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Parson's Pleasure

Chapter 19

Elizabeth soon heard from William again in brief notes secreted in Mr Bennet's correspondence. His letters were always received with a good deal of eagerness by everyone; there could not be but curiosity to know how he would speak of his new home, how he would like his new situation, and how happy he would pronounce himself to be; though, when the letters were read, Elizabeth noticed that William expressed himself on every point with excessive care yet he never dwelled on details that could betray his true identity. True, he wrote cheerfully, seemed surrounded with comforts, and mentioned nothing which he could not praise. The house, furniture, neighbourhood, and roads, were all to his taste, and the people's behaviour around him was most friendly and obliging, yet Elizabeth perceived that she must wait for his return to know the rest.

Soon their correspondence became as regular and frequent as could be and she wrote in a most unreserved manner of her feelings and wishes, though she did not have the heart to ask too much in return. That it should be equally unreserved from his part was impossible, for Darcy had been prevailed upon to maintain secrecy as regards his real name and situation in life until the family reunion was held for Christmas. This vexed Darcy exceedingly, yet knowing that the mastery of Pemberley was at stake, he was ready to endure the secrecy and separation from Lizzy provided they could be united in the end and he would be able to offer her anything her heart desired.

Thus Mr Wickham's triumph in consequence of Mr Darcy's trust would have been complete if only Mr Darcy would have relinquished his new-acquired habits of caring for the poor and humble. To the latter the power of Wickham's persuasion failed to induce him into behaving in a more genteel manner, and he in turn was becoming exceedingly wary of the soldier's constant complaining about his comportment, which he rightfully considered coarse and unsuitable for Darcy's station.

"Pray, Darcy. I do not think this is a good idea." Wickham grumped, quite annoyed. Darcy was planning an excursion to aid a family of tenants whose house had been nastily beaten by a fire. "I am sure the other tenants must have gone to them already. And I am certain these people would not expect their master to go and rebuild their house. This not exactly the kind of task you should do, you know."

"I beg to disagree. It is every good master's job to watch over his tenants' welfare."

"It is beneath you, Darcy. O for God's sake. You are not proposing to wear that?" he said pointing at a pair of old trousers. Mr Reynolds coughed in agreement. He presently sent a pointed look towards his master and finally quit the room with an offended air.

"This man unnerves me," Darcy grumbled.

"He is doing his job. You dress like a poor country squire, by the way."

"And what do you propose? There has been a fire. Should I wear my morning clothes with top hat? I do not think so."

"Fire or not fire...the material point here, Darcy, is...you have never done this kind of thing before. Ever since you have returned you have been conducting yourself in the most unseemly manner. Consider the other day, when you helped John repair the carriage wheel. What do you think John thought?"

"Who cares what the groom thinks? We would have had to wait there in the rain another three hours had I not stepped outside to help John. I think he must be grateful."

"Grateful? He was shocked beyond measure! Master Darcy had barely exchanged two words with him before. And now he was with mud to his ears like a common soldier pushing the carriage in the rain side by side with him!"

"You helped too."

"It was the least I could do. Otherwise it would have been absolutely preposterous. It deemed your manners less vulgar."

"Vulgar? It was just Christian charity."

"Let vicars display Christian charity. Darcy, you are the Master of Pemberley, not the parson of Hunsford, for God's sake, and I doubt any vicar would reduce himself to such lowly tasks as you have lately performed. Darcy, you cannot go about your property behaving like a common peasant. What is more, you must not go to these people yourself. Send someone to help. That is the proper thing to do. Send the whole damn household if you please, but do not go yourself."

Darcy lost all his patience. If there was something that provoked him that was Wickham's rebuke. He threw his boots forcibly against the floor, quite in a fit. "Wickham, I am sick and tired of your pompous manners."

"Pompous or not, you must not go. Ask anyone when was the last time the Master of Pemberley held a shovel to do hard work."

At last, Wickham won the discussion, and Mr Reynolds made the arrangements for a group of servants to go and help the tenants with the aftermath of the fire. Not long after they had left, however, a messenger was sent back to Pemberley, bearing the sad news that two of the children had died.

"I must go to them," Darcy declared, this time resolved to act upon his will. "You can stay if you want." With that he rushed upstairs to his bedchamber and withdrew the bible he had brought from Meryton. Before setting out he took care in searching for some passages that would help him console those poor people on the loss of their offspring. Wickham sighed. Already resigned, he followed Darcy in his quest.

It was a ghastly sight, the whole building in ashes, and the little bodies lying covered with sheets on the ground. With incredible tenderness, Darcy helped those poor people arrange the funeral of the little children. He arranged for coffins to be made and the funeral was to be held in a farmhouse nearby. It was only when all this had been arranged when belatedly, the vicar of Lambton made his appearance. Darcy approached him with a reproachful look upon his face.

"I should have thought you would be here when I arrived, sir. I sent for you early this morning."

"It is Sunday," the vicar replied. "I could not leave the morning speech to the curate."

"Do I need to be told what day it is?" Darcy asked haughtily. "Does God Almighty rejoice in sermons and speeches more than in charity and compassion? Must I remind you that you are here to tend to the poor and rescue their souls, or am I to perform the task God commended to you?"

"That would be not necessary, sir, I assure you," the vicar responded, offended, "not to mention highly reprehensible," he finished with scorn. Master of Pemberley or not, the vicar was not accustomed to be thus spoken to by laymen.

Darcy made a mental note to speak to the archbishop regarding this unholy attitude of the parson. He knew the archbishop since infancy, when he and his father would visit him during the season in London. Surely he would be quite pleased to receive him after Christmas. Such was his determination to act accordingly, it took Darcy a few seconds to realise he had just had a fine part of his memory restored.

~ * ~

On the eve of Christmas, Elizabeth had the pleasure of receiving her uncle and aunt Gardiner again, who came as usual to spend the holy season at Longbourn. When alone with Elizabeth afterwards, her aunt spoke more on the subject of Jane and Elizabeth's respective lovers. Their first subject was her sister; and Mrs Gardiner was quite grieved to hear that in spite of so long a separation Jane still suffered periods of dejection. "This Mr Bingley must have been a very desirable match for Jane," said she. "I am sorry it went off. But these things happen so often! A young man, such as your mother describes Mr Bingley, so easily falls in love with a pretty girl for a few weeks, and when accident separates them, so easily forgets her, that these sort of inconstancies are very frequent."

"An excellent consolation in its way," said Elizabeth, "but it will not do for us. We do not suffer by accident. It does not often happen that the interference of friends will persuade a young man of independent fortune to think no more of a girl, whom he was violently in love with only a few days before."

"But that expression of "violently in love" is so hackneyed, so doubtful, so indefinite, that it gives me very little idea. It is as often applied to feelings which arise from an half-hour's acquaintance, as to a real, strong attachment. Pray, how violent was Mr. Bingley's love?"

"I never saw a more promising inclination. He was growing quite inattentive to other people, and wholly engrossed by her. Every time they met, it was more decided and remarkable. At his own house he offended his own sisters by not answering them while he was speaking to Jane, and I spoke to him twice myself without receiving an answer. Could there be finer symptoms? Is not general incivility the very essence of love?"

"Oh, yes! -- of that kind of love which I suppose him to have felt. But whose interference could have persuaded such a man to abandon the woman he loved?" Elizabeth then represented her with all Colonel Fitzwilliam had confided. "O my God. This is most unfortunate. I have known the Darcys by name only. But I have always had the best reports of them. I should be sorry, you know, to think ill of a young man who has lived in Derbyshire."

"Oh! if that is all, I have a very good opinion of a young man who lives in Derbyshire, aunt."

"O Lizzy! What news have you of William? I hear he corresponds with your father quite often."

Elizabeth could not help a smile. "Quite often, dear aunt. And more often than not there is a note for me as well."

"Is he settled already?"

She nodded with alacrity. "O yes. At a place called Pemberley."

"O But that is Mr Darcy's home!" she exclaimed. Elizabeth declared it impossible. "O but I am positive! I know the place. It is a rich mansion not far from the town I grew up. What does he do there?"

"He does not tell in his letters."

"I daresay he does not. What time has a lover to speak of his labour in a short note. Do you think he is a servant for the masters of Pemberley?"

"I hardly know. He has never mentioned a name or his position there. At first he wrote about the dairy. Then he said he had been visiting the tenants. Maybe he is the steward. I wish he would say a little more about his profession, for I am sure he must have a profession. William is a highly accomplished young man, aunt."

"That he is. I remember there was something about him, in his lips...quite stately I daresay. It is a pity we cannot know more."

"But he does say he is very prosperous. Though he and his sister are orphans."

"O, I am sorry to hear that. How I wish we knew his real name!"

"He signed his letter FD. Does that not tell you anything?"

"No, unless he were the master of Pemberley!" she laughed. "With a 'D' you said...maybe Dashwood? I know a late Mr Dashwood who had a son and a daughter. Or was it several daughters? Perhaps it is he. I can hardly wait to know. Do ask him in your next letter. Or are you expecting to see him soon? When will he come back to Longbourn, do you think?"

"I do not think he will be able to come back before a year. Mama says he must be working very hard to get a living to marry me."

"Perhaps you could surprise him. Your uncle and I plan to go touring Derbyshire in the summer. I know your father does not like you to go away from him very often. But do you think he would be prevailed upon to let you and Jane go with us? Change of scene might be of service for Jane-- and perhaps a little relief from home, may be as useful as anything."

Elizabeth was exceedingly pleased with this proposal, and felt persuaded of her father's ready acquiescence. No scheme could have been more agreeable to her, and her acceptance of the invitation was most ready and grateful. "My dear, dear aunt," she rapturously cried, "what delight! What felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. Dear Jane will be monstrously happy! What is Mr Bingley to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend!"

"Dear Lizzy. Do not try to tell me it is merely on your sister's account that you are so happy."

"O no, dear aunt. I have every reason to be happy for myself as well. You are taking me where I shall find a man who has not one disagreeable quality, who has the best manners and sense to recommend him. A man who is the only one worth knowing I daresay."

Mrs Gardiner laughed. "Take care, Lizzy. Every man is bound to disappoint us some time or other. William is not perfect."

"O but he is, dear aunt. He is."

Chapter 20

Colonel Fitzwilliam checked his pocket watch for the fifth time in ten minutes. Curse these carriages. He should have travelled on horseback, but he was growing increasingly wary of the saddle, especially at this time of the year, when promises of war and snow were abundant. Teeth chattering with cold, he pressed his nose against the window to inspect the surroundings for signs of recognition of his whereabouts. Not yet. He sighed, annoyed. It would be yet another hour in that darn carriage until they would be entering Pemberley grounds.

As he lay back against his seat, he thought of his cousin Darcy for a while. It was a good six months since he saw him last. If truth might be told he was altogether astonished to have found out about the real Mr Collins lying ill at Hunsford. How in blazes had Darcy engineered so well-planned a scheme? Not that he lacked the intelligence. It was simply not like Darcy to misbehave in this outrageous manner. Yet it was evident that for some reason he could not explain, Darcy had seen fit to pass for the parson in Hertfordshire secure in the notion that the man was ill in bed and would not be able to give him away. Unbelievable! He had fooled all the folks in Hertfordshire, his aunt and cousin, his friend Bingley, his valet and even himself. In the face of so mischievous a scheme, it had taken Fitzwilliam quite a time to finally put two and two together. After all, who would have imagined that his august cousin would take up to deceive just like so?

The colonel could not deny he was somewhat proud of Darcy's reckless behaviour, though deep inside Fitzwilliam was still baffled.

How could he not be! First Darcy's sudden visit last summer, with all that talk of marriage, then his equally sudden withdrawal which ended with his vanishing from polite society. Afterwards his mysterious disappearance, until he corresponded with Fitzwilliam under a fake name, a parson's name no less.

Finally Darcy had summoned him to Kent, yet never deigned to poke his darn stiffened face there. To add to the colonel's befuddlement, he was left on his own to stand with Lady Catherine's endless complains over Darcy's odd comportment. That was not the way he had planned to spend his time on leave, no sir. And what a long, lonely leave it had been! Unfortunately, he had no time left to head for Pemberley and have a serious talk with Darcy. Soon the days of his leave would expire and he would be compelled to join his regiment again. It was greatly fortunate he had at least met Miss Elizabeth Bennet, the only part of his visit to Rosings Park which he did not regret. Not that he had any serious designs on her, no. He was not the marrying type. At least not the marrying dowry-less young ladies type. But he had spent a most agreeable time with her, and was wondering if Miss Bennet would not agree to a ...warmer acquaintance before he left for America next year.

Ah Miss Bennet! What a delightful young woman! Such a charmingly sharp mind! She had certainly made his otherwise insupportable stay with his aunt a most enjoyable experience, which was quite an accomplishment, especially after Darcy had sent that ever odder letter explaining his unbelievable business that could not be delayed. Damn his cousin! Fitzwilliam was up to his ears with following his tracks like a hound. But he would have none of it any more. After a most disagreeable stay at Hunsford, Fitzwilliam was determined to make every single hour count. So he let Darcy be for a while and set himself to finish what he had begun so agreeably during his short stay in London that summer. General Beresford had summoned him for his next campaign, so it would be best for him not to waste another minute of his life running after his cousin only to end up locked in his mansion at Pemberley.

So to London he had headed, and there he spent the rest of his leave, alternating light gaming with the company of fine ladies. Then he had joined his regiment, and enjoyed the society of soldiers (yes, you read well, he actually enjoyed that) and by the time winter began, his spirits were restored and he was ready to return to Matlock, but in a very good humour.

But first, on the eve of Christmas, he must attend to yet another duty. After all, he was in charge of Georgiana Darcy together with his cousin Will. So before going to the accustomed family reunion at the paternal home at Matlock, he would have to call on Darcy at Pemberley, where he had agreed to meet him and wait for their young ward to arrive. Afterwards, he supposed the threesome would travel together to Matlock as was their custom.

So thither he went in that blasted weather: to Pemberley.

Darcy had only begun to prepare for his trip to Matlock when the sounds of an arriving carriage announced newcomers. He was expecting both his sister and his cousin Fitzwilliam to arrive that day. To his pleasant surprise, Wickham had purposely left him on his own to attend to this business alone. Odd behaviour, Darcy had thought. It was as if Wickham was indisposed to receive the colonel.

When Darcy descended the stairs, he found Mrs Reynolds conversing with a gentleman of noble mien, and what he thought were impeccable manners. Scarcely had Darcy spotted the colonel's friendly countenance when his eye shone with a gleam of recognition. In seeing him, the young man grinned and stepped forward. Darcy smiled in relief. The gentleman of such happy manners was evidently Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam, second son of Lord and Lady Matlock, Mr Darcy's aunt and uncle. His happiness in recognising his cousin was such, that Darcy darted towards him and very effusively, embraced him with sincere happiness.

The colonel, however, not used to such warm welcome from his dull cousin, was vastly surprised. "Will, old chap! Where the deuce have you been hiding?! I have been tracking you in vain for the last six months," he said.

That the newcomer should call him Will and not Darcy and had such intimacy with him gave him a feeling of relief. "It is a long story," he said.

"I bet it is. I thought I would never catch you. You have been quite elusive, my friend."

Mrs Reynolds immediately left them alone. When she left, Fitzwilliam whistled in admiration. "Dammy, how this woman lasts! She was a hundred when we were lads!" he exclaimed merrily.

Darcy offered no comment but inwardly laughed at his banter. They both settled themselves in the parlour, and after ringing for refreshments, sat to converse at length. Darcy was wild with anticipation. There was so much to discuss, and much more to listen to. As Colonel Fitzwilliam sat comfortably by the fire, toting a bumper of brandy to warm up his much tired body after the difficult journey on the carriage, Darcy endeavoured to look affable and at ease. He needed to calm himself in order to extract as much information as possible without betraying his present situation. Perchance a conversation with Colonel Fitzwilliam would throw more light into his memory.

"She has hardly changed over the years," continued Fitzwilliam about Mrs Reynolds. "Except for her hair. It used to be red, I recall."

The cousins conferred for a good two hours. The topics were the most varied ones: childhood, hounds, travels, arms. A hundred and thousand recollections of boyhood and innocence flitted across Darcy's brain: Eton, Cambridge, his mother, a fragile little woman to whom he had been exceedingly attached, his sister, equally fragile in temper yet much taller and a hundred times healthier, Richard himself, and how he used to thrash him about when mere lads.

After a few bumpers of brandy, however, to Darcy's absolute surprise, the colonel had much more to say, which had little of boyish recollection and nothing of innocence.

It appeared Fitzwilliam and he had been carousing in London lately, and there were a number of ladies of doubtful reputation that had been inquiring after Darcy. This intelligence certainly sunk Darcy in a rather downcast mood. Pangs of dim remorse, and doubt and shame, took possession of his mind. Was it possible that before he lost his memory he had been a rascal?

"Dev'lish nice woman!" cried the colonel, twirling up his mustachios after finishing a very detailed description of his dealings with a famous London courtesan of whom he was passionately fond. "I could have kept her for myself, had I been in possession of a little more tin!"

The last tale had left Darcy a little breathless. Howbeit he reckoned gentlemen were quite used to this sort of language, he had endeavoured to keep his natural instincts at bay by refraining from dwelling on the topic unnecessarily. Unfortunately, Colonel Fitzwilliam was a consummate story teller, and Darcy's mood suffered a radical change. This time his discomfiture was precisely not visible on his face. He was beginning to regret to have spurred the colonel's tongue with so much brandy. Hang him, how he liked to talk! Darcy, with a countenance more than queer which he could not disguise, coughed and squirmed at each of the colonel's revelations and yet, this Don Juan continued his tales undaunted, giving Darcy further reasons to advance his marriage with every single detail of his many debaucheries.

To tell the truth, the colonel was not affected very much one way or the other by Darcy's discomfort, however notable this could be. He was used to it and even expected it. In fact Fitzwilliam was vastly diverted by Darcy's squeamishness, more so now that he thought he had passed to his side.

"So, you have been carousing in Hertfordshire under an alias all this time. And we all thought you dead! My, my," he said shaking his head in feigned disapproval. Then he roared with laughter. "Haw, haw! You have done quite well, by Jove. Mr Collins indeed! How many hearts did you break there, me boy? Tell me all."

Darcy had not anticipated this. His excitement soon abandoned him to give way to abject wretchedness. Perhaps his cousin was correct. Perhaps he had been but carousing in Hertfordshire and had left a trail of who knows what in his wake. By Jove! This was gloomy intelligence indeed. The sole idea that his 'relations' in Longbourn might learn of such accounts of his past life was in itself alarming. He could listen to the colonel no more. Uppermost in his mind was what Elizabeth's reaction might be if she were to learn that her intended was in fact a rich snob inclined to boisterous, drunken merrymaking.

That the colonel had mistaken his misfortunes at Longbourn as a vile trick on his part to dally with unaware ladies was soon plain to Darcy. Very much agitated, he took great pains to disabuse Fitzwilliam of that notion with the undesirable result that the colonel realised that something was the matter with him. The words 'unwell' and 'amnesia' did not fail to call his attention. But Darcy crowned it all by mentioning one simple word: Wickham.

Predictably, at the first mention of the odious name, Colonel Fitzwilliam fired off one question after the other. Darcy endeavoured to circumnavigate his admission but to no avail. In vain did he sit with a look of complaisance, answering with every degree of civility, showing no trace of anxiety or agitation. Once the name of Macbeth had been brought up, the colonel could easily see through all the rest. Yet, when he finally understood what the real situation at Longbourn had been, the great dragoon knew not how to contain his laughter, and he mercilessly teased his cousin. "Good Lord, Will! This tale is worthy of the Gazette!"

"I hope not."

"Now everything makes sense. Good Lord! And there I had thought you were having a wild time with those primrose country lasses!" He laughed heartily, at intervals recollecting what he had thought when he had received Darcy's letters signed 'William Collins', berating himself for his own stupidity, at which Darcy concurred. In the end, Colonel Fitzwilliam sat back in his arm chair and sighed. "I am speechless, Will. This is the most amazing story I had heard after Sir Gawain and the Green Night. But you must tell me more. How did you find yourself faced with the scoundrel?"

What followed did not amuse the colonel in the least. When Darcy told him that Wickham had helped him and that he had decided to put an end to their controversies, Fitzwilliam let out an oath.

"Hang him, Will! It is insupportable! I cannot bear to merely think about it. How could you ...The infamous dog has got every vice, and I am not talking of courtesans here."

"Fitzwilliam, there is no need to remember every..."

"No, need? No need? How can you not remember, Will? You of all people!"

"I think everyone has a right to redeem himself..."

"Hey, what are you, a monk? Vipers only change their skin, Darcy. Not their nature. You cannot trust him, in the same manner that you cannot trust any vile reptile. Hang it, you booby!"

"Do not bully me, Fitzwilliam. I know very well what he did. There is no need for you to remind me..."

"How could you, Darcy? How can you ask this villain into your house!" cried the exasperated colonel. "I say he has every vice, by Jove. A scoundrel of the worst sort. A snake, a ..."

"I think he got the picture," said Wickham's voice from behind. Colonel Fitzwilliam almost jumped from his chair.

"Wickham!"

"I am sorry to interrupt you, Darcy. But I could not help hearing the colonel..."

"I apologize for all this, Wickham."

"You ...apologize?" cried the colonel in stupor. "Darcy...you are a fool! As to you...I have sworn I would run you through your body the next time I set eyes on your damn filthy face. So you had better run, you swindler."

"Sir, I think it is best for us to calm down. I have not come to fight over our past deals."

"Past deals my foot! Darcy! Get him out of my sight before I kill him! "

"You mean to frighten me with that speech? I am not afraid of you," said Wickham with a swaggering tone. He still was confident that Colonel Fitzwilliam would only be bragging and in any case he thought Darcy would come to his defence should the colonel forget himself.

"Then you are a fool, sir." That said, Colonel Fitzwilliam sprang to his feet and went to the fireplace from whence he took a sword that hung against the wall. In a flash, he had Wickham against a massive piece of furniture, the point of the sword right on his throat. "Now listen to me carefully. This is what I am going to do. Either you take your stupid face out of Pemberley this minute, or you will taste the flavour of your own blood. I grant you, it is not a nice feeling."

If Wickham had counted on Darcy's timely interference, he was utterly mistaken. As if surrounded by the fog in the moors, Darcy beheld the scene dumfounded. The violence of his cousin's hatred had triggered a terrible memory from the past, the first of many others that for some reason were repressed somewhere in the confines of his mind, and he was not utterly baffled by the recollection.

Wickham did not rally from the state of stupor and confusion in which the sudden attack of the colonel and his absurdly intrepid spirit had plunged him. He sent a pleading look towards Darcy that plainly screamed, "Do something!" while Fitzwilliam, with flame in his eyes, still seizing Wickham by the neck, and cursing the villain's name, let go of the sword and began to strangle him with his hands. Wickham, barely breathing, writhed in self-defence, but the colonel struck him twice on the face as if wishing to erase the pleading gesture, and then flung him bleeding to the ground. "There you are, you dog," he hissed. "You see now you had better fear me. You should have gone when I told you to!" the colonel screamed out. Then he took the almost dead Wickham by his neck cloth and said in a hiss. "Have you heard how Edward of Caernarfon died? Well, you will make history just like he did if I see you near my family again. You hear me?" he threatened. "Now take your pretty face out of my sight before I drag you upstairs and put a hot poker up your filthy ***. I wager you would not enjoy it that much!"

At length Darcy interfered. "Colonel! Let him be!"

The colonel let go of Wickham and turned around even more furious. This time his fury was directed at his cousin. "What the deuce are you saying? Have you forgotten his deeds with Georgiana?!"

"I have not! But he has had enough." There was a brief silence in which the two contestants seemed to be measuring each other. It proved enough for Wickham to relapse. Seeing that this momentary distraction would be his only opportunity to free himself from the colonel's wrath, Wickham endeavoured to abscond from the room as best as his battered self allowed him. But the colonel, springing out, redirected a blow to his enemy. Unfortunately, Darcy interposed himself between his cousin and his friend and the colonel's blow went right to Darcy's face.

They wrestled like schoolboys for a while. At last, the colonel seemed to prevail against Darcy and he tried to follow Wickham but Darcy had a firm hold of him.

"I said he has had enough."

Colonel Fitzwilliam sent daggers to Darcy. "I no longer know you!" he said with disappointment in his voice.

Meantime, Wickham fled Pemberley, muttering oaths of vengeance against both cousins.

*In the mid-1330s was first reported the most exaggeratedly violent pornoviolent account of Edward's murder-by-hot-metal-rod-driven-up-his-anus. This story was apparently written by Lancastrian polemicists with intent to paint Mortimer and his partisans as salacious regicides.

Chapter 21

The fine weather had fled Derbyshire with the swallows, and before long Pemberley lay dressed in the first thin layers of pristine snow, to the delight of Miss Georgiana Darcy who poked her head out of the carriage and inhaled the cold air giving a little shriek of pleasure.

"Pray Miss Darcy. 'Tis not good of you to risk your health in this manner," warned the faithful companion in distress. "Heavens forbid you get a running nose, Miss."

"Oh, nonsense, Mrs Annesley."

The lady shook her head. "Pray, Miss Darcy. We do not want your nose red from chill. Mr Darcy will not like it, not one bit," she said disapprovingly.

On hearing her brother's potential's distress, Miss Darcy made up her mind to obey, but only for the sake of her brother. She was about to close the window of the carriage when she spied the familiar figure of Mr Wickham on horseback on the road riding to their encounter.

"Wickham!" she called out.

"Miss Darcy!" reproached Miss Annesley. "Pray, you must not...!"

But Mr Wickham had already heard the girl calling his name. The carriage stopped and Miss Darcy's head was once again out of the carriage.

"Faith! What has happened to your face?" she cried when she was confronted with the nasty spectacle Wickham's countenance offered. He had a ghastly look: his face sported the first bluish colour of a bruise on one of his cheeks, his chiselled countenance was now a little swelled below the chin and his own dry blood was smearing his usually pristine neck-cloth. "Good Lord!" Miss Darcy's gasp of horror reminded the young man of the way he looked. George Wickham winced as he instinctively touched his face.

"Your cousin..." he shrugged.

"Fitzwilliam?"

Wickham nodded. "Your brother, too. He threw me out."

"But you said it was all forgotten."

"Well, not quite it seems," he said sharply.

Confused by the unexpected change in their plans, Miss Darcy lowered her head. After a moment's pause she asked a little breathless. "What now? Are you leaving Derbyshire?"

"I am," he answered curtly. He was not holding her gaze. Still on his horse he looked away at the sloppy windy road in front of him.

"What will I do?" Miss Darcy asked full of expectancy, trying to engage his gaze in vain.

At length he turned his head and faced her. "Come with me," he mouthed his poisonous pledge only for her to decode.

Miss Darcy was paralyzed with indecision. What to do! Her tender heart melted at the sight of her beloved urging her to elope with him once more. Still, even when she was bleeding to agree to his monstrous plan, her face sadly ravaged by grief and despair only paled in response. She could not go, had no courage to fail Darcy yet again. Should she yield to the fierce pull of her heart she would be betraying the trust of a brother who adored her. She perfectly knew the feeling and did not want to repeat it.

Wickham shook his head. Then he stared at her with a mixture of resentment and disinterest.

"Miss Darcy!" Miss Annesley insisted. "Miss Darcy, Mr Darcy will not like any of this!"

"Go." Wickham said.

"But..."

"Go...I will let you know of my whereabouts."

At last Miss Darcy sunk into the carriage shaking and weeping silently, her heart overcharged with remorse and insecurity. As her carriage drove away, George Wickham followed it with murderous eyes. Perched on his horse, he spat a gob of spit tinted with his own blood on the ground, a reminiscence of his recent struggles with Fitzwilliam. In noticing the crimson in the spit he felt his lower jaw with his gloved hand. It still hurt.

The reader can be certain that when the devil finished all his tempting, he would only leave until an opportune time arose once more. I grant you, kind reader, had George Wickham succeeded to win Miss Darcy's trust on this occasion, he would not have thought to inflict so much pain as he now contrived against the Darcy family.

~ * ~

By the time Miss Darcy's carriage had reached Pemberley, the heiress had conquered her distress and was looking forward to seeing her brother and cousin. She was aware that Darcy had been somehow a little distant of late --to what it was owned she did not know. Albeit her encounter with Wickham had left her in deep anguish, it could not completely ruin her reunion with her family. She had spent half her journey in breathless expectation of seeing Wills and her dear home and the mere sight of her dear brother, standing erect at the door waiting for her, brought her such pleasure as to make her forget the distress of half an hour before. Indeed the exhilarating feeling of being once more safe in his company and at home left no room for anything else in her heart.

Those readers with tender feelings can imagine the extent of her disappointment when on running to so beloved a brother to embrace him, said brother, instead of taking her into his loving arms, merely bowed quite curtly. The wretched girl instantly beheld him with great astonishment. On closer inspection of his countenance she soon discovered the purple bruise that now adorned the corner of his left eye, where Fitzwilliam had inflicted the blow. She immediately arrived at the easy conclusion that Darcy had fought with Wickham and that her brother was again angry with her.

Darcy noticed the turn of her countenance, and upon retiring to his bedchamber that night, the happenstance haunted him all through the night. Damn his memory. Damn his stupidity. Damn, damn! Miss Darcy must think him a beast to have slighted her in that awful manner. What to do now? Should he go to her? Should he confide to her all that had happened of late? Would it not only add to her confusion? After all she was already seventeen and bound to understand. Yet he did not know the extent of his intimacy with her in the past. What if they were not used to confiding in one another? Would she not perhaps think him out of place? Mayhap Wickham was in the right, and he should not tell anyone about his problem with his memory. He pondered all this in the solitude of his bedchamber as he lay supine on his bed with the large dog curled at his feet. He was about to risk a visit to Miss Darcy's room to see how she was faring when a light knock reached his ears. Fester quickly quit his warm accommodation to welcome the caller.

It was Miss Darcy, clad in her nightgown, sporting a solitary wick. Without further ceremony, she opened the door and her ghostly figured crossed the distance to Darcy's bed, followed by an exultant Fester. She gingerly climbed onto the bed and to Darcy's horror, curled herself by her his side upon the covers very much in Fester's manner while the bereft dog growled in protest.

Paramount discomfort notwithstanding, Darcy schooled his utter surprise of such a tender demonstration of sisterly affection but said not a thing. He lay in complete silence, stiffened like a statue, holding his breath almost in anguish, not a little alarm to have a young almost unknown lady lying in her nightshift by his side.

"What is Fester doing in your bedchamber?" Miss Darcy asked with an absentminded voice.

"Keeping me company," he said briskly.

"Ah."

Silence ensued. She shifted her position a little. He gave her more room on the bed. After a while, she looked up at him and inquired with a hint of reproach in her tone, "Why did you not come?"

"Beg your pardon?"

"I was waiting for you in my bedchamber. Why did you not come? I am better company than Fester."

"I ...I am sorry, Miss Darcy, I ...dosed off," he said penitently.

She could accept that. Cuddling herself tighter by his side, she pulled the covers over her feet and said, "I was afraid you were angry with me."

"Why should I be angry with you?"

"Because of Wickham. I know he has been staying at Pemberley."

"He has."

"With your leave?"

"Yes."

"But he is gone now."

"Yes."

"How odd," she said thoughtfully yet did not say another word. Darcy did not respond either. He imagined Miss Darcy would find Wickham's presence at Pemberley completely undesirable, yet he had not expected that she should have learned about it so soon. He made a mental note to make enquiries about it later. Miss Darcy's sweet, yet still reproaching voice took him back from his ruminations. "That is why you have a bruise under your eye?" Darcy nodded. "But you are not angry with me?" He shook his head in denial. "You have not written one single letter to me for a long time. I thought you were angry with me."

At length he spoke, "Ah ... well. I am very sorry. I have been pretty busy." Fester yawned as in disbelief and went in circles over his own shadow until he finally curled himself onto Miss Darcy's house-shoes.

"You have never been this busy since Father died. What is the matter? Is it something to do with him?"

By him, Darcy imagined she meant Wickham. "No," he assured her. He thought he heard a groan coming from her. Or maybe it was the dog. "What do you think of Wickham?" he asked.

She sighed and said, "I do not know. You persuaded me that he was the greatest scoundrel to be found, remember? I cannot forget your words. 'A seducer', you called him."

"I see."

"Why was he here?" she asked meekly.

"It is a long story."

"I like long stories."

Darcy smiled. Good natured girl, this, he thought and felt brave enough to caress her golden hair with tenderness. "This is too long. Why do you not tell me what you have been doing all this time instead?" he suggested.

Miss Darcy rebuked him. "That is not fair. I asked first."

Darcy sighed. "Very well. He was here because I needed his help. He came in my rescue at a very ...difficult time... proved himself worthy of my trust again. I had reasons to think that he had repented of his past life and all the bad deeds against us and decided to give him a second chance."

She was silent for a while registering his words. "You have forgiven him?" she snapped.

"Yes."

She rose to face him, and kneeled beside him on the bed. Her tall figure towered over even his. "I cannot believe it. You...forgave George Wickham? Why did he leave then?"

Darcy was momentarily speechless. It took him only a moment to figure out who she was talking about. "Colonel Fitzwilliam did not like it," he said. She turned around and flopped herself onto the mattress with evident disappointment.

"So he threw George out?" Miss Darcy asked.

"Yes. He got very angry, the colonel. I am certain I have seen no one so angry."

On hearing him vouch that, Miss Darcy went suddenly uncommonly savage. "Brother...are you being serious?" she ejaculated. "Have you forgotten what took place in Ramsgate? Do you not remember that you hunted George like he was a fox and challenged him to a duel?"

"I ... No ... I have not. It is only...You must be right."

"Am I?"

"Yes. Are you not?"

"You hesitated? I no longer know you!" Darcy beheld her failing to comprehend. "Are you sure you are my brother?"

He stared at her in bewildered suspense not knowing what to say in reply until he saw she was teasing him. "Tell me. What would have I done instead?" he asked, following her banter.

"Well, to begin with you would have never allowed George to come home," she said haughtily as she resumed her position beside him. "And you would have never allowed me to speak. You would have silenced me before I asked you the first question, saying I am too young to say anything."

"Silence you?"

"Yes."

"How can that be accomplished?" She nudged him gently on his side for his banter and Darcy feigned he was hurt. "Seriously. I must learn the trick to silence your sharp tongue, sister," he said in the same playful tone. "I know another lady with one, and I do not think I would survive two of such at the same time."

"A lady?" she asked with great curiosity. He nodded, a shy smile drawing a line on his mouth as he recalled Elizabeth. "Will I ever know her? By your words I wager I will."

"She is coming to visit with us very soon."

"How soon?"

"Very soon."

"Are you being serious?"

"Yes."

"Will she be my sister?"

"Probably," he said smugly.

"Wills! Why ever did you not tell me before!"

"Hush sister!" he joked. "Be silent, pray."

"Not until you have paid me my due."

"Your due?"

Miss Darcy shook her head hardly believing he could have forgotten their little game. "You Goose! You know you have this box with candies," she said stretching out to open a china lead and producing a confectionary from a box whose position on the light table she knew too well. "Now give me one and tug me in as always," she ordered.

"Ah yes. Of course. The big brother spoiling the little sister."

"Exactly. You have forgotten that?"

"Of course not. (pause) Then what follows?"

"You stay with me until I fall asleep. You goose! You did forget!"

"I have not," he protested. "'Tis because you are no longer a little girl and I did not wish to embarrass you with too much brotherly affection. You are already passed the tuck-me-at-night age, you know."

"Fiddlesticks. You forgot! I may be young, brother, but I am not stupid." He gave her the candy and took one for himself. Silence again. "Has he told you anything about me?" she asked meekly again after a while.

"Wickham?" She nodded. "No. Only he did not deserve you."

"Ah."

He thought he saw her shiver so he tugged the quilt over her cold feet. In a thoughtless gesture, he then passed his long arm over her head, and caressed her shoulder soothingly.

"Do you love him?" he asked with great suavity. She shook her head. "But you like him," he insisted. She shook her head again, then shrugged her shoulders.

"He is monstrously handsome," she conceded, at which Darcy nodded knowingly. "But I now know he is no good for me," she said with the philosophical tone of the fox speaking of the grapes.

"I agree with you on that."

"Do you?"

"You would be far better off with someone from you own sphere."

"Says who?"

"I guess."

"Nonsense. Wickham does not love me, that is all. Otherwise he would have persevered to marry me regardless of my dowry and would not have insisted on eloping."

Darcy chuckled. "You are a very sensible girl, Sprout," he said proudly and he kissed the crown of her head.

"Thank you. I take after you."

Another silence ensued. It was during this silence that he realised he had called her by her nickname and a sense of immeasurable pleasure surged his soul. It had been the very first memory of his sister he had had. Suddenly his discomfort was gone and Darcy felt quite at home for the very first time. A feeling of belonging ran through him and he held his sister tighter. He now knew all would be well.

"Do you think I can trust him?" he asked her after a while.

She shook her head lightly. "I hardly know, brother. Wickham and you were best of friends once. Then suddenly you fell out and have been like so for a long time ... I hardly know."

Darcy remained quiet for a good half hour, nursing all sort of questions in his head, his sister equally quiet. When next Darcy tried to speak to her he noticed she had fallen asleep. He made more room for her in his bed and went to sleep himself. The next morning, when he woke up, she was gone.

Chapter 22

The cold winter weather painted Hertfordshire in white. Yet December had also brought about warmth in that the Bennet family got together for their Christmas celebrations. Lizzy was vastly entertained with her Aunt Gardiner discussing the details for their summer trip to the Lakes and a short sojourn to Derbyshire, in which Elizabeth had particularly all her expectations. However, her aunt had a major surprise for her. "I am afraid your uncle has just received bad news in an express from London, dear Lizzy. It seems The Lakes will have to be cancelled, my dear. Edward will be too much engaged in the summer."

"O!" Elizabeth said in dismay. But in seeing that her displeasure might hurt her aunt's feelings, she promptly smiled and endeavoured to make nothing of it. "Do not worry, Aunt. I am sure there will be some other occasions for us to travel."

Mrs Gardiner took Lizzy's hands and patted them comfortingly. "Indeed, there will be, my dear. Prepare yourself for this. I am sure you will be delighted. We still may have an opportunity to make a small sojourn to the north. Your uncle must pay a short visit to a gentleman in Derbyshire, whose house is but a few miles from Lambton, the town where I grew up. I have many acquaintances there whom I long to visit. It will not be as exciting as the Lakes in the summer, but I am sure you will enjoy yourself better than here, if you do not mind travelling in this cold weather."

"O!"

"What say you? Would you like to come all the same?"

"To Derbyshire? Of course!"

"I understand Pemberley is not far from Lambton," she added with delight.

Elizabeth's eyes gleamed with anticipation. "Oh, dear, dear Aunt. You are so very good to me. I do not deserve you!"

"O, no Lizzy! You do deserve much more, my sweet. I am so very happy that I can be the means to join you with your William so soon."

"William! I must write to him immediately. Only I wonder if that horrible man would grant him permission to receive us."

"What do you mean?"

"William is under the patronage of Mr Darcy, remember?"

"I do."

"Well. I have reasons to believe Mr Darcy is a hateful, proud sort of man. I am afraid he would not be well disposed to grant William permission to see us."

"Mr Darcy a hateful man? What makes you say so?"

Lizzie passed her aunt all the intelligence about Mr Darcy that Col. Fitzwilliam had given her while she stayed in Kent.

"I remember you told me about Mr Darcy," said her aunt. "I have heard that the late Master of Pemberley was a very proud sort of man. But you must not fear, for these rich men are never at home. It is high season in London, now. Mr Darcy must be occupying his seat at Parliament, busy attending soirees and all sort of social meetings in town. He will never know we will be distracting his employee."

"Are you certain of that? Because I would hate to be confronted with him."

"I am most certain. But I could inquire with my friends if that concerns you so much. Or better still: why do you not ask William?"

"O, I could not speak ill of William's employer to him. That might upset him, do you not think so? No. You had better quiz your friends."

"Very well. I will do that."

"Pray, dear aunt. Do not forget to ask Papa soon as may be," begged Lizzy, afraid her father might not grant her permission to go.

"I shall tell your uncle to speak to your father directly."

Elizabeth was already on her way to her escritoire when she remembered she had forgotten to ask a most important question. "When are we leaving?"

Her aunt looked at her askance. This was to her understanding the best part of the surprise. "Well, taking into account that there might be some obstacles to overcome due to potential bad road conditions, and since I am expected for Twelfth Night at Lambton and we must tour some of the stately homes in Derbyshire...I believe we must leave in a week."

"So soon!" Elizabeth chirped, hardly able to contain herself.

"I know. Do you think you will be able to come?" her aunt teased her.

"Dear Aunt, I am most determined!" cried Elizabeth with a grin that filled her face. "But what about Jane?"

"I am afraid Jane has declined to come, my dear."

"O Jane has been so upset lately. But she must come. I will have it no other way."

"In that case I will do my best to change her mind and persuade her."

"Do, do."

"And if I succeed I am determined to take you both for the rest of the season to London again. Maybe William will be able to join us in London, if his noble patron allows him. What say you?"

Elizabeth sent her aunt a devilish look. "I sincerely believe I will have no occasion to see William in London given the disagreeable patron he has. But there is no harm in asking," she said.

"Who knows? Perhaps the Christmas spirit renders Mr Darcy a little less repulsive," laughed her aunt.

"Perhaps," said Lizzie with a smile, and then she scampered upstairs in search of the materials to send a letter to William.

Elizabeth and Darcy had been keeping correspondence in very warm terms all through the bleak weeks of that early winter. Even so, Darcy was dying to see Elizabeth. Thank goodness, all continued well with the inhabitants of Pemberley. Darcy's health seemed established. He and Georgiana kept getting better acquainted though the girl did not know a word of her brother's impairment.

With Wickham gone, there was nothing that could restrain Darcy from rushing to Hertfordshire to ask Elizabeth to marry him now, except the family reunion that was to be held for Christmas at Matlock.

As a matter of fact, Darcy was a little uncomfortable with himself since he had not confessed to his beloved or her father his real name and position yet. But he imagined it would be much better if he told Elizabeth and Mr Bennet personally, face to face. It would be a magnificent surprise for Elizabeth, and Darcy wanted to witness when Elizabeth was acquainted with the intelligence that she would be the rich Mistress of Pemberley. He could hardly contain himself thinking of the pleasure he would give to all the members of the Bennet family, whom he regarded as his own.

However, unbeknown to Darcy, there was a minor detail entailing his family's expectations that loomed over the gentleman's future happiness with his beloved. And that gloomy prospect had a fierce grip on him. It was his connexion with the house of de Bourgh.

It had not escaped Darcy that at least some members of his family might still expect him to comply with his parent's wishes that he should make a bond with said house. Wickham had been the first to have disclosed the intelligence. He was also aware that, family's expectations notwithstanding, no one could ever impose anything on him, let alone a spouse. Hence he had continued quite unconcerned with his correspondence with Elizabeth with the evident desire to marry her ere long despite his family's wishes.

But of course, the reader knows perfectly well that he was only fooling himself. Indeed, Darcy had no recollection of how persuasive Lady Catherine could be.

Chapter 23

The Christmas festivity promised to be a joyous occasion for all the family that was to meet at Matlock, and there was nothing that could prevent Darcy from enjoying himself immensely except for the trifle that Lady Catherine would be present there too. Of course, Darcy was not aware of the threat a meeting with his aunt posed to his bachelorhood. Thankfully, Fitzwilliam did, and he put him wise both about Darcy's past dealings with the de Bourgh family and the dowager's marriage expectations. He did so in finding his cousin looking at the superb portray of a young lady in a pink gown over the mantel piece at Matlock while they waited for the Mistress and Master of the house to receive them. Joining Darcy in his admiration for both the model and the work of the artist Fitzwilliam said, "She is beautiful, is she not?"

Darcy nodded, albeit a bit startled by his cousin's sudden intrusion into his daydreaming.

"I doubt there will ever be another one like her. You are lucky to have been so intimately related to her."

"Have I?" asked Darcy inevitably a little apprehensive at the idea. There was only one lady to whom he wished to be intimately related and that was not Anne, however beautiful and appealing she might be.

"Why, of course," said Fitzwilliam grinning.

"Wickham informed me that I am betrothed to my cousin Anne," said Darcy with great concern in his voice.

The colonel nodded. He knew Darcy had been planning to marry their little mousy-faced cousin prior his accident, and he wondered with some trepidation whether his plans still remained the same. "I understand there is some sort of ...*cough* understanding," admitted the colonel with discomfort.

Darcy fell into an uncomfortable lapse again, still uncertain whether to confess his persistent confusion as regards present and past relationships. Both cousins gazed at the picture in silent companionship. Darcy was the first to break it, desperate as he had grown for more information as regards the wife his family intended for him.

"Will you answer me a question or two?"

"What questions?"

Darcy paused before asking. "Do you think one must be necessarily in love to marry someone?"

Col. Fitzwilliam pondered Darcy's question carefully. "No," he said at last. "I do not think so."

"And what is to your mind necessary for the foundation of marriage?"

"For a successful marriage you mean? I should say mutual respect. A little admiration is also necessary, especially from the part of the lady." Adding conviction to his voice he finished, "And money. No marriage can survive the evils of poverty."

"So would you consider it unwise for a man to marry a woman on account of pure love?"

"Pure love?" Fitzwilliam chuckled. Was this his cousin he was talking to? Had he suddenly turned romantic? "Yes, I most definitely think so. Should a woman ever realise her husband is too much in love with her she would abuse the man monstrously, mark my words!" he said, diverted. Darcy immediately caught the colonel's mirth and showed his displeasure by pursing his lips. That was enough for Fitzwilliam to realize that this was a serious question and he endeavoured to answer as seriously as the occasion demanded. "Well, yes. I should say one cannot allow the heart to command over one's better judgment, especially men of our station," he said, imitating Darcy's speeches not because he was particularly persuaded of his own statement as the ultimate truth but as a means to help Darcy recollect his own mind. "Take me for example. I have recently met the most adorable creature while waiting for you in Kent. You would have fallen for her immediately, my friend, have you been there," he said in confiding tone, prodding Darcy's ribs with his elbow. "She is so ... passionate and intelligent. A most delightful conversationalist, but penniless, unfortunately. Too bad..." he sighed, "she would have made a delightful partner, I grant you."

"You did not offer for her?"

Col. Fitzwilliam shook his head. "Offer for her, no by Jove! How could I, Darcy? I did flirt monstrously. The lady was clearly very much in raptures for me," he added with a smug smile. "What delightful creature she is! She knew perfectly well that I was no rich man but she was not mercenary in the least. I am certain she would have had me had I been at liberty to request her hand. Anyway, I should say one's duty must necessarily be before anything else, as you always say... Our family and rank commands us to marry well, so we must abide to all that ...You know the rest of the speech, do you not?"

Darcy's brow furrowed in disapproval of Fitzwilliam's discourse. "To marry for connections and not for love does not sound very wise, to tell you the truth."

"Does it not? Well, I will be blown, Darcy. Why! I am merely quoting you, by Jove. Those were your words only a few months before when you wanted to marry Anne," Fitzwilliam complained.

"What if one's heart is already compromised?" asked Darcy heartily. "Would you say one should obey one's family's wishes better than one's own heart?"

Again Fitzwilliam pondered Darcy's question, still a little doubtful whether he was indeed talking to his otherwise cold cousin. "By Jupiter, no. If your heart is already compromised then I should say that marriage to anyone else is sadly bound to fail," the colonel acknowledged.

Darcy nodded in agreement. "Is that your honest opinion or are you merely stating it for my sake?"

"I am absolutely certain."

"Good." There was a short pause. "Forgive me. Did you just say that I wanted to marry my cousin?" he asked mystified.

The colonel looked sternly at the point of his boots. "You said so to me before you left for Hertfordshire. You were planning to go to Kent and have a last conversation with the dowager, before you made up your mind."

"But I never did."

"No."

"Which means I could have not proposed, could I?"

"No, I suppose not."

Darcy sighed relieved. "Excellent. Then that is settled."

"What is?"

"I shall not marry the lady in the pink gown," he stated.

"Not marry who, pray?" asked Fitzwilliam not knowing who Darcy was talking about.

"She," he said nodding at the lady in the picture.

Fitzwilliam whistled, diverted. "Ha! I wager you shall not, Darcy. She is not available, by Jove."

"Is not this Anne's likeness? It reads ... Anne at fifteen..."

That Darcy would have thought the lady to be Anne de Bourgh was not so very strange for said inscription did read at the bottom left corner of the picture.

This conclusion would have caused the colonel to burst out laughing yet, in seeing his cousin's entire discomfiture, he remembered Darcy's feelings and checked his mirth. He was beginning to understand the measure of Darcy's ill memory. Coughing lightly the colonel stated, "'Twas Anne all right. Yet not Anne de Bourgh but Fitzwilliam. Your mother's likeness, Darcy."

Albeit Darcy blushed crimson, he strove to receive this communication as graciously as possible. His surprise he could not hide, thus asked, a bit put off, "But the date..."

"It might well be the date the picture was restored," the colonel explained.

"I see," he winced, clenching his hands. The idea that he had been fancying his own mother was anything but reassuring. Stunned by the blow of the intelligence, he felt universally uncomfortable. Colonel Fitzwilliam noticed his embarrassment and endeavoured to remain quiet at least for a while. A silence ensued in which Fitzwilliam seemed pretty absorbed in his thoughts. "Damn, I hope we can untangle ourselves from this," Darcy heard Fitzwilliam mutter aside to himself, then he sighed and said no more.

However, his cousin's use of the collective put Darcy to think: What did he mean with that comment?

It seemed that the colonel was determined not to give Darcy time to come out of his first shock when he stated yet another preposterous declaration,

"How about Bingley's sister? You did warm to her once."

"As it happens Fitzwilliam, I have not recollection of her."

"O but she does remember you, I am sure. She will be immensely elated to be reacquainted with you."

"Or you can marry her and get an annulment ere long!" Fitzwilliam blurted out.

"Why should I get marry to get an annulment, Fitzwilliam, pray?"

"Why not?"

Darcy was getting increasingly intrigued, not to mention offended."Why not? Why not? Because marriage is something serious, that is why. It is a commitment with God."

"You will go to the Deuce if we do not find a solution soon..." Fitzwilliam warned him. "Very well. Let us see... If Anne is not to be considered ..." he said pondering their alternatives. "Miss Bingley is a goose, I can safely state, and you are adamantly against an annulment ... In that case you'd better take her off our list of illegible maidens as well. This leaves us with very little options ...'pon my honour, Darcy. Who are you marrying? For you must marry you know."

"Must I?"

"Well, entre nous, I care a fiddle whether you marry or not or who you marry for that matter. Yet it seems to me that a certain stipulation in your father's will did state that you must and post haste. Though I cannot blame you for forgetting about it" sighed Fitzwilliam shaking his head. "What else have you forgotten?"

Darcy stared into the air without answering for a while. Though he was somewhat used to the blankness in his mind, it was entirely another matter to display it in front of others. "I have no recollection of my staying in Hertfordshire prior to my accident," Darcy admitted. "Not even my father's demise. My latest memory is awaking in my bed, and my rescuer's face smiling wearily at me."

"And before that?"

"It seems my mind has erased mostly unhappy memories and retained the happy ones. They are coming slowly, though. I see it all as if it were someone else's life. I remember my childhood very well. And Wickham and you, and that stupid cart of yours."

"I beg your pardon?"

Darcy smiled. "Wickham and I were playing with our wooden swords when you came up showing off on your open phaeton. You must have been...what, sixteen? Your father gave you this phaeton and you wanted to impress a girl who was holidaying at Pemberley..."

Fitzwilliam nodded. "Miss Ingram."

Darcy shrugged. "Wickham and I must have been bordering on thirteen and not interested in ladies yet. But we envied your phaeton. Of course, you would not let us on. So Wickham and I left our swords aside, gathered the kitchen leftovers and filled your precious cart with them while you were entertaining the lady."

The colonel's roars of laughter filled the room. "'Tis amazing, is it not? You remember things I would have never remembered in a million years. Yet you cannot tell you mother from your cousin!" he laughed a good while as it was his usual way, and when he finally recovered the colonel admonished Darcy to be careful not to betray his condition to the rest of the family. Darcy said that Wickham had thought likewise.

"I confess Wickham gave you good advice for once," said the colonel. "It would not be entirely convenient for some members of the family to know about your delicate memory. Particularly Lady Catherine de Bourgh. She is the one who insists on your complying with your father's will."

"Are you sure of this? Is this not a fiction, an impudent hoax of yours to vex me?"

"I beg your pardon, do you think me capable of a hoax of such proportions?"

"Then I am shocked, absolutely shocked," Darcy said. "This whole affair is as shocking as it is preposterous. Perhaps that is precisely the reason why it keeps evading my mind."

There was a light cough and a manservant interposed, "Sir, Lady Matlock and Lady Catherine will see Mr Darcy, now."

That Lady Catherine did plan to fill Darcy with questions related to his whereabouts the past six months, the reader must already know. She had spent half the way to Derbyshire rehearsing what she would say to him, and planned to spend a good half hour telling Darcy off when she finally met him.

"Very well. Tell my Mother and Aunt that Mr. Darcy is on his way to the drawing room." Fitzwilliam patted his cousin on his back. "We shall think of something. I shall go to my father while you go into the lion's den."

"What? You fly?"

"I must escort your sister," he explained. "She must be ready to join us by now. Besides my father may have more information regarding your father's will. I shall take the opportunity to talk with him while you go in there. Go, fear not. They do not bite."

Chapter 24

Darcy was thus left on his own to face his aunts. A reception of finished politeness ensued. Lady Matlock was warm and welcoming as ever. She embraced her nephew and let a sob escape her lips, whereas Lady Catherine sate elegantly as a statue and neither spoke nor moved until Her Grace had paid the compliment to let go of her nephew. Only when Lady Matlock stopped her effusive welcome did Lady Catherine speak to Darcy, after studious inspection of his person from head to toe.

"Come to me, Sir. You may kiss me now."

Darcy hesitated for a moment, then recovered himself and, going over to his aunt, he kissed her on her cheek, which she offered expressively.

"Now you may kiss Anne."

Startled, Darcy's eyes fell on the sad creature seated on a cushioned sofa at the rear whom he had taken to be Lady Catherine's companion. There was not one ounce of grace or elegance in the lady and she was indeed older than he had expected. The kiss was as much unwillingly bestowed upon as it was received.

Lady Catherine was saying something Darcy did not catch, such was his confusion. He was absorbed in his meditations, trying to figure out how he would extricate himself from the chore his father had laid at his door, for he would not immolate himself at his cousin's altar of love for the world. While he was thus engaged, Lady Catherine was conducting some sort of survey. Where had he been all this time? Why had he not paid his accustomed visit? And so on and so forth.

"If I am not mistaken you became seven and twenty last month, did you not?" she almost stated. Darcy opened his mouth to answer but Lady Matlock corrected her sister in law before he could say anything. "Six and twenty," she said, and Darcy assented, unsure whether the answer had been accurate or not.

"Humph. I hope you have not forgotten your duties, young man." Darcy said nothing. "You have been carousing in Hertfordshire all this time, I understand. I cannot approve of such comportment. It is high time you took up your responsibilities with your cousin."

"I have not..."

"I am glad you are in good health. One cannot take enough precautions these days on the roads. Why, my own parson had a horrible accident this summer. He is barely alive, poor man. You must have heard of his misfortune since it happened near Hertfordshire. Thankfully, Mr Collins is healing quite well, I dare say. He will soon be able to make his postponed visit to his family and marry his cousin. Speaking of marriage ...What do you think of my Anne? Is she changed since you last saw her?"

Darcy was again about to answer but his aunt once more interrupted him and went on in a long monologue in which the other two participants could barely articulate their agreement or assent with a nod. At least the conference finished without either party mentioning the engagement between the cousins, to Darcy's relief, though Lady Catherine let him understand that she expected for him to make a definite visit to Kent before summer ensued.

Fortunately, Lady Matlock was absolutely happy to see Darcy and she made the strenuous encounter less repulsive. When Lord Matlock finally joined them, Lady Catherine's quiz came to a sudden end.

Afterwards they spent an agreeable time celebrating the festivities. Having feared that their nephew had been attacked by desperate badgers on his way to Hertfordshire, Col. Fitzwilliam's parents had been not a little flummoxed when they learned that Darcy had merely disappeared from the ton's scene on account of a severe cold, as reported by Fitzwilliam. Still, they were so delighted to have him back safe and sound that albeit they were so very busy with friends and relatives, they endeavoured to afford Darcy as much time and attention as possible. Hence, they soon noticed his odd behaviour, particularly Lady Matlock, who simply doted on Darcy.

"Have you noticed anything amiss with William?" she asked her husband as she undid the stays of her gown for bed that night after all her guests had retired.

"No. What was there to notice?"

"Well. He was not half as affectionate when he arrived. Why, he barely kissed me! And he was silent all through dinner, scarcely speaking to Georgiana or Richard."

"Darcy has never been altogether talkative."

"In front of strangers, yes. Not in front of friends and family!"

Lord Matlock shrugged. "I understand he has been a little unwell lately."

"Could a trifle such as a cold affect his love for his aunt? I say no."

"Maybe he was merely distracted. Or... maybe he is in love?"

"In love? Dear Lord Matlock! Do you consider love a disease?"

"Of the worst sort."

"Mmm. Perhaps you are in the right. Though I refuse to think that being in love could be an excuse for such a cold address to his dear aunt. In love you say? Maybe. I fancy, then, he has been busy with this lady and all this fuss of his disappearance and eventual illness was an invention to distract us."

"That is not like Darcy at all. He has no such bright mind for scandalous behaviour."

Lady Matlock squinted her eyes before she said, "O but Richard does. Perhaps he helped him. Where did he say he was? A yes. Hertfordshire. That is near London is it not?" Lord Matlock nodded as he set his nightcap on his head. "I fancy he has been courting a lady there. Do we know anyone in Hertfordshire?" she asked him with a hopeful expression.

"I doubt it. Hertfordshire must be full of country squires and parson's daughters."

"Then I am inclined to think that he has been courting his friend's sister, Miss Bingley."

"That tall girl?"

"I must confess she is not in my list of eligible ladies for Darcy...but I am quite ready to enter her name provided her brother marries half as well. What was his income?"

"Bingley's? Three thousand a year I think."

"How people exaggerate! Five thousand, I heard. Perhaps he could marry your Anne."

"I thought Darcy was to marry Anne."

"Why, Edward! Do you really think Fitzwilliam would choose your niece?"

"It is not a question of who he chuses. It was in black and white in Old Darcy's will, my dear."

"Well, hang Darcy's will. I declare it cannot be. I shall not allow it!"

"Why not? I see nothing wrong with Anne."

"You do not, do you? Well, I do. Darcy cannot marry Anne. She is not fit to bear his children. I doubt Anne would survive the wedding night!"

"I had not thought of that. But...will she be fit to carry Bingley's instead?"

"That insipid milksop? Of course. I doubt a single vein of his carries real blood. I wonder if there is still time to invite the Bingleys over for Twelfth Night? I should like to have a little talk with that lady before the engagement is universally acknowledged."

"Well. There is nothing wrong in trying," laughed the good sir. His wife's propensity to match people never ceased to amaze him. "Catherine will not like one bit of it, though."

"Catherine may hang herself. She could have spared the poor boy the embarrassment. Why, she insisted that he kiss Anne! You should have seen William's countenance when he was forced to kiss his cousin. I thought he would never make it."

"Catherine can be very persuasive, especially if she has old Darcy's will to support her wishes," Lord Matlock cautioned while tucking himself into bed. "I am afraid this will not be the last I will hear about this affair. I only hope you can do something about it, my dear. Good night." With that he gave his wife a quick peck, blew out the candle and went to sleep, leaving a bewildered Lady Matlock in the dark pondering what to do to cajole her sister-in-law and rescue her nephew from her designs.

After the whole family retired, however, Darcy and Fitzwilliam engaged themselves in a billiard game till well into the wee hours.

"So how did you like your cousin?" teased Fitzwilliam. Darcy beheld the colonel with a haunted expression and said nothing.

"Good God. What a gloomy creature. How could I have ever thought of marring there?"

"Yes. Aunt Catherine is rendered tolerable in comparison." With great discomfort, Fitzwilliam began to speak. "I am afraid I do not bear good news, my friend. I have conferred with my father, and it seems the dowager has a great grip on you."

"What do you mean?"

"Your father was ah ...he must have lost his wits before he died to have left such a will. It seems he wished that you marry Anne at all costs. It was settled that should you be unattached and childless by your seven and twentieth birthday your inheritance passes onto your cousin D'Arcy in France, unless your sister marries and begets an heir or you are married to your cousin Anne ere she gets too old to ..." he trailed off.

"You are not serious."

"I am. My father has already pressed me to make an offer for Georgiana. Do not worry. I do not intend to do such a thing."

"Good God. This is insupportable!"

"It is, it is," Fitzwilliam agreed.

"So what is to be done?"

"It is not so very bad. Lady Catherine may force her daughter upon you but she cannot stop you from keeping a mistress as well."

"A mistress?" Darcy asked in astonishment.

"Unless you marry someone else and beget an heir post haste, of course. Have anyone in mind?"

Darcy did not respond but the answer would have been in the affirmative. His mind had instantly drifted once again to Elizabeth. Yet, how to explain all this to her? It was all so devoid of delicacy. He had no scruples against marry her immediately...Truth be told he had thought to move to the immediacy of Longbourn and court her properly after Twelfth Night. But now...everything had changed. Now he would have to marry her and beget a son as soon as may be. Lord, how absolutely preposterous it sounded! Would she agree to such a scheme? Would she be up to the task? That she was robust and fit to bear children he was quite certain. The comely roundness of her hips anticipated no hindrances for child bearing. As to his own capacity to procreate he had no doubt. Yet he knew that it might not be the work of one night. Amorous congress was not an issue but time was. Lord, his head was reeling! He would be seven and twenty in less than a year. What if he married Elizabeth and they were not able to comply with the second requirement in time? He asked that of Fitzwilliam.

The colonel almost choked with his brandy when he heard the question. It took him a while to regain his composure before he could say, "Mm. That may pose a ...challengeif you want, though a pleasurable one, do you not agree? Unless, of course, you must pay your favours to our mousy cousin upstairs," he said as he shuddered in feigned stupor.

"Fitzwilliam, I asked a serious question of you and I would appreciate if you could give me an equally serious answer."

"Very well," Fitzwilliam squared his shoulders and said as seriously as possible. "In that case I shall be compelled to do your job."

"My job?"

"Yes."

"And just how do you propose to do that, pray?"

"I must marry your sister."

"Marry Georgiana?"

"Darcy... ever since Georgiana was born... she has been intended for me. I am betrothed to your sister ... just as you are betrothed to Anne. It is nothing on paper, you know. Merely family imposed wishes. That is why your father appointed me her guardian with you. But rest assured that should I be compelled to marry her ... I have no intention to do so until she has become of age. I have no wish to marry a girl, I grant you, least of all make her go through the ordeal of a pregnancy at such an early age. I will not do it, do not concern yourself."

It took Darcy some time to process this new intelligence. He paced the room slowly in silent contemplation, his hand covering his visage. At length he spoke, "In other words, we have been born to be put to stud."

"If you put it like that."

"It is...it is simply...disgusting," Darcy said in agony.

Strangely enough, Fitzwilliam looked at his cousin with a big grin. He said with great feeling, "I say Darcy, this accident you have had...it might have not come out so bad after all. Your vision of life is so different. Why! I agree with you now in almost everything you say. All these things about heirs and entailments and arranged marriages ... I have always despised. But not you, my friend. You have always insisted on family commitments and duty above all. I am relieved that you are now on my side and I promise I will do my best to help you."

"Does Georgiana know all this?"

"About the betrothal? She does. But neither of us have ever paid the smallest attention to it. You see, she and I are like brother and sister... and then again there was all this ...Wickham affair. Georgiana has been fancying him ever since she had any notion of love."

"Yes. She has already acknowledged it all to me."

"Has she now?" Darcy nodded. "Bless her soul, I pray to God I will not find myself having to comply with this silliness." They were silent for a while, meditating on all that had ensued. Fitzwilliam then asked cheerfully. "But you know someone, do you not? You have been hinting that all day. Is she a lady you met in Hertfordshire?" Darcy, if reluctantly, assented. "Are you in love with her?" Again, another nod. "And she with you?"

"Yes," Darcy said with a weary smile.

"Good, good! Then our problems are solved. If you wish, we could make a quick trip to Hertfordshire next week," the colonel said with alacrity. "Hertfordshire girls look quite ... healthy to me, I grant you. Come to think of it, I may have someone waiting for me there as well. If I were you I would procure a special licence and would be married before New Year. As to the rest ... I am sure you will do your best to comply with ... mm ... the other requirement."

Darcy smiled more cheerfully now. Yes. Seeing Elizabeth sounded very agreeable to him. Yet he did not know he was going to see her sooner than he had expected...as to whether their encounter would be as happy as he and the colonel envisioned... that would be more difficult to say.

Chapter 25*

Having been alerted of the imminent arrival of Elizabeth and the Gardiners, Darcy left Matlock in haste, three days before Epiphany. He was already on Pemberley grounds when he spied a carriage at the main gate and immediately imagined Elizabeth had arrived before he could have had time to make the proper preparations for her reception. His concern was great for he would like her to learn of his amazing prosperity from his own lips and not from the servants, and was mortified that she should have arrived without his being there to welcome her. Accordingly, he spurred his horse into a gallop the sooner to meet his beloved, but alas! His disappointment surpassed his previous concern for it was not her lovely round face that poked out of the carriage but an angular one that smiled at him with the sincerity of a hyena.

Before long, an abashed Darcy sat in front of the jovial face of a red-haired young man--- whom he remembered vaguely as a jolly good fellow of whom he was fond ---and a simpering lady, equally red-haired, whom Darcy failed to recollect completely, but who he suspected must be the carrot-haired chap's sister.

As if Darcy were not miserable enough, it seemed he was suffering from a rebound of memory loss. For his life he could not recollect the pair. However, the young man seated in front of him proceeded to ask the usual repertory of questions regarding his relations' welfare and health, employing all the correct names and references which proved they must necessarily be intimately acquainted, and Darcy answered all this with perfect correctness, inwardly praying that he would not betray his nervousness in being thusly interrogated.

"You left us quite abruptly in Hertfordshire this summer, Mr Darcy," was the fire-hair lady's vain attempt to engage him in conversation. What she said was sufficient to alert the poor confused gentleman of their identity; Darcy instantly made the sum: this must be Charles Bingley, his good friend, and admirer of his cousin ... no, not his cousin, Mr Collins' cousin, Miss Jane Bennet. The lady with the assuming manners must be one of his sisters. Judging by the faint reproach in her tone she must be the unmarried sister, Miss Caroline Bingley, whom he was presumably courting in Hertfordshire, according to Colonel Fitzwilliam's account of his life before the accident.

"I am very sorry for my abrupt departure. I hope I did not cause any kind of trouble," he apologized feelingly. Miss Bingley noticed the earnest tone and quickly said dismissively, "O no. No trouble at all. It was just ...unexpected (smiling with insincerity). But of course, you must have had important business that demanded your attention?"

Darcy answered the lady's interrogatory as politely as humanly possible and yet did not admit or deny anything.

"My dear Caro," said her brother, "I am sure Darcy is not yet obligated to be subjected to your quizzes, is he?"(with a smile to Darcy) "You must forgive my sister, Darcy. I think you have encouraged her fancy too much."

"Charles!"

"Oh well. I shall say no more," he replied.

Darcy beheld them with understandable apprehension. It was pretty obvious that Mr Bingley had the erroneous idea that Darcy would renew his addresses to his sister. Such a reflection could not come without putting Darcy in a glow*. His mortification deepened as he heard the lady praising his deference towards them.

"How good of you to invite us, Mr. Darcy," the young lady chirped, taking a look around in unconcealed admiration of her surroundings. In truth she was thinking: And of all this I shall be mistress soon! "I could hardly wait to see Pemberley again! But where is your darling sister?"

Darcy smiled weakly. His darling sister was at Matlock but she should be removed immediately to attend her duties as mistress of the house. At the sound of this discourse, particularly of the phrase Mistress of Pemberley, Caroline's face lit up with the anticipation of the time when those very words would be applied to her.

To Darcy the lady's interest in his home and the general mildness of behaviour spoke clearly of her situation in life and of her present aspirations. It was evident that she was expecting him to marry her. In order to disabuse her of such expectations Darcy meant to be as cool to her as might be compatible with his station and their present relationship and to retrace, if possible, the few steps he might have taken in the past.

Miss Bingley, however, was not easily persuaded. She wanted to animate him again, wanted very much to be gratified by more solicitation from his part. Her efforts, though, could but worsen his dumbness. He could find nothing to say, her attentive deference making him more and more shy until it was clear he was painfully uncomfortable.

At length, she was convinced, at least, that her object could not be carried out now. Accordingly, Miss Bingley begged to be ushered to a chamber where she could make herself comfortable and presentable after her journey in a carriage. Bingley on his part lingered behind to have a word with his friend.

"I hope you are by now...disengaged?"

Darcy, who could not get over the shock of having the unexpected presence of both his former intended and his current one at once in his own house, answered in monosyllables. "Yes," he managed.

Charles sighed. "I am happy to hear it...and that you not planning to spend any time in London this winter. I spent an awfully weary summer you know, since my departure from Netherfield. Caroline was wild with concern for you and would not be prevailed upon to stay. I confess I was truly afraid for your safety, particularly after Colonel Fitzwilliam visited me with the news of your accident." In the face of Darcy's puzzled look, Bingley doubted and asked, "You had an accident, had you not?"

"I did."

"I know you did. Though the intelligence did not come in quite so direct a line as the intimacy between us would have suggested. Why did you not write?"

"I was confined to bed for a long time."

"Why did you not write when you recovered? I was wild with suspense and did not know where to visit you. No one knew your whereabouts! Every authority was deficient. I knew not where to turn for news of you."

"I am truly sorry..."

"I have received so many different accounts of what befell you, and not one word from you. Facts and opinions which passed were so varied and the sources so untrustworthy that I did not know what to believe or discard. Really, Darcy, I thought we were friends. If it were not that you have sent for me now I would have been inclined to think I have offended you in some manner. But you must tell me. Why did you flee Netherfield? Did Caro offend you? What on earth happened to you afterwards?"

"I wager no one offended me, sir. I left Netherfield to visit with my cousin Fitzwilliam. I suppose I must have grown weary of the country and wished to get some diversion, that is all."

"Diversion indeed! No one supposed that that could be your inducement to leave in such haste. Caroline has been insupportable all this time. When I received your card last week inviting us both to Pemberley she nearly trod on air, you know. So did I, I grant you."

Darcy nodded, unsure of the means by which Mr Bingley could have received an invitation to visit Pemberley from himself. Mr Bingley was evidently a direct, fresh, open sort of person, who had no selfishness in himself and could not be believed to have contrived a lie of that magnitude only to forward a match with his sister.

"I have very little doubt as to your intentions toward my sister in the past," began Mr Bingley. "Now I wonder if her excitement in coming here will be for nothing." He stopped, almost regretting having implied so much, aware that his friend was a private man.

"What do you mean?"

"Good Lord, Darcy. You were openly courting her only this summer and then you just disappeared."

"Was I?"

"Were you not?"

Darcy still had his puzzled look upon his face. What kind of rake had he been before his accident? "Do tell me what exactly you think on the subject," he said. "Who told you I was courting your sister? Was it me?"

Bingley shook his head in negativity. "It came into my head upon finding how much you were together and feeling it to be the most probable thing in the world to be desired by both parties. And you may depend upon it that all our acquaintances have disposed of you in the same way. But I never heard it spoken by any of you." Here Mr Bingley paused, expecting Darcy to say something, but Darcy was deep in thoughts and said nothing, so Bingley continued." I have no doubt that Caroline is of the same mind. But I see that it is not yours, am I wrong?" Darcy said nothing. "What are your designs on her?" This last was said without scorn. It was mere curiosity, but Darcy could not be aware of Bingley's nature yet, and he felt damnably bad about the whole affair.

"You and your sister are welcome to Pemberley," Darcy said apologetically, "but I am sorry to say that I have no designs on her."

"No designs, huh? O well," said Bingley with a shrug. "It is a real shame. I had hoped you and I would be brothers at last. Tell me then. Why did you invite her so expressly?"

Good Lord. He had expressly invited Miss Bingley? When could he have had occasion of it, he wondered. With paramount discomfort, Darcy began to express his regrets, "It was not my intention to arise expectations in her. If I did it, it was unconsciously done. For that again, I am sorry."

After a moment's thought, his friend acquitted him of the charge. "Do not concern yourself. I am sure your decision is for the best. After all, Caroline is not in love with you, and I am sure you were never in love with her. Your attachment was based on mere comfort. You were looking for a suitable wife, she for a suitable position. You seemed to suit each other. Neither of you are love prone...(he chuckled) To tell you the truth, I have always been of the mind that you would never marry. You are not the marrying type, are you? You have all the elevation possible, you are rich, and you are not in love. You do not need to marry, do you?"

"No. By those calculations I imagine I do not."

"This will be devastating news for Caro!" he chuckled again. "Do not misunderstand me. She will survive. As I said I am sure you were not in love. Her distress will endure until she finds another suitor."

"Thank you. Your words give me great consolation. I am relieved."

"O well. Caroline is too practical to ever be in love. Same as you. You are safe from the inconsistencies of a true affection, your peace will not be shipwrecked as mine has been."

Miss Bingley soon re-emerged from her room, looking fresh and pretty, and Darcy, after leaving instructions as to his incoming guests, took the Bingleys to Matlock, to the presence of his relatives who were there for the celebrations. Just as they left the grounds of the mansion, another carriage, containing a very different cargo, arrived at Pemberley.

*Contains dialogues from Persuasion, by Jane Austen

*Glow: red in the face

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