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Parson's Pleasure

Preface

Not far from Kent

The highwaymen took the cart with them. It was a fine cart, like all carts belonging to Lady Catherine de Bourgh. They took everything else as well, even the parson's clothes. Mr Collins lay on his face near the bank of the river, his naked body, almost submerged in the water. It was a matter of minutes before the current took him away, barely alive as he was, with a bullet through his shoulder.

~ * ~

Netherfield Park

As he discovered the first speck of rain on the windowpane, Fitzwilliam Darcy huffed in annoyance. Lord was he bored! To make matters worse he knew that this would probably be his last year of bachelorhood. As he spied Miss Bingley playing with her bracelets, her robes spread out in princely amplitude, he reckoned she was far from the sophisticated lady he had imagined would be his wife. He also knew he had very little time to make up his mind to make his final choice of bride. What he did not know was why he was spending such crucial moments of his life in a God-forgotten-place surrounded by country nobodies, when he could be in town, carousing with Colonel Fitzwilliam.

After a week had passed, Netherfield Park turned fairly comfortable for Mr Bingley but not comfortable enough for the proud Mr Darcy. He found Hertfordshire's society utterly invariable and the accommodations decidedly not accommodating. To make matters worse the weather was excessively wet even for the untamed character of Colonel Fitzwilliam, who of course would have hardly been prevailed upon to spend more than a se'nnight away from *gaming tables. Albeit it had been settled between the gentlemen that they would only stay long enough for the new lessee of Netherfield Park to get used to his new neighbours, Darcy could scarcely wait till the day came when they could return to the distractions of town and his cousin's superior company. It never occurred to him that a short stay in the country with the Bingleys could be so tedious.

And yet it was. Utterly so. Bingley's universal inability to entertain was compounded by the miserable spring weather, which imprisoned them indoors. To make matters worse, the neighbours, namely parents desperate to find suitors for their unmarried daughters kept calling, and annoying Mr Darcy greatly. That he found society with country people insupportable, Darcy could not, would not hide. Ever since he had heard of the presence of a certain gentleman, his repugnance for the neighbouring area had only increased. He refused to attend any balls and soirees hence remained conspicuously invisible to the neighbours in general, and preferred to remain so even before Bingley's endless prattling about the local beauties. It was clear that the officers who had invaded Meryton only worsened his abhorrence for Hertfordshire since, to Darcy's mind, the society of country esquires and lowly soldiers could only be the most tiresomely dull to be found in all England.

As was usually the case, this young gentleman could not be kept housebound* and deprived of appropriate society for long. Indoors, there was little to be done beyond the billiards and the backgammon tables. There was no one who could play or sing well enough for his taste, and the library offered but little distraction, though the poor variety in books did give Darcy quite a topic with which to tease Bingley. Field-sports were not an option, since they had already shot enough partridges as to fill both the kitchens at Pemberley and Rosings Park. It was clear to the long-suffering Master Darcy that, if he did not soon find something to while away his time, he would die of ennui.

Although still not overtly displayed, his courtship of Miss Bingley did not seem to offer him much challenge either, which, in Darcy's mind, was a drawback since he loved a dare. Albeit he foresaw he was going to marry her, the union would be carried out for social reasons, because her connexions suited him, but that was all. He reckoned his cousin Anne would have been a better choice had the poor lady been remotely tolerable to behold. Miss Bingley on the other hand, though not an outstanding treasure, was tolerable, if not irremediably simpering and affected, yet Darcy's circumstances obligated him to pay her court with *duly gallantry*.

He desperately longed for London. The last straw happened after the gentlemen returned from a short inspection of the neighbouring inns where they had gone under the pretence of dining with the officers. Upon their cheerful return to Netherfield, they found that Miss Jane Bennet lay in a room upstairs suffering a severe cold. Although the intelligence left Mr Bingley wild with elation, Mr Darcy was very displeased.

"Your sister was quite right. I knew something like this was bound to happen. These people's schemes to marry off their daughters have no end," he hissed to Bingley.

"Darcy, Miss Bennet was summoned here by Caroline. There is no way she could have engineered her invitation," he announced coldly. "Unfortunately, she got wet in the downpour while coming here and she is indeed very ill. Caroline has sent for the apothecary."

"Humph."

But competition for their hosts' attention was the last evil Darcy would bear. What with tending to the sick lady or galloping for the apothecary everyone seemed to have something to do except him. Bored, Darcy looked out the tall window in the dining-room at the backyard. In the dusty path winding to the back of the house, he spotted a cart heading for the kitchen area. As he sipped his coffee he found no entertainment but to watch the servants rushing to unload vegetables and groceries from the cart. This activity finished, Darcy's mind wandered a bit, momentarily taking him back to London, thinking of the many possible diversions in town before he must leave to fulfil his duty to marry a suitable lady of the ton. Casting a longing glance at the staircase, he spied a manservant carrying an untouched tray from the master's room. Bingley would not be up for at least another hour. Boredom was becoming a menace, not a distraction.

It was a prodigiously sunny morning, uncommonly hot too, the first sunny morning after a long succession of rainy ones. Chances were that the roads would be muddy and impossible to travel. Yet, if he escaped to London this morning, he could return in a day or two with his manners and disposition restored.

He rang for his manservant.

"Reynolds. Get the carriage ready. Shall we say...fifteen minutes?"

Reynolds, masking his surprise, simply nodded and without giving his back to his master, disappeared behind the door. Fifteen minutes later, and in spite of the poor conditions of the roads, Mr. Darcy was in his carriage, for the first time in too a long time smiling, eager to arrive in London.

Chapter 1

Once in London, Mr Darcy headed for Colonel Fitzwilliam's place directly. He was in dire need for distraction so nothing could have given him greater pleasure than seeing his best friend and confidante.

He waited for Fitzwilliam in the grand parlour, where a beautiful portrait of Lady Matlock hung. He was inspecting this painting when the voice of his cousin startled him. "There you are, Darcy! How-dy-doo?" chirped the colonel good-naturally.

"Fitzwilliam," Darcy acknowledged and he held out his hand to shake the colonel's.

"Are you not a little early for the season?" teased the colonel as he sate in a *covered chair, looking cheerful as ever.

"I confess I am come to see you, my friend. You are the only one who can help me brush away all the boredom I have accumulated in Hertfordshire."

"Good. It is never too early for gaming. Or have you come with other plans in mind?" he inquired with a meaningful look. Fitzwilliam always tortured Darcy about his rigid temper and, to his eyes, frigid shyness with women. He was more than ready to show his younger cousin around at the club.

Understanding his cousin's meaning, Darcy shook his head. "I see you're not on duty* to that pretty Miss Harper," Darcy said, with a knowing look. "Lots of tin, I supposed to be catching your attention."

Fitzwilliam was not 'on duty'. Miss Harper, though indeed a wealthy heiress, had been lately won by another fellow from the West End*, with a title and a pedigree that sadly beat Colonel Fitzwilliam's second claim to a lordship.

"How's your very tall Miss Bingley, by-the-by?" Fitzwilliam inquired of his cousin over a cup of coffee. It was indeed too early for wine. "Does she suit you well in the end?"

"She was in good health when I saw her last."

"So?"

Darcy shrugged. "I do not know. I suppose she will do. She dresses tolerably well, and looks and speaks like a lady. I believe I should not be ashamed of marrying her. Yet I am not sure whether she will suit Georgiana. She is not very fond of her."

"Who is not fond of whom?"

"Georgiana of Miss Bingley. She believes Miss Bingley is not for me."

"How old is she, I mean Miss Bingley?"

" 'pon my honour, I dunno," said Darcy. "She must be two or three and twenty. She has just left school I reckon. Quite accomplished she is. Plays more than two pieces on the piano and sings tolerably well."

"And she has quite a dowry, has she not?"

"I do not care about money, Fitzwilliam. It is simply that I must oblige papa's wish first, before I make a final decision. That is why next year, when I go to Kent, you shall go with me again."

"Bother, Will! Is that really necessary?"

"Yes." He gave a heavy sigh. "I need all the encouragement in the world to go there every year, I grant you.... But this year it is a special case. If I am to resign my bachelorhood by the end of the Easter season I must see Anne first. Father's request."

"A request?"

" 'Twas his wish that I should at least get to know Anne better."

"A wish?"

"As you hear. My father wished for me to marry within the family and Anne is on top of the list of prospective brides."

Still dumbfounded, Fitzwilliam asked with a sneer, "Marry Anne? You must be joking."

Darcy shook his head. He bore a look of utter helplessness. His voice betrayed even more abashment than his face when he said, "Don't laugh at me, you stupid dandy."

Fitzwilliam laughed so loud at these final words that his hilarity was heard even in the kitchen. "Aye! Anne to be sure!" he laughed "I thought as much." He was so discomfited with mirth that he was compelled to sit on a wayward chair for support. Darcy's mortification was universal and his cousin's continued laughter was not making it easier for him to overcome it. "'Tis no jest, Fitzwilliam. She is one of the possible choices."

Fitzwilliam could not hear him, such was his glee. Discouragement notwithstanding, at length Darcy managed to explain himself. He rattled a little about duty and obligation, and then fell in an uncomfortable silence. The colonel recollected himself and asked,

"You really mean you may marry Anne de Bourgh? That was your father's wish?"

"Yes."

He shook his head, "Dammy how these old men can bother!"* and he immediately sent an apologetic look at Darcy, who did not approve oaths in relation to his father.

"I see now whence your need for a lady's attention come," said the colonel with a sly smile. "What with Miss Bingley and Anne, I would seriously think of eloping with Reynolds. But if you are serious to comply with your father's whim, then you will need someone on a regular basis."

"A mistress?"

The colonel nodded with his dandified air. "I happen to know a young lady that might be interested," he boasted. "She has been mooning about you for a while."

"Do I know her?"

"Not yet. But that can be easily remedied."

"I do not think so. I do not approve on such things."

"By Jupiter*, Darcy! What about Miss Swartz? I was counting on you to visit her."

"Miss Swartz?"

"Of course. You know ... she is prodigiously good when it comes to better her friend's humour."

"Good, eh?" he said thoughtfully. "And does this Miss Swartz entertain more than a good friend? I would not like to ... Hum ..."

"Dip your pen in some one else's inkwell? Neither would I, I grant you. Miss Swartz is prodigiously careful about that. She has many friends, of course ... But she only visits with them one at a time, I grant you. And I believe she must be quite disengaged at this time of the year. In any case, she has quite friendly ... sisters."

"Ah ... I confess I am in dire need of that too. I suppose I can charge under your orders, Colonel."

"Excellent! I am glad you are not ready to sow your wild oats* yet," Fitzwilliam laughed out loud. Resting his hand on his cousin's shoulder the good colonel said, "Come now. You must have some rest first. Then we shall go and have a grand tour. May be we can go and see my new horse, have a ride at St James's and finish with a call on Miss Swartz, eh?"

Fitzwilliam left him to ready himself to go out which he did prodigiously fast, since he very much wanted the distraction. Colonel Fitzwilliam's toilette, however, took a little longer. This good natured fellow could not accommodate the idea that Darcy might be marrying a frigid cow the likes of Anne de Bourgh or Miss Bingley. He needed the right environment for the sly ideas to flow in order to prevent such a disastrous event at all cost, therefore the following se'nnight he took Darcy to every single gentleman's club available. Visits to Miss Swartz's house of love were their usual way of ending a day.

One evening in particular, when they had been at White's having lunch proper of a King and gulping claret as if it was water, upon returning to Darcy's townhouse he was confronted with an express signed by a delicate feminine hand. It was Caroline Bingley.

"Upon my word, she is playing her cards too open*, ain't she?" exclaimed Fitzwilliam. But what Darcy betrayed as he read the letter did not strike Fitzwilliam as penned by a lover's hand. His pallor was such as to scare our gallant officer.

"Wo...Calm down!"

"Tis Charles Bingley. He's been compromised."

"Compromised? You mean ..."

"A woman."

"By Jupiter, Darcy. I have never heard anything more preposterous. I thought it was ladies who were in danger of falling low, not gentlemen. What is this Bingley? Some kind of virginal milksop?"

Darcy did not bother to explain himself. "I must away immediately," he said.

"Let me have a look." The colonel read with great interest. When he was finished he returned the scribbled paper to its owner. "I would not believe a single word of that. 'Tis evident Miss Bingley is vilipending the lady, that is all, as it is her nature and custom. At any rate, it is merely her word against the lady's. Besides, it is not as if the banns are being read in church ..."

Darcy, fighting to mask his tipsiness, endeavoured to stand as erect as humanly possible. "Fitzwilliam," he said to his cousin. "I must away to Netherfield Park ... Now."

~ * ~

It was not customary for him to ride a horse. Truth be said, Darcy was adverse to all sort of physical activities with the exception of shooting or fishing. Indeed, hunting was the only sport that would lure him onto a horse. He would much rather ride in one of his carriages (for he had many) but he was in dire need to reach Netherfield Park before it got dark and on horseback the journey was reduced almost by half.

Excessive worry had rendered Darcy prodigiously inclined to sports. Hence he rode, though he had little idea how to reach the road on his own. That would explain why, once in Hertfordshire, he took the wrong path.

Indeed, the path in question did not lead to Netherfield Park. Instead, it led to an open field whose owner Darcy did not know, nor was he inclined to get to know him since the man, like everyone else in the surroundings, must be of no consequence. Judging for the neglected state of the path, Darcy imagined the man must be quite irresponsible. Or maybe he was an old man, too old to oversee it and deprived of sons to help him, whose tenants, if he had any, cheated on him.

He dismounted in the hope to recognise the area from the ground. But he had never quit the borders of Netherfield Park, except in his carriage, and there was no way he could recognise what he had never seen. He had to admit it: he was lost.

Where was he anyway? And what was this place? What sort of landlord would grow vegetables instead of ... what was it that they grew on Pemberley? He had not the slightest idea yet he would not admit it even to himself.

Albeit Darcy reckoned it was none of his business, his abominable pride and boredom tempted him to disregard his utter ignorance on the subject and make a closer inspection of the field. Not even bothering to kneel over, however, he examined the muddy soil by prodding it with the whip. To his estimation, it was rich, apparently. Surely something else beyond meagre vegetables could be obtained from it, yet the owner seemed to think otherwise. However, there was a fine shrubbery ahead and some fine trees, with a beautiful creek glittering at intervals through the leaves.

This recognition finished, he went up to his horse so that he could continue his search for the right way when the wretched beast slipped in the mud and both horse and horseman fell down in a tangle with a loud thud and clatter. A dog came bounding towards him, and seeing the genteel master lying so incongruously on the dirty path with mud to his ears, got quite startled and began to bark angrily at him.

"Dammy, you stupid beast!' he cried furious to the angry canine. Grabbing a stone he threw it at the dog, hitting him on its rear as it tried to escape from Darcy's wrath.

To his dismay, he had mud all over his face, his limbs, and his back. His overcoat would never come clean, his boots were six inches in muddy water, but then this proud worthy highborn glanced at the clear waters of the creek running a few steps away and he thought himself entitled to make use of those clear waters belonging to the unworthy lowly Mr what-is-name who cared little about his property anyway ... Taking a cautious glance towards the shrubbery, he pondered the possibilities that someone could chance upon him if he tried to cleanse himself of the mud.

At length, after discarding his clothes, he reached a broad tree, and within moments, while his horse, already on four legs, grazed in the field at considerable distance, the master, in glorious nudity, slipped under the water, moving slowly in the safe shade. Scarcely had he been there a few minutes when amidst the objects on the scene around him, he soon discovered animated ones: a merry group of girls, skipping joyfully towards the source of water.

It would have been impossible not to notice their approach since they were chirping animatedly like sparrows at dawn. Mr Darcy was surprised only for a moment, his mortification outliving his amazement, for should the ladies continue their pace they would be on him in no time.

Fortunately, they halted before they reached the bank, yet absorbed as they were in their conversation they lingered there for a while.

"He cannot be so very handsome, Lydia. He is Papa's cousin, and Papa was not," admonished Mary with devastating logic. "I care not if he is handsome or not. As long as he is a man of Gad."

"That he is. He made mention of that fact at least ten times in his letter," laughed Jane.

"Do you not think he is an agreeable man, Jane?" asked Lydia.

"I hardly know."

"How can he be, coming in such a state to chuse* a wife from us?" cried Lizzy sounded offended. "What does he think we are? Thoroughbred mares?"

"Lizzy!"

"O* Jane. You know mama must be scheming something ... I fear ..."

"La, I would not be so squeamish, Lizzy. Think of it. Perhaps he is better than a prince in shinning armour," argued Kitty.

"O I wish he was tall, and handsome and very agreeable!" whined Lydia.

Darcy was beginning to feel the effect of the cold water upon his bare skin. He had been completely submerged to his nose to avoid being discovered, all the while unable to move his limbs which occasioned considerable hypothermia. At length, someone called the girls and they disappeared from his immediate sight. Just when he was thinking that he was reasonably free to leave the scenario in safety and meant to leave the creek and get his breeches and his boots, the incredible thing happened.

"Lizzy!" Darcy heard one of the girls crying out. "Are you not coming?"

"No," answered the other. "I shall stay here for a while. I do not wish to welcome Mr Collins. I presage mama has already schemed a wedding, and I fear I might be included in her hymeneal plans."

It had never occurred to Darcy, that this unwilling bride-to-be would return on her steps so speeditously*. This, indeed, was what she actually did, to his utter surprise and dismay. When he saw her emerging figure behind the path, quick as a fish, he slipped back into the water and then froze behind the bushes.

"God, is it cold here now!" he said between his teeth. What to do now? He couldn't just stay there until she had made up her mind to leave.

Not for one minute did Darcy think that it was the young lady's design to join him in the creek. That that was exactly what she had in mind he began to comprehend when, in front of his very eyes, the girl's fingers started a frantic battle against the buttons on the front of her dress while she strode very purposefully up to the creek.

At first he did not comprehend the motives she might have in discarding her robes in the public day. The frock was, of course the first to go, and then the petticoat and most of the undergarments until she was almost naked but for a thin undergarment that barely covered her derriere and a corset that pushed up her bosom.

The next thing Darcy knew, Elizabeth had jumped into the river with a soft splash. Her next move was to discard the officious corset. Darcy would have been universally shocked, had he not been witnessing the whole process with wild ecstacy and not an ounce of mortification. By Jove, he would have applauded the lady had he not be so sure that she would be thoroughly alarmed by his enthusiasm. Aristocratic sensibilities notwithstanding, he had to admit that indecorous country girl was quite a sight (admittedly, he did not know whether he was more baffled by the fact that the lady had jumped almost naked into the creek, or that she actually could float in it)

Mr Darcy did not know what to do next. Slowly swimming past him, the lady in her Eve's costume relished the cold water of the creek, and Darcy in absolute wonderment, beheld her thoroughly mystified from his hiding spot. So close was he of her, that he could hear her gasps for breath at every intake. However, his heart skipped a beat when he realized they were not completely alone.

"Lizzy! Come back this instant!" went a woman's shrieks, "Mr Collins will arrive at any minute now! *Lor'!" she exclaimed when she spotted her daughter in the water. "What do you think you are doing?! You shall drown!" she said, a look of alarm on her face.

Thereupon began a heated argument in which the mother insisted that the daughter went out of the creek to ready herself to meet the visitor. Soon it became apparent that the daughter would not come out as long as her mother kept demanding that she met this Mr Collins of sorts. The mother was evidently making a fool of herself in an absurd hysterical manner, and in seeing that all her rattling was in vain, she ultimately retired to whimper in private.

"Very well! I shall never speak to you again. Now you shall have to deal with your father." This said, she turned around and left her daughter behind.

"Go, go. Papa will never make me," said Lizzy between her teeth yet to herself, as her mother turned her back at her and disappeared behind the trees. Once, to her own estimation, she was left alone, she let out a sigh. Darcy sighed in relief too, with the notion that since the mama had left, the daughter would surely leave in short as well. And yet she did not seem of the idea of quitting the water. Quite the contrary, floating supine, she lay in this position, face turned to the glittering sun, and as she let the lazy current carry her to the middle of the creek.

Time passed, five minutes, ten minutes, a quarter of an hour. Darcy, teeth chattering with cold, was beginning to reconcile himself with the idea that he should have to reveal his presence to the lady so that they could both take turns to quit the creek.

All of a sudden, without warning, Elizabeth dropped beneath the surface. At this, Darcy became exceedingly alarmed since, unlike her, he was absolutely sans clothes and should she keep her eyes opened under water she would be privy to his soft parts. His mind reeling, Darcy thought that maybe he could remove himself from the creek before she returned to the surface, but Alas! Ere he could have moved a muscle, she had come up again and was now face to face with him.

chapter 2

"Lord!" she said.

"If you please, I can explain ..." he interposed with an agonised countenance.

Elizabeth, instantly thought the young man in front of her was none other than her cousin, and the happenstance, some twisted stratagem devised by her mother. In her embarrassment she could but think of the most rapid exit and with that purpose in mind she dipped under water again, yet immediately rose, bearing an even more stunned look upon her face, for reasons the intelligent reader should not require explanation.

Darcy's face cringed.

"Lord! You ..."

"I can explain ..."

"You ..."

"Let me explain ... I was ..."

She shook her head. "For Heaven's sake don't. Just leave, this instant!"

"I can't," he babbled, and then added the improvable. "I need my clothes."

Elizabeth knew that already. She had had enough testimony of the fact. Yet hearing him acknowledging it was more than she could take. She let out a gasp of horror.

That did not sound good at all. Darn his non verbosity! Understanding the nature of his failure in calming a lady in distress, Darcy winced. "Madam, a gentleman always swims sans clothes!" he argued yet without his even thinking of it, the following comment escaped his mouth, "Though judging for your bathing clothes you must be well aware of that."

That they were both indecent was no new intelligence for Elizabeth. She knew, as well, as her bathing companion vouched that gentlemen in Bath did swim stark naked, while it was required for ladies to sea-bathe fully clothed. Yet, this was not Bath.

"You are no gentleman!" she hissed.

"I beg your pardon? Are you insulting me?"

"Sir, a man of your profession would never intrude while a lady is bathing. And you are exposing your ... self in the day time and in front of me in my own creek."

Disregarding the accusation that he was exposing his rear, Darcy defended himself in terms of who held an older claim of the territory in question: "You are almost as naked as I am! And I arrived here first!" he protested. "I am a free man entitled to make free use of my..."

"Sir! May I remind you that this is still my father's property?" she exclaimed in ire.

"His property indeed! Like he has taken care of it! Any fool can see that this is the most neglected manor ever to be found in England!"

"And those are the words of a gentleman? I knew you would say that from the first moment I learned from you. Do you think that your presence here intimidates me? Well, know this, sir. You do not!"

"Pray, of what are you talking?"

"Be known to you that this place is still my father's to let it go rotten if it pleases him!"

"I have no doubt he will!" he shouted extremely vexed.

She gasped. The man could not be ruder. If she had had a stone at hand she would have aimed it to his head and thrown it at him. She had none, so she threw her fury upon him instead. Face red, she shouted full of righteous indignation. "Have anyone ever told you that you are the most ..."

"Not a word more Missy..." he warned.

"... disagreeable..."

"...I will not tolerate ... !"

"... disobliging, rude..."

"... more insults from the untamed daughter of an insignificant esquire!"

"... man in all England? Insignificant esquire? My father is a perfect gentleman, sir!"

"Then you are not your father's daughter!"

At this she paused. Her astonishment was beyond expression. Narrowing her eyes, she approached him until they were almost face to face. The gentleman's baffled expression made her instantly recollect that she was not ... ehem ... properly attired so she started back, dropping herself into the water to conceal her chest.

"Turn round!" she hissed. Reluctantly he obeyed. Yelling at his back, she proceeded to let him know what she thought of him. "And you, sir, have come hither to make an offer for my hand? Then I suppose I must thank you for the trouble you have saved me for I might have felt some degree of concern in refusing a gentleman, had you behaved like one. Now I have no scruples to tell you that your trip has been in vain! You could have never made it easier for me to refuse you!"

Puzzled at her statement, Darcy turned his face to behold her and instantly whirled it back. "Offer for your hand? Refuse me? Do you mean you think I have come to...offer for you?" he said in blunt derision. "You marry me? Madam! From the first moment I set eyes on you my opinion of you was decided. I ... I had not yet met you when your manners towards your mother impressed me with the fullest belief of your compleat lack of distinction and amiability. You are the most, undistinguished, unsuitable, wild woman that I have ever come across with. You ... you ...you are the last woman in the world I would ever be prevailed upon to marry! Do you know who you are talking to?" he asked menacingly.

"O do not come to me with airs of superiority! I care not whether you are the Prince Regent, sir. I demand that you leave me this instant," she barked.

Darcy blinked. No lady had ever yelled at him, not even his nanny. Come to think of it, NOT ONE living creature had ever dared speak to him like so. Now, this country no one who had interfered with his one moment of solace would not leave without a lesson. No one shouted at Fitzwilliam Darcy. Relapsing into solemnity, and with a cold manner he bobbed his head and did the unimaginable.

"As you wish," he said and began to swim to the shore.

"No!" she cried as the realization of what she had requested dawned on her. Yet it was too late.

"Wait!" her protestations were to no avail. By the time Darcy had reached the shallows she had begun to discern the end of his back. He stood up, his back to her, water dripping from his white shoulders, his milky buttocks glistening gloriously under the sun.

Without turning round, he sat on the grass and began the difficult task to fit his soaked self into his breeches. Then he whistled to his horse which instantly obeyed his master. Darcy felt quite satisfied with himself, thinking he had taught a good lesson to the little witch, yet to his utter surprise his action had not chastised the lady one heartbeat. Far from it, it had rendered her even more furious. Her courage rose, and in a fit of anger she swam to the riverbank whence Darcy sated preoccupied trying to assume his breeches. While he was thus employed, Elizabeth slipped into her dress and faced him foaming wrath.

"You dare follow me?"

"I have no intention to follow you, sire," she said contemptuously.

Darcy winced as he saw with horror that the girl, after glancing around, had spotted his boots, then darted a mischievous pair of eyes to his face and was now walking purposefully towards the boots.

In a fit, she hurled first one boot at him, then the second -Darcy ducked down just in time to avoid both, and the two fell into the creek with a plop. He quickly pondered his chances of quitting his spot, and preventing the rest of his clothes from meeting a similar destiny but she had another idea. She ran to the horse, and grabbing a dry branch, smacked the steed on the rear. The animal set on a mad race.

"No, no, no!"

"There you are, sir. Now I should like to see my father's face when you call on him in this state of undress."

He must have worn a most horrified expression on his countenance, for Elizabeth, albeit extremely satisfied, instantly comprehended in the agitation of his manners that he was vastly mortified and in a state of shock she had only seen in a bull after a certain emasculating practice.

Granted, his abhorrence did not stem from fear of Mr. Bennet's disapproval, rather of being left stranded and at the witch's mercy, for without his clothes or horse chances were that he would never reach Netherfield. Not while clad solely in his breeches. Surely his humiliation would be universal.

"You witch!" he hissed and sprang to his feet to reach his horse but it was not a good day to be Fitzwilliam Darcy for again he slipped in the mud and fell on the ground with a thud. A considerable part of his body had the fortune to fall on the turf, which softened the collision considerably. Yet his head was not so fortunate because it happened to descend with a dreadful crack on a large, half-buried rock. He did not feel the blood until he tried to rise and it came rushing like a warm scarlet rivulet down his cheek, shoulder and arm. The last thing he saw was the tree branches above him and then the witch's face that looked at him with a furrowed brow before he was enveloped by darkness.

chapter 3

Mr Bennet examined the suspiciously still form of the unequivocally unconscious gentleman ungracefully sprawled at the bottom of the stairs. It was all he had been able to do to drag him to the bottom of the stairs. Granted, the removal of the gentleman's body whence he had suffered his unfortunate accident had taken both all of his strength and Elizabeth's. Gasping for breath, Mr Bennet summoned his manservant and called for Mrs Bennet, who was, at that time, placidly sleeping in a comfortable armchair in the dining-room. That he should have not called for this latter, Mr Bennet realised all too late. As the lady of the house made a hysterical fuss over the possibility of the gentleman's death, the two men endeavoured to carry Mr Darcy's unhelpful dead-weight bulk upstairs, which proved to be quite a difficult task. The man was decidedly large. Yet through a combination of intelligent strategy and strained effort, in which of course Mrs Bennet took a loud and unhelpful part, they succeeded to finally drop him on a bed.

Elizabeth was quite a sight. In her haste to fetch her father, she had lost more than one piece of her garment in the creek. Her sandals, for instance, were nowhere to be found. Her frock, which she had slipped over her wet undergarment, was profusely stained in Mr Darcy's blood and her décolletage offered more view of her full breasts than was appropriate. Her hair, alas, was a complete disaster, her ringlets absolute mayhem.

Mr Darcy was nothing better. He looked as if he had fallen from a cliff and his evident state of undress did nothing for Elizabeth's honour. Yet such was the commotion in which the family had entered that their state of undress was completely overlooked.

"Is he in danger Papa?" was all that Elizabeth could ask.

"Go for Mr Harris, Lizzy. Take the mare," answered a concerned Mr Bennet.

After a moment's recollection, she nodded and immediately quit the patient's bedside. Yet she did not need to go for the apothecary, for Jane had already gone for him and they presently arrived within a mere moment's notice. Relieved with the presence of Mr Harris, Elizabeth retired to make herself presentable. When she returned her sisters flocked to her for more intelligence of the gentleman.

"By Jove, Lizzy. I should have liked to have seen the scene!" cried Lydia.

"You said he fell off his mount? I should have expected him to come in a carriage," said Mary.

"I wonder what happened to his clothes," said Kitty.

"Have you noticed he had no hair on his chest? I thought all gentlemen had hair on their chests!" cried Lydia.

Lizzy shrugged but offered no explanation for Mr Darcy's hairless chest. This interview ended, it became clear for Elizabeth that the moment her cousin recovered his conscience, he would say his side of the happenstance, and then she would be universally mortified in front of him since she had seen his...him. It was these weighty considerations which make her think that should the circumstances of their meeting be privy to her mother their marriage would take place no matter what she said or he did. Her only consolation stemmed from the frank dislike her cousin had vouched to feel for her. Mayhap he would make up his mind to marry Mary instead.

"He is awake! He is awake! Lor', is he handsome!" announced Lydia.

"O I am in love!" sighed Kitty. "Dear face! Dear eyes! Dear, dear Mr Collins!"

"'Tis no use for you to be in love with him any more than me!" said Mary. "We cannot all marry him!"

"Lizzy will!" cried Lydia.

"Come, come! Papa will talk to him!" called Jane.

"Lizzy! It is not fair that you should keep him for yourself. Why can Mr Collins not marry me?"

"Or me?"

"You are welcome to Mr Collins, my dears. I have no wish to marry him!"

"Mama! Mama! Can I keep him? Lizzy does not want him!"

"Recollect it is not Lizzy who breaks the match off. It is I who decides. Mr Collins has made an offer for the eldest daughter, and since Jane is practically engaged to Mr Bingley, the odds fall on Lizzy."

"But she does not like him!"

"To my thinking, if Mr Collins survives, Lizzy is just as much married to him as if the banns had been read in all churches in Hertfordshire."

"Ow!" protested Lydia thumping her foot.

"Do you think he will survive?" asked Kitty intrigued.

"O shut up, Kitty!"

"There, there, my child. I have heard Mr Collins has unmarried brothers, all of them with professions. I am sure they must be as handsome as he is," joked Mr Bennet. "What has me quite mystified is that I fail to recognise one single trait of family resemblance in his countenance. Odd! My uncle was a plump sort of fellow, and so was his wife."

"Well. Be as it may, he is here and is to marry Lizzy. You must talk her into it before she dares to refuse him."

They all bustled upstairs, to witness the conversation Mr Bennet was to have with their devilishly handsome cousin and the apothecary. While they were thus entertained, however, a letter was delivered to Miss Bennet; it came from Netherfield. Jane rushed downstairs with Elizabeth at her heels and the letter was opened immediately. The envelope contained a sheet of elegant, little, hot-pressed paper, well covered with a lady's fair, flowing hand; and Elizabeth saw her sister's countenance change as she read it, and saw her dwelling intently on some particular passages.

Scarcely had Jane raised her eyes, when a visitor was announced for the girls, but in being Jane and Lizzy the only ones downstairs, they were received by them, the rest of the girls were too engrosed in tending to the infirmed cousin. Thus, Mr Wickham and two officers soon joined the two elder Bennets. Jane recollected herself soon, and putting the letter away, tried to join with her usual cheerfulness in the general conversation; but Elizabeth felt an anxiety on both the subject and the events of the day which drew off her attention even from Wickham. The gentleman noticed that it was not a good time for calling, and after wishing a speedy recovery for their cousin, they took their leave. No sooner had they dissappeared, than Jane invited Lizzy to follow her up stairs. When they had gained their own room, Jane taking out the letter, said,

"This is from Caroline Bingley; what it contains, has surprised me a good deal. The whole party have left Netherfield by this time, and are on their way to town; and without any intention of coming back again. You shall hear what she says."

She then read the first sentence aloud, which comprised the information of their having just resolved go to town directly, and of their meaning to dine that day in Grosvenor street, where Mr. Hurst had a house.

"But what about Mr Bingley? What does he say?"

"He does not say anything, Lizzy."

"I do not understand ... how can he leave you like this? When is he coming back?"

"It is evident," added Jane, "that he comes back no more this winter."

"It is only evident that Miss Bingley does not mean he should."

"Why will you think so? It must be his own doing. -- He is his own master. It is clear for me that he is promised to someone else. Caroline is being very kind in warning me of her brother's true feelings!"

"No, Jane. It is just the opposite. Miss Bingley sees that her brother is in love with you, and wants him to marry better. In her mind, we are not rich enough, or grand enough for them. She is taking him to town in the hope of keeping him there, and tries to persuade you that he does not care about you. That is all!" Jane shook her head.

"Indeed, Jane, you ought to believe me. -- No one who has ever seen you together, can doubt his affection. Miss Bingley I am sure cannot. She is not such a simpleton."

"But, my dear sister, can I be happy, even supposing the best, in accepting a man whose sisters are all wishing him to marry elsewhere?"

"You must decide for yourself," said Elizabeth, "and if, upon mature deliberation, you find that the misery of disobliging his two sisters is more than equivalent to the happiness of being his wife, I advise you by all means to refuse him. But if you are ready to fight for him, I advise you to follow him immediately."

"How can you talk so?" -- said Jane faintly smiling, yet she wanted to hear more.

"You must go to London," insisted Lizzy. "Go to our aunt. Tell Mama Mr Bingley will be there and she will agree to send you."

"But Lizzy. How can I tell a lie to Mama?"

"'Tis no lie. Mr. Bingley will be there. You should visit him and tell him that you will be in Gracechurch Street. Besides, if you should stay here, Mama will make you marry the parson up the stairs. And believe me, he is the most disagreeable, proud, insufferable man to have ever walked on earth."

"But Lizzy. Mama wants you to marry him."

"'Tis because she thinks you have an understanding with Mr. Bingley. The moment she suspects otherwise, she will set herself to marry you to Mr Collins."

"But if I do not, then you will be made to marry him."

"First it will freeze in Hades."

"Lizzy!"

Lydia poked her head into their room. "He fainted again!" she exclaimed cheerfully. "At this pace I think you shall remain a spinster, Lizzy!"

"Lucky me!"

chapter 4

Elizabeth's cheerfulness did not last long for the passing of time did not produce any alteration in the state of the patient. He certainly was not better. Soon the apothecary became a recurrent visitor at Longbourn house and more so after Mr Darcy sank in a deep slumber from which he did not come round for a while. Elizabeth felt all the force of remorse, for she reckoned it had been her comportment which had led to his unfortunate accident.

Nothing occurred during the next two days to make her feel any better. Mr Darcy did not recover or stir one muscle. Mr Harris began to prepare the family for the worst. Elizabeth did not know what she feared most: if the gentleman's demise or his amendment. She knew that either outcome would not benefit her. If the first happened she would be doomed to hell, if the second to a loveless marriage. Yet being a good Christian, she prayed for his recovery regardless of the outcome of his amendment, and with that purpose, she sat by the drawing room after the apothecary's visit each day, in horrified expectation.

On the morning of the third day, however, when the gloomy anticipations had reached their peak, Elizabeth, plagued with compunction, surreptitiously ventured into the patient's chamber. Penitently, she sat at the edge of a chair at a safe distance from his bed and watched his undisturbed repose. The purpose of her vigilance not even herself understood. With her spirits oppressing her to the utmost she felt the need to watch over him. Scarcely had she been there for a while when the gentleman became alarmingly restless. He moved his limbs and wagged his head and ended up in a tied tangle amidst the sheets which revealed his upper body to Elizabeth's eye. Struggling with her sense of propriety which dictated that she should leave at once and the impulse to sooth him, she promptly abandoned her safe spot and went in his aid. To her surprise, the impropriety of the situation did not keep her from noticing certain mortifying facts, for recollecting Lydia's observation she found them to be very true: he was devilishly handsome and his chest was absolutely bare.

Granted, she had been privy to much more down at the creek, the brash recollection coming forcefully upon her. Now, much as she endeavoured to avert her eyes, she could not help discerning an indiscrete line of pubic hair at his navel leading a path to the confines of his manhood. Yet this was not a time to feel either shy or embarrassed. It was a time for a collected mind thus she bent over him, she hardly knew for what.

Mr Darcy opened his eyes and beheld Elizabeth with feverish wildness. "Mama?"

Elizabeth gasped and instantly retreated. Flushing like a child caught red-handed at the biscuit tin, she was at first flabbergasted. Soon, she recovered and boldly pulled from the sheets to attempt to cover him as much as possible.

"Water," he babbled. Elizabeth immediately turned to the pitcher and filled a glass of water. Then, if hesitantly, she cupped his chin and helped him to drink.

"Pray, what time is it?"

By the look on his face Elizabeth instantly perceived that the gentleman, though his eyes were wide open, was not being himself. Surely he still fancied that room was his own and she his mama. She felt his brow. It was not hot as she had expected.

"It is not the praying hour yet. Mr Harry is coming any minute," she answered as levelly as her trembling voice allowed her.

"Mr Harry?" he asked in confusion.

"The apothecary. You must rest now."

To her surprise he obeyed. Closing his eyes he relapsed into his slumber only this time his breathing was not quite so haggard. She boldly took his hand and felt his pulse like she had seen the apothecary do. It seemed to her it was a steady one.

Mr Harris punctually arrived and Elizabeth represented him what had occurred before she left the chamber. To everyone's delight, after a thorough inspection, the apothecary declared his patient materially better. Elizabeth had been in the right. His pulse was much stronger and every symptom more favourable than the previous visit.

Elizabeth's breast was relieved from a terrible burden. Had the gentleman died, she would have not found consolation. Yet now that his symptoms of recovery had started, another fear, of a different kind, clutched her soul.

It was not until Mr Harris had pronounced Mr Darcy out of danger that talk of Jane's removal to London began. Indeed, Mrs Bennet was thoroughly cajoled into sending Jane to the Gardiners' with much more ease than expected. She was too busy tending the worthy parson who would marry her second daughter to pay attention to Jane's whims for holidays.

On the previous morrow of Jane's departure there was great commotion in Longbourn house like there had not been one before. Mr Darcy had opened his eyes and asked a delighted Hill for something to eat. With what pleasure did Mrs Bennet pulled the curtains to let the sun into his chamber. All the girls but one flocked to his room. They were all standing in a group, in their nightgowns, barefooted, their hair in fine tresses, all of them stretching their necks trying to catch a glimpse of the guest.

"You goose, don't push! You can see as well as I !" said Kitty prodding Lydia in her ribs.

"Faith, is he pale!" exclaimed Mary.

"Dear me! I love his hair when it is damp!" sighed Kitty. "And those keenly cut lips!"

"O good grief, he has a shirt on! I should have liked to see his chest!"

Mr Bennet, disregarding his daughters' silliness endeavoured to speak to his cousin. "Mr Collins. How do you feel, sir?"

Mr Darcy, aka Mr Collins, was slowly becoming aware of his surroundings.

"O, damn," he said wagging his head at which a general gasp was heard coming from the ladies as all pairs of eyes opened wide while a giggle came undoubtedly from Kitty's side.

Mr Bennet raised an astounded brow. "I say, Mrs Bennet." he said without turning his head, "You and the girls go wait outside."

"What?" cried Mrs Bennet in dismay.

"You heard me. Mr Collins here needs some rest." With that he took his wife by her elbow and gently but decidedly guided her and her flock out of the room, which admittedly was too small for such a large company. But the girls would not obey. They stood in a pack at the doorway eagerly protesting against their father's decision to lock them out. Mr Bennet was finally compelled to almost push them. As they were thus guided out, however, the two youngest girls managed to blow Mr Darcy a silent kiss.

"Sir." Mr Bennet finally said resetting his hair which scarce as it was had become quite dishevelled after the gentleman's struggle with his unruly progeny. "I take it that you are not fit enough for a tête à tête. I will leave you to yourself and return later. If you need anything, please call Mrs Hill."

As promised, Mr Bennet presently returned two hours later and found Darcy already sitting up, an empty tray by his beside. He was definitely in much better shape to have a short conversation.

"You are truly ill, sir. The apothecary said you are fortunate to have opened your head only a little."

Darcy did not respond. Not only had he no idea who his interlocutor was but neither did he know his own name or provenance and did not want to appear like a man out of his wits, for he knew only a lunatic would inquire after his own name. Meantime, Mr Bennet continued with his colloquy completely unaware that his guest was not following a word he was saying.

"You must understand that this is a delicate situation, since my daughter Elizabeth was, according to my wife, bathing in the creek by the time she left her there. A moment later, all of a sudden, she appears in my study, soaked to her bones and screaming for help, babbling about someone being hurt in the creek. By the by, do you recollect what happened to your clothes, Mr Collins?"

Darcy raked his hair. Forgetting his embarrassment he made up his mind to unveil this mysterious situation. The questions came rushing to his brain one after the other: Who was Mr Collins? Was it he? Where was he? Who was his interlocutor? If anything, the gentleman, who was presently babbling incoherencies in front of him would be nothing more than astonished to be thus interrogated, yet at least Darcy would get some enlightening.

While gathering courage to begin his inquisition Darcy felt the back of his head with his hand and noticed a swelling of considerable size. He had wolfed down the offered breakfast and was consequently feeling nauseous. A terrible pain in his head made him wince. "I beg your pardon, sir," he said with great difficulty, "I fail to recollect even my name."

Mr Bennet beheld him with astonishment. "Your name, sir?"

Darcy took his left hand to his eyes to protect them from the incoming morning light. "Would you mind ..." he asked pointing at the window as he held his head back.

"Of course," said Mr Bennet. He reached out and pulled the curtains leaving the room in dimness.

Making a great effort, Darcy endeavoured to explain his situation as clearly as possible, given his present sickness. "You just called me ... Mr... Collins?"

"That is correct."

"I am sorry ... I fail to recollect who I am or what my business is here," he said as he lay back on his bed.

Mr Bennet was left aghast. "It must be the effect of the fall," he concluded. "You had a bad fall, young man. My daughter, Elizabeth, found you lying supine in the woods yesterday morning. She said you have fallen off your horse."

Darcy stared at him with a helpless look. Mr Bennet instantly understood that the young man had no recollection of either the fall or his daughter.

"This is indeed, strange. I have never heard of anything like this in my life. You say you do not even recollect your business here?"

All the while Mrs Bennet and her daughters had been eavesdropping behind the door. They were all dumbfounded with the intelligence of Mr Collins's unfortunate loss of memory, the most shocked of them being the mother whose every marriage expectation had been set towards the parson. Unable to contain her curiosity, Mrs Bennet stormed in.

"Lor' Mr Bennet! He will not be an invalid, will he?" she ejaculated.

Lydia could not refrain from laughing out loud.

"Lydia! Hush!" Mary scolded her. Lydia obeyed yet she whispered into Lizzy's ears, "It seems, Lizzy, you are not in luck. It is most provable that you will not be his widow sooner than his wife."

After the first encounter with Mr Bennet, and Mrs Bennet's nerves, the patient deserved a good rest. He complained of a throbbing pain in the back of his head and his face bore a pallor that did not promise a prompt recovery. So the family left him on his own, and gathered in the drawing room to reflect on what had transpired.

"What were you thinking, Mrs Bennet, coming into the room uninvited like so?"

"Who is to prevent me from coming and going in my own house?"

"Yes, yes. But you could have waited till he had at least recovered a little, don't you think?"

"You seem to forget, Mr. Bennet, that if your cousin upstairs does not marry Lizzy, then he will be entitled to shun us all when you are gone. I will not have it, no sir. He shall marry Lizzy, come what may. And if he does not remember a single thing I care not. Marry he shall, and to my Lizzy or I am not called Mrs Bennet!"

"Can I not have a word?"

"Indeed."

"If he does not remember who he is. Will he be willing to make an alliance with us?"

"No, he will not," said Lizzy brightening up but Mrs Bennet cut her short with a deadly look and she had to bite her lip. Mrs Bennet might not be very bright, yet in matters of matchmaking, she was a lecturer.

"He will if he has any trait of decency in his character. For you, Mr Bennet, still have his letter, where he declared that he wished to marry our eldest. It is written and signed by his hand. How could he disregard his own word?"

As it happened, poor Mr Darcy, deprived of his name, means and memory, could but believe all that was referred about himself and though utterly confused, had shown nothing but perfect composure.

That he was shocked, no one could deny. Who would not be in his stead? Finding yourself stranded amongst strangers who declared themselves distant relatives and at a heartbeat of becoming irremediably invalid. It took him little less than a se'nnight to quit his room in a somewhat tolerable bettered health, so bad had his mishap been.

In the meantime Longbourn and its inhabitants continued their lives as best they could. With Jane in London, however, Lizzy found it very hard to while away her time. She simply doted on her sister Jane, and now that she was gone after Mr Bingley, Lizzy knew not in whom she could confide. With the evil presage of a prospective marriage with the disagreeable cousin pending on her, she naturally turned to the only adroit person left: her bosom friend, Miss Charlotte Lucas, whom in spite of her simplicity, was free from the sort of evils that were in abundance in the rest of Lizzy's sisters, namely excessive interest for the undeserving sex or too brittle a disposition towards them. The presence of Mr Darcy did nothing to lure Lizzy into remaining indoors, thus she visited Charlotte with increased assiduousness. On several of these visits it was not rare that she should meet a certain gentleman, Mr Wickham, who happened 'by chance' to be on the road at the same hour every time Lizzy called at Lucas Lodge.

Lizzy, absolutely insensible to Mr Wickham's unfortunate connection with the man lying up stairs in her house, went fluttering to his encounter every time she saw him during said visits. She knew it was a silly infatuation, for Wickham was certainly not a good suitor. Her mother had already admonished her against him. That she should not pursue him Lizzy was absolute sensible of since the poor man had nothing but his meagre soldier's salary to recommend him. Yet everyone agreed that George Wickham was the most gallant and brilliant soldier in her majesty's army, and you can be certain that Lizzy believed it too.

He was one of those pleasures one cannot deprive oneself of so easily, like a sweet pudding or a chocolate treat. He was o so handsome with his swaggering walk and dandified airs! Yet the prospects by his side could not be good. Fancy Mrs George Wickham in lodgings in a poor country house or even worse in the East or West Indies, with a society of officers! No, it would not do and Lizzy was wide aware of it.

"Ah, Miss Bennet! How-dy-doo? And he held out his right hand while he raised his hat with the other.

"Mr Wickham!" she said heart pounding at the mere sight of his little blue eyes. "How extraordinary to find you yet again on this road today."

"No such thing, Miss Bennet. You must know, surely you must know I have come purposefully to meet you," said the soldier as gallantly as possible. He offered her his arm and she, o so demurely accepted it and both of them walked in pleasant companionship for a while. "The beautiful song you sang at your Aunt Phillips the other day kept me awake half the night" he said with affected voice. "I was humming it this morning while I shaved. 'pon my honour I have never heard anyone sing so byoo-ootifully like yourself, Miss Elizabeth."

"You are too kind, sir."

"It is true! I was singing it all morning like a damn robin, I was. Will you sing it again tonight, Miss Elizabeth?"

"Tonight, sir?"

"Yes. I shall attend Mrs Foster's little dinner party this evening. I am sure she sent you an invitation."

"O, she did, she did. But unfortunately I shall not be able to attend. Not this evening."

"I am sorry. I hope no one is ill at home. How are your sisters, by the by?"

"They are all very well, I thank you. 'Tis only that we have a ..."

"Visitor. Yes. I remember. How is Mr Collins?"

"Much better, thank you."

"I understand he is a young parson from Kent."

"Yes."

"And his connection with Rosings Park? Is it true?"

"Yes. How did you know?"

"Well. Lady Catherine de Bourgh is the noble sister-in-law of my dear friend, the late Mr Darcy from Pemberley. Have you heard of him?" Lizzy shook her head. "He was an excellent man, loved me dearly like only a father does. You see, he was my god father and left me a generous living upon his death."

"A living?"

"Yes," he sighed. "Unfortunately, there are vipers that you warm and they sting you afterwards. Master Fitzwilliam, Mr Darcy's son, whom I regarded as my own brother, turned out not to be such. After I loved him and cared for him, he turned his back on me and refused to comply with his father's wish, which left me penniless."

"Lor'! How horrible! Why would he do such an unchristian deed?" Lizzy was astounded. It was true that she always welcome a gossip, yet such criminal imprudence, so horrid comportment she had always condemned and so did the folks of Meryton.

"I suppose he was jealous," Wickham said.

"What a horrible man!"

"And that was not all. My name was never again to be mentioned in his house."

"O horrid!" cried Elizabeth. "You should show the world what this man has done to you!"

"I have fallen low, but not so low as that. No, no. I have done quite well without his help, anyway. I cannot have cause to complain. I maybe a lowly soldier, but I least I have good friends."

"O Mr Wickham. Sure you do."

If Mr Darcy could have heard this miserable being's comments regarding himself which he readily and merrily spread within the small circle in which he moved in Meryton, he would have been able to defend his character which was now jeopardied. Yet he heard him not and remained ignorant of the abuses his name was suffering. Fortunately, his new identity had provided him with good friends. As it was, Lydia and Kitty kept coming and going in and out the handsome cousin's quarters, even when it was evident that he did not need nursing. Darcy, in turn, came to accept their presence with significant tolerance. They were mesmerized by his good looks and genteel mien, and would have gladly taken Lizzy's place if their mother would have allowed it. Such was their partiality for their cousin, that they were ready even to take up reading with the sole object of entertaining him.

"Papa? Mr. Collins has expressed a wish to read a book. Can I borrow one from your library?"

"I doubt you shall find a book that might match a parson's taste in my library, Kitty. Why don't you borrow one of Mary's books of sermons instead?"

"O, Mr Collins is averse to that sort of reading."

"Averse?" Well, if anything, that was a new one: A parson averse to religious reading.

"He said he would like to read aloud some poetry to us. I should say Mr Shakespeare's sonnets would do?"

"Shakespeare, eh? It would do perfectly well for you my dear. But I sincerely doubt Mr Collins will be fond of so romantic a material." "O he said so himself," said Lydia innocently from behind her sister. "A parson with a romantic disposition? Well, I'll be blown. Very well, if that be the case you can have it. It is on that shelf, over there," he said pointing at some place on the bookshelf with his finger.

"Thanks Papa!" Kitty grabbed the book and they hurriedly left the room, their quick steps could be heard rushing to the stairs, the precious book pressed on Kitty's chest, in her wake bumping into Elizabeth who was coming from her morning walk.

"Was that not a book Kitty was carrying so secretively?" asked Lizzy in frank astonishment. The last time she had seen Kitty with a book she was learning the alphabet. "What is wrong with her?"

"Your cousin is reading poetry to your sisters." Mr Bennet said with a thin smile. Elizabeth raised a quizzical brow. "The sonnets," he informed her.

"The sonnets? You mean Shakespeare's sonnets?"

"They are certainly not Solomon's. Though, I should say that I have found more wisdom in the Queen's protégé than in all the books of the wise King."

Elizabeth was not hearing. Frowning seriously, she took a deep sigh and then brought herself to warn her father about the evils of leaving Kitty and Lydia too much in the company of their cousin.

"Papa. I am sure you will judge it unwise for Lydia and Kitty to be so regularly alone with a young man. You know very well that Lydia's uncontrolled behaviour can be of great disadvantage..."

"Uncontrolled you said? No such thing. As far as I know Lydia has never been more controlled than in the past three days. And what is it that you are thinking? William is indeed an excellent influence for your sisters. I have not known them to have spent ten minutes in a sensible occupation before. These past three days, however, they have been housebound even in the best of weathers, reading or tending to your cousin. I see nothing wrong in that."

"Precisely. They have been locked in hisroom. You should not allow the girls to take so many liberties upon Mr Collins. Their growing lack of self-control may have an undesirable effect on..."

"Undesirable you said? Undesirable for whom, pray?" Then stopping to ponder he looked at her squarely on the face and asked mockingly, "What, Lizzy? Are you afraid that your sister might rob you of your lover? Poor Lizzy! But do not be disheartened. Your mama will make sure that your handsome cousin will be yours to marry."

Lizzy could barely contain her fury. She knew her papa was only teasing her and showing profound disgust would only alert him of the scruples she held against Mr Collins. She could not refer the particulars of their aquatic encounter to her father lest she should be forced to marry the proud parson.

"Mr Collins is a perfect stranger, Papa, however handsome."

"I see you have acknowledged him to be so. Well, then, that is a good beginning coming from you, my dear. Though I must say he will remain a stranger if you do not take the trouble to get to know him better, don't you think?" Elizabeth did not answer. "I know you are upset with your mama. You know I will never push you to do anything against your will. You are free to refuse Mr Collins if you do not like him. He will not be the first you have refused or the last I wager...But you must give the benefit of the doubt to this one, Lizzy. At least he has shown the good sense to be a Shakespeare's admirer. And that, my dear, is a lot better than Jane has done."

Elizabeth did not answer her father. She felt thoroughly betrayed. That Mr Bennet liked her cousin William was clear. Though how could her father like him? If only he was privy to his real character!

In time, the presumed worthy parson recovered from his fall, though his memory was not immediately restored, and he was ready to join the rest of the family and face the future. This was declared one evening as the whole family sate at the dining table by a hysterically affected Kitty, who could not wait to see her cousin on his feet.

Standing besides his father's chair, she dropped a short curtsey, her cheeks exceedingly flushed in anticipation.

"Yes, Kitty?"

"William is feeling better, Papa."

"He is, isn't he?" Mr Bennet said with a bored tone.

"He declares he should be fit to join us."

"He does, does he not?"

Nodding vehemently, she pursed her lips before declaring, "He will dine with us," and giggling excitedly she turned on her heels and went over stand beside her chair to wait for the gentleman's appearance.

"Why don t you marry him to one of them?" said an exasperated Lizzy. "They seem to get along exceedingly well."

'Marry one of them? The notion!" cried Mrs Bennet breathlessly. "The younger married before the elder ones? No, by Jove." Then she followed in an explanatory tone, as if Elizabeth was hearing it for the first time. "You and Jane will go first. Then Mary and Kitty. Lydia is barely out, so she shall stay with her mama for a while."

Elizabeth sighed. She could only hope that her cousin still found her not agreeable and chose Mary instead, since she was more prone to religious topics than her. But alas! She recollected that the parson preferred poetry to sermons. Mary would never suit him. Well, nor would she, so he had declared.

"There he is!" cried Lydia as if she had seen her groom entering the bride's chamber.

"Lor! I would just marry him tomorrow," murmured Kitty.

"So would I ... and more!" said Lydia.

"And I too," whispered the exceedingly timid Mary which left Mr Bennet flabbergasted.

Mr Darcy, whose eyes were resting on the family portrait, though still convalescent, was sporting a friendly smile as he descended the stairs with great caution. He was exceedingly uncomfortable, for the clothes he had been given were not exactly his size, shirt sleeves too short, shrunk breeches too tight for his leg. Nonetheless, he bowed respectfully, apologized for interrupting their meal and waited for directions as to where to take his seat at the table.

*Contains quotations from T Hardy's , W M Thackeray and J Austen's works

Chapter 5

Darcy, polite to a fault, stood in front of the Bennet family, looking like an outgrown adolescent in his small clothes, waiting for Mr Bennet to welcome him at his table. Soon it was discovered that Kitty and Lydia had left a vacant chair between them, but Mrs Bennet would have none of it.

"O my dear, dear boy!" she said solicitously. And then added as if the gentleman had any say in the state of his health, "How good of you to have recovered! Pray, come and sit here, at my husband's side." That said seat was a propos situated beside Lizzy's she did not immediately say. Soon, the gentleman discovered it, though at this stage of his stay he thought nothing of it.

"Lor'. How tall you are!" Lydia exclaimed, however as Darcy passed her by in his way to his seat at the table she whispered, "I am pretty tall too, though I am the youngest!" Darcy smiled weakly at her and then sat demurely between Mr Bennet and Elizabeth.

"Mr Collins?" said Mary with the pitcher of water in her hand yet Darcy did not acknowledge her. "Mr Collins?" The appellation came rushing through his ears and he suddenly realised he was being addressed.

"I beg your pardon, yes, thank you." He drank a little of the offered water and stared blankly at his plate.

"Are you unwell, Mr Collins?" asked Mr Bennet still concerned about his well being.

Darcy coloured. The name Mr Collins did not finish persuading him it was him that was being addressed. Fortunately, the younger girls, who had grown used to conversing with him with the familiarity of a long established acquaintance, had begun to use his Christian name, William, with which, for reasons he could not fathom, he felt much more comfortable.

"Did you have a pleasant sleep? Lizzy child, pass Mr Collins the potatoes. You do like potatoes, I hope? They are Lizzy's speciality. It is not that we do not keep a cook, of course. But you see, Lizzy here insisted in cooking them for you. And she could not be prevailed upon leaving the job in the hands of the cook. She is never remiss. You do remember Lizzy, sir? She is my eldest but one ..."

Before Elizabeth could utter her anxious protestation of her innocence in dinner making Mr Bennet interposed, "Mrs Bennet. I think Mr Collins will find it difficult to answer any of your questions unless you give him time to process them one by one."

Mrs Bennet continued unruffled. "One day Lizzy shall make someone very happy, mark my words. She will be a good wife, sir, I grant you, and a fine companion." While saying this she put a piece of meat into her mouth and continued her monologue at intervals with her chewing. "She may not have received a scholarly education. But none of the girls in Hertfordshire has had the benefit of governesses or school teachers. No, sir. This is not the way we educate our girls here. But she is a fine girl, sir, like all my girls, you'll see. You shall not find a better connoisseur of the surrounding neighbourhood if you should ever feel like a ramble about. I am sure Lizzy will love to accompany you if you should feel so inclined. O she is colouring up. Does she not look pretty when flushed like so?"

Indeed, so had she. Yet after colouring up Lizzy had sunk on her chair in utmost embarrassment. Mr Darcy took a flitting glance towards her and he nodded in acquiescence. Then he observed almost in a whisper, "All your daughters are very pretty, madam."

"O. That is very kind of you to say, sir." Sending a quick glance at Mary she added, "Very kind indeed, though not entirely true." Looking back at Mr Darcy she said. "I must confess my handsomest you have missed. But anyway she is talked for, I am afraid, and momentarily visiting her aunt in London."

Darcy smiled and said nothing in response, completely unaware of what Mrs Bennet was hinting. After dinner, he praised Elizabeth's kindness in preparing the potatoes which elicited a new round of giggles. Elizabeth was again about to protest she had had no part in the preparation of his dinner, but she recollected that her mother might take revenge later or chuse to abuse her in front of him so she made up her mind to be silent. Instead she thanked her cousin for the praise, said it had been nothing and even promised to repeat the favour.

"William. Do read to us," said Kitty pleadingly.

"Yes, please, Will." Lydia seconded. "That pretty sonnet you read the other day."

"I do not know ..." he said timidly.

"Do not be shy, sir. I should like to hear you. Lydia and Kitty have been praising your talents so much that they have me intrigued," exclaimed Mrs Bennet.

Darcy nodded. The book was fetched and he read to the whole company. It was a fine sonnet about a maiden that had died and whose grave her lover visited everyday. In those days death was looked upon as a romantic happenstance and it was much dealt with in sonnets and poems as to exact sighs from every tender heart. Yet though very well read, the choice of reading material did not impress either Mr Bennet or Elizabeth.

"That was very good, sir. Very good indeed." Mr Bennet said nonetheless. "You have us very well entertained."

"Indeed, sir. That was beautiful! Sad, but beautiful," and then added with a sigh. "When Lizzy was only fifteen, there was a gentleman at my brother Gardiner's in town, so much in love with her, that my sister-in-law was sure he would make her an offer before we came away. But however he did not. Perhaps he thought her too young. However, he wrote some verses on her, and very pretty they were."

Elizabeth once again was about to protest that the daughter to have inspired such romance in the gentleman had been Jane, not her. But she was also persuaded that to attempt to contradict her mother while she was trying to impress a suitor was not wise. "And so ended his affection," said Elizabeth impatiently. "There has been many a one, I fancy, overcome in the same way. I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love!"

"I should consider poetry as the food of love," said Darcy with a perplexed look upon his face.

"Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may. Everything nourishes what is strong already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away."

There was a reflective silence and Darcy smiled again with which counted three times altogether since he came downstairs. It might well be too much smiling for one day for this generally disagreeable proud fellow. But I can safely say that that was truly the very first smile that had graced his handsome face quite spontaneously; the natural result of having heard something actually witty and funny.

"I take it then, that you do not approve of poetry," he counter-said.

"On the contrary. I like it very well indeed."

"But you would have chosen another genre."

"Perhaps."

" So would I, sir. Most definitely," Mary interposed blushing prettily. Yet to her sisters' dismay she boldly added, "I have often observed how little young ladies are interested by books of a serious stamp, though written solely for our benefit. It amazes me, I confess; -- for certainly, there can be nothing so advantageous to us as instruction. There is many a volume of a greater moral value in the library, like Mr Fordyce's Sermons. How would you like to read from those?"

He was taken aback by the request. Luckily, Darcy's countenance did not betray his thoughts, yet it took him more than the usual to deliberate whether to agree or not to Mary's request. Something told him that he would have never chosen those to read aloud, yet in consideration of his young interlocutor's feelings he agreed to do so next time.

The general pause which ensued made Elizabeth tremble lest her mother should be exposing her again. She longed to speak, but could think of nothing to say. Fortunately, after a short silence, Mr Darcy began to inquire after the contents of Mr Bennet's library.

So keen an interest could only warm Mr Bennet to him. He was happy to show him his collection of biology books and the twosome spent an amiable time reading and discussing the different aspects of geese rearing and crop rotation, which completely enraptured Mr Bennet.

This ceremony repeated itself every night. Mr Darcy read to them from various novels and sonnets and even occasionally from some religious books as it had been Mary's particular request. Then he and Mr Bennet would lock themselves into the library pursuing their favourite subjects in solitude. During the day, they spent a good deal of their time together at the swain house inspecting Mr Bennet's favourite's boars or at the dairy, discussing the latest techniques in skimming. That Mr Bennet was growing uncommonly fond of his young cousin it was clear to everyone. He patted his shoulder, a sure sign of his approbation, and showed him his favourite pigs which testified of his confidence in him, and called him "William" and sometimes even, 'my dear chap', which was the most definite hint for Lizzy to start thinking of her wedding trousseaux.

That Mr Bennet's daughters but one were increasingly fond of him too, was equally evident. However, it is a truth universally acknowledged that fire burns thatch. This Mr Bennet began to comprehend after certain events which he witnessed in his own lawn.

Mr Darcy had not been on his two legs a fortnight than the three youngest girls were entirely devoted to him. When he was idle, they followed him everywhere he ventured to go. Little by little, the gentleman began to lose all scruples that at first might have rendered him extremely shy, and commenced to display an easiness of character that both delighted the youngest daughters as it vexed the present eldest.

One afternoon, Mr Bennet spied a most peculiar happenstance. Mary, Lydia and Kitty together with the youngest Miss Lucas were playing a ball game outdoors when the rounded object had the misfortune to fall on a tree and would not come down. Mr Bennet then saw Lydia, with every impertinent movement possible, climbing the trunk of the tree in quest of the ball as Darcy pleasantly read a book in the shadow that said tree afforded. Suddenly, Lydia lost her grip of the tree branch and Darcy jumped on his legs to assist her. Unfortunately the only part of Lydia's body he attempted to get hold of was her ... bottom. There was much shrieking and branch breaking and they ended up sprawled on the floor ground with Lydia's skirts spread on the gentleman's face, and one could easily conjecture of the whereabouts of her nonny-nonny. Though Mr Bennet did find the incident quite humorous, he instantly recollected Elizabeth's warning. From this, Mr Bennet realised that though his daughters were honourable girls, their honour was undoubtedly in this worthy man's hands.

He would have thought nothing of it if Mr Darcy had not been the possessor of quite a vigorous character that due to his previous malady, had not been overtly displayed. That his cousin was increasingly in better shape he had no doubt by now. Mr Bennet knew that idleness might lead the most honourable men to great misfortunes as it had been King David's case. It was under this conviction that he wisely thought his cousin might serve to some purpose in the manor other than that of a thoroughbred in rut.

Meanwhile Darcy's uneasiness increased. That he felt very much out of place, no one could deny. Albeit Lydia's violent attentions discomfited him, he did not know what to make of the rest of the family. Everybody was noisy, every voice was loud, excepting, Elizabeth's, which resembled the soft harmony of Jane's. Whatever was wanted, was haloed for, and the servants haloed out their excuses from below the stairs. The doors were constantly banged, the stairs never at rest, nothing was done without a clatter, nobody sat still, not even the dog, and nobody could command attention when they spoke.

That at Longbourn there was a serious lack of elegance and propriety, Darcy could not but be sensible of, yet despite the fact that he abhorred such comportment he was sensible of the great kindness with which he had been accepted in the bosom of the family. Therefore, he was very anxious to be useful and not to appear above all, or in anyway disqualified or disinclined, by his superior education from contributing his help to the comforts, and at the same time, by working in this manner he endeavoured to be away from the continual disorderliness that reigned in the house.

What he had never expected was to be asked to undertake the office of the dairyman. When Mr. Bennet expressed his regret in the dairyman's leaving for a se'nnight, it was Darcy's last thought to offer his services in his stead. Yet he had already expressed his wish to be of use, though he had thought of helping with Mr. Bennet's figures or overseeing his tenants.

To his surprise, Mr. Bennet hinted him to help in the dairy by asking him if the job would not be too much for his health. Darcy was more that surprise. He was stunned. To be asked to work like a servant was unthinkable. Surely his cousin must be speaking in jest. He was on the point to politely refuse to the task, when he observed that Elizabeth was intently looking at her with a defiant air.

Indeed, Elizabeth was highly prejudiced against him. She would not forget his manners at the creek. She surmised that judging from his haughtiness added to the polished nails in his immaculate hands he must know nothing of hard-work, and was inwardly expecting his refusal to attending to the cows with a sort of triumphant look upon her face.

But alas! He agreed to help and Mr. Bennet could not be happier to see him ready to take care of the farm.

"Very well. Mr Forman has gone to the north with his wife to visit with his family," he announced to the rest of his family. "I shall need a hand or two at the dairy for a week. Any volunteers?"

"I shall help," said Elizabeth seconded by Kitty and Mary. Lydia protested vehemently that the cow had kicked her pail the last time she had undertaken the task. Mrs Bennet endeavoured to excuse her but to not avail.

Mr Darcy's corner remained suspiciously silent.The girls would help with the cows? That was extraordinarily odd.

Mr Bennet turned to him with his mouth full, his eyes charged with enquiry. Pointing a fork at him he asked as affably as ever, "Is anything the matter, sir?"

Having brought the family's attention to him, he quit his plate and flushed. He must have bore an expression of utter confusion on his face, for Mr Bennet asked him twice if he was feeling well before he elicited an answer from him. Darcy replied evasively that he was fine, only that he was unsure he would be able to help in the dairy for he feared he was completely foreign to the task.

"Are you afraid of cows, sir?"

"Not at all."

"Of anything else?"

"Like what?"

"The milk turning sour?"

"No."

"Then all is well. Four in the morning. Before dawn. Lizzy will show you."

Early the next morning, a doubtfully awake Mr Darcy, found himself in the dairy, holding a pail in one hand, and a three legged stool in the other, looking at the row of cows with apprehension worthy of Lydia. As the girls milked the cows, their right cheeks rested against the animals, face sideways thus both girls and cows looked musingly at him as he approached. Seeing him standing at gaze, Lizzy, wearing a white hood and an apron, went across to him.

"I do not ..."

Lizzy assented. There was no need for him to explain anything. Handing him a white hat, she sat under the cow and proceeded to show him the mechanism of the task.

"Tis simple, you see," she said soothingly. Pointing at three cows she added matter-of-factly. "I will leave these to you, sir. These are the cows that milked the hardest of all and we maids do not milk them lest they should go azew."

"Azew?"

"Dry up. For lack of finger grip." Mr Darcy looked doubtfully at his own hand grip. He was sceptical about his own skill to elicit anything from the animal however manly his strength. Elizabeth observed him doubting and smirked. Then she stepped back and nodded to the nearest cow.

When Mr Darcy was ready on his stool under the cow, Elizabeth urged him to squeeze the teat. He must have done something wrong, for nothing happened except that the cow turned her enormous head and gave a monstrously grave moo that left the poor gentleman gaping.

Arms akimbo, Elizabeth surveyed him barely containing her mirth. "Are you sure you can do it?" she asked. He reassured her that he could and after one or two failed tries, they heard the reassuring purr of the milk falling into the pail and he raised his face to Lizzy in boyish triumph. Elizabeth could not help a smile of approbation.

"I think I can handle it," he said beaming at her.

"I think you can," she said and left him at his cow while she assumed working at hers. For the rest of the morning there was no talk in the dairy, until all the cows had been milked.

However preposterous it might sound, the Longbourn cows had developed certain preference for the style of manipulation of their usual milk men and maids. Thus, there was a silent conviction that the inexperienced parson should have found this duty quite difficult if not impossible. What their surprise might have been the reader might conjure when he did not. Not only did the worthy animals soon grow exceedingly fond to his hands, but also their willing udders yielded to his touch with surprising readiness rendering his work on them a simple brush of the fingers.

Certain cows would show such a fondness for him that they went to the extreme of carrying this predilection so far as to refuse being touched by any other, like a blushing bride that would only yield to the power of her groom. Every morning the enamoured animals would greet him with unprecedented excitement requesting him to go under them. Such partiality did not pass unnoticed to Mr Bennet and quite diverted, commented the cows' whims over a glass of claret.

"Upon my honour, I have never seen anything like that," he chuckled. "You must have been quite an expert handling them teats in your home town, sir. Better the cows' than the girls', I dare say. " At which comment Mr Darcy blushed exceedingly yet did not dare to retort. His cousin's amused face seemed to imply that he believed his charming expertise stemmed not from cow handling.

*This chapter contains some quotations from Hardy's works as well as Austen's.

Chapter 6

It was settled that the next day Lydia and Kitty should pay a call on their Aunt Phillips who lived in Meryton, scarcely one mile from the village of Longbourn. Mrs Bennet sent an unwilling Darcy and a vexed Lizzy along with them. Not for one minute did she cease throwing Lizzy and her cousin together no matter how much the reluctant daughter would protest. They made their journey all the way in two groups: Mary and Lizzy ahead, while Darcy, with Kitty and Lydia, came tagging along behind.

As they were walking the main street, the girls discerned a bunch of officers, among which was Mr Wickham. On recognizing Lizzy, the officer came directly towards her. She was beginning to determine herself not to give too much attention to her favourite in front of Darcy when she noticed Wickham's eyes became suddenly fixed on her cousin. He bore a look of astonishment mingled with horror, as if he had seen the devil himself. Darcy, on his part, gave no hint of recognition, and he continued to talk amiably with the officers. Before Elizabeth knew it, Wickham's countenance had turned white and his gait had lost its natural smoothness. Ere he reached the group, he made a dramatic change of course. Without so much as a touch to his hat he turned on his heels and was gone. It could be said that he ran better than walked away.

Elizabeth watched him go dismayed. What could be the meaning of it? It was impossible to imagine that he should have tried to avoid her and it was equally impossible to imagine he was trying to avoid her cousin. Or was he?

From then on, and to her own vexation, she found herself staring at her cousin in wonderment with marked frequency, trying to decipher the great riddle that he now meant. He did not fail to notice her constant staring and began to wonder what she meant by it. In the end, he determined that she must be trying to find blemish for she did not waste one single opportunity to show him with every possible uncivil remark how much she loathed him.

Sunday came and all the family together with their newest addition readied themselves to go to church. Mr Bennet and Darcy left earlier than their female relatives since they found waiting for the ladies to finish their toilet an unnecessary duty. As the damsels headed for church they came upon a group of gentlemen among which there were some redcoats Again Mr Wickham happened to be among these. In spotting him, Elizabeth immediately lingered behind and was soon caught up by her keen admirer. They walked in silence for a while until Elizabeth broke it to berate him a little for having abandoned her of late. He owned with contrition he had been deterred from attending the soiree at Mrs Phillips' due to unexpected last-minute errands.

"However, I have noticed you were well accompanied."

"I beg your pardon?"

"I mean the tall gentleman that was escorting you to your Aunt Phillips. Have you known him long?"

"Not long. 'bout a month. I have already told you about him. He is name is William Collins, and he is our cousin."

Wickham stopped short. His astonishment was evident. With a great deal of hesitation and stuttering he declared that it was a case of mistaken personality. "There must be a mistake," he protested. "I mean the tall gentleman with curly hair that was walking with you and your sisters upon your meeting with the officers. I saw him standing with them."

"The one with a look of arrogant self-confidence who towers over all the officers? He was with my sister Mary that afternoon."

"Yes. The very one."

"There is no mistake. He is my illustrious cousin Mr Collins. He is the only gentleman whose company I have frequented besides yourself," she bit her lip not wanting him to have the wrong idea that her cousin was courting her. "To think mama hoped that he came all the way from Kent to marry one of us."

"Marry, eh? From Kent?" Wickham asked narrowing his eyes. He seemed to be taking the news palely and calmly, as if he were scheming something. With renewed interest he asked, "And has he, so to speak, deigned himself to make his choice already?"

Blushing a good deal, and afraid that her lover would be frightened away she quickly added, "O there was some word that he would offer for one of us, but he is not well. He lost his memory and knows not who he really is."

"Ha, ha!" laughed Wickham thinking she was teasing him.

" 'Tis no jest. Indeed he had a horrible accident and has no memory whatsoever."

Wickham opened his eyes wide as coffee saucers. "Did he now? How very extraordinary!" A silence ensued. Mr Wickham seemed to be pondering the latest intelligence about Mr Collins. Elizabeth thought with delight that he was jealous.

"Anyway, there is no way I will have him," she said reassuringly.

"So you have refused him?"

"Refused him? No such thing. Fortunately, Mr Collins does not like me. Quite the contrary I daresay. And I can safely say he knows perfectly well how deeply I despise him. I do not think he will ever make an offer to me or any of my sisters."

"You despise him?"

"I have spent four weeks in the same house with him, and I think him very disagreeable."

"I see. I believe your opinion of him would in general astonish -- and perhaps you would not wish to express it quite so strongly."

"You know him? You seemed to have recognised him the other day."

"No, not at all," he said with a forced smile. "I wonder," said he, "whether he is likely to be in this country much longer."

"I do not at all know; but I heard nothing of his going away. I hope your visits at home will not be affected by his being in the house."

"You can depend on my visit with you as soon as may be. But I have detained you long enough, Miss Elizabeth. I see your family is waiting for you," and with that, he tipped the brim of his hat and backed away with a tinge of urgency that left Elizabeth wondering what could have caused his hasty withdrawal.

At church that morning, Darcy was introduced to Dr Grant, the vicar of Meryton. As soon as Dr Grant learned that Darcy was a fellow parson, he began to ponder the advantages of his presence. Being the vicar of so large an area was not a small thing. He had the congregation of Meryton as well as Longbourn under his wing and a colleague's help to visit the distant tenants would be more than welcome.

At first, Darcy was terrified with the request, and he excused himself with every good reason. Since he had no memory of a single passage of the Scriptures, he feared a parson with no such wisdom was hardly useful to a parish, but as time went by and Lydia's cheeky advances began to be more and more direct and Mrs Bennet's shrieks became absolutely intolerable, the idea of spending some of his time outside the farm began to be quite palatable even if it meant that he should be visiting the sick and poor. The last straw that convinced him to agree to Dr Grant's unexpected request was when Old Pretty chose to commune with nature on his shoes while Darcy was under her. Thus affronted, he made up his mind to accept the old vicar's entreaty to help with the parishioners.

Either the change of air, or the sense of being amidst new scenes where there were no mercenary eyes upon him, set up his spirits wonderfully. The only time he dreaded was Saturday's half holidays, when there was nothing to do at the farm and no visits to make. Dr Grant mercifully rescued him from those as well by entreating him to write a sermon. Albeit never inclined to compose such speeches or do so much hard work, his sanity welcomed every task that would afford him some solitude, and in seeking it, he chose the barn as study. Thus he set about working at his sermon, early and late, with perseverance and great dispatch that Miss Bingley would have never credited to the gentleman.

Darcy had now entered on the fourth week of his stay in Longbourn, and whether it would be the last was a question that Mrs Bennet pondered with a beating heart.

If truth may be told, Mr Darcy had always been universally disliked everywhere he went for his insufferable pride and self sufficient airs. As William, however, he was a remarkably affable fellow. Since he had no recollection of his heritage and there was nothing he could take pride in, his behaviour was devoid of improper pride. His superior education, however, remained untouched by the accident, not to mention his perfect appearance, hence he struck the Longbourn folks exceedingly well.

Albeit Darcy was always reserved and hardly ever spoke more than two words together, every body loved him, every one thought him the finest parson ever to preach at their church. He played cards with Mrs Phillips, tolerated the young ladies' flirting (though it must be owned he blushed a great deal), discussed the court with Sir Lucas, and left the whole village in awe with his perfect recitation of Shakespeare's sonnets. As it would be expected every eligible lady admired him and every parent wished him to have him as a son-in-law. He had not gone through the service yet as had been Dr Grant's request, but the whole world was expecting his performance at the pew. Lady Lucas was so certain of his success that she was planning to hold a party to celebrate it.

"I wish Dr Grant would have left our William in peace," Mrs Bennet complained. "Look now. He has persuaded William to become a monk! Not one look at our girls in this whole week!"

"La, la, Mrs Bennet. Let the young people get together in their own way," Mr Bennet admonished.

"But you do not understand. Lady Lucas has invited him to dine at Lucas Lodge to rub her plain daughters in his face."

"If they are so very plain, then there is no fear for you, is there?"

"There is always danger that Lady Lucas might use some treacherous arts and allurements to draw him in."

"Arts and allurements? Lady Lucas?"

"Yes, yes! O why did you not entreat him to honour his word in his letter! This is your entire fault, Mr. Bennet! One must strike while the iron is still hot." Mr. Bennet beheld Mrs Bennet with astonishment. "Upon my word, woman," he said, "You take your business quite seriously, do you not?"

"Of course I do! What else can you expect from a woman with five daughters to marry and entailment upon her?" she said contemptuously. "You can take that plate away, Susan. Mr Collins is to dine somewhere else tonight," she sobbed as she spied Darcy coming down the stairs in new clothes.

"I beg your pardon, madam. You seem to have been misinformed. I have been invited to dine at Lucas Lodge, it is true, but I found the invitation impossible to accept."

"You refused Lady Lucas?" Mrs Bennet asked astonished.

"Yes, madam."

"O. Then of course you will dine here tonight," she declared with a brightened countenance.

When the dinner was over, they sat as usual at the parlour to enjoy Darcy's reading. He read part of his sermon to them and everyone agreed it was very well done. When this was over, Kitty and Lydia set themselves to play cards, Mary played her music, Mrs Bennet remained idle as usual and Mr Bennet, Elizabeth and Darcy read for pleasure.

There was some commotion at the youngest girls' table. Lydia and Kitty were having a little argument. In the end Kitty interrupted Darcy to ask,

"May I inquire why you did not accept Lady Lucas's invitation?"

"She must be thoroughly displeased," said Lydia.

"Lady Lucas is a very kind lady," said he.

Mrs Bennet could not be insensible of triumph over Lady Lucas; and she interposed wild with elation. "It is very simple. William has explained to me his reason. A man in his situation can never be too guarded not to encourage false expectations in female hearts."

"Is that so? Was that your reason to refuse to dine at Lucas Lodge?" asked Mr Bennet with renewed interest. Darcy coloured deeply and he assented.

"Partly yes. But the truth is... I find it difficult to converse with strangers."

"There you are," added Mrs Bennet with indescribable pleasure.

"I absolutely agree with you, my dear boy. One look longer than the appropriate, one single smile, and ladies jump to the most preposterous conclusions."

Now, Elizabeth had so far remained silent in front of Darcy, except when it was absolutely necessary for her to direct her attention to him, when passing the potatoes, or helping at the dairy. Yet, it was in her nature to enjoy a good argument, and when possible, to laugh at the follies of others. This comment from Darcy she could not let go without retorting, "You mean to say, sir, that should you accept the Lucases' invitation to dine, Charlotte Lucas might believe you partial to her?"

"I do not know the heart of Miss Lucas, but yes. This seems to be the tendency."

"'Tis a vain idea, is it not?"

"Vain?"

"To believe the entire female world at your feet. Do you seriously think you hold such a power?"

"'Tis not a question of what I particularly think or what my opinion is. It is a truth universally acknowledged," he said boldly.

"That women shall fall in love with you?"

"That in the minds of both parents and daughters a man of a considerable fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters."

"What a perfectly asserted notion, sir. I have never heard a truer observation as regards the arrival of a young unmarried man to a village in my life! And believe me, I have had plenty of opportunities to see the truth of it to be able to thoroughly concur with you," laughed Mr Bennet.

"Perfectly true, sir," Elizabeth admitted. "Still, I cannot help noticing that you expect this to be true in your case as well. You have no fortune. How is it that you consider yourself an eligible man?"

"You are silly, Lizzy, to ask such a question. Is it not obvious?" said Lydia.

"Yes, Lizzy. It is perfectly obvious to all that William is the most eligible bachelor in Meryton," seconded Kitty.

"Lizzy. Remember who you are talking to, and do not run on in the wild manner that you are suffered to do as usual," cautioned Mrs Bennet.

"Obvious? I do not see why anyone would wish to marry a parson with no fortune and no prospects."

"No prospects? He will be master of this house!" cried Mrs Bennet, unable to follow Elizabeth's strange reasoning.

"Yes! That is a good prospect indeed," she cried sarcastically. "I do not think Papa is suffering from his heart, is he?" she said to her mama, then to William, full of contempt. "You, sir, can expect to inherit Longbourn in twenty, perhaps fifteen years? Where will you take your wife meantime?" Looking at her mama she said, "I know where. To a solitary parsonage to keep company and suffer the dictatorial whimsicalities of your noble patroness, is it not Mr Collins?"

"Lizzy!" cried her mother.

Far from offended, Darcy's curiosity was piqued. "Do I take it then that you do not think well of a man of my profession?"

"You misunderstand me. Of a man of your profession I think quite well, sir."

"But you do not think a parson an eligible man."

"I cannot deny it. Yet it is your case that I particularly abhor. A man whose sole mission is to wait upon another to leave this world in order to advance in life cannot raise my respect. From those quarters I think your prospects quite poor. My father is not sickly at all."

Mr Bennet chuckled and raised his cup as a response to his daughter's words.

"I did not know before," continued Darcy immediately, "that you were a studier of characters and professions. It must be an amusing study. I see that you begin to comprehend my situation," cried he full of mirth.

"Oh! yes -- I understand you perfectly."

"I wish I might take this for a compliment; but the turn of your countenance tells me otherwise." To the rest of the company he added, "I think Miss Elizabeth is completely correct in her estimation of my character and situation." Turning to her, he said, "For my part, I cannot boast of knowing one single lady, in the whole range of my recent acquaintance, that is worthy of being noticed."

"Nor I, I am sure," said Mrs Bennet thinking he was making reference outside her house.

"That is very reasuring, sir," retorted she.

He shook his head and smiled.

"An what would you consider, sir, a lady worthy of your attention?" asked Kitty impertinently.

He thought for a while before answering. "A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve a gentleman's attention, and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading."

Closing her book with a thud Elizabeth looked up at him and said, "I am no longer surprised you cannot find one single lady worthy of your attention in the area, which is not grievous intelligence, I assure you. I rather wonder now at your ever knowing any."

"Are you laughing at me?" asked he with a smile.

Lydia would not have any more of their argument. She had seen, or suspected, enough to be jealous. "You cannot laugh at William, Lizzy," said she in his defence. "He is all calmness of temper and presence of mind! No, you cannot laugh at such a perfect man!"

"Perfect? No, no. There is no such a man in the world, Miss Lydia. I am not perfect. You have given me credit for more than can be. The wisest and the best of men, nay, the wisest and best of their actions, may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke."

"Certainly," replied Elizabeth knowing that his last words had been directed to her-- "there are such people, but I hope I am not one of them. I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can."

"It seems I have just given you good reason to laugh, then. I will try in the future to avoid those weaknesses which expose a strong understanding to ridicule."

"Such as vanity and pride."

"Yes, vanity is a weakness indeed. But pride -- where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation."

Elizabeth turned away to hide a smile.

"Your examination of William is over, I presume," said Lydia impatiently.

"And pray what is the result?" asked Mr Bennet, highly amused.

"I am perfectly convinced by it that Mr Collins will never marry in Longbourn."

Since the argument threatened to continue, Lydia interrupted them by stating a new topic,

"Do you know, mama, that my uncle Philips talks of turning away Richard, and if he does, Colonel Forster will hire him. My aunt told me so herself yesterday. I shall walk to Meryton to-morrow to hear more about it, and to ask when Mr. Denny comes back from town."

Thus silenced, Elizabeth and Darcy resumed their reading. Mary played and sang and while all they were thus tortured, Elizabeth could not help observing, as she turned over her book, how frequently William's eyes were fixed on her. She hardly knew how to suppose that she could be an object of admiration to him after the scene she had made. And yet that he should look at her because he disliked her was still more strange. She was inclined to suppose him still hurt by their argument and shrugged off all ideas that he might find her appealing.

The next morning, the three youngest girls had crept into the barn and were watching Darcy's progress as he groomed his horse. They had all grown so much in love with their cousin that their sighs of love could be heard everywhere they went. Of them all Lydia was the most love struck. Kitty seconded her, and Mary, though in her own shy way, also longed for his regard. As he brushed the noble steed under the last rays of the August sun, his figure somewhat hidden behind the huge frame of the animal, his face would appear and disappear at intervals.

"There he is again!"

One sighed, then another sighed, and then Mary sighed biggest of all.

"At least one of us shall marry him," said this latter.

"What do you mean?" asked Kitty.

"He shall marry Lizzy. He likes her. I have watched him the other day, and have found out."

There was a reflexive silence.

"'Tis not fair. She does not like him," protested Kitty.

"She will marry him nonetheless, which is worse still. Mama will make her," sentenced Mary.

"There he is again!"

"I care little whom he marries. I shall kiss him," Lydia announced.

"Are you out of your wits? You cannot kiss him. Papa will kill you," hissed Kitty.

"You cannot have anything to say. I watched you kissing him."

"She did what?" asked Mary with rounded eyes.

"So she did, the brazen chit! The shade of his face was cast upon the wall while he was churning the milk the other day. Kitty put her mouth against the wall and kissed his mouth."

"For shame!"

"There is nothing wrong in that, is there? I did not kiss him for real."

"O but I will. You can depend on it."

"How are you going to do it?" asked Kitty intrigued. She was quite used to Lydia's ways and knew perfectly well she was speaking in earnest.

"I have not yet thought of how, but I will. I am determined."

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