “but your father thought he must have been one of the Viscount’s sons. He was about ten years old and had dark hair, and he noticed my sister. It’s somewhere to start, in any case.” He sighed. “It will be difficult, Lizzy, and Lord Milton may very well have washed his hands of the entire business years ago.”

“Yes,” said Elizabeth, feeling something of her usual spirit, “but we must know. We shall not have been deprived of our homes for nothing, shall we, Jane?”

Jane shook her head. “But I do not like to think of papa.”

“Nor I,” she said gravely, “but there is nothing we could have done. Mr Collins supported mamma. Vile man!”

Jane did not disagree.

---

Chapter Two

“Margaret, Lizzy, Jane,” said Mr Gardiner, “may I introduce you to Lord Milton? Lord Milton, my wife Mrs Gardiner, and my n -- Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”

The viscount was a tall, dark-haired man of about five-and-thirty, finely and fashionably dressed, very good-looking with the same sort of perfectly regular, balanced features which rendered Mr Darcy’s face so strikingly handsome. Whimsically, Elizabeth wondered if they were related.

The three women curtseyed; Lord Milton bowed, his dark eyes sliding past Mrs Gardiner, resting slightly longer on Elizabeth, and settling on Jane with a visible start. After the obligatory civilities, Mr Gardiner launched into his tale.

“Lord Milton was gracious enough to grant me an audience earlier to-day, and when I told him what I know, he wished to speak with you himself.”

Lord Milton cleared his throat. “I will confess I initially thought it an elaborate hoax, and would not have even bothered with you, sir, had not my cousin assured me of your good character.”

Mr Gardiner’s brow furrowed. “Your cousin?”

“It seems he is slightly acquainted with you.” Lord Milton dismissed that concern with a wave of his hand, and Elizabeth concealed a smile at such literal high-handedness. “My father is out of town, or he, not I, would have met with you; he was the Lord Milton at that time, you understand -- my grandfather, his father, was still alive, although in very poor health -- and the one, I presume, that you were in fact seeking?” He only just waited for Mr Gardiner’s agreement before continuing, “As the eldest of our generation, however, I was unavoidably acquainted with the particulars of the situation.” He looked closely at both, particularly Jane. “It could be, although people change a great deal in such a length of time. A mere point of resemblance proves nothing;--these dresses, you still have them?”

“Yes, your lordship -- ” Mr Gardiner signalled Betsy to fetch them, and within moments the Viscount was turning the clothing over and over again in his elegant hands, his face suddenly drawn and pale. After a hesitation, he seated himself, trembling visibly.

“Yes, this was Jenny’s. I remember -- I laughed at her. We all did, she was so ridiculously pleased. Except her brother -- he never teased, and he doted on her -- treated her like a porcelain doll.” He glanced up, directly at Jane. Although his gaze, his eyes, were dark enough to look black at a distance, Elizabeth, as near as she was to him, could see that they were actually the same deep blue as Jane’s, and she suppressed a shiver. The Viscount, despite his broader build, darker hair, and even more strongly-marked features, was enough like to remind her painfully of another, whom she had not dared think of since --

Lord Milton turned his intense eyes on her, and repeated, “It could be.” Then he shook his head. “It has been so long. Your . . .” his lips twisted -- “father is dead?”

Elizabeth stiffened. “Yes, he is.”

“I see. I offer my condolences.” he asked perfunctorily. Jane smiled politely; Elizabeth inclined her head and looked away. “My own father is expected tomorrow. There was no point in writing, but I will speak to him. He is the head of the family and all decisions in such a grave matter belong to him.” He fingered the dresses again. “However, while I am not certain if you are our Jenny and Beth, I can assure you that these were their dresses. Jenny’s is torn, you see, here and most of the sleeve; my poor aunt broke her heart over the pieces that were found.”

Jane looked horrified, and with her compassionate nature could not restrain herself from saying gently, “I am so sorry. I hope she . . . recovered herself, in time?”

He looked grim. “No -- she died.” Catching their looks, he added, “I beg your pardon, Miss Bennet -- but she never recovered from her loss, even with another daughter, and died of a very trifling illness some fifteen years ago.”

Jane gasped. “Oh, dear -- I did not mean -- please, accept my apologies.”

“Of course, you could not know.” He smiled slightly. It was Elizabeth, however, who comprehended the implication. It was Jane’s dress the viscount’s aunt had clung to -- Jane’s was noticably the finer of the two -- it was Jane who had drawn Lord Milton’s eye -- Jane who resembled him -- Jane who had been teased by the boys -- Jane whose brother had adored her . . . A horrible suspicion entered her mind. She did not mind being overlooked in Jane’s favour, she was used to it, but what froze her in place was the realisation that they had not been Jane and Elizabeth, nor even Jenny and Beth. It was entirely possible that they had simply happened to be together when Mrs Bennet had taken them -- that they were not even related. Chills overcame her at the thought -- the last foundation of her life being wrenched out from beneath her --

“Lord Milton,” she asked faintly, “how many children did your aunt have?”

“Eleven,” he replied, then frowned. “Do you mean, that lived? By the time the girls were taken, only two, a boy and a girl -- that was why she was so dreadfully cut up, I suppose, although really we all were, even Cecily and she was a few months younger than Jenny.”

“Jenny was the only daughter?” persisted Elizabeth. Jane finally comprehended and clasped her hand.

“Yes, of course.”

“Then who was . . . the other girl, if not Jenny’s sister?”

“The daughter of one of my father's younger brothers; he named father her legal guardian in case of his death.” He looked at her gravely. “My father can explain more tomorrow, I really should not speak any more, without his leave.” With that natural grace that the young Elizabeth had so envied in her older sister, he rose to his feet. “Mrs Gardiner, Miss Bennet, Miss Elizabeth. It has been a pleasure, if the circumstances somewhat wanting. Mr Gardiner.” He bowed politely to that gentleman.

“Lord Milton,” Mr Gardiner said, “when should we expect yourself and Lord . . .?”

“Fitzwilliam,” he said crisply. Jane looked slightly intrigued; all the blood drained out of Elizabeth face, although she otherwise kept her equanimity admirably. “Will two o’clock be convenient for you?”

“Perfectly, I thank you.”

After his departure, Jane and Mrs Gardiner rushed to Elizabeth’s side. “Lizzy, my love, what is it?” Mrs Gardiner cried. “Do you know the Earl?”

“No -- no -- that is why the name was familiar. Lord Milton. Mr Collins mentioned it, at Hunsford.” She laughed, rather shrilly. “The elder brother, and not at all sickly.”

Mrs Gardiner simply stared, and Jane looked scarcely more enlightened. “Fitzwilliam,” she said thoughtfully, “isn’t that Mr Darcy’s Christian name?”

Elizabeth’s tenuous grip on her composure vanished, and she dissolved into tears, allowing her larger sister to hold her comfortingly. “Yes, yes, it is.”

“Well,” Jane said thoughtfully, “I know how much you dislike him, but -- ”

Elizabeth made an incoherent sound somewhere between a sob and a giggle. “You know nothing of the sort. I have been sly -- have I not, aunt?”

“Lizzy, I do not understand at all,” said Mrs Gardiner, stroking her hair. “The name is not common by any means, but surely there could be more than one family using it.”

“No -- didn’t you see him? And Jane? It is so obvious -- how did I miss it? How did he miss it?”

Jane and Mrs Gardiner exchanged puzzled looks. “Perhaps you ought to rest,” Jane offered.

---

The next afternoon, Elizabeth was more nervous than Mrs Bennet had ever been. She sat perfectly still, her eyes fixed on the doorway.

“Lord Fitzwilliam and Lord Milton, sir,” Betsy said. Elizabeth had been fully prepared to look for Mr Darcy in his uncle, but no such effort was necessary; even had she not heard his name, she would have instantly known him to be a relation. She probably would have thought him his father, for he looked almost exactly as she imagined Darcy would in another twenty or thirty years. The Earl was very tall -- noticeably taller than his son -- with thick dark hair liberally sprinkled with grey and fierce dark blue eyes; but it was his classically handsome features, grown deep and carven with age, that most brought Darcy to mind. She swallowed as he greeted them in a startlingly resonant voice, which would be booming were he ever to raise it.

“Let us proceed to the matter at hand,” the Earl said briefly, and the dresses were brought out yet again. As with his son, his face drained of all colour. “Yes,” he said, his hand steady, “yes, they were wearing these.”

He raised his eyes, gazing at Jane and Elizabeth piercingly. After a moment, he said, “May I see this letter?”

Elizabeth held herself upright. She had never been close to her mother and reconciling herself to such a dreadful action on her part was more shocking than distressing; Mr Bennet was another matter altogether. Although he had been deceived and the greater portion of the blame lay on Mrs Bennet’s shoulders, she hated to think of his actions, his entire character, being open to the disdainful perusal of strangers. Yet they had a right to know, more than anyone except Jane and Elizabeth themselves -- and the memory of Lord Milton’s grief-stricken aunt had haunted her dreams.

Lord Fitzwilliam’s lips were pressed together tightly, and she saw that he was fiddling with his glove in the other hand as his eyes ran down the page. As soon as he was finished, he set it down with a look of such fury as would have been frightening on any other face.

“So this is what happened,” he said, and briefly glanced northwards. “It is almost too impossible to be believed.” He looked directly at Jane for a moment. He turned away, pacing a little, still toying with the glove, then turned and faced them. “I should tell you, I suppose, that this is not the first indication of your identities that has reached me.”

All but Lord Milton blinked at him in confusion, and he began pacing once more. High anxiety seemed to be his native state. “Not three weeks ago,” he said, “my nephew, Mr Darcy, who I believe is an acquaintance of yours, arrived at my estate, and immediately called on me. There was matter of some urgency, he said, that he needed to speak to me of. It must have been, because he had caught a chill and was slightly feverish, but would not be stayed until he told me what he had seen and remembered.”

“Remembered?” Elizabeth repeated. “Mr Darcy is so young, though -- nineteen years ago he could not have been more than ten --” And then Mr Gardiner’s voice echoed in her ears. He was about ten years old and had dark hair, and he noticed my sister . . . someone did see something, Lizzy . . . “He was the boy?”

“He was. He had loathed Mrs Bennet from the moment he set eyes on her, without understanding why. He might never have, had he not happened to be looking at his mother’s miniature when Miss Bennet -- ” he nodded at her -- “bumped into him. The resemblance between them was so striking that he instantly suspected who she must be, and as soon as he looked at Mrs Bennet again he recognised her as the young woman he had seen all those years ago.”

“Mr Darcy,” Elizabeth said dazedly. “He was the one who saw them. I never dreamed . . .” She shook her head. “What a strange coincidence.”

“A fortuitous one,” said the Earl. “You understand, then, that this is too much evidence to be dismissed? The dresses, this letter, Fitzwilliam’s memory, Miss Bennet’s face -- it is quite certain that you are the same Jane and Elizabeth who were taken from us nineteen years ago. Now, all that is to be decided, is what to be done. You are no longer welcome in the Bennets’ household?”

“Collinses’,” Elizabeth said glumly; “it was entailed -- but no, we are not. Mr and Mrs Gardiner have been kind enough to open their home to us until . . .”

For some reason Lord Fitzwilliam seemed to find this mildly amusing, and she was bewildered and slightly put out until she realised that, as Lady Catherine’s brother, he may very well have made Mr Collins’ acquaintance at some time or another. He quickly smothered the smile quirking the edges of his mouth, regaining his customary gravity.

“Jane, Elizabeth -- you do not mind if I use your Christian names?”

Jane, smiling tentatively, shook her head; Elizabeth hesitated only a moment before following suit.

“Thank you. I understand that this must all be very difficult for you, but you are members of my family, no matter the length of the estrangement, and although the exact course of action must be decided by all of us, you do belong with us.”

“Thank you,” said Jane humbly, a tear sliding down her cheek.

He cleared his throat. “Would you mind, Mr Gardiner, if I sent for the others currently here? I think it will be best if all of . . . this --” he waved his hand expansively -- “is settled as soon as possible.”

“Of course, I do not mind. Do you wish for paper?”

Lord Fitzwilliam smiled wryly. “No. They are already here. Edward -- ” he looked at his son, who apparently required no further command. Within moments, the Fitzwilliam clan had gathered en masse in the parlour. Somehow it seemed crowded, although there was more than enough room; but Elizabeth easily perceived that a strong, even overwhelming, physical presence was as much a family trait as dark hair and blue eyes. The Fitzwilliams were many things, but insipid was not among them.

First was Anne, Lady Fitzwilliam, Lord Fitzwilliam’s mother and the source of the intense blue eyes so prevalent among the family. She was a surprisingly soft-spoken lady, despite her steely eyes, tall and slender, with refined, reserved manners, and clearly deferred to by the entire clan. She was followed by Lady Eleanor, Lord Fitzwilliam’s daughter, a proud, beautiful woman, strikingly like her father, but with a distinct reserve that Elizabeth found cold and off-putting. Colonel Fitzwilliam was scarcely any different from what he had been in Kent, standing out among the dark, handsome Fitzwilliams like a weed in a bed of roses, but perfectly charming and affable.

Mr Darcy she was almost ashamed to see, for it was clear by his pallor and thinness that Bingley’s ridiculous excuse for his friend’s departure, which she had not believed for an instant, was in fact true. Even when Lord Fitzwilliam had mentioned his illness, it had sounded so trifling that she had reasonably supposed it merely a pretext for his true business. Be that as it may, she felt distinctly guilty when she saw him. Darcy had never been heavyset -- in this respect he was unlike his uncle and cousins -- but now, he was by far the slenderest of the men, and despite his quietly well-bred manner of greeting the three women, he seemed truly exhausted. Miss Darcy was also paler and thinner than Elizabeth remembered, but to a far lesser degree, and she ventured a few polite words.

Introductions past, Lord Fitzwilliam cleared his throat. “Miss . . . Bennet, Miss Elizabeth, I must beg your indulgence in hearing some rather obscure family history, which I believe will clarify some matters for you.”

“Of course,” Jane said, after a moment’s uncomfortable silence.

“I must warn you, it’s very dull,” said Colonel Fitzwilliam.

“We should not be at all averse to hearing our own history,” Elizabeth replied dryly, surprised to see Lady Eleanor’s faint smile.

“Thank you.” Lord Fitzwilliam leant back, briefly closing his eyes. “Mother, you should probably begin with Henry and James.”

“Very well.” The dowager clasped her hands together, looking intently at Elizabeth for a moment. “Henry and James were my youngest children -- twins -- and inseparable from earliest childhood. They were — ” she shook her head, smiling very faintly. “They very charming, very handsome, very good-natured, but not particularly responsible.” Lord Fitzwilliam scowled, while several of the younger generation smiled reminiscently.

“Both of them were utterly wild,” said Colonel Fitzwilliam helpfully. “And, of course, a favourite among the children.”

“Very well, they were not at all responsible. They constantly lived outside their income, travelled all over Europe, were spoilt by their parents and indulged by their siblings — it is no surprise that they turned out the way they did.” She sighed. “However, they were never bad; they were generous, kind, very loving — no matter how poor they were, they always brought Anne something remarkable and beautiful.”

“Anne?” inquired Mr Gardiner in some confusion.

“My daughter,” the dowager said, grief flickering faintly across her face, and her son’s; Mr Darcy dropped his eyes; “she died many years ago, but they were very close. In any case, when they were quite young men, travelling in France — this was some years before the Revolution — they met a pair of young ladies of good family, very similar to them in — temper; good-hearted, but careless and wild.”

“Not Frenchwomen,” interposed Lord Fitzwilliam quickly, “they were English.”

“Of course they were English,” the dowager said indignantly. “Not that it matters.”

“Of course it doesn’t matter, grandmother,” said Colonel Fitzwilliam, “father was simply reassuring these very respectable young ladies that there is no taint of foreign blood, or heaven forbid, scandal, in our unstained family history.”

The dowager sniffed. “Well, in any case, they fell quickly in love, and they returned home, marrying the Misses Bertram and Everill -- those were their names -- and soon enough, all four were off again.” She nodded at her son, who coughed.

“James and Laura were very quickly blessed with a child,” Lord Fitzwilliam said, “a son. Of course their lifestyle was highly unsuitable for the rearing of an infant, but so were they — they were all rather like a group of children themselves. None of them, not even Laura -- she was a little steadier than the others -- showed any inclination to . . . settle down and raise a family, not at that time nor any other.” He sighed. “My sister Anne and I, who lived an easy distance from one another, took the responsibility for my nephew, and all subsequent children, upon ourselves. Ours was a closely-knit family, and it was no trial to raise all the children together; Catherine, my elder sister, was, er, unfortunately too far away to do more than advise from a distance.” Mr Darcy and Lady Eleanor glanced at each other and valiantly repressed smiles, while Colonel Fitzwilliam chuckled outright.

“A great misfortune,” said he. “Still, we can take comfort in the knowledge that really it would have been a great unkindness to deprive her of the opportunity; she so excels at advising all and sundry in matters she is completely ignorant of.”

“Richard,” the dowager said unenthusiastically, “you should not so disrespect your aunt.”

“I go to Rosings every spring,” said Colonel Fitzwilliam, “and, Miss Elizabeth can vouch that I am very well-behaved, despite the very great temptation to laugh in the estimable Lady Catherine’s face.”

“Richard, please,” his grandmother exclaimed. “We can discuss your aunt’s deficiencies later.” Elizabeth frowned, thinking it very strange for the dignified countess to speak of her own daughter in such a way, even if it was Lady Catherine.

Lord Fitzwilliam cleared his throat. “In any case, they returned a few years later; Henry and Cecilia had two children, James and Laura another daughter, and all three were — ”

“— foisted upon Aunt Anne,” interjected the irrepressible colonel.

“Richard!”

“As my son says,” Lord Fitzwilliam continued, shooting Colonel Fitzwilliam a sharp glance, “the three children were brought to Pemberley, and we, er, relocated there, for several months. However, although we warned my brothers about the dangers in France at the time, they paid us little attention, and returned to Paris, where a cousin of ours lived.” He sighed deeply. “We heard of their deaths about seven months after our youngest niece, Elizabeth, was brought to Pemberley. The entire family returned to Houghton, even Catherine, to decide what was to be done.” He took a deep breath. “We were of course in mourning together. My brother-in-law somehow arranged to have the, er, bodies fetched home for burial.”

“Liberal bribery, no doubt,” said Colonel Fitzwilliam. “It was a strange time. We children, of course, had no idea what had happened.”

“Except that the uncles wouldn’t be coming back,” Lady Eleanor chimed in, shivering. “It was horrible, having them just — vanish, like that. We didn’t know anything about the war, of course -- at least, the younger ones.”

“It was only about — six months later, wasn’t it, mother?”

“I believe so,” said the dowager, turning pale. “It was 1793 — April, if I recall correctly. A detestable month, don’t you think?”

“Quite,” said Mr Darcy.

“Thank you, mother. It was in April of 1793 that it happened,” Lord Fitzwilliam continued, ignoring the interruptions. “Jane, my sister’s daughter, had been very attached to Elizabeth and Cecily from the first, and they often played together. At this particular time, Cecily had been ill, and so she was not with Jane and Elizabeth when they were -- taken.”

Jane is Lady Catherine’s daughter? No, it could not be -- Lord Milton had said that Jane’s mother had died -- it had to be another sister. Lady Anne, she thought, astonished. She must be Lady Anne’s daughter.

“Jane was not yet four, Elizabeth not quite two. We could not imagine what had happened to them — there was nothing different that day, nothing unusual. Anne was hysterical, everything was in chaos, the other children were left to entertain themselves in my study, and nobody appeared to have seen anything unusual. It must have been outsiders — we knew that much, as none of our own people had left the place. The house was searched, everything was, and finally the housekeeper mentioned that a young gentleman and his wife had looked at the house and park.”

Elizabeth closed her eyes, then opened them again. The earl took a deep breath, his features suddenly harsh. “Nobody seemed to have paid them much attention; he was very like any other modest country gentleman, she a pretty girl but not strikingly so. Nobody could describe them, had paid them much, or any, attention.” He sighed. “Even were we to discover them again, we would never know it, nobody had seen anything. Or so I thought, until I went to see the other children, and discovered that one of them had seen something.” He turned, with a wistful smile, to Mr Darcy. “Fitzwilliam, I believe the rest of the tale belongs to you.”

Elizabeth clenched her skirt in her hands, unable to meet his eyes. She was only beginning to comprehend the enormity of what had happened.

Mr Darcy began to speak in his familiar voice, clear and precise, albeit rather than softer than she remembered. “It had been very cold the entire spring, and we children spent the entirety of it indoors. That afternoon, however, it stopped raining, very briefly, and I slipped outside to explore the grounds with my cat. She became lost somewhere along the way, so I went looking for her.” Looking at the severe, reserved man across from her, Elizabeth tried to imagine him as a small boy chasing a recalcitrant feline and failed utterly. “As I hurried towards the woods where I had last seen a glimpse of Alfred — my cat — I overheard a woman, talking very loudly and shrilly, about how unfair ‘tails’ were;—at least, I thought that was what she’d said. Naturally I hadn’t the slightest idea what she was talking about and thought she must be mad.”

Mr Gardiner chuckled. “How old were you, Mr Darcy?”

He blushed slightly. “I was barely nine years old. I had never seen a madwoman before, however, so I stopped and looked at her.” He hesitated. “She did not look mad, or indeed extraordinary in any way. She was pretty, but no more so than any number of women I had already seen, in the village or servants or even ladies who associated with the family. So I decided she was not mad, merely rather silly, paid her no more attention, went on my way, and collected Alfred. I only caught a brief glimpse of her again on my way back to the house — it was all I could do to keep Alfred from attacking her.” He pressed his lips together. “I did not see her again until Sir William Lucas introduced us last autumn.”

“Surely you did not recognise her,” said Mrs Gardiner, and Darcy shook his head.

“No. I heard her before I saw her, however, and as I turned to look at her, I thought I should know her; but she was completely unfamiliar to me.” He frowned slightly. “Still, there was something rather . . . disturbing. I loathed her the instant I set eyes on her.” Then he smiled faintly. “Of course, I was in a foul mood as it was, but even so, I had never felt so instant an antipathy. Later I simply dismissed it as uncanny perception on my part — I beg your pardon, Mr Gardiner.”

“That’s quite all right,” said Mr Gardiner, his lips twitching.

“In any case, it was not until Miss Bennet walked into me that I managed to put it all together. I only had a few chances to look at Mrs Bennet closely -- I had to tell my uncle -- but I am fairly certain.”

Elizabeth looked around the room. There were Mr and Mrs Gardiner, the aunt and uncle she had loved and admired for so long; and then the Fitzwilliams, unlikely as it seemed, her own blood. Her parents were not the respectable, if occasionally embarrassing, Mr and Mrs Bennet of Longbourn; they were the wild younger son of an earl and his carefree wife. Jane was not even her sister -- she was Darcy’s! This suddenly struck her as hilariously funny, and she covered her mouth to keep from laughing outright. At least we are still family. I could have been anyone. And if I were her sister, I’d be his too, and that would be . . . strange and unpleasant.

They could not trespass on the Gardiners’ hospitality until -- until what? Bingley proposed to Jane? The irony of Darcy’s interference there did not escape her, and she shook her head. No. She still loved them, yet it was not right -- and did she even have a choice? They belonged with this company of strangers.

“As far as the legalities are concerned,” said Lord Fitzwilliam, “I am your guardian, Elizabeth, and Fitzwilliam is Jane’s. However, I think it best if we all remain together for a time -- perhaps at Houghton, where we will not be so much in the public eye. Is that acceptable to you?” He looked around expectantly.

Elizabeth had once dreamed she was flying, and then her wings fell off and she plummeted to the earth, the entire world a blur of whirling bright colours. This was, somehow, distinctly reminiscent of that. It was with a decidedly shaky, bemused, even frightened feeling, that she joined her voice to the general murmurs of agreement.

---

Chapter Three

When they arrived at Houghton Park, Elizabeth’s first response was relief -- she had never been on such a long journey in her life. Even Jane was looking a little peaked, and gave a little sigh as Darcy helped her out of the carriage. Elizabeth gratefully accepted the Earl’s arm, offered immediately afterwards, and turned to look at the house that would be her home. It was, like Pemberley, very large and handsome, although both newer and grander. Instead of Pemberley’s stream there was a lake, and the wide sprawling lawn was dotted with elegant stands of trees. Even had she wished to, she could not have failed to admire it, despite the differences from the ideal that Pemberley represented.

“What do you think?”

Elizabeth started at the low voice. Lady Eleanor was at her side, gazing at Houghton, her severe expression softened. She seemed very much what Elizabeth had originally suspected Darcy to be, proud, handsome, disagreeable, with a dark satirical cynicism that she could not help but be repulsed by. “It is lovely, Lady Eleanor,” she said uncomfortably, and the older woman smiled briefly.

“You need not be so formal, Elizabeth; we are cousins, after all. Come.” Authoritatively, she took Elizabeth’s arm as they proceeded into the house. “You look like your mother,” she began. “Thank you, Parkes. She was very pretty -- not really handsome, but she made you stop and look. Although her hair was lighter, or redder. They were married before we were born, of course, so I didn’t know her when she was really young.”

“We?”

“Fitzwilliam and I.” She inclined her head towards Darcy, who was walking alongside Jane, his head bent down to listen to her. “Henry is a year older than we are, so I never saw them until they came back with Je -- Jane and Cecily. She was the sweetest-natured child you could imagine, but terribly obstinate.”

“That hasn’t changed a great deal,” Elizabeth said with a smile.

“I imagine not. Just ask Fitzwilliam’s housekeeper, and she will tell you all about how children always turn out just like they were when they were young.”

Elizabeth bit her lip, and said demurely, “I have met Mrs Reynolds.”

“Oh, really? You have seen Pemberley then? What did you think?”

“Mrs Reynolds is very fond of Mr Darcy.”

“Oh, yes. You would never suppose that she was so strict when we were children. Mr Darcy, my uncle, called her a regular martinet, but she got along well enough with Aunt Anne. Of course, she was very strict too.”

“Is my s -- is Jane much like Lady Anne?”

Eleanor considered. “In person? Yes, I think so, although she is like Uncle Darcy too -- more in character, although he was also fair. Father has a portrait of my aunt before she married, you can see for yourself.”

“Mr Darcy doesn’t have it?”

She gave her a faintly pityingly look. “No. My uncle, er, gave it back to my father when Aunt Anne died, and destroyed the others, except the miniature and one that Mrs Reynolds managed to save for Fitzwilliam.”

Elizabeth stared, horrified, at her cousin’s serene face. There was clearly nothing extraordinary about this to the other woman; fortunately, she was rescued by Colonel Fitzwilliam. “Ella,” he said laughingly, “stop bending poor Elizabeth’s ear. There will be time for instructions and delving into family secrets later. She’s overwhelmed enough as it is.”

Eleanor gave her brother a sharp look, but was interrupted before she could form a single word. The door flung open and a young woman entered, followed more sedately by two gentlemen. She was yet another dark-haired blue-eyed classical beauty, but something about her was very different; although not so handsome as Lady Eleanor, her expression was more open and pleasant. The lady curtseyed to the Earl, her polite, “Sir,” immediately followed by rapid greetings to the others, “Edward-Richard-Ella-Fitzwilliam-Georgiana.” She took a deep breath, and then turned, with a cheerful exclamation, “You must be Elizabeth.” With a bright smile, she took her hands and kissed her cheek, then stood back. “I can scarcely believe it. I am so glad you are back, cousin, you cannot imagine.”

Elizabeth blinked, rather taken aback at such effusiveness. But the girl had already passed on, exclaiming, “Jenny! You are so tall -- I suppose I thought you would be small and slight like the Darcys.” Elizabeth glanced at Darcy, who was at least six feet if he was an inch, and towered over all but the earl. “Goodness, I never saw a Fitzwilliam so fair, I didn’t even know we had them.”

“Am I so much chopped liver?” protested the colonel.

“That’s different,” she said loftily, and Elizabeth laughed outright, unable to contain her merriment. The lady beamed at her.

“Elizabeth understands -- oh! I am so silly.” Colonel Fitzwilliam mumbled something that sounded like agreement. “We have not even been introduced. I am Cecilia Fitzwilliam, but you must call me Cecily, everyone in the family does.”

“Except Lady Catherine,” interjected the colonel.

“As if she matters,” Cecily said airily. Jane could not hide her shocked expression, but the girl’s warmth had already won Elizabeth over, and she smiled. “This -- ” she gestured towards the taller of the two men, “is my brother Henry, and this is James. He’s a clergyman.”

Elizabeth looked with interest at the two men. Henry Fitzwilliam was startlingly like Mr Darcy, enough so that she might have mistaken them for one another at an earlier point in their acquaintance. James, although he shared the Fitzwilliam good looks, was subtly different; there was a distinct reddish cast to his dark hair, his complexion was warmer and darker, a clear brown rather than fashionably pale, and his build, while far from slight, was on a smaller scale than the others.

They exchanged greetings, but before anyone else could say anything, Cecily declared, “Why, it is already five o’clock, and here we are standing around. Jenny, Elizabeth, you must be dreadfully exhausted -- how could you let me carry on so, Henry?” Her brother opened his mouth, but she swept on, “Ella, you must take Jenny -- oh, you probably don’t like being called that anymore, do you, being so much older now? I beg your pardon, Jane. As I was saying, Ella, you must take care of Jenny, she looks dead on her feet, and Elizabeth, you come with me, you are the only one who is small like me so my clothes should fit until we can get you new ones, you will both want some rest before we get to face the world, or at least, Houghton.”

Eleanor hesitated, then smiled at Jane. “I’m terribly sorry, Cecily is right. Would you care to see your rooms?”

“Oh -- ” Jane glanced at Elizabeth, then back at Eleanor. “Of course, yes.”

Cecily made no such request and simply linked arms with Elizabeth and pulled her along. “I know I already said so, but it is wonderful to have you back, someone my age too. Of course, Jane is the one who is really my age, but she seems very grave and sober like the rest of them. I’m sure that’s more admirable, of course, but I think my way is much more fun, don’t you?”

“I -- ”

“You don’t mind my rushing you off like this?” Cecily’s expression was suddenly uncertain. “Actually, what I really wanted was to talk to you without the others monopolising you. They will, you know, and they’ve already met you already, especially Fitzwilliam. He knows you best, doesn’t he?”

“Yes,” Elizabeth said softly. “Yes, I think he does.”

“Not that he would monopolise you, he’s very nice about that, but Ella and Edward can be positively fierce, they quite terrify me sometimes. They don’t really approve of me, you know -- Ella and Edward and perhaps James, I think. I am never sure about Fitzwilliam, one can’t know what he’s thinking -- that is, I’m sure I know and it turns out he was thinking about the Pardoner or something like that, he’s odd that way.”

“Yes,” Elizabeth said, and was startled when the girl -- although she was older, perhaps twenty-three or twenty-four, it was impossible not to think of her as a girl -- remained silent.

“Tell me about yourself, Elizabeth,” she said after a moment.

“Well, I . . .” Elizabeth floundered briefly. “What do you wish to know?”

“Do you play the pianoforte, do you sing?”

“Yes, both, but not very well.”

“Neither do I,” she confessed. “It makes me feel dreadfully left out because all the family are very talented musically, and we all had the best masters and opportunities, so I can’t blame it on that. I just couldn’t be bothered, it was dreadfully tedious. So there’s Ella with the most lovely contralto you’ve ever heard, and Richard who plays the violoncello marvellously, Edward sings beautifully too, Fitzwilliam is wonderful at the pianoforte, and shy little Georgiana who is the most remarkable of all, I don’t think there’s anything she can’t do if she gives it half the effort that it takes me just to keep my fingers hitting the right keys, never mind tempo and dynamics. I’m in lonely company with Lady Catherine and insipid Anne -- ” Elizabeth choked -- “but now we may be mediocre together.”

“That shall be a great comfort,” Elizabeth said, looking around curiously as Cecily flung open the door.

“I told Mrs Simmons to have it prepared for you, this will be your room. Mine is just across the hall, so if you want anything, just walk in, I don’t mind, and I’m a very deep sleeper so you won’t disturb me.” She stopped, and took a deep breath.

“It looks lovely,” Elizabeth said sincerely. It was a beautiful room, and although very plain also very elegant.

“We thought you might like to decorate it yourself,” Cecily said hesitantly. “This will be yours until you are married, so . . . I know it is not the same, but you will want to make yourself at home.” She gazed earnestly at her, and Elizabeth smiled reassuringly.

“I am certain I shall. This is all -- ” she gestured -- “beyond . . . imagining, really. I never dreamed . . .” She shook her head.

“No,” Cecily said sympathetically, “I suppose you didn’t. There’s no -- pain, really, in having you back, it isn’t so strange, it’s just a wonderful blessing, for all of us -- but for you, it must be terribly difficult. Were you very fond of them? The Bennets, I mean?”

Elizabeth sighed as she followed her cousin into the other room. “Of my fa -- of Mr Bennet, yes. I was his favourite, and he was -- he was the one who encouraged me to read, and walk, and do all the things that gently-bred young ladies did not. We are very alike, I fear.”

Cecily gazed at her steadily. “I understand he was more misled than vicious.”

A lump rose in her throat. “Yes. He didn’t understand -- until later. Or that’s what he said. I don’t really know what to believe anymore.”

“I’m so sorry.” Cecily held out a nightgown. “This looks like it might fit you, it’s the smallest I have.”

“Thank you, Cecily.” She sighed. “I had better change and rest.”

“It’s a pleasure. Elizabeth?”

She turned back to her cousin. “Yes?”

“It will be well, really. I daresay it is peculiar and overwhelming, but -- well, you’re one of us. We’ll take care of you, I promise.”

Elizabeth managed a faint smile. “Thank you, Cecily.”

---

Elizabeth woke early, with the determination to make the best of her situation. She was bewildered and unhappy to have lost the bond of sistership with Jane; but they still shared blood, and none of the Fitzwilliams seemed to make any great distinction between cousins and siblings, there was no reason they could not be as close as they had always been. As for the rest, she had gained a large, closely-knit family, all of whom seemed pleased to have her among them, more than the Bennets ever had, barring her father -- no, Mr Bennet. She had certainly gained ground, socially; her father might not have been landed, but she was an earl’s niece and almost certainly had more than a paltry one thousand pounds to her name.

With such noble resolutions set in her mind, she quickly dressed in the last of three gowns she had brought with her, and after hesitating at Cecily’s room, went downstairs. Her unerring senses led her to the library, which, while not quite as extensive as Pemberley’s, was certainly one of the most thorough collections she had ever laid eyes on. She smiled with pleasure as she looked around. There was a small pile of books that had been left on a table, and she walked over curiously, examining the volumes. Whoever had left them there had somewhat eclectic tastes -- Locke, Wollstonecraft, Voltaire, and Gilpin.

“Elizabeth?”

She turned sharply, and saw Darcy walking towards her -- or rather, towards the books, which he absently straightened. “You are up very early,” he remarked.

Elizabeth flushed, uncertain of whether she more desired to be with him or not. He was familiar, aside from Jane the only familiar face here, and there was none of the anxious curiosity as with the others; on the other hand, her own muddled feelings, and her confusion as to his, took away any ease she might have felt. “Yes, I am an early riser,” she said.

“As am I.” He smiled at her, and Elizabeth could not help but wonder if he had ever really loved her at all, or if it had been some peculiar awareness of the connection between them. And her feelings -- what were they? She had thought she had loved him, but perhaps that, too, had been simply knowledge of his good qualities combined with gratitude for his constancy, if constancy it was, and a more platonic natural affection. Puzzled, she realised he had been silent for some time -- not that this was terribly unusual, and was re-arranging his books.

“I hope I am not intruding?” she offered. Darcy shook his head, his hand stilling.

“No, of course not. This is your home, you may do whatever you like.”

Elizabeth looked around at the enormous library, and glanced towards the window. “It is rather . . . difficult to comprehend -- a little surreal, almost.”

“I daresay,” he agreed gently. “I hope you will grow to like Houghton, though, I always did.” Earnestly, he added, “My uncle is very kind, and not at -- not much like his sister.”

“Your mother?” she said in bewilderment. Darcy coloured.

“No, no -- I meant, Lady Catherine.”

Elizabeth could not keep herself from laughing. “Then I shall consider myself very fortunate,” she said gravely, before wondering if he might take the implied criticism amiss -- after all, ridiculous or not, Lady Catherine was his aunt.

Darcy, however, only smiled. “Yes, although they were more like when she was younger. Er . . .” he glanced around -- “perhaps -- do you have any particular interests?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“In books. The library is a little overwhelming if you do not know where to look.”

“Oh!” She smiled and said, “Shall you think very badly of me if I ask if your -- my uncle keeps any novels amidst all of this more . . . improving material?”

“Of course not,” Darcy said, so seriously that she doubted he had caught the humour at all, and led her to a shelf covered in familiar titles. With perfect gravity, he added, “If you wish for Mrs Radcliffe, you will not find her here.”

She looked up. “Why on earth not?”

Darcy’s expression altered into one of distinct amusement. “Her books are the Earl’s secret folly. He would be humiliated beyond words if any of the others knew about it, he is so . . . voluble on the subject of that kind of book, so he keeps them hidden where he can get at them when the mood takes him.”

Elizabeth checked her laughter, and said, “How ever did you find out, then?”

“Oh, he has always talked to me, about . . . things,” Darcy said easily. “You like Shakespeare’s comedies, do you not? At least, you were reading As You Like It at Netherfield, when your sister was ill.”

“Not mine, yours,” said Elizabeth, wondering at the precision of his memory, and even that he had noticed in the first place.

“I beg your pardon?--oh! I see. Yes, of course. When my sister was ill.” He seemed slightly embarrassed. She took pity on him, and said,

“You are right, the comedies are my favourites.”

“They are just over here. There is a lovely copy of Much Ado About Nothing.” He began to look uncomfortable again, and Elizabeth said awkwardly,

“Thank you, Mr Darcy.”

“It is nothing, cousin. I -- ” he glanced out the window -- “I shall see you later, then.”

---

Elizabeth returned to her bedroom with a small pile of books, most familiar and beloved, but a few new titles she had never had access to before.

“Cecily!” she exclaimed, startled at the sight of her cousin perched on her bed.

“Oh, good morning,” the other girl said. “I really thought you’d be in here, I wouldn’t have come in otherwise, but then when you weren’t, it seemed I might as well wait. You don’t mind?”

Elizabeth laughed. “No, of course not. Was there something in particular you wished to speak to me about?”

“Oh, anything and everything,” Cecily replied gaily, before her expression settled into rather sombre lines. “There is something I wanted to say,” she confessed, “but I’m afraid I’ll lose my nerve.” She took a deep breath.

“Yes?” prodded Elizabeth, setting her books on her bureau.

“I do hope . . . I hope we’ll be friends.” She looked dreadfully earnest. “Not just cousins -- because it’s different with us. I know you will always love Jane, I really do. It’s just -- ” she twisted her fingers together -- “the reason I was so glad to see you in particular, even though I didn’t know anything about you or anything, is because you’re one of us.”

Elizabeth frowned, sitting next to her cousin. “I don’t understand.”

Cecily dropped her eyes. “Henry and James and you and I. My uncle and my grandmother and everyone has always been very kind, they never make us feel like . . . poor relations, although of course we’re not really poor. But of course it’s different.” She shrugged. “You should not really pay me any mind, I am just having a bit of a mood. My grandmother says that she’s going to take you and Jane to get some decent clothes this afternoon, but her taste is rather old-fashioned, so if she tries to get you into the most dreadful stays you shall have to put your foot down.”

Elizabeth gazed at her curiously, quite certain that there was more to the matter than she had said, but shrugged it off and smiled. “Why don’t you just come with us, Cecily? I should like to know what you think, Jane’s tastes and mine are very different, but I nearly coveted the dress you wore yesterday.”

“Oh, really?” Cecily brightened. “It is one of my favourites, too. I should love to accompany you, if you don’t mind? I wouldn’t want to intrude.”

Elizabeth’s lips twitched at the picture her cousin presented, perfectly comfortable making herself at home in Elizabeth’s room, but uncertain about a shopping expedition. “It would not be an intrusion,” Elizabeth assured her, and Cecily clapped her hands.

“It shall be great fun, Mrs Martin is as clever a seamstress as the finest in London, and although she lives at Houghton, she always seem to know better than anyone, what is smart and what is not. Although she is very abrupt, she terrified me out of my wits when we went to her for my first evening gown. And she works very quickly, at least for us -- the Earl’s family and all. You should have at least by Sunday -- we shan’t be able to avoid company by then.” She laughed. “Not that I mind company -- I almost sounded like Fitzwilliam, didn’t I? -- but it’s better to get you settled in before all that.”

“And Jane,” Elizabeth reminded her.

“Well, yes, but this isn’t her home.” Cecily frowned. “I do wonder about the dowries. Yours is very straightforward, but I’m not sure if it was thirty thousand settled on Aunt Anne and the other children, or whether Georgiana just inherited thirty thousand outright. Fitzwilliam is so prudent, though, I daresay it doesn’t matter, he’ll have money set aside for them.” She shrugged. “Pemberley is Jane’s home, though. She is Miss Darcy, after all.”

“Yes.” Elizabeth shifted uncomfortably. “Is Georgiana displeased about it? She was Miss Darcy, after all, until we came back.”

“Oh, heavens, no,” Cecily said frankly. “She was already out, but absolutely petrified. She has become so shy this last year, I scarcely recognise her. She was always rather quiet and reserved, but nothing like this, and Fitzwilliam is different too. He’s much more protective than he used to be -- he was very indulgent and mostly let her go her own way before, but not now. He was always careful, but you can see how much he has to hold himself back to keep from completely overwhelming her. She is not really what you would call high-spirited, or indeed, spirited at all. But she is the sweetest-natured girl you’ll ever find.”

“She is perfectly delightful,” Elizabeth agreed. “I met her last summer, at Pemberley -- my u -- the Gardiners took me to Derbyshire, and we happened across Mr Darcy there.”

“Oh, did you? How odd -- Fitzwilliam didn’t mention it, neither did Georgiana.” Elizabeth was not entirely certain what to think about this, so she shrugged and said,

“It was very brief. Mr Bennet fell ill shortly after and we were summoned home.” She sighed. “It is a remarkable place, though.”

“Yes, it is really as perfect as any earthly place can be, I always said. Fitzwilliam did a great deal to it when he inherited, I think -- Henry and James and Richard would know more about it than I. They are all older than Fitzwilliam and helped him a great deal when Mr Darcy first fell ill. You will have to talk to James, Elizabeth.”

She glanced up. “Why? Is there something particular I should know about him?”

Cecily giggled. “Well, he is your brother.”

Elizabeth stared. “He is? Why -- I did not -- I had not known.”

“My uncle might not have told it right. He had very strong opinions about my father and yours, they were twins you know -- so that makes us practically sisters, doesn’t it? Anyway, James is I think younger than Henry and older than Fitzwilliam -- or maybe it’s the other way around? -- and like I said last night, he’s a clergyman -- but the proper kind.” She smiled. “If you ever get tired of living here, you can stay at the rectory, I suppose, although you might find it rather dull, especially on Sundays. He is very strict about that kind of thing -- so is Fitzwilliam -- that’s why they get along so well, I suppose. Richard says they’re as dull as a pair of Methodists, but you could not ask for a better rector, even if he is handsome and unmarried. They’ve had very good attendance since he received the living.”

Elizabeth tried to recall what she had seen of James. He had stood next to Mr Darcy, she remembered -- unlike the other men, fine and fashionable, the two cousins were plainly, even severely dressed. She could not think of any other characteristics, except his slightly reddish hair and earnest blue eyes; Elizabeth rubbed suddenly sweaty palms against her skirt. “I have a brother,” she repeated blankly.

“He’ll be downstairs by now, he and Fitzwilliam usually get up early and go for a ride with Ella. It’s practically breakfast in any case -- are you ready, Elizabeth?”

“Of course.” Elizabeth straightened her spine and followed her cousin out of the room.

---

Chapter Four

As the two girls hurried downstairs, their attention was drawn by the sound of raised voices emanating from the largest parlour. While not anything so loud as what Elizabeth was accustomed to hearing daily at Longbourn, Cecily’s widened eyes and her own observations of her family made it clear that this was something unusual and startling. Her immediate and instinctive fear was that she and Jane had inspired the sudden controversy, but as she followed Cecily to the room, and somewhat guiltily listened for the sound of their names, it turned out to be nothing of the sort.

“You cannot possibly understand, so I will thank you not -- ” Lord Milton was saying, sounding nothing like the poised man she had met. Even more startling was Eleanor’s sharp response,

“If you must behave in such a manner, you could at least do so discreetly. And for heavens’ sake, stop making such ridiculously transparent excuses, you are fooling no-one.”

“Eleanor, I am a future earl, she is a tradesman’s niece -- you cannot possibly think I would marry her,” Lord Milton exclaimed. Elizabeth caught her breath.

“No,” an unfamiliar male voice replied, “but that does not make your behaviour less deplorable. You speak, Edward, as if the choice was between marrying her and -- what you have done.”

“Can you not even speak of it?” the viscount asked mockingly. “Is your clerical delicacy that disturbed?”

So that had been James. Elizabeth listened eagerly.

“It has nothing to do with my occupation,” he said angrily. “Except that I do not merely preach the precepts of my faith.”

“Saint James -- have you ever had an impure thought in your life?”

“Do not attempt to distract us,” Eleanor snapped. “James’ thoughts, pure or otherwise, are not under discussion.”

“I fail to see how this concerns you, Eleanor. You should not even be party to this.”

“Why?” she demanded. “Are you ashamed to admit to it in my presence? Do you think I am so sheltered, at my age, that I know nothing of it? Or is it simply that I am a woman and vices are only the province of men?”

There was a pause. “Have you been reading Wollstonecraft again?”

“No, as it happens, I am capable of coming to rational, intelligent conclusions on my own.” Elizabeth could not keep from smiling appreciatively at this, despite having no warm feelings for her cousin.

“Edward,” James said again, “much as I personally disapprove of your behaviour, that is not the subject at hand. What concerns us -- all of us, not merely we four -- is your indiscretion. People are beginning to talk. The lady herself is the object of speculation and gossip. If you go on much further, you will ruin her for life -- the woman you claim to love! Have you no proper feeling? Do you think she has none, because in a moment of infatuation she allowed you to seduce her? Heaven and earth -- of what are you thinking? You have said you will not marry her, that you never had any intention to -- ”

“She knew,” Lord Milton said, raising his voice, “I was perfectly honest with her, always.”

“No doubt that will be a great balm to your conscience when Miss Martin is driven to poverty and beyond.” Elizabeth started at Darcy’s familiar voice, as cold in its intonation as the first time she had heard it.

“I would not allow that. I love her, I would support her --”

“With what?” Eleanor demanded. “You outspend your income as it is, Edward. We will all do what we can for you both, but surely you cannot be so self-centred as to think you and she are the only ones concerned in this. If you will not think of my father and grandmother, nor any of us, at least Georgiana. You are the eldest, you are supposed to be an example!”

“You and Fitzwilliam do well enough for all of us,” he returned.

“And what of Jane and Elizabeth?” James demanded. “They have not been in this house one day. Elizabeth is my sister and I have not spoken two words to her, but you could hardly be more flagrantly dishonourable if you were caught at it. You may have no shame, but I am ashamed for you, cousin.”

“You cannot possibly be about to claim brotherly feelings after nineteen years!”

“Why on earth not?”

The voices lowered into inaudability, and Elizabeth pulled at Cecily’s arm. “We have to go.”

Cecily nodded. “They’ll be done in a moment.”

They could not help giggling as they hurried away, feeling like a pair of naughty children. It was just in time, too; Darcy and James, looking rather dishevelled, emerged shortly thereafter, and both girls were forced to hide in a little-used room, peering through the crack in the door.

“I must talk to Elizabeth,” James said decisively. “She was up already? I had not thought -- ”

“Yes, you should,” replied Darcy. He appeared rather endearingly flustered. “James, do you not think -- ”

“I am certain.”

“Then, why has he not . . .?”

“Do not ask me; you are the one who has his ear. What an abominable situation. I blame those, er, companions of his. He was not like this, before.”

“That is so, but it does not help us now. I cannot comprehend him.”

James sighed. “Nor I. Are you sure Elizabeth will not be disappointed?”

“She is not like other women, James; of all the things you need to worry about, I do not think that is among them.”

Their conversation faded away as they rounded a corner. Cecily and Elizabeth breathed again. “It’s Charlotte,” the former said breathlessly. “Mr Martin’s niece -- he’s dead now, and she lives with Mrs Martin. My maid did say that the rumour in town was that she was Edward’s mistress, but I could not believe it. He would not do such a thing, not to a local girl, surely?”

Elizabeth took a deep breath, and steadied herself. She knew that her cousins were men of the world, and she had a fairly clear idea of the sort of behaviour characteristic of such men, but somehow coming face-to-face with it so abruptly was deeply unsettling. Not simply the fact of it, she realised with a sudden clarity; his words echoed in her mind. She is a tradesman’s niece. Was it simply the fact of being an earl’s son rather than his nephew that made the difference? Or was it deeper than that, character and principle? If Darcy had been the man she supposed him, no doubt he would have made her a similar proposition or worse, rather than the respectable, if insulting, one he had made. She shivered, and pitied the unknown girl. He said he loved her.

---

She blushed as soon as she looked at Edward, but could not help smiling in pleasure as she was caught in the crossfire of two exuberant greetings. She smiled at both, and replied,

“Thank you, Jane, James, I am very well.”

Her brother was no longer the vaguely untidy man she had seen earlier, but so perfectly groomed that she longed to ruffle his hair just to see if it moved. Jane seemed delighted with the entire world and everyone in it, as usual.

“Elizabeth,” James continued, “might I have a word with you after breakfast?”

“Only one?” A stifled noise came from Mr Darcy’s direction.

“No,” he replied, “several, if it’s convenient.” Only the conspiratorial smile he sent her kept him from appearing utterly humourless, and she was greatly relieved to see it. The various family members, barring the ever-silent Georgiana, chatted lightly and easily over the meal, even Eleanor, and although Elizabeth was inclined to speak only to those she knew, Jane and Mr Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam, it took very little effort on her part to join the rest of the family. Most startling was the change in Mr Darcy. She had never seen him so easy, not even when they had met at Pemberley; there was none of the anxiety to please, nor the discomfort and stiltedness that had pervaded his manner wherever she had known him; he seemed perfectly content with himself and his surroundings, even with her presence. Indeed, he was the only member of the family who did not remark on the strangeness of having them there, of how it defied logic and likelihood, of how whoever it was could scarcely believe their eyes. If he felt similar surprise, he betrayed none of it.

Afterwards, she followed James to yet another parlour, feeling herself deeply uncomfortable. He was her brother -- her brother -- and until she stood in front of him, it was almost impossible to imagine, let alone accept. Yet from here, she could see how his narrow face, reddish hair, and slightly irregular nose mirrored her own. She was so little like the other Fitzwilliams, it still seemed a strange dream -- but James seemed a link between them and her, and she knew, when she looked at him, that it was real.

“Elizabeth, my dear Elizabeth. Forgive me,” he said, releasing the hand he had clasped.

“No, no, it is quite -- ”

“I do not wish to overwhelm you, dear,” he said; “this must all be quite strange, but you -- ” a smile, more of joy than laughter, trembled on his lips -- “you are here. You are my sister -- someone did tell you, I hope?”

“Yes, Cecily mentioned it, in passing.”

Everything Cecily mentions is in passing,” he said easily. The friendly openness startled her; but, of course, she was family. In such a family as this, reserve had no place. She had been astonished at breakfast, when Darcy and the Earl had discussed private concerns, incomes, finances, property, with perfect frankness, before them all. And although they were many things great and small, the Fitzwilliams were not the sort of selfish, disinterested family she had dreaded, where each member was only concerned with himself. Even as dreadful as the conversation she overheard had been, it clearly showed one thing -- what concerned one, concerned them all. “My uncle really should have told you, but there was so much, I daresay he thought it obvious.”

“I daresay,” she agreed.

“Ah.” He began pacing a little, and she repressed an amused smile at this. “Firstly, Elizabeth, I wanted to clarify, ahem, your financial position.”

“Oh!” The reason for his discomfort was abruptly clear.

“My parents left us eighteen thousand pounds. They were not wealthy,” he added, “but mother was a baron’s daughter and had a comfortable dowry.”

Obviously their definitions of wealthy were vastly different.

“My living is a very comfortable one, and I assure you I spent scarcely a penny beyond the interest on six thousand which I invested.”

She raised her eyebrows. “I had not quite gotten around to speculating as to your habits of spending, James.”

He smiled rather crookedly. “Well, of course not. In any case, I intend to settle the other twelve thousand on you, if that is acceptable.” Anxiously, he added, “I know it is not very much, but -- ”

For the first time since arriving at Houghton, Elizabeth thought of Mr Collins. It might not be a king’s ransom, but Elizabeth, Mr Bennet’s second daughter, with a bare one thousand pounds to her name, had been transformed into an earl’s niece with a greater fortune than that which had prompted Wickham’s defection to Mary King. She laughed outright, and confessed, “That is more than . . . than I have ever dreamed of. I have no idea what I shall do with it.”

“Nothing at all,” he replied; “my uncle, who is your guardian, shall pay all your expenses. It is solely for the purposes of . . . eligibility.”

Elizabeth was careful not to think of Mr Darcy, and said with an expectant look, “I think I shall be content to remain unmarried for awhile.”

James shrugged. “You would be in good company. The Fitzwilliams are generally long-lived, and most of us marry rather late. Even Ella is in no hurry, and she is eight-and-twenty.”

“Really? I had no idea.” Eleanor had not struck her as very young, but neither old; in much the same manner as Mr Darcy, it seemed impossible to attach a particular age to her.

“Of course, she is rather . . . unusual, in some ways. I would not advise waiting so long. She has rejected more proposals of marriage than I care to think about -- Cecily as well, although she tends to be rather kinder about it.”

Elizabeth blushed, and his eyebrows shot up. “You, as well? How many?”

“Only three,” she said defensively.

“Only three, she says! Quite an accomplishment at your age, and far more interesting than netting purses or painting screens or what have you.”

“I am not so young, I am one-and-twenty.”

He laughed heartily, but stopped when she said, rather unhappily,

“At least, I think I am one-and-twenty. I suppose there’s no way to tell.”

“You were not yet two when you were taken, nineteen and a half years ago,” he observed, “but come with me.”

“Why -- ” He was out of the room before she had finished the sentence, and with some choice mutterings before she had even considered how easily she had fallen into the position of much-younger sister, she followed him into the library. “James, what is it?” she asked, trying to keep up with his long strides. At least Mr Darcy makes it easier to keep up, for all that he’s four inches the taller at least, she thought irritably, but forgot it all when she caught sight of her brother beside a beautiful illuminated Bible.

“Oh, my goodness,” she said reverently, running a hand over the bindings, instantly enchanted. He chuckled.

“Well, all else failing, you and Fitzwilliam will always be able to talk about books.”

She remembered the Netherfield Ball and flinched. “Is he fond of them?” she asked weakly, and James grinned.

“Quite immoderately. My uncle Darcy took care of his library, and bought a number of volumes, but nothing like Fitzwilliam. It’s not really literary, you know -- he’ll spend the most ghastly amounts on a volume he doesn’t even like, just to complete a set, and then complain about the cost of butter or something equally trivial. That is not what I wished to show you, though -- look here.” He carefully opened the book.

She obeyed, staring at the faded ink. It was older than she had guessed, the Fitzwilliam family Bible, and her eyes instantly dropped to her own name. It was not hers, however, but a remote ancestress', one of the countess Marys and Elizabeths marrying into the family; she shook her head, and looked again -- there it was. James David Fitzwilliam m 16 March 1780 the Hon Laura Elizabeth Everill, daughter of James Everill, Lord Everill, of Highley Park, in the county of -- she skipped ahead, her fingers clenched against the table the priceless book rested upon -- issue Elizabeth Anne, b 17 Jul 1791.

Elizabeth laughed unsteadily. “Well, at least I am still one-and-twenty. I thought my middle name was ‘Rose’ and my birthday in May, but it hardly signifies, does it?”

James clasped her hand. “It does if you think it does,” he said gently. She blinked rapidly, and tightened her grip.

“Thank you -- brother.”

His own eyes were rather misty, and he looked away uncomfortably. “There is something else I wish to speak to you of, Elizabeth, but it is a rather more -- difficult topic, and I am certain that I ought not.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “Then -- excuse my frankness, please -- but why are you, if you feel you oughtn’t?”

“Perhaps I have not been clear enough. I think I ought not, because when it comes down to it you are the Earl’s ward, not mine, and I know he would not approve; but I feel you should know, more than you do already.”

“I am quite befuddled, sir.”

He smiled rather grimly. “Oh, are you? I must ask, sister, how much you overheard of the discussion between Edward, Fitzwilliam, Ella, and I.”

Her eyes opened wide. “You saw me?”

“Actually, no, not then, but when we walked past and you both hid, it was easily apparent.”

“Did Mr Darcy -- ” She blushed deeply.

“No, but he is -- ” James coughed. “Fitzwilliam is in his way quite probably the cleverest man I have ever known, and he is an excellent judge of character. However, observant he most certainly is not. Only I saw, I am sure; he would not have concealed it if he had. Nevertheless, I must judge what you know already, to spare us both considerable mortification, and to determine what I may speak of to you.”

She shamefacedly confessed all, but he only said, “Hmm, fairly comprehensive, then.” He then took a deep breath, and paced back and forth several times, his cheeks flushed with anger. “As I presume you have already discovered, Charlotte Martin is the niece of the local seamstress. Mrs Martin is a widow; her husband had a very prosperous shop in York, but it was sold upon his death, and they live upon their inheritances.” Vexedly, he added, “A woman who knew what she was about would be one thing, but this -- ” He shook his head, and Elizabeth was made aware all over again of the very great difference from the world she had grown up in, and that which she now found herself occupying. “You may see her this afternoon, she helps her aunt with her sewing. I only hope to God that there are no consequences beyond the immediate.”

Elizabeth instantly comprehended this, but could not keep herself from asking, “It is the indiscretion only which disturbs you -- Eleanor and Mr Darcy as well?”

James gave her a startled look. “You give your decisions very decidedly, do not you? Well, all for the better, among this family. As for Edward -- no, I’m afraid I cannot say that, although it would be more practical. I am a man of the cloth, Elizabeth, I cannot countenance such behaviour at all, much less among my own family. Nevertheless, we all of us are part of this world, and I cannot pretend that he has done anything very dreadful by comparison to what passes for acceptable behaviour among most of our -- associates. And yet -- ” he shrugged. “He is like a brother to me. I cannot but wish for him to be better. I truly believe that he loves her; if only he had fallen for a woman of our own rank, who would have been a good influence on him, he could have been brought back to what he was, I think.”

“If he loved her,” she said passionately, “he could not have done this -- could he?” She could not keep the trace of uncertainty back, realising how little she knew of this world and these people, for all that they were her blood and this her home.

“Love is not understanding, any more than it is charity, and it comes in many forms,” he said didactically. “I do not love Cecily in the same way I love Georgiana, nor the way I love you.”

She started, and blurted out, “You love me?” before she could stop herself. James glanced up and met her eyes squarely.

“Of course. You are my sister, Elizabeth.”

---

“Well, Jenny? What do you think?”

Jane laughed, and looked away. “Lizzy, please. You must be serious.”

“Oh no, your own gravity is sufficient to account for my share.”

“Well,” Jane persevered, “I think it is very pleasant.” Elizabeth blinked. “Everyone is so kind, and they make us feel as if we belong here. At least, that’s what I feel. I am sorry we are not sisters, though, but I was afraid we would not be related at all, so . . . besides, it’s almost as if we are all brothers and sisters together, isn’t it?”

“Yes, rather,” said Elizabeth, carefully not thinking of Darcy. “They all use Christian names, so I suppose they must have all been raised together.”

“Yes, that’s what Fitzwilliam said.”

Elizabeth’s eyebrows shot up. “Fitzwilliam?”

“My brother.” At Elizabeth’s astonished look, she said, “Well, I can hardly call him ‘Mr Darcy,’ can I? Any more than I would call Georgiana ‘Miss Darcy.’ ”

“You knew Mr Darcy, though,” Elizabeth pointed out. “That makes it different.”

Jane considered this. “I don’t think so, not really. Not for me. I couldn’t call him ‘Mr Darcy’ now. Besides, it would be inappropriate to call him that, at least to his face — his feelings might be hurt! Of course I know him so much better now, but I always liked him . . . in some ways this has not been very hard at all.”

“What ways?”

Jane looked uncomfortable. “Having a brother, not being the eldest. Papa did his best but he did not have a . . . very active personality.” She had no difficulty in dividing ‘Mr Bennet’ who had conspired in her kidnapping from her beloved ‘papa.’ “Fitzwilliam is different. He seems . . .” She hesitated — “more interested in me, for one. He asked a great many questions, and he told me things. Do you know that I’m nearly a year older than we thought? And he said I’m in a painting at Pemberley.” Suddenly she caught her breath. “Lizzy, I have been so happy and so excited that I didn’t think about mamma or Mary and Kitty and Lydia at all. I just want to forget. Is it very wrong of me?”

“No, of course not. Jane, your thoughts are your own.”

“Fitzwilliam said the same thing. He said, er, ‘every man has a property in his own person.’ Yes, that was it. And women too. We own ourselves. It was a very nice thought, really.”

“Very nice,” said Elizabeth, laughing, “if not entirely original.”

“It sounded like he was quoting somebody important,” Jane agreed, industriously plaiting primroses. “I did feel rather badly about it, last night. It was the first time I thought about Kitty and Mary and Lydia. I want them to be happy, really, I do. But -- ” she cheered -- “mamma didn’t want us after I refused Mr Bingley, and I daresay Mr Collins and Charlotte shall take care of the girls. Since I can’t do anything, I don’t see why I should worry -- but I still felt that I ought to.”

“You did not refuse Mr Bingley,” Elizabeth, with some authority in such matters, corrected.

“Well, I did not accept him either. It would not have been right. And now . . . I hardly know what to think. But he is such good friends with my brother that I daresay we shall meet again, and often, too.”

Elizabeth looked at her. She realised that Jane had a rare ability to completely disregard what was not immediately before her, and adapt herself to her present circumstances, whatever those circumstances might be. She was the mother, the peacemaker, the voice of caution and tolerance, and whether as Miss Bennet or Miss Darcy, she required no endearing qualities in her family to love them unconditionally, and spared little thought for those outside the charmed circle. Not for the first time, she wished herself a little more like Jane.

“They have been so very kind,” she was saying. Elizabeth started.

“Who has?”

“Fitzwilliam and Georgiana.”

Mr and Miss Darcy. But no -- Georgiana was no longer Miss Darcy. So much had happened that she had scarcely thought of her youngest cousin. She was easy to overlook; although handsome, she was not striking, and in the company of her more colourful relations, faded into obscurity. And then, Mr Darcy. She wished she knew what she felt towards him. He was -- he was -- she did not know what he was. She was starting to think she did not know him very much at all. He was so different. Of course, whenever she had known him, his friends had observed that he was behaving in a manner unlike himself; but she had never really believed it.

“I know you do not like Fitzwilliam, Lizzy, but . . .” Jane flushed deeply. “That is, I would wish . . .”

“Jane, I do not dislike Mr Darcy,” Elizabeth said. “I think I could like him a great deal, if he would stand still long enough for me to make an accurate sketch of him.”

“But you don’t draw!”

“A sketch of his character,” Elizabeth replied. “How can I like him, if I do not know who he truly is?”

“People are always changing, you always said so, just not the essentials. We all act differently in different places, don’t we?”

Her own words came back to her. In essentials, I believe, he is very much what he ever was. “Not so differently that one wonders whether we are a set of triplets!”

“Well, he doesn’t seem very different to me. I always liked him, and I still do.”

“You are always so perfectly right, Miss Darcy,” Elizabeth laughed.

“Lizzy!” Jane, with an almost mischievous look, flung the circles of flowers at her in vengeance, and Elizabeth sniffed before settling it on her hair.

“Do I like very elegant now, dearest of cousins?” she asked, sticking her nose in the air.

“Like a princess,” Jane assured her, before starting at the sound of a horse galloping along the path next to them. Georgiana expertly guided the mare away from them, before sliding off and smiling at them.

“There you are,” she declared, smiling shyly. “My grandmother wants you both.” Her eyes lifted to the circlet of primroses. “Oh, how pretty you look. May I have one?”

---

All of Mr and Mrs Bennet’s parents had died before Mary’s birth, and Elizabeth had never been able to remember them. Somehow, as she looked into her grandmother’s fierce blue eyes, the emptiness at the more-than-loss of her father began to vanish. Lady Fitzwilliam was not merely her blood, but her father’s mother. It was different. And although she yet knew nothing of her, Elizabeth felt that there was something unusual and fascinating beneath the placid respectable surface.

“Are you coming, Cecily?” Lady Fitzwilliam said in surprise.

“Yes, Elizabeth wants me,” Cecily declared. Then something uncertain crossed her face. “At least . . .”

“Yes, I do,” Elizabeth said firmly.

As they rode through the village, she looked about interestedly. It was not like Longbourn or even Meryton, but larger and more prosperous. There was none of the comfortable familiarity she recalled; the villagers’ manner towards the countess and Cecily was a respectful deference, even as they eyed Elizabeth and Jane with avid curiosity.

Mrs Martin was a large, bustling woman, who despite her cheerful manner seemed rather anxious. “These are my granddaughters, who have been returned to us,” Lady Fitzwilliam said. Mrs Martin’s eyes widened, but she confined herself to a polite: “Oh, isn’t that nice?”

Elizabeth was certain the news would be all over the village within an hour after their departure.

If she were strictly honest with herself, she was not terribly particular about her clothes. She liked a fine dress or trinket as much as the next woman, and she enjoyed knowing herself to be attractive, but not enough to expend a great deal of time, energy, or money, on the effort. Nevertheless, she had no intention of wearing some of the concoctions Lady Fitzwilliam and Mrs Martin had decided on for Jane. It was partly vanity, as she did not have Jane’s figure, but mostly a matter of personal preference.

“White is ever so much smarter than yellow,” Mrs Martin argued.

“I really would prefer yellow, ma’am,” Elizabeth said.

“Miss Fitzwilliam, white would suit your colouring much better. You have such . . . unconventional looks -- ”

The confrontation between two such wilful people might have gone on interminably, had not Cecily intervened. “Oh, you cannot really think that you will need only one dress, Elizabeth. White is always elegant, it would be perfect for a more formal gown, with the yellow more suitable for ordinary wear. You do remember that lovely yellow muslin you made for me last month, Mrs Martin? Elizabeth was just admiring it yesterday.”

Elizabeth decided there was more to Cecily than met the eye. Fortunately, their tastes were in nearly perfect accord, which made her cousin an even more desirable companion, for this sort of expedition, than Jane had ever been. She took a childish pleasure in pretty things, while her whimsical, unaffected ways kept her from giving offence. As they made their choices, Elizabeth was astonished to find herself giggling like a girl just out, attracting the attention of their relations and several other patrons. Jane seemed pleased, and the countess smiled serenely before continuing to outfit her in a manner befitting Miss Darcy of Pemberley.

It was only towards the end of the visit, however, when Mrs Martin called out, “Charlotte! Charlotte, come here, I need you!” that her interest was well and truly piqued. She was not certain what she expected to find. Perhaps a young, innocent -- or formerly innocent -- girl like herself, or a shameless woman preying upon the future earl. Whatever it was, the reality of Charlotte Martin astonished her. She was a young woman of about twenty-six, and although not plain, she was so severe in both manner and appearance that it seemed little short of impossible that she should have attracted a man such as Edward.

With scarcely a word spoken between them, Cecily and Elizabeth turned to the girl. “Oh, thank you,” Elizabeth said as she accepted the ‘accidentally’ dropped pin. Miss Martin simply nodded.

“I do not believe you have met my cousin yet?” Cecily began. “This is Miss Elizabeth Fitzwilliam.”

Miss Martin dropped a brief curtsey, her eyes fixed on the floor, but Cecily, undeterred, lowered her voice and said, “She was kidnapped you know. So was Miss Darcy. But they found out and apparently some relation of the family who took them told my cousin Milton and he saw them and Darcy had already seen them and guessed -- or something like that -- and now they are back. Isn’t it wonderful?” Both cousins watched carefully throughout Cecily’s monologue, and were gratified, if displeased, to see her blush at the mention of Edward’s name.

“You must be very pleased,” she murmured, in the most nondescript voice Elizabeth had ever heard.

“I am,” she replied firmly. Miss Martin blinked at her. “It was such a stroke of fortune that . . . Darcy -- ” It was remarkable, the difference a ‘Mr’ made; it felt more than disrespectful, wrong to refer to him in such a manner, aloud -- “knew Mr Gardiner. He is the one who met with Milton.” And yet the names of the others fell off her tongue with almost embarrassing ease. She shifted uncomfortably.

“Oh,” Miss Martin said dully. “How nice.” Even she seemed aware that this was insufficient to the occasion, and so added, “Mr Darcy is very kind.”

“He is,” Cecily interjected, then as she jarred the other woman's arm, gasped. “Oh dear, I’m terribly sorry -- I have always been so clumsy -- but let me help, please.”

“Thank you.”

After a moment, Cecily continued, “He is a very different man from Lord Milton, don’t you think?”

“I suppose so.”

“Although they look alike, and I suppose there is a certain similarity in their manner. My uncle’s influence, I suppose. Milton is not as handsome as Darcy, though.”

A bit of colour came into Miss Martin’s cheeks. “Oh, do you really think so? I should not --” she began unguardedly. Then she stopped, a flicker of suspicion entering her dark eyes.

“They are both very handsome,” Elizabeth said diplomatically, casting Cecily a sharp look.

“Which do you prefer?” her cousin asked lightly.

“Oh! Mr Darcy, to be certain.” Then she blushed, fearful of having exposed -- something. “But, of course . . . that is because he is younger, and fairer. Milton is more -- melancholy and brooding, like the hero out of a novel.”

Miss Martin muttered something in so low a voice that it was rendered almost entirely inaudible to both girls. Elizabeth thought she had said something about the lace for the gown.

“There is certainly less mystery about Darcy,” Cecily said, examining her hands. “Even my uncle doesn’t know everything that Milton has gotten up to, while Darcy is just the sort of son that every man wishes he had. I don’t think he ever gave either of my uncles a moment of trouble. I suppose it was because he always had such a good guide of what not to do in that dreadful charity case of my uncle’s. It just goes to show, that even the best of educations cannot overcome a faulty character. He was always the most unpleasant person, so when we heard about his indiscretions -- that Wicked person, although I don’t think that was his real name -- ”

Elizabeth laughed. “Mr Wickham, you mean? Would you guess, Cecily, that I met him, too, in Hertfordshire? He and -- Darcy -- both ended up there, quite by accident, where I first met him. I don’t think one county is too small for the two of them.”

“No, indeed,” Cecily agreed. “It’s just lucky that Richard or Milton didn’t go with him -- they probably would have shot him on sight.”

Miss Martin gasped, then began, “I did not think -- ”

“I beg your pardon?” Cecily turned her head. “It looks like those are all your buttons. I am sorry.”

“It is quite all right, Miss Fitzwilliam.” With a curious expression that Elizabeth could not decipher, she hurried away, her eyes demurely lowered and her entire look as colourless as ever. The two cousins gazed at one another in bewilderment.

“It is terribly unfair,” Cecily said in a lowered voice. “I hate to think such a thing of him, but I can only imagine Edward took advantage of her in some way. Of course he could not marry her -- ”

“Of course,” Elizabeth repeated. “Why ‘of course,’ cousin? Earls’ sons have married tradesmen’s daughters before, and you said that her father was respectable.”

Rich tradesmen’s daughters,” Cecily corrected. “That makes all the difference, and even then, it is not wholly desirable. Not for people like us.”

“Are we so very different?” She did not believe it for a moment.

“No . . . but -- we are not -- not fast, you know. It’s one thing to marry a merchant’s daughter with £100,000 to her name, or some similarly preposterous amount, if your estate is mortgaged to the hilt, and you are struggling to live at standards that would put a modest gentleman to shame, and you are respectable enough in yourself to afford a connection of that sort. We don’t need that kind of money, though, my uncle is very rich. We are not a very ancient family, either. It’s interest and respectability that’s important for us, especially since . . .”

“Since?” Elizabeth prodded. Cecily looked away.

“We’re not supposed to talk about it,” she said, clearly longing to divulge the secret as much as Elizabeth was to hear it; but both had too delicate a sense of honour to press the matter any further, and after a brief, awkward silence, Cecily began chattering about the beautiful set of pearls Elizabeth now owned.

“They say Lord Everill spent five hundred pounds on her wedding clothes, even though it was so dreadfully quick a marriage. It’s odd that Uncle James should have married well -- it’s not as if he cared twopence about such things.”

Elizabeth, for the first time, felt a small thread connecting her to those long-dead Fitzwilliams who had given her life. Darcy’s snobbery no longer startled her; she only wondered that he had lowered himself to befriend Bingley. Her lips twitched at the thought. What would they think when Jane accepted a landless tradesman’s son with only a moderate fortune and amiable manners to recommend him? She would have looked forward to it with something like glee, were she not so concerned for her cousin's sake. Jane would do anything rather than inspire contention.

---

Chapter Six


Elizabeth felt, almost, that she had not understood Jane at all, nor anyone else, not even herself. Jane really seemed to think the Fitzwilliams were her family -- and they were, which made it all the more bewildering for Elizabeth herself. They were blood, and the ties of kinship could not be set aside; yet, without the habits of dependence, the connections that were built through years and years of shared experiences, it was impossible to feel it quite the same. Not for Jane, however. Elizabeth was not sure whether she more envied her the ductility of her temperament, or felt disturbed at the ease with which Jane had transformed herself into what she thought she ought to be.


Regardless, she was not and could not be Jane. She could not say exactly what she felt toward them. It was odd and thrilling to pass a family portrait and see her own eyes set in another’s face. Cecily she had instantly formed an almost sisterly tie with. She had never felt herself a steadying influence on anyone -- she had tried with Kitty and Lydia, to no avail, but Cecily was older, and felt the weight of who and what she was far more keenly than they ever had -- more keenly than Elizabeth did, for that matter. Whether a gentleman’s daughter or earl’s niece, she was who she was, and she did not trouble herself much with it; not so Cecily. She seemed unable to forget that they had been dropped on the Earl’s doorstep with scarcely a by-your-leave, and felt herself a sort of inflated poor relation. Behind her high spirits and confident manner, she seemed lost, and there was something bizarrely child-like in her need for praise and approval.


Elizabeth could not feel she knew the others as well. Nearly all of her time was spent with Cecily, James, or Jane in that first little while, except the early mornings. Elizabeth was a creature of habit -- she had to be, or else she forgot what she had intended to do before she got around to doing it -- and every morning, went to the library at six-thirty, enjoying the time to herself, watching the sunrise, and perusing the earl’s extensive collection of books. Within two days she realized that Darcy shared this quality, and it was only his schedule which differed; he entered the library promptly at seven o’clock. At first, it was inevitably awkward, and Elizabeth seriously considered altering her habits so that they would not meet outside of company. She dismissed the idea as cowardice, and instead decided that they might as well be friends, since they would be thrown together a great deal, they were cousins, and she already knew she liked him -- how much she could not say.


It was the third morning, and Elizabeth glanced down at the stack of books he had abandoned the evening before. Although the others often enjoyed the library in the evenings, and left scattered piles of books to return to at future notice, only Darcy left his stacked perfectly straight, in alphabetical order. She found his tastes both very characteristic and amusingly sparse of light reading. Novels were particularly few and far between.


“Good morning, Elizabeth,” he greeted her, no longer surprised as he had been the last two times. She was reminded of their many “accidental” meetings at Rosings, and quite for the first time, realised how her reaction must have appeared to him. This time, she meant for no such misunderstanding to take place.


“Mr Darcy,” she said, smiling. “Have you seen my brother?”


“Yes, he is preparing his sermon.”


“I hope he is not putting too much effort into it.” She glanced sideways at him to see if he had taken her meaning; he replied easily,


“I daresay he knows that everyone’s attention will be fixed on you and Jane,” he said frankly. “James is a clever man.”


Elizabeth hesitated only a moment. “That is what he said about you, sir.”


Darcy looked taken aback -- whether it was at James’ compliment or the “sir,” she could not say. “Did he? How very . . . generous of him.”


Elizabeth smiled, absently disordering his pile of books. James had a distinctly critical bent, like the rest of the family (except Jane and Georgiana, of course, who seemed largely unaware that other people had any flaws at all), and seldom gave unbridled praise. “He also said that you are not very observant.”

Darcy laughed ruefully. “I suppose not.” He straightened the books.


“It was when he was telling me about Edward and Miss Martin,” she continued evenly, bending her head down. She could hear his quickly-indrawn breath. “Only because we overheard when you all were talking to Edward about her.”


“We?”

“Cecily and I.”


Oh. Cecily.” Clearly, that explained everything -- unsurprisingly. There was a brief, uncomfortable silence, but awkward as it was, Elizabeth was glad she had told him. She did not like secrets, now less than ever. Of all the family, she felt -- irrationally, given how perversely he insisted upon defying her expectations -- that she knew him best. Not his character, perhaps; but she had always assumed, with very little reason, that the ideas underlying their more superficial behaviour and prejudices were the same. “What do you think of it?” he asked.


“I beg your pardon?”


He lifted his head, looked directly at her. “What do you think about it? Edward is as much your cousin as he is mine.”


“He would be rather less inclined to listen to me,” said Elizabeth, “he seems to think I am a damsel in need of protecting. He is -- surprisingly chivalrous.”


“I do not think even he realises how contradictory he is, sometimes. Surely, though, you have opinions -- Elizabeth, you always have opinions.”


She laughed. “I cannot understand it. He . . . he really does love her, or he thinks he does. Yet he dishonoured her. I met Miss Martin, when we had our dresses made. She is rather peculiar, too. Somehow I cannot think of her as simply falling prey to Edward’s charms, even were he that sort of man. How long . . . if I may ask, do you know how long, they have . . .”


“Their . . . relationship began five years ago,” Darcy said, lowering his eyes once again. “My uncle would be very displeased, if he knew I was speaking of it to you.”


“James said the same thing.”


“But Edward, he has brought it on himself, on us all.” She could hear the anger vibrating under his apparent calmness. “It is only lately that he has been careless -- perhaps over the last three months. He was always cautious before that. We knew, but it was not -- he was at least considerate of her situation. I understand,” he added, “that she rather encouraged him. Well, they were infatuated, and infatuated people sometimes say and do very peculiar things.”


Elizabeth thought of what had passed for his courtship, before he proposed to her at Rosings, and could only agree.


---

James’ sermon was excellent -- at least, what she heard of it. Elizabeth knew herself not to be as attentive as she ought to have been, but she was so much more so than nearly everyone else, she felt somewhat vindicated. She and Jane, seated between Darcy and Lord Fitzwilliam, were well and truly hidden from view, until afterwards. Then the various members of the congregation swarmed over to offer their congratulations and see the earl’s nieces with their own curious eyes.



Elizabeth’s mouth ached from smiling so long, answering queries, and struggling to keep track of names and faces. The only ones she could clearly recall were their closest neighbours, the Brookes, and Mr Lynch, a queer-looking Irish gentleman, apparently a connection of the Bartons, whoever they might be.

She was briefly separated from the rest of the family, due to the moment she had taken to shut her eyes and regain her composure, and looked around in confusion. One gentleman bumped into her and apologised profusely.


“Miss Fitzwilliam, isn’t it?”


“Yes, sir,” Elizabeth said, startled to be so easily recognised. He was about sixty, with delicate, almost womanly features, no doubt very handsome in his youth -- but age had not been especially kind to him. She was drawn to his gentle, easy manner at first, and they talked with some animation once he claimed to know where her family was. Nevertheless, she grew uncomfortable within moments -- she could not say why, or what she distrusted about him, for his very countenance should have vouched for his being amiable. It did not, though; she quickly found herself struggling to remain cordial. She could not tell what was in his eyes, for all his apparent openness, and she did not like it, especially the longer he monopolised her attention.


Elizabeth?”

She had never been so glad to see Darcy in her life. “Cousin,” she said in relief, smiling brilliantly, “there you are. I am not certain what happened, I got separated from the rest.”


“My uncle thought you might have.” He glanced at the man who had been talking to her, and froze. “Lord Barton.”


Lord Barton’s manner in response was positively effusive. “Darcy, son,” he exclaimed, shaking her cousin’s hand enthusiastically. “It has been an age since I have seen you. We have missed you dreadfully, especially Clarissa -- eh?”


Darcy looked more as he had at the Netherfield Ball, when they spoke of Wickham, than how he had responded to the impertinences of Mrs Bennet and Sir William. She realised, quite abruptly, that he was furious at his lordship’s remark, his face cold but his eyes blazing. He replied icily, “I really could not say. Elizabeth, are you coming?”


She gratefully took his arm. “Thank you for your conversation, Lord Barton,” she said politely.


“A pleasure, my dear,” he replied, smiling cheerfully. “Good day, Mr Darcy, Miss Fitzwilliam.”


They took their leave, and Darcy seemed very much inclined to walk in silence. She would have let him, if he had not walked so quickly. “I cannot keep up with you, cousin,” she exclaimed. He blushed, and regained something of his usual composure.


“I beg your pardon, Elizabeth.” He slowed his stride, and then said quietly, “I would . . . be careful of Lord Barton, were I you.”


She glanced up at him. “He seemed harmless, Mr Darcy; rather irksome company, but nothing worse.”

He hesitated, then said grimly, “That is a -- he is cleverer than he lets on. He is not -- he is not a gentleman, Elizabeth.” This was clearly the worst indictment that he could think of. She looked up, but before she could reply, they met with the others.


“What on earth happened to you?” Richard exclaimed. “Grandmamma nearly had an apoplectic fit.”

“I had nothing of the kind,” the countess said indignantly.


“I was only a little disoriented, and Lord Barton talked at me for awhile, before my cousin rescu -- found me.”


Several of the others laughed, pulling her between them and chattering, but she quickly observed that Lord and Lady Fitzwilliam, Edward, and Eleanor’s reactions were almost identical to Darcy’s. The Fitzwilliams certainly did not seem to want for skeletons in the family closet.


---

As they walked toward the house, the countess called out, “Elizabeth, my dear, please come and walk with me.”


She did so, aware that it was a command rather than a request. There was something peculiar about the lady; perhaps it was that she seemed somehow closer than the others. Elizabeth fancied she could see more of herself in her. The countess did not, except for the eyes, resemble her children or grandchildren — Mr Darcy and Lady Eleanor had something of her in the shapes of their faces, the high narrow slant of their cheekbones, but no-one else and even they were not very like. Her build was as small and slight as Elizabeth’s, and the thin nose and wide lips were her own too.

For a moment, they walked in silence. Then, Lady Fitzwilliam said, “We have not paid you as much mind as we ought to have, Elizabeth. There has been so much happening.” She sighed. “You and Cecily were speaking to Charlotte Martin?”


Elizabeth flushed slightly. “Yes, ma’am.”


“Tell me what you think of her, please.”


“I can hardly say, we only spoke for a few moments, and she seems very reserved.”


Her grandmother looked sideways at her. “You are starting to sound like Jane, dear. A very proper and dull response. I understand from your sister that you are a studier of character?”


“My sister?” Elizabeth exclaimed. “Is there someone else?”


“No, no — I meant Jane. You will always be sisters, to an extent, and you are nearly so now.”


“Oh, I see.” She considered. “I enjoy other people, I confess, and studying them, but I have — I am less certain in my judgments than I was.”


Lady Fitzwilliam smiled. “What, then, is your opinion of your estimable aunt, Lady Catherine?—Fitzwilliam and Richard say they saw you in Kent.”


Elizabeth laughed rather guiltily. “She is your daughter, ma’am; I do not think there is any way to unite civility and sincerity in an answer to that.”


The other woman’s eyes opened very wide. “Oh no, Elizabeth — Catherine is my cousin’s daughter, and my husband’s. She — my cousin — was his first wife.”


Elizabeth took a moment to sort this out. “Lord Fitzwilliam is your only child?”


The countess hesitated only a moment. “My only living child, yes.”


“And Lady Catherine is half-sister to him, and to all the others — I had no idea.”


“Her mother died when she was very small; I tried to care for her as a mother would, but I could not. She was an odd child, plain and not very clever, but spoilt and dictatorial. None of the others were ever fond of her, except Anne. Of course, Anne was fond of everyone, she was very affectionate among the family circle.”


Elizabeth had never thought she could pity Lady Catherine, but she could not help a twinge of sympathy. “Only among the family circle?” she asked, her mind drifting to the other aunt, the one she would never know.


“Yes. She was very reserved and aloof in company. I think she probably terrified as many men as she attracted.”

“Was she very beautiful then?” She had thought the woman in the miniature lovely, but it was entirely possible that it was not true to life, perhaps even only an imitation of another portrait.


Lady Fitzwilliam smiled slightly. “Ella is the spitting image of her.”


“Mr Darcy must be very like his mother, then.”


“Yes. It was so difficult, when she died -- we all loved her so much, and it was impossible to stop thinking of her . . . with them always there. Darcy -- your uncle, that is -- could scarcely bear to look at Fitzwilliam and sent him to Catherine at Rosings for, oh, three or four years.”


Elizabeth felt an unexpected surge of resentment. Sending him to Lady Catherine indeed! She remembered Eleanor’s remarks from -- was it only the afternoon before? Mr Darcy had destroyed nearly all of the paintings of his wife. No wonder she had not seen her at Pemberley. At the time, with so much to consider, she had not given it a second thought. Now, she shivered a little. How could such a man be so highly regarded by so many?


“How could he?” she exclaimed. “If he loved his wife, surely their child would only be more dear to him?”

“He did not love her,” Lady Fitzwilliam replied sadly. “He was infatuated at first, and perhaps she was as well -- although I do not think so -- but it was not very long before they grew to despise one another. It was not always so bad -- sometimes they managed to live together, in an almost friendly fashion -- but not often, and Anne was bitterly unhappy. He was guilt-stricken after she died. He had treated her very badly, after all.”


“Treated her badly?” She knew how harsh some men were with their wives, but surely --


“Oh, he never struck her, nothing like that, but -- well, you are very young. Suffice it to say, his behaviour was unexceptional and would have been -- acceptable, if not admirable, had he shown proper consideration for Anne, and not driven her to -- ” Her lips thinned.


“Grandmother,” Elizabeth asked impulsively, not even needing to think about the proper address, “may I see Lady Anne’s portrait?”


Lady Fitzwilliam glanced up and smiled. “Of course. It is in the green parlour, we only use that room for company, which I suppose is why you have not seen it yet. I shall take you right now, if you wish.”

“Jane should see her too.” She turned back to her cousin. “Jane? Grandmother is going to show me Lady Anne’s portrait, would you like to see?”


“Oh, you must,” Cecily said enthusiastically. “You have not seen Aunt Anne yet, have you, Je -- Jane?”

“I would love that. Her portrait is here? Fitzwilliam said there are not any at Pemberley.”


“Your father returned it to us after she died,” Lady Fitzwilliam explained, “and Fitzwilliam has never asked for it.”


Cecily and Lady Fitzwilliam led them forward. Elizabeth could not quite comprehend her fascination with this woman. She had been dead for fifteen years, and while it was true that she was Jane’s mother and must therefore be an object of interest, that was hardly sufficient explanation. Nevertheless, she lifted her eyes up to the portrait of her aunt with rather more eagerness than even Jane displayed.


It was very obviously a portrait of the Earl Fitzwilliam’s daughter, rather than the Master of Pemberley’s wife; she was a young lady, a girl really, perhaps sixteen or seventeen years old. Lady Anne was astonishingly like Eleanor in looks, but something about her struck Elizabeth as fundamentally different. Perhaps it was the smile -- a faint, restrained smile, but a smile nonetheless; but more it was the pensive, distant expression, a thoughtful gravity more akin to her son than her niece. Even that, though, was not all -- there was something there, but she could not put it into words properly.

Elizabeth smiled to herself. Like her own -- although the colour was different -- Lady Anne’s eyes were very slightly tilted upwards. She glanced over at Jane, who unsurprisingly resembled her mother more closely than Elizabeth did. No -- that peculiar, inexplicable quality was not present. Perhaps that was why everyone said she was more Mr Darcy’s daughter. She thought she could see something of it in Cecily, and oddly in Edward as well.


“This was painted before your mother married your father, Jane,” Lady Fitzwilliam said.


“She looks very happy,” Jane observed.


Their grandmother sighed. “She was. I hope you will make better choices, my dear, and perhaps you shall be also.”


Elizabeth wondered what this wistfully serene girl had done. She had married Mr Darcy, she had borne him three living children, she had died. And between all that?


“Well,” said Cecily firmly, “that’s enough of Aunt Anne for now, don’t you think? One can only endure so much tragedy before tea-time. I heard Fitzwilliam say something about sending for some of your jewels . . .” With admirable dexterity, she manoeuvred Jane out of the room.


“What did she do?” Elizabeth asked softly.


The countess fixed her eyes on her daughter. “You do remind me of her, for all that you look so much like your mother.”


Elizabeth’s first, ridiculous, thought, was that she hoped that was not why Darcy had been attracted to her. She instantly pushed it aside, and listened eagerly for what Lady Fitzwilliam might say.

“Be on your guard, dear. You are too sensible and too virtuous a girl to fall prey to those who would take advantage of your innocence.” She paused, drawing her eyes away, and settling them on Elizabeth. “But you will never be in greater danger than if you are unhappily married. There are men who are drawn to a woman in that position out of pity and sympathy, and are not so much seducers themselves as seduced by their own better feelings, their compassion for you. I daresay that is where it began.”



Elizabeth caught her breath. Never had such a thing been spoken of so openly before her, not even in regard to Charlotte and Edward. “Did she . . .?”


“Then there are other men,” the countess continued relentlessly. “The sort who have no qualms about using such a woman’s loneliness and despair for their own purposes.” Somewhat belatedly, she added, “Your uncle would not approve of my telling you this.”


That did seem to be the general consensus.


“You met one of those sort of men today.”


Elizabeth started. “Lord Barton? Was he Lady Anne’s . . .” she fumbled for a word -- “paramour?”


“Yes. It was an unwise decision on her part, but he was, I imagine, very convincing. He had a rather saintly air which he used to good effect; he has had to alter his manner since he lost his looks, and good riddance.”


She thought back to what she had seen, then gasped. “He called Mr Darcy ‘son.’ ”


Lady Fitzwilliam’s eyes flashed, but she shook her head with the appearance of calmness. “Anne did nothing until she had given her husband an heir. Barton enjoys baiting him. He wanted her to come away with him, but she would not leave Fitzwilliam.”


“What a dreadful, vicious man,” Elizabeth said quietly. “Mr Darcy warned me against him. No wonder he was so angry.”


“Anne did not, I think, conceal very much from Fitzwilliam, at least by the time he was older. She had no one else.”


Elizabeth shivered. This was what had happened to that lovely girl of seventeen.


“It is ridiculous to marry without regard to family and fortune, but worse still without affection that will survive the years,” the countess said gently. “Take care of yourself, Elizabeth.”

3 Comments:

At 8:01 PM, Blogger Adrienne Lane said...

So when do you plan do update this wonderful piece, because I' enthralled by it?

 
At 4:54 PM, Blogger sasa said...

LOVE.

 
At 4:54 PM, Blogger sasa said...

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