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A Naughty Star

Chapter 7

Fitzwilliam Darcy was completely unprepared for what followed. The sudden apparition of the object of his desire sent his emotions rocketing to Heaven and back, and if you asked me, the fact that he had thought he could pay a call and get away unscathed proved him rather candid on matters of the heart. As it was, Miss Elizabeth took him completely by surprise, hence this unresolved lover had no time to school his emotions into curling deep into his soul where they could not interfere with his wise resolution to be bluntly indifferent to the lady.

Away went his resolve to keep his countenance in front of her. To pose indifference in the face of so welcoming a greeting was impossible, even for this conscientious man. Indeed, Miss Elizabeth, primly dressed in her satin pelisse, tightly buttoned over the exuberant bosom, and pink ribbons trimming the beautiful curls that poked playfully out of her bonnet, quite forgetting herself, advanced towards him, and instantly the well-known befuddlement of emotions necessarily associated with her presence entwined like a snake around Darcy's heart, leaving him disoriented and prone to babble. With a flush in her face, the lady grinned, undaunted, completely oblivious of the effect her salutation had on the gentleman, looking so fresh and pretty, that for a few seconds, he forgot to breathe.

Staring mutedly at her, nothing registered in his expression that he resented her unseemly free use of such a familiar address. What was more, he gave no sign of even registering her addressing him at all, until his lips, curling lightly upwards, murmured in disbelief, "Miss El...?"

Yes, it was her. My, my. He could go to the deuce for that woman! How unfortunate that she was so beneath his station! Eyes widening minutely, a mesmerized Darcy watched her step forward, the most beautiful grin adorning her pink face.

As she drew nearer, he observed that there was something about her that was not at all in keeping with her usual self. The hair, it was differently done. She did not have her curls up into a bun, but more loosely tied, leaving the jet coils at the mercy of the gentle morning breeze... And that bonnet with the pink lace... That was also new. He sighed. Not only did Miss Elizabeth look remarkably well, but she also smelled exceedingly good. What was it? Not lavender, no. It was something else... She smelled like... home.

Having been thrown into a considerable state of excitement, he belatedly recollected his resolve of long and fought for steadiness, yet her figure, her voice, her scent had already unleashed a little storm within his pantaloons. Had he even fleetingly imagined that he was attracted to his friend Bingley, he would have lost faith in the survival of the species.

Miss Elizabeth's comportment did not pass unnoticed to her sisters. "Lizzy!" a sober Jane muttered under her breath in vain, endeavouring to check her sister's forwardness. But Miss Elizabeth, completely disregarding Miss Bennet's pledge, advanced a little more, fluttering eyelashes at Darcy in a most frivolous manner.

Darcy mumbled something unintelligible as well, sounding too much like "Good God," but said in a way that seemed to be pleading the Almighty for mercy, since the little shrew that was Miss Eliza seemed to have noticed he was completely under her bewitching charm. Indeed, far from taking offence, Lizzy's calling him simply Darcy did nothing but excite a most exhilarating sensation of intimacy between them. Lord, she had such power over him! How could he possibly adhere to mere civilities when his whole body was crying blue murder his desire for her!

Abashment notwithstanding, etiquette wanted him on two legs, so he descended the security of the box, and against all odds, stood erect beside the carriage. "Good morning," he said, fighting his discomposure with bravery, gulping his own saliva for want of water to relieve the sudden dryness in his throat.

From her unexpected emplacement, the real Miss Elizabeth watched the scene not a little shocked. The perspective that her - if awkward - position afforded, allowed her only to see Mr Darcy's profile, but it was enough for her to notice that something was amiss with him. If she had made up that Darcy was a little pale a moment ago, now his pallor would have proved her absolutely sincere. She could also see that he was completely overtaken with something that could not be called other than embarrassment.

Meanwhile, Mr Darcy was still struggling to recover his wits when Miss Elizabeth, placing a pretty little hand on her brow, and brushing a stray lock with a pretty little finger, reached the spot where Darcy still stood frozen, blocking the sun, and said aloud, "Were you coming to Longbourn? I see you were. This is a most delightful coincidence!"

Did she not just say she was delighted to see him? Was not a sweet-tempered and charmingly amiable Miss Elizabeth a little strange? Since when was Miss Elizabeth more than civil towards him? To be sure, he had never seen her acting complying and simpering for the duration of their acquaintance.

To complete his bewilderment, Miss Elizabeth patting his shoulder in a gesture that spoke of old comradeship, said, "We were on our way to Netherfield Park, but you, my friend, have saved us all the trouble." Then she leant a little to whisper only for Darcy to hear, "Good God, Darcy! 'Tis so fortunate that you have come! You cannot imagine how uncomfortable it is to walk in these stays..."

Darcy, highly astonished, darted a quick, quizzical glance at Elizabeth, who from her spot, and catching the meaning of Mr Darcy's look, shrugged her shoulders, feigning herself clueless as to her copy's bizarre comportment.

"Indeed, madam," he said, trying to forgo her gross trespass. "It would have been most unfortunate if you had to walk all the way to Netherfield, again."

"Again?"

"Yes."

"So you have not figured it out, eh? I would have thought you more intelligent, Darcy." Mr Darcy measured his charming interlocutor with a shrewd look. Apparently, he was far from 'figuring it out.' "It is me, you goose," continued Bingley. "Can you not see?"

Indeed, he could not.

"I am sorry, Miss Elizabeth, I fail to comprehend..."

"No, not Miss Elizabeth," he said, tossing the prettily adorned head. "It is me. Your best friend!" he hissed in the lowest voice.

What Darcy did comprehend was that the infectious nature of his friend's malady was indeed very dangerous. Now Miss Elizabeth had fallen ill too!

"Is not it incredible? Would you have believed it if someone told you the story, eh Darcy? By Jove, I am sure I would not have! But here I am. Look at me. Miss Bennet herself helped me into this frock. It is a little tight, especially here (he touched the front of the dress where it pushed her bosom upwards). I can hardly breathe, you know. But I think it helps the figure, do not you think so? Was it not you who said that Miss Elizabeth had a light, pleasing, figure?" Giving a little turn, she added, "What say you? Have I your approval?"

That was it. Fitzwilliam Darcy flushed quite red. Her open mentioning of his admiration proved that if not completely deranged, Miss Elizabeth was well aware of her power over him, and had made up her mind to use it against him. Good Lord. He sincerely hoped he had not created any sort of undesired expectations. His family would never approve such an alliance. Neither would the object of his admiration, for that matter, but of that he could not yet know.

However, Mr Bingley's over confidence in Mr Darcy's brains might have well been subject of scientific investigation, for he was absolutely persuaded that Darcy could recognise him under Miss Elizabeth's skin, thus he persevered in teasing him,

"Good Lord! How tall you seem from this perspective! This will not do, Darcy," and he endeavoured to stand on tiptoes by his side, measuring Miss Elizabeth's height with Darcy's, brushing his hands, and legs, and whatnot with several other parts of Miss Elizabeth's graceful body, driving Mr Darcy's to excessive distraction.

As it was, all that brushing by her hands and the like was taking a toll on Darcy's sensibilities. If truth might be told, ever since he had spotted Miss Elizabeth, Mr Darcy had been doing all he could to prevent a certain muscle from tightening, but now, after so much thrashing about, it was happening without him, on its own accord, as unavoidably and vigorously as sternutation. He could only be grateful that he had wisely changed his tight riding breeches for these looser pantaloons, more appropriate for visiting the lady whose mere look had so many times undone him on previous occasions. With a sudden movement, he placed his hat, which he mercifully sported in his left hand, upon the front of his trousers, and endeavoured to maintain calmness until his sensibilities subdued.

To this effect, it was imperative that he get away from the source of his present disturbance. Accordingly, he bowed respectfully towards his fair interlocutor, and mumbling to himself, he turned to greet the rest of the ladies, who still stood dumfounded, watching the theatrics their otherwise sober sister was making.

Meanwhile, another storm was taking place on the phaeton. On hearing the first words that escaped Mr Bingley's lips, Elizabeth Bennet, still lying undetected, behind the seat, quickly came to the logical conclusion that such stupidity combined with over-familiarity towards Mr Darcy could only come from one person. Thus she wagered that Mr Bingley must necessarily be the inhabitant of her body. She sighed in relief. Mr Bingley seemed to be able to explain what had happened to them, since he did not look nervous in the least. Surely that was a good sign.

Bent on those ruminations, she was caught by surprise when her impersonation made the unfortunate comments regarding her stays, measurements and appeal to the stiff Mr Darcy, whose countenance, on hearing her, had gone as red as a beetroot.

Of course, such words coming from her own mouth did not fail to disturb her. She could not begin to imagine what Mr Darcy might be thinking of her. "Good heavens! He will think me a most determined flirt!" she thought, and just as Mr Darcy directed himself to greet her sisters, she let out a gasp of apprehension which necessarily drew everybody's attention to her.

"Mr Bingley!" was all the girls said, yet it was said in a manner that caused poor Elizabeth's heart skip a beat.

Bingley's eyes swiftly drifted where the gasp had been elicited, and he was instantly arrested with a most bizarre vision. Though already of the suspicion that Miss Elizabeth had somehow found a way to take possession of his body, nonetheless, the unexpected sight gave him the shock of his life. It was as if he was looking at himself through a strange magic mirror. Had he not noticed that Elizabeth was staring back at him with a similar look of terror upon his countenance, he might have given a little shriek.

Unable to utter a word, Mr Bingley's face mirrored Elizabeth's befuddlement. It was evident that Elizabeth was at least as baffled as he was. An absurd silence ensued. Soon both of them were enthralled in mystified confusion as they observed each other.

"It is you..." Elizabeth said, trying to carefully select the words.

Bingley blinked twice in confusion. "Yes," he finally said.

"It is me," she said, still endeavouring to speak in code in front of the others.

"Ah... good morning, Mr Bingley?" said Bingley, finally regaining some composure.

"Good Morning, madam. I hope you have had a pleasant rest?"

"Yes, I have... I mean ... Yes...Mr Bingley" said he, shifting on his feet a great deal.

"Good morning," Elizabeth said now, bowing respectfully to all the ladies, but her eyes inevitably returned to Bingley. "I am sorry I... I had a little accident... I ... fell from the box..." As she explained Mr Bingley's preposterous location, she abandoned the phaeton and stood close to Bingley.

"How are you this morning...Miss Elizabeth?"

"Very well, I thank you, Mr Bingley." replied Mr Bingley, this time with a smile on his face, beginning to enjoy what he considered a funny banter. "I am well. I ... hope you are... well too."

"Yes, I am, Miss Elizabeth."

"I am happy to hear that, Mr Bingley. Ah..." he turned around, and then turned back again to look meaningfully at Elizabeth, "You were coming to Longbourn with Mr Darcy?"

"Mmm... Yes. I have something I ..."

"I believe we must... ah... I would very much like to... ah... to... mm..."

"By all means," answered Elizabeth. "Shall we?"

Ever absentmindedly, and a little awkwardly, Bingley, still unused to lady's manners, offered Elizabeth the crook of his arm, which she, in being infinitely more intelligent than her counterpart, refused, yet she gallantly offered hers.

Bingley hesitated for a moment, confused, then remembering he was not supposed to display gentlemanly behaviour, gave a forced giggle. Then glancing towards Darcy and shrugging her shoulders just a little, winked at him before gingerly putting a delicate hand on Mr Bingley's arm and, leaving all the rest in absolute wonder, walked away with him.

Chapter 8

As Darcy watched Bingley take Elizabeth away, he was assaulted by a foreign feeling of helplessness as well as a desperate necessity to follow his friend which combined to greatly disturb his usually self contained manner. In the end his better judgment offered him soberer counsel and, after an agonizing struggle, he followed him not. Instead, he tarried around, sulking and brooding, still holding his hat, uncertain whether to leave Charles by himself or wait for him to return.

Like Mr Darcy, the Misses Bennets were unsure of how to proceed as well. A general silence pervaded the air. Each was thoughtful.

Miss Bennet was standing a little behind, her face down. Darcy stole a sly look at her, to see how she bore his friend's comportment, with the expectation of her decamping at any minute for sheer embarrassment since Bingley's slight of her had been abominably evident. He thought she had a most dejected face, surely stemming from extreme astonishment, and if Darcy must judge from her complexion, her mind was not very differently engaged as his. Darcy sighed, his eyes never abandoning Miss Bennet's face. Such was Darcy's distraction in observing her, that he did not notice Miss Bennet returning his gaze with the same quizzical look as if she were wondering as to his meaning in so beholding her. Chastised by her wordless enquiry, he averted his eyes and endeavoured to direct his gaze elsewhere.

If only Darcy had a little more intimacy with Miss Bennet, he could ask her to walk with him and follow the infamous pair to see what they were up to.

He was barely holding his reins, prodding the ground with the tip of his tough Hessian boots. Lydia, Kitty and Mary observed him from afar.

"O, well! And here I had thought Mr Bingley was sweet on Jane!!" sighed Lydia.

"What shall we do now?" wondered Mary aloud.

"I shall walk to Meryton," declared Lydia

"What about Lizzy?" asked a concerned Jane coming out of her trance.

"Lizzy looks very well to me," giggled Kitty.

"What about Mr Darcy? He does not look very well," Mary remarked in a whisper.

"Yes, he looks very upset," said Kitty in a similar tone.

"I do not know and I could not care less. He is nothing to us," declared Lydia.

"I am sure if you ask him Mr Darcy will kindly offer his phaeton to take us to Aunt Phillips's," Mary, who was not keen on walking, suggested.

"You are not proposing that Mr Pompous takes us to Meryton," Kitty rudely hissed into her sister's ear.

"Lord, no! I would much rather kill myself. We are determined to walk, are we not?" she asked prodding Kitty with her elbow. Kitty nodded vehemently.

"Much as I would like to oblige you, Mary, I should not think it proper to impose ourselves on Mr Darcy," said Jane.

"To be sure, it is not such an effort!"

"No such thing. But the phaeton sits only two," Jane informed. "And we are five."

"Four. Lizzy is with Mr Bingley..." Lydia pointed out.

"Four, five...we are too many," Jane said beginning to lose composure.

"In that case, I would propose we ride and Kitty and Lydia walk," said Mary.

"No, pray go you. I shall linger here in case Lizzy returns."

"But Jane... Mr Darcy..."

"I shall be well," she declared. The truth was that she was hoping to get an opportunity to talk to Mr Darcy alone.

When Lydia saw her sister Jane's inclination to stay with Mr Darcy, she let out a snort and chuckled, "Jane! It seems very odd that you should be left with Mr Darcy instead of Mr Bingley!"

After a moment's embarrassment, Jane disabused her sister from her inclination to see a love match everywhere. "Go now," she said a little more seriously.

At length, the girls walked away, not bothering to offer an explanation to the sulking gentleman that they left in their sister's company. Miss Bennet, on her part, retreated behind a tree to afford space for Mr Darcy, who was pacing hither and thither like a caged cat. Very present in her mind was Lizzy's confession that Mr Darcy was ...enamoured of her sister Elizabeth. Granted, it all seemed very odd yet Mr Darcy was presently showing every symptom in those suffering from the pleasing plague.

Now Jane was even more puzzled by her sister's strange comportment. 'What can Lizzy's design be in leaving with Mr Bingley? Is it perhaps that she is trying to secure Mr Darcy by making him jealous? If that is the case, then why has she never told me of her feelings for the gentleman before? Does she not foresee that I will suffer as well? What can they possible have to say to each other so secretly? Why will Mr Bingley desire my sister's company instead of mine?

After a while, Jane no longer could contain herself, and coughing lightly, she approached Mr Darcy and asked him, "Mr Darcy, would you oblige me?"

"I beg your pardon, Miss Bennet. I was not paying attention," he said coming out of his ruminations.

"I have a sudden desire to take a walk around the shrubbery. Would you be so kind and ...?"

"Yes!" he said brightening up. "I mean. Of course, Miss Bennet. It will be my pleasure."

Jane smiled triumphantly. It had been quite an accomplishment for her to have gathered courage to speak. "I am very much obliged to you, sir," she said.

Darcy offered her the crook of his arm, and with considerable haste they proceeded to walk in the direction Mr Bingley and Miss Elizabeth had gone not half an hour before. In being the object of their ramble merely to discover Bingley and Elizabeth's whereabouts, they took their stroll around the shrubbery at an uncommonly quick space which rendered it not much of a stroll I dare say. It likely looked more as though Mr Darcy were dragging Miss Bennet along with him to a frantic search of something he had lost.

As to Mr Bingley and Elizabeth...they had taken a very serpentine course, a large path that surrounded Longbourn through the wild shrubbery which must have been about half a mile long and ended where it began. As they sauntered along the path, they discussed the state of affairs between them and the possibilities in their future with tolerable ease, though neither of them could elucidate as to why or how they were inhabiting the wrong body. Finally, after much consideration Bingley confessed that he had strong suspicions that they had been cast under a powerful spell. Elizabeth, in being herself of a more practical mind, resisted the idea with quixotic obstinacy. She would have liked to say that she believed in a more scientific explanation but in finding none she was forced to abide by Mr Bingley's, though her scepticism was evident.

"I am perfectly certain there must be a better rationalization other than an enchantment."

"Such as..."

Elizabeth remained silent for a few seconds, in vain endeavouring to come up with a plausible explanation. "I hardly know," she said at last shaking her head lightly. Bingley afforded her a triumphant look vexing her even more. "It is only that as a rational person," she continued, "I cannot abide by such a simplistic explanation. I am afraid I find supernatural events extremely hard to believe."

"So did I until yesterday," said Bingley with a shrug.

"So..." she said conscious that she might have sounded a little patronizing. "You do not think this is a permanent ... enchantment, do you?"

Bingley shook his head. "A spell is never permanent," said he with a toss of his head which sent his brown curls bouncing like coils. "We shall recover very soon you will see."

"How?" asked Lizzy intrigued. He sounded quite proficient on the subject.

"Well...we must learn some sort of lesson first..."

"A lesson?"

"Like in all fairy tales..." Bingley said with amazing conviction. "Heroes are cast in a spell, and after they have learned a lesson, they recover and then they live happily ever after..."

Lizzy pondered his words carefully. "And pray what lesson are we going to learn?"

"Well...as a matter of fact that is something I have not quite worked out...yet."

"In other words you have no idea," she sighed resigned after which she took a look around and noticed that they had wandered farther away than was proper. The others might worry for them. "Tis getting late," Lizzy said. "Do you think our party must have taken their leave by now?"

"O no," Bingley answered. "Darcy would never leave the phaeton. But he might have come in your search, though."

"My search?"

"You are Mr Bingley, are you not? And you left with his favourite lady." Elizabeth made a gesture that spoke of complete disbelief in Bingley's assertion. "Have you not noticed the way he looked at me?" he said with mockery. "Mr Darcy thinks you are very pretty, Miss Elizabeth."

Elizabeth laughed nervously. "We see things very differently," said she. "Mr Darcy only looks at me to see blemish."

"Blemish! I am sure you do not believe that!"

"O but he does! You cannot have forgotten how he slighted me at the Meryton Ball!"

Bingley was vastly diverted by her words. He had already heard Miss Bennet's discourse on Miss Elizabeth's repugnance for his friend and now he was being offered further enlightening. He thought it would be a good opportunity to redeem his friend's name in the eye of the lady.

"I assure you madam that is not the case. Darcy rarely dances at a ball if he can escape the obligation therefore his slight of you merely conformed to a shade in his character. He is a bore. But anybody could see that his mind has changed ever since he made a certain lady's acquaintance! Did he not dance with you at the ball in Netherfield? He left us all open mouthed, I tell you! You must believe me, madam. Mr Darcy is disposed to be quite pleased with you in every respect!"

"O do not talk so, Mr Bingley! Mr Darcy has never looked at me with admiration, I am glad to say! He hates me like he hates everyone else!"

"Hate you! Pray tell me, why ever should Darcy hate you?!"

"Why should he look at me at all? After all I am not altogether impressive like my sister Jane."

Mr Bingley blushed at this. "Yes, I concur that your sister is very beautifully impressive, I daresay."

"You dare say? I have long reckoned that I am the wise and sharp tongued one while Jane is the pleasant and beautiful one."

"Why should you say that?" he said smilingly. "Do you want to be told that you are pretty too? I see that such is your design."

"Mr Bingley!" she said impatiently.

"Go to my friend Darcy if you want to be complimented!" he said good-naturedly. "He will satisfy you. Ask him what he thinks of you and you will hear compliments enough. O, your complexion is so brilliant! And your countenance has no parallel. The sparkle in your eyes he ponders with excessive regularity. And your figure... so light and pleasing!" he chuckled. "I must confess to you, I have spent a good deal of time in front of the mirror looking at you, madam, and even if I concur with him that you are vastly attractive, I have not noticed all those little details that he has!"

Such language was so new to Elizabeth that it quite embarrassed her. That Mr Darcy could have been praising her figure was intelligence not easy to process, yet nothing would have prepared her for what was implied in Bingley's words. She suddenly realized that in the present situation the gentleman had been free to look at her body -her naked body-without scruples. The mere idea was in itself humiliating and she was forced to avert her face to hide her shame.

In noticing his own stupidity Mr Bingley could find no words to excuse himself. "O, am I distressing you? Nay, do not turn away..." But nothing he could say could relieve Elizabeth's disgrace. She felt the ignominy of her situation with all its force and she wished she could dig a hole and hide herself from Bingley's face for ever.

"Miss Elizabeth...I did not mean to pry on your intimacy...I assure you... I was completely clueless as to what had happened to my body... that is all... I give you my word as a gentleman: I shall not look at you ever again."

Elizabeth sent him a shy look.

"I mean...not as long as I am in your body. But I will look at myself..." Now Elizabeth beheld him with curiosity. "...I mean at you while you are me....What I mean is that I shall... continue to ... admire you without scruples but shall refrain from ..."

"It is all right, Mr Bingley. I think I understand what you mean."

"Excellent," he said with his stupid grin. "I cannot speak for my friend Darcy, though ...but if you cannot bear a man's admiration I shall be silent."

"I think that you quite mistake the matter here, sir. Mr Darcy is my severest critic. He..."

"My dear Miss Elizabeth. Darcy admires you and that is the long and the short of the matter."

"That is simply not possible."

"If you say so."

"I am certain of that."

"Very well."

"He hates me, he does."

"Yes."

"And I hate him, I do. He is the most disagreeable man I have ever met. And everyone in Meryton agrees with me."

This time Bingley only nodded. An absurd silence ensued. Again Mr Bingley broke it first. "I only hope your repugnance for my friend is not based on resentment for his behaviour at the Meryton Ball."

Elizabeth almost chuckled. "You mean when he said I was not handsome enough to tempt him?" she said laughing.

"I am sorry you heard him," Bingley said penitently. "I assure you he did not mean to..."

"He did not mean for me to hear him? She is tolerable I suppose," she said with mockery. "Capital offence!"

"O yes. Darcy can be quite foolish I grant you, and superficial, and a bit of a social snobbery. Yet he is merely afraid."

Elizabeth's astonishment to hear that was paramount. "Afraid?"

"Yes, afraid. You see, people do make assumptions about others, particularly when one has been persuaded that one is superior to those others, by breed, by social status and the like. This ends up confining the so called superiors to their immediate circle since any relation with the barbarians of the outer spheres could threaten their reputation should they become fond of them. This is precisely Darcy's case."

Elizabeth pursed her lips showing she did not understand.

"He has fallen for one of those barbarians. He is utterly fond of her I daresay and he cannot permit himself the inducement."

"I am sorry. I think I fail to comprehend your meaning."

"That is because you do not understand a gentleman's nature."

Elizabeth beheld him in utter perplexity.

"You see, we men are very competitive. Darcy and I for example. We compete all the time. I have always come in second, mind you. Darcy was my superior in everything...until that night."

She still beheld him with great perplexity. Was it possible that Mr Bingley could be so insightful?

"Think of this," he continued with great excitement. "Darcy was quite convinced that we would find unsuitable company in Hertfordshire. Still, I persuaded him to come with me and help me find a house...and then I persuaded him to come to the Meryton Assembly ..." He shook his head, "Nay, I all but dragged him there. He did not wish to go, but in the end he did come for my sake. He is somewhat shy, and feels ill at ease among strangers ... because he is simply afraid of anything or anyone outside his immediate circle. So there he is. No one knows him. No one talks to him because everybody is in awe and he is too afraid to speak to anyone."

Elizabeth was about to protest here. Mr Darcy... shy and afraid? Why would a man of the world, rich, handsome, with everything on his side to recommend him be all that? Just when she was taking in air to voice her protestation, Bingley interrupted her.

"You will agree with me that there is not one lady more beautiful than your sister Jane?" Elizabeth nodded. She knew that for a fact.

Bingley continued undaunted, "Well. Here I am, always second to Darcy at everything...and then I suddenly engage the most beautiful lady in the salon right in front of his nose. Believe me. That has never happened before. In our circles it is Darcy who is pursued by the most beautiful ladies...but not this time. So even though he will never admit it, his pride is mighty offended. Next he looks for a secure corner and hides to brood in solitude. I come up to him and offer ... you. I say that you are the second best looking girl in the salon. Now, you are in a man's skin now. What do you think Darcy thinks of that?"

Elizabeth's face lit up. Suddenly Mr Bingley's words began to make sense. With a hint of understanding plain on her countenance Elizabeth answered, "Second best is not good enough?"

"Of course."

"You mean to say Mr Darcy would have liked to engage my sister Jane instead?"

"No, no. Darcy merely refused to dance with you because I had been first to engage the only woman he would have found natural to be with -- the best looking woman in the salon. He did not mean to insult you. It was our stupid competition. You see?"

"I think I do," she said with mirth. "I also think Mr Darcy's real crime is silliness."

"O yes! He might have liked you, but his pride could not accept to come second after me!"

"Well, that is a relief!"

"But he does like you now...he has vouched to be very much..."

"Pray, Mr Bingley...if that is true...why has he been bullying me and challenging me all the time? It is maddening!"

"He finds you extremely challenging! He realises you are his equal in wit and intellectual agility...and he also finds you attractive. He is fighting desperately against it, though. But he does admire you. He has told everyone at home. He is always pondering your beauty and wit even to my sister Caroline. That is why Caroline despises you. She simply cannot take it that Darcy would have fallen for you!"

"I sincerely think you are over doing all this."

"Well then can you explain to me why Darcy singled you out at the ball at home? He danced only once and he chose you!"

"I ... I have often wondered ..."

"O he did not mean to dance at all. But then you tempted him beyond measure. That is why he is so desperate to leave Meryton. He wants to flee before he falls too deep."

Elizabeth laughed. Could that be possible? O, but she could not like him, could she? Not after what Mr Darcy had done to poor Mr Wickham.

"I hope you will not use all this that I have told you against my friend," said Bingley thus interrupting her reverie.

"O no, Mr Bingley!" she laughed. "You can be certain your secret is safe with me. I have always said that to be liked by Mr Darcy would be a disgrace. I do not plan to tempt him beyond measure, as you said. But then, it will fall to you, Mr Bingley, for you are impersonating me now."

"O it will be of short duration, you will see. I am sure we shall be back into each other's bodies before long."

"I hope you are correct, Mr Bingley. Meantime, let us stick to our plan."

"Certainly."

"I have promised to stay close to Mr Darcy and follow his counsel in everything, and you have promised to stay away from my sister Jane's bed." Mr Bingley's colour rose as he nodded. "I cannot but agree with you to stay close to Mr Darcy. As much as I despise him, he will be an indispensable counsellor in business matters until your body is restored to you. Besides, I have discovered his company is tolerable...compared to your sister Caroline's," Elizabeth said with a smirk.

"Now...as regards my sister Caroline...I have something to tell you..."

Chapter 9

Mr Darcy got up unusually late the morning following the events in the shrubbery, having turned in uncommonly early after spending a most incomprehensible day and even more unfathomable night. Incapable of grasping the succession of events with his scarce understanding of their true nature, he was beginning to doubt his own intellect, which necessarily led him to feel increasingly uncomfortable in the presence of his friend, not to mention irremediably stupid after a particular occurrence that took place with the first peeks of dawn.

Having been too upset to stay one minute in anyone's company, least of all Bingley's, the excessive chill of the fifth hour only added to Mr Darcy's resolve of withdrawing before sunset. After all, it was only a fortnight before Christmas, and the weather was beginning to get increasingly cold for anyone to stay in the drawing room late at night or rise before praying hours in the morning, blazing fire or not.

To his chagrin, the most disquieting dream ensued the moment he closed his eyes. He was once again in the shrubbery with Bingley on their way to Longbourn, when Miss Elizabeth and her sisters appeared on the scene in repetition of the real events of the previous day. Again she ran to him, and again she blatantly flirted with him, leaving him panting with excitement. Only this time, instead of engaging Bingley for a stroll in the country, Miss Elizabeth curled her innocent hand in Darcy's, and tugging lightly from it, she absconded with him, leading Darcy into a wet and wild wooded area through a path surrounded by luscious green vines and shrubs.

The sun played hide and seek on their countenances amidst the leaves of the tall trees as they playfully ran deeper and deeper into the woods. In they ran, Elizabeth's giggling and shrieking with excitement, only fueling Darcy's already exulted masculinity, until they found a hidden and lovely spot, a dry stump of an old tree, where they sat, cheeks glowing and chests heaving.

Without ceremony, Miss Elizabeth sought him with starved perverseness. As Darcy clasped her in his arms, placing her on his knees, she became the shameless initiator of a most delirious frenzy, digging her hands in his clothes, kissing his neck as she undid the intricate knot of his cravat.

How it was that he ended up stark naked, he could not account for, but yet in his dream, he found himself sans clothes and flesh proud, accommodating an excessively obliging Miss Elizabeth on his knee. To his great satisfaction, she did not think twice when he urged her to sit astride him. Unable to rein his horses, he sought her with frenetic desire subjecting her to a most pleasurable ride. Such a delightful dream would have been the source of immeasurable pleasure for Darcy for days on end, had not an unsettling happenstance transformed it into a most horrendous nightmare.

Driven to the point of no return, Darcy sank into the confines of his partner with joyful alacrity. He nearly died of shock, however, when in lifting his head to drink in Miss Elizabeth's passionate bliss, it was not her countenance that returned his lover's gaze, but Bingley's.

Overpowered by such a horrific violation of everything that was sacred for his virility, Darcy jolted out of bed, uttering a blood curdling scream, thus startling his dog and his manservant, both of whom rushed to his side, the first to inspect and growl at the potential danger, the second to take his Master out of the nightmare. Next he was on the floor, tangled amidst the pristine sheets, hard and flushed, excessively embarrassed and completely puzzled at the ultimate turning of what had promised to be the most pleasurable dream he had ever had, dog and manservant turning an odd look at him to crown his shame.

In vain did he endeavour to regain sleep. How to contrive to fall asleep after such repulsive nightmare! He lay awake in helpless mortification revisiting the disturbing visions of his dreaming with Miss Elizabeth, wondering what could have triggered its undesirable ending. At length, against all predictions, he fell into a restless slumber from which he came round exhausted.

When he opened his eyes again, the warm rays of the noon sun were washing his countenance, alerting him of the late hour. Determined to begin his routine, Mr Darcy yawned and stretched his body in a catlike fashion before he pulled the bell to summon his manservant, wondering what strange events awaited him on this day. As his man opened the door to begin his toilette, the distinct sound of people arguing reached his ears. If the contents of his dream had rendered him so uncomfortably edgy, the day ahead promised an equally jittery outcome.

By the time he quit his apartments, the argument that had been going on earlier had already finished. Silence reigned in Netherfield Park. As Mr Darcy descended the stairs, he wondered where everybody might be. To his surprise, he thought he saw Bingley's man coming out fromof the dinning room. Perchance Bingley was still breakfasting.

Although his spirit rouse with the prospect of breakfast, however late, the mere idea of facing his friend after his strange dream, filled Darcy with deep revulsion. He could not wipe Bingley's face full of stupefaction as he was being subjected to Darcy's passionate love-making.

And there Charles was...reading?

Indeed. Bingley's face was mysteriously hidden behind the London Gazette.

Has the whole world turned upside down? Next thing I shall be finding pleasure in dancing.

Albeit almost shocked by Bingley's occupation, Mr Darcy approached the table to help himself to coffee, all the time turning a suspicious eye on Bingley, and muttering a casual good morning to his friend, which was answered with equal warmth. He ventured to the window holding his cup of coffee, in his usual insufferable fashion when upset and unwilling to converse. From his spot, he could easily follow Bingley's movements, which were uncommonly stable and unusually indifferent to his presence.

It was then that he spied a curricle being uploaded with trunks and boxes by an army of servants.

"Are you going anywhere?"Darcy asked, surprised.

Elizabeth shook Bingley's head in negativity. "Not me."

Darcy sent Bingley an inquiring look. "Caroline is going to stay with my Aunt in Chesterfield," she answered nonchalantly.

"Oh," Darcy said, his curiosity piqued. Approaching the table, he pulled a chair and sat opposite his friend. "Chesterfield?"

Elizabeth nodded.

"She did not mention it yesterday."

Again he received no voiced answer, only a petulant raised brow as Bingley continued reading the paper. Suddenly Elizabeth lowered the Gazette, and looking straight into Darcy's eye, she asked with suspicion. "Did you know anything about a note?"

"A note?"

"A note for Miss Jane Bennet?"

Darcy shook his head. "No," he said as he buttered a piece of bread.

Elizabeth said not another word. Hiding behind the paper, she continued reading and drinking her tea.

Darcy stared at Bingley's tea with curiosity. "Is that tea that are you drinking?"

"Yes."

"What happened to your cocoa?"

"I do not drink cocoa," Elizabeth declared with conviction.

Darcy raised one intrigued brow. "You do not drink tea," he stated.

"Yes, I do," Elizabeth said impatiently. She raised her cup and sipped a little of her tea. "See. I do drink tea."

Darcy frowned. This was so completely unlike Bingley. He was about to observe that Charles had gone through a lot of trouble to bring his cocoa from India, which he always drank in the morning, when Miss Bingley, looking quite dejected, made her appearance in the dining room and cut him short.

Darcy immediately stood up and bowed respectfully, but his friend remained in his chair as if no one but the servant had come into the room.

"Good morning, Miss Bingley," Mr Darcy greeted her, sending a surreptitious look at the lady's brother, who neither rose nor lifted his face from his reading material to look at his sister.

"Good morning, Mr Darcy," Miss Bingley said hastily. To whom she thought it was her brother, she said, "Charles, can you not reconsider?"

"As long as you do not reconsider your behaviour, I shall not," Elizabeth said coldly. "So do not waste precious time you should rather employ in packing your things."

"Mr Darcy. Can you not help me?" she asked with a pleading expression. "Will you not make Charles see reason?"

Darcy's eyes darted from one sibling to the other at a complete loss as to what could have occurred between them.

"Yes, pray, Darcy. Help me see reason," said Elizabeth in her best ironic tone. "Tell me, if you please, what would you say if I asked for your sister's hand in marriage?"

Darcy stopped munching his toast for a moment in sheer astonishment. "I beg your pardon?"

"As you hear. What would you say if I asked you your sister's hand in marriage? Would you oblige me?"

Frowning sternly, he replied, "Of course not."

"Of course not," Elizabeth repeated after him and slapped the table with her open palm as she cast a meaningful glance at Miss Bingley, who stood miserably without uttering a word like a helpless lamb in front of the slaughter. "I might wonder why, with so little effort at civility, I am rejected?" Bingley asked Darcy.

"I might wonder why, with so evident a desire to jest, you chose to tell me that you wish to marry her? Is this not some excuse for incivility if I was uncivil?" spat the zealous brother in Darcy.

Elizabeth's face shone with triumph. "Of course. You have every reason in the world to think ill of me, and I beg your pardon. It was not my intention to be uncivil. Now, if you please. Would you be so kind as to tell me if there is another reason why you would not defer to think of me as a suitor for your sister?"

Darcy contemplated his answer carefully and then he said, "She does not love you...does she?"

"No, I wager she does not. I thank you, Darcy. I suppose, then, I must congratulate you on your engagement?"

"What?"

"You are not engaged?" Elizabeth asked innocently.

"Most definitely not. I would have known."

"Then, sir, you will perhaps find it amusing that Caroline, here, would have implied that some kind of alliance was going to take place between our families in which she would be sister to yours. Or should I believe that you, sir, have contrived to lead her on a merry chase in vain?" Elizabeth handed Mr Darcy the note Miss Bingley had sent to Jane.

"Certainly not," he said as he received the note and scanned the primly written paper in front of Miss Bingley's trembling person.

"Not the first or the second?"

Lowering the sheet of paper, Darcy sported a face blanched with chagrin. "Neither," he said.

"Caroline. Will you please be so kind as to unveil your secret, and tell us how is it that you contrived to be sisters with Miss Darcy, when neither am I engaged to her, nor you to her brother? Or should I conjecture that you have written a falsehood to Miss Bennet?"

"Mr Darcy, pray. Will you not tell Charles that this is ridiculous?"

"I should say it is outrageous, Madam. Your behaviour is entirely intolerable. I am absolutely astonished, nay, shocked that you would have attempted to use my sister's name to contrive to misguide Miss Bennet in this shameful manner. I would have never approved of such a scheme, and I beg you to rectify your assertions at once, before any evil rumours reach my sister."

"But it was meant to merely help our plan!"

"Our plan?"

"Yes!"

"Madam, I do not recall ever having engineered any such plan. I merely consented in helping you disabuse Charles of the notion that Miss Bennet was in love with him. That did not include any form of misguidance or falsehood from my part. It is my sincere and honest opinion that Miss Bennet's heart has not been touched, hence in offering marriage to her, your brother would be entering an unequal bond. It is my abhorrence to lie, and I have never consented to writing this note. Believe me, it grieves me greatly that you have chosen to do so."

Elizabeth was momentarily distracted with Darcy's vehement declaration. His honest opinion, indeed. "Then you assure me that you have had nothing to do with this note?" she asked Darcy.

"I give you my word."

Elizabeth nodded, somewhat satisfied with Darcy's assertion, though not entirely persuaded of his complete innocence in the affair. Anyway, her wrath was directed momentarily towards Miss Bingley. "Caroline, you must go now, and offer your apologies to Miss Bennet," she demanded.

"I most certainly will not," protested the grand young lady with determination.

"Then Chesterfield will have to wait. Prepare yourself for a long stay at Papa's plantations in Jamaica."

Miss Bingley gasped in horror. She was so shocked she could not bring herself to speak. She stood nailed to the floor, quiet and mute for a while until Elizabeth, with arms folded in defiance, sent an impenetrable look at her victim and asked, "Well?"

"Should I go now?" Miss Bingley asked breathlessly.

"To Longbourn or Jamaica?" asked Elizabeth.

"Longbourn," she said penitently.

"If you please," Elizabeth said, leaning back on her chair. "Fear not, Caroline. Miss Bennet, as you have stated many times, is a sweet girl, and she will forgive you straight away."

Caroline turned on her heels and quit the room, huffing and puffing in agonic misery. That her note should have been discovered by Charles was nothing compared to the shame to which she had been exposed in front of Mr Darcy.

Mr Darcy, on his part, was greatly vexed with Miss Bingley. But his vexation did not surpass his surprise at Bingley's incredible management of his sister. Lately, Bingley seemed full of surprises. He was an entirely new person. His habits had suffered a most dramatic change: he read the paper and drank tea, and argued like a common matron with servants and family alike. He no longer mounted his horse, showing an extraordinary aversion to its mere nearness, which left Darcy simply stunned. Till that day, Bingley had simply adored his grey like a lady her poodle. Bingley also seemed to have lost all interest in billiards, oddly enough preferring the comfort of a book in his own bedchamber, which left Darcy with no other company than the inebriated Hurst and his equally dull wife.

By the end of that day, Mr Darcy had observed so striking a variation in his friend's routine manners as to puzzle him exceedingly. With a glass of brandy in one hand and a book in the other, he proceeded to go up the stairs to his bedchamber.

Before heading to his own, however, he knocked lightly on Bingley's door.

"Yes?"

That Bingley would have answered at the sound of Darcy's knocks was a sign that he had not gone to sleep, and invitation enough for Darcy, who opened the door, thinking that Bingley would welcome him.

One can only imagine Darcy's surprise when he found his friend seatedate in front of a vanity, curling his hair with papers and ribbons.

"What the..." Darcy sputtered, eyes wide as coffee saucers.

"What?" Elizabeth answered, shrugging.

Darcy could not bring himself to speak. It was as comic a scene as it was astonishing.

"Since when do you..." and he pointed to the tiny knots into which Elizabeth was securing Bingley's curls.

"Oh. I am only trying to fix it a little." Darcy still beheld her as though he were beholding a winged donkey. "May I be of service?"

"Of service?"

"Did you want to ask me anything?" Elizabeth asked impatiently.

"Uhmm... Yes, indeed. I was wondering if you could offer an explanation to what happened earlier today in the shrubbery."

She arched her impertinent brow. "Did anything happen?"

"I hope not."

Elizabeth smiled thinly. So Mr Darcy was indeed jealous.

"Nothing happened, Darcy. Miss Elizabeth merely wished to walk with me. Is that a sin?"

"No sin, yet quite strange nonetheless. Miss Bennet was monstrously affronted."

Elizabeth stopped curling her hair and sent Mr Darcy a defiant look.

"She was, was she not?"

"Yes."

"So that means that she must care for me, do you not think so?"

Darcy shifted his position a bit. "Perhaps."

"Indeed, she does. You were wrong." Elizabeth stated triumphantly. "She does care for me. Not that I have ever doubted it. But now I have proof of her regard."

"Am I to understand that you submitted us all to a comic opera merely to prove Miss Bennet's regard for you?"

"Of course not. Yet it all worked out very well. Miss Bennet was jealous, which means she must love me."

"I see."

"And what about you?"

"What about me?"

"You scarcely spoke one word during our journey back to Netherfield. Were you affronted as well?"

"Well, I..."

"Darcy, m. May I be honest with you?"

"Of course."

"Forget Miss Eliza. She does not care if you live or die."

"What do you know?"

"Well, she told me."

"She did?"

Elizabeth nodded.

"It is just as well. Tis not that I was going to offer for her."

"Of course not."

"But she is not indifferent to me, you know, regardless what she says."

Elizabeth sent him a derisive look. "Believe me, Darcy. She hates you."

"But she is not indifferent, which is my point."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean...if she hates me, which I seriously doubt, it is because Wickham must have poisoned her mind against me. Once she discovers the viper he truly is, which she will in time, I am sure, I shall be redeemed."

Oh how dared he! How dared he tarnish Mr Wickham's reputation! But he would not succeed with her. He might have fooled Bingley, whose mind was easily bent to his mentor's way of thinking. But not hers. No, sir. "You seem to have heavy things to say against the gentleman," she ejaculated with agitation.

Darcy looked at Elizabeth quite seriously now. "Bingley, you know perfectly well I do not like digging on the subject of Wickham more than you enjoy digging in your dog's droppings."

Elizabeth was a little startled at Mr Darcy's harsh words. Darcy's determination to tatter Mr Wickham's reputation was consistent with her old opinion of him. Disregarding what Mr Bingley had said in favour of the gentleman in front of her, she chose to doubt him, not ready to think ill of her champion. Her courage rose with every attempt Darcy made to persuade her of Wickham's bad character. With great caution, however, she dared to ask him a question that had been whirling in her mind ever since they had had their tête-à-tête during the Netherfield Ball. "But if Wickham is defaming you...why do you not defend yourself?"

"No, thank you. I would rather trust Miss Elizabeth is intelligent enough to know the difference between a scoundrel and a gentleman."

Elizabeth could not content herself with evasive answers. "I am afraid Miss Elizabeth will require proof of Mr Wickham's sins against you if he has done any."

"Then Miss Elizabeth will be sadly disappointed," rejoined Darcy with evident chagrin. "I shall not defend myself, simply because I do not feel threatened. Mr Wickham may hang himself. His sins against me and my family were not a rare occurrence. They are his ways. Soon his true colours will be revealed to everyone without me pointing my finger at him. As usual, there will be a trail of debts and a great deal of scandal when his many debaucheries are discovered."

Elizabeth blinked. So serious? Unfortunately, Mr Darcy did not say much further on the subject after this last confession. He was upset and confused. Emptying his glass, he bade Bingley good night, and repaired to his bedchamber, praying to dream with his dog. Elizabeth, on her part, had every reason to pray for pleasant sleep as well. Mr Darcy's peculiar discourse would be a subject of much pondering that night.

Chapter 10

Elizabeth woke up in Mr Bingley's bed next morning wild with happiness. There was nothing more invigorating than the sweet taste of revenge. Having succeeded in getting rid of Caroline the day before and humiliating her into the bargain, it could be said that the little lady had had her measure of retaliation upon her insolent enemy. Of course, her actions did not obey exclusively the unselfish call of justice for her sister Jane's sake. Truth be said, Elizabeth resented how scornfully Miss Bingley had always treated her during her previous stay at Netherfield Park and could but relish the opportunity her new situation as Master of Netherfield had given her to repay her the favour. With a merry tune in her lips, Elizabeth quit her bed and resolved to go for a morning walk as it was her habit while she remained Mr Bennet's daughter.

Mr Bingley's valet, however, had other plans for her.

He was standing at the door of the dressing room, looking at her with a blank expression on his face, holding a razor on his hand. Elizabeth was quite taken aback with the unexpected intrusion. She was momentarily struck with the unreasonable fear that Mr Bingley's valet had gone mad and wished to cut her throat.

"In heaven's name,"!" she gasped at the sight of the sharp edge of the razor. In being a young man, Bingley's moustaches and beard hardly bothered him. He needed an occasional shave every three days.

"Les moustaches," explained the servant curtly noticing his master's inexplicably bewildered look.

It took her a little while to process the words in French. "Ah! Rasy?" said she finally understanding his meaning. That her French was not remarkable for grammar would be an understatement.

"Oui," assented the valet doubtfully. "Time for your shave, sir."

Elizabeth complied, if not a little shaky, vowing that she could bear anything a man could, and obediently sunk into the chair with the same apprehension Charles must have felt as he set his head on the block. Before long, and without wasting a single drop from her face, the servant declared he had done his work. Relieved to have survived the razor, Elizabeth resumed her plans for a little outing and selected a plain black coat and waistcoat and a pair of loose pantaloons from Mr Bingley's stock that would allow her more freedom for her stroll.

Oh happy days! Elizabeth thought as she set out for her favourite recreation. Nothing like the jolly feeling of freedom and absolute independence! The advantages of being a man were far more superior than those of being a member of the fair sex. The little pleasantries that were a man's province simply delighted her: she could sip good Madeira before and after dinner in good conscience without undesirable effects in the morning, read from whichever book she wished and build castles in the air without interruption, wander about the house without one worry in her head. In short: she had the game in her hands. Mr Bingley's impersonation had been by far the most exciting thing that she could have ever wished for. Now she was a distinguished gentleman of the ton, had enough tin to enjoy a life of simple pleasures, ruled over Mr Bingley's household utterly and completely and received orders from no one.

As for Jane she worried not. She knew Mr Bingley would take precious care of her. However, after their last encounter in the shrubbery Elizabeth understood that while she was impersonating Bingley another rencontre with Jane would be undesirable. Jane most probably expected Mr Bingley to act in a manner which was momentarily simply impossible. Though Elizabeth had had every assurance from Mr Bingley's part that the spell in which they had been cast would soon be broken, it would be better for her to keep her distance from Jane.

In view of that, Elizabeth determined herself to stay at Netherfield Park and away from Longbourn, and enjoy her volatile position as much as possible in the meantime.

It was prodigiously hot outside. But her desire for adventure was such that she forwent the weather and headed for the gravel path and into the avenue. Hardly had she taken the road when she saw Mr Darcy on his tall horse, apparently waiting for her with some impatience drawn on his handsome face.

"Where is your grey?" Darcy asked her.

Elizabeth squared her shoulders to gather courage to answer Mr Darcy. She sighed with impertinence and squinting to avoid a sunray that was playing hide and seek with her from behind Darcy's broad shoulders she said, "I fancy a stroll this morning."

Darcy looked away for the twentieth fraction of a second. He too was trying to hide his annoyance. What with Bingley's last evening confrontation regarding Wickham, he was beginning to lose his patience with his friend. Returning his gaze to Elizabeth he asked barely concealing his vexation at his friend indelicacy. "Again?"

"As you see."

Darcy hesitated for a brief moment. At length he dismounted and said. "Very well. In that case I shall go with you. I have had enough of solitude."

Elizabeth flung him an arch look. "I thought you were of a taciturn disposition," she said scornfully.

"Taciturn I am. Only that I am sick of being tossed aside. I am your guest, aren't I? You are supposed to spend time with me. Where are you going?"

"Nowhere in particular," she said with supreme irritation. "Merely going on a long walk," she said with emphasis on 'long' in a vain endeavour to discourage him. But Darcy did not pay any attention. He called out for the stable boy and after handing him his horse, he set out with Elizabeth in her customary walk.

"There's a party at *** place to which we have been invited," said Darcy casually. He had spied the invitations on the mantel piece while he had breakfast earlier that morning.

"An evening party?"

"More like cards and sherry, I should say."

"And you wish to attend?"

"If it depended only on me, Charles, I should prefer billiard at home. But I suppose you have an obligation to your neighbours."

"I am no card player, Darcy."

"No. You never were, were you?"

They walked on in silence, apparently enjoying the views and allowing the sounds of the woods to fill in the lack of conversation on their way. At length Darcy spoke.

"Hurst was looking for you this morning. He says he and Louisa are leaving with Caroline." Elizabeth arched an impertinent brow, but Mr Darcy merely shrugged.

"Does that mean that it will be only you and I in the house?"

"So it seems."

Elizabeth became suddenly pensive. She was momentarily gripped by a superstitious horror akin to all maidens. Alone in a house with a man that was not her father...with Mr Darcy of all men! Blushing to the tips of her ears she said, "Will it be appropriate, do you think, to stay alone under the same roof?"

"How would it be inappropriate?"

"It will not do, Sir. I strongly object on my being left alone with a man whilst no other is in the house," she said. Darcy returned her a puzzled look. "I mean...for a lady to be left alone in a man's company ..."

"It is a good thing neither of us is a lady."

Colouring, she prodded a stone with the point of her Hessian. "Indeed. Still...will it not be ...unusual for us to be living alone?"

"We will not be living alone, Bingley. There is a whole household with us."

"But what will we do? It would be utterly boring."

"I believe the reverse. We will be spared the tedious intercourse of the ladies and be for once free from the inexpressibly odious manners of your brother. I believe... we can have a jolly good time all by ourselves."

Their prattle continued in this manner, Darcy suggesting various activities that could be performed in the absence of Bingley's family, Elizabeth listening with little interest until a subject came up that caught her fancy.

"Are you planning to settle down here?" Darcy asked.

"Why yes."

"Then you had better make some improvements."

"What do you suggest?"

"Well, it is a fine prospect." Darcy said turning to look at the house which in fact was already beyond his eye reach.

"But it does need some improvements."

Darcy again looked at her with evident surprise of Bingley's acquiescence. "It certainly does."

"Pray, tell me your honest opinion. I desperately need a fresh one. What can possibly be done?" Elizabeth found the idea of being in charge of Netherfield's improvements simply delightful.

"Well, I wager the house must have been built in Elizabeth's time, for is a large, regular brick building...heavy, but respectable looking, and has many good rooms...in that respect unfavourable for improvement. But the woods are fine, and there is a stream, I daresay, that might be made a good deal of. You could build a pond for trout there, for example."

"A private trout pond? That is a fantastic idea. Will you not help me?" she asked good-naturedly . It was as if their congeniality had always existed.

"I doubt if I could be much help. I am no professional improver."

"Oh, but you sound as if you comprehend a good deal."

"I have seen a few designs in a book somewhere in the library at home. Perhaps we could have a look for ideas there."

"That sounds very agreeable, Sir. Would it not bother you?"

"Oh, it would be a pleasure." For a moment Darcy had the weird sensation that he was not talking to his friend Bingley. True, the person walking by his side did look like his friend. But his words and manners were very much like someone else's. They were very much like those belonging to a surreal conversation with the Miss Bennet of his dreams as they planned changes for their home in Pemberley. He took an unreserved look at him as Charles looked away and sighed contently. Their camaraderie became such, that Elizabeth all but forgot she was not a girl and in a moment's distraction she passed her arm through the crook of Darcy's arm. Albeit Darcy was somehow prepared for all sorts of unseemly courses of action from Bingley's part, that he should have sought his arm for support while walking was not one of them. Darcy beheld him with surprise bordering in horror. Elizabeth instantly comprehended her faux pas and just as soon, she let out a nervous giggle and bade, "I think I have a pebble in my boot." A lame comment if you ask me, even when she lifted one foot and shook it.

Though the explanation served to the purpose of relaxing Darcy's manly sensibilities, still it was not a manly thing to be done. So far Bingley had done so many odd things, that even this little demonstration of weakness should not have offended Darcy. I daresay, under other any circumstances the gentleman would have fought his repulse and endeavoured to think nothing of it yet the present state of affairs forbid it.

Come to think of it, Darcy could have pardoned Bingley if the young gentleman had touched his butt in helping him onto a horse...Darcy had performed that service a hundred thousand times for Bingley. But Bingley's touch, as he pressed his hand so delicately on his friend's arm had been so feminine, so unmistakably ladylike that Darcy almost relished it. And it was precisely that which he could not forgo. As accustomed as Darcy had grown to Bingley's odd behaviour, he still could not help feeling exceedingly repulsed by this unfathomable attraction.

For to his utter horror, Darcy realised that this was not the first time he had felt such fascination for his friend. Still coiled in the darkest corner of his mind was the unseemly occasion in which Bingley, under the effect of the opium concoction, had declared him a handsome man while in a shocking show of forbidden wantonness had bent to kiss him. The worst part of it was that on that occasion Darcy had almost complied.

While all this was rushing through Darcy's mind, Elizabeth was inwardly cursing her stupidity, and after pausing a little to verify that the feigned pebble had been indeed removed, she walked on. Darcy, stealing a suspicious look in her direction, followed behind.

Before long, and after they thought that they had circumnavigated the path that usually took them to Longbourn, they found themselves in front of that very house. "Bless my soul, is that Longbourn!" exclaimed Darcy.

"Who would have said we would walk this far?" exclaimed Elizabeth. "I thought we had walked the other way!"

"We must have taken a wrong path." Darcy said as he stood a little afar, still apprehensive of Bingley. From where he was the Bennet's farm was in full view. His mind instantly wandered away to that place where Miss Elizabeth might be. Fighting the strong pull of his heart that incited him to see her again, he stayed in abject helplessness, at odds on what to do. At length, yielding to his heart desire he said, "Do you think we ought to call on the Bennets?"

Elizabeth shook her head. She did not wish for her sister Jane to suffer from yet more disappointment. "Certainly not. We'd better turn back. I am feeling tired."

"You may rest a little in the house," suggested Darcy.

"I do not wish to go down there," she said plainly.

"You do not?" "No."

In finding himself eager to go where his friend was adamant, Darcy was evidently mortified. He sat down on a trunk with a most gloomy countenance. After a brief pause he asked rather sullenly, "Why not, may I ask?"

"I do not wish to incite unwanted expectations on certain members of the family, that is all."

"Unwanted?"

"Yes."

After another interval of silence in which Darcy was processing his friend's surprising new-found maturity, "I think you might as well have told me," said he.

"What?"

"Your change of feelings for Miss Bennet. It speaks very well of you, my boy. Now I must confess I can but be ashamed of myself."

He said no more. But Elizabeth suspected he was talking of his admiration for her. They returned, as requested, however. Darcy's thoughts were now all engrossed by the lady he had not seen and did not converse with his friend as much as he had done before. Elizabeth followed his steps along the walk in silence, wondering what could have brought this proud man to fall for her so violently when she knew perfectly well that he did not find her pleasant to the eye. If his present foul mood stemmed in his thwarted desire to see her then it was most probably that he did admire her, more than she had fathomed he ever could. Yet before Elizabeth could think of saying anything tending to clarify the mystery and after a few windings of the road they arrived back at the gravel path that led to the house just in time for the Hursts and Miss Bingley's withdrawal from Netherfield Park.

After the proper farewells were given, Darcy and Elizabeth returned to the house and together they stayed the rest of the day. They lounged away the time as they could with furniture changes and house improvements and similar chit chat till the arrival of the mail tray before tea. There were several letters of business for Mr Bingley, which Elizabeth regarded with great apprehension and one letter for Darcy. While she scanned the many unknown names on the envelopes, Darcy read his one letter with diligence, many times. Elizabeth observed him with a curious expression. "Is it a love letter?" she asked mockingly as she noticed he was beginning to read it a third time.

A smile blossomed on Darcy's face. "No, it is from Georgiana." And he went on reading attentively, his face betraying not one emotion. "She sends her regards." he said at length folding the paper.

"O, send her mine, pray."

"I fear I will have to do that personally."

"I beg your pardon?"

"She bids me to come to her. I have no choice but to abide."

"You leave?"

"I must."

"Does this mean I will be left on my own?"

"Now you feel neglected?"

"You are neglecting me. I need your help with the house improvements, remember?"

"That will have to wait, I am afraid."

"I guess that can wait. But not my business letters. With you gone...what shall I do?"

"Bingley, I do not wish to be unkind but...I have been your friend for many years and am as solicitous for your welfare and your business as anybody could be."

"I know, but... I still need your counsel."

"For the love of the Lord, what did you learn at Cambridge?"

"Ahh ...University helped me acquire the inestimable and most polished friendship of yours. I am afraid business management was a lesson too difficult for my learning."

Darcy chuckled. He loved this lad like any man loves a younger brother. "This morning you complained you were obligated to dwell with me alone. Now you complain because I leave. Make up your mind, if you please."

"I do not wish to be a bother to you, but I am afraid I cannot ...I cannot bear the thought of being left alone." With an unmanly treble in her voice she pleaded, "Please do not go."

Darcy was immediately moved. His friend, though he was already a man, was still quite young and under his wing for most things. "Then there is but one course open to you."

"What?"

"Close Netherfield Park."

"Close it?"

"Close it."

"What about the pond, the improvements?"

"Like I said. Some other time. I must go to Georgiana. You can come with me if you wish. I have no objections."

Chapter 11

The Longbourn party, which, the reader must remember, consisted of the usual members of the Bennet family and the unwanted addition from Hundsford, were all gathered for breakfast in their noisy fashion. But for some, things were not exactly the same.

Mr Bennet, for instance, was somewhat abashed by his daughter Elizabeth's unfathomable change of character. So far, it had been his pleasure to join his favourite in playful banter and mockery of both neighbours and family, yet of late, when he endeavoured to engage her in said mirthful colloquy, all he found in Elizabeth was an astonished expression that spoke more of censure than of approbation. This did not borne very well with Mr Bennet, who loved making sport of lesser minds better than reading his books in his solitary library. Additionally, he was overpowered by a new terror, hitherto unknown to him. Having heard his superior daughter giggling on several occasions, he dreaded that she might have caught some of the other girls' stupidity. Of the two evils, he regretted the second the most.

Things had not been quite the same for Jane, either. The past weeks she had had reason to believe that she would soon quit her nee name for that of Bingley. Said aspiration had been taunting her mind silently yet with growing insistence particularly after the Meryton Ball, where Mr Bingley had singled her out in that he danced with no other, talked with no other and looked at no other. Her astonishment in seeing him seeking her sister Lizzy the day before, instead of her, could only compete with her absolute heartbreak, for her expectations regarding Mr Bingley had withered considerably.

Mr Collins was yet another member of the Longbourn party who was not feeling quite at ease. He was beginning to lose faith in the plausibility of his suit for Miss Elizabeth's hand and was therefore much dishearten not to mention contrite after his monstrous attempt to exact a favour from his would be fiancée, in consequence of which he was now sporting a swell of some importance on his nose.

Like I said they were all partaking of breakfast when Miss Bingley made her unexpected call on Miss Bennet. Albeit exceedingly surprised, Jane attended her visitor - thus abandoned the breakfast table - with all due solicitousness.

"What did Miss Bingley want, Jane?" asked Lydia as Jane resumed her place at the breakfast table. The sudden appearance of the self important lady and the shortness of her stay had left everybody mystified. Everybody except Mrs Bennet, who thought Mrs Bingley's visit answered her prayers that there would soon be an alliance between her family and that of the lady.

"What do you mean what did she want?" the exasperated mother asked. "She has come to visit with Jane, that is what she wanted. They are soon to be related, are they not? It is only natural that Miss Bingley would visit her future sister," Mrs Bennet said full of self satisfaction before she resumed eating her breakfast.

Jane answered with her usual sedateness. "Actually, she came to apologise." The assurance of so humble an action from the part of such a proud personage was enough to stun all the people gathered around the table partaking of the food into an abrupt silence.

"Apologise? What for?" at length asked Mrs Bennet despite her mouthful of food.

"Let her explain," cautioned Mr Bennet with exceeding mirth. "This is quite interesting."

Jane sat and after asserting that not one fork would be moved until she had explained herself, began her account with some reluctance. "Well, recently, I have received a note from Miss Bingley. It was a farewell note."

She paused and looked around. Everybody's eyes, except for Mr Collins's which were busy following the way of his fork to his mouth, were on her. The undivided attention of the rest of her audience persuaded her that she must proceed.

"The note dwelled on her deep regret on the event of leaving my company but nothing else. She implied that she was very happy for she had reasons to believe that she would soon be gaining a sister after their sojourn to London." She made another pause and again looked shyly at her audience. Mrs Bennet could no longer contain herself, "And?"

Jane resumed her tale. "Apparently Miss Caroline was convinced that her brother was going to London to seek Mr Darcy's sister's hand."

"O Heavens forbid!" cried Mrs Bennet. "What heap of lies!"

"But it seems she was grossly mistaken," Jane interjected. "She came directly to warn me for she was afraid that the note she had sent me the day before might have led to my misconstruction of her brother's intention towards Miss Darcy."

"Misconstruction, indeed," chuckled Mr Bingley who had been following Jane's story with great attentiveness.

Jane granted her beloved sister a weak smile. "So she came to settle that with me."

"She came to beg Jane not to spread a word which might harm her dear friend's reputation that is more like it!" Bingley added with undue enthusiasm. All eyes turned to him.

"How did you know?" asked Jane a little bewildered.

"Err ... it falls naturally, does it not?" asked he tossing the coils of Miss Elizabeth's ringlets.

"Well. You are in the right that Miss Bingley did ask me not to spread a word that might be tending to suspect any alliance between them and the Darcy family...for Miss Darcy's sake."

"Why of course! Who would have been happy to form an alliance with such a disagreeable man?" chuckled Lydia.

"On the contrary, dear cousin," stated Mr Collins with his usual pomposity momentarily forgetting his fork to rebuke her young cousin, and activity he cherished second only to stuffing his stomach with food. "I am of the opinion that Mr Darcy must have learnt of Miss Bingley's *on dit and must have insisted to have the saying universally contradicted. After all, Mr Darcy's connections are vastly superior to those of Mr Bingley, particularly his connection with the de Bourgh house. Miss Darcy will surely aspire to marry a Marquee no less."

"Humph!" said Mr Bingley.

"Oh hang Mr Darcy! Those persons who fancy themselves so very important are insufferable," said Mrs Bennet.

"I would not like to sound impertinent, Mrs Bennet," said Mr Collins feeling the great need to come in his protector's nephew's defence, an activity he never seemed to tire of. "But Mr Darcy's station is such that he is no way fancying himself anything. He is a most noble gentleman of an incommensurable wealth, thus he does not deserve such censure as you have just expressed."

Mr Bingley coughed before he remarked, "Besides I suspect Mr Bingley's affection is tending on a different direction." That said he winked towards Jane.

"Suspect?" asked Mrs Bennet exceedingly offended. "Everybody knows Mr Bingley's head over heels in love with Jane! Suspect! What galls!"

"Mama... I would not..." said Jane. But her mother scolded her in such a manner as to leave her completely ashamed of herself.

"Did Miss Bingley have anything else to say?" asked Mr Bennet after Mrs Bennet's protestations died away.

"Nothing much," said Jane.

"Is Mr Bingley leaving for London?" asked Bingley who already knew the answer. Bingley was having a delightful time discussing himself and could not bear talk of nothing else.

"She did not say. But she assured me that his intended trip had nothing to do with Miss Darcy."

"Of course not. Though Miss Darcy is a sweet creature she is way too young to get engaged," laughed Bingley thoughtlessly. "She is not out yet, mind you."

"What do you know, Lizzy?" asked Kitty.

The 'gentleman' in the flesh of a woman was thus caught unawares. His joyful enthusiasm in having chastised his sister was such that he was in constant danger of betraying his true identity. "Err... I ... Mr Darcy himself told me."

"Mr Darcy?" asked Mr Bennet with feigned concern in his voice. "Mr Darcy, the tall proud gentleman whom you constantly delineate as nothing short to Vulcan? Is that who you are talking of?"

"Since when Mr Darcy talks to you?" echoed his wife.

"Or talks at all!" tittered Lydia.

"Mr Darcy is sweet on Lizzy, Mama. You should have seen his face when he saw her with his friend," teased Kitty, whose thoughtless comment raised an absolute uproar in almost everyone.

"What preposterous notion!" protested Mr Collins, his pride severely pierced, which came third on his list of plausible reasons to abandon a meal for a minute. "Mr Darcy is engaged to his cousin, Miss Anne de Bourgh!"

"He might be engaged to the Prince Regent but he is sweet on Lizzy," declared Kitty.

"Well, *I will be blown! Is this true, Lizzy? Is this undeserving gentleman your admirer?" Mr Bennet asked with mock.

"Aye!" answered Lydia relishing with mischief. "You must remember that Mr Darcy singled her out at the ball."

"This is indeed rich. And you Lizzy. What do you think of him? Do you welcome his attentions? I imagine not." Poor Bingley knew not what to say. If he said no, he might be ruining his friend's chances to gain Miss Elizabeth's hand if he ever conquered his repulse for the lady's family and made up his mind to pursue her, and if he said yes, he might be putting himself in danger of becoming the victim of yet another matching scheme and the object of further teasing from Mr Bennet. But there was no help to it. From this on it was tease after tease, confusion after confusion, for they had hardly abandoned their mockery over Mr Darcy when the name of yet another gentleman would come up and they would relapse into their banter again.

"Lizzy has become prodigiously popular of late!" laughed Lydia "Mr Darcy is in love with her and now Mr Bingley absconded with her in the shrubbery!"

"What?" asked Mrs Bennet eyes ablaze.

"As you hear," declared Lydia happy to be throwing mud at her sister. "They disappeared from sight for half an hour at least!"

That was torn it. Bingley was flabbergasted. Never in his wildest dreams did he imagine he would contribute to ruin a lady's reputation, least of all that he would implicate his mentor's name into the bargain. By the look of Mrs Bennet's face it would not be unreasonable for Bingley to expect a blow from her and accordingly he winced. "Miss Lizzy! Is that true?" she cried.

"Aha!" cried Mr Collins raising his fork into the air.

"For all the love in Heavens! Tell me it is not true!" said Mrs Bennet with murderous voice threatening her daughter with a bony finger. Bingley sank into his chair and could not bring himself to say a word. The terrors that occurred to him of what this argument might lead to were so overpowering that he began to fancy himself on the point of fainting away. Yet he pulled himself together and managed to keep himself tolerably alive, well enough to realise the measure of difficulty which being an eligible bacheloress meant, particularly for a Bennet girl, and inwardly began to admit that his friend Darcy was not so very wrong after all.

Good Lord! The treatment these people gave to their daughters was insupportable! The unsavoury chasm that existed between a man and a lady's duties was beginning to take a toll on him. Add to this that he had the awful feeling that his actions might have not contributed to Miss Elizabeth's advancement in life and the reader would have a fair picture of Bingley's bewilderment. It was at this point that he began to fervently wish he could be Mr Bingley again so that he could take his leave and take Jane away from her present source of shame as well.

Mrs Bennet, however, was oblivious to his hurt sensibilities and continued with her rebuke, "What were you thinking scampering away with Jane's beau! Have you lost all sense of propriety?"

"Mama...she did not scamper away," protested Jane. She had been listening to the conversation quite collectedly yet in noticing her sister's puzzled expression she decided to intervene but no one seem willing to hear her. Everybody was too busy either laughing out loud or gasping in horror.

"I cannot believe that you have tried to rob your sister's suitor, Lizzy!" Mrs Bennet went on.

"Mr Bingley has not exactly proposed to me yet, Mother. In any case, Lizzy would not be taking anything that would not wish to be taken," Jane said visibly hurt.

Jane's words did reach Bingley's ears and the feeling with which they were said spoke of pain and hurt. Bingley felt a horrible pang in his heart. "What do you mean, Jane?" he asked concerned. But Jane did not answer. She merely lowered her eyes with embarrassment.

"Ha! Lizzy is as hoyden as a hussy!" cackled Lydia.

"Cousin Lydia! You must mind your language!" Mr Collin protested as he covered his mouth with his hand to prevent a potato from falling through the gape of his mouth.

"Lizzy, you must not forget that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable!" cautioned Mary.

"Aye, my love. Excessive popularity in an unmarried woman may not be approved by Lady Catherine de Bourgh," teased Mr Bennet looking at Mr Collins askance. "What say you, cousin?"

"Well I ..."

"Pray Lizzy. Is it true? Have you done what your sisters accuse you of?" asked Mr Bennet barely containing his glee.

But poor Bingley, who was not used to Mr Bennet's way, thought Miss Elizabeth's father was speaking in earnest and almost with tears in his eyes nodded his acquiescence.

"Well. This is indeed a scandal. Mr Collins, I must say that things being as they are I doubt you can proceed with your plans, sir. You are relieved from your suit. After all, you would not wish Lady Catherine to learn that you have chosen a lost woman for a wife."

On hearing his potential father in law avowing those words, the parson stood up and said with a dramatic tone. "You are too kind, sir. Licentiousness of behaviour of this kind is indeed unpardonable."

Such a pointed declaration of repulse from Mr Collins only incensed Mrs Bennet the more. "Ungrateful child! You are killing me! You will disgrace us all!"

"Aye!" laughed Lydia with derision.

"I must say something in Lizzy's defence," Mary pointed out. "I am inclined to think that her disposition was not that of taking Mr Bingley to herself. More it was Mr Bingley who all but threw himself at her. It was not entirely Lizzy's fault."

But Mrs Bennet would have none of it. She was determined to think ill of Elizabeth. "I'm sure you've done everything to deserve it. After your dealings with Mr Collins!" at which declaration Mr Collins nodded his battered face disapprovingly as he resumed his seat.

"Mr Wickham's also taken a fancy on Lizzy!" proclaimed Lydia.

"Oh, this not to be borne!" cried Mr Collins in dismay.

Not surprisingly, the possibility of yet another suitor was not unwelcome to Mrs Bennet, who on hearing the gallant's young officer's name felt a rush of joy in her heart. "Mr Wickham? Is that true?"

"Mama. You are distressing Lizzy," objected Jane.

"But if it is true then I feel very sorry that you must marry elsewhere, Lizzy," declared Mrs Bennet to Mr Collin's and Mr Bingley's astonishment. "Mr Wickham, and so becoming as he is in his regimentals! I remember the time when I liked a red coat myself well enough. And I do still in my heart."

"Well. I am certain Wickham had no intention to marry her," said Lydia with scorn.

"Ah, the poor young man! If only he had five or six thousand a year. I'd be happy to see him marry Lizzy!"

"Madam. You forget I am to be engaged to Miss Elizabeth," objected Mr Collins offended.

"But you have just declared that you shall not marry her, Mr Collins," interjected a much frolic Mr Bennet. "What would the purpose of your being engaged to her be?"

"Yes, Mr Collins. Make up your mind," laughed Lydia.

Mr Collins protested with great vehemence that Lady Catherine de Bourgh's affability and Christian charity were such as to his being sure of her ladyship's approbation regardless. Mr Bennet, however, would have none of it and after a great deal of argumentation, Mr Collins saw that nothing would persuade Mr Bennet otherwise now, so he stumped one foot in annoyance, threw his napkin onto the table and quit the room; his withdrawal followed with longing by poor Bingley.

"Ah...there goes another suitor..." sighed Mrs Bennet.

"La! Let him go! Who would want to marry him!" said Lydia.

"Nothing turns out the way it should!" lamented Mrs Bennet. "And now Mr Bingley, of whom we all had such expectations. Three days has passed since the ball, and still he shuns us!"

"Four," Kitty pointed out.

"I say it's all your fault, Lizzy! You behaved monstrously bad taking your sister's beau with you into the shrubbery. You have become a real flirt, young lady!"

"Mama. It was Mr Bingley who took Lizzy into the shrubbery. She just obliged," argued Jane who had already decided in her heart that Mr Bingley must have indeed shifted his affection towards her younger sister.

"Do you think he has taken a fancy on you, Lizzy?" Mrs Bennet asked doubtful. Bingley could hardly believe his ears. "I wonder what he can be thinking of! You'll never be as pretty as your sister Jane!"

"I..." he stammered still dumbfounded.

"O for God's sake!" cried Mrs Bennet with heartfelt regret. "Why you of all the girls! It shall be in vain, I know it! It all will come to nothing!"

"Mama! Mama, look! I think he is coming!" cried Kitty from the window.

Mrs Bennet rushed to her side to ascertain that it was indeed their handsome neighbour. "Is it really him? I cannot make him out. I believe it must be! Oh, for Heaven's sake. He's still too far away."

Kitty cried out loud. "He is come! He is come at last."

Mrs Bennet urged Jane, "Go upstairs, Jane. Put on your blue gown. No, stay where you are! You go Lizzy. Youput on Jane's blue gown." Bingley returned her a most bewildered look, not knowing whether to obey or simply refuse. "No, wait!" Mrs Bennet finally said. "Blue does not become you! Stay where you are. He is come already."

"Well," declared Mr Bennet with resignation rising from the table. "It seems, Mrs Bennet, I must leave you to attend to your matchmaking business. I will be in the library and that is not an invitation!" That said he quit the room and locked the door of the library behind him and again Mr Bingley's eyes followed another gentleman's retreat with helpless longing.

"Go Hill," urged Mrs Bennet in a hushed voice. "Go and lead Mr Bingley into the parlour." Hill assented and dashed to the door to see to the newcomer while Mrs Bennet rushed with her flock to the afore-mentioned room dragging a most stunned Mr Bingley along with them. After considerable hullabaloo in which poor disoriented Mr Bingley was literally hurled onto one girl's lap or another until he was bundled onto a sofa between Mary and Kitty ---and not before Jane's and (just in case) Bingley's cleavage were lowered so that the girls' assets were exposed, they all settled down in what could be considered a respectable orderly expectancy.

After the most unnerving wait, however, and to everybody's surprise, Mrs Hill opened the door and announced with a puzzled look on her face. "Err...Mr Darcy."

"Mr Darcy?" asked Mrs Bennet all astonished.

Mrs Hill nodded blushing deeply.

"Not Mr Bingley?"

"No, madam. Mr Darcy."

"Are you sure?"

"I am positive madam."

All the girls but Bingley abandoned their postures. Bingley remained frozen with his smile still on his face. "Well! Bless my soul. What can he mean to be coming?" protested Mrs Bennet. "I hate the very sight of him."

"Perhaps Mr Bingley has sent him on an errand," suggested Mary.

"That horrible proud man on an errand? I doubt he would have obliged even his mother."

"Shall I let him in?" asked Hill.

After a momentary hesitation Mrs Bennet said, "I suppose there is no help but to receive him. But I am determined to be merely civil. If only because the man is a friend of Bingley's, but no more than civil. Sit up straight, Jane! Lizzy! Pull your shoulders back. Let him in, Hill."

There was no need for Mrs Bennet to wait, for the gentleman had been at her door all through her unkind discourse. With evident distress planted on his features he was shown in.

"Mrs Bennet," he said with a curt bow.

"Mr Darcy," she acknowledged him with equal disinterest.

"Miss Bennet, Miss Catherine, Miss Mary, Miss Lydia..." he finally set eyes on the object of his visit and said, "Miss Elizabeth. I hope I am not intruding..."

Bingley had a look of such discomfiture on his face that anyone would think he would give way to tears at any moment. Warmed by the sight of his friend, however, he managed to shake his head so as to show Darcy a measure of civility. It was all he could do not to throw himself into his arms and beg him to relief his suffering and return him to the peace and quite of his company.

Jane with her usual sweet smile said, "You are welcome, Mr Darcy."

"Very well," sighed Mrs Bennet wagging her head. "Since you are here..." Sending a suspicious look at Darcy again she asked not fully convinced of the gentleman's meaning in visiting, "Is Mr Bingley not with you?"

Darcy blinked. It was obvious that he had come alone yet it would be grossly ungenerous from his part to observe that he did not have Mr Bingley under his hat. Sending a sheepish look at his back he shook his head. "He...sends his respects to all the ladies."

All the ladies nodded but said nothing more. Unfortunately, they fell into a most distasteful silence. Only the impertinent giggles of kitty and the toll of the clock interrupted it. Finally, as to make conversation Jane asked, "I hope Mr Bingley is well?"

Darcy smiled. "Much improved, I thank you."

"Has he been taken ill?" Mrs Bennet asked a little worried.

"No, not at all," answered Darcy and he immediately frowned, inwardly cursing his stupidity. It was his own disorientation in which Bingley's touch had thrown him while walking with him that morning, a rush of unmanly insecurity, that had sent him so expeditiously to Longbourn. In his confusion, he dimmed that all he needed was see the woman who had inspired his primary instincts of late and seeking such reassurance, while Bingley was busy with his goodbyes to his family, he had mounted his horse and headed for the Bennet's house. Now he scolded himself for his weakness.

After a while Mrs Bennet interjected desirous to know what could have detained Bingley at home, "He must be busy preparing his trip perhaps?"

"As a matter of fact, he has not declared his plans to me."

Bingley could hardly contain his oppression. Though he was immeasurably pleased to hear and see Darcy, after the ordeal to which he had been submitted he was in great need of reassurance that all would be well soon.

"Pray, tell him we are very anxious to see him. We must thank him for the beautiful reception at the ball. Meryton has seen nothing to it," declared Mrs Bennet.

"I will. But I am afraid he is momentarily..." Darcy was going to say busy but just in time remembered he had just said Bingley was not.

"I hope he is not too busy," said Mrs Bennet finishing the idea.

"No. Not too busy."

Bingley let out a sound which very much resembled a sob and Darcy's eyes immediately darted towards him as to discover the reason for Miss Elizabeth's suffering.

"Miss Bingley was here only a few minutes before," informed Mary good naturally.

Tearing his eyes off the trans-gendered gentleman Darcy nodded. "As a matter of fact, Miss Bingley must be quitting Netherfield Park this very minute," he informed.

"Oh!" the ladies all gasped.

"Is Mrs Hurst leaving as well?"

Darcy nodded again. "She is. And so is Mr Hurst."

"Oh."

"Is Mr Bingley planning to follow too?"

"That is more difficult to say..." Darcy answered. "I understand that he has some urgent business..."

"Oh," said Miss Jane in dismay.

"These rich gentlemen are never at home for too long!" complained Mrs Bennet.

There was a long silence in which none of them seemed inclined to fill. Mrs Bennet was busy trying to decide which of the two elder daughters the gentleman would be more inclined to fall for and therefore left alone with.

The uncomfortable moment that ensued was the worst ever endured by the two gentlemen, particularly by Bingley, who had detected Darcy's fond look towards him and in the notion that his friend thought him to be the lively Miss Elizabeth, he fidgeted a great deal on his seat, uncertain whether to jump up and declare who he really was or scamper away to avoid a confrontation, for he already found the idea of further deceiving his good friend insupportable. Thus he became exceedingly restless and made all sorts of strange faces to poor Mr Darcy that only contributed to his confusion.

As if Bingley was not embarrassed enough, Kitty decided to add to it by asking, "Why are you winking, Lizzy?"

Darcy's eyes darted from Kitty to Lizzy. Bingley froze. "I was not..." Mr Darcy flushed red as a beetroot and shook his head.

"What notion! Why should she be winking, pray?" said Mrs Bennet. But Darcy's reaction was all the lady needed to realise that Lizzy would be her safest choice. By some force of magic her second best daughter had become suddenly the object of every gentleman's attention. Mr Darcy was evidently there to see Lizzy, and not Jane. Her conjecture did not fall too far from the true, for Mr Darcy had been dragged by his own natural instincts to Longbourn on a helpless quest to take a short look at the woman who had robbed him of his sleep and quiet hours before his unseemly attraction to Bingley had flourished.

Having made her decision, Mr Bennet rose from her seat and declared, "O have just remember that I have something I would speak to you about, Kitty. Come, come with me."

Darcy watched them go with certain degree of relief. But Bingley, who had already been the victim of Mrs Bennet's matchmaking schemes, could only regard the situation with apprehension. Not that he dreaded being left alone with his good friend. Yet he did fear Mr Darcy's wrath on the event of his discovery of his and Elizabeth's deceit. He was bent on those ruminations when the door opened and Miss Kitty re-appeared with a mirthful expression on her countenance.

"Mary," she said in between giggles and snorts. "Mama calls you."

That Mrs Bennet was contriving to afford him a moment's privacy with one of the girls was easy for Mr Darcy to perceive. One by one Mrs Bennet called her daughters out of the little parlour until only one was left. During their parade to the exit, Mr Darcy rose, and vowed and sat again with all due gallantry. Under other circumstances he would have been shocked at the forwardness with which the matron conducted her motherly business. Yet under the present one, his one fear was not the compromising situation itself but with whom the shrewd mother intended to match him. With great apprehension he eyed the daughters that were left: thus he followed Miss Catherine's withdrawal with pleasure and Miss Mary's with mirth. It was not until Miss Lydia was called out that he could finally relax.

Mrs Bennet's undeniable ability was finally proved when not five minutes after the youngest had quit the parlour Mrs Hill opened the door and said hesitantly, "Miss Jane ... You're needed upstairs."

*On dit: Regency term for gossip (French for 'it is said')
*I'll be blown: British idiomatic expression of surprise
*That is torn it: BIE of regret

Chapter 12

The minute Jane Bennet quit the little parlour Miss Elizabeth seemed to lose all composure.

"Good Lord. What am I to do now? I am trapped, trapped!" cried the gentleman imprisoned in a lady's flesh, darting from her seat. Miss Elizabeth's impetuous manner made Mr Darcy start, and before he could recover himself enough to speak, Bingley, in whose mind every idea was superseded by his confusion, Jane's pain, his reluctance to confess his real identity and the general awkward situation, hastily exclaimed, "I beg your pardon, but I must leave this house. I have not a moment to lose."

Darcy beheld the lady with great astonishment. The sort of woman he fancied Elizabeth was ---collected and self-controlled---suddenly behaved in an unseemly manner. He also knew her to be strong willed and dared not to contradict her. Perchance her haste to leave the house stemmed from a wild desire to be alone with him? But why had she waited to express her wish until then? And what did that savage expression on her face mean? Darcy wondered.

"I would gladly walk with you in the park if you..."

"No! I must find Miss...Mr. Bingley this moment, on business that cannot be delayed," she insisted.

Darcy was rightly taken aback by such a confession. So she was distressed because Mr Bingley had not visited? And she confessed her her whim with so little scruple? His chest inflamed with jealousy as he proclaimed that his friend was momentarily busy attending his family and therefore unavailable. "He had no time to visit with you," he puffed, " and I do not think he..."

"You do not understand," his friend in disguise cut him short. "I must go to Netherfield Park this very minute! Everything has gone wrong and he must know about it. We must do something to reverse our present situation immediately."

Our present situation? Hers and Bingley's? Darcy thought with confusion. Or hers and his? Of what situation was she speaking? Did she and Charles already have some kind of understanding? But Charles had already denied any such thing the day before. Yet Miss Elizabeth seemed to think otherwise. Was it possible that Charles had been insincere with him?

Seeing that she would not be persuaded otherwise, Darcy fought fiercely against his emotions and declared almost with disdain, "I will not detain you a minute, madam." Grabbing his walking stick, he walked to the door and signaled her to precede him, yet when Miss Elizabeth gave a step forward, her nervousness betrayed her, and she all but fainted on the spot, plopping her body into a chair.

It was only then that Darcy noticed the lady's pale face. She was in evident despair, and he could hardly bear any woman's suffering. "Good God! What is the matter?" cried he with more feeling than politeness and rushed solicitously to her side; then recollecting himself he grabbed her little satin hand and said, "You are not well; -- you cannot go anywhere now. Let me, or let the servant, go for Bingley."

Miss Elizabeth remained seated, since she was unable to support herself, and looking so miserably ill that it was impossible for Darcy to leave her, or to refrain from saying, in a tone of gentleness and commiseration, "You are not well. Let me call your mother."

"NO! Not my mother!" Bingley did not think he could stand another round with Mrs. Bennet's screechy voice in his ear.

"Miss Bennet, I must insist. This will be for the best. You look truly ill."

"No, please. Do not call Mrs Bennet. There is nothing the matter with me. I am quite well. I am only distressed by this horrible situation."

"Is there nothing you could take, to give you present relief? - A glass of wine; -- shall I get you one?"

Miss Elizabeth nodded. Darcy dashed to the decanter and poured wine into a glass. To his astonishment it was gulped down in a second as if it contained water.

"I would not like to importune you with questions," he began tentatively once the wine had added a distinctive rosy colour to Miss Elizabeth's cheeks, "but in order to provide you proper assistance, it would be better if you shared the source of your discomfort with me."

Bingley was silent for a few seconds, his feeble mind and irresolute heart battling with the idea of confessing all to his friend. His general confusion was such that he could not think straight. How could he, he was wearing a corset.

"I am sorry I have not confided in you before. Forgive me," he sobbed.

"No, no," the confused lover said caressing the little hand yet at the same time wondering why Miss Elizabeth should feel in need to apologise for not trusting her affairs to him before. His puzzlement was great indeed.

When Bingley gathered himself, he realised with horror that Darcy had been caressing him with undue tenderness and hastily withdrew his hand from Darcy's. If he was going to confess his true identity, it was best for him to look as manly as humanly possible.

"I am afraid something extremely inexplicable has happened, Darcy. Something that might have ruined all chances of happiness for me, perhaps forever."

Of course such a beginning did not fail to engage Darcy's attention, yet he bore a look of utter confusion on his face which did not help Bingley to proceed; thus he pursed his lips in annoyance, a gesture Mr Darcy particularly admired in Miss Elizabeth and which he presently found exceedingly becoming, albeit she was now a he.

"O why did I not confide in you before? Thoughtless of me!" Miss Elizabeth whined.

She regrets not having confided in me, Darcy thought. So perhaps she truly cares for me. But what can her business with Bingley possibly be? A sudden flash of revelation came to him and he foolishly thought Miss Elizabeth might be referring to the fact that Mr Bingley had withdrawn his addresses to Miss Bennet. But why would Miss Jane's disappointment ruin Miss Elizabeth's chances to be happy? Evidently Miss Jane truly loved his friend and since Miss Elizabeth's affection for her sister was equally strong, the source of her disquiet might be precisely that. Unfortunately Darcy saw no way to amend their pain since strangely enough now it was Mr Bingley who showed no interest in the eldest Miss Bennet. Darcy felt a pang of guilt in his heart.

"I begin to comprehend the source of your grief," Darcy said, trying to sound polite and not irremediably besotted, scarcely fighting the urge to kiss the pout on Miss Elizabeth's mouth which he found so very appealing and which in fact had been his sole purpose in visiting her.

"Do you?" Bingley asked, astounded, flapping the thick eyelashes as he blinked twice.

"Yes," Darcy said, mesmerized by Miss Elizabeth's eyes. He was only beginning to discover how deeply into them he had looked. "Miss Bennet and your grief is one and the same," he added with inexpressible tenderness.

Mr Bingley opened his eyes in stunned surprise. Was it possible that Darcy already knew? Of course he must. His friend was a most intelligent fellow. He must have deduced it from Miss Elizabeth's manners! Bingley recollected quite well how femenine he looked and sounded in Miss Elizabeth's skin. "You know?" he asked excitedly.

Darcy, of course, had his mind turned in a very different direction and yet he nodded, assuming they were talking of the same thing, avoiding facts and names for delicacy. "I am afraid there is nothing to be done on that score," he said apologetically.

Completely disregarding this last statement, Bingley exclaimed, "You know and you are not upset with me? By Jove, this is incredible. Why did you not tell me before? You do not know how I suffer." Babbling words of apology and regret as well as incoherent phrases, Bingley endeavoured to praise Darcy's forbearance but Mr Darcy found his discourse very difficult to comprehend. Bingley failed to see that his friend was in absolute darkness as to his outlandish transformation. "Never mind all that now," he concluded. " Are you sure you are not upset?"

"Upset? Nothing of what happened was your fault! Or Miss Bennet's fault for that matter. You must stay calm. There is no magic to solve matters such as this. It is only a question of time. All will be well with time."

No magic to solve it? Now that was catastrophic news. The passage of time was also quite disturbing a thought. The notion of himself doomed to remain a Bennet girl for ever or, even worse, to become the wife of the toad parson, simply terrified him and dumbed his reasoning, which truth be told, had never been all that brilliant. After driving his poor friend almost crazy with his grief, he finally lamented, " Unless this enchantment is broken I will not be able to marry or have a proper family. Never! You must see that I cannot love anyone else!"

It took Darcy a moment to follow the thread of Miss Elizabeth's reasoning, but no sooner had he heard her mention the word love than he mistook the utterance to express regret for a love declaration to himself. As quick-witted as Mr Darcy was, it was impossible that he should contrive to decipher Bingley's puzzling discourse, particularly since in his blinded pride, Darcy was inclined to think that the source of Miss Elizabeth's sorrow must be related to a frustrated partiality for him. Indeed, a most extraordinary idea began to form in his mind: that Miss Elizabeth imagined her sister's marriage to Mr Bingley a necessary step to further their union.

Such a mercenary endeavour would have been enough to drive away his attraction from any lady...yet the real Miss Elizabeth's power over him was great indeed. Despite the fact that he was in evident danger, still her words did not sound of affected flattery but of profound attachment.

However, Charles's words on the subject of Miss Elizabeth Bennet instantly came back to his mind. In the light of those assertions that Miss Elizabeth did not regard him with any affection whatsoever, her present expressions of enchantment and love were somehow unexpected if not hard to believe. His musings were abruptly interrupted by the woman sitting across him. "When I consider," she added, in a yet more agitated voice, "that I can be forever doomed to this ... this form of life! -- This house ...Bedlam is paradise in comparison. And the younger sisters, good Lord, they are impossible! This morning it was even implied that I have been seduced!"

Much as Darcy agreed with her scruples against her father's household, he found the mode of her declaration a little too exaggerated. Yet in her utterance, there was one word in particular which had struck him the most.

"I am sorry. What do you mean seduced?"

"Aye! As you hear! By Mr Wickham, no less!"

Darcy stood up, his hand on its own accord darted to his walking stick as if it were a sword. "Wickham, you say?"

"Would you believe it?" Bingley exclaimed in shared astonishment. "I cannot answer for Lizzy herself. But I tell you one thing, if he had ever put a finger on me I would have given him a black eye just as I did with Mr Collins. Well, that bloke received the measure of what he deserved! You should have been here, Darcy. I punched the toad right on his nose after he kissed me! Yes, you hear me well. He had the gall to kiss me! And this...this insufferable girl, Miss Lydia I mean...She is intolerable! She began to name Miss Elizabeth's gentleman callers one after the other in vexing mockery: Mr Collins, Mr Bingley, Mr Wickham, even your name came up!"

On hearing this preposterous discourse, particularly the rich list of applicants for Miss Bennet's favour, Mr Darcy was understandably shaken. Yet Miss Elizabeth gave him no time to register the measure of her words for she continued to talk undaunted, "Dear God when I consider that! Had I but explained some part of it only - who I really am - to you! Had the enchantment been universally known, this misunderstanding would not have happened. But it is all, all too late now."

"I ...I do not know what to say," Darcy stammered.

"I know that nothing can be done," replied Miss Elizabeth. What she added was received with considerable alarm by the already apprehensive Darcy. "Please, take me home with you."

"Home?"

Chapter 13

The alarming tone in his friend's voice indicated that chances that Mr Darcy would take Bingley home were scarce. When that became apparent, Miss Elizabeth fell into deep sorrow and for a few minutes could not speak another word. Darcy, in wretched suspense and utter bewilderment, could not bring himself to speak a single word either, and only observed her in silence, unsure of what it was that Miss Elizabeth expected him to do.

He had come to Longbourn in search of the engaging wit and delightful company of Miss Elizabeth, had fancied that perhaps, if he had contrived to be alone with her for a while he could have stolen a kiss from her and begun a proper courtship, a necessary evil if Darcy wished to remind himself that he was still the same masculine self he had always been and drive away those new feelings that indefatigably pulled him to regard the Master of Netherfield Park with inappropriate warmth.

To his surprise, Darcy had found that Miss Elizabeth was more than eager to receive his attentions and all but begged him to elope with her or so he fancied, since he could not bring himself to imagine Miss Elizabeth envisioning any other arrangement than marriage, however hasty. With that kind of plan, however tempting, he knew perfectly well he could not comply. Even so, to her haste he did not, he could not, attribute any improper design, but the desperate desire to get away from the inconsistencies of a mercenary mother, the disturbing companionship of incorrigible sisters and the faulty supervision of a careless father.

"Do you think I should tell Jane?"

"Jane?" Darcy asked. He had been too distracted with his reflections and had not been following Bingley's chattering.

"Do you suggest that I should keep it between ourselves?"

Darcy blinked. "I beg your pardon?"

"The enchantment. Shall I keep it a secret?""

"By all means," he urged her, imagining she was referring to her designs.

"Are you of the idea that I shall remain like this forever?"

"I should imagine not," Darcy said, striving to comprehend her speech and contriving to sound polite at the same time. After a short struggle Darcy seemed decidedly at lost for words, and they fell into uncomfortable silence at the end of which Darcy opened his mouth to announce that he was leaving.

"You are going?" Bingley asked with a very long face.

"I must," he said in an apologetical tone.

"Very well. Will you come tomorrow?"

"Actually...I cannot promise that."

"Why not? You are not going back to London yet, are you?"

"Well...I am not sure," he winced.

Bingley's features reflected his apprehension of being left behind."What shall I do when you leave? Honestly, I was hoping I could go with you."

Darcy blinked. "I am sure I fail to comprehend..."

Mercifully, at that moment Mr Collins made a sudden appearance, looking very much agitated and expressing himself with his customary verbosity. If anyone would have told Darcy that he would have ever welcome the sycophantic parson he would have dismissed the idea as preposterous. Yet presently, his intervention could have not been more timely.

As usual, Mr Collins employed all manner of flattery to speak with Mr Darcy and yet dared to take the liberty to speak with him with a frankness of expression highly improper in the parson of Mr Darcy's aunt. But Mr Collin's susceptibility had been deeply wounded with Miss Elizabeth's rejection and his jealousy and zeal combined against his better judgement.

"My dear cousin. I should imagine you must be in raptures to be in such noble company as Mr Darcy's."

Bingley smiled weakly.

"I must take leave to observe, Sir," said Mr Collins with undue leave, looking at Mr Darcy with suspicion in his eyes, "that being a gentleman of your station, and the nephew of the noble Lady Catherine de Bourgh, you have given this family a great honour in condescending to visit."

"Humph," protested Miss Elizabeth, rolling her eyes, while Darcy only smiled politely.

"My dear cousin Elizabeth, I have been recently informed, has been momentarily the object of every civility from a number of gentlemen," he sneered.

"I am sure that must be the case," said Mr Darcy scarcely containing his chagrin. "Any man who would not pursue a beautiful lady such as herself must be irremediably stupid."

"True, true. However, it must be necessary for some to avoid any unequal association. My cousin ought to expect but a fleeting civility from some."

Darcy, who had once been of the same idea, now found the parson's incivility impossible to pass over and felt obliged to come to Miss Elizabeth's defence, and after expressing himself with vehemence in favour of the lady's suitability to pursue the society of the Prince Regent if it pleased her, he finally begged his pardon and started to back away. He had scarcely reached the door when this flew open and the whole Bennet female clan all but fell at his feet making a most dramatic entrance.

Once again, pandemonium ensued. Lydia snorted and Kitty giggled excitedly while Mrs Bennet all but threw the parson out of the room, expressing herself in very direct terms that the man of the cloth had had his opportunity with Lizzy already and had ruined it. Now it was another gentleman's turn, she stated. Judging by the vehemence with which she endeavoured to get rid of Mr Collins, it was apparent that she had eavesdropped on the parson interfering with Mr Darcy's suit. Mr Collins protested very vigorously that he had no intention of renewing his suit or marrying any of her daughters and even declared he doubted that they would ever marry given their unguarded behaviour. Miss Mary contributed to the uproar by recalling Mr Johnson's admonitions for young women to never be too careful of the undeserving, the masculine sex.

That was indeed too much for Mr Darcy. He must go and he must do it directly. Without further ceremony he made his excuses, put on his hat and, lingering only for the twentieth part of a minute to throw Miss Elizabeth an agonic parting look, sauntered very purporsely towards the exit. He was already outside when a breathless Miss Elizabeth reached him.

"Are you of the idea to leave me stranded here?" Miss Elizabeth complained.

"I beg your pardon," Darcy said, struggling to keep his countenance and softening the tone of his voice as much as possible. "I hardly believe I am doing such an ill service to you."

"But I must go with you. I must!"

What could he say that would not pain or humiliate her? He began to realise he felt too strongly for her yet he could not involve himself in scandalous behaviour. "Much as I am tempted to take you with me," he began to excuse himself with a trembling voice, "I fear the course of action that you are suggesting will not benefit any of us. Quite the contrary."

"What?"

" I cannot do what is against my own principles."

"Principles? All I am begging of you is to help me and Miss Jane out of this wretched house. I shall go mad if you do not aid me and so will she!"

That, he could not deny, was a powerful argument. No talents, no accomplishment could be furthered in that madhouse. Miss Elizabeth and Miss Jane certainly deserved more than that. It became apparent to him that far from scheming a shameful elopement, Miss Elizabeth was merely making a desperate attempt to escape her disgraceful connections and his grief in not being able to help her redoubled. He almost felt tempted to think of a stratagem.

"Good God," he cried, hardly believing he was actually pondering the possibility of performing such a service. "You must see that it would be unreasonable of you to expect me to take two unmarried women home when ... well ... it is simply not done."

Bingley could see some reason in Darcy's hesitancy to act on his behalf. As long as he remained a girl, Bingley must behave and conduct himself as one. Nothing further was said for a few minutes, and then, Bingley added.

"Well, if it is to be so then I have only one favour to beg," said he. "That if the opportunity arises or if you should think of a solution you will give me notice so that I may go away."

Darcy nodded though he was unsure of to what he had agreed. The truth was that he liked Miss Elizabeth too well for his own good. Had he been more prone to follow his heart, had he only been slightly less self minded he would have sent everything to the deuce and embraced the imperous pull of his heart that commanded to put himself at Elizabeth's feet. Yet momentarily, his mind needed relief. In Elizabeth's presence he could hardly think; his admiration and partiality for her clouded his every thought.

Miss Elizabeth broke out into a rhapsody of self pity. "If you away, you must write to me, Darcy," she cried. "You must let me hear from you as soon as possible. I must entreat you, do not neglect me or I shall have no comfort here. Direct a letter to me at Longbourn, and I must ask, under cover from Miss Darcy."

"I am sure I had better not do such a thing," he said breathlessly.

"Can I not expect anything from you, my friend?" (shying away) "Very well. I cannot wonder at your motives. You must have plenty. I will not importune you any more. I will trust to your own kindness of heart when I am at a distance from you." This of course was enough to melt Darcy's pride in a moment, and he instantly said with evident emotion,

"Good Lord, you are tenacious,"said Mr Darcy, his determination waning in the face of his favourite lady's wretchedness. "Very well, you win. I shall write. But I take my leave of you now before you persuade me to do more," and in a very agitated manner he bid her good bye.

When Darcy climbed onto his mount and spurred his horse into a quick gallop he had the most tangled knot blocking his throat. He was ashamed of the whole situation, ashamed of his own inclinations and utterly confused by Miss Elizabeth's comportment. Her professions of attachment and her somewhat impudent demands were not completely disgusting, yet he felt the need to ponder all that had ensued before he could permit himself to act upon his sentiments for the lady. Indeed, Darcy had never wished to leave a place so fervently before or felt more relieved in leaving one.

When he arrived back at Netherfield, he was surprised to find the chaise belonging to Mr Hurst still at the sweep-gate. Miss Bingley had refused to part without saying goodbye to her beloved friend. Deeply wounded as she was, Caroline could not be angry with Darcy for long, particularly after she had seen that she had acted quite impudently and in complete disregard of Mr Darcy's zeal for Georgiana. Apologies were extended and accepted and after Darcy had assured her that he had forgiven her faux pas, Miss Bingley climbed into the carriage which was instantly set into motion. It promptly disappeared into a thick cloud of dust under the attentive gaze of the lady in the gentleman's skin, who had been witnessing the entire parting with scornful eyes from the door.

"Where have you been?" Bingley finally asked Darcy when he joined him, acting very much like a jealous wife.

"Oh, I was..."

"They would have left hours before if you had been here," she protested, taking quick brisk steps as she went inside.

Predictably, Bingley's reproach was of no import compared to the folly Darcy had suffered at Longbourn, and he only heard a quarter of it, for his mind was still full with the uneasiness and awkwardness of his morning walk with his friend and his visit to Miss Elizabeth.

In this uncertain recurrence of doubts the first hours in Elizabeth's company passed away. On only one subject his mind was capable of dwelling, however, that of Miss Elizabeth Bennet's preposterous list of suitors and her proposal to run away with him. Only momentarily in the joyfulness of the company of this much more amusing version of Bingley was his mind subdued. Bingle had so much to tell him, so many plans for Netherfield. Darcy was immediately distracted by his friend's excessive interest in his ideas for improvements and warmed by his lively conversation and sweet manners. So excited was Elizabeth to be in a man's boots and forsooth in a position to run an estate like Netherfield, that she did not fail to pass her excitement on to Darcy. She actually went as far as to drag him outside into the grove to take measurements.

Darcy for his part was battling with new unknown emotions. He rather dreaded than sought his friend, yet he could not bring himself to quit his company. When finally the post arrived and Darcy read Georgiana's entreaty that he should go to her in Ramsgate, he was torn by two contradictory feelings: anxiety to be obligated to leave Bingley, and relief to have to do it. There was a thought yet that caused him further uneasiness. How Miss Elizabeth would think, and feel, and look, when she learnt that he had, after all withdrawn as he had envisioned.

What he had not expected was Bingley's reaction to his news. That Bingley had grown most dependent on him Darcy already knew. Yet what disturbed him the most was his own wretchedness on hearing Bingley's words begging him to stay. His reaction to Bingley's nagging had been no different from that which he had had when Miss Elizabeth begged him to take her with him. Why he felt like that he could not fathom. Yet of one thing he was sure. Such unmanly sentiments were not to be borne. They must be eradicated at once. How he would accomplish that would have to be the subject of further meditation. Presently, he had Bingley to deal with. Indeed, Darcy was shocked to find that, when everything was said and done, parting with his friend seemed to be more onerous, far more painful and twice more difficult than parting with Miss Elizabeth.

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