Photobucket

Photobucket


Photobucket

Photobucket

Parson's Pleasure

Chapter 7

Within a short walk of Longbourn lived the Lucases with whom the Bennets were particularly intimate. Sir William Lucas had been formerly in trade in Meryton, where he had made a tolerable fortune and risen to the honour of knighthood by an address to the King during his mayoralty. Lady Lucas, from whom Darcy had twice received an invitation to dine, was a very good kind of woman, not too clever to be a valuable neighbour to Mrs. Bennet. They had several children. The eldest of them, a sensible, intelligent young woman, about twenty- five, was Elizabeth's intimate friend.

That the Miss Lucases and the Miss Bennets should meet assiduously was not strange, more so after Darcy had settled himself among the Bennets. Thus Longbourn saw the recurrent visits of these young people, particularly the two young daughters who wished to become better acquainted with the young parson who had been universally declared the rightful property of every unmarried girl in the area, to Mrs Bennet's vexation.

The sun shone bright and hot in the sky on Saturday, and Darcy had finished his sermon, thus it was decided that part of the afternoon would be used for playing outdoor games. Lydia and Kitty were the schemers of the activity. As usual the Lucas children were calling and so were Mrs Long's nieces. Mary, though she despised games in general, took part in the entertainment as well while Mr and Mrs Bennet agreed only to sit in the shade and watch them play.

Elizabeth, still keeping serious objections against Darcy, chose to remain aloof and distant beside her parents. Therefore, she sat in the shade composing a letter to Jane, while the merriment of her younger sisters and friends reached her in the form of distant wafts of laughter.

It had been Elizabeth's studious intention to remain inconspicuous in the presence of her cousin. Yet in not taking part of the games she made a huge mistake. Far from distracting him from her presence, it was made quite evident for he often wondered about her choosing to remain detached. Thus he felt inclined to seek her and so it was that while the young people debated on what the next game would be, Darcy spied his cousin Elizabeth, busily writing her letter, with renewed interest. It was then that he first discerned in her something that was familiar, something which carried him back into a befuddlement of emotions that both stirred his blood and left him full of embarrassment. He concluded that it must be the occasion of their first meeting which he could not recall. In any case he was not particularly curious about the circumstances of their previous encounter yet, the notion, the feeling left his head reeling and was sufficient to lead his eye to select Elizabeth in preference to any other.

Elizabeth, who was in truth watching their games out of the corner of her eye, soon became conscious that he was regarding her yet again, and began to play with her pen with the constraint of that creature who perceives herself to be watched.

At length, her cousin came over to her of his own accord. As she watched him approach her, she pursed her lips in an annoyed gesture so as to leave no doubt as to what she thought of him and how little did she like his seeking her out.

"Miss Elizabeth. I hope you are feeling well this morning?"

"I am. Thank you, Mr Collins," she said as dismissively as humanly possible.

"Pray, call me William."

With an exasperated expression she bade, "William."

"I was observing you, madam, and I could not help to wonder if there is anything the matter with you. I would not like to be impertinent, but I have noticed your indisposition against today's entertainment. I understand you enjoy exercise a lot."

"For someone who does not know me, you presume too much. There is nothing wrong with me, sir. I am just not feeling particularly gregarious today. Besides, I wish to post this letter for my sister as soon as may be."

"I see. 'Tis a pity though. We are having a devilishly delightful morning. I doubt I have ever spent a pleasanter time in my life."

At his use of the term 'devilishly', Elizabeth arched a brow thinking it was not a word very proper in a man of his profession. "The pleasantness does not necessarily demonstrate its propriety," she answered with a serious countenance.

Darcy thought he could distinguish some amusement in her voice. "On the contrary. A man of my investiture never takes pleasure in what is wrong. Therefore I defy you to find fault in my present entertainment."

"In the uncommon amount of time you spend alone with my younger sisters, some may find a considerable degree of impropriety, especially coming from a man of your investiture."

Far from being offended, Darcy seemed diverted by her unreasonable censure. "And just how would you suggest that I should employ my time?"

"I do not intend to direct your life, sir."

" 'Tis a pity. I should be glad to have such a fine conductor." His dimples appeared as if by magic and despite herself, Elizabeth's heart played her a trick, pumping too much blood and instantly flushing her cheeks with a very becoming crimson. It was impossible not to be affected with his nearness. Especially today, because as he spoke, she noticed he had a playful manner and his eyes sparkled with mirth.

Darcy was a bit surprised at her reaction. Was it possible that she was partial to him?

"Be not alarmed, Miss Bennet," he said quickly. "I have merely come hither in the hope of persuading you to join us in our game."

"In that case you are wasting your time. I am not in the mood for trifling games. I had much rather spend my time in more profitable employments," she said archly and turned away. If her resistance had not injured Darcy or her impertinent remarks had not offended him, the coldness of her rejection did. His mind set instantly to wonder as to her reasons for her censure. Had he unwittingly done anything that might have offended her? He was thinking about that when he was accosted by Lydia, who had grown bored of waiting for him.

"I am sorry, girls. We shall have to think of another game. Miss Elizabeth could not be prevailed upon to join us."

"O never mind Lizzy. She will come around, you know," Mrs Bennet said reassuringly. "I shall have a word with her."

"By all means no, my dear lady. Let her be."

That Mrs Bennet would not let Lizzy be, both embarrassed and angered Darcy. So much so that he determined himself to have a serious conversation with Mr Bennet at the first opportunity.

But Mrs Bennet was a helpless case. She was determined to marry Darcy to Lizzy and the presence of all those girls added to Lizzy's willful contumacy was not helping her plans. To the general convulsion that this competition to Darcy's hand had risen, an evil which nothing could counteract had been added. There had been much talk about the desirability of Darcy's preaching for Michelmas, but there were serious doubts as to his staying so long away from his own parish, for no curate would be able to accomplish all the parson's duties for such a long absence, so Dr Grant had declared with great regret.

In truth, what threatened his permanence was a letter that had reached him from Kent, the contents of which he had not breathed a word. Granted, Mr Bennet had previously written to Lady Catherine twice, first to apprise her of the accident that her parson had suffered and second to excuse his young cousin under his wing while Darcy was still unable to compose a letter, for he had already stayed longer than had originally been planned. In this latter Mr Bennet had assured her ladyship that only for the sake of a full restoration of his health did William extend his stay. Having corresponded with her ladyship twice, it was not a surprise that she should write yet again.

However, her ladyship addressed her letter to Mr Collins, and Mr Bennet had no idea of the contents of it. There was fear that her ladyship was summoning him back to Kent. Understandably, what with the landslide of invitations to dine and the likelihood of his detachment from Longbourn, Mrs Bennet was in hysterics. To have such a perfectly suitable beau for one of her daughters so close to a marriage proposal and to be so deprived of him without success, was an evil which nothing could counterbalance. The happiness of her family and their whole future were at stake, and while a prolongation of William's stay was still in suspense she would pine and sob over Mr Bennet in a vain endeavour that he should procure and secure the parson for a son-in-law.

It was Sunday after church when Mrs Bennet poured her fears out to her husband. "You must talk to Lizzy before someone else snatches him!" cried she as she spied the Lucas children once more on her lawn. "Here they are again! Have they not anything to do at home?" she hissed. "Are we to entertain all the girls in the country?"

Mr. Bennet remained silent.

Mrs Bennet looked around and saw Lizzy alone sitting on her swing, while the rest of the young people watched Darcy guide his horse to the exercise ring.

"You must do something about your daughter, Mr Bennet. There is danger that if she does not warm to William he will never ask for her hand and end up hitched to that plain girl!"

"What can I do? Lizzy cannot be prevailed upon to talk to him, let alone marry him. It seems a hopeless case!"

While this conversation was going on, Charlotte Lucas found Lizzy sitting on her swing behind the barn. Maria came along with her while Master John joined Catherine and Mary on the other side of the lawn. Darcy began to exercise his horse while Lydia rode it astride, endeavouring to keep her balance while her bottom jumped up and down at the rhythm of the horse's gentle gait. She was still determined to plant a kiss on her cousin and had schemed all sorts of tricks to catch him unawares but so far with no success. Catherine, full of curiosity and mischief, was watching their progress from afar while Mary stayed solely to admonish her sister against the evils of flirting with young men, yet she herself did not take leave to avoid temptation.

"Your cousin William is very hardworking, Lizzy," observed Charlotte as they spied Darcy's sweating figure under the sun.

"And very handsome indeed!" added Maria with pubescent admiration.

"Handsome! I dare say people would admire him in general, but he is not at all in my type of beauty. I hate a dark complexion and dark eyes in a man."

"I think he is pretty intelligent too," declared Charlotte. "I have heard the vicar discuss his sermon with him the other day. His opinions are quite radical, I daresay, yet he took prodigious care never to offend." Lizzy looked askance and huffed in displeasure. "Your sisters seem to like him a great deal. I thought it was a settled thing that he had come to ask for your hand," Charlotte said.

"It is a settled thing in my mother's imagination, Charlotte."

"I would not be so sure. He did not accept mama's invitations to dine at home. That is quite a hint, is it not? Besides, why would he come at all if not to secure one of you in matrimony? Had he not sent a letter stating that that was the purpose for his visit?"

"That was before he had the accident, Charlotte. How can you expect him to be seeking a wife now?"

"So he has quit his quest? That cannot be agreeable to your mama!"

Lizzy did not answer.

When Darcy finished exercising his horse, Lydia joined Maria, Mary and Catherine in their entertainment of watching over Darcy. The young Lucas boy beheld the group from behind a little bewildered and not a little intrigued since he failed to understand what exactly they were looking at. From his perspective all he saw was a gentleman and a horse. What could possibly be so interesting about that? The girls watched silently a little longer with their faces closed together and a mooning expression on their countenances while the unconscious Darcy, merrily whistling a tune, guided the horse back into the barn.

"I know it! I know it!" Lydia cried excitedly.

"What?" asked the young Lucas boy.

"I shall ask him to teach me how to whistle and shall kiss him when he pouts his lips like so!"

"For mercy, Lydia!"

"How perfectly charming!" chirped Kitty.

"I know how to whistle, Lydia. It is simple. I can teach you," declared the young Lucas boy innocently.

"No, thank you very much." Then she paused to behold him and added with a smirk, "but you can help me to practise later on."

"Lydia. You shall burn in Hades! It is high time you stop this nonsense!" cried Mary.

"I shall burn if I do not kiss William! Besides ... there is a time for everything under the sun."

"Do not quote from the Word of the Lord in vain!" her sister admonished severely.

"Why not? You do it all the time. Only I remember the pretty verses and you only the bitter ones!"

Nothing Mary could say persuaded Lydia from her resolve to kiss her cousin. She thought it a perfect scheme and in order to carry it she procured to find a time in which he could be found alone.

All the while, Charlotte and Elizabeth continued discussing Darcy.

"Lizzy," said Charlotte. "I do not want to sound impertinent, but ...are you sure of what you have said to me? You are not rejecting your father's heir's suit because of your silly infatuation with Mr. Wickham, are you?" Lizzy looked fixedly at the hem of her dress. "Lizzy, you'd be a simpleton if you let this opportunity go. You must consider. Your Cousin William is a thousand times better suitor than any officer."

Lizzy, both vexed with Charlotte for not letting the subject be, and grieved to the heart of the impossibility of acquainting her friend with all the particulars of her repulsion for her cousin, passed her all the intelligence of the argument they had had over dinner the day before, thinking that economic reasons would be enough for Charlotte's practical mind.

"I know his wallet is not all one would expect at the moment," said she after hearing Lizzy's argumentation. "But with time, Lizzy, he will succeed your father in the management of Longbourn. You must exert some patience, that is all. I do not think you will have a better opportunity, Lizzy. You should secure him soon as may be."

"Secure him?" she laughed scornfully. "And how, pray, is such a thing to be done?"

"Why, encouraging his affections. In nine cases out of ten a woman had better show more affection than she feels."

"But I do not feel any affection for him."

"Perhaps not now. But if you put your heart to it, I am perfectly sure you will like him tolerably well."

"Your plan is a good one when nothing is in question but the desire to be married. The man had not even hinted at being interested in courting me. How can you be so sure he would suit me?" she asked frustrated. "He does not love me, and I certainly do not love him. And I am determined to marry only for love. I could never act by design."

"When you have secured him, there will be leisure for falling in love as much as you chuse."

"You make me laugh, Charlotte. As you represent it, love is the natural result of marriage."

"I think you can succeed in loving him should you marry him tomorrow or were you to study his character for a twelvemonth."

"Marry him? Before I am sure of his character? Before I am sure I will be happy with him?"

"Happiness in marriage is the result of chance. It makes no difference if you have met a gentleman a week ago or a year ago. There will always be time for vexation. To my thinking, the less one knows about one's partner upon entering in the marriage state, the better."

"You cannot be serious!"

"Besides, even when I am not at all romantic, one must be blind not to notice that it would be very easy to fall in love with such a handsome man as your cousin is, Lizzy."

"Well. He is not handsome enough to tempt me!" she cried, and just then she perceived that there was a change in Charlotte's countenance. She turned excessively red and her eyes went wide open. Lizzy whispered. "Pray tell me he is not behind me?" Charlotte gave several quick nods. "Lord." Elizabeth whispered to herself. How much had he heard?

Darcy coughed. "Miss Elizabeth?"

"Yes?"

"I am sorry to interrupt you, but Miss Lydia has just told me you two were planning to walk to Meryton this afternoon, and I wonder if you are thinking of posting your letter to Miss Jane?"

"I am."

"Will it not inconvenience you if I trust you with a letter of my own?"

"Not at all."

"Very well. I thank you." He then took his leave from Charlotte and sending a hurt look in Elizabeth's direction went inside the house. Elizabeth instantly knew he was thoroughly offended.

"Do think he heard me?"

"Every single word."

"Lord! What shall I do? What will he think of me?"

"La! What he thinks of you is of no consequence. You do not like him! You care too little about him to look for his approbation!"

"Indeed. You are right. What should I care?"

"O Lizzy!"

~ * ~

It must be owned that in Lydia's determination to kiss Darcy there was a new and bright side. It was the first time since she had come out that she endeavoured to marry the fellow she wanted to kiss. Of Lydia's fancy Mrs Bennet was insensible, hence her blind confidence in leaving her youngest daughter unchaperoned and at large to seek and pester Darcy as much as she chose.

Now, if Kitty had kissed Darcy's mouth's shadow cast on a wall, the least Lydia would attempt would be to emulate her, only this time, she expected to extract a favour from the young man in the flesh and not a mere shadow. She followed his movements with excessive care and came to the conclusion that the best moment to do it would be early in the morning when he was alone in the barn rehearsing his sermon after the milking had been finished only with the horses to bear witness to her wickedness.

Lydia was a stout, well-grown girl of fifteen, with a fine complexion and good-humoured countenance. She had high animal spirits, and a sort of natural self-consequence. Mr Darcy was a young man of five and twenty who was not immune to any girl's advances ... So when she climbed the narrow stairs with every intention to seduce him, one would not be able to find fault with the gentleman. However as she poked her rosy face amidst a heap of straw just in front of Darcy, far from feeling seduced, the poor man almost jumped out of his skin.

"In the name of ... What are you doing here?"

"May I come in?" she said, yet she did not wait for him to answer, and sooner than Darcy could react, she was seated beside him in the highest part of the barn. "What are you doing?" she asked.

He showed her his sermon. "And what are you doing here?" he asked in answer.

"I was wondering if you could teach me how to whistle?"

"Beg your pardon?"

"How to whistle. You do it all the time, I have watched you. I have tried to do it but to no avail. Could you show me?"

"You mean ...whistle?" he asked pouting his lips. She nodded emphatically. "This is a most inconvenient time, child. I am busy here."

"O but it cannot be too difficult. Only show me how to do it and then I shall practise."

Darcy sighed. He had been long enough at Longbourn to know that Lydia was foreign both to negatives and reasoning. "As long as you go and practise somewhere else. I have not taken the trouble to come up here for nothing. In case you have not noticed my intention was to seek solitude and silence," he said firmly but kindly.

"I understand. I promise I shall not bother you."

"Very well. Let me see. Have you ever tried to do it?" She shook her head with an innocent look upon her face. "I see. Like you said, it is simple. You just have to round your lips and blow."

"Like so?" she said with her lips rounded.

"Just like that. Now blow." She did so but nothing but soundless air escaped her lips.

Now, it was in Darcy's nature that whenever he set on a task he must see it through and in the best possible manner. Albeit the situation was ridiculous, and both the discipline and disciple quite unusual, yet he truly endeavoured to teach Lydia how to whistle and would have accomplished it had Lydia not had other intentions in her mind.

"No, no, no, no. You must use your tongue too."

"My tongue?"

"Yes."

"Like this?" She rounded her lips as well and stuck the rosy tip of her tongue out only a little.

"No. Your tongue must be behind your teeth. Not out of your mouth." He demonstrated it and she imitated him yet nothing happened. Ever so slowly, Lydia came closer and closer with the excuse of observing the way he positioned his tongue behind his teeth. They were so close to each other that Lydia found the accomplishment of her plan easier than expected. In a blink of an eye she had her lips on his. There, it was done.

He froze. Instinctively, in a vain endeavour to demonstrate his innocence in the affair, his arms flew up as if a gun were pointed at him. He was so shocked that he could not immediately extricate himself from her. She took great advantage of his hesitation and deepened the kiss as much as she could. At last, Darcy, recovered from the shock and stood up, his head banging painfully against the wooden ceiling of the barn.

"Ow!"

"I am sorry!"

"You ...you ... you just ... your tongue ... what do you think you are doing?"

"I love you," she whined.

"Hush! You mustn't say such things."

"I love you, I do. Please, William. Do you not, do you not want to marry me?"

"Marry you? Have you been out in the sun?"

"Do not tease me William. I love you so much."

"You love me, eh?" said he beginning to recover from the shock. He sat at a safe distance and beheld her with a furrow in his brow. "I see. What about Mr Denny?"

"What about him?"

"You said you were going to inquire after him yesterday afternoon when you walked to Meryton with your sister."

"O, hang Denny. I love you. You do not care about me?"

"Of course I care."

"O, do you? Then Mary was wrong. You do not care about Lizzy!" She was about to pounce on him again, but he was now alert and jumped up before she could catch him.

"Lydia, child. How can I make you understand? I care about you as my little sister. I cannot love you in any other manner. Besides, you are too young to know what marriage means."

"I know I love you and I want to be your wife. You do not love Lizzy and she does not love you, so you cannot marry her."

"What is all this nonsense about marriage and what has Miss Elizabeth to do with it?"

"Mary says you shall marry her, but she says she does not even like you," she said. "But I know it is not true. She just boasts that she does not like you, but I am certain she says that because she is just jealous."

"Is she?" asked Mr Darcy beginning to find the situation diverting. "This is interesting. I want to know more. So Miss Elizabeth despises me because she likes me."

"Yes, yes. She sees you take pleasure in my company better than hers and is afraid that you should chuse me instead of her."

"Chuse you? Instead of her?"

"Yes."

"For marriage? While I am still recovering from my fall? Do you truly believe I could seek a wife in this condition?"

"But you will marry one of us," said she. "You are our father's only heir..."

"Your father's ... ah. You must be referring to the entailment."

"Yes. Mama told us already that you came here to chuse a wife from one of us. And she had set herself that you should marry Lizzy, 'cause she is the eldest but one, for Jane is already engaged," Lydia blurted without air intake.

For the first time understanding of what the issue was about dawned on Darcy. "I see," he sighed with a furrowed brow. "It is astonishing."

"So are you going to marry her?"

"Who?"

"Lizzy, you goose. Mary says you like her better than us all."

He smiled. "Your sister Mary is very insightful."

"Then she is right. You love Lizzy."

"Love her! Ha! A lady's imagination is very rapid indeed; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony, in a moment."

"I do not understand. Do you like Lizzy or not?"

"How can I not like her? She has passion and liveliness, all of which I am short of. But that is not enough to make the foundation of a good marriage, Miss Lydia. Especially between people so different from each other as we are."

"O but I am ten times more passionate than Lizzy. See? I have kissed you! None of my sisters had done that! And I am the youngest of them all!"

"You should not be proud of that, Miss Lydia. Young ladies do not go about kissing gentlemen. You must exert yourself and promise never to do it again."

"O do not be a milksop, William!"

"I am serious, Miss Lydia. This is hardly ..."

"I hate you, William. I hate you, I do. Here I am offering myself to you, and you can only make sermons."

"Upon my word you change your mind quite rapidly! One minute you love me and the next you hate me with all your heart!"

"Be serious, William!"

"Very well. Let us suppose I ask for your hand. Do you think God and nature might have intended you for a parson's wife? Do you think yourself formed for labour instead of love? You must know a parson's wife must work, and very hard."

"How hard?"

"Very much, I assure you. I have worked with Dr Grant and his wife this se'nnight and have found out. Just take for instance your humility. You shall not be allowed to wear those pretty, colourful gowns you are so fond of. You see, when a parson claims a woman for him, he claims her not for his pleasure, but for the Lord's service. Your gowns will be humble. Your working hours long. The Lord is only pleased with the hardworking. Do you believe yourself worthy of His summons?"

"O no. I am not fit for hard work."

"See, I knew you would not be." There was a pause. "Now listen to me. If I ever learn that you have persevered in this behaviour with any other gentlemen, I shall tell your father you have kissed me. Of course, then I shall have to marry you and you shall become a parson's wife with everything that that entails, understand?"

"Ow!"

"Now. Where were we? Ah yes. I was teaching you how to whistle."

"Never mind that. John Lucas promised to teach me anyway." And with that she left him alone in the barn. Scarcely had Lydia parted with him than Darcy sought Mr Bennet to talk about the marriage issue. Mr Bennet, of course, heard him with pleasure and did not hesitate to confirm him every intelligence Lydia had passed him regarding the expected marriage offer. The intelligence baffled him exceedingly.

"I have a very kind letter here from you, my lad," Mr Bennet replied, pulling out his papers. "Here, you can read it yourself."

Darcy scanned the letter with great interest. It was a gentleman's composition for sure, though Darcy failed to recognise it as his own. When he eventually came to that part in which his devotion for Lady Catherine was mentioned in such mortifying terms, his sense of shame was severe. A feeling of embarrassment and remorse took possession of his countenance as he read on, when the entailment issue was so freely discussed and he blushed a great deal wondering how the deuce he could have written the missive in such grotesque, unnatural English. "I cannot believe I composed this," he said to himself as he read it with a puzzled expression. "This is hardly the way I would express myself."

Darcy protested vehemently that he should have been informed of the document before, but Mr Bennet argued that under his circumstances he had thought it better not to press him on such matters. It was evident to both that Mrs Bennet's idea was different. Mr Bennet observed his cousin's anxiety grow as he read on and he could not help a chuckle. "Well?"

"Dammy, sir. I certainly doubt I have written this."

If Mr Bennet was surprised to hear his cousin's oath, he did not say. In any case it was not the first time he had abused the language. On the unhappy occasion in which Old Pretty chose to commune with nature on his shoes while he was under her, Mr Bennet had heard a kaleidoscope of unholy words escape his lips. "Read on, sir. You shall see it was you."

Darcy obeyed. Though the more he read the least he could believe he was the author of the missive. Noble patroness fiddlesticks! Surely Miss Elizabeth was dead right when she argued that she is a wealthy old dowager with nothing else to do than meddle in the lives of her tenants. Why would I offer marriage to a stranger under the officious orders of this woman? The normal procedure would have been to get to know the lady first.

And what is this? Olive branch? What does this mean? Finally lowering the scribbled paper he sighed, "I take it that my father and you were on no good terms."

"That is long forgotten, son."

Darcy nodded and held the letter towards Mr Bennet, eyes in puzzled vacancy.

"Very well. I suppose this settles things between us," said Darcy bitterly.

Mr Bennet saw perfectly well that his cousin was not at all reconciled to the marriage idea, and after looking at him guiltily for a while he said, "There is no need for you to offer for the girls if you are no longer of that mind, sir."

Darcy stiffened. His sleeping English lion within yawned and with it his haughtiness reappeared. "There is no need for you to remind me what my duty is, sir. I shall do what I must."

Chapter 8

Albeit Darcy's attraction for Elizabeth began to be evident to the keen eye of those who surrounded them every day, neither he nor she was conscious of it. She was too busy hating him to acknowledge Darcy's partiality, and he was too afraid and confused to act upon his feelings.

It is well known to all Austen's readers that Mr Bennet loved his children, though not alike. He thought well of Jane, who was constant and kind and above all obedient and submissive. Of Mary he thought equally well, though for the love of the Lord would wish she were a lot more proficient at the piano forte, or at least more inclined to drawing rather than singing. The two youngest he tolerated and prayed for their growing up as expeditiously as possible. Elizabeth was by far his favourite, or at least, had been until the arrival of Mr Darcy.

Mr Bennet's affection for him deserves another chapter.

As already stated, Mr Bennet and Mr Darcy spent a good deal of the day together. Little by little Darcy developed a taste for the same things his elder cousin liked. Together, they read Mr Bennet's books, the kind of which up to this day Mr Darcy had never set eyes on, for most of them dealt with farming.

Mr Darcy's reserved disposition was also another of his many assets in the eye of the older gentleman, since despite his young years he seemed to enjoy a quiet evening in the library much better than a soiree. And although Mr Bennet's sense of humour differed thoroughly from that of Darcy, he could keep him company for longer than anyone else could before.

His young cousin turned out to be the boy the good God had denied him. He reckoned William's father, with whom Mr Bennet had fallen out some years before, had not been a sensible man. His relative's deficiency of nature had been but little assisted by education or society. In being raised under the guidance of so illiterate and miserly a father William's greatest part of life could have been wasted. That the fruit of such an unworthy parent had resulted in so agreeable and well educated an offpring Mr Bennet found hard to comprehend. He was astonished, perplexed yet infinitely pleased with the outcome. More, William's outstanding intelligence convened with his great humility and good manners rendered him a most desirable heir and delightful companion.

Mr Darcy's feelings for the Bennets were a different story.

Of this incongruous family, Mr Darcy found himself helplessly part and it must be owned that he might have borne the role with tolerable complacency had it not been for the trifling issue of the choice of bride. The notion of the marriage expectations nestled in his relatives' bosom would have been repulsive and highly reprehensible given the precarious state of his memory had it not been for the spell Miss Elizabeth's beautiful eyes had cast on him. Her long dark lashes had bewitched him without his ever knowing when and how the pleasing plague had stolen on him. From her, however, to Mrs Bennet's vexation, he usually remained conspicuously distant, primarily because of the embarrassment which both his new regard for her and the hymeneal expectations had created, and secondly because her coldness and detachment discomfited him exceedingly.

It was on occasion of his being unguarded that Elizabeth happened to find him as she left for her habitual escapade to Miss Lucas's house. The encounter took place one Saturday in August, when Elizabeth was sure Mr Wickham would be rambling about the road, for Saturday was his day off. The minute she spied Mr Darcy sitting on the stone bench under the willows, she instantly slowed her tread and came to a complete halt a few yards from him, unsure whether to pass him by or return in her steps to avoid him altogether. But alas, she had not made up her mind yet, when Mr Darcy sensed her presence and looking up to her, acknowledged her with a light bob of his head and a friendly smile.

It was indeed very awkward, since she was quite excited about the prospect of meeting Mr Wickham on her way. The last thing she wished for was to be found by Mr Wickham walking with her cousin. Her only consolation was that Darcy was not on speaking terms with her, for he must be thoroughly offended after he heard her saying he was not handsome enough for her. That he should still be offended was even stranger, since he had never showed any partiality for her, save the occasional praise for her cooking. That he was not inclined to like her, Elizabeth had no doubt, least of all to make her an offer. He had given enough notice of his hauteur at the creek, hence she felt safe. From his behaviour towards her younger sisters, however, she would have thought him inclined to chuse one of them. They had certainly lost their hearts to him.

If there was something Elizabeth did not wish, it was to spend one minute alone with Darcy again, therefore she found it imperative to avoid a repetition of a solitary encounter with him in the wilderness. To prevent its ever happening again, she took care to inform him that it was a favourite haunt of hers. -- How it could occur a second time, therefore, was very odd! -- Yet it did, and even a third. It seemed like wilful ill-nature, or a voluntary penance, for on these occasions it was not merely a few formal enquiries and an awkward pause and then away, but he actually thought it necessary to turn back and walk with her. He never said a great deal, nor did she give herself the trouble of talking or of listening much; but it struck her in the course of their third rencontre that he was asking some odd unconnected questions -- about her pleasure in being at Longbourn, her love of solitary walks, and her opinion of his profession.

"I have always thought the church to be the last choise of a man's career," she answered, purposely trying to inflict pain. "The church is the lot of the youngest where there are many to chuse before him."

"Do you think the church itself never to be chosen, then?"

"O not never. I should imagine the very idle would choose it For what is to be done in the church? Gentlemen often distinguish themselves in the choice of their careers...Even a dairyman can be better that others. But a churchman? A churchman is nothing."

"But then some are blessed with an uncle or a grandfather to leave them a fortune," he teased.

"A very praiseworthy practise, I understand," she answered with an arch smile.

"But as you have very wisely stated, a second son can never rely on his benefactor's premature death,"

"True."

"I agree that a cleryman cannot be high in state or fashion," he said in a more serious tone. "But still I cannot call that situation nothing. They have the guardianship of religion and morals, and consequently of the manners which result of their influence."

She laughed. "How one sermon a week, even supposing them worth hearing, could serve to recommend any man's work I cannot fathom. Neither can such a man influence his congregation from his pulpit when in truth he leads a double life."

"You are speaking of clergymen in general or should I take it you have one particular man in mind?"

"You, sir, cannot consider yourself the guardian of morals and manners!"

"Can I not? Nay! I should think you are correct. I am far from flawless. I very much think as you, ma'am. I am perfectly convinced that the influence of a clergyman cannot be felt from a pulpit. A fine preacher can be admired from afar, but a good clergyman will only govern the conduct of his congregation if he is useful to his parish."

"I cannot see what this usefulness is. To me you assign yourself and your profession greater consequence than one has been used to hearing given. But you must not waste your time trying to persuade me into giving you credit. You have persuaded everyone else."

"I wish I could persuade you as well."

"I do not think you ever will," she said archly. "Once someone has lost my regard, he has lost it for ever."

"A resentful character! But pray, what is my fault?"

She hesitated. "I have not said you have earned my resentment, Mr Collins. I was merely stating the nature of my character."

"A graceful answer. I thank you."

There was nothing more to be said. It was obvious that Elizabeth did not like him, nor was he inclined to believe she would ever be persuaded otherwise. Such was his discomfort with the treatment his favourite had given him that he would have left Longbourn and his inhabitants in a blink of an eye had he not other worries that filled his mind, namely Lady Catherine's letter and her request that he should stay in Hertfordshire to make a thorough inquisition after her nephew, a Mister Darcy, of whom her ladyship had not heard for more than a month and who was feared to have suffered some terrible happenstance in the area.

It seemed that the gentleman in question was last known to have been in the Longbourn neighbourhood. Lady Catherine had her nephew, Colonel Fitzwilliam, following his tracks in town and she wished her worthy parson to correspond with him in case he came upon any news of Mr Darcy's whereabouts.

Ask everyone. Do not leave one single stone unturned. Do not rest until you have discovered something, Mr Collins," read her ladyship's pledge.

Little did her Ladyship know that the quest she had set upon the gentleman's shoulders was the strangest of all.

Colonel Fitzwilliam was not at all addicted to letter writing, least of all to corresponding with his relative from Kent, though, for the sake of propriety, he never failed to read and answer as concisely as humanly possible whenever her ladyship deigned to pen him a letter.

Within a little more than a se'nnight from the farewell of his cousin Darcy, the receipt of his aunt's letter at his father's house in Bath was not a case for rejoicing and worse still when he read its contents.

My dear Nephew,

"I take up pen to communicate some very alarming intelligence, which I do not doubt will give you much concern and spur you into immediate action for the sake of your cousin."

This beginning was quite agitating, and more so as he read on and found out that Darcy had failed to answer two letters from her ladyship in a fortnight and that his manservant had been unaware of his whereabouts for more than the same length of time. He was about to send a man to inquire after him when Mr. Darcy's friend, a Mr. Bingley, came to Darcy house in town claiming to have expected to see Darcy in London whence he had vouched to have parted.

Darcy had gone to London alone and had not been seen by anyone in Mr. Bingley's party ever since, nor had they received the shortest note from him. The manservant had left a note in Matlock townhouse expecting to reach Colonel Fitzwilliam there, but found the house locked and the family gone to Bath. An express had been sent there in the hope of finding him, and acquaint him and Lord Matlock with the particulars of the situation, for her ladyship feared that her nephew might have suffered a terrible accident or fallen into the hands of highwaymen.

"This distressing possibility and the notion that your excellent cousin is incapable of misconduct of any sort, has agitated us exceedingly, and we cannot prevent ourselves from being greatly alarmed."

Colonel Fitzwilliam read no more. That Darcy had not written to her ladyship was not as preoccupying as the fact that Reynolds was not privy to his whereabouts. After he penned her ladyship a brief note, assuring her that he would take immediate action, he took some men and went directly to London. Nothing came from his quest there except that Mr. Bingley joined him in his efforts to find Darcy, and while the gentleman set himself to search high and low in town, Colonel Fitzwilliam took up to search the roads.

At about a se'nnight from receiving the alarm, Colonel Fitzwilliam finally reached the road that led to Hertfordshire, where he reckoned his cousin had headed in search of Mr. Bingley. He had been, till then, more inclined to hope than to fear for his cousin, till he discovered the presence of some dangerous highwaymen that had been in the whereabouts before they were caught and hanged in _______. But his sanguine thought found cause to persevere when after further inquiry he was shown the booty that had been recovered and there was nothing there that he recollected could belong to Darcy. He was struck, however to find a fine carriage belonging to her ladyship, and his curiosity was piqued.

He returned to town, and was about to report his cousin as missing both to the Quarterly and Edinburgh Review, when he was handed a most strange letter in his cousin's handwriting.

The letter assured him that Mr. Darcy was not to be found in Hertfordshire nor was his name known amidst the general population but that the writer promised to send the smallest intelligence regarding his whereabouts the moment he were to discover anything and recommended the intervention of the law in the investigation.

The handwriting was Darcy's; the style was his as well. The careful use of long words and the dignified flow of his pen could not be mistaken with any other. Yet he wrote as if he were someone else, and signed RWC. What could that mean? Fitzwilliam was momentarily flabbergasted.

Now, Colonel Fitzwilliam was a good fellow, though in being a man used to the battlefield and the company of rather brute men, he was, if you wish, rather poor in brains. Had he being told that Darcy was involved in debts or in gaming, he would have set out immediately to Hertfordshire to investigate. Yet in being himself a rake, his twisted mind led him to imagine that if Darcy sent such a letter, he must mean to apprise him of his well being, and at the same time discreetly hint that he wished to remain lost for a while. Perchance he had finally lost his stupidity with women and was now having a proper affair in Hertfordshire. Knowing Darcy's caution regarding the ladies he bedded, he could understand his decision to write under a secret identity.

Albeit it was not like Darcy to behave in this reckless manner, Colonel Fitzwilliam could not think of any other explanation, while he thought it was high time someone else played the dandified rake in his family other than him. That Darcy actually acted like the young wild man the colonel had always wished he were, was welcome intelligence, though, for a kingdom! That he should disappear without a note knowing quite well his family would be more than preoccupied was, if anything, out of character.

Colonel Fitzwilliam could never imagine how far his cousin was from becoming a rake.

Having the natural inclination to be the master of his own time Darcy was at first ill disposed to act as a detective for her ladyship. After he had been persuaded that the only eligible daughter of his cousin would not marry him, he had his mind set on returning to Kent. Yet the dignity of her Ladyship's request, the fact that this young man might be in danger, or perhaps dead in some wild bend of the road, and an incomprehensible sympathy that the mention of his name raised in his heart combined to affect his impulses of repulsion and he finally agreed to stay for the investigation. He had written a long letter in response to his patroness, and another to Colonel Fitzwilliam in which he recommended the intervention of a bailiff in the affair. This done, he continued the labours of both the farm and the parish as actively and faithfully as he could while he took every opportunity to inquire after the lost gentleman. These three tasks together meant truly hard work and a great deal of visiting the neighbours but his efforts soon fructified for albeit nothing came of his enquiries, he did earn a name and promptly became a favourite in the neighbourhood.

Although Darcy was a new-comer and did not know them very well, people, both poor and rich felt more inclined to trust their sins and misdeeds to this young man than to the older and more severe Dr Grant. They grew surprisingly comfortable with the former because Darcy, for obvious reasons, never cited from the scriptures or gave them heavy penitence or condemned their wrongdoing with threats of the burning flames of Hades but usually had a word of wisdom and many a word of comfort which were much more desirable than any sermon. His quiet disposition made of him the best of confessors. Nor was he inclined to meddle in the affairs of others. All this earned him the people's respect, hence he was loved in the way only the truly caring parson was. Whenever he went out, with or without company, he heard on all sides cordial salutations and was welcomed with friendly smiles both by the working class and the superior society of Meryton and Longbourn.

This Elizabeth did not fail to notice and she was reminded of their conversation in the wilderness with a bitter feeling of shame. Yet, that her odious cousin would be so much loved among her own people both puzzled and enraged Elizabeth, who every day hated and suspected him a little more. Elizabeth mused on their circumstances a good deal, wondered if it would be sensible of her to confess the particulars of their first encounter, and if she did so whether she would escape the undesirable outcome that the wet meeting must have. There was a good explanation to her hauteur for she had every reason to be suspicious of him. Had he, in spite of being a parson, not attacked her at the creek and displayed the rudest of characters? Did that reprehensible conduct not make of him a man of the worst moral conduct? Had he not most purposely paraded his nudity in front of her? There was no telling what this wolf in the cloth of a harmless sheep could do at large amidst these innocent people that trusted him so much. How a man like that could have earned the respect and admiration of so many in such little time she failed to comprehend. Granted, ever since his fall he had not showed himself in any light other than amiability and good manners. He was the picture of decorum and gentlemanlike behaviour. But he would not fool her, not even if he had the whole town charmed, no sir, she knew his true colours. It was a matter of time before everyone else discovered them too.

She thought of all this and more as she walked from Longbourn to Meryton carrying the letters to the post and while her mind was thus employed she felt a rush of heat building from her bosom. Her blush was so pronounced that Lydia asked her if she was unwell. It might well have been the rapid steps of her gait or the insufferable heat of the first hours of the afternoon that was causing her to blush but the truth was that she had been revisited with the unshakable recollection of her cousin's naked body as he abandoned the creek. That the mere thought of her cousin would revive the indecorous image of his proud flesh was intolerable, more so when, even after she had made every possible effort, she could not displace the image from her mind.

However offended, and this she would never admit, Elizabeth was not insensible to Darcy's many attributes. If truth may be told, I daresay that she too had been cast in his charm, only that she did not oblige her feelings and did the best she could to bury them amidst a heap of unreasonable reasons to dislike him. Still, his beautiful dark eyes were set on her with a constancy than any normal specimen of the female species would have never withstood without falling irremediably in love with him. And Elizabeth was a very normal specimen of her species. In a word, she thought William Collins a very attractive young man. Understandingly, Elizabeth had been privy to a depth in his person no other gentle woman in the area would have ever dreamt of. Yet, albeit his manliness had indeed made quite an impression upon her on their first meeting, that was not precisely what had Elizabeth captivated.

It was his principles, his determination to do what was correct, his maddening silence in front of the maddening noise of her house, his forbearance of her family's stupidity and above all, his unmistakable knowledge of the world that kept her in awe, despite herself. But she would never allow those sparks of admiration catch fire in her heart. No. The man was no good. She knew it. She had had full testimony of that, and she would cling to that notion and drown the flames that had begun to consume her innermost.

"What a fine hand has William, Lizzy. Have you noticed?" Lydia said inspecting Darcy's letter to Colonel Fitzwilliam. "Do you know who is this colonel?"

"How should I know, Lydia?"

"Look at the way he made this F. Is it not the prettiest F you have ever beheld?"

"I think I should live to know better ones," she said.

"I saw him when he was composing these letters. Did you know it took him a whole afternoon and part of a morning to write these? He is excessively careful with the choice of words!"

"Why!" cried she in amusement. "Who would have known!"

"I wish I knew what he says to this colonel. Do you think he will visit with William while he is at Longbourn? O I should like to make his acquaintance. Do you think he is a relative? A younger brother perhaps?"

"I doubt he is a younger brother. William is only three and twenty and this man is a colonel. He cannot be less than six and twenty."

"I shall ask Papa."

"Why do you not ask William?"

"Maybe I shall. Can you imagine William in red regimentals?"

"I wish I could!" she sighed.

That evening, after dusk, when the family was preparing itself to retire, a young woman came to Longbourn asking for the priest. She was a very beautiful young woman, of about seventeen, clad in ragged old clothes. She had a sad look upon her countenance as if she had been crying a great deal and a grave expression as if she was carrying a heavy burden. Darcy immediately recognised her and, calling her by her Christian name, invited her to come in. The girl shook her head emphatically.

"I should like to ask you something, sir," she said timidly, "and then I shall take my leave."

Darcy instantly expressed his willingness to hear her, and to that purpose, grabbed an oil lamp and joined the girl outside without protest.

The Bennets, who had been privy to this exchange, were left to wonder as to the nature of their conversation. That the visitor was under great stress, no one had a doubt but both the hour of the visit and extraordinary beauty of the peasant girl, put more than one wicked thought in every member of the family, particularly in Elizabeth, who lost no opportunity to think ill of Darcy

The visit did not last long, and when it finished, Darcy went directly into the library and retrieved an old religious book that lingered untouched amidst other books on the subject in Mr Bennet's shelves and then he retired to his bedchamber.

Nothing extraordinary happened the next day, except that Darcy walked to Meryton with the girls in the afternoon and paid a visit to Dr Grant.

That night after the lights had all gone out, Lizzy found sleep evaded her. She was still half undressed when she thought she heard a noise that was foreign to the usual noises of the house. She wrapped herself up in her evening shawl and opened the door to hear whence the noise came. It was the main parlour. Soon she heard the distinct voice of her cousin that spoke in a hush to Mrs Hill. Then the quiet noise of the door as it opened and the hushed sounds of people who went out.

Curiosity overpowered her, and very quietly, she took the stairs downwards and addressed Susan who was still holding the candles.

"What is it?"

"Aye dunno, ma'am. The master be gone."

"Papa?"

"Nay, ma'am. Master William."

Elizabeth did not think it twice. She scampered after him.

She saw Mrs Hill returning to the house with the oil lamp and she was about to stop her when she saw her cousin on his horse heading for the gate, Mr Hill already at the gate with another lamp.

"Sir! A word!"

"In the name of all the ghosts in Christendom! Is that you, Miss Elizabeth? What are you doing out of bed at this unseemly hour?"

"I ask the same question to you, sir," she rebuked.

Darcy sighed. His face was unusually grave. He was wrapped in a dark cloak she had seen on Mr Hill once. Bathed in the dim moonlight, he had all the appearance of a demon on his black steed and Elizabeth shivered.

"Tis an emergency," he said, his voice very gloomy.

"An emergency? May I be of use?" she said with no hesitation in her voice.

"You?" he said thoroughly surprised. "That is very kind of you, but no. You must return to your bed."

Elizabeth was the possessor of an indomitable soul, who found hard to submit to the authority of a man. Thus she insisted, "There must be something I can do, sir, if there is an emergency."

Darcy stiffened. To her surprise he seemed to be pondering her offer. She instantly berated herself for her stupidity. What would she do if he accepted it? But it was already too late. Darcy looked down at her and said, "It is not a place for a lady."

"If it is a place for a parson, then it is fit for a lady as well," she answered boldly.

Darcy chuckled. "Very well. If you insist." And he held out his hand.

"You are not proposing that I should mount your horse."

Darcy sighed. "Madam, it will take too long to prepare a horse for you, and if I am not mistaken you cannot ride, can you? Besides it is too dangerous for a lady to ride in the dark. You can be of service to me if you mount with me and hold the light for me to see the way."

She looked up to him and no longer felt a repulsion for his person but unseemly fear. Should she climb the horse she would be in too close a contact with his body, a nearness she would not wish to have. He did not look like an odious rake anymore but as a strange being, large, towering, and awful, a divine personage with whom she was destined to have intercourse. Without another word, she took the oil lamp from Hill's hand and accepted Darcy's. As he pulled her trembling body up, Mrs Hill helped her to mount. Then she quietly handed Elizabeth her shawl which had slipped her shoulders while attempting to climb the horse. Elizabeth wrapped herself in it.

"Hold the lamp as upright as possible lest it should go out," he said to her ear.

"Where are we heading for?" she whispered.

"You shall see," he answered and spurred the horse into a canter.

They took a path Elizabeth knew well. One that led towards a place she never went, though, the cottage of Sir Lucas's fieldworkers.

It was evident that no one was expecting them for there was no light on in the cottage. Yet as soon as Darcy halted his horse, the girl Elizabeth already knew came from behind a bush.

"Merciful God! You came! Thank you, sir," she said. "Come. It is here."

She led them through a door into a small cabin at the back of the cottage, and they followed her up shabby stairs that looked more like a barn ladder than a staircase. She took a baby from a bed and showed it to him.

"What is his name going to be?" asked Darcy.

Suddenly Elizabeth realised that Darcy was about to perform a sacrament in front of her.

"Timothy," the girl mother said.

"Timothy." Darcy gazed at the mother and child with tenderness Elizabeth did not know he possessed. "Give Timothy to the lady," he said. "She shall be his godmother."

Elizabeth's already pale countenance paled a little more at this. The young mother obeyed and stood erect by her side and Darcy said in a level tone. "Timothy, I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost." He then proceeded to take a tiny bottle from his pocket containing oil with which he drew a cross upon the baby's brow with his forefinger, muttering words under his breath. Then he sprinkled water over the baby's tiny brow from a basin the girl had provided. Elizabeth beheld him in awe and thought he transformed as he performed the rite. When this was over, Elizabeth returned the tiny creature to her mother's arms.

"I thank you, sir," said the girl handing him two coins that Darcy refused. "You will need all the money you can get," he said with a compassionate tone.

Elizabeth scarcely comprehended what she had witnessed but she imagined that for some reason the baby had been refused a proper baptism at church. They were gone just as soon as they had arrived. As to why Darcy had come to perform his services in the night she was clueless. Darcy thought she deserved an explanation.

"Her father would not let anyone know of the baby's existence," he said. "He has had her locked away during her pregnancy and has just released her to help in the harvest season. I know I can trust you with this secret," he whispered into her ear as they rode back home.

"Of course," she said. Darcy's ragged breath tickled her earlobe and she looked up at him full of wonderment. From her position, Elizabeth was afforded the opportunity to prove Charlotte's words. Handsome he was. And more. He was ...he was... He was unseemly tall. With an ease impossible to pass unnoticed despite the obvious difficulties, he had placed her on the tall horse and then mounted it, leaving Lizzy in awe. He had endeavoured to protect her from the cold and to that effect he held her closer to his breast than would have been necessary under other circumstances. Had he had wings he could not have been more protective of her. Suddenly he was no longer a fearsome demon, but an angel, a dark angel of God. Lizzy felt his nearness occasioned a most strange sensation within her soul, one that left her reeling in heedless haziness. A most violent feeling gripped her, an inexplicable dire need to run away from him and at once a wild desire of even more contact with his chest that overcame her.

Darcy's feelings were not too different. Once at home after a maddening journey with his knees tightly pressed against her smooth thighs, he went directly to his room to avoid another minute in her company. Soon he was undressed, in bed and at leisure to think about what had transpired.

That he was desperately attracted to her, though the feeling was completely new, he had no doubt. Good God he should not have accepted her help! What if they were caught? What would have happened to her reputation? But her offer had been a temptation too big to reject. He had spent the previous quarter of an hour toying with her figure both on his lap and in his mind -he had the strangest feeling he had seen more of that figure - almost bursting in desire merely with his thinking of her. What does a parson do in moments like this, he wondered.

As an effort to avoid even more reprobate behaviour, he replayed in his mind Elizabeth's constant attacks, yet the effect was just the opposite. It rendered him even more excited.

"Lord, I must conquer this!" he said to himself, and rising to his feet he quit the bed with the promptness of a feline in danger. He remained, half penitent, standing at his bedside for a while unsure of what to do. As he stood there he caught a brief glance of his half naked form in a small mirror and to his distress, the idea that hit his mind was even worse that the one before. The picture was preposterous and yet impossible to resist. In his blurred reverie, Elizabeth came to him out of a shimmering pond, her drenched small clothes tightly pressed to her body, the most beautiful proof of her femininity pushing through the thin muslin, calves in full view. With a groan, he flopped himself face down onto the bed, and pressing himself against the mattress he endeavoured to think of something else.

Dear Lord! What sort of twisted mind did he possess to be having so brazen a vision of the lady! He thought of saying a prayer of some sort, yet nothing came to his mind. What a fine parson he was, he thought to himself! Overwhelmed by contradictory feelings, Darcy found it very hard to believe he was indeed a man of the church. He simply did not seem able to atone for his propensities and desires. How could he have such fervid iniquitous appetites and at the same time pretend to be a man of spiritual inclinations?

He meditated about the course of action to take. It would be a completely absurdity, given the state of affairs with her, that he should ponder courting Miss Elizabeth with hymeneal plans or any other for that matter. He thought with pleasure that he would have probably chosen her to be his wife had he not had the unfortunate accident, though he was sure she would never have obliged her parent's wishes given her independent spirits and deep disgust for him. He console himself thinking that regardless of his relatives' wishes and expectations, an alliance with her while he was not sure of who he really was and what he would do the next day was simply unthinkable.

Before he could realise it, he was thinking of her again. For a second, he thought her infuriated demeanour the other day as she demonstrated her hauteur for his profession, reminded him of another occasion in which they had ended up equally at odds, yet he could not remember when. It had been a maddening month and he could hardly tell reality from fantasy. What with his accident, the loss of his memory, the uncertainty of what the future might bring and Mrs Bennet's incessant hints that he made love to Elizabeth, Darcy found himself absolutely lost.

Huffing and tossing in bed, he prepared himself for a sleepless night.

Chapter 9

If Darcy had found it arduous to get to sleep, Elizabeth was no better. She lay for more than half the night, tossing restlessly and thrashing about in bed, thinking of the amazing events that had taken place. At first, she told herself that her sleeplessness stemmed from excessive weariness, the excitement of the journey or a combination of these two, for it was quite unlike her nature to find herself sleepless. Usually she would drop dead amidst the bedclothes the minute she came in contact with them, especially after so eventful an evening.

Not tonight.

The real reason for her lack of sleep, however, became apparent to her when as she fitfully dozed off at intervals, her mind was unexpectedly visited by an image the quick-witted reader will not find it difficult to picture.

It was Darcy, of course, only this time, and for the first time in a long and quite disturbing succession of dreams, was not naked and proud-fleshed in a creek, but gallantly clad in a dark cloak, perched on his dusky horse, gazing at her with a look that Elizabeth found both fearsome and endearing. If the first had usually left her perturbed and excessively cross, one might have expected the second to leave her with a clean conscience given the chastity of the images. Well, it did not. The effect was just that which one might have expected the first to have inspired.

She woke up enveloped in warm wetness, rather fatigued, feeling wanton and embarrassed, uncertain whether to go back to sleep, wishing to dream of him again or relinquish any ambition to sleep for fear of falling into the same reverie.

Not a little disturbed, she endeavoured to dismiss the mere thought of him, which she knew by experience to be a vain enterprise. Thereupon she counted sheep, said the alphabet back and forth, named the apostles in pairs and resorted to all manner of distraction that could occupy her mind. None worked. There was William, installed in her mind and determined to stay for the duration of her insomnia.

All this was not altogether unexpected. Elizabeth knew she had accompanied Darcy upon a personal quest for the redemption of a poor soul. As it happened, she reckoned her cousin held no conceit of the fact that he had performed an act of unseemly charity towards a stranger, very much in the Good Samaritan's manner. In what different a light did she see him now! His modesty was prodigiously profound, so she had discovered, for he had discharged his duties as a man of God without expecting anything in exchange and endeavoured to keep it a secret. There was not a single trait of pride in his mind, no sir. Both the uncommon kindness he had shown to possess and the incredible tenderness with which he had conducted himself, had positively elevated him in Elizabeth's esteem and regard as no one had hitherto achieved. Long forgotten was the rude man that had imposed on her in the creek. In his stead, a new-found William stood, chivalrous and generous, virtuous and bold, inspiring and amiable in the extreme.

So radical a change in her heart was unfathomable. But if one considers the circumstances, it would be impossible not to see it coming.

Darcy was tall and handsome and possessed everything a lady would consider highly admirable in a man. What was there not to like? Any woman with warm blood in her veins would have been able to see that long before the stubborn Lizzy did. He was not the horrible man she had thought him to be on first impressions. Nor, she realised now, was he devoid of those traits in a man's character that were foremost in a potential suitor. He had proved himself kind, gentle, charitable, trustworthy ... In other words, in the duration of the night Elizabeth finally came to terms with the irreversible truth that her cousin was no longer hated but dear to her. Moreover, he held a special power over her that was completely new. It had been but a fleeting moment but she thought that something had changed within her that both excited and humbled her, something that had urged her to stretch out her hand and hold the arm that he was offering to mount the horse.

When after all this pondering she had closed her eyes seeking sleep that night, Elizabeth did not think of the baby, the young mother, the fieldworkers or even the perils her reputation had run. The singular feeling that agitated her mind was more one moment in time than a thought. And the momentous sensation was how it had felt, when wrapped in her evening shawl, he had held her close to him.

Lizzy penitently wished she had never climbed that horse that night, for then he would never have held her. Nor would she have had to face the humiliating fact that she was irremediably and unequivocally in love with him.

~ * ~

When Darcy opened his eyes the next morning, he woke up to the strange sensation that something of considerable import had happened in his life. It was then that he was struck with the notion of what he had done the previous night. It must be owned he should feel ashamed of his actions, but he did not. He had held her close to him and it had felt wonderful. Lord, how despicably he had acted! Yet his remorse was not of a degree that would spoil his contentment with what he had achieved. After all it had all happened on the spur of the moment. Never in his wildest dreams would he have expected Elizabeth to join him in his quest. Had it not been for her innocence he would have never succeeded to do such a cheeky thing. He had been very fortunate in not having been found out. A confrontation with either parent would have been undesirable. All he could pray for now was that the servants would not open their mouths to betray them in front of the family. To his great relief no one seemed wise to what Elizabeth and Darcy's nocturnal employments had been. The morning tasks started with no further event and everyone proceeded in their work as if nothing had happened, including Elizabeth.

It came as a surprise then, as they sat under their cows that morning, that Elizabeth's eyes should stop on his with a degree of complicity that only he could read. A surge of shared wickedness ran over him. Quickly, she averted her eyes and her cheeks blushed profoundly. Then he knew it. His nearness had unsettled her as much as hers had undone him. He had sensed it and she had sensed it too.

As the morning aged, things were just the same. It was evident that there had been a major change in Elizabeth's behaviour towards him. Not that she had suddenly turned complying, no. But all along that morning, and throughout the rest of the day, Elizabeth had been unable to hold his gaze. That single act of cowardice had spoken volumes. She was embarrassed. The immovable Miss Elizabeth was embarrassed.

Thereupon Darcy embarked upon vehement exploration of the possibilities at hand. Granted, his chances for a courtship with her consent had obviously gotten better.

That Elizabeth's repulsion for him had not been as abiding as she had vouchsafed was a notion his heart received with joy. He could hardly contain himself. Their midnight sojourn had awoken a mutual affection that at least in him was to such a degree as to leave him almost breathless. Abandoning all previous scruples against marriage, he forgot his delicate situation and quickly set himself to plan the future. A short courtship would be necessary for he would have to return to Kent before long. Mayhap he would propose, then return to Kent and come in time for the wedding. The best solution he envisioned for their case was for him to arrive at an understanding with her and then return to Kent to prepare everything for the arrival of his bride. He had no doubts she would agree to marry him. In the notion that he had already given half his word to marry her, and having received the tacit consent of the father and the obvious applause of the mother, the only thing that was missing was the tiny issue of her consent. Of course, he could not expect to receive a straightforward warm welcome from Elizabeth.

He was aware that Elizabeth would not be easy to win. O he was sure of her partiality, but he had stayed long enough at Longbourn to know that Elizabeth Bennet would not be a complying bride regardless of their mutual attraction. A certain degree of resistance, he mused, must be expected from a girl of her character. If Darcy wished all his plans to come to fruition, he must be ready to be subjected to a proper courtship. O it was of no consequence. He sincerely wished she would not punish him with coquettish behaviour but if she were so inclined, so be it. He would enjoy wooing her! He prided himself that he had come to know her better than anybody else at Longbourn. He knew perfectly well that Elizabeth despised arranged alliances and would only be persuaded into matrimony if the suitor was worthy of her. That he was worthy of her Darcy had no doubts. And yet, he reckoned that before he could dream of getting to know her in all the biblical sense there was a long path to cover. Yet, given the urgency with which his loins demanded him to attend the Lord's admonition to go forth and procreate, he prayed she would choose not to wait too long.

He reckoned the accomplishment of his conjugal plans was quite daunting. However, it was not in Darcy's nature to avoid a challenge, and his alter ego found the inducement simply irresistible. Thus he gave himself to the task of extracting a favourable answer to the question that was churning in his mind.

Elizabeth's everyday encounters with Darcy were plagued with all the previous embarrassment which the violent feelings his presence evoked.

Having begun to moon after her cousin with pubescent urgency, and at loss as how to rein her passion, she endeavoured to avoid him at all hours. To her chagrin, at the same time, Darcy seemed determined to follow her with his darkened eyes with impenetrable determination, an exertion that Lizzy did not fail to notice. With a book on his lap, he gazed at her lovely figure as she leant over her work in the shadow of the great trees near the turnpike in the company of her sisters. Elizabeth, conscious of his indefatigable scrutiny, and sensing there was more to his gaze than she would dare to ask, could hardly concentrate on her work.

Away she looked, once more retracing music in her mind, the seven wonders of the world, the number of stitches in her work, fighting to avoid eye contact with him at all costs. But her eyes eventually wafted back to Darcy, who sat unruffled by the willows, his eyes intimately beseeching her, mercilessly driving her to distraction.

Under any other circumstances, Lizzy would have mistaken Darcy's romantic ambitions with his suffering from stomach ache given his gimlet gaze. But after the events of the other night, she could recognise his meaning. She had felt the fervour of his passion as he held her close on the horse. Under so undeniable a proof of William's ardent admiration, a rubescence of some import began to creep upwards from deep within her bosom. Sensing herself trapped, and feeling excessively uncomfortable, Lizzy resorted to finding an excuse to quit his company, thus breaking off his scrutiny. Knowing her sister Lydia's natural sedentary disposition, she thought this a good chance to put it to good use. "Will you not make some scent water, Lydia?" she bade.

"Me?" Lydia asked in astonishment, as if she had been asked to carry out some unfathomable task.

"There is but half a bottle, and Jane is arriving tomorrow."

"I will if you procure the flowers. I do not have enough petals. Besides it is you who uses most of it."

Lizzy puffed in feigned annoyance. "Very well."

Unfortunately, Mr Bennet, having no idea of his daughter's plans, imagined this to be a perfect opportunity to encourage industrious habits in Lydia. Thus he put down his book and beheld his youngest with pursed lips. "Can you not pick them yourself?"

"Why should I work for her?" protested Lydia. "Jane always does it for me. I am all thumbs when it comes to roses and always end up with my fingers full of thorns."

"Wear your gloves, silly," argued Kitty.

"You have nothing to do, Lydia. Lizzy has enough burden with William's clothes. She cannot find the time to gather flowers," admonished Mary.

At this, to Lizzy's vexation, Darcy interjected. "For a kingdom, Lizzy! Do not trouble yourself with my clothes!"

She looked at him with an expression that spoke of utter bewilderment, for the last thing she wished in the world was for him to think that she was weary of sewing his cravats. Yet that was what Mary had precisely implied. Lord! What must he think of her? Caught by surprise by both his use of her nickname, and equally annoyed with Mary, Elizabeth was unsure whether to resume her sewing and weather another round of Darcy's long gazes, or use her needle to sew her sister's mouth shut.

"Sir, I do not begrudge being employed in sewing your cravats. It is simply that Jane arrives tomorrow and I very much wish to have everything ready for her comfort."

"Lydia's head has had enough with amusement and it is high time she made herself useful. Let her go for the flowers," insisted Mr Bennet.

Darcy spied Elizabeth's countenance go gloomy. The look of disappointment in her eyes was palpable. Had she perhaps been trying to hint that she wished to go pick flowers with him? What a delightful idea!

"Let me help you, Lizzy," he said with elation. "I should very much like to help."

Darcy looked intently at Elizabeth searching for a gleam of her approbation, but all he got was a frown.

To his astonishment she refused his help and, abandoning his cravats on her seat, went to the house to procure herself a pair of gloves and scissors. He followed her nonetheless, if anything a little confused, and Lydia, beginning to feel jealous, went after them. Half an hour later the threesome returned with a veritable spring of roses enough to prepare scent for a year.

"There was no need for you to come after me, sir. I can procure the flowers myself," she protested.

"It is no bother, I assure you," he replied with a devastating smile. Handing her some lavender he had purposely gathered for her he added, "Pray, take these for you. I have become an admirer of lavender of late, you know. I should imagine you know I have had occasion to notice that you wear its scent upon your hair. I must confess last night it pleasured me exceedingly."

She looked at him with feigned archness. "In wearing lavender it was not my meaning to procure your pleasure, sir."

"That did not diminish it, I assure you," he said.

Lydia, who had been a silent witness of their battle of words, could hardly contain her jealousy. She quickly made a point of his words, and wishing to embarrass her sister in front of her family she asked as to his meaning in front of everyone. "What can he mean?" she asked in wonderment.

"I have no intention of finding out," said Mr Bennet resuming his reading.

"William! What do you mean?" Kitty gasped.

"I have no objection to explain myself," said he, relishing his success. Looking at a mortified Elizabeth he said, "It is always a pleasure to be near Miss Bennet for the scent of lavender of her hair is indeed enchanting. Hence in gathering the raw material for her to make the implements of her toilette I am simply ensuring my own gratification."

"O! Shocking!" cried Kitty. "I have never heard anything so forward!"

Elizabeth did not know what was worse: his rebuke or his flattery. At first she had no words to respond, but as soon as she recovered, she censured him. "Indeed. Such flirtation is hardly suitable for a parson, sir."

Smoulderingly, he said for everyone to hear, "Maybe. But still parsons have eyes, Miss Elizabeth, and mine have given me enough torture lately."

Mrs Bennet almost gave a little shriek of pleasure. Although it seemed that William had lost all sense of propriety, that he had done so for the sake of praising Elizabeth was nothing but good news. So he was not so indifferent to Lizzy after all. Goodness, was she pleasantly surprised. That he should admire her despite all Lizzy's ill treatment was equally unbelievable since she did not recollect having seen Elizabeth encouraging him an ounce. The girl must have done it unconsciously, though for a kingdom she could not fathom how such uncivil treatment could have induced any man to partiality of any sort.

With uneasiness impossible to describe, Elizabeth resumed her chores, wishing the earth would crack open and swallow her instantly and away from all the mortification. She longed to give him more than a hint of her true feelings, yet she reckoned that that would be highly reprehensible. There he was again. What did he mean looking at her like this! Considering that the more she had abused him, the more he had persevere in his admiration, God help them if she encouraged him a little! Contemplating his passion and her innocence, they would end up on top of each other amidst the cows in the dairy before she had any chance of getting engaged.

~ * ~

Colonel Fitzwilliam mulled a great deal about Darcy's eccentric change of name and his peculiar manner of seeking privacy. If anything, the singular way in which he had contrived to be left alone in Hertfordshire was very peculiar.

Most peculiar indeed...

Unfathomable.

Although the colonel's military instincts prevented his coming immediately to terms with such eccentricity from the part of his usually dull cousin, the colonel's characteristic primate intelligence would not allow him to come to a definite conclusion upon the matter overnight since his soldierly brain triggered ideas at a surprisingly slower speed than the ordinary man when away from the battlefield.

On the one hand, he remembered Darcy's tale about Bingley being compromised by a lady, which left him with the poor image of an emasculated Bingley in the hands of a man-eater. This in time led him to ponder two things. Why would Darcy rescue Bingley from such a dangerous lady only to take his place afterwards? That was nonsensical bordering on the promiscuous coming from Darcy, hence difficult to believe, a fact which led him to wonder about the second issue: what sort of female company his cousin might be entertaining now?

"Surely not like the ones we found at Miss Swartz's brothel," he mused recalling how much Darcy had protested over the females' lack of hygienic habits. Granted, his cousin's obstinate abstention was usually marked by remarkable foul humour, which would explain his boredom and ill temperament at Netherfield. Yet not even the urgency of his need was enough to tempt Darcy to avail himself upon any of Miss Swartz's 'sisters'. Never in his eight and twenty years of age had the colonel encountered a more fastidious man than Darcy when it came to carnal liaisons.

Unfortunately Fitzwilliam was not in position to ask Bingley whether the Hertfordshire lady might be involved in Darcy's willing withdrawal from urban society without arising suspicion. Surely that must be a reason for which Darcy sent a riddle for a letter. Mayhap he was trying to conceal the intelligence from his friend, either to protect him or...

"...because he wants the lady for himself!" Fitzwilliam chuckled. "No, Richard. That would be you. Darcy would never do that."

Dammy his cousin and his honourable austerity! It was always the matter of Darcy's acute sense of honour. With what alacrity would the colonel have introduced him to Miss Simpson! She would have made him a fine mistress. But his cousin was not seeking a beauty queen to fill lonely nights or crown his evenings at the opera. A mistress might involve entanglement of emotions and Darcy merely sought the release of passion in order to be able to keep his wits under good regulation. Under this apprehension Colonel Fitzwilliam took him to Miss Swartz's reputed brothel, in the notion that in a commercial transaction there was no fear of emotional conflicts. To his dismay, after a se'nnight of recurrent visits, his cousin had played cards, smoked cigars, and drunk more than the usual measure, but in what Miss Swartz's sisters were concerned, he had not done much beyond sitting them on his lap.

"What is wrong with you, Will, you stupid monk? Miss Swartz says you have not chosen any girl yet. She is thoroughly offended."

Darcy was silent.

"For the love of the Lord, you scowled and sulked like an idiot, Will. What is wrong with you! Do you not like women?"

"I like women well enough, I grant you. I just did not like these."

"Why not?"

"They stank like a skunk" he said pulling a face as he reached for a little vinaigrette box he carried in his pocket. "I cannot bed a woman whose idea of a bath is a city by the sea. I wonder how you can stand their smell! It is insupportable."

"Pooh! Pooh! Mr. takes-a-bath-every-morning cannot tolerate female body odour. Well, sir. To me it is like morning dew." Darcy beheld him with a horrified expression. "Some of them are prodigiously smelly," he said with a smug face. "There. Look at that!" he said pointing at a redhead who was blandishing a bottle of some suspicious yellowish beverage, " I bet she smells of brandy."

Darcy chuckled. "Go you and enjoy her. None of these ladies is good enough for me. I would rather die an innocent before lying with any of these sacks of lice."

"Very well. Your loss."

It was not Darcy's fault that he was so fastidious over women. The colonel knew Darcy's father had instilled in his mind a set of many axioms that dealt on what was correct and acceptable for a man of his station even for pleasures of the flesh. First on said list was complete avoidance of debauchery and drunkenness. Both were considered unhealthy, though tipsiness was acceptable. Second, the need for reserve and privacy. One does not want one's attributes being discussed in the drawing rooms, however well one might have been endowed by God, which led to the third axiom: one must not dally with women of one's own social circle. It was unhealthy too.

Of course abstention was not an option, so despite deep abhorrence to any transgression of his privacy, Fitzwilliam surmised Darcy must have visited a courtesan at Harcourt, where the colonel knew a gentleman could seek physical congress with a fine lady with both regularity and privacy. He had been about to propose Darcy to go thither when the letter from Miss Bingley had arrived.

Now, back in his father's house at Bath, he had been overwhelmed by questions about Darcy's well-being, which he reckoned he could not answer even if he had been given leave to. This redirected his thoughts to several gaps in his cousin's voluntary retreat.

Determined to get to the bottom of it all, he made new efforts to investigate Lady Catherine's carriage having been found as part of the booty recovered from the highwaymen. He did not find out much, however. Only that the carriage had been found on the road leading to Hertfordshire from Kent, and that there had been no reports or claims for its ownership.

Now that was very intriguing. He sent a letter to Darcy, using his nickname and to Lady Catherine addressing both on the issue of the recovered carriage. Lady Catherine responded that her parson, Reverend William Collins, had had an accident in Hertfordshire, but that he had not reported the carriage she had indeed lent her parson as lost.

This puzzled the colonel to the point of setting himself to ponder the possibilities once more. He had received correspondence from Longbourn, but it had been Darcy and not Collins who wrote, though he had signed RWC. Now, Reverend Williams Collins ... RWC ... Longbourn, Hertfordshire, all that was too much coincidence. Now if Darcy was passing himself off as this man...where was the real William Collins? Had he had an accident with the highwaymen and not survived?

Even more puzzling was to understand that his cousin was allowing himself a passing interlude with this paragon of beauty from Hertfordshire while he disguised himself as a parson. It would not do if he intended intrigue.

The arrival of a second letter by the same pen which had signed RWC reached him before a se'nnight. The eloquence of the writer was unmistakably that of Darcy. He reported that to his knowledge he had not lost a carriage, since he had reached Hertfordshire on horseback. He also mentioned his intention to return to Kent by the end of a se'nnight, since his business in Hertfordshire had already come to fruition. The only part of the letter that left the colonel's head reeling was that in which he expressed his delight in the happy recovery of Lady Catherine's nephew.

Colonel Fitzwilliam imagined he would do no harm if he joined Darcy before he headed for Kent.

Borrowed dialogues from, amongst others, Emma and Pride and Prejudice.

Chapter 10

The next day came full of surprises. Along with Jane, Mrs. Bennet had the pleasure of receiving her brother and his wife. To the general relief of the family, Mr Foreman and his family returned too just in time to release the young people from the burden of the milking in the dairy.

Mr. Gardiner was a sensible, gentlemanlike man, greatly superior to his sister, as well by nature as education. Darcy, whose pride by this time had started to emerge from the confining depths of William's mind, had considerable difficulty in believing that a man who lived by trade, and within view of his own warehouses, could be so well bred and agreeable. Yet against all his scruples and misconceptions there he was, quite the gentleman. Mrs. Gardiner, who was several years younger than Mrs Bennet and Mrs Philips, also struck him comfortably well. She was an amiable, intelligent, elegant woman, and a great favourite with all her Longbourn nieces. Between the two eldest and herself especially, Darcy noticed, subsisted a very particular regard. They had frequently been staying with her in town.

The Gardiner's children had come too, which came not only as a surprise but also as a challenge for certain inhabitants of the house. As it was, Darcy was a bit taken aback by the sudden arrival of so great and noisy a young party. Too observant to share their enthusiasm in their reunion with their aunts, he moved away to a little corner by a window whence he surveyed their agitated conversation.

The first part of Mrs Gardiner's business on her arrival, was to distribute her presents and describe the newest fashions. As usual, Darcy's attention was focused on Elizabeth and he could not help a smile from blossoming as he observed her enthusiasm over the turban her aunt gave her as a present. Never in his time there had he seen her in such a gay spirit but when with her aunt. What his surprise must have been when Mrs Gardiner approached him with a warm smile and, after expressing her delight in having him as a member of the family, presented him with an unexpected gift.

The gesture had been so thoroughly unexpected, that he was momentarily flabbergasted. Naturally, all eyes set on him, an uncomfortable silence ensued. At length he recovered and thanking the lady first, he proceeded to open the big parcel with unsure movements of his hands. After a difficult process, the package was opened to reveal a beautiful dark overcoat, just his size.

Seeing Darcy was overwhelmed by the present, Mrs Gardiner explained, "I understand you lost most of your clothes in the accident?" she said as she surveyed William's brow a bit furrowed.

At this Darcy assented, and smiled most graciously as to leave Mrs Gardiner a little breathless. God, he was handsome!

Elizabeth spied the little scene and was most pleased on the occasion if not a little occupied in weighing her own feelings, and trying to understand the degree of her agitation. Although nothing beyond flirtation had occurred between them, she was happy, she knew she was happy, and knew she ought to be happy. What had left her a little light-headed was the fact that her happiness seemed to stem from William's happiness.

Meantime, Mr Gardiner had persuaded Darcy to try the new article of clothing. The girls were particularly pleased to see their handsome cousin so agreeably dressed. Vain as any of them, he took a few paces up and down the room sporting the overcoat and a broad smile which brought the feminine audience to break into an enthusiastic clapping in approval and sent Elizabeth's heart and all the other females' hearts, I am sure, beating wildly.

When all this was done, and the gentlemen retired to another room to do whatever gentlemen do when they retire to another room, Mrs Gardiner had a less active part to play. It became her turn to listen. For a change, Mrs Bennet had not too many grievances to relate, and much to be proud of. So the minute the gentlemen had quit the drawing room, she did not waste a second in relating William's situation in detail, for he is on the point of proposing marriage to Lizzy!Then of course she bellyached to her sister about Elizabeth's perverseness in mistreating him, vexing Elizabeth and amusing Mrs Gardiner exceedingly.

At her mother's exhuberance Jane smiled knowingly. She knew her sister's heart was very difficult to be moved. That her mother's imagination was as excessive as her sister's stubborness she equally knew. Never, for the twentieth part of a moment would she have suspected Elizabeth of returning William's admiration. Nor was she so sure that William should have so ardent a regard for Elizabeth.

This was so very well understood that Jane saw no need to query her sister on the matter. Elizabeth did not say a word in her defence nor did she deny any of it aloud. She remained uncommonly subdued and her aunt thought it very odd, though Jane thought nothing of it. In her imagination, Lizzy's tenacious silence was a symptom of severe mortification. Unfortunately, Elizabeth was summoned by Mrs Hill since Lizzy's dog had a chicken trapped somewhere in the garden. The stupid beast only obeyed Lizzy's orders, and they had no occasion as to confirm or refute Mrs Bennet's assertions until they withdrew to their rooms.

Fatigued as Mrs Gardiner had been by the journey, they had no sooner dined than she and Jane were engaged discussing the newest of Mrs Bennet's disclosures. When her aunt asked Jane her opinion of the match, Jane instantly brushed off the notion .

"My dear aunt," said she with earnest kindness. "I am afraid my dear mama has let her imagination wander once more. There is as much an understanding between William and Lizzy as there is one between Mr Bingley and myself. What is more: even in the event that William were partial to Lizzy, his case is completely hopeless, for I know there is no admiration on her part, I assure you."

"Perhaps you had good reasons to believe that while you stayed here. However I think I might have noticed some symptoms of attachment between them. Certain expressive looks, which I did not believe were meant to be public."

"O no, aunt. My sister is as far from any attachment or admiration for him as could be."

"Have you never at any time had reason to think that Lizzy might be partial to him?"

"Never!" cried she. "O dear aunt, you amuse me excessively! But it will not do. That is, I am sure to be so from her side!"

"Yes, I know. You told me what Lizzy thought of him. But that was almost two months before. Do you think it is impossible for things to change in two months?"

"I know my sister's heart," she said, not yielding one ounce. "I daresay it is not likely that she should have had such radical a change of opinion in so little time."

Just then they heard the sounds of quick steps in the corridor followed by a man's laugh and a lady's giggle. Her curiousity piqued, Mrs Gardiner opened the door to reveal a flushed and breathless Lizzy with a very happy William running in tow. They passed in a hurry by the door, their laughter very audible to all of them. But on spotting Mrs Gardiner's face, they stopped running and assumed an air of feigned nonchalance, which was quickly abandoned the moment Mrs Gardiner closed the door.

Mrs Gardiner regarded Jane with an arch brow. "Is this the proud William your sister despised so much? They seem to be all ease and friendliness. No harsh feelings on her part at all!"

"I am as astonished as you are. I cannot imagine what has effected this transformation."

Recollecting the dazzling smile on William's countenance, Mrs Gardiner smirked. "Can you not?"

~ * ~

It was so long since Jane and Elizabeth had been together, that as soon she was satisfied of her aunt and uncle's comfort, Jane joined Elizabeth for a late night talk. Unfortunately, Jane had returned with the unhappy news of not having met Mr Bingley in town, for he was vastly preoccupied: a good friend of his had disappeared, apparently kidnapped by a well known gang of highwaymen who had lately attacked various travellers on their way to London, and the gentleman was quite concerned about his friend's welfare. Mr. Bingley did not have designs to return to Netherfield either, as Miss Bingley had declared on Jane's visit to her house, which would be tragic enough for Mrs Bennet to have a fit, hence Jane's reluctance to pass her the intelligence.

In their interchange of news, Jane gathered the courage to query Elizabeth about their mother's wedding plans for Lizzy. When Elizabeth confirmed to Jane her feelings for William, Jane found it very hard to believe what Elizabeth was saying.

"You are joking, Elizabeth. This cannot be ...William! No, no, you shall not deceive me. I know it to be impossible."

"Do not believe me if you do not want to. Yet it is the absolute truth. I am in earnest, very much fond of him."

"Lizzy! It cannot be. I know how much you dislike him!"

"That is all to be forgotten. Perhaps I did not like him at first. But in cases such as these a good memory is unpardonable." They laughed at the double meaning of her words. Yet Jane still looked at her in amazement. Elizabeth again and again assured her of its truth.

"Good Heavens! Can it be really true? Yet now I must believe you," cried Jane. "And I would congratulate you if you are certain, quite certain, that you can be happy with him."

"Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance," she quoted from Charlotte as seriously as humanly possible. Yet she could not fight her mirth and she laughed. Then more seriously she said, "I wish you had reasons to congratulate me already ... But I am sanguine. I think that if he ever gathers the courage to propose, there is a good chance we shall be the happiest couple in the world, Jane. William is as good as he is handsome."

Wanting to know the particulars, Jane began to ask bolder questions. "But does he love you?"

"I think he does. Though he has not spoken a word of love yet," she confessed.

"And you. Do you love him?"

She paused a bit at this. Did she love him? "I think I will love him with time, Jane. It is already gradually coming on. What I feel now is ... difficult to express."

"What do you feel?"

"O, Jane. I am afraid you will be angry with me if I tell you."

"Be serious, Lizzy."

"I am. I think I feel more than I ought to presently."

Elizabeth told her about her escapade with William on horseback in the moonlight, about the baby and the way he had helped her to mount the horse, how she shivered every time he touched her and about her feelings when he wrapped his arms around her. She even told her about the tender moment when he held her so close to his chest and his lips tickled her earlobe as he spoke to her.

"Since then, I can only think of his lips," she confessed.

"Lor'. This is quite unexpected coming from a parson."

Her sister's conjecture did not finish persuading her of the evil of William's behaviour. "Perhaps," she said with dreamy eyes.

"What do you mean?"

"Why I must confess that I like him better when he flirts."

"Lizzy! That will not do! You should not encourage him."

"O you mustn't worry. He was very civil with me all the time..."

"Civil."

"Civil." A devilishly sly smile flourished in her lips and, rolling her eyes, she giggled. "O Gad, he is so handsome!" she said with rapture as she kicked the pristine sheets in excitement.

"My dearest Lizzy. Now, be serious. I want to talk to you seriously. Let me know everything that I must know, without delay."

"Very well. What is it you wish to know?"

"To begin with ... Will you not tell me why you hated him so much and yet can assure me that you like him today? What was it, then, that you did not like about him?"

Endeavouring to keep a sober countenance, she sat up in bed before she spoke. "I suppose I cannot hide this from you!" She nervously combed her plait of hair with her hands, and looked sheepishly at Jane. "The first time I saw William, he was not the genteel man we all know. He was proud, and rude, and pompous and he..." she blushed scarlet before she said the rest.

When Elizabeth finished her tale, it was Jane's face which defied the colour of Wickham's coat. "Lizzy! I do not know when I have been more shocked: if when you told me you liked him or now that I know of his past behaviour. William so bad! I know it is all past...and yet...Lizzy! Why have you not told Papa about this?"

"I was afraid of the consequences. Should Mama be privy to the happenstance I would have had no means to refuse to marry him. Surely there is no need for me to tell now."

"No, indeed, not. Then it ought not to be attempted. There is no need to expose him so dreadfully now. Poor William! He is so good!"

"And yet I was afraid he had merely the appearance of good. I can only hope he is changed now."

"Maybe what befell him was sent by Gad, in the form of an Angel to make him a better man."

"An Angel indeed! Jane! You are so good! I wish I could be only half as good as you! I do not think anyone can change so deeply overnight but I sincerely believe he has." As she said this, Elizabeth shuddered. "Oh Jane. Shall you like to have him as a brother?"

Jane assented most feelingly. Elizabeth hugged her and the two sighed. The rest of the night was not spent so agreeably, as Jane referred to Lizzy all about Mr Bingley.

At daybreak, Elizabeth went on her morning walk as usual. When she arrived at the little copse, she was pleasantly surprised to find William waiting for her, his posture a bit informal as he leant against the fence. There was a strange gleam in his eye when he spotted her, and she pressed her gait to meet him the sooner.

"Good morning," he greeted her.

"Good morning," she said, turning shy. Elizabeth's discomfort was paramount every time she faced him alone. Her heart pounded so forcefully she was afraid it would be noticeable even to him. How could the disagreeable man she had met a few weeks before at the creek have roused such violent emotions as she was feeling at that moment? She berated herself for her weakness.

"I hope you slept well?"

She nodded, then shook her head. "I barely gave a wink."

"Neither did I." he said boldly taking her hand. Whether she had offered it or not she could not recollect. She might perhaps have made a small motion. Whatever the inducement, he took it, pressed it, and certainly was on the point of carrying it to his lips, when, for some reason, he suddenly let it go.

The intention, however, was indubitable, and the words that followed the little gallantry made Lizzy's colour heightened exceedingly. "I was about to go for a ride last night but then I thought that it would not do if I did not have you to hold a light for me, so I chose not to."

She smiled, delighted.

"What is your excuse?" he asked.

"For my lack of rest? Jane would not let me go to sleep. There was so much to talk about." A silence of some length ensued. She still felt the warmth of his hand, pressing hers; a show of more than common friendliness on his part. Surely this might mean he was finding the appropriate moment to speak to her, to tell her of his intentions. Yes, that must be it. He was going to offer for her, there and then. O why had he not kissed her hand? She could have judged better if he had not stopped. Why he should feel such a scruple, why should he change his mind when it was all but done? Warmly gratified with the notion, and scarcely containing herself, she continued to walk by his side without a word in excited anticipation until she could not hold herself any more. Not knowing exactly what to say in encouragement, she opened her mouth and said whatever came to her mind, "You did not have anything to do this morning?"

That did not sound very well.

"You mean I am imposing myself on you?" he said a little shock.

She quickly endeavour to correct her meaning. "O no. Not at all. I suppose that now we will have pretty much time for our own pleasures now that Jane and Mr Foreman have returned."

"Not I. I must away to Kent by the end of the week."

Now that came quite as an unexpected blow! Before she could see it coming a gloomy feeling loomed over her. Lord! He was leaving. What was more: he was leaving and they had not arrived at an understanding. Had she misinterpreted his feelings for her? Averting her eyes, all she could muster herself to say was, "So soon?"

"I am afraid I have stayed longer than expected."

Elizabeth was very much disappointed and at the same time angry with her herself at her reaction. Her wretchedness was such as to leave her almost sullen. Fighting to recollect herself, she felt her heart pounding with sorrow, her tongue going motionless. What to say? Please do not go? I wish you and I had had more occasion to talk? No, that would not do. It was too forward and she was Lizzy not Lydia. "I am sure you will be missed at Longbourn," she finally said almost in an agonizing whisper.

A few steps farther had brought them out at the bottom of the walk, and standing back, well shaded and sheltered, there was a stone bench, looking over the house. They sat there for a while. "Will you miss me?" he said with a broken voice.

For a long second she thought he was being serious. But then she noticed a lopsided smile and narrowing her eyes, she answered in kind. "I am certain I will not."

"Tell me now," he said getting dangerously closer. "Do you always express opinions that are not your own?"

Elizabeth's heart began its usual quick pace she was beginning to recognise every time he got close. "Are you implying sir, that you are expecting me to be heartbroken because you are leaving?"

"No. Not at all. What will you think of my vanity if I were?"

"I remember hearing once in a sermon that pride and vanity are two of the most infamous sins."

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

"And those are the words of a parson? How abominable of you! I thought the character of a man of God would be devoid of those follies. I wonder, sir, where you study your profession. But you cannot tell because you have lost your memory. Pray, do you vouch for any other inconsistencies of character?"

"May I ask to what these questions tend?"

"Merely to the illustration of yours," said she. "I am trying to make it out."

"And what is your success?"

"I hardly know. You are a puzzle to me, sir. A riddle I cannot work out."

"Upon my word! That does not bear any good! Will you ever solve the puzzle, Elizabeth?"

"I am determined! But if you ask me now ... you do not look like a man of the cloth."

"Do I not now? Why you say that?"

She gave him a smouldering look. "You just do not."

He smiled. Presently Elizabeth thought he smiled too much of late, for every time he did so she could feel a rush of heat building up in her chest as she immediately recollected him proudly abandoning the water in the creek, naked in the very bright, very public daylight. But those recollections no longer affected her in the same way. Far from perturbing her, they left her with a light-headed feeling of wantonness. With all her heart she wished that he should return to his taciturn, solemn ways and abandon the flat flirtation, for the meditations that his new self had aroused were not proper of a maiden, least of all in connection with a parson.

He made no immediate comment. Soon afterwards, he said in a lively tone, "Now that you mention it, I do not recall one single passage from the scriptures. Odd, isn't it? When I do remember Shakespeare's sonnets ..."

"That is very odd indeed. I wonder how you could carry on the baptism of Timothy."

"I practised all day," he confessed.

"Then perchance you need only more practice," she said, attempting to make light of his confession. "Have you tried reading the scriptures yet?"

"I confess I find it very difficult to concentrate on holy thoughts of late," he said in a whisper.

"Then I must entreat you to start over, sir. It is no good for a parson to abandon his good habits."

"I will. I promise. And you will help me."

"Have you not confidence in your own judgment?"

"Very little. I have so little confidence that when I marry, I hope somebody will chuse my wife for me. Will you? Will you chuse a wife for me?"

Elizabeth scarcely heard his banter. Her mind was filled with one word. Marry. "O dear Lord. she thought to herself. Keep your countenance, Lizzy!" Then she said with nonchalance "I do not know, sir. It cannot be an easy task. You have too high standards for an accomplished lady. I do not think that such a paragon of perfection as you described the other day might be found here."

"I am sure I should like anybody fixed on by you. Pray find someone for me. Adopt her, hire her. I do not care. I am in a little hurry, though."

"Very well," she said, laughing. "I undertake the commission. You shall have a charming wife, I promise."

"She must be lively, have a witty mind and a sharp tongue."

Elizabeth laughed and shook her head. "Must she draw, speak several languages?"

"O no. I shall educate her myself. But she must play the piano forte, and sing." Looking very purposely into her eyes he added. "O, and hazel eyes. Make sure she has hazel eyes. I care for nothing else." They continued in this vein for some time, laughing and teasing as was their usual manner. At length they got on their feet and began a languorous way back to the house. When they reached the main door, he looked around, as if to see that no one were near, and then looking intently into her hazel eyes, he said in a whisper. "I shall go to Kent for a couple of weeks and when I return, I shall come to you for my wife. Remember."

Elizabeth was in no danger of forgetting.

Borrowed dialogues from, amongst others, Emma and Pride and Prejudice.

Chapter 11

Darcy now believed himself perfectly acquainted with Elizabeth's heart. After their conversation in the gravel he conjectured her sentiments were decidedly growing in his favour and could not fear a flat refusal any more. He reckoned it would have been too hasty a measure on his side to have proposed before, without giving Elizabeth time to make the idea first familiar, and then agreeable. She must get used to the consideration of his being in love with her so that she could return his affection in kind before he went on his knees. For an alliance in which only one part loved while the other merely condescended in being so treated could not be agreeable. He must be sure she felt for him at least as much as he felt for her.

O, Elizabeth could not have any idea of the sensations that she occasioned in him! If she had, then he would be in trouble.

There was little time, however, for the indulgence of any tender feeling, no matter how warm this might be. So far there had been no free conversation between them and before the week ended he would be gone. All in all, it was Mrs Bennet's despair to make the match that he seriously dreaded. Here, his present removal promised advantage. When no longer under the same roof with Elizabeth, he trusted that Mrs Bennet would give her some respite and allow her to make her choice on her own. He did not wish for Elizabeth to feel forced to accept him, to be compelled to submit herself to his addresses by motherly insistence.

He meditated on his little scheme of having asked her to find a wife for him and could but congratulate himself for the brilliancy of the idea. There was indeed so deep a blush over Elizabeth's countenance at that moment as might warrant strong suspicions of her being well on her way to be very much in love with him.

Now his immediate concern was to keep himself under regulation. Still overpowered by the suddenness in which they seemed to have grown into each other, Darcy found it hard to concentrate on anything else. O that she should return his every single emotion! He spent hours on end mulling over the same subject, lost in wanton thoughts that left him almost breathless. He had seen her this morning, attending with patience to the demands of her mother's stupidity, her colour heightened as she spied him observing her work. He fancied that he noticed her growing slightly nervous at his scrutiny as well, and he was delighted. Then her aunt had said something to her, and she turned to listen to what she said, and in midst of all this, her eyes would drift over to where he sate, and for a twentieth fraction of a moment they had locked with his own.

He was in love. Very much in love. Whether it was for the first time he could not tell. Granted, his was a love of more warmth than delicacy, still he had every well grounded reason for solid attachment. He knew Elizabeth to have all the worth that justified the warmest hopes of ever lasting happiness with her.

The only drawback was the separation that must ensue. Given the previous strong scruples Elizabeth had held against him for the best part of their acquaintance there was a chance that in his absence her affection might sink again into nothing. On the other hand, a sanguine spirit operated on him. A short separation, he mused, might well help to prove the truthfulness of their affection. Thus he entertained a hope that she might find a blank in the loss of his recent attentions. He certainly wished her to feel his absence, that a little abstinence from his presence would bring her to understand once and for all that they belonged together, and persuade her heart to love him completely.

Thursday passed, and Friday too and Saturday would have seen him gone had it not been for an invitation to a ball that had completely slipped his mind.

Colonel Foster had recently quit the files of the bachelors and was very much eager to show himself with his new bride, a silly girl whose only purport in marrying him had been to get closer to the young officers and enjoy their gayety(RE or gaity?), so to speak. To these effects, a ball had been proposed, to the satisfaction of both the villages of Longbourn and Meryton. Lydia and Catherine Bennet were particularly pleased for they were by now persuaded that William had finally bowed at their sister Lizzy's altar of love, and nothing was best to divert their minds from the sorrow of losing a lover than a salon full of redcoats.

Elizabeth too, in the hope of diverting her thoughts from the disagreeableness of William's going to Kent, and going so suddenly, and going on horseback, which she envisioned would be all very wretchedly sad and dangerous, endeavoured to engage herself in their sisters' merriment, with little success, owing to a certain unfortunate event entailing the pigs.

Mr Bennet had opened the backgammon table for Mr Gardiner who was particularly fond of the game. Darcy stationed himself between Mr. Bennet and his brother to observe them play. He followed the game as an outsider, since his assistance was required by his young cousins every now and then regarding the colour of a lace or the number of dances he would stand up with each of them as to make it impossible for him to pay undivided attention to anything else. Suddenly their merriment was silenced by a squeaking noise that sounded like an animal in pain.

"What is all that noise?" asked Mrs Gardiner. "Has one of the pigs been slaughtered?"

"No such thing, sister. 'Tis only Lady Scarlet," explained Mrs Bennet. "Lord Bachelor is at her again." At this Mr Bennet raised his head from the backgammon table and regarded his wife with a look bordering on murderous. Had they been on their own, he would have thought nothing of the unfortunate explanation, but to refer to piggery mating customs over a cup of tea in front of one's relatives was not lady like behaviour. Unfortunately, unaccustomed to such discourse, her relations did not immediately pick up the tone of the conversation, thus they required further enlightening on the disturbing subject.

"Who's Lady Scarlet?" asked Mr Gardiner evidently in complete darkness as to where the question would lead.

"It is a pig. A sow to be precise. Lord Bachelor is a boar," explained Mary with scholar airs.

Lydia could have left it at that, or have refrained from at least offering a more thorough clarification. "It is mating season," she offered instead. Kitty let out a stupid giggle.

Madeleine Gardiner's lips rounded into an astounded oh(o?) but nothing came from them but the deep blush her cheeks turned into certainly betrayed the image her mind must have got with the explanation. Yet her crimson would be nothing compared with the embarrassment that awaited them all.

"O you must not mind the noise, sister. I am sure Lady Scarlet has no real cause to complain. On the contrary..." Mrs Bennet chirped as she smiled a wicked smile. "Which reminds me ... There is something of great importance we must talk about with you two, girls," she said winking at Elizabeth and Jane. "Come, come. Let us go upstairs." And she rose to her feet nodding at her daughters who remained motionless in horrid mortification. Their faces crimsoned over until with something scarcely more than a breath Elizabeth protested, "Mama!"

"Come, come!" she insisted. "It is absolutely imperative!"

Mr and Mrs Gardiner, could hardly give credit to their ears, for such informality in so intimate an affair they had never encountered in proper society. Both were about to cry out against the injustice of Mrs Bennet's treatment of her daughters, when Mr. Bennet called his wife to order, with bitter complaints of her stupidity.

"For shame, Mrs Bennet. Must you do this now? I am sure you have given your relatives enough proof of your stupidity not to be adding this."

Elizabeth wordlessly thanked her papa's intervention, however devoid of finesse it was, for she could hardly keep her countenance in the face of her mother's grievous discourse. Her agitation she could not hide. Lor', her mind was all disorder! In seeing her mother insisted in talking about such a delicate theme in front of everyone, in front of William particularly, she abandoned the embarrassed red of her cheeks, grew dreadfully white instead and thought she was going to faint.

"Sister," Mrs Gardiner interjected. "If I may offer my opinion ... Do you not think it would be wise to wait till later?"

But Mrs Bennet could not be prevailed upon leaving the conversation for another moment. In her imagination, she was playing her cards in the best possible manner, sending a definite hint towards the reluctant lover seated with his ever present book on his lap. Once her mind was made up on something, there was precious little one could do to persuade her into another course of action.

"Sister, they are both old enough to be married soon! Jane is practically engaged, not to mention Lizzy! Their husbands will be monstrously thankful to me," she said sending a knowing look to Mr Darcy, who by now was looking exceedingly flushed, and unable to speak, sunk into his chair in sheer embarrassment.

Everybody stared at Mrs Bennet in astonishment. Silence ensued. Uncomfortable silence. This imperative hint had disturbed Darcy a good deal. Unable to bear her shame, Jane jumped off her chair and abandoning her work, flew upstairs, eyes welling with tears. Elizabeth, still utterly confused by her mother's untimely lesson remained nailed to her chair, but Mrs Gardiner followed Jane to her room. At length Elizabeth rose and was about to leave the table but her would-be-husband stopped her. He presently took her hand and sent her an apologetic look. He had had enough of hints. He imagined this was the worst time ever to ask for her hand, but fearing Mrs Bennet's next move would be to accidentally make his bed in Elizabeth's room, he thought that it was the best course of action. Hence, having taken the matter in his hands, he assumed some airs and looking into Elizabeth's eyes he said,

"If I have not spoken yet it is because I feared little success," he said so that everybody could hear.

A general gasp filled the air. Jane stopped her escape half way up the stairs and Mrs Gardiner froze at the bottom.

Darcy had a fierce grip of Elizabeth's hand so there was no way that she could fly and avoid giving him an answer in front of everyone. She coloured, went pale, then flushed again. Do not do this. Not here, please, she pleaded silently.

"O Lizzy, Lizzy." Mrs Bennet urged the astounded daughter. "Say yes, Lizzy."

Elizabeth, who had hoped for an application for her hand in a romantic setting, perhaps by the copse, in the moon light, where he could bestow upon her a kiss after she accepted his hand, inwardly prayed for him not to propose now. Her eyes flicked at her mother, then at her father, then her sisters. They had all expectant eyes set upon them.

With a scarcely noticeably shake of her head, she wordlessly entreated him to be silent, at the same time dreading that in so doing he might feel repulsed perhaps for ever. Darcy perceived that she was far from complying and inwardly wondered what that shake of the head meant. What could it possibly mean to express? Was it disapprobation? But of what? Of the irreverent speech of her mother on connubial bliss? Of him? Nay. Not of him.

A little belatedly, he fancied he understood her feelings. They were not unlike his. This was not the right setting for a marriage proposal. The whole family gathered around them was a trifle. The real evil was Mrs Bennet and her awful reference to pig bliss. But it was all too late now. He was obligated to say something.

"Miss Elizabeth. I would be honoured if ..."

"How can you, sir?" she interjected hoping to silence him by reproof. "You quite astonish me. I wonder how you can expect that from me?"

Her eyes fell on him with a meaningful look that but puzzled Darcy even more. In spite of herself, she could not help but half a smile, for it was not the first time that she had contrived to leave him speechless. And if truth may be told, I daresay she liked what she saw, for she knew what he was doing. Poor William! He was trying to protect her, to make her forget the embarrassment. He was rescuing her from shame. Lord, she loved this man! But she could not have it. In generations to come, she would probably be asked about this momentous question, and she was sure all the vexation and mortification would revive. No. Something must be done to prevent this noble man from making the greatest mistake of his life.

"Do not look at me with those innocent eyes of yours, sir! You know very well I cannot comply with your request," she cried fidgeting a great deal.

"You astonish me, ma'am," said he. "Is there anything wrong in my present entreaty that makes it so repulsive?"

"Repulsive? Nay. How can a dance be ever repulsive! But you have already asked me for the first two. And now you pretend to engage me for the supper dance! A little forward from your part, do you not think, sir?"

"I see nothing alarming in a supper dance, ma'am," he said grinning.

She smiled delighted that he had followed her deception. "Very well. If you insist I shall save the supper dance for you as well, but nothing more. Now if you will excuse me, I must see to my gown," She then ran gaily off, rejoicing in her success of having momentarily checked him, until in the hope of being soon left alone with him, some time in the future, she could receive his request with all the happiness the moment deserved.

~ * ~

Despite the disappointment the postponed proposal caused in Mrs Bennet's heart, her spirits rose by Saturday evening. The ball, predestined to hope and enjoyment, came to open a new scope of possibilities.

Early that evening the new Mrs Foster sent a phaeton that sate two to take Lydia and a companion to the assembly ball for Lydia had become Mrs Foster's particular friend over night, thusly allowing both Lydia and Elizabeth to arrive there first. There was nothing new about the assembly hall, except that the room teemed with soldiers. The two sisters had not been there long, before Lydia perceived Wickham, standing within a few yards of them, in earnest conversation with a girl with red hair and freckled arms.

Till Elizabeth entered the drawing-room at the assembly hall it had never occurred to her that her former sweet heart might be present there.

"Look, Lizzy! Is not that Mr Wickham?" Lydia beamed. "Wickham!!!"

So fervent a manner of summoning did not fail to catch the officer's attention, and everyone else's for that matter. Mr Wickham finally turned round, and after briefly regarding them both, approached them, and addressing himself rather to Elizabeth than Lydia, inquired in a hurried manner after their family, all the time looking around as if in trepidation of some sort of danger. The few minutes in which they continued together were some of the most uncomfortable of her life. She was very much afraid that the gentleman might see it fit to renew his addresses to her. However, Wickham did not seem so inclined. Nor did he seem much more at ease in her company; when he spoke, his accent had none of its usual sedateness and his countenance again reflected apprehension of the accutest form.

Elizabeth frowned wondering at the meaning of all this. She then turned involuntarily in the direction of Wickham's gaze, to see whether she could discover what was the root of his dicomfiture, but all she could see was her family, who had just arrived and her father, introducing William to a neighbour. She was momentarily distracted by the sight of this latter. They had not had a moment alone after the unfortunate episode of the pigs. Darcy soon caught her eye and he bowed and smiled. In perceiving his gallantry, Elizabeth could not help her whole countenance from glowing with sudden delight. Lor' he looked ravishing in his new clothes. His tall frame was easily spotted amidst the rest of the gentlemen. Darcy had merely smiled at her, unconcious that with so little an effort he had left the ballroom full of unrequited sighs which flowed from the women fluttering around him. She smuggly returned the favor, delighted to be the object of his attention and lazily turned again to speak to Wickham. This latter bore a strange expression of incredulity.

"I see your cousin is here," he commented.

Elizabeth knew what would follow for in the past she had not lost one single opportunity to speak ill of William to Mr Wickham. How earnestly did she then wish that her former opinions had been more reasonable, her expressions more moderate!

"I daresay your manners towards him are very different," he said accusingly.

She did not answer, but the turn of her countenance spoke for her.

"I see. I must say I am surprised at such radical change of heart. Odd, do you not think? It seems only yesterday when you loathed the mere presence of him."

Elizabet shrugged. "What can I say. My cousin only improves on acquaintance."

"Indeed!" cried Wickham with a look which did not escape her. "And pray may I ask -- ?" but checking himself, he added in a gayer tone, "Is it in address that he improves? Has he deigned to add ought of civility to his ordinary style? For I dare not hope," he continued in a lower and more serious tone, "that he is improved in essentials."

"Undoubtedly!" said Elizabeth. "In essentials, I believe, he is very much what he ever was."

While she spoke, Wickham looked as if scarcely knowing whether to believe her words, or to distrust their meaning. There was a something in her countenance which made him listen with an apprehensive and anxious attention, while she added,

"When I said that he improved on acquaintance, I mean that from knowing him better, my opinion of him changed completely."

With that, she dropped a short curtsey and excused herself from his company. Attention and forbearance, with Wickham, might mean injury to William, so she was resolved against any sort of conversation with him.

Wickham watched her go with a rush of jealousy running him through. He was a vain man thus her discarding him in preference of his greatest enemy was an offence impossible to overlook. However, in the notion that the Master of Pemberley did not recollect what his deed against him had been, Wickham thought himself safe from his wrath and at liberty to ramble about in Darcy's presence. Still, coward as he was, he did not have the gall to come to Darcy face to face and seek an introduction for fear of the repercussions should Darcy ever recover his wits. Anonymity was the best way to carry out whatever his mind would come up with. Yet he was still at a loss as regards the extent of Darcy's faulty memory, so he determined himself to exact more information from the Bennets in order to decide what to do with all the intelligence he had gathered.

For something must be done.

Chapter 12

The novelty of being partnered the entire night by a single gentleman, and a gentleman handsomer than the average, did much to help Elizabeth disregard the acute pain in her feet and keep them gavotting at all cost. However, after almost two hours of frenzied dancing, Elizabeth rather walked than danced down the sets, and with a hand at her aching side and a slight limp she excused herself and sat down to rest. From that moment, Darcy sat down likewise.

"So soon knocked up? I should have hoped to keep you dancing these two hours!"

"That would have been very improper, Mr William," she answered playfully. "It is a very improper thing and entirely against the rules. It would make us the talk of the place if we were not to change partners!" she teased when in truth she was very proud that everyone had seen him singling her out so noticeably.

"Upon my honour! At an assembly such as this it is as often done as not."

"Nonsense. How can you say so when you cannot know what a ball at St James's is like? Or are you all of a sudden recovered from your amnesia?"

"No, not at all."

"When you men have some point to carry, you never stick to anything. I tell you. It would be quite a shock if you should partner me once more. After all you are nothing to me..." She was about to add 'yet' but she was checked just in time.

"I cannot agree with you. After all, this is not St James's. Sir William here considers dancing as one of the first refinements of polished societies. And the young people seem very much adept at it."

"Aye, but I am afraid I am a bit out of practice."

"You see, then. More in my favour. I shall be happy to help you practise a bit more when you have rested, even though I confess I dislike the amusement in general."

"You dislike dancing! Well, I am all astonishment, sir. You certainly do not show your repulsion!"

"Considering the inducement, my dear, I cannot but wish to dance the night away."

"Pooh, pooh. Nay, I do not believe anything you say. Your performance is indeed delightful, therefore you must like and practise dancing. As to mine, I am not used to being in such great demand.Usually I rest between reels."

"Very well. You can rest for half an hour.You still owe me the supper dance."

"What? No such thing. You have already had more than your due! Besides, I am tired. Pray, what time is it?"

"Tis only three o' clock."

"Three o'clock!"

"Is it too late for you?"

"I am not used to these long hours, that is all."

"I see. In that case it will be best if you take a good rest when you retire tonight. You shall not get up tomorrow before I go."

"O no," she said unable to hide her disappointment. " I must get up and breakfast with you," she blurted out without even thinking what she was saying.

"There is no need if you are fatigued. You had better sleep as long as you can and never mind me."

"But it will be the last time...you know... the last morning ..." she said with a strangled voice. He thought he noticed a glimpse of despondence in her tone and he smiled. Such sadness was unmistakable. It could only be imputed to increasing attachment.Good God, he thought to himself, who would have known.A feeling of contentedness filled his heart and a hundred thousand images invaded his mind. She would be his partner in life, his companion in every single enterprise. In the twentieth fraction of a second he envisoned the many breakfasts, lunches, dinners they would be together. "Nay. Not the last," he said reassuringly. "There shall be many mornings after that, and many nights...I promise."

He said nothing more, but it was enough to send her heart racing. Wouldst to God that he would kiss her before he went away. She would give anything for a kiss. Just one good kiss. Mayhaps she could suggest for a stroll outside? Would it not be too forward she wondered?

Darcy too thought that he would very much like to kiss her before he left, but saw no way to contrive to be left alone with her without arising gossip. A stroll outside would suit them very well but he thought she might be offended by such a forward suggestion. Besides he would not risk her reputation lest they should be discovered in a compromision position.

They were too much engrossed by their own thoughts to perceive that a gentleman had approached them until his figure loomed over them and he spoke thusly, "Miss Eliza. If you are not otherwise engaged, may I have this dance?"

Miss Eliza was engaged, and very agreeably I dare say imagining Darcy's lips on hers, yet unable to acknowledge it freely. Very inarticulately she excused herself claiming fatigue. Unfortunately, the young man was scarcely gone when another came with the same purpose, and then another, and Darcy was beginning to feel a little cross.

"I suppose I shall have no other means of retaining you by my side than standing up and jigging it together again."

"O no. Another dance and my reputation will be ruined for ever," she laughed.

"So be it," he said impulsively and, grabbing her around the waist, led her to the ballroom once more.

In vain did she try to extricate herself from his grip, so forcefully he held her. It was as if he had been possessed. And he had, indeed, been possessed by the green monster called jealousy. She was so shocked that a small shriek escaped her lips.

By the time Darcy had let go of her, Elizabeth looked positively puzzled. They stood for some time without speaking a word; she was too confused as what could have come over him that he should have dragged her to the dance floor with such abruptness; he, too self conscious of his fault to risk her rebuke. At last it seemed that their silence was to last through the two dances, until he gathered courage and spoke,

"You are not cross, are you?" he asked mistaking her feelings. "I am sorry if have imposed myself on you," he said, yet not penitently enough.

Elizabeth narrowed her eyes. She was not formed for ill-humour nor was it in her nature to be cross, particularly with him and at a moment such as this when she was hoping so much for a little of tenderness. She would have readily danced a waltz with him had he proposed it. Still, it diverted her exceedingly that he should think her cross and took advantage of it to tease him. "No, you are not,"she said. "If you were, you would at least feel a little remorse now," she said as seriously as she could muster.

"You are in the right. And for that I apologise."

"No remorse? How despicable of you, sir! You should be ashamed."

"Yes. I should be," he laughed. "But then it is all your fault."

"My fault?"

"Yes. You look particularly fetching when you are cross. I like this little knot in your brow, here," he said delicately touching her brow. "I supose you are not a little shrew, are you? I should very much like you to be one."

Elizabeth laughed. "Upon my word, I have never heard anything more outrageous. You, sir, are the strangest creature of my knowledge."

"Ahh yes. You have told me already. A riddle."

"Indeed sir. A riddle most difficult to solve."

"I am not all that difficult, madam."

They were separated by the other couples for a while. When they were once again face to face she said, "Oh yes, you are. You take pleasure in lady's scowls instead of smiles, you spend great part of daytime indoors and chuse to take rides in the middle of the night.You are a parson and yet you do not read the Bible. You dislike dancing yet you insist in the exertion the entire night. And worst of all you have no scruples about risking my reputation and your own. I am sure I have never known anyone more complex than you, sir."

"Very well. I must admit you have a point there. Of all your accusations I am guilty. Though for your peace of mind you must know I have already taken care of reading the Bible."

"Have you!" she exclaimed aprovingly. "And where, pray, have you started?"

"From the beginning, of course, or should I say unfortunately? It all seems like a fable I fear. People living hundreds and hundreds of years. I found a certain passage that ...Well, I ... I confess I cannot get it at all."

"Nonsense! It cannot be that difficult."

"Nay. Not difficult. Disturbing it is."

"Disturbing?"

He nodded.

"Do you mean literally or figuratively?"

"Literally of course. How can I be figuratively disturbed?"

"I am sorry. I do not understand. How can it be disturbing? I should think you have the wrong book, sir. Mayhaps you have been reading a history of biblical stories or something like that."

"O no. I am sure. It was the Bible."

"Then you must show me before you go."

"Now? I cannot talk about books at a ball."

"But if we do not discuss it now, we may never have another opportunity." The movements of the reel separated them momentarily and he could not answer till they had gone down the dance again.

"I would by no means suspend any pleasure of yours," he finally said, " However, I fear there will be no chance for us to do this just now. I do not carry the book with me."

"You astonish me, Mr Parson. Not carry the Bible with you?"

"Do you carry your cows with you, Miss Dairymaid?"

"O do not attack with your hyperboles. I wager Colonel Foster has a Bible amidst his books in the library. Do you suppose we could sneak in?"

Disbelieving her challenge, Darcy merely smiled. But soon he saw she was speaking in earnest.

"You are not afraid, are you? Nay! I know you never fear. You are the one who dragged me on horseback to the middle of nowhere and in the middle of the night. I grant you, you can find it a little difficult to get to Colonel Foster's library, but, with my assistance, I think it can be done, if you really wish to discuss this now. Otherwise it shall have to wait until you are back in a fortnight and I do not think I shall be able to contain the suspense." In noticing he hesitated she added, "Unless of course you are afraid."

"Afraid! I am not afraid. I certainly can get into any library with no assistance. But I fear the colonel might not be the owner of the book."

"Then we shall assault papa's library before we go to sleep tonight," she said, daring him.

Darcy beheld her, a little unsure. "I think, young lady, that our discussion must and shall wait until I return."

"Coward."

"Impertinent."

"Insufferable."

"Insolent."

"Milksop."

"Brazen."

She gasped in feigned horror. "Coward!"

"You are running out of insults," he whispered.

"O you are a horrible man!"

"Never mind me. I shall be gone by noon tomorrow."

The look on her face must have been of great disappointment for Darcy immediately regretted having reminded her of his imminent withdrawal.

Elizabeth was badly affected. She had not foreseen the melancholy that would invade her at the mere mention of his parting. It was not like her to be prone to tears. Yet for a moment she was afraid of giving way to just that! What was wrong with her? O how she hated that he was going away! And without kissing her! Hated it with all her heart.

Softened by the sight of her emotion, Darcy almost hugged her right there. Instead, he cleared his throat and, forcing himself to follow the pattern that the dance dictated, he apologised, for what he was not sure. When the music stopped, he was of the mind to guide her discreetly to the library and have the discussion she wanted to have, but they were prevented by the sudden assault of Miss Lydia.

"There you are!" came Lydia's shrieking voice from behind. "At last I have got you! We have been looking for you this entire half hour. I have never seen you dance so much, Lizzy! You will exhaust your poor partner!" she teased Elizabeth mercilessly. "Well, I declare," Lydia continued now talking to Darcy. "You men are so reckless! You have exceeded yourself, you two. You should have at least changed partners once!"

"Upon my word," said Darcy. "In an assembly such as this it it cannot be such a transgression."

"What do you know, William, of the Meryton assemblies? Besides this is not a public ball," argued Lydia. "All the old ladies are in a bustle already."

It must be owned that it usually took a great deal to make Elizabeth feel uncomfortable. But her younger sister's thoughtless words, so remarkably similar to her mother's, and the frustration that William's imminent sojourn must cause, combined to make a sure push at Elizabeth's feelings. She shook her head, endeavouring to refrain from saying what she thought of the old ladies' gossip. But all in all, Lydia was correct in her estimation that they had given the matrons cause to titter behind their backs. Undoubtedly, her sister's unkind remarks could have been softened. As it was Lydia possessed the power to always throw Lizzy's mind into the most distressing state possible.

"Never mind the old matrons, Lizzy. Mama is delighted," whispered Catherine to her poor sister's ear. "She wants to play cards with you two," said Kitty. "Shall we go?"

Elizabeth nodded, grateful for Catherine's compassionate tone. Her conscience thus quieted she could face her mama safely. "I had better go to my mama now," Elizabeth told Darcy regretfully.

Her words were dully obeyed. In solemn procession, they abandoned the ballroom floor, a triumphant Lydia behind, to return to the drawing room just as Mrs Bennet was readying the cards for a game of whist, to which she quickly summoned her daughters. When Darcy joined them he thought he saw a flush of vexation in Elizabeth, and he smiled. Admittedly, he was sorry for the attack Lydia had bestowed on them, but on looking at Elizabeth's flushed countenance, the embarrassment on her face, eyes so full of longing already, he could but reckon that so much could not have happened between them without some profit to himself.

Sitting at the table with Mr and Mrs Bennet for the rest of the evening promised little amusement and a great deal of vexation. A feeling of unfinished business pervaded their souls. At length, after an entire hour of listening to her mother's incoherent talking, Elizabeth decided she had had enough. She sought Darcy with mischievous eyes. Instantly, an unspoken understanding passed between them.

It was decided. They should meet in Colonel Foster's library after all.

When the music started again, Elizabeth excused herself to go and quiz Miss Lucas and with so feeble a pretext she walked off. Her movement caused Darcy to be immediately drawn away from his party and attend to her whereabouts. He soon found her outside the ballroom. They proceeded through the corridor, and both succeeded in slipping into the library unnoticed. They could hear the gentle sounds of the dancing feet rustling the floor at the other side and the music muffled by the walls that separated the rooms.

To his pleasant surprise and peace of mind, Elizabeth happily resumed the biblical conversation they had had before. Thus they initiated a frolicsome search for the Bible in between hushes and suppressed noises. They spent a merry time perusing the shelves in the scarce visibility available. Spotting the Bible in the flickering light of their candle proved a challenge. Elizabeth checked the shelves below while William searched the ones above. At last Darcy found the holy book among other books of religious contents. Holding it up in triumphant pleasure he looked at her, a gleam of playfulness in his eyes. She smiled as he approached her. They sate side by side on a couch to read the holy words.

"I cannot read this," she said after a while, tired of running her eyes through a boring list of difficult names in the poor light of the singular candle.

"Tis worse than a sermon, ain't it?"

She suppressed her laugh. "Is this the passage you found so disturbing?"

"Nay, not this." Looking at her, he paused to ponder what he was at. Granted, his ulterior motive had been to steal a kiss, but he reckoned now that given their circumstances and present location it would be hardly possible to engage her in the amorous rite of the lips without attempting further demonstration of affection. No, he could not even think of that. For the love of the Lord, he was a man of the cloth and she was ... she was ... so very tempting!

Why was he doing this? Why had he allowed her to drag him on this mad quest? Where was Gad when he needed him? To have her all for himself and in a dark, locked room was too much for Darcy's natural instincts to be kept at bay. He knew very well he was not to be trusted. Presently, his excitement was such that he could hardly keep his countenance. She was so very lovely, reading the incomprehensible book so innocently with him in the candle light, face to face... Or perhaps she too had another activity in mind?

He knew she was a daring woman. What should he do with her now, he wondered? Should he simply kiss her? What would happen then? Would he be able to repress any further attempt against Elizabeth's honour? Would he hold his horses when she was evidently so ready to surrender herself to him? He knew he would not. His yearning for Elizabeth had grown with every minute he spent in her company. His only comfort was that he was momentarily still in command of his heart. Thereupon he made a deal with himself. He would not kiss her. No he would not dare, for her own good.

Elizabeth was beginning to feel impatient and uncomfortable with silent reading. She let her hand that was lying on her lap almost imperceptibly touch his leg and slyly looked at him from behind long thick lashes to see his reaction. He afforded a lopsided smile and, closing the Bible, he turned to behold her with earnest concern. "On second thought," he said gravely, "I do not think I should show that passage to you. It must be prohibited to delicate creatures such as yourself."

"Prohibited! Nonsense! You think me more delicate than I am. Pray. Show me the passage."

"What if anyone comes in? What will they think of us?"

"Now you are thinking! Is it not a little late to feel regretful, sir? What is done is done. Besides the door is locked from inside. Unless Colonel Foster shows up, which I thoroughly doubt, my reputation is safe. Now show me the passage."

Despite the cries of his conscience, he obeyed, beginning to grasp there would be very little he would be able to deny this woman. In the future he would have to be more cautious with what he agreed to do. Nonetheless he thought he would enjoy this. His eyes were suddenly full of mischief when he cautioned her. "Very well. Prepare yourself for something absolutely shameful. Listen to this." Thereupon, they read the passage, their faces glowing a little in the light their candle emitted. As Darcy read aloud, Elizabeth followed the reading with attentive and curious eyes.

'My dear one is dazzling and ruddy," he read in a whisper, "the most conspicuous of ten thousand. His head is gold, refined gold. The locks of his hair are date clusters.' "

"Pray, of whom is the writer speaking?" she asked innocently.

He purposely paused for a second and beholding her with earnest concern he said, "Tis her lover, it seems."

Elizabeth, for a moment, remained motionless, trying to digest the intelligence he had passed her. She had scarcely expected a theological problem yet this was beyond everything else! Never in her wildest dreams would she have foreseen a love story coming. She kept her eyes on the passage endeavouring to conceal her alarm and fidgeted a little on her seat. In focusing back on his countenance she thought his eyes bore a strange gleam.

"Her lover?" she chirped in surprise.

Darcy silently nodded. He knew he should stop this, now.

"Ah," she said as if it was nothing at all.

"I know. Let us go back to the ballroom. This is not ..."

"O no, no. Pray continue."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes." If truth must be said, she was trembling from head to toes. Something told her that she should have agreed to go back to the safety of the ball room. This was not a topic to be had in the closeness of a locked library with a man who causes one's heart gallop as if one had been running a mile. Upon resuming the reading, she instantly knew he was not being the same person who had entered the library with her. Something within him had changed. His voice had a charm that she could not explain. He did not look like a parson at all. There was something almost wicked about him, something that excited her sensibilities to an extreme she failed to comprehend. He both sounded and looked like a man who had passions, secrets, a life full of adventures. His voice was rich and deep. His air was at once innocent and sensual.

'His palate is sheer sweetness, and everything about him is altogether desirable'."

"Oh. 'Tis a bit..."

"Forward?"

She nodded.

"Should I stop?"

"O no, pray. Read on."

"You speak, I obey," he said. " O willing daughter! The curving of your thighs are like ornaments, the work of an artisan's hand. Your navel ..."

"Oh! Shocking!" she thought as she blushed exceedingly yet she dared not complain.

"... Your navel is a round bowl. Let not the mixed wine be lacking. Your two breasts are like..."

"Pray stop!" she cried, her heart beating quickly, her cheek flushed with embarrassment.

"Why? Did you not wish to read on?" he asked, feigning innocence, yet Elizabeth perceived he was shamefully teasing her.

"You cannot fool me, William. That cannot be the holy book."

"Take a look at it yourself. See ... Here it reads...Holy Scriptures."

She examined the book with suspicion. "It is not the Bible."

"It is the holy scriptures, which is the same thing."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, perfectly sure."

"Well then you are in the right. It is positively disturbing. We should be reading from Shakespeare."

"For my part, I think I have had enough of biblical passion," he said apologetically, closing the book.

"And yet I find it tenfold more accurate and less objectionable than my mother's attempt to educate me on connubial bliss," she objected with a laugh.

"You are correct. This is infinitely better than any comparison with the pigs!"

"Very enlightening too, I must say. It is a shame my mother should not be aware of the wisdom contained in this holy book, and that I should be edified by strangers."

"Am I a stranger?" he whispered, taking hold of her little hand.

For a second, the world stopped. Inside the colonel's library two hearts were oblivious to everything else. They seemed to be looking at each other for the first time, their faces getting slowly close to one another.

If he was not reading her wrong, the tilt of Elizabeth's right eyebrow and the soundless parting of her lips suggested that, despite all his scruples, she was, indeed, of the mind that he should kiss her. And as he pressed her hand, Elizabeth would swear that she would find it impossible to resist him if he chose to press her whole body in the same manner. A hidden kiss in the farthest corner of her lips was crying for release, and he was the bearer of the only key to free it.

His eyes were now travelling her countenance, from her half-closed hazel eyes to her half-open mouth that quivered with passion. She marvelled at his dark eyes and thought that she would like very much for those eyes to gaze upon her all night. Perhaps if those stormy eyes stared into hers long enough, they could urge their mouths to join in a kiss.

Elizabeth followed his gaze as it softly traced a new path from her eyes to her mouth as if imploring permission. For God's sake could he not see that she was dying for a kiss? What was he waiting for? Her mind raced trying to figure out how she could encourage him. Instinctively, her hand, the one he was not holding and which had been lying on her lap flew a little up and very unluckily and completely unwittingly ended up resting on an area close to his hips. It was a light, feathery touch, like a brushing movement.

Surprisingly, when her hand touched the vulnerable side of his body she immediately felt him tense and even in the dimness of the candle light she thought his face went suspiciously pink.

She noticed with delight that his gaze had at last rested decidedly on her lips. He was staring at them with fixed perverseness and Lizzy thought her shy movement had done the trick and that he was indeed about to kiss her. It seemed inevitable now, and Elizabeth closed her eyes in reasonable expectation.

Even when Darcy knew well enough how badly she wanted him to kiss her, he was mentally cramped. Much as he tried to gather up courage to act according to her expectations, he was very much afraid to be tempted beyond his limits. The last thing he wanted was to scare her with his passion. But no, he could not recoil now. Her lips were crying blue murder for a kiss. And she had closed her eyes. His mouth went dry with excitement and he was forced to gulp, still paralyzed with unresolved desire. Elizabeth's closeness had brought him to the point of a familiar ecstasy. The thrilling fact was that it was Elizabeth who was making the advance. Not that the very idea had not been churning, burning inside of him, leaving him giddy with repressed desire and indecision.

He conquered another inch moving slightly forward, until he was so unnervingly close that Elizabeth imagined him already on her. It was the first time she had been so close to any other human being, face to face, nose to nose. She could perceive the peppered scent of his breath, enticing, inviting, maddening. "How unlucky I have closed my eyes!"she thought. She would have given half a life to have left them open.

A stray lock from her hair was tickling his nose. He knew perfectly well that were he to kiss those sensual lips, his natural instincts might lead him to a point of no return once more. Thrilled already as he was by the gentle touch of her hand through the many layers of his clothes, he could feel his desire burgeoning, taking possession of his better judgement, dangerously lapping the wild territory of his loins. Just in time, he thought of the face of Mrs Phillips, the Vicar's sermon on Sunday, the scarcity of money in his pocket, anything but Lizzy offering her lips to him with abandon.

Even faced with his unreasonable reticence Elizabeth was still sanguine. She pressed her eyes shut a little more and sighed, expectantly. Her heart fluttered, her knees trembled, and her lips rounded in their own accord. Her mind raced trying to figure out what could be restraining him. She instantly thought of her hand. Perhaps that was the impediment. She had meant to have raised her arm higher but somehow her courage had failed her, fearing that perhaps if she wrapped it around his waist he would think her vulgarly forward.

With an unsteady movement she let her innocent hand fall a little southwards with the unexpected result that it landed on his lap, right there, where his sensibilities were most afflicted. To her surprise, for a brief moment it rested on something hard that seemed to be stirring beneath his trousers. For a second she thought the back of her hand had felt a living thing completely unattached to him and she recoiled, turning a horrified face, causing the already jittery Darcy to jerk his head away and mumble something undistinguishable, some kind of plea for forgiveness. Just then the Bible fell off his lap with a thud, and they both jumped up in their places from the surprise.

All this jittering occasioned the candle to fall to the floor after the book and alas, it was extinguished before they could realise what had happened. O wretched destiny! Not a remnant of light was left in the room. A star could have never expired with a more disappointing effect.

Darcy could not be more grateful to the impenetrable and immovable darkness that so suddenly filled the room.

"What was that?"

"What was what?" he asked still fighting for air. Despite the fact that they were already in jet darkness, Darcy closed his eyes. Should he tell her?

"It was you?" she asked incredulously.

Silence. It is in moments such as this that the true gentleman surfaces. Still, even when Darcy was a true gentleman, he was a proud man too. He would never admit such a weakness in front of a lady. Particularly this lady. Unfortunately, disguises of every sort were his abhorrence. It was a matter of chusing the lesser of two evils. He chose to lie. "I should think it was the Bible," he said after a long pause.

She blurted out a giggle in frank hilarity.

"You laugh at me?"

"I laugh at us! It seems we are doomed to interruptions of all sorts."

"So it seems," he sighed with relief. Good grief, she is not offended! They momentarily forgot their embarrassment and both laughed at their misfortune."For the life of me I cannot see you. Where are you?"

"I am here. Right beside you."

"Very well," he sighed again in helplessness. To attempt to re-enact the kissing activity after so much turmoil was unthinkable. Dissatisfied but increasingly used to the feeling, he chose for them to quit the library at once before a greater misfortune befell them. "I shall rise now. Now, you do the same and follow me. Here take my hand." She obeyed, and followed him as he groped their way to the door.

In the end, there was no kiss for Elizabeth nor did she get an explanation of the stirring creature that lurked on Darcy's lap. But something extremely wild within her had been stirred as to leave her in an uproar. Though still unsure of what her hand had experienced beneath Darcy's clothes, she could not help but associate the sensation with what her eyes had once perceived under water. Inevitably, her passions and feelings were in every way so agitated that once she had reached her bed that night she tossed about in it unable to sleep until dawn rescued her.

Darcy's night was not any different. Thus breakfast was eaten in gloomy silence. Mr Bennet was telling Darcy to write as soon as he arrived at Kent and entreating him to return within two weeks, but Darcy's inattention was made evident to all in his inability to follow the thread of the conversation. He was all the time engaged in what might be passing through Elizabeth's mind. Mr Bennet, perceiving how his eye was employed, decided to afford them a little privacy and began to talk to Jane.

"I shall write to you, Elizabeth," he told her at a convenient moment in a whisper. Elizabeth's heart struggled to contain itself. Till that day she honestly did not know how much she loved him. She was completely torn with pain at his parting. She had tears she could not release and farewells she could not express.

When it came to the moment of parting, he would not be denied a kiss on the cheek, a gesture he bestowed upon every one of his cousins, for whom he felt a great deal of affection. He kissed Elizabeth's last of all, tenderly holding her hand, pressing the little fingers as his lips lingered only a little longer on her cheek.

Then he took her hand to his lips. "I take leave of you, too," he said apparently talking to the offensive hand. "Beware of where you rest while I am away."

She arched an eyebrow but did not say another word in response. An involuntary giggle escaped her lips. Before she could feel sad, it was over. He was gone.

If you recognise it, it is probably not mine.

Continue reading Malena's story here


Authors love feedback, please express your appreciation for Malena's story here