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The Worst that Could Happen

Chapter 7

Another letter soon arrived from Mr. Gardiner with yet more welcome intelligence: all was in readiness for the wedding. Furthermore, it seemed that among Mr. Wickham's former friends, there were some still able and willing to assist him in a career in the army, and thus he had accepted an ensigncy in a regiment of regulars, now quartered in the North. The only question yet remaining was whether Mrs. Bennet would receive the newlyweds before they departed for Mr. Wickham's new regiment.

This question she answered with alacrity in the affirmative, even though all three of her companions - four, if one were to count Hill - found the objects of her enthusiasm not quite so deserving of such attentions. It was decided that the pair would come straight from the church after the wedding, and spend two nights at the local inn in Hunsford, as the cottage afforded no space for guests.

The wedding, then, which so satisfied most of the parties involved (though truth be told, the chief player himself, while seeing the sense of it, was not completely in favor of such an outcome), took place, and Mr. & Mrs. Wickham descended upon the little cottage boisterously and seemingly completely unaware of the mortification they had put the family through. Lydia cared only for showing off her ring to her sisters, and for teasing them that she had done what none of them had been able to do, and at just 16.

Mr. Wickham retained his pleasing manners to all the ladies, and anyone unaware of the whole of his history might have been content to resume a cordial relationship with him. Elizabeth, however, had much to resent. She was ashamed to think how much of her interaction with Mr. Darcy had been coloured by the influence of this man, and while she gave herself most of the blame for her willingness to be led astray in that regard, she could not help but consider that things might have gone much differently if Wickham had from the beginning painted Mr. Darcy in a more agreeable light.

Still, he was now her brother, and she owed it to Lydia to keep up at least a pretense of civility in the short time he was visiting. Thus when he discovered her reading on the little bench in back of the cottage, Elizabeth put down her book and invited Mr. Wickham to take a turn with her. Her first inclination had been to walk in the direction of the orchard, but no, she could not bear to bring Wickham into her haven, where the memories of another, more deserving gentleman still lingered. Instead, she indicated they should proceed around the front of the house, toward the road.

"Since I have not yet had the opportunity to do so, please allow me to convey my deepest condolences on the passing of your father," Wickham began. Here was a topic, however painful, on which they could speak without embarrassment.

"I thank you, sir. It has been a trying time."

"How well I know. I remember all too clearly my sorrow at the death of my own esteemed father. Fortunately, as you are aware, I had the patronage of the elder Mr. Darcy at the time."

Elizabeth remained silent, hoping that he would not pursue this idea, but true to his temperament, he was unable to let go any opportunity to air his grievances.

"That was, of course, when Darcy and I were still close companions. What a pity that his jealousy impelled him to deny his childhood friend the living his father had promised."

Her continued silence finally discouraged him from going forward in this way, and he changed the subject. "And how are you faring in your new home, Miss Elizabeth?"

"Well enough."

"Do you see anything of the illustrious Lady Catherine de Bourgh?"

Elizabeth was now thankfully far enough removed from Lady Catherine's last, momentous visit that she could speak on the subject without the distress it would have previously occasioned.

"Yes, I have seen her from time to time. Did you know that I had also spent six weeks in Kent before my father's death, as the guest of my friend, Mrs. Collins?"

"No, I did not. And how was that experience?"

"As you can imagine, it was quite different. We were frequently invited to Rosings Park."

"I hope you did not find the company there too oppressive!"

"Quite the contrary, I assure you. We also passed a great deal of time with Mr. Darcy and his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam. Are you at all acquainted with that gentleman?"

Mr. Wickham at first appeared discomfited, but he was able to answer with tolerable composure, "I do recall having seen him often. I believe he is a very gentlemanlike man - with manners quite unlike his cousin's."

"Yes, his manners are indeed very different," Elizabeth replied. "But I think Mr. Darcy improves on acquaintance."

"How do you mean?" Wickham paused in his walk, attempting to seem light-hearted, but Elizabeth could see his anxiety. "Is it in address that he improves? Has he deigned to add something of civility to his style? For I dare not hope that he is improved in essentials."

"Oh, no! In essentials, I believe, he is very much what he ever was. When I said that he improved on acquaintance, I did not mean that either his mind or manners were in a state of improvement, but that from knowing him better, his disposition was better understood."

Wickham appeared quite alarmed at her assertion. He looked keenly at her for a moment, as if trying to divine her allegiances, and, then said carefully, "Perhaps it is the presence of his aunt, of whose good opinion and judgment he stands much in awe, that has influenced what you perceive in his behaviour. His fear of her has always operated, I know, when they were together; and a good deal is to be imputed to his wish of forwarding the match with Miss de Bourgh, which I am certain he has very much at heart."

Elizabeth, while considerably amused by this response, did not feel it necessary to reply, and Wickham appeared relieved that this discussion seemed to be at an end. Their walk, however, was not, and Elizabeth felt that she must, for her sister's sake, say,

"I have not yet wished you felicity in your marriage, Mr. Wickham."

"Thank you. It seems a pity that I will be stationed so very far in the North, and we will be unable to enjoy such intimate family visits for some time in the future."

"Yes," Elizabeth replied, perhaps less credibly than she had hoped, "a very great pity."

More conversation proved unnecessary, however, as they were soon called in to tea.

The morning of their departure, as Mr. Wickham had returned to the inn to ready their departure, Elizabeth had occasion to sit with Lydia alone. She hardly knew what to say to her sister, recognizing that reprimands would fall on deaf ears, but she need not have concerned herself; never one to turn down the prospect of speaking on her favorite subject, Lydia said,

"Lizzy, I never gave you an account of my wedding. You were not by, when I told Mama and the others about it. Are you not curious to hear how it was managed?"

"Not really," replied Elizabeth. "I think there cannot be too little said on the subject."

"La! You are so strange! But I must tell you how it went off. We were married, you know, at St. Clement's, because Wickham's lodgings were in that parish. And it was settled that we should all be there by eleven o'clock. My uncle and aunt and I were to go together; and the others were to meet us at the church. Well, Monday morning came, and I was in such a fuss! I was so afraid, you know, that something would happen to put it off, and then I should have gone quite distracted. And there was my aunt, all the time I was dressing, preaching and talking away just as if she was reading a sermon. However, I did not hear above one word in ten, for I was thinking, you may suppose, of my dear Wickham. I longed to know whether he would be married in his blue coat."

"We breakfasted at ten as usual; I thought it would never be over; for, by the bye, you are to understand, that my uncle and aunt were horrid unpleasant all the time I was with them. Well, and so just as the carriage came to the door, my uncle was called away upon business to that horrid man Mr. Stone. And then, you know, when once they get together, there is no end of it. Well, I was so frightened I did not know what to do, for my uncle was to give me away; and if we were beyond the hour, we could not be married all day. But, luckily, he came back again in ten minutes' time, and then we all set out. However, I recollected afterwards that if he had been prevented going, the wedding need not be put off, for Mr. Darcy might have done as well."

"Mr. Darcy!" repeated Elizabeth, in utter amazement.

"Oh, yes! - he was to come there with Wickham, you know, but...gracious me! I quite forgot! I ought not to have said a word about it. I promised them so faithfully! What will Wickham say? It was to be such a secret!"

"Why would Mr. Darcy be present at your wedding?"

"Oh, Lizzy, do promise me not to breathe a word of this to anyone; I have already said too much, and Wickham would be so angry if he knew."

"Of course," said Elizabeth, though burning with curiosity. "I will say nothing more about it." She resolved, however, that at the first opportunity, she would write to her aunt and demand such details as Mrs. Gardiner was at liberty to divulge.

It was a relief to the burdened household when Lydia and Wickham finally said their goodbyes and headed for their new home in Newcastle. Though Mrs. Bennet wept copiously at having to part with her favourite daughter, the young couple's departure could not have happened soon enough for Elizabeth, who found their company irksome, and who besides had important correspondence ahead of her.

Having posted the letter to Mrs. Gardiner, Elizabeth's sole occupation in the days following was counting the hours till she could reasonably expect a reply from her aunt. She thought again and again of Mr. Darcy's attendance at her sister's wedding, and wondered at its significance. All conjecture was useless, for the explanation that pleased her most seemed the most unlikely.

Her nerves in a flutter that would do her mother justice, Elizabeth was once again taking solace in the shade of the orchard - and its attendant recollections - when she heard a familiar voice behind her.

"I was told that I would likely find you here, Miss Elizabeth."

A tentative smile and an awkward demeanor did not make Mr. Bingley any less welcome a visitor.

Chapter 8

"Mr. Bingley," Elizabeth said with amazement and much genuine pleasure, "what a surprise it is to see you in Kent."

"Please forgive this intrusion upon your privacy, Miss Elizabeth. I realize that my coming here is unexpected at best, and could be considered a great impertinence."

"Not at all, Mr. Bingley. You are always welcome in our home, such as it is. I am just a trifle puzzled as to how you happen to be aware at all of our residence here." Her gaze now fixed upon the ground, she added quietly, "We have heard nothing of you since your sudden departure from Netherfield last year."

He coloured. "Ah, yes. Well. Well, I have recently had the most extraordinary visit from Darcy."

Elizabeth started. She looked up at Mr. Bingley, who had begun pacing the orchard in an agitated fashion, and waited impatiently for him to proceed. When he did, however, it was only to say,

"Forgive me, how is your family?"

"Tolerably well, I thank you."

"Excellent. Excellent. Well, then. Miss Elizabeth, I...," he paused, his efforts to maintain composure plain upon his face. "Is your sister, I mean Miss Bennet, at home?"

"She is, sir." Elizabeth grew more perplexed. "Do you mean you did not come from our cottage?"

"No, I came here straight from the inn."

"Then how did you know you might find me in the orchard?"

Mr. Bingley smiled, with less embarrassment this time, "Darcy said that if it was a fine day, I should not bother going to the house to seek you, but should come directly to the orchard. And was he not correct?"

"Indeed." She smiled in return, though not without some sorrow.

"Miss Elizabeth, I came here expressly to speak with you first. To see if, to see whether," he struggled, and then said in a rush, "well, to see whether you feel your sister still thinks on me fondly, and whether she might forgive me for leaving Hertfordshire so abruptly."

Elizabeth's heart was full, for it was evident that Mr. Darcy had told Mr. Bingley of Jane's feelings for him, and she nursed a hope that perhaps one of them might have some happiness after all.

"Mr. Bingley," she said, kindheartedly, and found herself repeating the sentiments she once expressed to Mr. Darcy, "I cannot speak for what my sister may or may not forgive. But I can say that she was never so completely content as when she was in your company in Hertfordshire, and that she suffered greatly when she thought you had withdrawn your regard. She no longer speaks of you."

Bingley's countenance held such a look of anguish that Elizabeth hastened to add,

"But even now there are times when it appears that her mind is far away, and at those times I see upon her face such a look as the one she used to have when she danced with you. I feel certain, sir, that should you make an attempt to renew the acquaintance, it will meet with success."

"Truly?"

"Truly."

They stood for a while in silence, until, unable to resist, Elizabeth asked,

"Mr. Bingley, would it be terribly presumptuous of me to ask what else Mr. Darcy had to say on his visit?"

"It was extraordinary, as I said; I thought him to be at Rosings for his cousin's birthday. Well, he had known that Caroline and I would be with friends in Surrey 'til the end of September, and about three weeks ago he quite unexpectedly showed up at the estate there.

"I was very glad at his arrival, as I had not seen much of him since we all passed several weeks together at Pemberley in the late spring, just after his return from Kent. I must say, he was not much himself during that time, and not the best of company."

Elizabeth was grateful that Mr. Bingley was absorbed in his story and unlikely to notice her high colour.

"First, he surprised me greatly by asking to speak with Caroline. She was in raptures, you can well imagine. They went for a walk in the gardens, but returned not ten minutes later. Caroline seemed out of spirits, and went straight to her rooms afterward."

This piece of intelligence startled Elizabeth. What could it mean? Why would Mr. Darcy seek a private audience with Miss Bingley? Surely she was not his intended! Mr. Bingley would certainly know, would he not? But she had heard of secret engagements - there was that account of Mr. Churchill and Miss Fairfax... No, no! It was all too impossible! Not Miss Bingley, of all people!

"Then Darcy and I went into the library, and he confessed all to me: how he at first believed your sister indifferent to my affections, and then how he worked deliberately to separate us. He even told me that Miss Bennet had been in town for three months during the winter - do you know, I had no idea she had been there at all!

"And then, why, he told me the most significant thing of all: that he had been wrong the whole while! That your sister never was indifferent to me, that it was only her naturally restrained demeanour which led him to suppose otherwise. And furthermore, he believed that she might still have an attachment to me! Oh, I was angry, to be sure. All those months I spent trying to accept that she did not care for me! But he apologized most sincerely, and who can stay angry with Darcy for long, eh?"

"Who indeed?" Elizabeth was not insensible to the omission of Caroline's part in deceiving her brother and wondered if Mr. Darcy had deliberately avoided mentioning her role in order to protect her. The thought did not give her pleasure.

"Well, I vowed to leave for Longbourn without delay, when he told me of your...your new situation. I am so sorry to hear of your father's passing, Miss Elizabeth."

"Thank you."

"So I decided to come here, but Caroline was against it, I do not know why. She did not care to go to town, either, although I can hardly blame her - it must be dreadfully hot. It took me more than a fortnight to establish her with the Hursts and settle my affairs so I would be free to travel hither. So, here I am. And now I ask you, will you kindly take me to see Miss Bennet?"

"I think rather," Elizabeth said, "I will bring my sister to you. You see, it is rather close quarters in our cottage, Mr. Bingley, and perhaps whatever you and Jane have to say to each other is best said without the presence of Mary and my mother."

"Quite so, Miss Elizabeth," Mr. Bingley said with some humour.

So Mr. Bingley waited in the orchard whilst Elizabeth ran back to the cottage.

"Jane, dear, will you come?" she called upon reaching the house.

"What is it, Lizzy? I was just writing to our aunt Phillips."

"There is something I would show you, in the orchard." Elizabeth would have preferred to convey a sense of urgency, but she did not want to arouse the curiosity of her mother and Mary.

"Can it not wait until I am finished?"

"Perhaps I can help you, Lizzy?" asked Mary.

"Thank you, no, Mary, 'tis not important," Elizabeth demurred. "I will wait for Jane."

So the minutes ticked by as Elizabeth endeavoured to portray an indifferent attitude, all the while anxious to remove Jane to the orchard as soon as may be. Finally, the letter finished, Jane composedly walked out of the cottage arm-in-arm with Elizabeth.

"Dearest Jane, do prepare yourself for something very astonishing," Elizabeth whispered.

"Whatever do you mean, Lizzy?"

"I mean that we have a visitor, someone whose importance quite eclipses that of Lady Catherine herself."

Jane laughed. "I cannot imagine whom you mean. Has the Prince Regent come to call on us? You are such a tease, Lizzy."

Now well out of hearing range of the cottage, Elizabeth said simply, "Jane, Mr. Bingley is here."

Jane paled, and stopped in her tracks. She whispered, "Mr. Bingley? Why has he come?"

"Why do you think, my dear? To renew his addresses to you."

"Do not be so cruel, Lizzy. Why would he return now, after months of silence, after ignoring me in town... Does he know how poor we are?"

"Jane, he knows what our current situation is, and cares not. Furthermore, he had no inkling you were in town those three months. Apparently Miss Bingley never saw fit to tell him." Neither did Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth thought, but she let that pass; there would be time enough for that explanation. "But he is here now; look over there - if you do not believe me, will you not believe your own eyes?"

Mr. Bingley, upon seeing the sisters approach, strode quickly toward them and bowed. "Miss Bennet," he said without preamble, "would you care to take a turn about the orchard with me?" He offered Jane his arm.

Blushing furiously, Jane accepted, and Elizabeth sat down beneath a tree to observe the two as they walked together. Their voices were too low to hear, but she could tell by the turn of Jane's countenance that she was well pleased.

Some fifteen minutes later, smiling broadly, Mr. Bingley took his leave of the two ladies

"Well?" said Elizabeth, expectantly.

"He said he will be staying at the inn for a fortnight, and asked if he may call upon me tomorrow." Jane smiled tentatively. "Oh, Lizzy, do you think perhaps, is it possible...?"

"I have begun to think that anything is possible," she replied, smiling in return. "And I do not believe it will take a fortnight."

They returned to the cottage, and parted: Jane to their room, Lizzy to the kitchen. It was then that she learned a letter had come for her from Mrs. Gardiner.

Chapter 9

Elizabeth, though anxious to read her letter from her aunt Gardiner, found it necessary to wait until after the evening meal, when she could sit undisturbed on the bench behind the house. However, once she was thus seated, she read without interruption:

My Dear Niece,

I have just received your letter, and can well understand the bewilderment which prompted it. That a man such as Mr. Darcy, so wholly unconnected with our family, and so above us in station, was involved in the situation in so intimate a manner, is astonishing to me as well. But let us begin at the beginning.

About a week after Mr. Phillips notified us of Lydia's disappearance, your uncle had a most unexpected visitor. Mr. Darcy called, and introduced himself. He was shut up with your uncle several hours. He told Mr. Gardiner that he had been in Kent, and had called upon you shortly after you received the letter which told of your sister's elopement. Determined to be of service, he used what knowledge he had of Wickham's habits and associates to seek them out, and soon found out where your sister and Mr. Wickham were. The motive professed was his conviction of its being owing to himself that Wickham's worthlessness had not been so well known as to make it impossible for any young woman of character to love or confide in him. He generously imputed the whole to his mistaken pride, and confessed that he had before thought it beneath him to lay his private actions open to the world. His character was to speak for itself.

He had been some days in town, before he was able to discover them; but he had something to direct his search, which was more than we had; and the consciousness of this was another reason for his resolving to involve himself. There is a lady, it seems, a Mrs. Younge, who was some time ago governess to Miss Darcy, and was dismissed from her charge on some cause of disapprobation, though he did not say what. She then took a large house in Edward-street, and has since maintained herself by letting lodgings. This Mrs. Younge was, he knew, intimately acquainted with Wickham; and he went to her for intelligence of him as soon as he got to town. But it was two or three days before he could get from her what he wanted. She would not betray her trust, I suppose, without bribery and corruption, for she really did know where her friend was to be found. Wickham indeed had gone to her on their first arrival in London, and had she been able to receive them into her house, they would have taken up their abode with her. At length, however, our kind friend procured the wished-for direction. They were in ---- street.

He saw Wickham, and afterwards insisted on seeing Lydia. His first object with her, he acknowledged, had been to persuade her to quit her present disgraceful situation, and return to her friends as soon as they could be prevailed on to receive her, offering his assistance, as far as it would go. But he found Lydia absolutely resolved on remaining where she was. She cared for none of her friends; she wanted no help of his; she would not hear of leaving Wickham. She was sure they should be married some time or other, and it did not much signify when. Since such were her feelings, it only remained, he thought, to secure and expedite a marriage, which, in his very first conversation with Wickham, he easily learnt had never been his design. He confessed himself obliged to leave the regiment, on account of some debts of honour, which were very pressing; and scrupled not to lay all the ill-consequences of Lydia's flight on her own folly alone. He meant to resign his commission immediately; and as to his future situation, he could conjecture very little about it. He must go somewhere, but he did not know where, and he knew he should have nothing to live on. Mr. Darcy asked him why he had not married your sister at once.

At this Wickham laughed, for was it not obvious? - Mr. Bennet's death had rendered a match with Lydia even less attractive from a pecuniary perspective than it might have been prior. Furthermore, Wickham apparently still cherished the hope of more effectually making his fortune by marriage in some other country. Under such circumstances, however, he was not likely to be proof against the temptation of immediate relief. They met several times, for there was much to be discussed. Wickham of course wanted more than he could get; but at length was reduced to be reasonable.

Every thing being settled between them, Mr. Darcy's next step was to make your uncle acquainted with it, and once he found Mr. Gardiner at home, as I said before, they had a great deal of talk together. They met again the following Sunday, and then I saw him too. It was not all settled before Monday: as soon as it was, the express was sent off to Kent. But our visitor was very obstinate. Nothing was to be done that he did not do himself; though I am sure (and I do not speak it to be thanked, therefore say nothing about it), your uncle would most readily have settled the whole. They battled it together for a long time, which was more than either the gentleman or lady concerned in it deserved. But at last your uncle was forced to yield, and instead of being allowed to be of use to his niece, was forced to put up with only having the probable credit of it, which went sorely against the grain; and I really believe your letter this morning gave him great pleasure, because it required an explanation that would rob him of his borrowed feathers, and give the praise where it was due. But, Lizzy, this must go no farther than yourself, or Jane at most.

You know pretty well, I suppose, what has been done for the young people. His debts are to be paid, amounting, I believe, to considerably more than a thousand pounds, another thousand in addition to her own settled upon her, and his commission purchased. The reason why all this was to be done by him alone, was such as I have given above. It was owing to him, to his reserve and want of proper consideration, that Wickham's character had been so misunderstood, and consequently that he had been received and noticed as he was. Perhaps there was some truth in this; though I doubt whether his reserve, or anybody's reserve, can be answerable for the event.

When all this was resolved on, he left town, we know not to where, but it was agreed that he should be in London once more when the wedding took place, and all money matters were then to receive the last finish. I believe I have now told you every thing. Lydia came to us; and Wickham had constant admission to the house. He was exactly what he had been when I knew him in Hertfordshire; but I would not tell you how little I was satisfied with her behaviour while she stayed with us. I talked to her repeatedly in the most serious manner, representing to her all the wickedness of what she had done, and all the unhappiness she had brought on her family. If she heard me, it was by good luck, for I am sure she did not listen. I was sometimes quite provoked, but then I recollected my dear Elizabeth and Jane, and for their sakes had patience with her. Mr. Darcy was punctual in his return, and as Lydia informed you, attended the wedding. He dined with us the next day, and was to have left town again thereafter.

It seems we have been much mistaken, Lizzy, and done him a great disservice, in portraying him as proud and disagreeable. In truth, no one could have been more gracious or obliging, and I would say if circumstances were different, we might have been glad to count Mr. Darcy among our friends. As it is, however, we have no expectation of ever seeing him again.

The one mystery which still remains - for we were not of a mind to question Mr. Darcy while he was doing us such a kindness - is how he knew how to find us, for we live in such a part of town that a man of his position would be unlikely to have much business. It seemed equally unlikely to us that you - who seemed to hold him in such disapproval - would think under the circumstances to direct him to Gracechurch Street. Perhaps you have your own ideas. All the same, with or without an explanation for it, we shall forever owe him our gratitude, for he was the sole instrument of your sister's salvation.

Yours very sincerely, M. GARDINER

Elizabeth's eyes were filled with tears as she completed reading the letter. To think of all the trouble and mortification Mr. Darcy had put himself through - all the communication and negotiation with a man he despised - and all for a girl he could neither regard nor esteem. To say nothing of the money he had expended! Her aunt did not mention it, but Elizabeth was aware that the Gardiners' financial situation was not as robust as it once was, and knew that the additional expenditure to bring about Lydia's marriage might well have brought them to the brink of penury. Mr. Darcy was indeed a better man than she had ever imagined him to be, and she felt an even deeper remorse at having judged him so ill, and reproached herself a thousand times more for having refused his hand.

She spent more time puzzling over Mrs. Gardiner's final paragraph, reviewing in her mind any time she might have spoken of the Gardiners to Mr. Darcy. Though she could recall describing her uncle as being in trade, and thought she might have in conversation at one time or other remarked that her relations lived near Cheapside, she could recall no mention of their specific address, or for that matter, their names.

The solution finally came to her deep in the night, as she lay unable to sleep, and it gladdened her heart for two reasons. The first was simply that it solved a riddle which had plagued her for hours. But the second - it relieved her of a most burdensome misconception. For who among Mr. Darcy's acquaintance had knowledge of the Gardiners and their address? Why, the only one who had actually paid a call there: Caroline Bingley. Suddenly Mr. Darcy's baffling call upon Miss Bingley had a noble purpose, and Elizabeth felt foolish for having supposed that he might be intending to marry her.

The next fortnight passed quickly, as the Bennet ladies could look forward to daily visits from Mr. Bingley. The novelty of his presence was refreshing to those who had so long suffered in their solitude. So much so, however, that Jane and Mr. Bingley could rarely find a moment together in which their conversation would not be overwhelmed by the effusions of Mrs. Bennet or the sermonizing of Mary. It was one morning toward the end of Mr. Bingley's scheduled stay, then, that Elizabeth seized the initiative and invited the two to walk out with her down the road. While they dawdled, Elizabeth strode briskly, and soon she had put enough distance between them so that the couple could finally have a degree of privacy.

The time she gave her sister and Mr. Bingley to talk appeared to have been sufficient for their purposes, for when Elizabeth doubled back upon the road, she found them both blushing profusely, their hands entwined and such a smile upon both their faces as could not be mistaken for anything but the purest bliss. Jane turned to Elizabeth and said at once,

"Oh, Lizzy, I am the happiest creature in the world. Do congratulate us - Mr. Bingley and I are engaged!"

Elizabeth embraced her sister and gave them both her warmest wishes for future joy. It had been determined that Jane would give her mother the news, while Mr. Bingley would ride immediately to London to apply to Mr. Gardiner for his blessing. With a bow to Elizabeth and a kiss upon Jane's hand, Mr. Bingley excused himself to return to the cottage and retrieve his horse, leaving the sisters to wander slowly back together.

"Jane, dearest, I knew the moment I saw Mr. Bingley and you together again that it was a settled thing. My only question is why it took him so long to get to the point! Have you fixed a date for the wedding?"

"As we are all still in mourning, we thought it advisable to wait until June."

"I see. I suppose that, given Lydia's recent escapade, we must be careful to maintain all the proprieties."

"This occurred to us as well."

"Even so, I do not think that Papa would have wanted you to wait, and winter will be so dreary in the cottage..."

"Lizzy, June is but eight months away. 'Tis not so long an engagement. We can wait. And Mr. Bingley and I may write to each other now, after all." She smiled and coloured.

"Yes, that is true."

"But Lizzy, there is one thing: Mr. Bingley expressed a desire to have Mr. Darcy stand up for him at our wedding. It is important to him, but if you do not desire it, if it will pain you, I will ask him if he could not ask someone else."

Elizabeth paused. This was the first they had spoken of Mr. Darcy since Mrs. Gardiner's letter arrived. Despite her hopes, Mr. Bingley had made no mention of his friend during his entire stay in Kent. She frowned. It would indeed be painful to her to see Mr. Darcy at the wedding. But that was months away. Surely by then he would have married as well, and she would have overcome her own heartache, or at least had the time to adjust to the idea. She said, though without much conviction,

"No, Jane. If Mr. Bingley wants Mr. Darcy as his groomsman, I can have nothing to say about the matter."

The two, having returned to the house, separated: Jane to meet with Mrs. Bennet, and Elizabeth to the orchard. She would not for all the world care to endure her mother's raptures on the occasion of Jane's happiness, while grieving over the unlikelihood of her own. She sat down amidst the fallen leaves and permitted herself a half-hour, and more than a few tears, before she headed slowly back to the house.

With Mr. Bingley's departure to town, there was now nothing to cheer the days as they grew colder and shorter. The Bennets had long ago given up on the possibility of living with their relations in London, for with his income now limited, Mr. Gardiner needed to attend to the needs of his own family. Jane's forthcoming wedding was to Elizabeth the only bright spot on an increasingly dismal horizon, and even that was tempered by the knowledge that she must see Mr. Darcy - and possibly his new bride - there as well. She was grateful that Jane would only spend this one winter in the cottage, for it was likely to be bleak. They had no way to know how well protected they would be against the elements, and fresh food would be scarce. She watched forlornly as Jane blushed and smiled over each of her frequent letters from Mr. Bingley. As autumn deepened, so did her despair. Her situation - and that of the rest of her family save Jane - seemed altogether hopeless.

Their deliverance, then, would come from a most unexpected quarter.

Chapter 10

It fell to Mrs. Collins - a rare woman who never envisioned herself as the heroine of a popular romantic novel, and in fact a woman so lacking in tender aspirations of any kind as to have consented to marry one of the most foolish young men in the Kingdom for purely practical considerations - to provide the means of the Bennets' relief.

The second week in November, she was delivered of a healthy baby girl. Satisfied with her health, the doctor finally released her from her captivity, and immediately she demanded to know all that had transpired during her confinement. Among the correspondence which Mr. Collins had not seen fit to destroy - which in fact, despite all the disapprobation expressed by his revered patroness toward her wayward nephew, he could not bring himself to destroy - was a letter bearing the illustrious Darcy seal, delivered some weeks after the gentleman's banishment from Rosings Park. Mr. Collins thought perhaps it would contain some clue valuable to Lady Catherine as to Mr. Darcy's intentions, and had presented it to his wife along with other, much older, correspondence. Mrs. Collins was eaten up with curiosity and eagerly opened that epistle before all else. Had her husband known the contents of that missive, he might have been wise enough to remove himself from the vicinity. But since neither great foresight nor great wisdom was among Mr. Collins's attributes, he was soon on the receiving end of his wife's long-contained emotion.

"Mr. Collins!"

"Yes, my dear?"

"I have here the most astonishing communication from Mr. Darcy. Can this be true? Have you really had the Bennets removed from Longbourn?"

Mr. Collins made an effort to assert himself as master of his household. He failed miserably. "On the most excellent advice of Lady Catherine herself, I implemented the entail as soon as we heard the sad news about poor Mr. Bennet. We, which is to say her ladyship and myself, thought it would be best, you see, to have the most extensive improvements done on the estate whilst you were still home in the Parsonage in a delicate way." He virtually trembled before his wife. "Do you not wish to be mistress of your own estate, Mrs. Collins?"

"At the expense of my dear friends? Mr. Collins, I am ashamed of you! What difference would a few months have made to us? During the time I was confined to the Parsonage, the Bennets could have been comfortable and secure in their own home, preparing for the moment when they would have to leave. Instead," she consulted the letter again, "I find that they are living in a miserable cottage here in Kent, miles distant from their relations and all they hold dear. Oh, Mr. Collins, you have erred badly."

"But my dear, it is done, and there is no remedy for it now."

"I beg to differ with you, husband. There is a remedy, and I will see that it is employed."

And so it was thanks to Mrs. Collins that the widow Bennet and her four as yet unmarried daughters were restored to Longbourn in time for Christmas, with the understanding that in two years' time they would find another place to live. Lady Catherine, despite her attempts to intimidate her parson's wife, could have nothing to say about the departure of the Bennets from her land. Though it angered her mightily - she still suspected that Miss Elizabeth knew more than she was revealing about Mr. Darcy's mysterious engagement, and had hoped to keep a close watch on the family in her own vicinity - it would go against all propriety, and even common sense if she in fact had any, to argue that a family should be kept to a meagre cottage instead of returning to their ancestral home, which had lately undergone some very agreeable renovations.

Great was the happiness of the Bennet ladies at their homecoming. And Mrs. Bennet was doubly happy, for she had such news to share! She never tired of apprising the neighbors of her good fortune in having one daughter married at sixteen and another engaged to a gentleman with five thousand a year. With such good fortune, the disposition of the other three was of little consequence.

To all observers, Elizabeth was as content as she had been before her father's death. Despite her best intentions, however, she never ceased to think of Mr. Darcy. She wondered what had happened to him, if he had ever reconciled with Lady Catherine, and, most frequently, if he had yet married and who was his bride. No information had yet volunteered by Mr. Bingley, and Elizabeth was loath to enquire.

Shortly after their arrival at Longbourn, Elizabeth went to the churchyard to tend her father's grave. It was in serious need of weeding, and she chose an unseasonably temperate December day to sit upon the hard ground and carry out this task for her most beloved father. She was almost finished, her hands cold and dirty, when she heard a familiar voice behind her.

"Forgive the intrusion, Miss Elizabeth. Miss Bennet said I might find you here."

Elizabeth turned to find herself addressed by Mr. Darcy. She rose unsteadily and a trifle too quickly, silently lamenting her untidy appearance.

"Mr. Darcy! I did not think to see you in Hertfordshire, sir."

He smiled. "I had it from Mr. Bingley that you had returned. I am glad for you."

"Thank you."

"I have already enquired after your family at Longbourn and am delighted to know them all to be in excellent health."

"I thank you, they are. It was very generous of Mrs. Collins to permit us this time to live at Longbourn."

"She is a very liberal lady, indeed, and brave as well. I understood her husband to be opposed to it, but she cared not."

Elizabeth laughed lightly. "Yes, Charlotte will prevail."

There was a moment of silence, and then Elizabeth hastened to say,

"Mr. Darcy, I am a very selfish creature; and, for the sake of giving relief to my own feelings, care not how much I may be wounding yours. I can no longer help thanking you for your unexampled kindness to my poor sister. Ever since I have known it, I have been most anxious to acknowledge to you how gratefully I feel it. Were it known to the rest of my family, I should not have merely my own gratitude to express."

"I am sorry, exceedingly sorry," replied Darcy, in a tone of surprise and emotion, "that you have ever been informed of what may, in a mistaken light, have given you uneasiness. I did not think Mrs. Gardiner was so little to be trusted."

"You must not blame my aunt. Lydia's thoughtlessness first betrayed to me that you had been concerned in the matter; and, of course, I could not rest till I knew the particulars. Let me thank you again and again, in the name of all my family, for that generous compassion which induced you to take so much trouble, and bear so many mortifications, for the sake of discovering them."

"If you will thank me," he replied, "let it be for yourself alone. That the wish of giving happiness to you might add force to the other inducements which led me on, I shall not attempt to deny. But your family owe me nothing. Much as I respect them, I believe I thought only of you."

His compassion was almost too much for Elizabeth to bear. She coloured, and was silent. But, she thought, she must not lose her composure now; she must have the rest of the story! Looking down at her feet, she said tentatively, "I had quite forgotten, Mr. Darcy, I have heard that I am to wish you joy." Darcy seemed puzzled. "I do not have the pleasure of understanding you, madam."

"Lady Catherine visited us following the ball and gave me to understand that you are engaged, or, at the very least, promised."

"Ah. I see. Well, Miss Bennet, while I could not be truly considered engaged, I must admit that I indeed see myself as promised."

Her eyes filled, and she turned from him. He will not see her tears!

"And am I acquainted with the fortunate lady?"

He chuckled. "Yes, you are very well acquainted with her."

Elizabeth was unable to think of anyone among her own acquaintance save Miss Bingley who would make a proper wife for Mr. Darcy, yet was unwilling to air that particular name. She must make him say it.

"Do not keep me in suspense, sir. Pray tell me who she is."

"She is my dearest, loveliest Elizabeth."

In shock, Elizabeth swung around to face him and looked into his eyes to see the truth of it. He smiled and boldly took her hand.

"When Lady Catherine demanded to know why I would not wed my cousin, I told her the one thing I could say with certainty, and that is that I was promised to another. It mattered little to me at that instant that I was not in fact engaged to you. All I knew was that my heart has been promised to you for months, even when you rejected me at Hunsford." At that she paled, but he kissed her hand in comfort and pressed it to his heart, continuing, "Seeing you again in Kent made me realize that there could be no other for me. And our conversation in the apple orchard taught me to hope, as I scarcely ever allowed myself to hope before.

"After I had made my audacious declaration to my aunt just before the ball, I was prepared to leave Rosings immediately, but before I left I wanted to see you, to ascertain if I had a chance with you, to determine - do not laugh! - if you might even agree to an engagement that very night! But your sister's situation intervened, and I knew I must away to London, for I knew Wickham better than anyone, and could most easily determine where he and Lydia might be hidden.

"You know the rest from Mrs. Gardiner. After the wedding I returned to Pemberley, and wrote a letter to Lady Catherine that was very conciliatory in nature. But she would have none of it, I fear, and continues to bear much rancor against me. I am very sorry for it. However, that is her choice to make, and I am my own master, answering to no one and requiring no one's approval.

"That is, except your own, darling Elizabeth. So I would tell you once again, how ardently I admire and love you. And I ask you properly this time, with the respect worthy of a truly extraordinary lady who has captivated me utterly, if you will make the happiest of men, and do me the honour of consenting to become my wife."

Elizabeth's eyes filled with tears once more, but this time they were born of joy, and she replied clearly, so there could be no misunderstanding between them, "Yes, Mr. Darcy. I will marry you."

"And can I hope that you perhaps return my feelings, in some small measure?"

By way of reply, she raised his hand to her own lips, and kissed it, and then raised her face, smiling, to his.

Darcy required no further invitation. With complete disregard to propriety - and despite being in the churchyard, close by her father's grave and in full view of any who might pass by - he took Elizabeth into his arms and kissed her full on the mouth. Heartened that she did not take offense, he daringly repeated the gesture, and repeated it again.

Soon she was returning kiss for kiss, and his delight knew no bounds. He suddenly drew back to laugh gaily, a sound so completely unexpected that she looked at him in astonishment. Without allowing her to withdraw from his arms, he hastened to explain, "One day when I was a lad of eight or nine, I went out riding and stayed too long afield. I was late to tea, and Father, to teach me a lesson, refused to let me have aught to eat. I was ravenous, and felt sure I would die from hunger! But our housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, took pity on me, and brought me to the kitchens, where she served me from the servants' tea. It was new honey on fresh-baked bread. I ate and ate and ate, for I could somehow not get my fill, but always wanted more. For a full score of years, nothing could compare; I thought nothing so sweet and warm and delicious would ever again touch my lips - until this moment, my beloved Elizabeth."

And to prove that it was so, he kissed her again and again, until she thought she would swoon with the sensation of it.

They walked back to Longbourn, arm in arm, and, mirroring Bingley's proposal to Jane two months prior, agreed that Elizabeth would give the happy news to her mother, and Darcy would ride posthaste to London to apply to Mr. Gardiner for Lizzy's hand.

Fortunate for Mr. Darcy was the fact that Elizabeth chose to inform Mrs. Bennet of her impending marriage alone. The exclamations about his wealth, the praises of his handsome person, were enough of an embarrassment to Elizabeth for her to be actually grateful for the absence of her betrothed. She forbore telling her mother about Mr. Darcy's role in Lydia's salvation, wisely assessing that that particular piece of information was unnecessary in obtaining Mrs. Bennet's approval of the match.

The rest of the family was equally enraptured, though thankfully, less vocal about it. Mr. Gardiner was delighted to give his consent, and Jane insisted that her engagement gift to her adored sister would be a shared wedding date. Mr. Darcy soon brought his own dear sister Georgiana to Longbourn be introduced to the Bennets, and while she was at first overwhelmed with such constant noise and activity, she quickly came to love all her new sisters, and Elizabeth most of all.

Mr. Darcy wrote another letter to Lady Catherine, which read, in part,

I am at last at liberty to divulge the identity of the lady who has claimed my heart: it is, as you suspected, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and she has lately agreed to become my wife. It must now appear to you that she dissembled when you met her at the cottage after the ball, for I am aware that she claimed be ignorant of any engagement of mine. While I know you will still be angry with me, pray do not let your ire be directed at her as well. She truly knew nothing of my intentions toward her, or even of my affections at that time. And yet I was truthful when I called myself "promised," because for many months now I have felt a sincere and deep attachment to her that would not be denied.

I am aware you are bitter toward me for not marrying Anne, but surely you must see that we never would have been truly happy together. That sentiment I reserve for my life with my future bride, and I hope that you will find it in your heart to wish us joy.

He received no answer for his troubles.

And so in June, to the delight of almost all (for it must be noted that while Lady Catherine did not deign to attend, Miss Bingley did, and her countenance did not reveal her to be any more pleased than Mr. Darcy's aunt would have been), Mr. Bingley and Jane stood alongside Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth, and the two couples were joined in holy matrimony. Although Mr. Bennet's absence was felt by all who had loved him, his daughters knew he would have been pleased - if, in Elizabeth's case, wholly astounded - by this outcome.

But, the reader may worry, what became of Mrs. Bennet, Mary and Kitty after the two years allotted by Mrs. Collins? I am happy to report that while neither Mary nor Kitty by that time had found a suitor to spirit her away from Longbourn, Mrs. Bennet had. Mrs. Long's cousin, a childless widower with more money than sense, took a fancy to the still-youthful Mrs. Bennet during a Yuletide visit to Meryton. Just before she was to have quit Longbourn forever, she married Mr. Hutchins and moved with her two remaining daughters to his estate in Herefordshire.

Mr. & Mrs. Bingley by that time had bought an estate in a neighbouring county to Derbyshire, so in addition to every other source of happiness, the devoted sisters and their husbands were within thirty miles of each other - and, it must be said, no less than a two days' journey from Mrs. Bennet and her nerves, which had undergone no miraculous improvement upon her second marriage. It was, in all, a far better resolution than any had reason to expect but one year prior, and truly, the best thing that could happen.

THE END


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