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The Worst that Could Happen

Chapter 1

It was the worst that could happen. Mr. Bennet was dead.

Toward the end of May - not two weeks after Elizabeth and Jane returned from Kent and London - the family patriarch was in his library enjoying a much-needed respite from the entreaties of Lydia, who would not cease her loud protestations that she should be allowed to go to Brighton as companion to Mrs. Forster. When Jane went to bring him his tea, she discovered her father in his chair as if asleep...but no manner of disturbance could awaken him, not even the subsequent shrieks of Mrs. Bennet. He was simply gone, at the age of eight-and-forty.

The grief which followed can be imagined. Six women gave vent to their sorrow in their own individual ways. There was much weeping, and sighing, and moaning, and many calls for salts. Mrs. Bennet was, naturally, the most vocal in her laments. While she had never been clever enough to see her husband's finer points, she did care for him in her own way; he had, after all, been her mate these twenty-four years. She felt his absence keenly, and there was not a visitor or even a passerby who did not soon know it. Elizabeth and Jane, however, felt their father's passing most bitterly. They alone most appreciated his wit and affectionate nature, and they alone best understood the circumstance in which he left them. Mary, meanwhile, opined about the brevity of our earthly state, Kitty sniveled and blew her nose, and Lydia wept for the double insult of never being able to go to Brighton, and having to go about all in black, a colour which flattered no-one, she was sure.

After the initial shock, and the funeral, Mrs. Bennet's thoughts naturally turned to the business of survival, which, for a woman of little wit and five unmarried daughters, was a considerable quandary.

"Well," said the widow crossly to Elizabeth the day after the interment, "I suppose now you regret having refused Mr. Collins's offer. Selfish girl! I knew it would come to this! You could have secured our future with just a word, but you had to have your way. Now Mr. Collins shall turn us out into the street, and we shall all die in the workhouse, and then I hope you will be happy."

In truth, Elizabeth was at last feeling all the guilt of a young lady who had turned down an eligible match. She did not for a minute regret not accepting Mr. Collins - horrid man! She was sure that it would have taken her less than a fortnight to run screaming from the comfortable Parsonage which Charlotte so appreciated. No, it was not the first refusal which she had begun to lament. While she still held no tender feeling for Mr. Darcy (had he not, after all, separated dearest Jane from her beloved Mr. Bingley?), the letter he had given her at Hunsford had done much to improve her opinion of him. She had to admit that marriage to a young, wealthy man, a man of good sense and taste, would not have been such a burden. His person was well-favored, too, she acknowledged reluctantly to herself - handsome of countenance, strongly built... Elizabeth sighed. Would not a marriage to such a man - even without love - be preferable to her family's present precarious situation?

Still, they would somehow get by. The family, after all, was to receive 5,000 pounds upon her father's death. Not a great sum, surely, but with careful spending they could make it last for some time. (Elizabeth thought ruefully - and was heartily ashamed of herself for it - that the cost of mourning clothes for six women had been overly onerous.) And despite Mr. Bennet's early assertion to the ladies that Mr. Collins, "when I am dead, may turn you all out of the house," she also had faith that her family would not be immediately removed from Longbourn. Elizabeth permitted herself a small smile. After all, she knew who truly ruled the household in Hunsford, and Charlotte would never dream of allowing Mr. Collins to render the Bennets homeless.

But - alas! - Charlotte was at that moment in the early stages of what the doctor had deemed to be a difficult and perilous confinement. He had instructed Mr. Collins that, given his wife's delicate condition, he should under no circumstances allow anything to distress her unduly. Mr. Collins took this to mean that she should be kept unapprised of any news that she might find stressful, which of course included the death of her dear neighbor Mr. Bennet. In this decision he was supported by his esteemed patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

The two conferred at Rosings not a week after Mr. Bennet's passing. "Mr. Collins," Lady Catherine said, "It would do your wife no good to suffer on behalf of those people" - for thus is how she lately referred to the Bennets. It was clear that, for some reason, Lady Catherine felt some new displeasure against the family of the young lady who had so recently been welcomed to Rosings Park.

"Indeed, you are quite right," the clergyman replied, "as in all things. The wisdom of your Ladyship is..."

"And you must necessarily act in the best interests of your growing family," Lady Catherine interrupted. "Therefore, I believe you should assert your rights under this entail as soon as may be."

This gave Mr. Collins pause, as few things have ever done. While he had certainly made a mental inventory of the contents of Longbourn immediately upon receiving word of the unfortunate demise of Mr. Bennet, it had occurred to him that to take his place as the rightful head of that estate required the removal of its current occupants. And as selfish an individual as Mr. Collins was, there had been a vague unwillingness on his part to be the instrument of the eviction of the surviving Bennets. They were, after all, among the closest friends of his dear Charlotte, and he was loath to consider the consequences - that is, her certain violent disapprobation - of turning the family out of Longbourn. But what if he simply did not tell her? If he acted out of respect for her fragile condition and deferred discussions of the situation until after the healthy birth of his heir? By then it would be too late to reverse his actions, and she would surely come to accept it, especially when he reminded her that she was now mistress of that estate. Surely she would forgive him his impetuousness on her behalf. And surely the Bennets would find somewhere else to live...with some relatives, perhaps.

Mr. Collins eventually nodded. "Of course, I concur."

"Splendid. Still, I suppose we must do the proper thing and ensure that the mother hen and her flock of daughters not be left on the street."

"Your Ladyship is the very essence of Christian charity," said Mr. Collins with a greasy smile.

Lady Catherine's eyes narrowed, and she smiled unpleasantly. "There is a cottage that has been standing vacant here for some months now, the tenant having died without heirs. They would be in nobody's way in that part of the estate. What say you, Mr. Collins?"

"It is the height of generosity, Lady Catherine, for you to condescend to take in a family so far beneath your own. I am in awe of your Ladyship's supreme sacrifice..."

"Then it shall be done. Call your solicitor, Mr. Collins, and take care of this business straightaway." Mr. Collins bowed his obedience and showed himself out. Lady Catherine sat back with a contented sigh. She had her own reasons for promoting the implementation of the entail, and this was all working greatly to her satisfaction.

In less than a month, then, the Bennet ladies found themselves gone from their ancestral family home. The misery which this occasioned was deep, indeed, and, coming so soon on the heels of the death of Mr. Bennet, almost too much to bear. Mrs. Phillips's home being small, she could but offer only to house her two favorite nieces, Kitty and Lydia, for the time being. The girls, still not quite recovered from not only the death of their father but their disappointment in the departure of the militia as well, were mollified by the chance to stay close to their friends in Meryton. The Gardiners promised their assistance as far as it would go, but they could not take in any family members at this time. Their house was quarantined, their youngest having just come down with the measles, and it was only a matter of time before it was passed around the other family members, and the servants as well. Soon, they assured Mrs. Bennet, once the danger had passed, they would be able to provide sanctuary for her and the girls. Meanwhile, in the interest of saving what little they now had, Mrs. Bennet found herself in the unenviable position of accepting the great condescension of Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

And thus Mrs. Bennet, Elizabeth, Jane, Mary and Hill (for the Gardiners could not bear to think of their sister on her own without a servant, and therefore volunteered to pay her way, and after all Hill had no place else to go) were soon not-so-happily situated in a tiny cottage in Kent. With the contributions of the Gardiners and Mr. & Mrs. Phillips added to their own meager resources, and the practices of economy that Elizabeth immediately instituted, it was to be hoped that the family could survive relatively unscathed.

"Well, Jane, what think you of our cozy new situation?" Elizabeth said in an attempt at levity as she unpacked her belongings in the room she now shared with her elder sister and Mary. Mrs. Bennet now found herself in a room that would barely have passed for servants' quarters at Longbourn, while Hill slept on a cot in a pantry off the kitchen.

Immediately after saying the words, Elizabeth regretted them. For Jane's sorrow was palpable. She was more sensitive than Elizabeth, and to her their current state of affairs seemed completely hopeless. They would never starve, of course, but their chances of making a life of their own, of marrying, which were once slim at best, were now rendered non-existent: there was a total of but five thousand pounds among them all, and they were nigh-on homeless, accepting what amounted to charity from a most mortifying source. There seemed nothing in their future but deprivation and loneliness.

"Perhaps I will find some work as a governess," Jane said quietly, without much conviction. Elizabeth smiled sadly. Her sister was far too vulnerable to bear the inevitable criticisms and complications of caring for a stranger's family. The very thought of her working in that regard was unimaginable. No, if anyone would bear the burden of supporting the family, it would have to be Elizabeth herself. But she had not the slightest notion of how to go about obtaining a position, nor, she thought wryly, was she particularly qualified. She supposed it would have to wait until she could confer with Uncle Gardiner. Thinking of their relations, and their hoped-for reunion, was a relief.

The Bennet ladies settled in to life in the little house as best they could, optimistic that it would be but a temporary situation. But summer waxed and waned, and their hopes grew dimmer. There was news, of course, but all of it was bad. Charlotte was still abed, a veritable prisoner of her confinement, and Elizabeth could not prevail upon Mr. Collins or his servants to give her so much as a greeting from the Bennets. At the Gardiner household, the measles had hit hard, striking each child in turn, and two to of the servants. Furthermore, Mr. Gardiner's business had suffered a setback, and money grew tight. It did not appear that he would be able to rescue his sister's family from their plight any time soon.

And then there was the letter from Mrs. Phillips. It seemed that she, too, had tired of Lydia's constant importuning with regard to Brighton, and, with a complete disregard for propriety or the wishes of her eldest sisters, had sent Lydia along to meet Mrs. Forster, adding only her insistence that the girl continue to wear mourning for the appropriate time. Upon receiving the letter with this intelligence, Elizabeth shook her head in the humiliating knowledge that her family was, indeed, every bit as unseemly as Mr. Darcy had proclaimed them to be.

Even after all these mortifications and misfortunes, each Sunday brought something yet more repugnant to anticipate: because Lady Catherine had not yet replaced him, Mr. Collins was still presiding over the congregation. How loathsome it was, Elizabeth thought resentfully, to have to sit in the House of the Lord while the man who had removed them from their home preached to them about sacrifice, or forgiveness, or - heaven forbid! - humility!

As they always did at Hunsford, the Bennet ladies arrived at church early that bright Sunday in August, to more easily take their seats without causing a stir. They had become all too aware of the stares and whispers of the congregation; a gentleman's family brought low by misfortune was always an object of interest. Luckily, at least these embarrassing experiences seemed to be decreasing with the time the Bennets spent in the area; new follies and scandals began to distract the townspeople, and soon, Elizabeth hoped, the family would be ignored altogether. As the service began, she was grateful to be able to lose herself in the familiar rhythms of the liturgy and the hymns.

Elizabeth could bear the rest of the service well enough, but, true to her fears, Mr. Collins commenced his sermon by intoning, "Today, we will talk of the blessings of humility." The coward cannot even look at us, Elizabeth thought with no little ire. And so it was throughout the twenty minutes - was it truly only twenty minutes? for it seemed like hours! - of his sermon, with Mr. Collins nervously and studiously avoiding the gaze of his cousins. Elizabeth had never been so happy to sing the closing hymn.

The church service now concluded, Elizabeth rose from the pew. As was her new habit (a refusal to be ashamed of her impoverished state), she set her head a little higher, entwined her arm with Jane's and smiled at her sister encouragingly. Elizabeth turned to lead the way toward the door....just in time to stare directly into the shocked gaze of Mr. Darcy.

Chapter 2

Upon Mr. Darcy's sudden appearance, Jane glanced at her sister and, knowing at least some of the particulars of Elizabeth's last interaction with that gentleman, decided it would be best to allow the two a modicum of privacy. She quietly moved aside and shepherded Mary and Mrs. Bennet toward the door. The latter attempted to protest, but Jane, showing more than her usual resolve, would not hear of it. The three ladies stepped outside, at least two of them burning with curiosity, only one of them silently.

Aware that her family would be residing at Rosings for some months, Elizabeth had been able to prepare herself to some extent for the possibility of seeing Mr. Darcy. While she certainly did not expect to encounter him so soon (having understood that he found little joy in his visits to Rosings, and that his annual Easter visit had been his one grudging concession to his aunt), she accepted that he would eventually visit his relations. She therefore did not find his presence in church that day so completely unexpected and was able to retain her composure tolerably well

Darcy, on the other hand, was taken with such surprise that for nigh on half a minute he could do naught but stand and stare.

He paled, then flushed, flooded with emotion: astonishment first of all, then discomfiture, then, defying all logic, a heart-rending longing that he thought he had conquered, or at least well buried. In that he found he was mistaken. Good Lord! Elizabeth! She is truly here, right in front of me! Whatever is she doing at Hunsford? Why did not Aunt Catherine mention it? He did not even have the presence of mind to bow until Elizabeth dropped a proper curtsey first and murmured, "Mr. Darcy."

It was at the insistence of his Aunt Catherine that Darcy had come to Rosings for the celebration of Anne's twenty-seventh birthday. Most years, he sent his regrets, but his aunt was particularly adamant on his attendance this summer. Darcy suspected that it had much to do with his last visit to the estate, his distraction with the young lady now standing before him, and, most of all, his failure to offer for Anne yet again. He supposed that, with his cousin in serious danger of becoming a spinster, Lady Catherine would take this opportunity to press him to declare himself. He therefore decided to attend the fete after all, and to do what was clearly long overdue: to explain to both his Aunt and his cousin that he had no intention of ever marrying Anne.

Recovering his manners somewhat, Darcy managed a quick bow and a murmur, "Miss Bennet." His mind was full of questions, but he suddenly realized that she was attired in mourning. He looked around and did a quick assessment. There, just outside, trying their best to appear disinterested, stood Mrs. Bennet, Miss Bennet, and Miss Mary. Only four Bennet ladies were in attendance this morning, and all wore black. Had some great catastrophe visited itself upon Elizabeth's family? He frowned.

"Forgive me, Miss Bennet," he said kindly, with more equanimity than he was feeling, "it would appear that I must offer you my condolences. I had not heard... May I enquire as to the nature of the loss you have suffered?"

Elizabeth felt herself losing the composure she was proud to have maintained thus far. Her eyes and manner now downcast, she replied, "My father, Mr. Darcy, passed suddenly but three months ago."

This disclosure was indeed unexpected. Mr. Bennet had seemed robust enough when Darcy had departed Hertfordshire. "I am so sorry, Miss Bennet. I know you and your father were particularly close. It must be difficult for you."

"More than you suppose," Elizabeth answered grimly. She knew what the next inquiry would be.

"Then you and your family would be here as guests of Mrs. Collins?" Darcy was perplexed. Why would the family travel so far with their grief still so fresh? "I would not have thought that the Parsonage would be sufficiently large for so many visitors, but Mrs. Collins is a clever woman, and would know how best to accommodate her friends."

Elizabeth was saved from a response when Lady Catherine swept up behind Mr. Darcy. The older woman was quick to correct his misperception.

"Miss Bennet and her family are here under my auspices, Darcy."

Elizabeth had no intention of allowing Lady Catherine to humiliate her further. She did her courtesy, and, murmuring, "Pray, you will excuse me," fled outside to her waiting family. She hastened the ladies back to the cottage with as much dignity as they could muster.

Darcy watched her leave the church, incapable of thinking of a reason to ask her to remain, while questions still swirled in his head. He turned to his aunt. "The Bennets are your guests? Why have I not seen them at Rosings?"

Lady Catherine smiled. It was not an agreeable sight. "Why would they be staying in my house, you silly boy? No, no, you are under quite a misapprehension! You see, Mr. Collins has exercised his entail, and has claimed Longbourn for his own. Rightfully so. The Bennets are now residing in the house that was lately home to Harold Smithson."

"One of your cottagers?" Darcy exclaimed. His bewilderment grew.

"Yes, he passed some months ago, leaving no survivors. Do not worry yourself, nephew, it will truly be no burden on Rosings; his fields produced little in any case."

"But why are they here at all? Where is their family? For that matter, why could they not have stayed at Longbourn? What was the necessity of implementing the entail so soon?"

Lady Catherine dismissed him with a wave of her hand. "Too many questions! We must return to the house; there is much to do before Anne's party."

Darcy, while dissatisfied with her response, knew that the church was not the place for this discussion. He was not done with his aunt, however, and vowed to obtain some answers from her later. Leaving the church, he hoped against hope that Elizabeth would still be nearby, but it was clear that she had flown.

Upon returning to the manor house, Darcy retreated to the library, suspecting, correctly, that he could rest there undisturbed. He closed the door and began to pace the room. He knew that he had best gather his thoughts before confronting Lady Catherine.

First, he struggled mightily to determine his feelings at seeing Elizabeth. He was deeply hurt, it was true, and the wounds she had given him in April with her caustic dismissal of his suit were still fresh. He had but to think back to that mortifying day, and a fresh wave of bitterness flooded over him. But...was he glad to see her brought low? Perhaps he once would have been, but now Darcy immediately discarded the notion with distaste. He remembered with some irony telling Elizabeth at Netherfield that he could not easily forget others' offenses against himself. "My temper," he recalled saying at the time, "would perhaps be called resentful. My good opinion once lost is lost for ever." Darcy quickly came to the realization that that particular side of his nature no longer held true, at least where it concerned Elizabeth. He could not hold her refusal, however disagreeably executed, against her. She had, he admitted to himself, actually done him quite a favor, in pointing out his defects in character in such a way as to force him to confront them. Had he not passed the last several months in the examination of her accusations and endeavoring to become a better man for it? No, he would not, could not resent her.

Besides, she was suffering too; he remembered all too well his sorrow over the death of his beloved father. Darcy knew that she must be going through a particularly trying time.

Then there was the inescapable fact: he still loved her. Loved her and, despite everything, would still have her as his wife if she would but agree. The mere sight of her had been a tonic for the malaise that had ailed him these several months, sending the blood pounding through his veins. And she was here at Rosings, or at least nearby. Could I, he thought tentatively, could I try to win her good opinion? Perhaps she has been favorably influenced by my letter... Perhaps there is some hope after all.

That night at dinner, Mr. Darcy listened patiently as Lady Catherine enumerated the guests, the menu and the entertainment for the grand fete she was throwing in Anne's honour two days hence. Anne herself accepted her mother's proclamations with her usual lethargic passivity, never venturing an opinion or, for that matter, even so much as nodding her agreement. Not for the first time, Darcy felt disbelief that his Aunt could consider the two cousins "formed for each other," as he thought with disgust that there could not be a female less suited to his own temperament. Marry Anne! What an unhappy pair they would make! His thoughts naturally turned to that lady whom he did consider worthy, and he interrupted Lady Catherine at the first convenient pause in her soliloquy.

"Aunt Catherine," he said, "pray, do enlighten me as to how the Bennet ladies come to be living in a cottage on your estate."

Lady Catherine did not waver. She described the events following Mr. Bennet's death with the same aplomb - and as much enthusiasm - as she had the party preparations, emphasizing as much as possible her own role in bringing about the implementation of the entail to the benefit of Mr. Collins and his increasing family, and her suggestions for the improvement of Longbourn, currently underway. Much of it Darcy had already gathered from the bits and pieces he knew, but he was in need of more specifics.

"Why are they not with their relations?"

"Their family in town - in Cheapside, how droll! - have apparently been stricken with the measles, poor things." Her manner suggested that her sympathy was limited. "As for the attorney and his wife, their pitiful little house in Meryton would have been overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of Bennet ladies. I understand, however, that the two youngest girls are living with them. A fortunate circumstance all around, I believe, as we will not have to suffer their impertinence here in Kent."

"And why was the entail exercised so soon? With Mrs. Collins in a delicate way, could it not have waited until after the child's birth? The ladies would have had at least some time to adjust to Mr. Bennet's absence and plan for their future."

Lady Catherine turned a stony glare to Darcy, which he returned unblinkingly. Without turning toward her daughter, she said, "Anne, Mrs. Jenkinson, leave us." She motioned the servants away as well. When the room emptied, she continued, "You take an undue interest in the affairs of a family so wholly unrelated to you, Darcy."

Darcy grew wary. "What are you implying, madam?"

"I need imply nothing!" Suddenly the grand lady was on her feet, and the sight was formidable. "I need only tell you what I discovered not long after your departure from Kent: that Langston, the under-gardener, witnessed you and Miss Elizabeth Bennet alone together on two separate occasions in the Park in April. And on the second occasion, he tells me, you gave her a letter! Do you deny it?"

Seconds ticked by. Finally, Darcy replied, "I do not."

"Do not think that I was unaware of what she was about when she was at Rosings! I saw how she was using her arts and allurements to draw you in! Do you think I would allow that country nobody to make you a fool before the whole world? At the time I thought you too sensible to be so misled, but from what Langston tells me it certainly appears that she has succeeded. Well? What do you have to say for yourself?"

Darcy could see the entire situation with clarity, and it alarmed him: Lady Catherine's suspicions about his feelings for Elizabeth had given her impetus to hasten the implementation of the entail, bringing the Bennets to their current impoverished state. He considered his next words carefully. "Aunt Catherine, do not make yourself uneasy. I did indeed give Miss Bennet a letter upon my departure from Kent." Composing his features to portray an indifference he little felt, Darcy continued, "She gave me to know that she and all of her acquaintance believed a malicious rumour regarding my affairs that had been circulating in Hertfordshire. As it was clearly a matter of honour that I correct the misperception of those who had been imposed upon in such a wrongful manner, I wrote a letter explaining fully the circumstances under which I had been slandered. I assure you, Aunt, there was nothing improper in our encounters, and no correspondence between us followed. In fact, I had not seen or heard aught of Miss Bennet since I left Rosings, until we met today at church." It all was the absolute truth, and yet there was nothing untoward in his explanation that might rouse Lady Catherine's displeasure.

The room was quiet. "A matter of honour," Lady Catherine mused. She squinted at Darcy, as if to determine the veracity of his statement. He returned her look with a bland one of his own. It was of the utmost importance that he not betray his feelings now!

"Very well," Lady Catherine concluded, although her tone indicated she still had doubts. "But you would do well to remember, Darcy, who you are, and who Miss Elizabeth Bennet is." She laid her hand upon Darcy's arm. "Perhaps she was the daughter of a gentleman, such as he was," Lady Catherine said, her voice taking on a malevolent edge, "but now she is little more than a peasant living off my largesse, and therefore unworthy not only of your notice, but even of your civility." She gave his arm a disagreeably tight squeeze, which contained naught of affection. "You, nephew, must marry a woman who will do credit to the Darcy name."

"I give my word to you, madam," he said, "that has always been my intent." Disengaging himself from her, Darcy bowed to his aunt. Lady Catherine appeared satisfied, at least for now, and he quitted the room with deliberate nonchalance.

Returning to his chambers, he finally allowed himself the liberty of relaxing his bearing; it had been exhausting, presenting this façade to Lady Catherine, and Darcy collapsed into a chair. He had always acknowledged his aunt to be single-minded in her promotion of her own kin's interests, and he had previously thought it fitting, but he had not known the depths to which she would sink, the lives she was prepared to ruin, to set her family before all others - in short, he had known her capable of spite, and yes, even malice, but not of such complete heartlessness. Darcy considered what to do next. The understanding that not only was Lady Catherine responsible for Elizabeth's current defenceless situation, but that she could deal the family a final blow at any time should she choose to do so, was chilling. He must tread cautiously.

Chapter 3

It was just past dawn when Elizabeth ventured out of doors. Although the day promised to be stiflingly hot, the morning air still held a degree of freshness, and with the rest of the family still abed in the tiny cottage, she felt it might be her only opportunity to enjoy some solitude. She wandered out to the apple orchard at the far end of the north field and, sitting down beneath a tree, gazed lovingly at the small volume of poetry she had carried from the house. It had been her father's favourite, and was in fact in his hands when Jane had discovered him lifeless in his study. She stroked the embossed cover lightly. "Papa," Elizabeth sighed, and permitted herself to weep as she never could while inside the cottage, feeling as she did the necessity of being a steadying influence in the lives of her remaining family members.

Her grief exhausted, she dried her eyes with her handkerchief and gazed out over the neglected field, now overgrown and tangled with weeds. The ladies were unable to keep more than a minuscule garden, and found even that a challenge due to the poor soil. Elizabeth stood up and examined the tree which shaded her. At least the apples were turning ripe, she mused, plucking one, and there would be enough for baking.

As she paced the orchard, Elizabeth thought back to her previous night's conversation with Jane.

There had not been time after church to share confidences, as Mrs. Bennet had been far too busy railing against Mr. Darcy's perceived failings and her own sorry state to allow the two sisters time alone to talk. But as they lay in the darkness that night, listening to Mary's quiet snores, Elizabeth had finally been able to tell Jane the substance of the brief exchange that had taken place between herself and Mr. Darcy.

"His manner was very kind, very gentlemanly, and when he enquired as to our state of mourning, his address held none of the hauteur we have come to expect from him," Elizabeth had whispered. "I cannot tell you how much I was relieved! It would not have surprised me if he had refused to speak with me at all; I expected to find that he still nursed some bitterness toward me. Oh, Jane, how contemptibly I spoke to him when last we met here at Hunsford - I am most ashamed of myself! Yet he seemed almost concerned on our behalf."

"Do you think he still harbours a tender regard for you?"

Elizabeth had blushed in the dark. "I hardly know. But whatever his feelings were at that moment, they surely did not remain the same once his aunt came upon us. I knew that she would not hesitate to tell him of our impoverished state, so I begged my leave and met you outside."

"And what of you, Lizzy? Has his change in manner altered your opinion of him for the better?"

Tears had threatened, but Elizabeth would not let Jane know of them. Instead she had attempted a lighter tone and said, "Well, now that I am aware that he is not quite the villain Mr. Wickham painted him, I find that he is much more tolerable. But Mr. Darcy is probably even now congratulating himself on his escape. Let us think on him no more."

Despite her own instructions to Jane, Elizabeth was still thinking of Mr. Darcy the next day as she walked aimlessly through the orchard. She was therefore much surprised when the object of her reverie came riding into view through the derelict field. Colouring, she felt abashed, as if he might somehow discern her thoughts, and she turned quickly away to compose herself.

Mr. Darcy was grateful that it was his habit to rise early. When he had had his horse saddled at dawn that morning, there had been no suspicion of his motives or his route. Just to be sure, however, he had directed his mount in the direction opposite to that of his final destination, and made a wide circle about the estate. He truly had no idea whether Elizabeth would be about at this time of the morning, but he knew that she typically enjoyed a stroll at an early hour. Besides, he had to see her, to speak with her privately, and there would be no opportunity later in the day, when prying eyes could make a report back to Lady Catherine.

Fortunately, he espied Elizabeth almost immediately, standing beneath a tree some distance away. He approached her casually, so as not to startle her, and dismounted, leaving his horse to graze the field. She made a lovely picture as she turned back toward him, her cheeks flushed. But how thin she has grown, and how fragile she looks! Why did I not notice yesterday? To cover his discomfort, he bowed, "Miss Bennet, forgive me for calling at such an early hour."

She curtsied. "Mr. Darcy. Your presence is unexpected, but that is not to say that it is necessarily unwelcome."

A promising beginning indeed! He smiled. "This is not the proper call I had hoped to make upon you and your family."

"We are ill-equipped to receive visitors at this time, Mr. Darcy," said Elizabeth. As his smile faded, she realized at once that she had made a mistake - she had made him apprehensive, fearing perhaps he had accidentally called undue attention to their difference in status. Seeking to put him at ease, she gave him an arch look. "But we can still offer refreshments," she said mischievously, holding the bright, red apple out to him.

Beloved Eve! What man would not gladly risk expulsion from Paradise for one such as you? Smiling once again, Darcy deliberately removed his glove and took the proffered fruit, allowing his fingers to brush hers as he did. The contact made her blush deeply, and him ache with yearning.

"I thank you," he said. "I have not yet breakfasted, and this suits me better than anything my aunt's Cook may prepare."

While he ate the apple, the two began to walk the length of the orchard. Darcy examined the trees as he passed, thankful that they appeared to be in good health and likely to provide plenty of fruit for the Bennets over the next few weeks. Unsure of how to broach the subject of the family's hardships, he asked softly, "Is your mother well? And all your sisters?"

"As well as can be expected, I thank you."

"And has anyone seen to your family's comfort, Miss Bennet?"

"How do you mean, sir?"

"Has anyone from the estate asked after your needs? To see if the cottage is in good repair, the well producing sufficiently, and things of that sort?"

"We are but tenants, sir, and even worse, as we contribute nothing to the estate. As such, we expect nothing in return. Your aunt has been kind enough to permit us to live here..."

"She has been nothing of the sort!" Darcy exclaimed with great feeling.

Elizabeth paused, and stared. Mr. Darcy's mood had changed so swiftly, she knew not what to make of it.

"Forgive me, Miss Bennet," he said at once, lest she think his anger was directed at her. "I have lately come to discover that Lady Catherine was largely to blame for Mr. Collins's hasty implementation of the entail. I feel she is greatly responsible for your family's current situation, and I am excessively sorry for it. I hope you will accept my most sincere apologies."

"I see." This was an unexpected piece of information, though it seemed not unlike Lady Catherine to involve herself in Mr. Collins's affairs. "But it was not of your doing, Mr. Darcy, and so you can have naught to apologize for."

"I beg to differ, Miss Bennet. I have much to apologize for, and I sought you out this morning so as not to allow another day to pass without requesting your forgiveness."

"It is I who must apologize to you, Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth said quickly. She must do this now, before she lost her nerve. "My language to you when...when last we met in the spring was disgraceful. I accused you of the most infamous behaviour in a circumstance with which I was wholly unfamiliar. I allowed myself to be blinded by a baseless preference toward an unworthy individual, and I ask that you forgive me, if you can, for taking the word of a...a scoundrel over that of a gentleman."

Darcy was stunned. It was worth all of Lady Catherine's ire to find that his letter - for all its harsh turn of phrase, some of which he had belatedly come to lament - had indeed made a positive impression on Elizabeth. Emboldened by her receptive manner, he said, "You need not ask for forgiveness from me, Miss Bennet. Your partiality, while based on inaccurate information, is easily understood; looking back on the whole of our acquaintance, I realize that I had done nothing at all to merit your approbation, and in fact, had done a good deal to deserve your censure. I have taken much to heart your critical assessment of me, and it was my dearest wish upon encountering you once again here in Kent that I might demonstrate to you that I have come to conduct myself in - as you aptly put it - 'a more gentlemanlike manner.'"

Ignoring her shocked expression, he pressed on, "And so our conversation in April is the basis for my own apology as well. However strong were my emotions, I expressed myself that day in a most discourteous way and insulted not only you but all who are dear to you. You were quite right to call me into account for such an address. I do, therefore, beg your forgiveness on that count. No, no," and here she would speak, but he did not allow it, and continued with passion, "I have not done! My sins are many, and you must hear me out! There is one more subject on which I must truly ask for your pardon, for upon greater reflexion I realize I have done incalculable damage in insinuating myself where I did not belong, by acting to separate your sister from my friend. If she has been nearly as melancholy these past several months as has Mr. Bingley, if I did, as you say, ruin her happiness, then my actions have been truly abhorrent. It is, above all things, that which I most regret, and if there were anything I could do to make amends, I would do it in an instant."

Elizabeth looked down, to hide the brightness in her eyes. "I fear you are too late in that regard, sir. After all, we are no longer at Longbourn, and Mr. Bingley is no longer at Netherfield. It is doubtful we will ever be in his society again, and even were we to be that fortunate, my sister's current situation is unlikely to provide him incentive to renew the acquaintance."

Darcy's disappointment was tangible. Elizabeth, hoping to alleviate his distress somewhat, added, "But although I cannot speak for the offence against my sister, I can pardon that which is within my power to pardon, and hope that it eases your burden to know I that carry no resentment against you."

Darcy sighed with relief. "It does indeed, Miss Bennet. You are most generous with me, and I am deeply indebted to you for your understanding." Squinting up at the sun, he said, "But I fear I must take my leave of you now. If I am gone much longer from Rosings, I shall be missed. Good day to you, Miss Bennet." Impulsively, he took her hand and kissed it, then turned quickly away and mounted his horse.

Elizabeth, all astonishment, watched him ride away, not sure at all what to think of this visit, or what, if anything, she might expect to happen in the future. She turned and headed back toward the cottage, wondering how much of this extraordinary call she should share with Jane.

Returning to the manor house, Darcy found that he had time enough to refresh himself and yet still arrive downstairs before he was due. Breakfast found him civil to his aunt, attentive to his cousin, and in a most agreeable temper. His hearty appetite he attributed to a vigorous morning ride. Lady Catherine was much gratified, and seemed softened toward her nephew.

Darcy's day passed in lone correspondence and reading, for he had no interest in the company to be had within Rosings. In the evening, he was able to tolerate what passed for conversation at Lady Catherine's table by revisiting in his mind the much more agreeable company of another lady. It was still rather early when he wished his aunt a pleasant evening and retired to his chambers, but he was desirous of being alone with his thoughts. Not until he was prepared for bed and the clock had struck eleven did Darcy realize that he had not yet confronted Lady Catherine and Anne to disabuse them of the notion that he would under any circumstance marry his cousin.

No matter. Anne's ball is on the morrow, and I will be at Rosings for another se'ennight. There will be ample time before I quit the estate to have this conversation with my aunt. Darcy, congratulating himself on having paid Elizabeth a call without raising the suspicions of his aunt, and moreover having secured the young lady's good opinion to an extent even better than he had hoped, and considering her family safe for now, fell into the soundest slumber he had enjoyed since he left Kent in April. He would not know until the next day how great was his miscalculation, nor how very gravely he had erred.

Chapter 4

There was little enough amusement to be had at the cottage in Kent, as only a handful of books had been brought from the Longbourn library, the pianoforte had of necessity been left behind (to the chagrin of no-one save Mary, who missed it daily), and there was hardly need in the tiny house for such embroidered niceties as had graced the walls of their former home. So the young Bennet ladies took to sewing, as much for entertainment as to keep their meagre wardrobes in good repair. But even such a useful pastime quickly grew old, and nigh-on unbearable in the August heat, and the sisters sought out other diversions. On this particular day, Elizabeth, Jane and Mary left their mother and her nerves to the patience of Mrs. Hill, and walked out upon the road which led to Rosings, to watch the carriages and carts that would bring all manner of consumables, decorations, and entertainers to the manor house for Anne's birthday fete.

"Do you not wish, Lizzy, that you were going to the ball?" asked Jane as the noisy procession wound past them.

Elizabeth laughed heartily. "Jane, you have perhaps mistaken me for Monsieur Perrault's Cinderella! Indeed, I am poor enough to play the role, but I cannot see myself winning the heart of a handsome prince."

Jane smiled slyly. "Can you not?"

Such vain daydreams could amount to naught. Elizabeth shook her head and frowned. This would not do!

"It must be something," she said in a careless way, to change the subject, "to be so very rich."

Mary, never at a loss for some appropriate observation, remarked solemnly, "Surely it is important for one to have enough means to live a respectable life. But, according to Dr. Johnson, 'It is generally agreed, that few men are made better by affluence or exaltation.'"

Privately, Elizabeth agreed with Dr. Johnson, thinking that neither the character nor the comportment of Lady Catherine was greatly improved by her vast wealth or the toad-eaters who surrounded her. Elizabeth could not say as much in front of Mary, but she had the previous night related to Jane Lady Catherine's part in the implementation of the entail, and her eldest sister's look indicated that her thoughts tended in the same direction.

Elizabeth puzzled over Lady Catherine: What could possibly cause the woman of her stature to involve herself in a clergyman's affairs? This was not merely a matter of the addition of a closet or the design of a garden. Perhaps she had become anxious to rid herself of a parson who, not long after being given the Hunsford living, had proved himself to be completely insufferable. Or, perhaps she wanted to demonstrate the power that could be wielded in a high-handed manner by the wealthy. In any case, Elizabeth found herself reminded as the sisters walked back to their little home, the result was the same.

With nothing else to occupy her, Elizabeth sat on a low bench just behind the house and considered how Mr. Darcy might be anticipating the ball. She smiled to herself, thinking how greatly he disliked being in company, and how little he cared for dancing. It amused her to reflect on how the evening might go. How would he conduct himself among his relations? Might he be more civil among those he considered his equals? Would he stand up with his cousin? If so, would she appreciate his skill on the dance floor? Elizabeth had to admit that, even when she had disliked the man personally, he had been an admirable partner. To have him as such again, she decided, now that they were no longer at odds with each other, would be very agreeable indeed.

Suddenly there was a commotion within. "Lizzy, do come quickly!" called Mary, and Elizabeth left her perch to discover what so urgently required her attention.

At Rosings, Darcy's views on the evening ahead were just as Elizabeth had supposed. As his man prepared him for the ball, he thought with distaste of the empty conversations and endless flirtation he would have to endure, and wished mightily that he were dressing with such meticulous care to meet Elizabeth instead. He recalled their only dance at Netherfield with both pleasure and some pain; she had been so very beautiful, but it had not gone as he had hoped. That devil Wickham wreaked havoc wherever he went! Darcy's man grew alarmed over the sudden change in his countenance, and required reassurance that it was not his own work which drew his master's displeasure.

With his valet placated, Darcy sighed. What a matchless pleasure it would be to stand up with Elizabeth again, now that she was aware of his true nature! He grew pensive. Would she now permit him to court her properly? And when his time in Kent ended, what then? At the very least, he would have to contrive a way to provide some security for her family without creating within her a feeling of indebtedness, which he had no doubt she would find abhorrent.

Having finished dressing and dismissed his man, Darcy descended the stairs to find Lady Catherine in high spirits. In all his years, he could not recall having ever seen her in such a merry mood. The expectation of a grand time with her peers, flaunting her wealth as well as all the loveliest aspects of Rosings, certainly seemed to agree with her. He found himself smiling as he approached her and Anne as they awaited the arrival of their guests.

"Does not Anne look lovely this evening, Darcy?"

In truth, he felt his cousin looked as insipid and unappealing as ever. Indeed, at seven-and-twenty, Anne presented a countenance of less liveliness than many Darcy had met of seven-and-sixty. He thought her gown, though the height of fashion, was overwhelming to one so thin, and its colour unbecoming. Casting about unsuccessfully for some flattering thing to say that would not sound insincere, he wished her a joyous birthday, and, bowing graciously, brought her hand to his lips. Immediately, he wished he had not, for in doing so he could not help but think of the divine moment yesterday in which he had bestowed the same gesture upon Elizabeth, and Anne compared most unfavourably.

"And this is the night, Darcy!" Lady Catherine was in raptures.

Darcy reluctantly returned from his pleasant recollection. "I beg your pardon, Aunt, of what do you speak?"

"Why, only of the announcement I will make at the ball - that you and Anne are to be married at last!"

So this is what she has been about! How dare she! He straightened to his most impressive height. "Madam, you take too much upon yourself! We have not had the opportunity to discuss..."

"Indeed we have not, Darcy. How you dilly-dally! Why, had I not planned this ball, who knows when you would have finally come around to asking Anne for her hand."

"Aunt, you will not do this thing."

"I most certainly will, nephew. You have wasted enough time! At your age you have had ample opportunity to see the inferior breeding of other females, and now it is time to return to your own blood and settle down." Lady Catherine continued offhandedly, as if there were to be no further discussion, "The marriage should take place as soon possible, of course, as poor Anne is, after all, seven-and-twenty, and you must begin your efforts to produce an heir without delay."

Shocked at Lady Catherine's crudity, he looked to his cousin to see how she bore it, but Anne herself stood staring impassively at the floor, apparently content to allow her mother to control her destiny. Darcy, however, had no such intention.

"You presume too much, Aunt Catherine. You will not make this announcement tonight, or any other night."

"Why ever not? Oh, very well, if you prefer, I suppose it can wait until the banns are published."

Darcy's countenance grew darker. "You deliberately misunderstand me, madam. Let me be rightly understood: I will not marry Anne, now or ever." Turning to his cousin, he offered in a more compassionate manner, "Forgive me, Anne, it should not have come to this - I should have told you sooner."

While Anne merely shrugged with indifference, her ladyship's pleasant temper dissolved completely, and she cried, "Why will you not have her? You have been intended for each other since childhood, the wish of your dear, late mother! There is naught to hold you back!"

"You need not concern yourself with my motives; you need only know that I cannot, I will not marry her."

Lady Catherine was incensed. "Nevertheless, Darcy, I insist on knowing your reasoning!"

Darcy came quickly to a decision. "Because," he said, "I am promised to another." With a swift bow, he spun on his heel and took his leave of the two women.

"You are what? Promised! Darcy! This is not to be borne! I demand to know to whom!" But he spoke no more to them, and was already up the stairs when the first of their guests were announced. Lady Catherine found her schemes in ashes, and her mood ruined, just as her grand ball was about to begin.

Chapter 5

Darcy's entrance into his chambers astonished his valet, who not five minutes before had seen his master out the dressing room door. "I require a change of attire," Darcy said. "Traveling clothes. And I will first be paying a call. While I am out, prepare my belongings for my departure; we will leave Rosings immediately upon my return. Tell no one of our intentions. If anyone asks after me, I am seeing to a most pressing matter of business."

Off came the evening clothes - a good waste of a half-hour's preparation, Darcy's man thought with consternation. Once his master was dressed again, the valet turned his attention to the arrangement of the baggage and Mr. Darcy's considerable wardrobe. He did not observe the master exiting through the servant's door, though had he, he would not think to question Mr. Darcy's desire to avoid the great affair already underway downstairs.

Walking quickly through the servants' passages, Darcy ignored the curious stares from the Rosings staff. None dared meet his eye, but there were those who took note of his presence and the hour, knowing from experience that Lady Catherine might later question her nephew's whereabouts.

There was no time, nor any need, Darcy thought with grim humour, to take a round-about route to his destination this night. As he rode toward the Bennets' cottage, he reflected on how, in his haste to renounce any intention of marrying Anne, he had neatly painted himself into a corner: he had just declared himself to his aunt, without having first so much as indicated his interest to the object of his attentions - a woman who had refused him in a most decided manner just four months prior! How should he now approach Elizabeth? She would surely be angry at him for presuming such a connexion without first obtaining her agreement.

But even a greater worry was how Lady Catherine would react. Knowing she would not leave her guests during Anne's ball, Darcy calculated that he had several hours in which to make good his departure from Rosings and be well on his way to Pemberley before the full force of his aunt's fury was brought to bear. His own fate was not what concerned him, however. Should her ladyship determine that, despite his previous disavowals, Elizabeth was indeed his intended, then the family would find itself evicted from the Hunsford cottage straightaway, with nowhere else to go. He had not quite considered those consequences when he made his declaration to her ladyship, and regretted that he had not planned better; while Elizabeth was always foremost in his mind, he thought ruefully, she did not always inspire him to common sense.

Upon arriving at the cottage, he dismounted and knocked upon the door. But when Mrs. Hill opened it, he was confronted with such a scene that the words he had been about to speak - "Miss Elizabeth Bennet" - died upon his lips.

"Good G-d! What is the matter!" he cried instead, with more feeling than politeness. For there in the kitchen sat Elizabeth and Jane, sobbing quietly into their handkerchiefs, pages from a letter strewn about the rough-hewn table. Although Mrs. Bennet was nowhere to be seen, she could be heard, and her lamentations carried, for her, an accent of unusually serious distress.

The ladies at the table looked up at him, their eyes glazed in sorrow. A terrible fear gripped Darcy, and all other thought left him. Had there been yet another death? Remembering themselves, the two sisters stood, and, dabbing at their eyes, made modest curtseys. Jane, glancing from Mr. Darcy to her sister, wordlessly went into her room, and closed the door behind her.

Darcy knew he should go, knew he had no right to intrude upon such a private moment, but Elizabeth looked so miserably ill that it was impossible for him to leave her. He approached her and said in his most tender manner, "Miss Bennet, is there nothing you could take, to give you present relief? A glass of wine...shall I get you one? You are very ill."

"No, I thank you," she replied, endeavouring to recover herself. "There is nothing the matter with me. I am quite well. I am only distressed by some dreadful news," and here her voice broke, "which I have just received from Meryton."

She burst into tears as she alluded to it, and for a few minutes could not speak another word. Darcy, in wretched suspense, could only say something indistinctly of his concern, and observe her in compassionate silence. He led her back to the table, and encouraged her once again to be seated. At length, she spoke again. "I have just had a letter from my aunt Phillips, with such dreadful news. It cannot be concealed from any one. My youngest sister has left all her friends - has eloped; - has thrown herself into the power of Mr. Wickham. They are gone off together from Brighton. You know him too well to doubt the rest. She has no money, no connexions, nothing that can tempt him - she is lost for ever."

Wickham! Lord, was there no end to this cad's perfidy? Darcy was fixed in astonishment.

"When I consider," Elizabeth added, in a yet more agitated voice, "that I might have prevented it! - I who knew what he was. Had I but explained some part of it only - some part of what I learnt - to my own family! Had his character been known, this could not have happened. But it is all, all too late now.'' "I am grieved, indeed," cried Darcy; "grieved - shocked. But is it certain, absolutely certain?"

"Oh yes! - They left Brighton together on Sunday night, and were traced almost to London, but not beyond; they are certainly not gone to Scotland."

"And what has been done, what has been attempted, to recover her?"

"Mr. Phillips has gone to London to consult with my uncle Gardiner. But nothing can be done; I know very well that nothing can be done. How is such a man to be worked on? How are they even to be discovered? I have not the smallest hope. It is every way horrible!"

Darcy shook his head in silent acquiescence.

"When my eyes were opened to his real character. Oh! Had I known what I ought, what I dared, to do! But I knew not - I was afraid of doing too much. Wretched, wretched mistake!"

Darcy made no answer. He seemed scarcely to hear her, and was walking up and down the room in earnest meditation; his brow contracted, his air gloomy. Elizabeth soon observed and instantly understood it - or so she thought. Her power was sinking, she was sure; every thing must sink under such a proof of family weakness, such an assurance of the deepest disgrace. She should neither wonder nor condemn, but the belief of his self-conquest brought nothing consolatory to her bosom, afforded no palliation of her distress. It was, on the contrary, exactly calculated to make her understand her own wishes; and never had she so honestly felt that she could have loved him, as now, when all love must be vain.

Mr. Darcy broke the silence. "I am afraid you have been long desiring my absence, nor have I any thing to plead in excuse of my stay, but real, though unavailing, concern." He paused and then, having appeared to come to some sort of decision, continued, "I had only come to tell you that...that I have unexpectedly been called away from Kent, on a most urgent matter of business, and will be leaving without delay. Would to heaven that any thing could be either said or done on my part, that might offer consolation to your distress! But I will not torment you with vain wishes, which may seem purposely to ask for your thanks." He readily assured her that he would reveal her family's plight to nobody - again expressed his sorrow for her distress, wished it a happier conclusion than there was at present reason to hope, and, leaving his compliments for her relations, with only one serious, parting, look, left the cottage. Once outside, Darcy mounted his horse and raced back toward Rosings with a determination bordering on violence. This piece of news had, indeed, altered his plans.

To Elizabeth, the night wore on interminably. The cruel realities of Lydia's elopement seemed to deepen with each passing hour; for now, added to the disgrace which her actions were to bring upon her already mortified family, was the ever-more certain knowledge that Mr. Darcy would want nothing to do with a woman connected in any way with such a rogue - more particularly a rogue who had very nearly committed such a severe offence upon his own family. When Elizabeth wept now, she wept as much for her own ruined hopes as she had for her sister's stupidity.

It was well into the night, nigh unto dawn (though the troubled household had been not long asleep), when a pounding came at the door. "Hill, Hill," cried Mrs. Bennet at once, "Oh, are we to be murdered in our beds?" Elizabeth, wrapping a shawl about herself, was first to the door. Her shock upon opening it was great, for standing there, resplendent in her ball gown and clearly in high dudgeon, was Lady Catherine de Bourgh herself.

Chapter 6

"Lady Catherine!" exclaimed Elizabeth. The Bennet ladies curtsied reflexively, but her ladyship was not intent upon observing the niceties.

"You can be at no loss, Miss Bennet," she began immediately, "to understand the reason for my visit."

Elizabeth looked with unaffected astonishment.

"Indeed, you are mistaken, madam. I cannot at all account for the honour of seeing you in our humble cottage."

"Do not toy with me, young lady!" Lady Catherine cried, glancing about. "Where is he? I insist on knowing where he is!"

"Forgive me, Lady Catherine," Elizabeth said, "of whom do you speak?"

"You know very well of whom I speak, you impudent girl! Of my nephew, Mr. Darcy! He has gone from Rosings, and you will tell me where he has gone!"

"And why would your ladyship think I know aught of Mr. Darcy's whereabouts?"

"I am well aware of the esteem in which my nephew once held you, and while I thought that he had lately come to his senses, I no longer am so sure. I am, however, certain that he has been to see you this night!"

Elizabeth ignored her mother's stare. This was not the time for explanations.

"Well, if your ladyship already knows where he has been, I wonder you took the trouble of coming at this hour to ask after him."

"Such insolence - you would do well to remember your place, Miss Bennet! So, you admit he has been here?"

"He has."

"And where is he now?"

"That I cannot answer."

"Cannot or will not? Obstinate, headstrong girl! Tell me now - is he off to London, to Pemberley? Or some other destination?"

"He said only that he was called away on an urgent matter of business, and that he would be leaving Kent at once. So you see, Mr. Darcy and I are truly not such particular friends as you seem to think. He does not share his plans with me."

"Then, you are not engaged to him?"

This question, so wholly unexpected, had the effect of rendering Elizabeth completely silent. When she regained her senses, she could only reply,

"I am not."

"Then perhaps you would know of some other young lady upon whom he might have bestowed the honour? Do not pretend to be surprised! Allow me to grant you the privilege of hearing what Darcy said to me tonight, something so scandalous, I can scarce credit it: 'I am promised,' he said, but not to Anne, the ungrateful wretch! And he made this outrageous disclosure at the very moment when I was occupied with my guests and unable to question him further. I find that he has since flown Rosings, and I can only assume he has gone to her. Now tell me, Miss Bennet, do you know where he has gone? Do you know who she is? I demand you tell me what you know at once!"

Lady Catherine's speech fell like a blow upon an already dispirited Elizabeth. She said, "I can tell you only this: that Mr. Darcy and I are not upon such intimate terms as you suppose, for I know nothing of such a lady."

"Well, then, will you promise to inform me should you hear news of my nephew?"

Elizabeth was now nearly as irate as Lady Catherine, and her anger helped impede the tears she knew would otherwise be imminent. "I will make no promise of the kind. It is not in my nature to spy upon proper gentlemen nor to report on their whereabouts. Should you require these services, madam, I understand there are men who will do such things for a fee."

"Miss Bennet, I advise you to curb your impertinent tongue! Bear in mind whose kindness has provided you with a home in your hour of need, and perhaps you will reconsider your disrespectful manner!"

Elizabeth knew that Lady Catherine was not given to idle threats. Carefully, she said, "Your ladyship, Mr. Darcy and I parted on such terms as I can safely assure you that our paths shall never cross again."

For several moments the silence hung in the air between the two women like a solid thing. "Very well," Lady Catherine said at last, plainly dissatisfied. "But you have not heard the end of this, I promise you." With that, Lady Catherine quit the cottage, and, attended by her driver and footman, drove back to the manor.

"Well!" exclaimed Mrs. Bennet once their esteemed guest was out of sight, "Was that not an extraordinary visit! To think Lady Catherine came here, herself, to our little cottage! And what a singular notion she had, Lizzy, of your being engaged to Mr. Darcy, of all people! Or even of being his particular friend. Mr. Darcy! - who never looks at a woman but to see a blemish. We all know how much you dislike him, Lizzy. How remarkable!"

"Yes, Mama," was all a weary Elizabeth could say. Despite her great interest, Mrs. Bennet showed rare wisdom, or perhaps merely great fatigue, in not pressing her daughter further. So the Bennet ladies, with all the exhaustion a day of such unusual events could grant, went back to their beds.

No news came of Lydia the next day, but Elizabeth had little thought for her sister's situation now. This new intelligence - that however amiable Mr. Darcy had made himself while in Kent, whatever warm looks and pleasing conversation he had bestowed upon her, it could all amount to nothing - was all that occupied Elizabeth's thoughts, and most unpleasantly. Despite her reluctance, she was persuaded by Jane to speak of it as they tended their tiny garden the day after Lady Catherine's visit.

"Do you know, Jane, I had actually entertained hopes that he might renew his suit? How great a fool I have been: a country nobody, near penniless, dependent upon the good graces of his aunt! Once I might have held some interest for him, but now. . ."

"Lizzy, you are far too hard upon yourself," Jane said with great emotion. "Fortune or no, you would be a worthy wife for any man, and I will not hear you say otherwise."

"I suppose I must remember that he came to Kent already engaged, and so my change in circumstances could not have had anything to do with his decision to marry another. After all," Elizabeth smiled sadly, "I had my opportunity in April, did I not?"

Jane asked gently, "Have you truly no idea of who this lady could be?"

"Well, I briefly considered Miss Bingley, but no, that could not be." She added, with a small degree of levity: "I must credit Mr. Darcy with more sense and taste than that! Poor Miss Bingley, this information will no doubt come as an enormous shock to her as well! No, it must be some lady totally unknown to us, some rich and well-bred daughter of the ton. Someone he feels could make a proper mistress of Pemberley." Elizabeth paused in her work. "In any case, her name matters not at all. My only question is: does he love her? Or, perhaps I should say, does he love her as well as he once loved me?"

Some two weeks after the first letter from Mrs. Phillips, an express arrived from Mr. Gardiner. "Jane," said Mrs. Bennet, "you must read it, for I am far too apprehensive to even open it. Oh, my poor nerves! It must be bad news, for there is no good to be had. If only our dear Mr. Bennet were alive, he would know what to do. He would find Mr. Wickham, and make him marry Lydia. But oh! He had to go and die just like that, and leave us all alone. Thoughtless man!"

Ignoring her mother, Jane had already begun reading the letter. "They have been found!" she cried. "Mr. Gardiner has seen them both!"

Mrs. Bennet's mood changed in a twinkling. "It is as I've always thought - they are married!" she exclaimed with glee. "A daughter married - and just turned 16! What will Lady Lucas say now, I wonder?" "They are not married," Jane continued, "but Mr. Gardiner says all we must do is to assure Lydia of her share of the five thousand pounds left upon Father's death. He adds:

'Mr. Wickham's circumstances are not so hopeless as they are generally believed to be. The world has been deceived in that respect; and, I am happy to say, there will be some little money, even when all his debts are discharged, to settle on my niece, in addition to her own fortune. If, as I conclude will be the case, you send me full powers to act in your name throughout the whole of this business, I will immediately give directions to the solicitor for preparing a proper settlement. Send back your answer as soon as you can, and be careful to write explicitly. We have judged it best that my niece should be married from this house, of which I hope you will approve. She comes to us today. I shall write again as soon as any thing more is determined on. Yours, &c. EDW. GARDINER'"

"What a great pity she cannot be married from Meryton," Mrs. Bennet sighed. "Then all her friends could attend. Oh, well - since we are no longer at Longbourn, I suppose it hardly matters. Where would I hold the wedding breakfast, after all? London it will have to be. But oh! What about the wedding clothes? She cannot be married in black, it will not do!"

"Mama," said Elizabeth, "I think it best that we let our aunt Gardiner make whatever plans are necessary for Lydia. She is, after all, in town as well, and we have not the means to travel."

"Oh, very well. If she must take that pleasure from me, then let her. Mrs. Gardiner shall have all the fun, and I shall have none of it."

"Mother!" Mary cried. "Do remember that we are in mourning for dear Father. We are not intended to have fun."

Elizabeth and Jane thought it best at this time to quit the room and leave Mary and Mrs. Bennet to their squabbling. Outside, they agreed that a letter must be written at once and sent to Mr. Gardiner express in the hopes that it was not too late for Lydia to reclaim some semblance of a reputation.

"And what do you think of this resolution?" Elizabeth asked.

"It is certainly not as bad as we had feared. Mr. Wickham truly must have some feelings for Lydia, to accept her with such little inducement."

"That is precisely why I feel that there is more to the story than Mr. Gardiner has told us. Do you not see? I believe he must have laid out a large sum of money to bring these events about - to discharge Wickham's debts, to persuade him to marry Lydia, and even, he says, to have some small amount left over!"

"Lizzy!" Jane paused. It was not in her nature to consider that a young gentleman would need to be bribed to do what was right and proper. "Do you really believe this to be so? How much do you think it required?"

"Far more than we could ever dream - and I wonder Mr. Gardiner himself had the means to bring it about. Make no mistake: this will put a very great strain upon his family, and we can do nothing to pay him back, or even to show our gratitude."

The two walked on in silence for a while.

"I only wish that I had not told the whole of the affair to Mr. Darcy," said Elizabeth.

"Why not? I understood that he pledged his discretion. Do you so little trust him?"

"No, not at all."

"What then? If he is engaged, then you can have no concern over how Lydia's adventure will affect his intentions toward you."

"Of this I am well aware. And yet, I would so much prefer that he went on with his life with a better opinion of me; that if he caused to think on me one day, it would not be because he pitied me, but rather because he once held me in high regard."

Upon receiving their mother's permission, Jane immediately composed a letter to Mr. Gardiner encouraging him to arrange the wedding without delay, and sent the missive express. There was nothing left to do now but wait for word that the nuptials had actually taken place.

Elizabeth, of course, spent most of the following days out of doors, and was particularly given to wandering the apple orchard. It was here I offered him the apple, she thought, and here where he kissed my hand. She would then have to chastise herself for such futile musings. For if she gave herself over to these fancies, she might very well go mad with the knowledge that he could once have been her husband, but now was destined to marry someone else.

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