Photobucket

Photobucket


Photobucket

Photobucket

Parson's Pleasure

Chapter 26

When finally Elizabeth and Jane made their unexpected sojourn to Derbyshire with her Aunt and Uncle Gardiners, they were so excited that they did not suffer the cold trip one ounce. Fortunately, there had been no snow and the roads were tolerably dry, helping their trip to pass smoothly and with few or no problems at all.

Upon arrival, after Mr Gardiner had met his client, and the ladies had settled down at the Rose and Crown, they scheduled a short round of visits. The beauties of Derbyshire were many, yet the first place the girls wished to visit was the grounds of Pemberley. These had been widely praised by many a fellow traveller on their way to Derbyshire, the woods surrounding the manor being described as lavish in greenery and wildlife and the mansion to be the finest house in England. Mrs Gardiner was particularly eager to make the tour of this latter and peek into the wealth in which the owners of the estate lived.

Albeit he could not hope for an introduction, Mr Gardiner was also in great suspense to catch a brief glimpse at the owner of the place and perhaps make his acquaintance. He had heard that the young man was known to be a conscientious master of his assets and a much sought-after investor in many economic fields in London, whose attention would be highly appreciated by Mr Gardiner's business partners. Mr Darcy was also said to be an enthusiastic book collector, a hobby he had in common with Mr Gardiner, though this latter at a much lower scale. Jane, for her part, felt great curiosity for the estate she knew had been a favourite of Mr Bingley's as a holiday resort.

Elizabeth, however, looked forward to seeing it for entirely different reasons. Far from being enchanted by either scenery or buildings, she wished the owner were miles away so that she could enjoy William's company at ease.

When they finally set out for their long awaited visit, the girls were beside themselves with suspense. The parkland that surrounded Pemberley was wild and rocky, which was not at all what Lizzie would have expected, but could not disappoint. Deer grazed, rooks wheeled in the sky and as the carriage drove over the top of a hill, the passengers were arrested by a delightful view of the mansion proudly nestled in the valley below. It was vast, breathtakingly beautiful, set in great boulder-strewn park lands, and despite every prejudice Elizabeth held against the Master of Pemberley, the moment she caught sight of it a sense of freedom and liberation seized her.

"Imagine being mistress of all this," gasped Mrs Gardiner.

"It is as big as all Cheapside," said Jane, lost in admiration.

"But less picturesque," said Lizzie, and all laughed at the thought. The merry group was received by an old servant, a Mr Reynolds. That the servant would have been expecting them was cause of some wonder. Their shock however redoubled when Mr Reynolds asked after their trunks.

"We have already left our things at the inn in Lambton," Mr Gardiner explained.

The servant immediately apologised and explained that the master had just left and then made a hurried comment that he had already left the instructions as to their accommodation just in case they should arrive while he was still in Matlock.

"There must be a mistake," said Mr Gardiner. "I do not think we were expected by your master."

Mr Reynolds assured them that there was no mistake. Mr Darcy was expecting Miss Elizabeth Bennet with a party of three, which left Elizabeth open-mouthed.

"I shall send a boy to Lambton for your things directly," the servant offered reassuringly.

When Mr Gardiner refused such a service, the poor servant seemed very confused as to what to do. "You do not wish to be taken to your rooms and change?" he asked in astonished surprise. Although he had been instructed to prepare accommodations for a small party which consisted of a couple and two young ladies, the servant had good reason to believe that at least one of them was very dear to his master. Mr Darcy had given special instructions to give Miss Elizabeth Bennet the best room available in the mansion, thus alerting his household that the lady in question might be of some importance to the master of the house. "It might be some time before the master returns," he warned them, urging them into accepting the accommodation.

Mr Gardiner and Mrs Gardiner stared at the old butler in stunned confusion. Then they looked at their nieces as expecting them to give them an opinion, but both girls were at loss for what to do or say. Finally, Mr Gardiner took Elizabeth apart and conferred with her.

"It is possible that Mr Darcy might have offered to lodge us as a favour to William," Mr Gardiner said.

"But we cannot. We are not acquainted with him," Elizabeth objected.

"To disregard his offer might be consider a serious slight, Lizzie," said Mrs Gardiner, beside herself with the idea of being lodged at Pemberley.

"I say we must do as the manservant bids us," said Mr Gardiner, who shared his wife's enthusiasm.

"And stay here? O no, please, Uncle. I'd rather not."

"Why not?"

"Mr Darcy... he's so... he's so..."

"So what?"

"So rich."

"By heavens, Lizzie, what a snob you are! Objecting to Mr Darcy because of his wealth. The poor man can't help it."

A door opened and a little old woman, with a wrinkled face and a sweet, expressive smile came in.

"Ah, Mrs Reynolds," said the butler to his wife. "Mr Gardiner and his family are already lodging at ..." he trailed off expecting Mr Gardiner to fill in.

"The Rose and Crown."

"The Rose and Crown. Do you think we can spare a boy to go for their trunks?"

"Shall I call Tom?" asked Mrs Reynolds.

"I will," said the old man.

"That will not be necessary," said Lizzie quickly, looking at her uncle with great urgency in her eyes. "We are already lodged at the inn."

With a resigned sigh the butler let go of the topic. "Well then, Mrs Reynolds shall call for some refreshments."

"Oh, no. No, thank you. We have only breakfasted an hour ago," argued Elizabeth.

It was the first time in his life that Mr Darcy's guests were so reticent to be either attended or lodged in the mansion. The old butler did not know what else to do to persuade them. "In that case, why do you not take the tour of the house? Mrs Reynolds will be glad to take you," suggested Mr Reynolds.

Mrs Reynolds nodded and before any protestations could be issued, they proceeded to tour the house. As they passed through the front hall, Lizzie was stunned to see the magnificent paintings on the ceiling. Jane and the Gardiners listened attentively to Mrs Reynolds as she wittered on with descriptions of each room, but Lizzie kept lingering behind, absorbed with the many objects that excited her curiosity.

"Is your master much at Pemberley?" asked Mrs Gardiner.

"Not as much as I would wish, sir, for he dearly loves it here."

"If he should marry, you might see more of him," concluded Mrs Gardiner.

Thinking that Mrs Gardiner was hinting about the younger lady being the future mistress, the old lady smiled fondly and gazing back at a distracted Lizzie, who was deep in contemplation of a painting, she said, nodding. "Yes, madam. We are so glad he has finally found a fine lady who is good enough for him. I was beginning to lose faith that such a woman existed!" she admitted good-naturedly.

Having no idea that the kind servant was referring to her niece, Mrs Gardiner expressed her delight with a tiny tone of surprise, "Oh! That must be good news!"

"And what you think, madam? Will the young lady not be very happy in the house? Have you ever seen a better place to begin a life of splendid happiness?"

"I am sure she will, no doubt."

Taking a fond look at the future mistress of Pemberley, who was bending over a set of sketches drawn by Georgiana, Mrs Reynolds said, "She seems very pleased with the house, bless her soul!"

But before the question that had begun to uncurl from the confines of Mrs Gardiner's mind at so strange a manner of expression reached her tongue, Mr Gardiner interrupted with a question of his own. "So your master is not at home now?"

"No, but we are expecting him any moment now. He has just received a small party of friends and they are all gone to Matlock to fetch Miss Darcy to receive Mr Darcy's special guest," she said with a knowing smile and a sheepish look in the direction of Miss Elizabeth.

Mrs Gardiner was naturally dying to unveil the special guest's identity when a group of small miniatures caught her eye and she momentarily forgot to pursue the topic. Presently she drew nearer the set and saw a likeness that very much resembled the face of William, amongst several other miniatures. Mr Wickham's face was also among them though Mrs Gardiner could not know that. Her curiosity piqued, as they proceeded to the music room, she told her nieces about the likeness at the bottom of the stairs and thither they went to take a look at the picture.

"Look at this one. It reminds me very much of someone we know!" exclaimed Mrs Gardiner speaking of William's picture.

Just when they were bent over the miniatures Mrs Reynolds joined them. Of course, she took for granted that the ladies knew Mr Darcy already. Thinking Mrs Gardiner was talking of Mr Wickham, and knowing of the deceitful character of the young man, Mrs Reynolds, against her own character, made up her mind to hint what had happened so she quickly said, "That young gentleman has turned out very wild. Very wild indeed, I'm afraid."

"Wild? How so?" asked Lizzie all astonishment.

"He is gone into the army, you see."

"The army?" Elizabeth exclaimed.

"Yes. But I hate to say that there has been nothing but bad reports about his conduct." They all returned curious looks to her hint, but Mrs Reynolds would not say another word.

"What sort of conduct, if you please?" asked Elizabeth unable to contain herself.

The old lady has never been inclined to idle talking, hence she hesitated a bit, unwilling to sound like an old gossip, but then she felt that Mr Darcy's particular friend was entitled to be informed if she so wished and it was clear that she required further explanation. "I understand he was inclined to deceit young ladies," she finally added in a low voice, only for the ladies to hear.

The ladies from Hertfordshire gasped.

"But it cannot be. There must be a mistake!" cried Lizzie with tears clouding her eyes.

The housekeeper, none the wiser, understood her word was being doubted and she assured them that there was no mistake. To erase even the shadow of a doubt about her assertions she proceeded to pass her guests some intelligence of the terrible moments they had lately passed with Mr Wickham, though she failed to mention his name.

"My master was away for some time, and one day he returned with this scoundrel. We were never at ease since he arrived, Mr Reynolds and I, for we had heard of his many debaucheries. But my master is so good. He pardoned him all his wrongdoings. He even allowed him to live in the house as though he were his own flesh. But not a week ago, my master's cousin arrived, and he would not have any of it."

"Colonel Fitzwilliam?" asked Lizzie, recollecting the dashing colonel who had been flirting with Jane and herself during their visit to Mr Collins.

"I see you know him." Elizabeth nodded. "I know not what happened, but the colonel threw the scoundrel away, all black and blue after the treatment he gave him."

"Good heavens!" exclaimed Mrs Gardiner.

"William! Good Lord!"

"Thank goodness everything died away with no scandal. The scoundrel just left with no noise." The old housekeeper went on prattling about the goodness of Mr Darcy, but no one was listening from the shock.

"And that" said Mrs Reynolds, pointing to another of the miniatures thus bringing the subject to a stop, "is Miss Georgiana, and very like her. It was drawn as the same time as her brother's, about eight years ago."

"Who is her brother?" asked Mr Gardiner, endeavouring to make light of the fact that his favourite niece was blanched like the dead from the shock.

The good-natured lady looked at the gentleman with some degree of surprise. "Mr Darcy, of course," she explained. Then she sent a conspiratorial look at Lizzy. "And that's Mr Darcy when he was one and twenty..."

"I've never seen the original," said Mr Gardiner distractedly, trying to cover the wretchedness in which his women seemed to have fallen and paying no attention to the miniature of William that Mrs Reynolds was showing him.

"Have you not? He is a handsome gentleman, do you not think so? But in the gallery upstairs you will see a finer, larger picture of him," (turning to Elizabeth) "though I am sure you like the original much better," she tittered.

The visitors looked at each other, unable to make out the housekeeper's meaning. They all followed Mrs Reynolds to the gallery to see the fine picture of the master of the house, but Lizzie, still heavy with the horrible intelligence that William had been thrown out of the house like a common thief, sat on a wayward chair in great wretchedness, unwilling to see one more single item in the house. In vain did Jane try to cheer her up by saying all must be a mistake. In Lizzie's mind there was no place for a mistake. It was evident that William was nothing but an opportunist who had shamelessly lied to all of them.

What she could not understand was why a gentleman of Mr Darcy's station would be willing to receive them when they were associated with a rake servant who was no longer at his service? Was it possible that Mr Darcy had condescended to lodge them in the notion they had been victims of his servant's deception? But why would a proud man like Mr Darcy do that? Had he not prevented his friend Bingley from marrying her sister? And now he would admit that very lady into his household as a guest?

Or perhaps William was still under his care without Col Fitzwilliam knowing any of it? Perhaps William was in the army when he had the accident at Longbourn and having forgotten all about his past returned to his previous post by Mr Darcy's side. Perhaps Mr Darcy saw the state of confusion in which his accident had left him and had taken him under his care again. But Mrs Reynolds's words seemed to suggest that William still was a rake. Lizzie dearly wished to be left alone to meditate and put all the pieces of this puzzle together. At a moment such as this, the last thing she wished for was to take a look at the portrait of the proud Mr Darcy. That man must be a hateful person, and accordingly, his face must be not a nice object to set eyes on. If only she could contrive a moment alone! Half an hour's solitude and reflection might tranquillize her but following the indiscreet housekeeper as she pointed at the many walls to show portraits or fine tapestry could not be conducive to tranquillity, so she begged her dear sister to let her be for a while.

"Pray, go you with Aunt Gardiner. Allow me a few minutes alone." But Jane would not have it. She would not leave her alone and tried to persuade her to continue touring the house. Accordingly Elizabeth pulled herself together to do as her sister entreated her but after a while of vain struggle she could do no more. She began to lose the thread of the housekeeper's speech and even not to understand simple directions. They could see that she was not herself and were shocked and concerned, but her Aunt Gardiner understood the source of her distress and agreed that she should go out for some fresh air alone.

As she went outside, Lizzie dragged her feet with every step she took. She was in absolute wonder as to what had transpired and particularly as to the reasons why such a disagreeable personage would have offered to put her and her family up at the mansion under the circumstances. She was bent on such puzzling meditations when a familiar voice called her name.

"Miss Bennet?" She turned around and saw the happy countenance of Colonel Fitzwilliam. "It is you! What are you doing here?" he said as he sauntered towards her.

"Colonel Fitzwilliam. How good to see you," she said, schooling herself into smiling.

"I am delighted to see you, madam!" said the gallant officer with a grin bigger than his face. He could not be happier! "It is a most fortunate coincidence. I have been talking about you a few days before and almost made up my mind to go down to Hertfordshire to visit with you. But what brings you here?"

"I have come to accompany my Uncle Gardiner who is on a business trip, and we are now touring the house."

"I see. Excuse me, your parents and your sisters are in good health?"

"Yes, they are very well. I thank you, sir."

"I'm glad to hear it. How long have you been in this part of the country?"

"But two days, sir."

"Where are you staying?"

"Rose and Crown."

"Yes, of course. Well, I am arrived only a week before to spend the holidays with my cousin. He has been detained at Matlock with a party of friends. Oh but you must know them. I understand they were your neighbours in Hertfordshire."

"The Bingleys?"

"Yes. Mr and Miss Bingley. I see you are acquainted with them."

"A little," said Elizabeth.

"I confess I did not stay too long. Bingley speaks too much and Miss Bingley is too eager to please. I see now that I have made the best decision."

"Oh."

"Darcy will be back shortly, though."

"Yes, I know. Mrs Reynolds told us."

"I wager she has." Here the colonel made a pause, as if wondering whether he should invite her into the house for refreshments or continue walking. Elizabeth imagined he was thinking of saying goodbye but she was not yet done with him. She must learnt the truth about William, and what better source than the colonel?

"Pray Colonel. May I ask you a question?" she asked blushing deeply.

"Of course."

She then looked at the officer straight into his eyes and asked directly, "What has Mr William really done?"

"William?"

"Yes. Mrs Reynolds's words implied that you are...upset with him."

Colonel Fitzwilliam could not be more surprised. "Mrs Reynolds said that?"

Elizabeth winced. She did not wish to compromise the poor old lady, but she could think of nothing else to unveil the truth. "Not exactly. She let it drop that there has been some sort of misunderstanding between you and Mr William."

The colonel had become quite red in the face. Such indiscretions were intolerable. "I did not know that you were acquainted with William," he managed to say.

Elizabeth dropped her head but could not bring herself to speak.

"I imagined you must have met him in Hertfordshire, did you not? When he passed himself as a parson?"

Elizabeth's embarrassment was painfully evident. What would the colonel think of her? That she was as stupid as a cow. "Is it true you two fought? What did he..." she brought herself to say but could not finish the sentence.

"I see that that good-for-nothing Reynolds is a chatterbox."

"Oh do not blame the poor lady. She misconstrued my identity and took me for some one intimately acquainted with the family. But pray, I must know."

"Yet it is all true, unfortunately. I was very angry with William. Quite frankly I think my cousin endangered the peace and tranquillity of Pemberley with his unseemly reckless friend. But it seemed he was truly ill. I am no longer upset with him you know. Everything has been settled. My cousin is safe and so is Miss Georgiana. The scoundrel is gone. I can only hope you do not think me infinitely bad."

She shook her head, but the only thing she could think of was the colonel's speech. A scoundrel! She thought. So it was true. William was a scoundrel.

The colonel spoke no more on the subject but proceeded to entertain her with his usual chat. Accordingly he asked Elizabeth about the places she had seen on her way there. But Elizabeth's head was a puddle of sorrowful emotions and she answered in monosyllables. Her heart bled with pain. Her William turned out to be an artificial, worldly, disingenuous man, who has never had any better principles than his selfishness and had made of her a laughingstock.

"You look pale," acknowledged the colonel. "Are you sure you are well?"

She nodded. "It is only a headache."

"Allow me to escort you into the house."

"Oh no. I could not go in there. I think I am going back to Lambton."

"On foot?"

"Yes. I love to walk."

"I know. But let me escort you."

"No thank you. I must go know. Pray inform my family I shall join them at the inn for lunch."

"Are you sure you are not too cold?"

"I am well."

Chapter 27

Lady Ellen Fitzwilliam and Lady Catherine de Bourgh had been rivals for longer than they had been related. However, their rivalry had never been more palpable than in this Christmas season, which was also the eve of a momentous event in their lives. After all, it was the year in which their nephew, Fitzwilliam Darcy, would select a wife amidst the eligible ladies of the ton, a resolution that would also decide the fate of their unmarried children, Anne and Richard as well. If Fitzwilliam Darcy failed to comply with his father's wishes to chuse his cousin, then it would be Richard Fitzwilliam's time to marry Georgiana Darcy and unite the fortunes of the families.

It was under this latter overpowering fear that Lady Catherine had spent Christmas and the whole ensuing week pestering her nephew with all sort of impertinent remarks, hinting his obligation towards his cousin Anne in every possible manner. On the vesper of New Year, however, nor Darcy neither Lady Ellen could have one bit more of it. Lady Ellen was sure that there was no hope from that quarter and she had told her husband so already. It had never been. No young man as vigorous as Darcy could ever be persuaded to marry that little feeble thing her niece Anne was.

While Lady Catherine saw to it to torment Darcy with every possible commendation for carrying on his duty, Lady Ellen saw it fitter to observe the young man and arrive at quite personal conclusions regarding the state of his heart.

On the occasion of Darcy's visit with the party of friends from London, careful observation persuaded this shrewd lady that her nephew was not being quite himself. For one, he had not been half as affectionate with his sister before and conversely, did not seem to be in very good terms with his old friend, Mr Bingley. What was more, she had noticed Darcy could not remember the simplest thing such as which door led to the French parlour or his way to the billiards room, which had always been his favourite whereabouts in her house. His forgetfulness would have been easily passed over had he not shown himself equally absentminded during the repast she had prepared, hardly opening his mouth at all which she knew he did when feeling out of his environment. Such comportment was intolerable on this occasion, and could only be attributed to love of considerable violence, an estimation that presented yet another question. If Darcy was not in love with Miss Bingley, which he was evidently not, judging for his absolute indifference to every effort the simpering Caroline bestowed upon him, there must be another person involved. Lady Ellen's mind never ceased to work and she soon realised that her nephew's inattention increased upon the arrival of a note which reached them scarcely after lunch. He became quite jittery and anxious to leave.

"What is it?" asked Miss Darcy.

Darcy folded the note several times as if afraid that anyone else would read it and secreted it into one of the pockets of his waistcoat. Without answering his sister he said to his hostess, "I am awfully sorry, madam. I am ...I have...visitors it seems."

"Visitors?"

"Yes. You must excuse me. I must dash."

"Shall I call for your carriage?" asked Lady Ellen solicitously.

"Oh, no, no. I shall take a horse," he made a gesture to his man who set out to make the arrangements for a horse to be ready.

"Can your friends not be sent for?" insisted Lady Ellen. "They are welcome here, you know."

"I thank you, but no. I must see to them personally..." and then to his uncle in a hasty manner he said, "Will you not join us for dinner this evening?"

"Dinner?" gasped Lady Ellen. It was not unusual for them to dine at Pemberley, but invitations were normally issued with a week's notice.

"But of course, son! I shall be delighted," answered the uncle. "Go you now, before the fire consumes your house."

Darcy smiled and obliged.

Now Lady Ellen's curiosity was piqued. Who could this visitor be to have discomfited her nephew so and have extricated him from her drawing room so hasty? The turn of his countenance upon reading the note was quite particular. He all but jumped to his feet and scampered away.

"How was your trip, young man?" asked Lord Matlock to Mr Bingley with his usual affability trying to make nothing of Darcy's violent withdrawal.

Bingley opened his mouth to answer but Lady Ellen interrupted him by addressing her sister. "Miss Bingley. I must have your opinion on the decorations for tomorrow's little assembly. Georgiana dear, will you not show Mr and Miss Bingley the ball room? You can take Anne with you, too." Thus, she contrived to be left alone with Lady Catherine and her husband.

"Well, what do you think?" she asked after the young people had left them.

Lord Matlock beheld his wife with a puzzled look. "What do I think about what?"

"Darcy. Something is the matter with him. I fear skirts, my dear."

"It cannot be. You must be mistaken," whined Lady Catherine.

"What else can it be?" argued Lady Ellen.

"Must there be anyone?" counter asked the offended aunt.

Lady Ellen flipped her hand and squinted at Lady Catherine from over her glasses. "Of course there must be," she said calmly. "It is written all over his face. Why, he has forgotten almost everything! Such distraction cannot be accounted to anything else, can it?"

"He might as well have been ill," protested Lady Catherine a comment which elicited a chuckle from Lord Matlock who was doing his best to remain out of their conversation.

"Ill? My dear Catherine. I am never wrong in the affairs of the heart. William is evidently in love and not with your Anne."

"How can you be so sure?" gasped the lady.

"Believe me he is not. I would have wagered his heart was set towards Miss Bingley. But after witnessing their interaction however briefly... William seems too passionately in love to be courting her."

"Passionately?"

"Yes, my dear. Passion that your daughter, you must pardon my sincerity, cannot inspire in a young man like William."

"I will not have it!" she shouted but the roar of Lady Catherine's voice did not move Lady Ellen, who remained unflappable reading a long list of maiden names which she herself had scribbled on a book while pondering who would suit her august nephew. "I shall talk to him this instant. Where is he? Where's William?" Lady Catherine demanded blandishing her walking stick like a sword.

"Drop that stick, Catherine. Have you not heard? William has received a note from Pemberley alerting him of some friends' arrival. Some acquaintances from London. Thomas. (she addressed the footman)What did the boy from Pemberley say?"

Thomas stepped forward to speak. "It is a party of four, milady. A gentleman and three ladies. They are visiting Lambton and have been touring Pemberley this morning," the servant informed.

"Then they are new acquaintances," she sighed. "I wonder if any of the three ladies in this party could contain our future niece?"

"I doubt it. William has not been to London for months," offered Lord Matlock from behind his newspaper.

"I shall alert cook for tomorrow's dinner, though," she mumbled almost to herself as she scribbled something on her book. "If my instincts do not fail me, we shall be having news this very evening," she said with a distracted air. "One never knows ... perhaps we shall be soon connected with these strangers," she commented with a lopsided smile. "I would not wish to have more guests than the absolute necessary but it cannot be helped."

Lady Catherine narrowed her eyes to retaliate. "I see what you are contriving, Ellen. I know this is all a stupid hoax prepared to vex me. But I will not fall for your trap. I am not such a simpleton."

"Call me a liar if you wish," Lady Ellen said not really affronted. "I shall prove you I am not mistaken. Come now. I shall not wait till five. Let us invade Pemberley for tea instead."

While all this conversation went on at Lady Ellen's drawing room, Darcy arrived at his home just in time to see Elizabeth walking the path that led to the turnpike. He dismounted as fast as he could and hurried behind her, leaving his horse to no one's care. Elizabeth must have noticed that someone was following her because she turned around and almost jumped out of her skin with surprise when she saw Darcy almost upon her. It was the second time in that day that she was so frightened by a gentleman.

"William!" she gasped.

"Lizzie!" he said and urged her to run to him, which she immediately did but before she could fling herself into his arms she stopped, recollecting all the intelligence that had recently reached her regarding his true identity.

"What?" Darcy asked disappointed. He dropped his bereft arms to his sides.

"You should be ashamed!" she spat with great chagrin.

"What have I done?"

"And you still have the nerve to ask? Is it not enough to have deceived all these people that you still contrive to deceive me as well?"

"Deceive? Of what are you talking, pray?"

"Do you deny what ensued at Pemberley? How you befriended a good gentleman only to attack him at his back? I am sick only to think of it. Sick of all the lies and mysteries with which you have contrived to take advantage of my family, of myself!"

"Elizabeth, I ..."

"Oh, you cannot deny it, can you? Colonel Fitzwilliam had just told me all about your terrible misdeeds!"

Thinking she was speaking about his dealing with Wickham, Darcy immediately tried to explain. "I have no wish to deny it. Though I cannot see how it can affect you. You say Fitzwilliam told you all?"

Elizabeth gasped. "You cannot see it, can you? Well I can. Your behaviour, Sir, with this poor gentleman is simply unfathomable. How can you sport that innocent look on your face after all that you have done against your benefactor?" she cried exasperated. "After all your debaucheries and deceit! It is insupportable!"

"Debaucheries?"

"Yes! You have tried to seduce Miss Darcy, have you not? Just as you tried to seduce me!"

"Seduce you? By Jove, Lizzie, I have not even kissed you!"

Elizabeth was rendered absurdly silent with that. It was the truth. He had not kissed her. Not once.

"You really think I seduced you?" Elizabeth did not answer. She was confused. He confused her. She would have expected anything but a denial of his bad deeds.

"Look," he said with all possible calmness. "I have an innocent look on my face because I am innocent. And as to Miss Darcy, well, I could have not ..." but he never finished his confession. Elizabeth was too enraged to allow him more than three seconds to defend himself.

"Innocent? Innocent? Stop lying, you villain!"

"Do not call me names, Lizzie."

"Oh, his Lordship is offended!" she cried full of sarcasm. "I beg your pardon, but I shall call you by your real name. Coward, villain, scoundrel!"

"Hush! I must warn you, I am not a gentle-tempered man. Please, do not say things you will regret."

"Pray, do not scowl at me. I am not afraid of you!" she turned around and tried to go away, but Darcy springing out, seized her arm and prevented her withdrawal. It was then that the unexpected occurred. Before he could understand what was going on, he was struck by a flash of recollections of their first meeting: his mission to Hertfordshire to prevent Bingley's marriage, the heat of summer, his dip in the creek, Elizabeth running away from her mother, his nakedness, her nearness, their terrible fight and then all going blank.

"It is you!" he gasped. Elizabeth was taken aback by his words. "You are...you are...the witch."

"What?" she said trying to get rid of his grip but to no avail. Darcy was far too overwhelmed by his sudden recollection to remember that was not exactly the best moment to call her ... names.

"It was you in the river, was it not? You...you stripped yourself and took a dip with me! You, little minx. You never told me."

"Elizabeth!" her aunt called her out before she could react. Darcy and Elizabeth turned towards the voice that called Elizabeth. Darcy let go of her arm and they endeavoured to look as civil as humanly possible.

"William!" Aunt Gardiner said. "How are you my dear?"

"Madeleine. It is good to see you again," he said as they shook hands, Elizabeth's alarm in her eyes quite evident to them both.

"Edward and Jane are inside. Would you not like to greet them?"

"Yes, of course."

Mrs Gardiner locked her arm with Darcy's and they walked back into the house in silence, a bewildered Elizabeth following behind. Jane's pleasure in seeing William surpassed her embarrassment to know his real identity. With just one look at her sister she realized Lizzie was not aware of it yet. When Darcy turned to talk to their uncle, Jane endeavoured to signal her sister so as to warn her of her misconstruction but Elizabeth failed to comprehend. Her mind was overflowed with confusion and embarrassment. Jane resorted to point and nod emphatically at several pictures of Mr Darcy hanging on walls which they had failed to see before and mouthed in silence his real name but still Elizabeth could not contrive to understand her.

What ensued did not help Elizabeth grasp her awkward situation one ounce. She was astonished to hear her uncle and Darcy talk about business and trout and Madeira as if nothing had been revealed on the horrible misconduct of William's. What was even more puzzling was her aunt and uncle's deferent tone towards him. It was as if William had suddenly been elevated to Prince Charming instead of unrepentant ogre. While all this was going through her mind, Jane and her aunt were making the strangest faces at her, until a servant interrupted them to announce the arrival of Darcy's family together with the neglected Bingleys whom had been left stranded at Matlock.

Miss Darcy was the first of the party to join them. The minute her feet touched Pemberley ground, the girl ran towards her brother seeking an introduction.

"Georgiana. This is Mr and Mrs Gardiner and their nieces, Miss Jane Bennet and Miss Elizabeth Bennet." The girls curtseyed and Mr Gardiner bowed politely. Miss Darcy said something into her brother's ear. He nodded in Elizabeth's direction, blushing a little and clearing his throat. Miss Darcy smiled at Elizabeth who in turn smiled back though she failed to comprehend what was going on and absolutely astonished that William was in such friendly terms with Miss Darcy. Just then, the rest of the family approached them, all seeking an introduction, but she was too distracted to find Mr and Miss Bingley amidst the newly arrived to notice anything else. Her pleasure to see her sister's blushing countenance, and Mr Bingley's embarrassment turning into delight was such that she almost did not hear the names that were spoken as the introductions were made. Elizabeth's bewilderment was paramount to see William direct them all into the house with coolness proper of the master of the house yet she was still at loss for the connection. Only when she heard Lady Catherine's voice coming like a thunder, did she begin to realise her gross mistake.

"Miss Bennet. You left us so abruptly last year. How is Mrs Bennet? And all your sisters?"

"They are very well, thank you, your ladyship," answered Jane.

"I shall not be so communicative with you, Miss Elizabeth Bennet. You must know I am most disappointed in you, young lady. I have heard you have resisted your cousin's proposal of marriage. That is most inconvenient. Can you not see that any lady in your situation must be happy to be given the opportunity to raise her family's fortune! But I have heard Miss Bennet is more prudent. Good for you, Miss Bennet. You must know I shall be glad to include you in my society once you have...."

Darcy cut her short. "Dear Aunt. I am sure you shall have more than the occasional opportunity to be in my dear sister's company, but I fear no such match with Mr Collins will take place." Both Mrs Gardiner and Jane beheld William with great curiosity while Elizabeth's savage expression was of anthology. "I take it, dear Jane, that an engagement to Mr. Collins is not agreeable to you?" he added with amazing nonchalance giving a cursory look in Bingley's direction.

"It could be said so," chuckled Mr Gardiner. Jane blushed deeply.

"And I suspect that the sentiment is shared by Lydia, Mary and Catherine?" said he cheekily. Jane nodded. "I know..." he said with a weary smile. Then he announced with great conviction. "No union with Mr. Collins shall ensue in your family. I declare the existence of an impediment."

"Beg your pardon?" asked Lady Catherine.

"Mr. Collins can marry none of my sisters."

"Your sisters?" cried Miss Bingley hardly following the conversation. Elizabeth felt all her blood abandon her face, and her throat instantly dried up.

"I am sure I do not comprehend," said Lady Catherine.

William then seized Elizabeth's hand and kissed it gallantly in front of everybody. Then he said with an apologetic look directed to her. "Miss Elizabeth Bennet and I shall marry." A most absurd silence followed the declaration. Darcy said in a low voice. "I am sorry, my dear. I would have wished to have asked you first. But you see, it cannot be helped." Taking a look around, he added. "We shall wed in ... three days, will that do, my dear?"

"Oh, Wills!" cried Georgiana delighted.

"Darcy!" exclaimed Lady Catherine.

"Darcy?" repeated Elizabeth astounded hardly keeping herself on two feet from sudden dizziness. "Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy?"

Jane approached her and whispered into her ear. "I tried to warn you," and those were the last words Elizabeth heard before she fainted like a feather on her fiancé's arms in front of the astonished eyes of everyone else.

Chapter 28

When Lady Catherine was benevolently disposed, she did nothing by halves, and her kindness could arrange marriages, bury the poor in a descent coffin, find a fine school for a milliner's daughter or a position as governess for the impoverished neighbour's irremediably unmarriageable eldest whose last season had passed without the shadow of a suitor. Yet the august lady could be equally disagreeable when conversely she was ill disposed. And Lady Catherine had never been more ill disposed than in the present New Year's eve, when her nephew (and to that day potential son-in-law) announced that he was otherwise engaged and to be married to another candidate, the absolute no-one Miss Elizabeth Bennet, who should have been her parson's bride instead.

She thought a trap had been laid for him, and was as furious with her sister, Lady Ellen, whom she thought the first deviser of the match, as with the bride. (This latter was presently struggling to come round from a light faintness which had gripped her from the absolute astonishment of finding herself engaged to the very man that until then had been the one she despised most in the world, and in his solicitous arms too) Thus scarcely had the poor Elizabeth rally from the state of stupor and confusion in which the events of the previous half an hour had plunged her intrepid spirit, when pandemonium ensued in the middle of their domestic gathering.

"Make way, Ellen, you match maker, and let me pass," Lady Catherine declared with her customary roar that never failed to put her footmen to tremble, and with flame in her eyes she beheld her enemy fiercely in the face.

"I think, Catherine," Lady Ellen whispered into her sister-in-law's ear with sarcasm, "that your congratulations will have to wait until the young lady recovers herself. She is evidently too overwhelmed to respond to your kindness."

"Congratulations! Congratulations!" she cried with great indignation, her upper lip quivering from chagrin. "How can you speak of congratulations! Nephew! You ought to know that I m not to be trifled with! This is not to be borne!"

"Good gracious, Catherine," said her brother. "Rein your horses, if you please. You are making quite a scene for nothing, by Jove. Darcy is evidently determined."

"So am I!" cried her ladyship in great wrath which caused Jane to gasp with a momentary terror. "I am determined to put an end to his engagement. Nephew!" she cried with an agitation no one had seen her to labour, "Let me hear you contradict yourself directly!"

Mr Darcy beheld her with unaffected astonishment and his grip on Elizabeth became more fierce and his mortification over announcing their engagement compleat, though. He had in no way meant for her to be put on display and at his aunt's merciless attack, but undeniably, that was exactly what had occurred. Elizabeth's relatives' alarm was quite evident on their countenances and so must have been the rest's for Lord Matlock, evidently expecting the worst, took Miss Darcy and Miss de Bourgh out of the room and upstairs as did Mr Bingley with his sister, only that he was almost obligated to drag her out better than guide her.

"I insist to be satisfied. This match must be stopped. It ought to be; it will be, while Darcy retains the use of his reason. Nephew!" Lady Catherine kept calling out endeavouring to reach Darcy but Jane and Mrs Gardiner prevented her advancement for they were surrounding Elizabeth, rubbing lavender scent on her wrists to help her come round. I must say that Lady Catherine's roar had a double beneficial effect though: on the one hand it restored the colour to Elizabeth's cheeks sooner than any other ailment could have done, and on the other, it gave Darcy and Elizabeth a common enemy from whom to defend themselves thus putting their own animosity against each other aside. The more the lady's insults kept coming like English canon balls into Napoleon's army, the more Darcy became protective of his lot and the more Elizabeth sought said protection in him. The effect that phrases like art and allurements, quit her own sphere and Pemberley shades polluted which came distinguishably amidst many other abominations had quite the opposite effect on the pair. It drew them closer rather than separate them.

As a matter of fact, Darcy had grown as discomfited as Elizabeth by then and it was only because he was in the presence of others that he did not respond to his aunt in kind yet his chagrin was evident in his countenance as well as in his struggles not to react. It fell therefore to Lady Ellen to interpose before Darcy retaliated, an action which would make it impossible for the family to keep peaceful relations later on. "I beg of you, Catherine. You shall have your say later on. (to Darcy she said) I think your bride needs some fresh air, dearest."

"I do not think..." protested Mrs Gardiner, but Elizabeth, placing her hand on her aunt's arm, cautioned her to be silent while she persuaded Darcy to heed his aunt's entreaty by showing him that she was well enough to follow him. "I am well," she said. "I am perfectly well."

"Lizzie, my dear, are you truly well?" Mrs Gardiner asked with solicitousness.

Elizabeth was forced to smile despite her acute confusion. "I am. (to Darcy) Please, William. I shall be glad to go if you would take me."

Darcy nodded, and immediately obliged, taking prodigious care to keep a grip of her arm and waist as he guided her outside. All the while she assured him that she was perfectly fine to walk alone but still he aided her all the way to the door. Everyone watched them go out in mortuary silence as did the rest of the party through the window upstairs, yet Lady Catherine afforded Elizabeth a murderous look as she walked pass her which Elizabeth chuse to simply ignore. There was too much going on in her mind to pay attention to the lady's insolent behaviour.

What were Elizabeth's thoughts when she left arm in arm with Mr Darcy? What did her mind reel about over and over?

She cast her eyes on his countenance as he gravely walked side by side with her. He was very much the same handsome gentleman. His hair was different though. He had a new haircut. As soon as they entered the copse, Elizabeth was determined to speak first, secretly forming a resolution to beg Mr Darcy's forgiveness for the awful manner in which she had insulted him earlier and at the same time determining herself to extricate more information from him as to how come he was the master of Pemberley and why he had not apprised her of his news before. This last thought threatened to take a toll on her, so she endeavoured to concentrate on her own faults against him before raising the subject of his.

"I must offer my sincere apologies, sir. I have insulted you in the most horrible manner and treated you like a common swingler. I really am very sorry," she said turning quite red and casting down her eyes unable to look at him in the face.

"Think nothing of it. It obvious that you were under a misapprehension of my character," he interposed earnestly. "Are you sure you are feeling well to go on?" He said this because she had stopped and was leaning heavily against him.

"Yes. I am merely a little tired."

"There is a bench over there. Let us sit for a while." They reached the bench slowly and in silence and remained in that way until Darcy said, "I must apologise on behalf of my aunt, she..."

"I know your aunt, sir. There is no need to apologise on her behalf. If anyone is to make amends it is I. I insist I insulted you in every possible manner."

Darcy enquired very shyly, "How exactly you contrived to ...think so ill of me?"

"It was a whole misunderstanding. Mrs Reynolds..."

"The housekeeper?"

She nodded. "Oh, do not be too harsh with her. She meant well."

"Did she? I cannot think how," said Darcy with a frown. But Elizabeth seemed so concerned about the housekeeper that he decided not to add to her agitation. "Fear not. I have never treated my servants with cruelty," he smiled weakly. He could say these words with a measure of confidence now that he had recovered his memory.

"I know that," she answered blushing. "Mrs Reynolds simply adores you. And so does every one else it seems." In recollecting how good the housekeeper had spoken of him, her mortification grew. "I wish I had known about your identity before."

"Indeed. And for that I must apology. I should have let you know. It certainly would have spared us a most unfortunate moment."

Darcy was pensive all the while she was talking but found nothing to say in response. Elizabeth continued her explanation, "I saw a likeness of you in the corridor next to the drawing room while I was touring your house. It was displayed among many others. Mrs Reynolds approached and told me it was the likeness of a gentleman, a former friend of the master of the house who had gone to the army and turned wild. It is obvious now that she must have been describing another picture, but somehow I thought she was making reference to yours. I see now that I have precipitated into prejudice. How could have thought so ill of you?" she berated herself.

"Do not blame yourself. Why would you doubt Mr Reynolds's word? But you did mention Colonel Fitzwilliam. I gather you made his acquaintance at Rosings. What did he say about me?"

"Your cousin did make some indiscretions that were conducive to building up my prejudice against you." Darcy nodded. "Do you know of what I am talking?"

"Knowing Fitzwilliam's loose lips I gather he must have betrayed some intelligence regarding my motives to go to Hertfordshire."

"Indeed," Elizabeth said with a sigh. "Tell me. Is it true? Did you have anything to do with Mr Bingley's hasty withdrawal from Hertfordshire?"

"Oh no, no. I had nothing to do with that. If Bingley quit Netherfield Park it was his own decision. I never made it back there, remember?"

"But it was your mission to separate them?"

"Well I must have been a little opposed to the match. I beg your pardon ...I was quite opposed to the match." Elizabeth shook her head. Darcy let out an oath under his breath cursing his meddlesome cousin. "I cannot deny I did everything on my power to separate Bingley from your sister."

"Then you did interfere between a couple who loved each other? What made you think you could be judge over their hearts?"

Darcy paused for a while. He had to measure his words. Finally he shrugged and said, "I confess I am not sure now. I suppose I acted in the service of a friend."

"Service of a friend?"

"Yes."

"I beg your pardon. What can you mean?"

"Well, it is evident now that I ... then ....I thought it necessary for Bingley to marry a lady with connections. He had duties to...Oh, forget about it. It was not I who contrived to separate them. It was...my old self. I am no longer that man. I think differently now. Yet you must see that whatever steps Bingley took conducive to his withdrawal he took them without my advice. I did nothing to separate him from your sister." Elizabeth frowned. It was difficult to determine if he was truly honest. Darcy noticed her struggles and said in earnest. "If you ask me, I do not think Mr Bingley loved your sister well enough. Nothing can persuade a man truly in love to part from the woman who corresponds to his affection. Nothing," he said as he squeezed her hand.

Elizabeth nodded. Looking deeply into her soul she was of the same opinion. Another heavy sigh found its way out through her lips. "From Colonel Fitzwilliam's depiction of your character and actions I built up a very ill opinion of you...of Mr Darcy that is. I see know he was not describing you. He merely answered some vague questions I made on the subject and added to the tale that this former friend of yours had been expulsed from your presence lately. He said he was a truant of the worst sort and when he mentioned Miss Darcy been safe I immediately conjured that there have been a seduction. He did mention the words: many debaucheries. You can imagine my despair when I thought he was talking of William...of you."

"I see." "I am deeply sorry. How could I ever imagine you were the master of the house and that it was you who had suffered under this gentleman's misconduct?"

Darcy looked at her lovingly. "You could have never guessed that, could you? You are acquitted, my dear. Now will you pardon me my many faults against you?"

"There is nothing to forgive, sir."

"I beg to defer. I recall very well how I attacked you in the river in the summer," said Darcy with contrition blushing a little with the recollection.

"What did you do that I did not deserved?" she said.

"You were quite incense I recall."

"Aye!" she laughed and then added quite thoughtlessly. "I mistook you with my cousin, Mr Collins and thought you have contrived to pounce on me by Mama's advice while I was bathing..."

Darcy raised his brows. "Indeed?"

Elizabeth instantly saw that she had already said too much. "Pray, forget about it. It was my mistake and I treated you monstrously bad. Lady Catherine is rendered angelic in my instead." She smiled and then instantly frowned playfully, "Yet now that I think about it, I do have something against you."

"O?"

"May I remind you that it is because of you that my sister was separated from the man she loved. Do you think I can accept the man who has ruined perhaps forever the happiness of a most beloved sister?"

"Are you rejecting me? Because I must remind you that we are engaged in front of everyone by now."

"We are, are we not? I would not be so sure," she said playfully. "What shall I do with Henrietta?"

"What do you mean? Who is Henrietta?"

"She is the girl I chuse to be your bride. You do remember you requested me to find a good bride for you, do you not? You are not going to tell me you will go back into your words, are you?" she asked with looks and voice so truly enchanting as to ensure Mr Darcy's mirth.

"Henrietta, huh?"

"Yes, sir," continued Elizabeth nodding emphatically. "She is everything you asked. Though I am not sure whether she will take pleasure in marrying a gentleman of your station. You see, sir...I was looking for a woman to make a parson's pleasure."

"A parson's pleasure?"

"You know...the kind of woman who will gladly conduct Sunday school and even enjoy been read from sermons after dinner."

"I see," he said and then paused for a moment in obvious preparation for a suitable answer. "But I am afraid it will not do. You see...the woman I have in mind takes pleasure in Solomon's Song better than sermons."

"Solomon's Song?" she repeated after him blushing at the recollection. "Ah, yes. Quite unsuitable for a parson's pleasure...more likely for a gentleman's, I gather."

"A King's," he retorted.

"Humph."

"You prefer a parson to a King?"

"You must mean...Henrietta does."

Teasing woman! Would there be no end to her teasing?

"I beg your pardon, madam. I am afraid it is you whom I have in mind. Henrietta will understand, I am sure. You see, you and I...our union cannot be helped. It has been acknowledged in front of the Head of the family."

"Oh, but it is far from settled!"

"I beg to differ. The engagement between us is of a peculiar kind. From early in our acquaintance we have been intended for each other, have we not? It was the favourite wish of your mother, as well as of your father."

"A tacit engagement?" she asked looking sheepishly at him.

"If you wish to call it like that."

"What about your engagement to Miss de Bourgh. Is it not prior to your commitment with me?"

Darcy's expression turned to a serious one. "What is that to me?" he answered feelingly.

"Are you not Mr Darcy?"

"Indeed I am. But it was my aunt who wished for me to marry her daughter. She did as much as she could in planning the marriage. Even persuade my mother and finally my father to write a will. Yet its completion depends entirely on me. If I am neither by honour nor inclination confined to my cousin, why am I not to make another choice? And if you are that choice, why may you not accept me?"

"I have never said I would not accept you. That idea never entered my mind."

Darcy paused and stared at her with his well known steadfast look. It was now quite impossible to act as if nothing had happened. She would not stir as his head slowly bent over her. Their gazes locked and a hundred words were spoken without not one syllable. He was offering himself, hand, fortune everything to her acceptance. While her heart was still bounding with joy of indescribable nature, Elizabeth felt Darcy's hand held hers. She did not try to withdraw it. Next thing she was overwhelmed by the sound of his voice as he entreated her to consent to be his wife.

"Yes, yes, yes," she said hiding her face. "I will and I shall be your wife." Elizabeth was feeling , trembling, overwhelmed by the prospect of becoming the partner of life of Mr Darcy, the happy mistress of Pemberley and the beloved wife of William. She was beyond herself with happiness. He must have seen how welcome he was to her that his first idea was to reward her consent with a kiss and she would have given herself to his intention but for the sound of voices that approached them.

Chapter 29

The lovers were on the brink of proper lip fulfilment when they overheard the oncoming steps of an intruder in their little tender moment. Mildly incredulously, Darcy's hand squeezed Lizzie's with supreme tenderness; his lips, which had been caressing the possibility of a kiss, pursed in mortification. Elizabeth drew out an annoyed sigh. She was aware of Darcy's enchanting gaze, which had been the tantalizing promise of the so long awaited kiss. However, her pulse had quickened in vain and her lips parted in brooding expectation for what was destined to be postponed once more...

"Miss Bennet!"

A little flushed by the interruption, Elizabeth gasped when she heard that it was she who was being appealed and not Darcy. Astonished to see Colonel Fitzwilliam coming in their way, and quick as a fish, she got rid of Darcy's hand. Looking up at her interlocutor she acknowledged him as charmingly as possible, "Colonel Fitzwilliam."

"I see you have found my cousin," he beamed. To his cousin he said. "Or you have found her." Then looking quizzically at Elizabeth, "I thought you were leaving."

"I ...changed my mind."

The colonel grinned toying with the idea that he might be the reason why Elizabeth had finally made up her mind to stay. With great enthusiasm he said, "Is it not a most delightful coincidence? Here you are, when I was planning to visit with you in Hertfordshire only yesterday. But are you not cold sitting here in the open?"

"You know each other?" Darcy asked a little surprised.

"Do we know each other? Of course we do. I have told you I spent a most delightful time in Kent with new acquaintances, have I not? Well. It was Miss Elizabeth and Miss Bennet whom I met there."

"In Kent?" Fitzwilliam nodded. Elizabeth nodded a little reluctantly, wondering what sort of tale Colonel Fitzwilliam could have told William to have so quickly erased the enchanting expression from his countenance and imprinted such a dejected one instead.

What Darcy had immediately recalled was the warmth with which his cousin had made reference to a delightful damsel he had met during his stay at Rosings, but he had never suspected Fitzwilliam was talking about Lizzie. "She is...you are his..."

"Yes, yes. She is my Miss Elizabeth. Haven't I told you she is the most beautiful girl in all England?"

Elizabeth froze. Good God, had he been talking about her? In what manner? What did he mean by calling me 'his'? 'His' what?

"You never mentioned him, Lizzie," Darcy blurted out accusingly.

Colonel Fitzwilliam seemed to realise his mistake too. He was speechless. The over familiarity between Darcy and Elizabeth was quite apparent, though. Fitzwilliam could smell a skeleton in the cupboard from a distance, yet for his life he had never seen that coming. Anyway, it was quite evident that something was definitely cooking between these two. No wonder Lady Catherine was in a fit a few minutes before, which was the reason why Fitzwilliam had decided to stir clear from her for a while.

"Lizzie, huh?"

Darcy lowered his head. He had turned quite red in the face. Elizabeth was blushing too. Of course Fitzwilliam needed no more. "I see ... It seems I am quite de trop here, aren't I?"

No one said a thing which was answer enough. Very wisely, Fitzwilliam began to back away. "You need say no more. I must greet Miss Bennet as well. She is in the house, is she not? I think I heard her voice as I ...well...I must go. I leave you in ...good hands, Miss Elizabeth. Darcy..." and turning around he left them quite hastily and still very puzzled, having no idea when these two could have become so intimate so suddenly.

Colonel Fitzwilliam entered the parlour with a quick pace, shaking off the cold from his bones to see a bunch of agitated ladies taking turns at the window to spy on the lovers. He immediately recognized Miss Bennet amidst the pink faces. With all possible respect, he stepped inside and cleared his throat before greeting Jane.

"Miss Bennet. I am pleased to see you again." Talking to the gentleman and the lady standing close to her he said, "You must be Mr and Mrs Gardiner. I am pleased to meet you at last."

"Colonel Fitzwilliam. It is my pleasure too. Yes. This is my Aunt and Uncle Gardiner." They said their how-d'-do's with the accustomed bows and curtseys. Everybody seemed so taken with the spectacle which Darcy and Elizabeth afforded from their little bench in the lawn that Fitzwilliam made up his mind to join the group of attentive witnesses as well, which proved him equally curious and meddlesome. "Is it only me or my cousin Darcy is actually holding hands with your sister?" asked he into Jane's ear.

"Indeed he is," she tittered.

"Will you deem me irremediably stupid if I asked when this came to be?" wondered the colonel.

Lady Catherine's roars put an end to their conversation by the window. "I wonder that myself!" cried Lady Catherine. "Yet I cannot be wrong if I say that my nephew was drawn in by means of arts and allurements!"

"Catherine. You had better stop calling names to the young lady. It is evident that she will be family now," cautioned Lady Matlock under her breath.

"Indeed," said Colonel Fitzwilliam hardly concealing his wonder. He sent a quizzing look at Jane, who in turn could only fake a smile.

"Family!" continued the enraged Lady Catherine. "She is nothing, absolutely nothing to us!"

"Well, she is to Darcy, which seems to suffice," argued Lady Matlock beside herself with glee.

"I am his only family! I am the only one entitled to see to business such as this."

"For what I can see of Darcy's present endeavours, dear aunt, my cousin's business is definitely with Miss Elizabeth," Fitzwilliam said philosophically as he resumed spying on the pair. And just in case they did not capture his meaning Fitzwilliam hinted Darcy's present occupation by kissing his own hand tenderly.

Mrs Gardiner and Jane beheld Colonel Fitzwilliam with widened eyes. Jane's lips rounded in amazement and they let out a shy Oooh. Just then, before their eyes, a most blazing scene was taking place on the little bench. Mr. Darcy's face had finally bent over Elizabeth's and he had wrapped his long arms around her shoulders and planted a kiss on her lips while the young lady clutched her hands to her bonnet to prevent it from falling. Jane let out a cry of joy mingled with astonishment.

"Good God! They are..." she gasped averting her eyes.

Colonel Fitzwilliam offered, "too close?" and he sent an innocent look to Jane.

"Kissing?" gasped Lady Catherine rushing to the window.

"Well, it seems only natural. After all, they will be married in three days," chuckled Lord Matlock.

"Three days?" repeated Fitzwilliam, and then recollecting his uncle's will he muttered to himself. "Yes, by Jove. If they wish an offspring before summer they had better be married in three days."

This, of course was meant for no one else but himself. Unfortunately, Jane was close enough to overhear him muttering. She dared not ask anything to the colonel but the question was written on her face and in her frowned brow. Colonel Fitzwilliam rolled his eyes. He could not believe he had opened his big mouth again.

Lady Catherine seemed to have fallen in a state of deep shock as if she had been introduced to the devil. The advantage of it was that she remained subdued for a while and stopped the landslide of insults against Elizabeth. A sepulchral silence enveloped the whole party, and the colonel, sensing Jane's discomfort, came up to her and tried to comfort her with, "Fear not, Miss Bennet. My cousin designs to your sister are but honourable."

"I know that, sir," Jane whispered blushing exceedingly.

By the time Darcy and Elizabeth repaired to the house, the party from upstairs had come down and begun some or other activity to entertain themselves until the master of the house was back. Mr and Mrs Gardiner were conversing amiably with Lord and Lady Matlock. Caroline was trying hard to school her feelings as much as possible by playing cards with Miss Darcy. Lady Catherine and Miss de Bourgh sat in a corner muttering to each other while Jane and Colonel Fitzwilliam got reacquainted on the opposite side. Mr Bingley watched these latter converse from the card table with keen interest.

Elizabeth's face betrayed deep emotion. Darcy had her hand firmly secured in his, his head lifted proudly with a commanding, almost haughty expression, quite well known for some, that stirred submission in anyone who beheld him. That look had such certitude, such knowledge of the path to be followed that Elizabeth could but abandon herself to his guide. Still, as they entered the parlour where their party of relatives and friends gathered, Elizabeth trembled inside, knowing perfectly well that she was being watched quite differently now. She found it an ordeal to even speak.

Darcy was no different. Whenever he was anxious his hand would rise repeatedly to his forehead to brush back his hair. Yet as usual, he would do his best not to betray his feelings and remain unruffled all the time. In only the present flattering motion of his hand was there a sign of the real state of his nerves.

The engagement was no longer a subject of discussion during the rest of the evening. It was a settled thing not worthy of further consideration by those not directly involved. Very timely, a set of servants came into the parlour with trays bearing a repast prepared by Mrs Reynolds which consisted in cold meat and other refreshment for Mr Darcy's guests and they all sat and shared food as civilly as humanly possible.

Meanwhile, the Gardiners' trunks, as well as Elizabeth's, were fetched from the Cross and Crown as earlier recommended by Mr Reynolds. The family dinner that had been proposed at Matlock was postponed. The bride-to-be was exceedingly tired as the recurrent frown and flaring of nostrils from suppressed yawns suggested, and as soon as her bedchamber was ready she retired for the night.

It pained Elizabeth tremendously to leave William, but she did not trust herself. Lady Catherine had been sending wordless menacing messages, narrowing her eyes, or refusing to speak which was more unnerving than her insults. Another minute and Elizabeth would explode for lack of retaliation.

She had only begun to doze off when a decided and repetitive knock brought her back from her slumber. There was someone at her door. To her complete shock her caller was no other than Lady Catherine. Elizabeth thought of refusing her the entrance to her bedchamber, but then she remembered that the lady was her betrothed's aunt and even when she knew Lady Catherine's design in calling on her at such late hours could not bear anything good, she decided to let her in. Her ladyship did not wait to show Elizabeth that she had not been mistaken.

"You can be at no loss to understand the reason of my wish to speak to you in privacy, Miss Bennet."

"You are mistaken, madam. I'm quite unable to account for the honour of seeing you in my bedroom."

"I have come to warn you, though much as you might seem to have succeeded in drawing my nephew in with your...allures... your efforts will come to no fruition."

"Very well. I thank you, ma'am. Now if you will excuse me..."

"I will not be interrupted! Hear me in silence." Elizabeth complied. She pursed her lips and listened as coolly as she could. "Miss Bennet, do you know who I am?" Elizabeth assented. "You must know that my daughter and my nephew are formed for each other. They are descended, on the maternal side, from the same noble line, and, on the father's, from respectable, honourable, and ancient, though untitled families. Their fortune on every side is splendid. They are destined for each other by the voice of every member of their respective houses."

"Ma'am. I beg you ..."

"Hush! Do not speak yet! I am not finished! Now, let me be rightly understood. This match, to which you have the presumption to aspire, can never take place. Mr Darcy must marry "my" daughter if he wishes to keep his inheritance within his family. If not, everything will pass to strangers. Now, what have you to say?"

After a moment's consideration Elizabeth said, "Only this: That if that is so, you can have no reason to suppose I drew Mr Darcy in. It would be quite un-mercenary of me, will it not?"

"If you doubt my word, you can ask him. He is well acquainted with the terms of his father's will."

"What can be so particular in a will?"

"My Brother-in-law's will is of a peculiar kind. It was thought to protect the family's interest. If Darcy should fail to marry and beget a child before his seven and twentieth birthday, then his progeny would be vanished from the inheritance. Only if he married my daughter will their children be included as rightful heirs. For that reason they have been intended for each other from their infancy."

"But it is absurd!"

"Absurd! Do you think it absurd to endeavour to keep the inheritance in the family? It was a very lenient settlement if you ask me. My nephew was given more than sufficient time to enjoy his bachelorhood. Now it is time for him to settle down and sow his wild oaths by doing his duty to his family. Do you know how many houses had been thrown into disgrace and in the hands of strangers because no one ever thought of leaving directions to the heirs?"

"A will from a loving father cannot be bestowed upon a son in a manner that would force him to act against his own will...against his wish."

"Darcy never complained before! It was the favourite wish of his mother as well as hers. While Anne was in her cradle, we planned the union. And now to be prevented by the upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections or fortune? Is this to be endured? It shall not be!"

"Ma'am. I must remind you I am a gentleman's daughter."

"Yes, but who is your mother? Who are your uncle and aunts? You have no money, no dowry and no inheritance. Now, if you were sensible, you would not wish to doom Darcy's children to such gloomy future. All you have to do is promise me to break up this farce of engagement."

"I will make no promise of the kind, and I beg you not to importune me any further on the subject."

"Not so hasty, if you please! Do you really think you can give him a child before his birthday?"

"When I have child is a matter that only concerns me and my ... husband."

"It seems you do not understand what is at stake here. If you marry my nephew, your children will be penniless. They will certainly fall in disgrace! The Darcy name as we know it will be no longer connected to Pemberley. It will never even be mentioned again."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Yes. To keep his inheritance within his family Darcy must have his heir before he turns seven and twenty. His birthday is in August," and then narrowing her little ratty eyes the poisonous lady added with scorn, "Unless you are with child now, you shall never succeed."

Elizabeth was speechless. Yet she was not half astonished as she would soon be, for her ladyship continued, "Your reluctance to give upon this engagement might be misunderstood. Some may infer that your unconcern lies in the fact that you have been ... plucked already."

Elizabeth was incensed. She would have never expected her ladyship to be so direct. "I care little for what people say," she answered breathlessly.

Lady Catherine raised an impertinent brow. "I doubt it," she said full of disdain.

"William and I have been separated these past months...nothing ever happened. We are innocent...I am innocent," she gasped completely shocked.

"You may be as innocent as a lamb, my dear. The on dit will be your ruin and his regardless of the yielding. But nothing is lost yet. You are still on time to put an end to idle gossip. However, if you insist in marrying him under so unpromising circumstances..." she sighed. "Then I must conclude that you and my nephew have been closer than the appropriate."

"If I have I should be the last to admit it!"

"Then you have!"

"I refuse to answer that!"

"Headstrong girl! I am almost the nearest relation he has, and I am entitled to know all his nearest concerns."

"But not to know mine, nor will such behaviour as this induce me to be explicit."

"Obstinate girl! I am ashamed of you. I have not been in the habit of brooking disappointment!"

"That will make your ladyship's situation at present more pitiable, but it will have no effect on me."

"I will not be interrupted! Now, tell me once and for all. Have you and my nephew been together yet?"

Though Elizabeth would not for the mere purpose of obliging Lady Catherine have answered this question, in self defence she could but blurt out a definite, "No."

Lady Catherine seemed pleased.

"Then it is not too late. You must promise to give up on him right now."

"I will make no promise of the kind."

"Miss Bennet. I am shocked. I expected to find a reasonable young woman. I shall not go until you have promised me to release your grip on my nephew."

"And I shall never grant that. Allow me to say that the arguments with which you have supported this unreasonable application have been as frivolous as they have been beneath your Ladyship. You have widely mistaken my character if you think I could be worked on by threats of this nature. I am not intimidated by gossip. Your Ladyship wants Darcy to marry your daughter, then it is him whom you must apply. You can have nothing further to say. You have insulted me by every possible method," she said resentfully. "I must beg to leave my bedchamber."

"You have no regard then, for the honour and credit of my nephew? Unfeeling, selfish girl! You refuse to oblige me? You refuse the claims of duty, honour, gratitude? You are determined to ruin him, and make him the contempt of the world!"

"I am only resolved to act in a manner which will constitute my own happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me."

"And this is your final resolve? Very well. I shall know how to act! I am most seriously displeased."

Chapter 30

Ensconced in a deep armchair in his study, nursing an amber crystal bumper, and no doubt boding ill against his reticent visitors, Fitzwilliam Darcy fixed on his guests with an intensity hinting at absolute weariness of their company. Across from him sat Mr Bingley, a glass of Burgundy in hand, lazily stretching his legs in front of the fire. Darcy's cousin, the colonel, sat just as leisurely, inspecting his Hessians with absorbed satisfaction, while his uncle, Lord Matlock, aristocratic austerity aside, downed his third brandy leaning inelegantly against the mantelpiece.

Darcy grew extremely impatient. After Elizabeth had repaired to her bedchamber he would have expected his family and friends to begin preparations for their own withdrawal. Since Elizabeth had pleaded to be agitated rather than sleepy and there was so much to say before the wedding he would have liked to knock at her door. Of course, he did not entirely envisage anything untoward, but he mused a little intimacy would not be unwelcome. Perchance he could persuade her to join him in his study for verbal intercourse?

Unfortunately, he was in for disappointment. Darcy's scowls notwithstanding, his family and friends were not at all inclined to leave. Far from announcing their withdrawal, after a light dinner, Mr Bingley expressed his wish to partake of a bumper of the excellent wine from Pemberley's cellars and Lord Matlock and Colonel Fitzwilliam seemed equally inclined. And so it was that a separation of ladies from gentlemen ensued during which Lady Catherine secretly waited on the weary Eliza to enlighten her about Old Mr Darcy's will.

While Darcy's uncle excused himself for a second, presumably to answer a call of nature, Colonel Fitzwilliam filled his first bumper and raised his glass, grinning cheerfully. "I suppose a toast would not be unwelcome, Bingley. After all, my little cousin sows his wild oaths in two days. Hail the hero!" and then with an honest smile, "I wish you joy, old boy!" They all raised their glasses and toasted the health of the bride, the bridegroom and the beautiful sister as well (the last toast most fervently proposed by the dashing colonel who was quite taken with the beauty of both the bride and her sister). Darcy, a little ashamed for his previous musings, sported a smug smile on his face now.

"I confess your marriage to Miss Elizabeth has come as a complete surprise. I still cannot get used to the idea. You and Miss Bennet's sister! And here I have thought you have not made yourself known to anyone in her family!" cried Bingley with a certain measure of envy.

"I should like to hear how you made your beautiful bride's acquaintance," Lord Matlock said staggering to his feet quite unsteadily across the room.

"Yes, I should like to hear it too," said Bingley intrigued. "You have kept that from me."

"It is a long story," warned Darcy.

"Spare us the details, then," drawled Lord Matlock who seemed to have considerable difficult to articulate clusters. "Was it at a ball in London?"

Darcy smiled, a flicker of a recollection of his first meeting with Elizabeth playing in his mind. "No. Not at a ball. And not in London either."

"Darcy ...at a ball?" chuckled Bingley. "You would sooner see Napoleon at Westminster Abby." The colonel was about to point out that William had not been at all indisposed to dance the past summer while carousing in his estimated company, but Darcy cut him short.

" 'Twas in the creek that crosses Longbourn in Hertfordshire," Darcy said innocently.

"A creek?" said Fitzwilliam with unreserved interest.

"What? During your stay in my house?" Fitzwilliam sent a query look at Bingley. "I thought you refused to be introduced to everyone while you stayed with me," objected Bingley.

Darcy nodded in answer to both questions. To Bingley he said, "Yes. You are not mistaken. 'Twas much later, when I returned to Netherfield Park soon after my...little escapade..." Colonel Fitzwilliam chuckled here. 'Little' was definitely an understatement.

"I still do not understand why you had to leave in the first place," muttered Bingley a little upset.

"I confess I felt rather oppressed at Netherfield. It was my intention to stay in London only for a couple of days," Darcy went on apologetically. "You know me. I knew no one in Hertfordshire and I have always felt uncomfortable among strangers..."

"Ah," said Bingley thinking of Caroline's 'oppressive' company. "I should have known better."

"The truth is I made a stupid mistake. It seems I rode on horseback instead of using my carriage to journey back to Hertfordshire. I must have lost my way and had an unfortunate accident before I could reach my destination. Miss Elizabeth found me near her home at Longbourn and that was how I met her."

"Accident?" asked Lord Matlock. Colonel Fitzwilliam rolled his eyes. At least it had not been his big mouth this time. "What accident, pray?"

"Your horse threw you?" inquired Bingley.

"Yes. And I fell head first in a pool of mud," Darcy said grinning.

"Ha! The excellent Mr Darcy bit the dust. I should 've loved to see you thus! You must 've been quite a sight. Miss Elizabeth was exceedingly brave to have come in your rescue while you were looking so wretchedly dirty," laughed Bingley. "You should have taken a dip in the creek and wash your clothes before seeking an introduction."

"I did. She caught me quite naked," Darcy blurted out merrily, and quite thoughtlessly, as he recollected the happenstance and instantly realised he had just said that aloud.

"Did what?" echoed Bingley and the colonel in unison. They looked at each other quite mystified. An awkward silence ensued. Darcy did not know what to say.

"I am sorry. I do not follow. Naked you say?" said the colonel absolutely gripped by the tale of Darcy's unusual courtship.

"I was trying to cleanse the mud..."

"You actually met Miss Elizabeth while you were naked in a creek? My, my!" laughed Colonel Fitzwilliam with an incredulous tone in his voice.

"Did she not run away when she discovered you?" asked Bingley beyond shocked.

"She did not immediately see me," Darcy quickly elaborated. "I was in the creek and she..."

"Yes..." the colonel was desperately for the juicy details.

"She..."

"For God's sake!" cried Bingley offended. "Take care of what you are going to say."

"Nothing untoward happened," Darcy was quick to assure. "At least, nothing deliberately untoward ... we did find ourselves ... in an uncomfortable situation," he said.

"Scarce of clothes and wet," laughed the slightly inebriated Lord Matlock who had been listening to the conversation with unguarded merriment from afar but had not been able to abandon his post by the mantel piece for fear that his unsteady legs would not keep him on his feet.

"You mean she...she was bathing in the creek when you took your dip?" Bingley asked scarcely believing he was having a conversation of this nature with his exceedingly starched friend. "That is what you call gentlemanlike behaviour?"

"No! She took a dip while I...argh!"

"Pray, speak clear," Bingley interrupted. He was redder than never before.

"And do tell me more about the bathing part," asked the colonel saucily. "I cannot believe that you were actually bathing with a maiden in the open. Man, I never knew you."

"No wonder you disappeared for so long," observed Lord Matlock with a haw-haw.

Darcy shook his head. This awkward account had only served to tint Elizabeth's reputation. "You were swimming with her in earnest?" Bingley asked narrowing his eyes in complete disbelief.

"Not with her, Sir," Darcy snapped already exasperated. "We happened on each other by complete chance."

"I take it then that she immediately accused you to her papa," said Colonel Fitzwilliam hardly suppressing his mirth.

"No, she did not," answered Darcy in a clipping tone having already lost his patience.

"She did not?"

Darcy paused here. He flopped himself in his armchair and breathed a heavy sigh. "No," he said barely audibly. He then reached out for the carved crystal decanter. Of its content he swallowed two bumpers, one after the other before he continued. Looking sheepishly at his expectant audience he said, "Her mama would have insisted in my marrying her. The last thing she would have wished was to marry a perverted bastard." This last comment left everyone dumfounded. "Miss Elizabeth was rather adverse to marriage...concerted marriage that is. She still is. She was promised to her cousin, a parson she was to meet that very day and was trying to escape her destiny... from a loveless marriage. She had just had an argument with her mama when...when all this ensued. I confess I saw her taking her dip and thoughtlessly refrained from alerting her of my presence. (Lord Matlock raised his brows at that) Very stupid, very selfish thing to do. When she saw me... she was shocked beyond measure. She thought I was attempting a...seduction of sorts and ... well...I suppose she was in the right. I tried to apologise but she would not listen, of course. We had a terrible argument. I was so damnable rude to her."

"Good God, Darcy," Bingley gasped.

"What did you do then?"

"I left the creek in a fit. Yet I did not go too far. As I was trying to get hold of my horse, I slipped in the wet turf again, quite deservedly, if you ask me. My head landed on a sharp rock. Miss Elizabeth saw I was bleeding, and she ran for help." When Darcy finished the confession of his transgression, his eyes were fixed penitently on his boots. It was his time to inspect them.

"So I take it you are doing the right thing now," sighed his lordship.

Darcy denied the hint of a forced marriage very emphatically. "No," he said shaking his head. "It is nothing of the sort. No one knows of this. No one. Not even her father. I am marrying her because she is the most deserving woman of my affection. I love her. Very dearly."

"I see. A perfectly good reason, I wager."

"I take it, then," said Colonel Fitzwilliam relapsing in good humour, "that nothing inappropriate beyond the exposure of your breech took place."

"No."

"So you have had no ...results from your dallying in Hertfordshire?" was Lord Matlock's preposterous question. It was a little harsh of him, I daresay, but this has always been the way with gentlemen who cannot hold their liquor.

"I was not..." Darcy began to protest but he trailed off. It was no use trying to persuade his uncle of his innocence. "No," he said.

"It is a pity. You are in dire need of an heir, me boy."

"Which reminds me...If Miss Elizabeth was not well disposed to marry you...when the deuce did you make all the arrangements for your wedding?" asked Bingley with a stern look upon his friendly face.

"Yes. I am also intrigued. Tell me, son."

"I have made none. 'Twas a last minute resolution."

"You mean you have just persuaded a woman who hated you into marrying you after you have been apart from her for six months?" Bingley ejaculated.

"She did not entirely hate me," Darcy drawled.

"I suppose she was persuaded by the short glimpse she caught of your privates?" Lord Matlock joked offhandedly. "Pardon me. I beg your pardon. Most unfortunate remark. I just could not resist it. Of course not."

"Will you be married by special license then?" asked Bingley trying to preserve Miss Elizabeth's good name by changing the turn of the conversation.

Darcy frowned. "I have no license, be it special or otherwise," he confessed blushing up a little.

"Do not have a license?" said Mr Bingley with alarmed surprise. "How do you propose to get married without one, pray?"

"Is it absolutely necessary to have a licence?" asked Darcy rather roguishly.

"Law! I should imagine yes. Unless, that is, that the Banns have been read at the local church!"

Of course, Darcy had to deny having had the Banns read at church.

Colonel Fitzwilliam knew exactly that that would be the case. His cousin ought to know the procedure for a wedding ceremony very well, having being a parson of sorts himself, however, Darcy was not being quite himself. Things simply slipped his mind, it seemed. Fitzwilliam sipped his brandy and sat comfortably in his favourite arm chair opposite Darcy with a weary smile. "I hardly know you, Darcy old man," he said with good humour.

Darcy looked savagely at the colonel, who in turn, beheld him with cheeky derision. "What is all this fuss over a stupid license anyway?" exclaimed the colonel with a smirk. "Any Bishop will grant you a license to you, cousin. You only have to have the money to pay for it. I suppose you have £5?" Darcy nodded. "You must write to your attorneys first thing in the morning," said Colonel Fitzwilliam cheerfully. "After all, you do have your connections with the men of the cloth, do you not old boy?"

Darcy coughed, a little distressed at the teasing, yet the comment passed unnoticed to the rest who knew not of Darcy's parson's days. Fitzwilliam was in the best of humours. His cousin's present personality was his new source of constant amusement. Fancy the insufferably fastidious Darcy behaving like a poor copy of the thoughtless Bingley. But Darcy was not diverted in the least and the gloom on his countenance soon persuaded his guests that they should let him be.

Lord Matlock, though highly amused by the tale and despite his tipsiness, was the most determined to leave. He had been a young groom once and knew what was in such a man's mind, particularly when his betrothed slept the room adjoining his. His own bride had been the most virtuous of young ladies, as spotless as she was beautiful. Yet ... Had they not anticipated their marriage vows? Indeed they had. It was not his fault if his mother had placed his delightful fiancé in a bedchamber next door almost two months before the wedding. Ah! And what delightful memories their little wickedness afforded them now that their amorous days were almost gone! His recollections of his own deeds were so delightful that he decided he would give his nephew the chance to star building similar ones for himself. Bent on those ruminations, he approached Darcy and asked rather bluntly, "How you and ...ah...Miss Elizabeth are carrying on after all that?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"You are marrying her a day after tomorrow, are you not? And yet you have not seen her for...how long?"

Not quite following his uncle's meaning Darcy nodded. "It's been quite some time, yes."

"And still you are here with us when you should be upstairs with her, me boy?" Darcy was flabbergasted by the cheeky confrontation. Casting a glance at Fitzwilliam, Darcy mused that it was evident that in this case the tree stood not far from where the apple fell. Perchance he had not forgotten that shameful side of the head of his maternal family for nothing? "Oh, do not give yourself those airs with me," continued the old man unperturbed by Darcy's intense gaze. "I know you are no angel. Haven't I heard of your doings, Sir, of your carousing in the night with my own son at Miss Sharp's House?" Darcy's cheeks heightened in colour. The allusion was not lost on him. It was one of the things about his past life that had taken the longest to resurface from his memory blackout. He sent a murderous look in his cousin's direction. Fitzwilliam merely shrugged and sat further back in his armchair. No doubt his father had been privy to all their dalliances and escapades.

Steeling himself Darcy retorted, "I do not deny it. Yet I wish you would forget my doings of the past," Darcy answered with a scowl. "Particularly with ladies of dubious reputation."

"That I will. Most gladly," Lord Matlock slurred cheerfully. "Yet as regards that delightful creature up the stairs...let me advice you," he said whispering into his ear. " A little intimacy between betrothals is not bad at all... particularly in your case. Why, you are practically wedded, by Jove! Would you not wish to ..." Lord Matlock paused and took a scrutinizing look at Darcy. The shaking his head he said. "I gather you would (A twitch from Mr Darcy) If I have learned something in life, that is to understand matters of the heart. I gather she must be waiting for you upstairs?"

"I beg your pardon, sir. When Miss Elizabeth said she was fatigued she was not pretending..."

"Her fatigue was just a hint for you to follow her, Darcy," remarked Lord Matlock with scholarly airs as he fought to keep himself balanced on his feet. Darcy stole a glance at Fitzwilliam to see how he bore his father's thick speech, but the colonel merely sipped his brandy as if he were blind and deaf to his papa's uncontrolled intemperance.

"Oh, women are very calculating creatures, my dear boy," the woozy gentleman interposed with patronising tone. "Do not stare at me with those stern eyes of yours. Your Miss Elizabeth is an immaculate saint, no doubt, who has never done wrong. And she will never, ever, do any, by Jove. But she is a woman ...a fine woman I daresay...and she is above the stairs dreaming of you. You are master of your house, are you not? Do not try to turn it into a temple of virtue. Virtue belongs to angels, and we humble men are no angels." He broke out with a roar of laughter. "I still remember that fine damsel from Brussels you were involved with last year. She had the most... oh well...I had better be gone once and for all."

After his uncle's vigorous allocution, Darcy lapsed into a sullen silence. He downed his astonishment with a double brandy and remained pensive as if pondering his uncle's advice.

Chapter 31

Soon afterwards, the four gentlemen joined the ladies in the drawing room where they found the vacant places of the de Bourgh party. No explanation was offered as to their quitting the premises nor was any question issued. They were gone and no one would miss them. After a short while Mr and Mrs Gardiner too expressed their wish to imitate them and they repaired to their bedchamber taking the angelic Jane with them, to both Mr Bingley's and the colonel's chagrin. The following day promised to be quite busy and these charming ladies needed to rest if they wished to keep their charm. Miss Bingley, however, lingered a little longer since Lady Matlock did not show any inclination to leave.

Lord Matlock intervened as best as his brain swimming in alcohol allowed him. Spying through the window (he was gripping the window sill quite tenaciously to keep himself erect) he remarked with some alarm in his voice that it had begun to snow. "We had better go too, Ellen. Before the snow blocks the roads."

"Oh no! Is it snowing?" lamented her ladyship, and she hastily put on her shawl and went up to the window to look outside.

"Indeed it is," said Mr Bingley. "But is a speck of a snow. Nothing to worry about."

"But it will ruin the ball," squealed Miss Bingley.

"The ball is in two days. The snow will be hard by then," answered Darcy wishing to calm Lady Ellen.

"It shall be just the thing to celebrate both your engagement and your wedding, brother," said Miss Darcy in raptures, swelling with romantic ideas. She had never imagined her brother to be the owner of such impulsiveness as he was showing of late. Lady Ellen was equally mystified. She reckoned three days was too little time to prepare a wedding and could hardly believe that Darcy had actually jumped into such a hasty decision without even consulting it with her. Yet her nephew was betrothed to a woman who appeared to be worthy of him and she could not be happier.

"The snow?" laughed Lord Matlock following Georgiana's thread of thoughts.

"Yes," Colonel Fitzwilliam remarked. "It will also save him a wedding breakfast."

"Good Heavens. We must dash!" cried Lady Matlock looking outside. "The roads will be blocked in no time and I have a wedding to prepare!"

When his relatives left, and his friends had repaired to their own rooms, Darcy did not wait long to go upstairs. As he went into his chamber and discarded his cravat distractively on a chair, he spied the stout door leading to the adjoining bedchamber that slept the future mistress and could not help a rush of passion from crossing his heart. It was a massive, solid door but still a convenient passage for an ardent lover. Sitting on his bed, he beheld, with indescribable longing, the forbidden barrier that stood like a seraphim, blandishing a sharp sword guarding the Eden Garden.

Still unresolved, he moved towards the tempting passage, and rested his ear on the warm wooden surface, waiting patiently for the faintest of noises, a sign that she was not sleeping. He heard none and his anticipation waned. Scolding himself for his impure thoughts, he rejected the infamous discourse given by his well-intentioned uncle and proceeded to undress. However, he reached the bed in a state of excitement that promised to be the prelude of a jittery night.

As he lay beneath the quilt, in the deep darkness of his chamber, Darcy reflected on what had ensued in his study and his mind drifted for a while, to his first memory of Elizabeth which was now available for him. At the beginning, the recollection only brought back those moments in which he had witnessed Elizabeth arguing quite vehemently with her mother, which occasioned more than one weary smile to blossom in his countenance. However, as he indulged more and more in the exploration of those first moments of their acquaintance, another sort of picture presented itself. One that could but disturb his manly sensibilities even more: Elizabeth swimming in the creek. In the solitude of his room it came more vivid than before. She had been, if the uncoiling corners of his mind were sending the correct memories, hardly dressed for her cool dip in the river. Images of her wet body gleaming under the sun, revealing more of her than was appropriate began to unfold before him, even when he kept his eyes tightly closed. He should not be thinking about that, he knew, and as it became of a good Christian he fought those shockingly alluring images of his betrothed with all his will.

But all was for naught. In vain did he endeavour to check his thoughts; nothing he did would spook those naughty recollections away. They inevitably came rushing through, and invaded his mind with great perseverance, thus appealing to his natural instincts to awake.

That he was monstrously impatient to make Elizabeth his wife went without saying. Their months' separation, the painful restraint, was taking a toll on him. It was not only that he had missed Elizabeth, but his lack of physical regulation, of sexual congress with a woman, was bearing agonizingly down on his body as well. The sole idea, that he would soon be touching those pert nipples he had seen beneath her damped clothes and perhaps even tasting their velvety sherry in a near future, simply undid him. On its own accord, his body began to respond to the novel memories of his nude enchantress, thus forcing him to step into forgotten pleasures which were emerging now like wild twisted currents, merging with his every single blood drop, bringing him to the point of familiar yet forgotten ecstasy. A creaking noise from a floor tile brought him instantly back from his reverie. A door had evidently been opened and there was someone standing in the doorway. He squinted at the shadowy figure of a woman that seemed nailed to her floor.

"Lizzie?" he asked incredulously.

After a short silence the sweetest voice to his ears answered with a feeble, "I hope I am not disturbing you."

"I ..." he began as he groped the bed for his robe which his manservant invariably extended at his feet. "...shall be with you...momentarily," he said finally spotting the garment. He swiftly wrapped himself in it and went to her encounter. He found his bride-to-be swathed in her yellow shawl, trembling from head to toes standing at the threshold between his apartments and hers looking exceedingly wretched. Elizabeth's had been weeping for a while to relieve herself from the chagrin and despair with which Lady Catherine de Bourgh had burdened her and her tears had left a wet trail in her cheeks, and a running red nose. Darcy's heart melted at the sight of that sweet face so sadly ravaged by inexplicable grief.

"Good God!" cried he reaching out. "What is the matter? You look excesively ill. Let me call your maid."

"No," she said hastily, her eyes rounded with apprehensive fear that he should alert the servants of her presence in his bedchamber. "I ... I thank you." She wiped her face with the sleeve of her nightshift. "There is nothing the matter with me," she assured him.

"But you look very ill." He took her trembling hands and led her to a chair where he beckoned her to take a seat. "Is there nothing you could take, to give you present relief? A glass of brandy perhaps?" and moving towards a walnut Tantalus sporting three crystal decanters full of amber liquor, he poured her half a finger of brandy for her.

Elizabeth accepted the offered glass and sipped delicately the spicy liquid within, which immediately elicited a cough from her throat. The brandy was thus discarded. Her poor fiancé knew not what else to do to relief her from her anguish. With inexpressible pity, he took her little hands again and looked her in the face.

"Elizabeth," he said quietly. "What is the matter, dearest?"

"I am quite well. I am only distressed by ..." She burst into tears before she could allude to it, and for a few minutes could not speak another word. Darcy, in wretched suspense, could only say something indistinctly of his concern, and observe her in compassionate silence. At length, she spoke again. "I have just had a visit from your aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. She spoke of a will, a formal statement signed by your late father that deprives you of his legacy unless you marry her daughter."

Darcy was fixed in astonishment. "I am grieved, indeed," cried he blanched with chagrin; "grieved -- shocked. I would have never expected her to act in this manner. It is insuportable." Turning to her he asked. "You must not give credit to anything that harpy woman said."

"But is it true? Will you lose your inheritance if you marry me? She said you will."

"What else did my aunt say?"

"She mentioned a baby..."

Darcy frowned. "You must not concern yourself with matters such as this."

She shook her head. "Must I not?"

"No. I care little for legacies."

"I ...I...have thought you would not ..." she could speak no more. She realised she had been crying for absolutely nothing.

"You thought I would forsake you?"

"Lady Catherine said that you were merely infatuated...That you would be a fool if you married me."

He felt a pang of tenderness in his heart. Poor Lizzie. It had been too much for one day with his family. "Well," he said lovingly caressing her cheek. "In that case I shall be the greatest of fools. I love you Elizabeth. I shall marry you no matter what my father's will should estipulate." So solemn a speech persuaded Elizabeth that he was speaking in earnest. Darcy saw that she was in the brink of tears again and deeply touched by her sorrow, which was in fact nothing but embarrassment, raised her up and sat her on his knees. "You see?" he said holding her with infinite softness. "You have alarmed yourself needlessly."

Thus accomodated, Elizabeth gave relief to her overcharged heart by laying her head on Darcy's shoulder and wheeping there for a while quite copious tears. Darcy kissed her hair several times, "You and I know each other well enough, do we not?"

"Yes" she said, and bit her lower lip.

He chuckled. "You must know that underneath my skin there is the same man that fell in love with you at Longbourn. I would never change your love for a hundred inheritances. It matters little whether we are rich or poor as long as we are together. If it is God's will that we conceive a child before the summer so be it. We shall be blessed with its coming. If it is not, then we shall be barren. I care little for the will. All I can think of is you and your well fare."

"But..."

"Do you trust me?" he said looking into her eyes, though in the dimness of the room there was precious little to see. "Do you trust me?" he repeated. She nodded and sighed. He felt her tension subdue.

"You know. You may look like a rich man from the outside but you still speak like a parson," she said resting her head on his shoulder again.

"I am glad you have noticed."

"Do you plan to preach to me every night before we go to sleep?"

He paused before he gave her an answer. "No, not quite preach," he said smiling devilishly and turned to look at her beloved face. As he bent to kiss her he said, "At least not for a while."

Chapter 32

We last left our dear couple in each other's arms and quite alone in the master's bedroom. This little scene should be the precursor of an exceedingly wakeful night. They were sitting on the bed, his back against the massive four-poster, Elizabeth on his lap.

Elizabeth had always awoken a peculiar desire in him, one that was concrete and immediate, that needed no preludes, so much more now when she was thus accommodated. Her weight, albeit light, almost airy, occasioned an insupportable surge of passion in him. Not half a minute later, there was a major upheaval in that bed. Without previous notice, a wave of blood rushed to his loins and Darcy's mast, weary of sailing the tranquil waters of celibacy, rose proudly beneath the cotton of his nightshift, causing him such turbulence as left him panting like he had run a mile, a result, no doubt of their previous unguarded unchaste kissing.

Elizabeth had her head on Darcy's shoulder, her body cooing close up to his heart while all that ensued, and had sensed the tension in his demeanour, not to mention his growing discomfort beneath her. However, Darcy refused to comply with the natural call of his manly instincts. Instead of seeking her with all the violence of his sensuality, he chose to fight for his lost self regulation. Arms outstretched to softly hold her, he kissed the top of her head with chaste tenderness, hoping to dissipate his desires and cool his passion with such virtuous endearments, when he should be hitting out unrelentingly against the folds of her flesh.

Elizabeth, however, was quite desirous of this latter kind of affection. In order to hint him her musing, she besought him with wordless entreats, slyly subjecting the skin beneath the thin cotton shift to insistent caresses that begged him to proceed likewise. Not he. He was determined to be chaste, to be slow of movement. But Elizabeth was too anxious to get to know her beloved better. She turned bolder and bolder until with reprovable impertinence, albeit unintentionally, she reached his hard flesh through the opening of his nightshift.

She froze. "Good God," she thought, "what have I done? Is he offended? He must be!"

Granted, Darcy noticed her impudence and bore it with noble indifference. Gently, but determined, he took her hand and as cool as humanly possible, placed it back out of his shift. He made no remark whatsoever, but had Elizabeth been able to encounter his eye, she might have seen an expression of heartfelt delight diffused over his face. But if she could not look she could listen and feel, and she did notice how agitated his breathing had grown and how his body had tensed at her touch. At last she took a great resolution and made a great plunge.

"I confess I have been considering...you know...In view of the will...It is only two days for the wedding..."

"We must not," he said with a tone of finality and to mark his determination sat her by his side on the bed.

Elizabeth was quite disappointed. She had a seduction in mind and had hoped that she would be the one subjected to it.

"Are you comfortable in your room?" he said distractedly.

"Yes, quite," she answered with a sigh, and immediately corrected herself. "I mean very much. It is a lovely room."

"It is the Mistress's."

"I have gathered as much."

"The view in the morning is particularly enchanting, you will see," he said.

She nodded, blushing deeply, for she had imagined that the view in that very morning would be quite enchanting indeed if only he were a little more cooperative.

A frisson shook her, quite conveniently. "You are cold," he said frowning, feeling suddenly guilty.

She shook her head. "No. Not cold."

Darcy immediately caught her meaning. Such an answer was blatantly provocative. He began to surmise that perchance his uncle had been absolutely in the right and that she had come to him, willingly, purportedly...like a bride to a groom.

She looked at him with impatience, hoping he would not make the whole affair of her surrender any more difficult. Understanding her hint, he saw the necessity to make a statement. "Lizzie," he began apologetically. "I am honoured. I am truly, deeply honoured. Your generosity is indeed overwhelming. But I cannot. I will not lie with you until we have been properly married."

"But what if we cannot...what about the will?" she asked deprecatingly.

"If it is God's will that I should lose Pemberley, so be it. But I shall never, ever touch you until you have been pronounced my wife before God."

"Are you consulting your own feelings in the present case, or do you imagine that you are gratifying mine?"

He made no answer, and they were again silent for a while. Elizabeth looked down to the hem of her nightshift slowly falling in a rightful fit. When she raised her eyes, they bore a strange gleam, mirroring the smouldering blaze of the hearth.

"I care not what you say, you goose, you. I will not hear your silly objections. I am here tonight. Make me your wife," she demanded and she came quite close to him, face to face, chest to chest.

No man that is truly a man needs another word. As he bent over her to kiss her, all Darcy could think of was how easy things were between them.

He immediately perceived how affectionate she was to him, how very complying. Nothing could be simpler than loving her. When his hands touched her intimately for the first time, her arms immediately responded by winding themselves around his neck. He heard her sigh in contentment, and felt her lips insistently close to his chin, biting lightly, teasing him to further his kissing.

One kiss followed the other. Their bodies began to respond in the most natural way. Soon he saw that she was having a stealthy rapture of pleasure and knew she was ready. It was his task now to muse over the meanings of her sounds that came in soft gasps, and to be watchful of her necessities and comfort. But of course, there was little he could do to prevent an undesirable effect of his lovemaking.

As he entered her, she let out a short gasp of pain.

He found himself stammering his excuses. "It was not my intention to ... You must know I ... I would not do anything to you ..." Thus he paused his advancement. He imagined he heard her grunt.

"I know that," she said with a sweaty smile. And then in a whisper against his cheek, "I did wish you to. Dear William, I love you so very much."

To hear her say those words was more than he could bear. He toppled her on the mattress again and completed what he had started with fervent violence. How to express in words the intensity of their trembling, the abundance of moist, of words whispered into the ear, of secret scents discovered for the first time. Even the moon blushed away from the window seeing them tied to each other so fervently, and absconded herself behind a cloud until their lovemaking ended in an echoed cry that left them spent and gasping for air, one on top of the other, but so contented and satisfied as left no doubt of the felicity of their union.

The morning after found them lying on the massive bed, both naked after a sleepless night, exhausted from having explored each other's intimacy to such an excess.

Chapter 33

When later that morning Elizabeth ran down to the hall in the big mansion that was Pemberley, she was shocked to find no one at the breakfast table. She had overslept, very properly, I dare say, after the previous night and mid dawn exertions. A little upset to have found that her lover was no longer in bed when she awoke, she went hurriedly downstairs in the hope of finding William waiting for her. However, by the time she had reached the hall, it seemed everyone else had already breakfasted and were otherwise engaged, a fact which did not help to immediately restore her mood.

It was a brilliant day, though exceedingly cold, having snowed the entirety of the night. She observed through the window that the garden had been blanketed with a fine cover of white snow giving the topiary a ghostly look. Despite the cold outside, she spied Mr Bingley and Jane, walking about the now white wilderness, and her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner, acting as chaperones, as they went by observing the variation in the landscape at a safe distance from the young couple.

Such a sight was enough to bring back a smile to Elizabeth's countenance. Jane and Mr Bingley had been reunited! Now Elizabeth was certain that she would soon have a new brother as well as a husband. They would probably be married before long, and perhaps they could come and live at Pemberley as well. Her fond thoughts instantly reminded her of the possible outcome of her previous intimacy with her would-be-husband. She took her hands to her stomach and wondered whether she was already carrying the future heir of Pemberley inside her. Oh, how she hoped that God had blessed them with a baby already. A baby boy to put an end to Darcy's anxieties about the future legacy and to crown their union as well! She was thus daydreaming when the timid voice of Miss Darcy brought her back to earth.

"Miss Elizabeth?"

"Oh, Good morning!" said Elizabeth turning hastily to greet the girl.

"Good morning. Have you had a pleasant sleep?" she said with a curtsey.

"Very pleasant," Elizabeth returned with an innocent tone. She bit her lips in self embarrassment recollecting how pleasant the night had been. Georgiana went on, unaware of her musings.

"Yesterday I had no occasion to congratulate you on your engagement to my brother. Let me do so now. I wish you both all possible happiness."

Elizabeth was touched. "Thank you, Miss Darcy. I am sure we shall both be incandescently happy."

Miss Darcy nodded. "I am very happy too to have you in the family. I have always longed to have a sister."

Elizabeth stretched out her arm to offer her hand to the girl. "I am sure we shall be very close," she said in earnest. The conversation that ensued, though most of it fell on Elizabeth, flowed on the topic of brothers and sisters. Georgiana told her how much she loved and respected her brother, and Elizabeth told her how much she envied her for she had no brother, only four sisters, at which Miss Darcy expressed a fervent wish to meet them all.

"You already know my sister Jane," she said pointing at her sister who was still in the company of Mr Bingley outside. "She is my eldest."

"Oh, yes. She is everything sweet and kind." After a pause Miss Darcy asked, "Will your younger sisters be coming to the wedding?"

Elizabeth assured Miss Darcy that all her family, including her three youngest sisters would be attending the wedding and added with great alacrity that she doubted that Miss Darcy would find them as agreeable as Jane.

"If my brother likes them all, I am sure I shall like them too," Miss Darcy replied.

"Now that you mention your brother...Have you not seen him?" Elizabeth asked tentatively.

"I understand he left early this morning," Miss Darcy informed her.

"Left?" Elizabeth asked surprised. Miss Darcy shrugged. "How odd! He did not tell me he was going anywhere."

"He ought to return soon," the girl assured her. "Would you not like my company while he is out?"

"Now, aren't you kind!" cried Elizabeth, happy to be so agreeably treated by her new sister-in-law. "Indeed I do. What shall we do?"

Miss Darcy blushed. "What do you propose?"

"Have you had breakfast?"

Miss Darcy shook her head and smiled. "No. I only had a cup of tea."

Elizabeth rolled her eyes feigning desperate hunger. "Neither have I. I am starving! I could eat a horse!" Such words elicited a giggle from Georgiana who was not accustomed to informal language of this kind. Elizabeth grabbed her hand again and said invitingly, "Let us both have breakfast and then we can have a sisterly conversation."

Although Elizabeth was certain the girl looked happy to be with her, Elizabeth could not help but notice that something was amiss in her expression. Should she attempt to find out what could be wrong with her? Perhaps she was a little jealous of her? Or perhaps she had doubts concerning Elizabeth's and Darcy's unexpected engagement and marriage? After they had an agreeable time together at the breakfast table, she gathered her courage and inquired,

"Is there anything that is bothering you, my dear? You look as if something is wrong."

The girl shook her head in negativity. Elizabeth insisted. "Come now. We shall be sisters only a day after tomorrow. You can trust me."

For a moment Miss Darcy beheld Elizabeth as if measuring her words but said nothing. Elizabeth decided to encourage her further and instantly rose from her seat and beckoned Miss Darcy to take a little walk with her. They walked about the house in relative silence. Miss Darcy seemed lost in her thoughts, but in truth was struggling to ask something very important from Elizabeth. Elizabeth, for her part, enquired again twice or thrice if there was anything Miss Darcy wished to discuss with her. Ere long, her efforts bore fruit and the girl opened her heart.

"May I show you something?" she asked Elizabeth.

"Of course."

Miss Darcy then guided Elizabeth towards a little sitting room, which had been the late Mrs Darcy's favourite haunt. They crossed this room and ended at the foot of the stairs that led to the gallery. Elizabeth instantly recognized the little table belonging to the late Mr Darcy with the small portraits of his beloved young son and godson that Mrs Reynolds had showed her the day before.

"Do you see this young man over here?" she pointed at Wickham's little likeness.

Elizabeth said nothing. "His name is George Wickham," she continued. "He is the son of our late steward." Elizabeth nodded in acknowledgment. "Is he not handsome?" Miss Darcy asked as her little finger softly touched the frame of the likeness with affection.

"Yes," Elizabeth could not but agree. Wickham was indeed better looking than any other young gentleman she had rested eyes on.

"I once thought I should be happy with him," Miss Darcy confessed. Elizabeth was speechless. "He proposed a year before, but had no heart to ask my brother for my hand, for he was sure Fitzwilliam would refuse him. He was correct. Not only did he refuse him when he learned of our affection, but he also sent me away and forbid me to correspond. Brother thought George was after my fortune and not truly in love with me." A pause ensued here. Elizabeth did not know what to say. She realized that when Georgiana mentioned Fitzwilliam, she was not talking of the colonel but of William. "Soon afterwards, Brother went away with Mr Bingley, and I knew nothing from either for a good while. I had begun to think that my brother was irremediably angry with me on account of my affection for George and did not wish to see me again. I have recently discovered that he had been ill and unable to correspond."

"Aye. I met your brother while he was unwell. He stayed at home during his malady."

Miss Darcy nodded.

"When I returned I thought Brother was changed. He was no longer the severe brother I used to have. Now I know from whence his change came. I think love has changed him," she smiled meekly.

Another pause. Elizabeth felt horrible. She could not come with anything to say on the subject of Miss Darcy's affection for Mr Wickham. To her misfortune, while she was busy trying to think of something to say, Miss Darcy gathered courage to make a most unexpected request. "Will you not think very ill of me if I ask you a favour?"

Elizabeth shook her head though she doubted of her ability to grant the girl anything.

"Will you intervene for me, for Wickham and I, before my brother?"

What to say to such a pledge? Elizabeth now knew that Wickham was not to be trusted. It had been hard to admit it to herself, since she had had nothing but the best opinion of him, but it seems he was a gamer and a scoundrel.

Before she had any time to elaborate an answer, a footman approached them to inform them of the presence of Lady Matlock.

"Do not answer just yet," Miss Darcy begged. "Think about it. Now let us go to my aunt."

~ * ~

While this was unfolding at Pemberley, Darcy was paying a visit to one of his neighbours. He knew he must obtain a marriage licence so that he could be married without the usual notice period under banns. To that purpose, and following his wise cousin Fitzwilliam's advice, he had called on the bishop of the local diocese before praying hours.

The small church's clerk and bishop had known the Darcy family for a long time. The late Mr Darcy had been a generous contributor to its arcades all his life and the present bishop hoped the son would remain just as generous as the father had been, thus he was prone to humour the new master of Pemberley in whatever it might suit him to ask from the church if it was in his hand to do so, hence the licence was granted with no delay.

After swearing before God that no impediment existed for him to be married, William paid the accustomed sum and returned to Pemberley, licence in hand.

Elizabeth saw him return from the window of the drawing room and as quickly as she could, she descended the stairs to receive him.

"William!" she cried as she ran to him. "Where have you been? What a start you gave me when I did not see you this morning!"

"Dear Lizzie!" he said holding her in his arms. "Allow me first to say that you look blooming and very pretty this morning."

"Do I?" she asked with a blushing smile. Shaking her head she insisted, "But tell me. What have you been doing?"

He gave her a peck on the nose. "I have been attending important business," he returned intriguingly.

"Business?"

"Aha."

"What sorts of business?"

"Ah, curious little thing! Will you always pester me with inquiries?"

"Pester you! I merely wish to know where you have been. You are prone to accidents, you know. I was simply worrying for your safety."

"Ha! It is not mere wifely prosecution?"

"I am not your wife yet."

"And I am not your husband yet to be obliged to tell you my whereabouts at all time."

"Very well," she said squirming in his arms. "I have news too, but I shall not tell unless you first tell me what your business away from me was."

William smiled knowingly. "You know, I have never met your likeness, my dear. You seem to submit to me, and yet you master me. You smile? Then you know your game. Ah, but I like it this way." He kissed her quickly on the lips and smiled. "I have procured a license."

"Oh! You have it here?"

"Aha." He showed her the licence he had secured. Elizabeth unfolded the paper and read her name on it. She returned him a loving gaze. "I had been told that these things took much longer to procure," he said. "Now I am beginning to understand the great power behind my name. We can be wedded tomorrow morning," he added. She gave a little squeal and he whirled her around in his arms.

"Now your news," he reminded her as he set her feet back on safe ground.

"Your aunt has come."

"My aunt? Again?"

"I mean Lady Matlock. She brought me a present," she said with a broad grin.

"Has she? I take it that you like it very well."

Elizabeth nodded. "A wedding dress, made of fine silver silk."

"How attentive of her! I wonder where she obtained a wedding dress on such short notice?"

"It was hers! I have already tried it on and it only needs minor adjustments. Now the only thing I need is a bonnet."

Darcy shook his head. "I can think of another thing you will be in need of," he said as he produced a lovely wedding band from his pocket. "Here," he said holding it with his right hand. With his left hand he took her right hand and slipped the ring onto her ring finger and then placed a kiss on it. "Tomorrow I shall change it to your left hand."

"Thank you," she said with great emotion. "It is a lovely ring. However..."

"Yes?"

"Perhaps I shall have to wear it on my right hand for longer than you propose."

"Why is that?"

"I should like mama and papa and my sisters to attend my wedding."

"I see."

"There is no need for us to hurry now that we...that we have..."

"We shall wait a few days if that is what you wish," he interrupted her. She nodded twice blushing deeply. The date of their wedding was settled for the next day after the Bennet's arrival at Pemberley.

Chapter 34

If there was something Rose enjoyed in her job as a chamber-maid at Pemberley it was the fine view of her master which she was afforded from time to time as he lay sleeping in bed of a summer morning. He probably suffered excessively under the hot summer weather for he usually slept in quite awkward postures, legs entangled in the sheets and quilt as though he had spent the whole night tossing and turning. This, of course, was to the advantage of the young maid's eyes, which could feast on the sight of the master's superb torso and fine legs more often and more at leisure than it was prudent for an innocent to do. However, since the winter season had brought the coldest nights in memory, the master no longer slept half uncovered but took to keep himself under a good number of quilts thus hindering the young maid's guilty pleasure.

Be as it may, Rose could not complain, even when she would be deprived from such a fine view for a while. On the whole, Rose's task was decidedly simple, and she performed it tolerably well. Every morning she was to add wood and coal to the dying fire till she had a good blaze. Then she was to draw up the draperies to let the morning sun slowly awake the master with its delicate beams and then leave the bedchamber unnoticed to go to fold the linen in the ante chamber.

All the assigned tasks were always performed with great delicacy and perfectly silent movements, and that day was no exception. However, this time, unlike her customary routine, her gaze did not stray to take a naughty peek of the handsome form of the sleeping gentleman because she knew perfectly well that nothing but a bit of his scalp would be visible given the freezing weather.

As usual, she crept into the ante chamber avoiding the smallest of noises lest the master should wake up, and lingered there, unfolding the towels for the master's morning shave. As she was at this simple task, she thought there was something amiss in the air. Coming from the bedchamber, she heard a strange fainting noise, like a human voice, though she could not tell for sure since it became somewhat strangulated and difficult to define.

Ruled by a sudden rush of curiosity, she peered into the dim room for signs of the noise's origin. The room was dimmer than usual since she had not drawn up the curtains as yet or lit the fire. Maybe it was only the master dreaming, and she dare not risk disturbing his sleep.

As her eyes rose to the four-poster, and before she could discern the ghostly shadow which lurked there, she distinguished another sound. It was a thud followed by yet another one which quickly developed into rhythmical thuds that came at regular intervals with an equally regular creaking of the bed.

Bent upon discovering the mystery of the noises, and over ruled by sheer stupidity, Rose looked on, eyes fixed on the master's bed instead of fleeing the room like a discreet servant with any sexual experience would have done. She soon had a proper remuneration for her indiscretion. In the deep dimness of the chamber, which was now roughly illuminated by the quivering light coming from the antechamber, Rose caught sight of her master's fine nude form, bent over a lady who was lying on the mattress in quite an unorthodox position (all Rose could see was the lady's legs, wide open to receive the master). He was slowly moving back and forth, and his breathing seemed to become quite difficult. As Rose strained her eyes in disbelief, she distinguished his back, glistening with perspiration despite the cold and the perfect buttocks gently pressed against each other as the master's lower back movements continued, in perfect unison with the creaking sound of the bed in dumb protest of the exertion that was performed on it.

When Rose finally came to and her poor brains had gathered sufficient information from the picture before her eyes as to process what was really going on in the master's bedchamber, and more specifically in his bed, it was too late to recoil. In her astonishment, she had dropped the candle that she was carrying which ended the scene as far as her visual abilities were concerned. More embarrassed than she could ever have imagined being, she stood nailed to the floor in the dark, absolutely paralysed, expecting the master to turn round any moment now and dismiss her with a roar. Yet to her surprise, nothing of the sort happened. The master was apparently unaware of her presence for he went on with his occupation quite undisturbed.

Instantly, Rose realised that the master was too distracted to detect her intrusion, so she gathered her courage and crept away as lightly and as quickly as she could manage. The ferocious exercise which she had witnessed had robbed her of every proper thought and even her curiosity was vanished for a while; thus she sadly failed to identify the lady for whom the master had nearly lost his breath. When she reached the ante-chamber door, she backed away very slowly and only turned round when she reached the kitchen stairs, which she descended almost as rapidly as she had ascended. Then she took a seat before the fire in the kitchen where a number of servants were breakfasting and, finally after remembering to breathe, she exhaled the air she had unconsciously been holding and sat there looking as though she had seen the devil himself. However, in noticing that she soon became the object of the other servants' curious looks, she threw her apron over her head.

"What's up?" the undercook asked Rose, but she only trembled under her apron.

"Ya seen a mouse?" came another question. Poor Rose shook her head trembling like a leaf.

"What are ya doing in 'ere?" asked another.

"Rose, whatever is the matter with you, may I ask?" asked Darcy's valet impatiently leaving his cup on the table. He was having his tea in the kitchen before the usual time of the master's shave. "Isn't it time to wake up the master?" he urged her.

"The master's busy, I daresay" a buxom maid announced with a knowing tone in her voice as she entered the kitchen. Her name was Susan, and she was to be the mistress-to-be's lady's maid. She had also noticed the conspicuous absence of the young lady she would be assisting when she entered the mistress's chamber to do her job.

"Busy?" asked the valet, still a little puzzled.

The fat girl nodded. "Aye. He won't be disturbed." Having said that she sat at the table to break her fast with a nonchalant expression on her face.

"For Heaven's sake, he will not be fit to be seen without his shave!" exclaimed the valet.

" 'e will want 'is shave later, Aye imagine," Susan replied.

The Master's valet was beginning to become properly angry with this girl who was meddling in his affairs. Was it not his job to look after the master?

"I say, I am the Master's valet, therefore I decide whether he will..."

"Miss is with him," Susan said bluntly with a wag of her brows.

"Is she really?" asked cook with astonished eyes.

Rose pulled her apron off her head and nodded emphatically in complete agreement with Susan's statement. She became exceedingly red in the face.

"But they are yet to be married!" cried another chamber maid as if she were the mother of the bride.

Susan shrugged. "Does it matter all that much? They will be married anyway," she argued.

"What is all this rattling in the kitchen?" Mr Reynolds barked as he entered the kitchen clapping his hands. "There will be a wedding here soon, and I am sure we all have aplenty to do today. Mrs Reynolds is in town and has left a list of things to be done here."

"What I will do with the master's tea? He likes his muffins warm. They will be spoiled if he does not eat them now," argued cook with frustration.

"Shall I take a tray to his room?" Rose suggested.

"Oh, won't he be pleased to see you?" Susan returned with sarcasm as she abandoned her tea half drunk.

"What nonsense! Have you lost you mind?" scolded the valet.

"What about the muffins?" whined cook.

"Oh, hang your muffins! He will gladly eat whatever is at hand later, I grant you," replied the valet.

"No more of your gossip!" cried Mr Reynolds. "Now, what are you waiting for? There are other guests to attend and a whole house to clean. Get on your feet now! Off you go, off you go!"

And they all did just that. Only there was excessive giggling and tittering in the halls as the chamber maids were at their usual tasks that day. They used their tongues more effectively than their brooms, I wager. Before long, every young maid had passed the news to some other, until every servant, from the steward to the humble stable boy, both in Pemberley and Matlock, had heard about the shocking nightly activities of the master.

~ * ~

The next morning was the eve of the grand Twelfth night ball which was to be held at Matlock. At Pemberley, Mr Darcy and his guests sat cosily at the breakfast table in front of a cheerful fire. Conversation was not scarce; the main topic was the ball and the many details that necessarily preceded an assembly of that kind such as the design of new gowns and the availability of dance partners.

Mr and Miss Bingley, however, were quite subdued, though they made great efforts to keep the appearance that everything was perfectly normal. In truth they were both silently suffering, though each of them had his own motive.

On the one hand, Mr Bingley was, indeed, quite sorrowful, yet he knew that no one but himself had inflicted the pain, since he had ruined his chances with Miss Bennet the moment his resistance had caved in under the influence of his sisters and he had fled Hertfordshire.

On the other hand, Miss Bingley's brain was in a dreadful riot. Her confusion regarding the presence of the Miss Bennets was almost scandalous. What puzzled her most was Miss Elizabeth's new station as Mr Darcy's betrothed, an elevation which had been always been set aside for herself. Such a dreadful loss was almost impossible to grasp for the lady. When all this could have happened, she wondered in severe puzzlement which robbed her of any appetite.

Jane, though not half as concerned as the rest of the guests, was also undergoing a little battle within herself. She was conscious of the attentions Colonel Fitzwilliam had been bestowing on her, found him quite pleasing and imagined that he would eventually ask her permission to court her. Yet, at the same time, she could not help wondering at the pain which was written on Mr Bingley's face as he watched her intercourse with the colonel.

Mr and Mrs Gardiner were also a little out of sorts. They had never expected the present turn of events, having planned to merely spend an agreeable moment visiting the grand mansion. But of course, they did their best not to betray their feelings.

Mr Darcy, of course, beat them all at disguising his own torment with what Elizabeth thought was astonishing composure. She felt excessively ill after the previous night, her conscience disturbing her with horrible thoughts of divine wrath. Granted, the lovemaking had been delightful, yet it ended too soon, and its conclusion brought up pain and torture of a nature she had yet not known. Additionally, Lady Catherine's menacing words could not be easily forgotten. It was a great effort for her to believe that nothing could go wrong. She was deep in thought when a servant came to her with a letter. It was from Mr Bennet. Darcy and Jane waited expectantly for her to read it. They were quite surprised that any mail could have reached them at all since the weather had been very harsh and the roads were almost impossible to ride due to the amount of snow that had accumulated overnight.

"Papa is on his way," Elizabeth said looking at Jane, then to her aunt and uncle and finally to Darcy.

"Excellent," said he with marked approval, leaving momentarily aside any comments on the conditions of the roads. "They will be just in time for the ball."

Elizabeth instantly suppressed any manifestation of happiness and became quite solemn wondering what reception her new family would give her mama, papa and younger sisters, particularly to a ball of such intimate nature.

"Will they be welcome at Matlock, do you think?" she whispered only for Darcy to hear.

Darcy instantly realised where her worries lay, and he gently nodded his head. "Of course they will," he soothed her.

Elizabeth shook her head lightly and Darcy instantly guessed her fears.

"Lizzie, never mind my aunt's expectations. Your family is my family too. I love them all just as dearly as if we have always been most intimately related. I care very little for what the other side of the family should think."

She returned a weak smile. Despite the comfort his assurances gave her, Lady Catherine harsh words still rang in her ears.

Darcy began to read the letter. "They left Hertfordshire early yesterday morning according to your papa's letter. They must have been delayed by the snow storm."

"Perhaps they spent the night at an inn?" offered Mrs Gardiner.

"Most likely they stopped at Lambton," deducted Mr Gardiner.

"If it is so, they will be here in no time," concluded Mr Bingley.

Hardly had they said these words when the sound of a carriage was heard.

"By Heavens, if they have not arrived!" cried Georgiana. Instantly, Mr Darcy quit the breakfast table, asked for his coat and hurried outside to welcome the new comers, with Elizabeth, Jane, Georgiana and the Gardiners in tow.

The Bennets had effectively arrived, all tittering and in awe as they contemplated the magnificent grandeur of the white parks that surrounded them. Was it possible that their humble William could be the master of such a grand estate? To them he had always been but their curate-relative hence their difficulty to grasp the idea of his being a powerful landlord.

Elevation notwithstanding, Darcy was still William to the Bennets. Hardly had their carriage stopped at the main gate when the girls spotted his gallant figure standing at the main door. Instantly, a loud sound of feminine shrieks of joy could be heard from inside the carriage. William was following their arrival with laughing eyes, Elizabeth, Jane and Georgiana watching the same scene next to him with mixed feelings of joy and expectation. Not too far from them, secluded in the warmth of the breakfast-room, three pairs of eyes were also following the lively arrival of the bride's family: Mr and Miss Bingley and Colonel Fitzwilliam. As to the feelings coming from those three, they varied so strikingly as to make quite difficult for the writer to put them in words. Apprehension was one of them, disbelief and scorn were sure to be there too, but it was mainly glee, particularly in the gentlemen, which resulted from the observation of the effusive manner of the Bennets re-union with the once haughty Master of Pemberley.

As soon as the footman opened the door of the carriage, the three young girls scampered out crying as the peal of their voices was heard,

"William!"

"William!"

"William!"

In a matter of seconds Darcy was surrounded by the Bennet female gang which included his future mother-in-law. They hugged him, kissed him, pinched him in the cheeks, and tossed his hair as if he was their little brother.

Mr Bennet observed the scene, flanked by Elizabeth and Jane, the two of them sporting a blushing smile.

"Tis good I am no longer the object of their affection," laughed Mr Bennet.

"Aye, Papa. But pray, do something. We are being watched," cautioned Elizabeth with a glance to the window.

As usual, Mr Bennet only laughed away, completely disregarding his daughter's appellation to call the attention of his younger daughters. He had never bothered before, and he was not going to start then, not even for the sake of his second daughter's pending elevation to a superior rank. So the female rattle continued unguarded. Looking at the superb mansion that stood in front of her, Mrs Bennet asked with what little air she could grasp, "William, my boy, is this truly all yours?"

"Yes, ma'am," he answered with a gleam of healthy pride in his voice.

"I am speechless."

"That is indeed the best piece of news that I have had in years, my love," chuckled Mr Bennet. "William, let us enjoy ourselves while the surprise silences my wife. It will not last, I fear."

Chapter 35

Following the arrival of Elizabeth's relatives, the bishop was immediately alerted that the wedding for which a special licence had been shortly procured from him by Mr Darcy was to take place the same afternoon. The good old curator made no objections whatsoever. After all, the special licence had been most handsomely paid for and though the good old man would have much rather enjoyed himself sitting by the fire digging in the leftovers of a Christmas pudding, he summoned the secretary and assured Mr Darcy's servant that all would be ready for his wedding by three o'clock in the afternoon.

Not surprisingly, in such a hurried celebration, many an outrageous happenstance was bound to occur prior to the wedding, particularly after the arrival of the bride's conspicuously odd relatives.

To begin with, Lady Catherine de Bourgh refused to renew the acquaintance and so did her daughter. This did nothing to injure Mr Darcy's feelings in the least, nor did it ruffle Elizabeth's, but it certainly did hurt Mrs Bennet's. You see, the Bennet ladies were all already acquainted with the august personages, and ever since they had come to terms with William's situation and new-found relatives, Mrs Bennet inwardly fancied a better reception from the part of the grand lady. In view of the cold one, however, Mrs Bennet could not fathom what could have come over her ladyship which could have resulted in her behaving in such a disobliging manner when Lady Catherine had been so agreeable on first acquaintance back in Kent. On being alerted that the disobliging relative simply deemed her family unworthy of her attention, far from feeling her own inferiority keenly, Mrs Bennet decided to hate Lady Catherine forever, and she immediately gave herself over to the task of making her resolve known to everyone around her.

Mrs Bennet's disappointment and general animosity was to be of short duration, since unlike his sister, Lord Matlock did show great civility when he extended an invitation for the whole family for the Twelfth Night ball which was to take place that same night at Matlock without even having sought a prior introduction.

"That is what I call gentlemanly behaviour," Mrs Bennet would chant to anyone who would be willing to hear. 'That' is my idea of good breeding. Those persons who fancy themselves very important, quite mistake the matter."

Though the Bennets had not envisioned attending any grand assembly, gowns and lace were not scarce in the girls' trunks. Soon all the Bennet girls began to make preparations both for their sister's wedding and the Twelfth Night ball assisted by their aunt, and thus their usual pre-assembly bustle began, an activity which filled the mansion with their girlish talk and laughter, and why not their squabbling as well.

"What do you think of this bow, Jane?" asked Lidia as she glanced at her own reflection in the mirror while holding a large bow on her head.

Jane smiled knowingly, and glanced askance at Elizabeth before giving the answer her younger sister expected. "It looks very nice, Lidia."

"What if I wear a feather instead?" she asked now with a face that showed she was not convinced of Jane's sincerity. "What say you, Lizzie? I wore a bow the last time I went to a ball. Does a feather not look more becoming, do you think?"

"It does, my dear," said Elizabeth, cocking her head the better to see her sister.

"Why! That is my feather," Kitty immediately complained as she made a vain effort to snatch the feather from her younger sister's hand. "Lidia! Give it back to me this instant!"

"I shall not," Lidia responded with an indignant pout, after which a most unsettling disruption occurred. They squabbled and battled quite fiercely over rightful ownership of the feather, until Lidia fled the room sporting the remains of the wretched ornament in her hand, immediately followed by a raging Kitty whose shrieks did not fail to wake the sleeping dogs in the kitchen which immediately joined in the general commotion. Mrs Reynolds, perceiving that something was the matter with the honourable visitors, left the preparations for the wedding tea and hurried upstairs, followed by several curious servants, to see what the matter was. After all, the two girls stomped quite noisily their way down the stairs, bumping over every piece of furniture that bechanced to be in their way, and almost crashing an enormous mirror that was so unfavourably placed at the bottom of the stair case.

"Kitty, Lidia, please! You forget you are not at home!" pleaded Elizabeth rushing after them, with one hand holding her half-plaited hair and with the other trying to catch her sister by the arm. She bumped into Mrs Reynolds who was about to scold the little maids who attended the Misses Bennet, thinking that the former were the cause of the disruption in her perfectly organised world.

"Bless my soul! Forgive my impertinence, madam, but what is the matter?" Mrs Reynolds attempted to ask Elizabeth.

"It is just a feather," was all Elizabeth could answer before she continued to run after her sisters. By the time Elizabeth finally caught up with the two disrupters, they had reached the parlour where not ten minutes before, Colonel Fitzwilliam and Lord Matlock had been ushered by Mr Reynolds.

On spotting her august relatives in the parlour, Elizabeth froze at the door, bracing herself at the awkward introduction which was taking place in front of her nose.

"Why should this beautiful feather be wasted in your ugly face?" yelled Lidia as she held the feather behind her back with Kitty throwing desperate blows into the air.

"It is of no consequence. It is mine!" cried Kitty quite red in the face. "You had better give it back to me!"

Colonel Fitzwilliam and his father were following this exchange with a mixture of astonishment and curiosity provoked by this unexpected diversion. Before they could dismiss the situation as proper of the contestants' youth, Mrs Bennet made her usual dramatic entrance.

Passing almost over both Mrs Reynolds and Elizabeth, who were still frozen at the door uncertain of what course of actions to take, Mrs Bennet stormed in and with no consideration of the station of the witnesses she had, she cried out in her acutest tone,

"Oh, Kitty! Hang your feather. Give it to your little sister, pray!"

Such an outrageous demand could only incense Kitty even more. "Mama! It is not fair! She always takes what is mine!"

"But it does not look half as pretty on you!" reasoned Lidia. Her mama assented with an exasperated look.

Notwithstanding motherly indifference for her case, Kitty's determination to have her belonging restored did not waver. "Give it back to me!" she insisted. Turning to her mother she demanded justice as she stomped her feet, "Mama! Tell her it is mine!"

"Oh, hush, Kitty. Let your sister have it!"

"But it is mine!"

"If I may say something..." interrupted a man's voice from behind. Had it been Mr Bennet's voice, the reader can be sure that none of the contestants would have bothered to pay the smallest heed. On being William's voice, however, the reaction was quite different.

They all turned round to find their beloved William returning them a knowing look. "My dear Lidia," he said never abandoning a smile on his face, "will you not give that feather to me?" Lidia hesitated at first and then, biting her bottom lip, she surrendered it to William who thanked her with a nod of his handsome head.

Kitty's face lit up with glorious triumph, but alas! instead of restoring the feather to its rightful owner, William all but discarded it, yet he immediately gestured a manservant who promptly entered bearing four hat boxes in his arms. Silence of sheer incomprehension reigned for a while. All the flummoxed ladies were too occupied watching the entrance of the boxes in agitated awe to dare utter a word.

"May I be so bold as to request your wearing these bonnets for today's ceremony?" Darcy said as he produced one of the most exquisitely trimmed bonnets they had ever seen from one of the boxes.

Mrs Bennet clapped her hands in glee. "Oh, dear, dear William!"

"Oh! And shoe roses, too!" cried Kitty as she produced one of such from one of the boxes. The ladies at unison surrounded the servants and then William in a flutter of happiness.

"Why, you should not have!" said Jane blushing deeply.

"Yes, I should," he said with an enchanting smile. Instantly all the girls threw their arms around his neck and bestowed upon his cheeks a good amount of kisses. The scene continued to be witnessed by four most astonished pairs of eyes (far from astonished, Colonel Fitzwilliam was exceedingly diverted) when, on spotting Lord Matlock staring intently at them, Lidia inquired after his identity in a louder voice than should have been proper,

"Who is that old fellow?"

"Old fellow?" gasped Lord Matlock. Fitzwilliam chuckled.

"Why, this is my cousin," William said good-naturally. In a lower tone he added, "And he is no more than one and thirty."

"Have mercy, William!" laughed Fitzwilliam.

"Oh, we know Colonel Fitzwilliam!" said Lidia; then to Colonel Fitzwilliam with a curtsey, "How do you do?" To which the gallant colonel answered with an affected movement of his head. To William, Mrs Bennet had the decency to whisper, "I think she means the other gentleman, my dear."

William walked over to his uncle and made the proper introductions, disregarding the improper language of his would-be-sisters. Likewise, the good natured old man did not seem an ounce offended by Lidia's upheaval. Curtseys and bows abounded and after the presentations were finished, they all gathered in warm conversation.

"How do you like Pemberley, madam?" asked Lord Matlock to Mrs Bennet.

With a nod of her head she said, "Splendid, sir. It is altogether incomparable." Lord Matlock nodded in approval of such a charming answer. However, Elizabeth thought that such a short reply was uncommon coming from her mother and braced herself again expecting worse to come.

"I understand your estate is not far?" Lord Matlock continued with tolerable afability.

"It is no easy distance, I assure you," she answered with a serene smile. William added that Longbourn was in Hertfordshire.

"I am sorry to hear that," said Lord Matlock compassionately. "I suppose you shall miss your daughter."

Instantly Mrs Bennet abandoned her affable smile and sobbed most dramatically, "Indeed, sir, I shall miss her. Only a mother knows what it feels like to lose one's children!"

"Mama, I am sure you will visit very often," offered Elizabeth.

"Will I? Will I? Your papa is very difficult to persuade to leave the house, you know. And besides, who knows where you will be? It is not a parson you are marrying, Lizzie, but a rich man of the greatest consequence. It is not that I am complaining. A rich man is ten times better than a humble parson. But you know, these rich men are never at home!"

"I assure you, my dear Fanny, that you will know our whereabouts in advance," said William soothingly.

"Will you take me with you on your travels, Lizzie?" asked Lidia. But before Lizzie could answer, Mrs Bennet cried,

"Oh you cannot know how I suffer! I feel this break up of the family exceedingly! To think Lizzie will be residing so far away from her mama. Oh, I shall miss my dear girl monstrously. A mother can never resign herself to lose her children. And yet they go away, one by one. At least now my other children will have the chance to meet other rich men, eh? They must marry well, you know, for Mr Bennet will leave nothing to his own children." She sighed. "If only I had had a son."

After a long pause during which Lord Matlock was trying to recover from the extraordinary speech, he managed to say, "I take it that your husband's estate is entailed away from the female line?"

"Indeed, sir," Mrs Bennet complained. "Is it not unfair? It angers me exceedingly."

Lord Matlock agreed with her most sincerely, and when he thought he would be subjected to a renewed landslide of incoherencies, Mrs Gardiner called the girls up the stairs to resume their grooming for the celebrations, thus bringing the tête-à-tête to an abrupt end.

Oh, the merriment of a wedding day! The servants had never been so busily employed. By the time the bride and groom left for the church, however, the silver had been shined, the whitest linen pressed, a banquet prepared and the best roses brought from the orangery to welcome the new mistress. For want of a proper wedding breakfast, Mrs Reynolds was instructed to serve an early, yet quite extravagant, tea, after which the newly weds and their guests and relatives went directly to Matlock, where the Twelfth Night celebration awaited.

Whether the newly weds would be able to enjoy both festivities was, in their case, less certain.

Chapter 36

It had been unexpectedly easy to blend in. Matlock was teeming with wigged and masked guests for Twelfth Night. The fact that it was freezing outside dissuaded everybody from an application for a walk in the garden, thus the congested interior ---an absolute asset for hisrevenge. Costumes made it almost impossible to distinguish a noble man from a commoner, least of all friend from foe. However, it had not been difficult for him to recognise Darcy. He was the one to arrive with a flock of unruly ladies, who despite the masks and costumes could not disguise their manners which were decidedly beneath those of their neighbours.

From the moment of the arrival of the Darcy party, it was imperative for him to remain inconspicuous. Turning his back to them, he faked conversation with young debutants who were not likely to recognise him, lest he should be seen and his plans ruined.

There was a brief call for silence and the orchestra stopped playing for a while during which a pompous Lord Matlock made the important announcement that the post of Mistress of Pemberley was no longer vacant. It was then that chaos erupted. Scarcely had Lord Matlock spoken, when instead of the expected cheers and applause, the voice of Lady Catherine thundered across the room. She did not speak to congratulate her nephew. Quite the contrary, she attacked him with expressions of severe reprobation against his choice of bride and accusations of treason, seductions and reprehensible behaviour.

Towards the new Mrs Darcy she was not kinder than towards Mr Darcy. Words flew from her lips in abundance - common upstart, seducer and alluring tricks. To crown it all, she reminded the couple that if they did not bear an heir in the following nine months, their name would be erased from the list of heirs of Pemberley for good.

To Lady Catherine's decidedly hostile proclamations an uncomfortable silence ensued, followed immediately by a ripple of murmur ---an innuendo of commiseration with the dowager from the part of some members of the family and even some acquaintances. Darcy said nothing, though his expression of sorrow and repulsion plainly on his face was worth a thousand words. Elizabeth remained surprisingly subdued. No doubt she was shocked, but her face betrayed more embarrassment than bitterness. The Bennet clan was at a loss of what was unfolding, having so far only been acquainted with Lady Catherine's coldness and not her wrath. Fortunately, Mrs Bennet had no time to retaliate. The uncomfortable situation was timely interrupted by a single and sonorous violin, which was immediately succeeded by the rest of the orchestra.

The whole "comic opera" had been watched with great attention by the uninvited guest, who, after the unfathomable spectacle given by Lady Catherine, was inclined to feel a renewal of interest for the new Mistress of Pemberley. To see Mr Darcy married to Miss Elizabeth ---his former favourite--- and confronting his family for her sake was simply priceless. He knew very well that the unexpected episode was no doubt a source of some comfort to the defeated Lady Catherine who necessarily felt great animosity against any Darcy bride that was not her daughter and had fostered the ill on ditnow circulating amidst the crowd out of severe frustration.

To his twisted mind, the fact that Mr Darcy should have married someone his close relatives considered so inferior -and someone who had once been under his spell - tasted very closely to revenge. But in truth his revenge would only be complete when Colonel Fitzwilliam had paid for every bruise he had applied to his face.

He wondered if Miss Darcy would still be in hispower as she used to be before. He had his serious doubts. After all she had been with her beloved brother for too long, and now that Darcy had his memory back, he must have cautioned his sister against him. His cunning eyes settled on the object of his meditation. It was expected for Miss Darcy to dance the first two dances with her cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam. They did as expected and at the end of the dance, the young lady was immediately engaged by several young men. It would not do. He had no chances to find her unattended. But perhaps he had yet another card up his sleeve.

"Lydia!" Elizabeth called out. The girl stopped her advance and huffed in annoyance, knowing perfectly well what would follow. "Lydia," said Elizabeth in a lower tone now that she had reached her. "Pray, compose yourself. You are making a scene in front of these people."

"La! Who cares about me? You are all the scene they need. By the way... Congratulations on your new family."

Jane, who had noticed Lydia's unruly behaviour too, quickly went to her sister's side and intervened in Elizabeth's favour. "I entreat you, my dear. Do not add to Lizzy's discomfort."

But Lydia would not be prevailed upon. She disengaged herself from her sisters and ran to the arms of a young man who had been waiting for her. The last they saw of her was the top of her head as she hopped amidst the crowd towards the dance floor.

During all this, he remained coiled behind his mask, sipping fromhis brandy and bidinghis time until his new prey was eventually left unattended. He instantly joined her and said in a swaggering tone,

"Shall we dance?"

"Wickham!" she gasped, but he immediately gestured her to be silent and drawing her arm with his, almost carried her to the ball floor.

"It is a long while since we saw each other, eh?" he murmured into her ear.

She smiled and assented.

"Have you not missed me?" he queried.

"Vastly!" she said. "Where have you been?"

"Oh, it is a long story."

The dance separated them for a brief moment. When she returned to his arms he quickly drew her amidst the heavy curtains of the balcony and both disappeared from view.

To be continued


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