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A Naughty Star

Chapter 14

The remainder of Darcy's time at Netherfield, comprehending only three days, was tolerably pleasant, spent almost entirely at the mansion house, and he had the satisfaction of knowing himself extremely useful, both as a companion for his friend, and in assisting in all the improvements that Bingley had thought of for the house.

On the third day, a very fine day in December, despite the hunting season being over, they went a-shooting, but returned earlier than envisioned with an empty bag and a battered body after having aimed at the sky in vain the whole afternoon.

Their returning home earlier was quite providential since not half a minute after they had reached the house they heard the sound of a carriage and the distinct noise of servants who hurried to attend a visitor.

It was Colonel Fitzwilliam, whose arrival Darcy had been anxiously awaiting.

Since the real Mr Bingley knew the colonel of long, no introduction was offered. The colonel was a charming man. He spoke with such honest simplicity that Elizabeth was more than satisfied in making his acquaintance. As a matter of fact, Elizabeth had known of him through Darcy's accounts of their many adventures and could hardly wait to get to know him better. His manners struck her as so pleasing and his speech so unpretending that she instantly liked him despite the fact that he was not half as handsome as his cousin. Yet her initial admiration instantly waned after the colonel began an account of his amorous life.

At dinner that night there was much man's talk which Elizabeth either failed to comprehend or did not like. Only when the topic of the house and its improvements came up Elizabeth dared to speak.

"Excellent improvements, Charles," was the colonel's verdict. "I am sure it will be the prettiest house in the world. You only need a handsome mistress. But you have always been god with the ladies, have you not? "

Elizabeth blushed but could not bring herself to answer such discourse.

"Well, I cannot imagine better improvements for my own house," declared Darcy in her stead. "Though I wished the windows reached the ground. It would render the view from them infinitely more pleasant."

"They are handsome enough for me," said the colonel.

Over their port and coffee it was no different: improvements, horses, politics and war, in that order.

When the conversation again revolved about women, however, Elizabeth wished she had retired. The colonel was the first to speak. He told them of an attachment he had recently developed for the young widow of an admiral. The circumstances of said attachment which took place in the course of the summer were dwelt upon with so many details as to leave Elizabeth so red in a face that she could have defied a redcoat. Embarrassment notwithstanding, the edification in man-woman relationships was considerable, and Elizabeth could but assume a philosophical attitude which was the only possible manner in which she could go on with her pretence of being a gentleman.

It was then Darcy's time to acquaint his cousin with his amorous life. Elizabeth expected him to tell of his infatuation with herself and was ready to tease him.

Yet Darcy made a surprising disclosure. It seemed he had recently met the purest, the tenderest*, the most angelic of young women. Her many accomplishments were dwelt upon with so much detail and emotion that Elizabeth fancied Mr Darcy was describing the daughter of an Italian prince. Her voice, her eyes in particular, her figure so pleasing and light, and her wit and spark had no parallel so much so that Elizabeth found herself enthralled by the gentleman's description of his beloved. Elizabeth laughed inwardly, thinking how naïve she had been in thinking Mr Darcy admired her. It was evident that Mr Bingley had been in the wrong when he told her of his friend's blind partiality. Mr Darcy was deeply in love with this paramount of perfection whoever she was, and his admiration for herself had been but a fleeting moment. As to why Mr Darcy had never spoken of the lady before was easy to conjecture: Mr Darcy was a private man. Only the presence of his best friend and confidante under the effect of a little too much of port could have persuaded him to confess his true feelings.

"Dear me, cousin. It seems you have found your lady. It is clear that you are in love with her. But does she return the feeling?"

"That only she can answer."

"Should I assume, then, that you have reached at least an understanding?" asked the colonel, full of curiosity. He was exceedingly fond of on dit.

"No, not yet," answered Darcy with a smile.

"Who is she? Do I know her?"

Elizabeth's curiosity was piqued too. She was a little jealous as well. Who could that perfect woman be? Judging from Darcy's description no one she knew, she wagered. She had sworn no woman could be so perfect. It would be a fearful image to behold.

Darcy stole a sheepish look at Elizabeth. "You do not know her, Richard. She is the daughter of one of Bingley's neighbours."

Scarcely had Darcy said those words, that it was apparent to Elizabeth that he had been speaking of her, and her alone. Her amazement was paramount. She tender and angelic? Her figure pleasing and light? What bolt had struck Mr Darcy?

The rest of the conversation was no different. Again the gentlemen talked with great confidentiality. Her few accomplishments were exaggerated with the exuberance that only a lover could use. As she listened to Darcy's account of herself, Elizabeth could but rejoice to inspire such pure feeling in the gentleman. Why, she thought he was talking of someone else! His description of her person, however, spoke of the most ardent, pure love as she had never imagined she could inspire in a gentleman. She was the best looking, her voice the most enchanting, her manners the most pleasing and her wit the most challenging. Mr Darcy even declared her his perfect match in body and soul and the perfect mistress for his beloved Pemberley! To think that she had thought him to be merely infatuated!

"What say you, Charles? Is the lady so good as Darcy depicts her?" asked Colonel Fitzwilliam to Elizabeth. Elizabeth could not offer an unbiased opinion and she responded with a shrug. The colonel continued with his questions. "Why, hang it, Darcy. I am happy for you. I hope I can wish you joy soon. What has kept you from marrying her already?"

Here Darcy's arguments against her family would surely be perused. Objections against her mother and her younger sisters in particular, she was certain, would be dwelt upon with equal feeling and excessive regret, and Elizabeth put herself on guard for what was to come. Yet she was utterly mistaken. Contrary to what she expected, Mr Darcy did not say a word against her family or the lack of her connexions. Instead Darcy merely said that when he had news, the colonel would be the first to know.

Elizabeth's heart swelled with regret at having thought so badly of a gentleman who all the time had been so polite, so well bred, so particularly fond of her. Her prejudice against the gentleman was as incomprehensible as it was mortifying and grievous. Yet the next topic left her equally perplexed and alarmed.

Darcy told the colonel he had seen Mr Wickham.

"Wickham?" asked Fitzwilliam in a savage tone.

"Yes," answered Darcy.

"Damn it, Darcy. Tell me you have called him out."

Elizabeth trembled when she heard the colonel. She saw that Darcy scowled and shook his head in denial. The colonel cursed with a growl and then they all lapsed into sepulchral silence. Although the foundations of their common dislike of the gentleman were not explicitly mentioned, by the reaction in Colonel Fitzwilliam Elizabeth wagered that Wickham was indeed universally hated.

Having concluded his observations, Darcy said nothing else, but what he did say was enough to render Elizabeth a trembling leaf. She was so shocked with all the intelligence that she could not speak for a while.

When Elizabeth retired that night, it was not the account of Fitzwilliam's affair with the young widow that she recalled, or his enthusiasm on the improvements on Netherfield Park. The topic of Mr Wickham did not fail to leave her wondering, yet it was Mr Darcy's attachment that had struck her the most. She spent half the night pondering all that Darcy had said of his feelings for her.

"The perfect Mistress of Pemberley," he had declared her. Elizabeth thought she was far from perfect. But then again she thought it only natural that a man supposedly in love with her should see her as such. Elizabeth could but admire Mr Darcy for that, and for being willing to marry her setting aside all the scruples that her humble connexions necessary arose in a man of his station.

On account of precisely those scruples, there was little doubt of his sincere affection and noble intentions. Not only did she get to know the depth of his love for her but she had also had a glimpse of his generous and honourable nature. Elizabeth now knew the profound battle he must have been holding with himself on her account and still he had not said a word against her relations to his own relative. That he was so much in love as to be willing to overlook her lack of connexions and general situation she had had no idea till then. So much in love as to be ready to marry her despite all the scruples he held against her family. So honourable as to withhold the real reason against a union with her: his rightful chagrin over her family's ill behaviour.

Could she be happy with such a man? She imagined she could. A sudden rush of affection surged her heart as she recollected the kind sentiments Mr Darcy proffered to have for her so earnestly. She knew that such profound feelings did not awake spontaneously. He must have admired her from the very beginning as Mr Bingley had already told her.

Not for one minute did the fact that she was momentarily inhabiting a man's body return to her mind. The fact is that Elizabeth was a great deal too excited to have allowed room for fear or doubts or misgivings of any sort. Having a gentleman of the likes of Mr Darcy at her feet was not a small thing, and she was not afraid of fate or naughty stars. With her mind full of Mr Darcy and the beautiful grounds of Pemberley she turned in unable to sleep and thus she remained toying with millions of ideas and building castles in the air until the sun alerted her that the day had come.

Chapter 15

Dawn marked the end of Darcy's and her stay in Hetfordshire. Netherfield Park was closed that very day and the chaise and four that would convey them to Ramsgate and eventually to London was packed with their trunks in half the time it took the previous party to leave.

Despite the lack of repose of the previous night, in the morning Elizabeth trod on air. The novelty of being aware of such a great man's profound admiration and the excitement of the trip combined to leave her wild with elation. This was the exciting finale of a most extraordinary adventure. To this add the exhilarating feeling that journeying to Ramsgate and eventually to London in the company of two gentlemen with as much liberty as that which they possessed could give a lady. It was more than Elizabeth could have ever imagined she would do. Her only regret was the secrecy of it all. Jane at a distance and she not able to bid her farewell. Poor Jane. Every hope, every expectation from Mr Bingley suspended, at least, and who could say for how long? Who could say when they might meet again? But what could she do to spare her the pain? Only pray that the enchantment would soon be over and that Mr Bingley would be there to console her in her stead. She trusted he would.

Their sojourn to Ramsgate was marked by cruel, cold weather which necessarily seated the three gentlemen in a carriage with hot bricks under their feet (Elizabeth's idea) and heavy quilts made of warm lamb leather. Unfortunately, the temperature dropped so low and the roads were so obstructed by early snow that they were compelled to stop at an inn to spend the night.

To Elizabeth's unforeseen torment, there was only one room available at the inn. It was only natural for Darcy to share a room with his cousin and Bingley. They had done it countless times. They had even once slept in a barn for want of room. Yet for Elizabeth the idea to accommodate herself in a common bedchamber with two gentlemen was quite reprehensible. To her chagrin there was no saying otherwise. It was that or a room with the coach driver and servants. As Elizabeth climbed the stairs with Darcy and the colonel in tow, she felt as nervous as if she were going to her wedding chamber with the two gentlemen.

The room in question was of a commodious, well proportioned size and handsomely furnished with an ante chamber that was set up as a dining-room. Elizabeth could not but observe with horror that there was only one bed. A most large pre-eminent four-poster, but still only one.

Stealing looks of apprehensive astonishment at Darcy, Elizabeth wordlessly asked where she was to sleep.

"I take the right side," announced the colonel while attacking the knot of his cravat.

"Left for me," said Darcy and sat on his side of the bed.

The lady in a gentleman's costume stood nailed to the floor in stunned contemplation of the bed and the night to come. Evidently, she was to sleep in the middle.

"But ...there is only one bed," she pointed out the evident.

"So what? It's a cold night," Darcy shrugged off.

"Yes. We shall huddle together. Come on boy! You have never complained before!"

"It's because your big soldiery butt hardly leaves any space for the lad in the middle," laughed Darcy.

"Oh all right. You take the middle."

"Indeed not!" protested Darcy. "I shall not endure another night with your legs wrapped around me."

The colonel laughed. "I can't help dreaming."

"Dreaming! That would not be a problem. But you construed your dreams onto me."

"What can I say? Your legs are as shapely as a lass's"

Darcy let out a blasphemy.

"O I love you, cousin," the colonel joked, stretching himself across the bed and catching Darcy's leg though Elizabeth could not fathom what he was about.

"You dog, release me!" shouted Darcy. Fitzwilliam was pulling at Darcy's limb with great force, and Darcy shouted oaths at him while he tried to kick him off, but to no avail. "Hoo!" cried Fitzwilliam, laughing out loud. "Come help me, Charles. Let us teach him a lesson."

"Fitzwilliam, I warn you!" Darcy shouted, groping wildly into the air.

Elizabeth grew exceedingly nervous, at a complete loss for what the sudden hullabaloo was about. Having never witnessed men's roughhousing before she was rendered immobile, wondering in amazement at the un-gentleman-like behaviour.

What ensued was a veritable battle in which the gentleman bumped with and hurled at each other whatever was at hand: cushions, boots, even a book. When this latter hit him on the head, the colonel whimpered but soon jumped over Darcy and both engaged in what seemed serious wrestling that ended up with both men most dishevelled and red in the face in a tight knot on the floor. Elizabeth observed the scene with a horrified expression, not sure whether they were in the middle of a fight or otherwise.

"Come Charles! I need your aid! Catch his limb and we will have him subdued!" cried Fitzwilliam while Darcy thrashed about like a fish out of water under Fitzwilliam's weight.

"Let him be, sir," claimed she, stamping her foot. "Pray, this is not good sport!"

"Hang it, Charles. Help me or I will catch you!" On hearing that Elizabeth stepped back in apprehension.

At last, Darcy untangled himself from under his cousin. "Enough! I have had enough of that!"

Signalling that he gave up the game the colonel raised his arms and Darcy dropped his with exhaustion. Both were panting for breath.

With a bumping heart, Elizabeth sat on a wayward chair to recollect herself. She felt as if she had been wrestling with them too. "What was this all about? Is this the manner in which gentlemen behave while alone?" she wondered.

There was a light knock at the door and on the colonel's invitation a girl poked her head in asking if the gentlemen required anything.

Fitzwilliam declared that the exercise had rendered him famished.

"Are you hungry?" asked Darcy to Elizabeth with the solicitousness of a bridegroom. Darcy noticed his attentions towards Bingley were marked by anxious care and often hovering attentiveness. He felt absurd.

"Yes," said Elizabeth, nodding her head. What was happening to her? Why did she feel so uncomfortable with a silly question?

"Cold meat and cheese will do, I wager."

"I think I shall get a bottle of claret, too. Or do you prefer brandy?" asked the colonel.

"Claret if you please," Darcy said and he sought Elizabeth for approbation.

"Yes," she said, trembling a little, fighting the incomprehensible feeling that surged her heart every time Mr Darcy directed his attention towards her.

"Charles, you had better sleep beside me. This one has not lain with a girl for too long and I am afraid I shall be in danger," laughed Fitzwilliam.

"I don't deny it," said Darcy with a shrug and an innocent look on his face. "Still I am not half as dangerous as you are, cousin. Pray, leave your weapons at a safe distance tonight." Looking at Elizabeth, Darcy said, "Last time we shared a room, he woke up in the middle of the night screaming, 'charge!'" To the colonel he said, "You can be pretty scary, you know."

"Try the battlefield! That is scary," chuckled the colonel.

"I'll tell you what is scary. The smell of your boots," said Darcy pinching his nose with his thumb and point finger.

"I regret to inform you that that smell does not come from my boots," the colonel answered with laughing eyes.

"Good Lord, Fitzwilliam! I must remind you that this is not the barracks..."

The colonel's laughter came rolling like thunder.

So much for the gallant soldier! Elizabeth's gloom at being compelled to keep this dreadful company was great. She imagined Mr Darcy was quite right. Such ways were hardly tolerable even for a barracks.

"Charles, you sleep in the middle so I can hug you in the night," the colonel continued with his banter.

"I..." Elizabeth stammered, already pale at the idea.

The colonel tried the mattress. "Do not fret, Charles. I promise I shall not take too much of the bed."

Because there was no dressing room; stripping for bed became thus a daunting exertion. Not for the gentlemen, but for Elizabeth, that is. They found the whole affair as embarrassing as sitting in the parlour to converse. Much as she endeavoured to remain cool, Elizabeth's apprehension was written all over her face. She paced the room up and down arranging this and that, poking the hearth and making observations on her pleasure of the neatness of the room. From time to time her eyes would dart in the gentlemen's direction to check their movements. Darcy was removing his cravat and the colonel his boots when she first looked at them. She struggled to collect herself by keeping her eyes cast down but her disobedient eyes would simply not oblige.

Darcy, meantime, conscious of his friend's squeamishness wondered at his sly scrutiny. Charles had proceeded to undress with unusual parsimony, loitering at the task as if unwilling to do it. Darcy could not imagine what could occasion his strange attitude. A most preposterous idea hit him. It had occurred to him before, while he and Bingley were walking in the grove and Bingley had locked his arm in the crook of his, but he had immediately dismissed it. Now those scruples returned to Darcy and he instantly became inexplicably apprehensive of sharing so confined an accommodation with Bingley.

Was it possible that...nay...how could that be? Still, there was a look upon Bingley's eyes that spoke of unseemly interest in another gentleman's toilette. Darcy had the mortifying feeling that something must be really amiss.

He was not wrong. It was the first time Elizabeth would witness gentlemen sans clothes without the forbearance of being drugged or over-excited by inexplicable enchantments.

To add to Elizabeth's mortification, another gentleman was soon added. Darcy's man entered the room, eager to show attention or give assistance where it was required and as it was his custom, he began to prepare his master's hot bath.

Not today, said Darcy abruptly. Would Mr Bingley care to bathe? No, Mr Bingley would go directly to bed. The servant looked at Colonel Fitzwilliam and offered the service to him.

"No!" both Darcy and Elizabeth said in unison. Their eyes locked as if measuring each other's reasons to object to Fitzwilliam's bath.

Colonel Fitzwilliam looked at the pair with amused surprise. Darcy protested that it was too late to bathe and the case was mercifully dismissed.

Contrary to Elizabeth's expectation, the servant's presence made the whole undressing task much easier. Elizabeth, in busy agitation completing her toilette, did not notice when the others' was finished. When everything was done, they were all wearing their nightshifts and preparing for bed.

With what little dignity was left to her, Elizabeth weathered the meal that was brought forward by the servant on a tray. It was a natural thing yet she could not bring herself to speak or look at the gentlemen during the quarter of an hour that the repast lasted.

Her anxiety had no foundation in fact, her fear only in probability, for they were all gentlemen and good friends, and what was there to fear? Yet the solitude of the situation, the darkness of the chamber that ensued, the awkwardness of the contact with flesh that awaited her in bed were felt and considered with mournful shame by Elizabeth.

The actual sleeping was a source of fresh misery. Elizabeth lingered only half a minute behind to make sure that the gentlemen had accommodated their comparatively huge frames in the bed, which now seemed comparatively small and then she climbed in as quickly and quietly as humanly possible to save herself the pain of being urged to bed by the gentlemen.

Because she was to sleep in the middle, however, she was obligated to crawl from the foot with all awkwardness possible. It was a blessing that they should be so tired. The effect of the claret soon sent her to sleep, and though the sounds from the gentlemen's throats were high, and often produced strange noises, she heard none for she was fast asleep.

A sunray peeked through the curtains the next morning alerting Elizabeth to the dawning of the day. Elizabeth opened one eye and found herself confronted with the most peculiar situation. Darcy slept eye to eye, nose to nose with her in bed, his rhythmic breathing caressing her cheeks. Her body, however, or more accurately Bingley's body, was tightly wrapped by Fitzwilliam's muscular arms, his huge legs entangled with hers in amorous embrace.

Chapter 16

Swiftly had passed the night and repose had been granted, still, Elizabeth's anxiety in awaking face to face with Mr Darcy surpassed any embarrassing situation she could think of. And yet that was nothing compared to the mournfully superiority of her alarm in finding herself in the powerful arms of the colonel.

On what could have happened during the night, this discreet authoress is not of the mind to dwell. Neither was Elizabeth, I grant you. She was too engrossed in devising a way out of Fitzwilliam's arms with a minimum disturbance. Little by little, as gently as she could for fear that the gentleman would awake, she contrived to push the colonel away. The colonel stirred a little when she finally freed herself from his arms, and particularly from his legs, which were tightly entangled with hers, but in being a heavy sleeper, he did not open his eyes.

Predictably, getting away from the colonel necessary meant getting closer to her other bedfellow. Here she redoubled her efforts not to disturb Mr Darcy. However, striving to avoid body contact with the gentleman was one thing, yet conquering her eyes once they had found his countenance was quite another. And who could blame her? One can only imagine what fine view his handsome face must bestow! As he lay profoundly asleep there was not a crease of worry but a boyish look about him. A pleasant smile crossed his mouth and Elizabeth could not help staring at him for a brief moment. She was thus very agreeably engaged (*sigh*) when she was instantly assaulted by the pleasant memory of Mr Darcy's declaration of love the day before and could not repress a surge of tender feelings from invading her soul.

An examination of her heart followed said assault. Repulsion and hatred long gone, she had almost as long been ashamed of ever feeling a dislike against him that could be so called. There was certainly at this moment, in Elizabeth's mind, a more gentle sensation towards Mr Darcy than she had ever felt for any other gentleman of her acquaintance.

In seeing that his slumber was profound, she fancied she could indulge in what otherwise would have been impossible and observed his countenance in detail as he slept on. To think that in this manner she could awake every morning, and particularly to this enticing view (save from the presence of the good colonel on the other side of the bed) if only she were a marriageable girl! Her own musing took her by surprise. When did she begin to like Mr Darcy so much?

That Mr Darcy was a very handsome man, (very handsome indeed now that she was free to perceive the extent of his manly beauty *sigh, goose flesh*) she had never had a doubt. An idea followed another and soon she was meditating on Mr Darcy more than it was healthy. The man was full of surprises. In the absurdly entangled course of their acquaintance, he had proved himself to be amiable, genteel and kind, qualities which Elizabeth had on first meeting him thought him wanting. A prospect to marry such a husband could not be easily dismissed. Surely his wife would not be subjected to the kind of inconsistencies Elizabeth had been forced to endure as the second daughter in her father's household. She could do nothing but think, and think with wonder, of Mr. Darcy's sentiments for her, and above all, of his wishing to make her his wife. Yes. Mr Darcy would be quite desirable as a husband. She would have been very happy indeed.

"Mrs Darcy..." she whispered to herself and shook her head. Oh, that was not to be. At least not while this magic spell was in operation. How could she ever encourage any man while she was in Mr Bingley's costume? In any case Mr Darcy would be more inclined to marry Mr Bingley! Oh, that she could undo this sorcery and could be Lizzie again.

She discovered that she was thinking of his regard with a deeper sentiment than she could have thought possible. Most pre eminently she remembered his warmth in declaring himself attached to her, which necessarily softened his flaws currently considerably lost to her. Thus a question began to uncoil innermost in her heart. Was it possible that she was falling in love with this once-so-hated man now that all love was in vain? Despite the awkwardness of her position she pondered this for a second. True, she had developed a new, strong attachment for him; a feeling she had until now felt comfortable to contrive as friendship, the kind of friendship Mr Bingley had with Mr Darcy, but which she was no longer sure whether the girl within her felt to be something more.

It could very well be the case that she had fallen in love with him, particularly after Mr Darcy's confession the day before, so warm and passionate and absolutely earnest. She wondered if her new found feelings had anything to do with her naughty star working a spell on her. Would she have seen Mr Darcy with these lenient emotions had it not happened? Would she have ever learned of his partiality? Would Mr Darcy have stayed in Hertfordshire had not Mr Bingley and her swapped bodies?

Unfortunately, her musings took too long. Much as she had tried not to awake him, before she could move a muscle, Mr Darcy's eyes opened swiftly and she found herself confronted with him. "Good morning," he mumbled with a yawn not decidedly awake. Elizabeth would have answered his civility had it not been for the strong arm he proceeded to rest on her waist before he closed his eyes and fell apparently asleep once more. Elizabeth, deeply mortified, immediately endeavoured to get away from under him but in vain. The more she contrived to free herself, the tighter he secured her in his arms.

A most horrifying picture occurred to her, even more horrifying that herself being subjected to Mr Darcy's drowsy tenderness while with Colonel Fitzwilliam on the other side: that of Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley in amorous embrace. Good Lord, she thought shuddering in perfect repulsion. How to entangle herself from this?

"Mr Darcy," she whispered into his ear. "Mr Darcy let go of me. I must get up," she begged. It was the colonel, however, who was disturbed by her plea and grunting a complaint, turned around giving them his back.

"Dearest?" Darcy purred his eyes still closed pulling her against him.

Dearest? What can this mean? Surely Mr Darcy could not know it was her, could he? Elizabeth wondered. Who does he think he is talking to? Evidently he is deeply asleep and believes I am someone else. But who could Mr Darcy be fancying he is holding in his sleep? Not Mr Bingley as he had just called her 'dearest'. Elizabeth's easily prejudiced mind began to whirl in search of a plausible explanation and could but come up with the worst: Perhaps he keeps a mistress and he is dreaming of her?

"You had better stop this, sir," she said she a little annoyed, her voice laboured as she endeavoured to avoid his lips that were very perilously approaching hers, inwardly amazed that he could know her mouth's whereabouts with his eyes closed. "You are dreaming," she added.

Obviously he heard that and opened a sleepy pair of eyes to peek at her. "Lizzie?"

Lizzie indeed. If only she were, Elizabeth thought. Still, she nodded, used as she was to react at her real appellation yet amazed that Mr Darcy would have used it.

"Will you not be silent? Some of us want to sleep, you know," the colonel complained pulling the covers and taking most of the quilt to his side.

"Is that Fitzwilliam?" wondered Darcy confused. His dreams of late had been of Elizabeth and Elizabeth alone. Fitzwilliam had never been included so far. More importantly, Elizabeth seemed to be lingering more than the usual tonight which was unprecedented at least. Till now she had never trespassed over the borders of his imagination, but the Elizabeth he had presently in his arms was quite substantial for a ghost.

Quick as a flash, Elizabeth answered with conviction. "You are having an epiphany, Mr Darcy," she said with a blush inwardly relishing the moment, for now she knew that Mr Darcy had been dreaming of her. "Now, pray, go back to sleep," she added persuasively.

The mere idea that he was indeed lying in bed with the real Elizabeth (and with Colonel Fitzwilliam snoring on the other side) was too unfathomable to be worthy of consideration. Thus Darcy obeyed and went back to sleep. What else could he do? This was evidently a dream and if Elizabeth was sleeping with him he had better sleep on. When he resumed his slumber, however, he released Elizabeth from under his arm. Of course she took advantage of it and quit the bed immediately. As she went to the chair where she had left her manly clothes, trembling all over with cold, she caught a brief glimpse at herself in the mirror and she stopped dead on her tracks.

What she had just fleetingly seen out of the corner of her eye could simply not be true. As if waking up with two men had not been humiliating enough, this fresh evil that now faced her in the crystal bordered in the absurd. Yet the image that looked back at her was evidently not the manly one she had grown used to greeting every morning. Her long dishevelled hair testified as much. She was Elizabeth again. It had been the work of an instant, yet the revolution which that instant made in Elizabeth was beyond expression.

Stiffening a gasp of bewildered surprise at the unexpected discovery, Elizabeth was overwhelmed with such a commotion as to render her momentarily paralysed. In her distress she thought she was going to faint and accordingly searched with her eyes for a chair to sit and calm herself. But a chair would not do. She must ran and soon. A hundred thousand questions flooded her mind: What could this mean? How could she have changed from man to woman overnight without even noticing? Even worse, why did she change into Elizabeth now, when it was most inappropriate? How would she explain her presence in the bedchamber to the gentlemen?

Before she could have recovered her wits and made up her mind to flee the colonel recovered his consciousness and sat up in bed, cursing in a low voice his bad luck to have been awoken so early. Elizabeth, still unable to move, was seized by a most overpowering fear. Now that was it. Certainly her reputation would be ruined for ever. No man would ever marry a woman who had shared a bed with two men, particularly Mr Darcy, even when he had been one of them. She awaited her gloomy doom with eyes closed, her hands covering her face, wishing she were Mr Bingley again, so excessively regretting her situation that she would have inspired pity even in *Pan himself.

She heard the voice of the colonel asking her something and yet she could not make out his words, such was her bewilderment. Neither would she stir. This was dreadful indeed!

While all this ensued, Elizabeth could not help berating herself for her thoughtlessness. She had not measured her actions with proper seriousness, not considered that her excessive intimacy with Mr Darcy while impersonating Mr Bingley must have a danger of ill consequence in many ways. She had been unguarded, had never foreseen the risk of being discovered and of the unpleasant report it might raise. The various sources of mortification and humiliation prepared for her instantly assaulted her. Her previous situation as a woman was not so complicated, not so revolting as her present one. Elizabeth would have readily married Mr Collins, with all its evils, if that would have cleared her of her gloomy future. Unable to move or speak, she did not understand what the colonel was now asking and was obliged to remain perfectly still with her face behind her palms. "I cannot bear it!" she kept thinking, "I cannot bear it! For mercy! Let me just die this instant," but she immediately regretted her last wish for fear her naughty star would grant her a sudden death.

"What's the matter?" she finally heard the colonel ask mystified at her motionlessness. Elizabeth shook her head, a soft whimper escaping her lips. Her embarrassment had reached its peak hence she could not think of what to say. The colonel promptly thought something must be definitely wrong and unsure of what to do, he muttered with some apprehension, "Darcy, get up, man. You must see this."

Chapter 17

It is not this authoress' intention to indulge her readership in unguarded bedfellowshipness (you must allow me the coinage of the word) but the truth is that at about the same time in which Elizabeth's reputation was perilously pending from a thin thread, in Hertfordshire, as many a visionary reader has foretold, the inhabitants of Longbourn were indeed in bed, Miss Jane Bennet and Mr Charles Bingley particularly in the same bed.

Much as Mr Bingley had promised Miss Elizabeth never to repeat the episode in which he had found himself on his first night at Longbourn, he simply could not do it. Common sense, of which this honest fellow depended on Mr Darcy to provide, demanded that he could not. It would have been unseemly and even suspicious from his part, he thought, in the eye of the Bennet clan that he would have demanded a room for his personal occupation. Thus he had been forced to be untrue to his given word to Miss Elizabeth. Yet, albeit in the flesh of a lady, Mr Charles Bingley remained a true gentleman. Oddly enough, the fact that he was a lass did help considerably to his gentlemanlike behaviour.

That a man void of his manly attributes would have felt disinclined to amorous pursuits is a notion that does not need much explanation, particularly, if the object of his passion was the innocent Jane. Well, to be honest, Bingley would have never touched a finger on sweet Jane, even if they had been locked into a room for a week, let alone would he have risked his chances to ever marry her by taking too many liberties while incarnating her sister. On the contrary, he felt himself quite relieved in not being subjected to his manly attribute's whimsical reactions when close to the woman he loved. It appeased his mind.

Bingley was by nature and exercise a heavy sleeper and definitely not an early riser. He had, however, accomplished the healthy habit to sleep in the farthest corner of the bed from Jane and would feign sleep when his 'sister' asked him to rub her back or caress her shoulders. What he had not been able to escape was the enticing preamble in preparation for bed which consisted on Jane and himself undoing buttons and laces and slipping out and into their nightgowns and brushing each other's hair till it was perfectly groomed.

Thus, this night in particular, when on another side of England Lizzie's fervent wish to become herself had lineated with the correct reasons to wish for it, Mr Bingley, who was likewise beginning to wish to be restored of his manhood post haste was also granted his. Only that he was not much aware of it.

Back at the inn, where our heroes had stopped over to spend the night, Colonel Fitzwilliam was having difficulty in awakening his cousin.

"Darcy, come on man. You must help me here. Look at this. Something most extraordinary has happened."

Darcy was still lost in his dream, relishing the true memory of a feeling he would not wish to wash away with the reality morning eventually brought every day: that he was not married to Elizabeth, neither was she his lover, and that his pulsing desires would have to be quieted with a cold bath. At Colonel Fitzwilliam's insistence he was effectively brought back from his slumber and though for a while he sat erect in bed with a perplexed look upon his face trying to figure out where the lady of his dream had gone, in realising it had been just the works of his imagination he soon recovered his wit.

Meantime Elizabeth, felt as though she had been shot with a deadly arrow that had pinned her to her spot. She heard the voice of Mr Darcy and that of the good colonel fussing over her situation, but her distress was such that she could not make out what they were saying. That they were having a heated argument she was almost certain and that the reason of said argument was her sudden apparition in their bedchamber she was equally certainly of. But the gentlemen's argument was being carried out in whispers so she could hardly follow their conversation. At length she felt their steps as they approached and their hands as they grabbed her elbows and led her to the bed.

A long silence ensued. Sitting on the border of the mattress, she still had her hands on her face. She felt the bed dip and shake a little as someone sat next to her and had a fleeting view of someone's profile through a little gap her fingers allowed. They were being infinitely patient with her, she thought.

"What the deuce is the matter, Darcy?" asked Fitzwilliam mystified, his voice coming in a whisper.

"Honestly, Fitzwilliam, I have no idea. Let me call for the apothecary."

"The apothecary? For what the deuce you want the apothecary? You had much better call for a gypsy."

"A gypsy?"

"Yes!" said Fitzwilliam. "No apothecary's concoction will be of use here. I told you he was a girl not one minute ago. I saw it with my own eyes!"

"A girl indeed! Now you are talking like an old woman."

"I am not, by Jove! I woke up and found this girl looking at herself in the mirror. When she saw me she took her hands to her face just like Bingley is holding his now. Then I turned to call you and alas! It was Bingley in her instead."

"What you are saying is simply not possible," argued Darcy.

"Well, run me through my body if I am lying."

"Hogwash, Fitzwilliam. There's no magic that could accomplish such a trick!"

"Hogwash? By Jupiter, Darcy! Have I ever talked hogwash?"

"You must allow that your tale can not be easily believed."

"This is insupportable. I tell you not two minutes before there was no Bingley in this room but a fine girl with long brown hair and this is the long and the short of it."

"I know that you must believe what you saw," said Darcy trying to cool the air. "But your eyes must have deceived you. Perhaps it was the effect of the twilight and your own sleepiness?"

"You mean that I am now seeing visions?"

Darcy shrugged. "Bingley here is hardly a vision, is he? Perchance you were dreaming of this girl...it has happened to me."

Fitzwilliam blushed. He had to admit he had dreamt of a girl of long lavender-scented hair that had lay entwined with him all night. But he could not so easily admit that it had been but a dream and that he had been holding Bingley instead.

This conversation had been carried in a hushed voice, thus Elizabeth had not been able to hear it. Yet in coming back near her, Elizabeth heard Darcy say, "We shall have to wait until he has calmed down."

He? Had Mr Darcy said he? Elizabeth removed one trembling hand and peeked at her own reflection in the mirror. Alas, alas! To her absolute wonder, it was Mr Bingley looking back at her! She almost fell on her back when she discovered the capricious work of the enchantment. For a second she acknowledged within herself such a disastrous outcome of having been caught in the gentlemen's bedchamber in the flesh as made her shudder at the idea of the misery which must have followed. But she was safe. Her reputation was safe, and she sighed profoundly relieved.

The absolute necessity of seeming that nothing untoward had happened produced an immediate struggle, but she had grown used to feigning of late even the most unseemly attitudes, so she commended herself to Heavens and said in a fairly self-confident voice.

"I am feeling much better, Darcy."

How painfully distressing it was for Elizabeth to deceive Mr Darcy now! After all, not ten minutes before it had been herself, and not her impersonation of Mr Bingley whom he had been nestling in his arms. It was evident that he did not recollect anything or that he had misconstrued their awakening together as the work of strange epiphany.

The colonel, still unconvinced, was beholding her with a much puzzled expression on his face, as if he were looking at a witch. This could but bring fresh agitation.

"I am glad you are feeling better, Charles," said Darcy. "You must see an apothecary the minute we reach London, you hear me?"

Elizabeth nodded. Mr Darcy seemed appeased by her quick consent of consulting a professional. He immediately stood up and rang for the servant to begin preparations for their removal of the inn. Elizabeth sighed. Deep inside, she would have preferred it if Darcy had recollected it all so that the simulation was over.

While her mind was thus engaged there was a knock at the door and Mr Darcy's manservant was summoned in, thus interrupting Fitzwilliam's quiz that might otherwise followed. Elizabeth did not loiter. Without using the services of the manservant she began to get dressed as fast as humanly possible, and excusing herself she all but fled the room. By the time the two gentlemen took notice, she was already in the corridor (most acutely she feared Colonel Fitzwilliam's look of suspicion). As she hurried away busily arranging her neck-cloth, she pondered on what had ensued.

Undoubtedly, she had been cast under a powerful yet very mischievous spell. "Perhaps," Elizabeth thought struck by a sudden idea, "it is simply my wish coming true! Have I not just wished to be Elizabeth again? And then wished I have not changed into myself just now? Indeed I have. But what or who can be granting my wishes so liberally? And why was not my wish to be reversed into Elizabeth granted before?" At that she doubted, "Did I wish to be restored to my own self before? To be sure I did, very often. I used to wish it with all my heart at Netherfield Park before I saw Mr Bingley impersonating me."

Mr Bingley! She was struck by the idea that if she had been reversed into Elizabeth for that short while, so must have been Mr Bingley into his own self! Had he been discovered she wondered? If he had she was certain she would soon know. She sat at the breakfast table deeply immersed in her own thoughts when she heard the usual sounds of gentlemen approaching and she lowered her head, still reluctant to face Colonel Fitzwilliam. Surely she had anxiety written all over her face.

"You do not shave?" asked Fitzwilliam with a pointed look at Elizabeth. Elizabeth instinctively took her hand to her face. It was indeed sandy. How could it be? Her skin had been the softest not half an hour ago.

"I've decided to grow a moustache," was her innocent answer.

"A moustache? What is it next? You will join the army?" Fitzwilliam said in bewilderment.

Darcy chuckled. "Be ware of Bingley, my friend. If he is the sorcerer you believe him to be he is probably contriving to follow you in the barracks and catch you while you sleep," Mr Darcy said very seriously and just as soon laughed at his own joke.

The snow had relented the night before and the roads were in tolerable state for their journey to be resumed which they did immediately after breakfast. They would advance very slowly but anything was preferable than to find themselves stranded at an inn. As she hurried to the carriage, Elizabeth was trying too hard to avoid Mr Darcy to mark the look of apprehensive suspicion that the colonel now cast on her.

Just as Elizabeth had pondered, the readers must be wondering what could have ensued at Longbourn. I grant you, it would have been pre-eminently unforgettable and to some extend scary, for a girl like Jane Bennet to have discovered that she had been sharing her bed on a daily basis with a gentleman. But she did not. Both Jane and Bingley were fast asleep and neither took notice of the fantastic transformation, which was providential since the duration of the restoration lasted what a sigh, when Elizabeth so vehemently wished herself back into Mr Bingley. Had Mr Bingley not been sleeping, had he been aware that he had been granted his desire to be himself, it is my personal opinion that Elizabeth would have not been sent back in Bingley's skin. Mr Bingley's conscious wish that he be himself would have interfered and they would have been restored to their own selves for good.

Still, as he woke up that morning, Mr Bingley was most acutely wishing for this body swap to come to an end, and his anxiety stemmed on a most unfortunate happenstance that had left him shaking like a leaf the night before.

It had been bath night at the Bennet household. To Mr Bingley's mortification, all the girls were used to having a bath in the comfort of Lizzie and Jane's common bedroom, which was by far the largest. Because their father could only afford two lady's maids for the attention of five girls, it was customary for the sisters to help each other with their toilette. The attentions would begin with the youngest and finish with the eldest.

Surrounded by the noisily merry group of young ladies in small clothes, which would have been the delight of the likes of Mr Wickham, Bingley instead awaited with apprehensive excitement the moment in which all of them would do away with their corsets and petticoats. At length, after much girlish talking of lace and gentlemen callers, the moment arrived in which the first two sisters began to undress.

Bingley was then struck by a horrendous idea. What if Jane discovered that he had been witnessing their bath and had done nothing to prevent it? She would probably be properly scandalized and thoroughly offended. He could not jeopardize his relationship with the woman he loved in this stupid manner, particularly when the only women who were worth the risk to be spied on Eve's costume were Jane and himself, and of that he had sufficient distraction already. No, he must contrive an excuse to quit the bathing exertion and he must do it post haste.

"Lizzie," said Lydia bringing Bingley back from his reverie. "Will you not help me?"

He stared at the young girl who was already into the bathtub with wild eyes. "No, my dear," answered he struggling for composure. "I am afraid I have a cold."

"Oh dear," exclaimed Kitty. "Why are you not in bed?"

"It's a trifle but I had better avoid getting wet tonight," he answered. "Let Jane help you for me, Lydia. Now, if you will excuse me. I think I will have a word with...mama downstairs."

In this manner our honest gentleman avoided what could have given him some distraction in nights to come. Unfortunately, it was out of the pan and into the fire. For the moment he closed the door of the bedchamber he found himself confronted with 'his mother.'

"Ah Lizzie. I see you are at leisure. Come, dearest."

Very unwittingly, Bingley obeyed and followed Mrs Bennet into her bedchamber like an obedient lamb followed its shepherd. To his surprise Hill was in there, heavily busy at preparing Mrs Bennet's bath. Bingley was so surprised to see her that he did not notice Mrs Bennet was offering her back to him, her hair unpinned and falling to one side over her shoulder.

"Lizzie?" said Mrs Bennet impatiently. "Will you, please?"

By the time Bingley realized that Mrs Bennet was asking him to help her out of her gown, it was too late to contrive an excuse. Mrs Bennet was not to trifle with and he best did the honours without a word of protest. With a trembling hand he undid the first buttons in Mrs Bennet's dress and withstood Mrs Bennet's protestations that he should hurry as best he could.

"Hurry up, girl!" urged Mrs Bennet. "Or else the water will get cold."

Bingley thought he would die of embarrassment. Had Mrs Bennet not been giving him her back she would have observed that her daughter's face was unusually pink.

"Come now," she said. "Soap my back and rub it as vigorously as you can," she demanded. "Hill is all thumbs with the sponge."

Bingley, almost nauseous with repulsion at the task confided to his hands, complied, nonetheless, and began to rub Mrs Bennet's back as vigorously as his hands could muster.

Mrs Bennet found her daughter's hands unusually strong, almost as strong as Mr Bennet's hands in the early days of their matrimony when he could not get his hands off her. A pleasant thrill began to spread from her bosom, one that reminded her of long forgotten sensations.

"Ahhh Lizzie," she sighed. "You have the hands of an angel, dear girl." She then closed her eyes and giggled with a private recollection. "Go on, do not stop, pray. It's delightful," she purred with contentment.

Bingley blinked, his panic and disgust no longer under regulation. "I cannot, madam," he said. "I am afraid I must go and help Jane with her toilette." Without giving Mrs Bennet a second to protest, he ran away to the sanctuary of Lizzie's bedchamber.

Chapter 18

Our tale merits a quick glance at what ensued at Longbourn while the Netherfield Party journeyed to Ramsgate. We left our heroine, or rather our hero, as he quit Mrs Bennet's toilet after a most shocking interlude entailing sponges and sighs.

He went directly to his own bedchamber, which he shared with Jane, extremely shocked by the perverseness of the encounter, and found the girls mercifully gone, the bathing items removed and Jane already abed. With a trembling hand and a twitching upper lip, and a twinge in his left eye, he slipped directly under the covers with excessive care not to stir the sleeping beauty that reposed amidst the quilts, and endeavoured to fall asleep as soon as may be to avoid further problems befalling upon him. Unfortunately his misfortunes were far from finished. The morning brought fresh ones which were equally distressing for Jane.

The reader must remember the turn of Mrs Bennet's mind, that it was always inclined to devise a way to attract suitable bachelors into her household. It had been her greatest achievement to have engineered a match between her eldest daughter and the Master of Netherfield. However, when Elizabeth, impersonating Charles Bingley, quit Netherfield Park, not only did she leave behind a broken-hearted Miss Bennet but also a frustrated and most astonished Mrs Bennet.

"It is very hard to think that Mr Bingley could have been so unreliable!" she protested. "I never saw a more promising inclination! Why, he seemed to be growing so much in love with Jane with every minute he spent in her company!" she confided to the astonished Bingley in the form of her second best daughter. "At his ball he only danced with her! Could there be finer symptoms?"

Bingley shook his head.

"I do not blame Jane!" she continued. Bingley opened his mouth to say something but then he thought better of it and remained silent. "For she would have got Mr Bingley if she could. But you! You could have been Mrs Collins's wife by this time, had it not been for your capricious wilfulness."

Bingley again opened his mouth but words simply did not come out. "As a consequence of your imprudence, Longbourn estate is just as much entailed as ever! And now he's gone to see the Lucases. It makes me very nervous that Mr Collins might be led on by Charlotte Lucas's arts and allurements."

Mr Bennet intervened. "Art and allurements? That poor plain girl?"

"The Lucases are very artful people indeed, Mr Bennet! They are all for what they can get. I am sorry to say that of them, but so it is."

"I would not worry about the entailment, my dear. I plan to remain on earth for a while."

"You take pleasure in vexing me!" Mrs Bennet cried in her usual manner. "Have you no compassion for poor Jane?"

"Oh, Jane is crossed in love, is she not?" Mr Bennet laughed. "You must not worry. It shall be of short duration. Here are officers enough in Meryton to send Mr Bingley to flee from her heart. Let Mr Wickham be that man. Or Mr Denny. He is a pleasant fellow and will jilt her creditably."

"How can you speak so, when your daughter is suffering?"

"A girl likes to be crossed in love a little now and then," he continued philosophically, "But it never lasts too long. A new love sends away an old one."

Mrs Bennet's face lit up. "You are absolutely right, my dear! Ha! How come I did not think of that before! Dear, dear Mr Bennet! You are the cleverest man I could ever find. You have saved us all!"

"I am glad to hear that," said Mr Bennet as he ducked his head into his newspaper.

"Jane, dear!" she called out. "Come with me this instant. There is something I must talk to you about."

Jane immediately obeyed and mother and daughter retired to another room.

"My dear girl," she said when they were alone. "You must not blame yourself for the loss of Mr Bingley for you did what you could, I am sure. We are all sorry it went off, but these things happen very often, and we must think of something before the Lucases snatch our inheritance."

Jane nodded and was on the verge of asking her mother how she could be of service when Mrs Bennet explained, "It seems likely there is yet another desirable match for you, my dear." Jane looked at her in astonishment. "I am talking of Mr Collins, of course," her mother clarified.

"Mama, I do not think..." Jane began, but was readily hushed by Mrs Bennet's profusion of words in favour of her brilliant idea. In vain did Jane endeavour to check the rapidity of her mother's words, or persuade her to forget about the wretched scheme. Mrs Bennet was determined to match her with their cousin.

"You are too sensible a girl, Jane, not to see the advantage of the match," she said. "I know that Mr Collins is not as well-favoured as Mr Bingley, but I am sure you will be just as happy!"

Jane, with her accustomed mildness, was too overwhelmed to decline her mother's wishes. Fortunately, Mr Collins remained conspicuously absent until quite late that morning, giving Miss Bennet the opportunity to mourn the loss of her true love. He appeared, unexpectedly, half way down lunchtime, hat rudely on, walking stick in one hand, his bag containing his clothes in the other and the severest face possible. He made a most dramatic entrance.

As Mrs Bennet was the only person among the members of the family who had a reason to care for his falling or remaining on two feet, she directed a look of expectant concern towards him which necessarily invited Mr Collins to address her. Thus, ignoring Mr Bennet's presence at the head of the table, he spoke directly to Mrs Bennet.

"Good afternoon."

"Good afternoon, dear sir. Will you not have lunch with us?" Mrs Bennet said persuasively.

"No, madam," was his stern answer. "I am come to bid good-bye to all of you. I take my leave of you."

"You go?"

Mr Collins nodded emphatically.

"I cannot believe it!" cried she.

"I believe, Mrs Bennet," rejoined Mr Bennet with mockery, "that Mr Collins has just said that he is taking his leave, which in English means that he is indeed going."

"Oh dear. But why?"

Mr Collins blushed a little. He was not yet recovered from the bite that Bingley had inflicted on his face when he had tried to kiss Elizabeth. "I fear I must," was his answer.

"Dear Sir, do not go. I beg you not to go. You cannot go just yet."

For a man who had decided to go, Mr Collins hesitated too much. That he was evidently expecting Mrs Bennet to insist upon his staying was plain to everybody. As if she were reading his thoughts, Mrs Bennet was prepared to offer a most enticing treat to persuade him to stay, "Why, Jane told me this morning that she was planning to walk as far as Oak Mountain in the afternoon, but none of her sisters can accompany her," she said. "I am sure you cannot return to Kent without seeing the view from there. Will you do me the service of escorting Jane?"

The invitation, that he should escort the beautiful Miss Bennet, no less, took Mr Collins by surprise, as it took everyone else, including Jane. Surprise notwithstanding, at Mrs Bennet's insistence, Mr Collins left his bag on the floor and agreed to walk with his fairest cousin.

Bingley watched with mournful mortification how his beloved, with a sadly resigned countenance, complied with her mother's hint and with not one word of contrariety, allowed the insupportable parson to accompany her for a stroll that she had not planned. In vain did he suggest chaperoning them. Mrs Bennet would not have it. They went on their own and Bingley was left behind to fret.

To Mr Bingley's horror Mrs Bennet talked to Jane in front of him as she helped her tie the ribbons of her bonnet, saying, "Dear girl. It is up to you now, my love. Our future is in your hands."

Jane nodded. She bore the saddest look upon her face, as if she were carrying the whole world upon her shoulders.

"If everything goes according to plan, you shall be engaged before the afternoon is over," Mrs Bennet sighed with satisfaction when the couple was gone.

Thus it was that by the time Miss Bennet and Mr Collins returned, the parson's affections had been transferred to Miss Jane with the rapidity with which Mrs Bennet transferred coal into the fire. The discussion of his offer of marriage to Miss Elizabeth and his consequent embarrassment and dejection in being so emphatically refused was soon forgotten, as his attentions were now directed to Miss Jane, whose beauty and mild character surpassed that of her younger sister.

~ * ~

By the time Darcy's carriage had reached ** the turnpike that led to Ramsgate, Elizabeth had not lost all memory of the morning but she had buried the anxieties. There was a new world waiting for her, brilliant with all the bloom of novelty, and she was determined to make the most of it.

Upon arrival, Miss Darcy was expecting Mr Darcy and the colonel with all the warmth a most beloved brother and cousin deserved.

"Dear William. I have missed you so," she said as she leaped into her brother's arms.

"Hey! Is there no love for me?" asked the colonel. The girl leaped into his arms as well and kissed them both on the cheeks. It was a tender moment and Elizabeth found herself gaping at it.

"O I have not seen you, Mr Charles." Miss Darcy said, a little alarmed as she spied Elizabeth watching the scene.

"It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance..." Elizabeth began but Colonel Fitzwilliam cut her short saying with a cold tone, "Why, Charles. I had the idea that you two had met already." Georgiana laughed. "Surely you do not need to be so formal with Georgiana, Charles. After all, you have known her for...how long? Five years now?"

Elizabeth's mortification was acute. Indeed, the girl was now reaching out her hand and shaking Elizabeth's with the alacrity proper of good friends.

Miss Darcy had been fussing over the servants, entreating them to have everything ready to show her brother and cousin a most warm welcome. She very diplomatically showed the same hospitable service to their mutual friend. They were shown into the parlour from where they could peek at the dining room, where a table had been set with a delicious repast. A little terrier sat on a pink cushion on a sofa following their entrance with anxious eyes, trembling all over in excited expectancy.

"Fifi!" cried Darcy. The dog yapped in response, wagged his tail, and finally growled with menace. The colonel laughed his customary roll of thunder.

"You are too little a dog to be growling like that, are you not?" In being addressed by the colonel the dog lowered his head and his ears pricked up. Fitzwilliam thought he had relented and made a gesture as if to stroke his head. He had scarcely stretched out his hand when the wretched animal tried to bite him.

"Down, Fifi!" urged his mistress. Then as she took him in her arms, she said tenderly, "Bad dog. We love Fitzwilliam, you hear me?"

"When will you teach him some manners?" asked Darcy.

"He just does not feel comfortable with men," she said apologetically. "He does not get to see many gentlemen here. He is a darling with all my lady friends, though."

"I am glad to hear that," laughed Darcy. "He is just as good as a brother to guard you."

They all broke into a merry laugh and, leaving the dog back on the sofa, they proceeded to go inside, the gentlemen excusing themselves to make themselves presentable for tea. After a short while Darcy and Fitzwilliam returned, perfectly groomed and looking forward to the repast.

"O we shall be a merry group!" cried the girl with excitement. Her happiness and pleasure to be entertaining her brother and cousin was extreme. Darcy looked around and in finding Bingley was nowhere to be seen asked Georgiana if she had seen him.

"No," she said. "He has not come downstairs yet."

While they waited for Bingley to come, Darcy and Georgiana talked amiably about their time apart while Colonel Fitzwilliam seemed lost in his thoughts. At last Georgiana endeavoured to include him in the conversation and told him that she had a collection of new waltzes.

"Would you like to hear them after tea?" she asked her cousin.

"I beg your pardon?"

"The newly imported waltzes. You have not been listening!" she complained.

"I was. But no. Not now. I am a bit tired for music," he said distractedly. "What could be taking Bingley so long?"

"I cannot wait to go to London. Aunt Ellen has promised a Christmas ball." Darcy did not say a word. He, too, had become distracted with Bingley's tardiness. In the end, both cousins became absurdly expectant of Bingley's whereabouts.

Georgiana noticed their inattention and tried to recapture them by saying something unseemly: "I was thinking...that perhaps I could dance a waltz at this ball?"

"Mhm," Darcy said not really understanding what he had agreed to.

"What say you? Can I?" No answer. "After all it will be a family ball. Merely forty or fifty guests." Darcy nodded yet again, as he turned his head to check the stairs for Bingley's return. "Brother?" Darcy and Fitzwilliam's inattention was too evident now and Georgiana followed the direction of their gaze until she was confronted with a most peculiar picture: Bingley, fearsome dog on his lap, seemed to have cast a spell on him and was now talking sweetly to the pet. The dog was licking Mr Charles's face with great enthusiasm. Georgiana gasped.

"Did Fifi not hate gentlemen in general?" asked Colonel Fitzwilliam under his breath.

"He still does," answered an astounded Georgiana.

"Why is it that he loves Bingley, then?"

"I've no idea," Georgiana said, laughing.

"Hey, Fifi!" called out Fitzwilliam. The dog growled at him, showing his teeth. "He still hates me," he mused.

"Mr Charles! What have you done to Fifi?" asked Georgiana, joining Elizabeth to caress the now tamed little dog.

Elizabeth stroked the dog, who was scarcely breathing from excitement. "He is adorable," she said.

"Adorable?" the colonel chuckled at the feminine word. To Darcy he just raised his eyebrows.

"I wish my sisters could see this little fellow," said she, not noticing the looks the gentlemen were exchanging.

"How are your sisters?" Miss Darcy asked to her brother's friend politely, feeling she had neglected to ask after them so far.

"Wild as always!" she laughed distractedly. Darcy beheld his friend Bingley with increasing curiosity. Conscious that she had put her foot in her mouth, Elizabeth asked, "Have I said anything wrong?"

"Nothing much," answered Darcy with a puzzled look upon his countenance. "You have just called your sisters wild," he informed her.

The morrow produced no abatement of Colonel Fitzwilliam's suspicious inclination. After breakfast, Miss Darcy expressed her wish to walk to the seashore, but none of her relatives seemed to like the scheme. Mr Bingley, however, showed himself quite enthusiastic with the scheme and off they went, chaperoned by Miss Annesley. Mr Bingley's delight in being gone was such as to make anyone who was privy to his alacrity believe that he had never seen the seashore in his life before.

When they were gone, Fitzwilliam confronted Darcy on the subject.

"Now what do you have to say?"

"What is there to say? The dog likes Bingley."

"So the fact that the dog cannot stand the presence of a man does not tell you anything?"

"Look, Fitzwilliam. Last time I checked, Charles Bingley was a man," he stated. "And nothing you can say will persuade me otherwise."

"What about the mistakes he makes?"

"Mistakes?"

"Don't you find it at least strange that he should have introduced himself to Georgiana? And then he says his sisters are wild? The last time I spent a short time with Caroline Bingley the only thing wild about her was the green feather in her turban. And if anything, I can define Louise Hurst as dull, stupefyingly so, as her husband gives daily testimony by dozing off the minute he arrives anywhere."

"That proves that Bingley is unwell. Not that he is being inhabited by a lady ghost."

"And what about this...over-enthusiasm to see the sea? For God's sake, Bingley has a house in Bath. Does that not seem at least a little strange?"

"It shows a keen interest in the ocean, I am sure."

"Well, let us put him to a test."

"What kind of test?"

"A very simple one. Ask him something that only Bingley knows and let us see what happens."

"Like what?"

"Like something that you two have done. Or better still. Make an untrue statement about something you two must know and see if he corrects you."

"I cannot see how that will prove him to be under a spell. At most it will only prove him to be confused, and I do not need a test to know that. I too have had daily proof of his confusion."

"What about his airs?"

"His airs?"

"Have you not noticed the way he walks and moves?" Fitzwilliam imitated Bingley's feminine movements, swinging his hips as he walked and twisting his wrist in female mannerism as he spoke. "He reminds me of Don Manuel Belgrano, a hussy colonel I met in Spain."

"This is ridiculous, Fitzwilliam."

"Maybe. But I tell you one thing. I know what I saw this morning. That girl was not an illusion and she transformed herself into Bingley in front of my eyes. I am ready to wager my life on it. Bingley is not who you think he is. And I am determined to prove my word."

chapter 19

Our tale takes us forward to London, where our small party from Ramsgate went, after they had visited sea shores and pastry shops in abundance to comply with Mr Bingley's excessive enthusiasm for the place. Before snow spoiled roads again, however, they made up their minds to go into town, to spend the rest of winter in pleasant society and be in time for the opening of Parliament. Their party split there. Colonel Fitzwilliam went to his parents' townhouse, much to everyone's peace of mind, and Mr Darcy to his own, unaware he was taking not one but two most excited ladies with him.

It was high time for the lovely heiress of Pemberley to open her path into the jungle of debutants, as she had been dutifully hinting to her brother every time an invitation for a ball was issued, particularly since the winter season never failed to offer a plethora of invitations to balls and soirees.

Elizabeth wished to be close to Miss Darcy above all. She had begun to miss her sisters and Miss Darcy was the only girl to whom she could turn without fear of compromising herself as a potential suitor for the lady.

Thus it was that Darcy was incited by Elizabeth to allow Miss Darcy have her long-awaited coming out. It was not difficult to persuade him since he was quite agreeably entertained by Bingley planning all sort of activities, and the natural melancholy of seeing his little sister already entering the marriage market which would have ensued had he been alone and at leisure were spared him.

The girl's excitement was only surpassed by her aunt's. Indeed, everything that would have been expected from a mother to do for a beloved daughter, Lady Matlock did for her niece on the occasion of her debut under Mr Darcy's careful supervision. Elizabeth, with as much necessary circumspection as her disguise afforded, observed how meticulously they arranged everything for the event. Mr Darcy all but took her personally to the modiste, and purchased every trinket he could think the young girl might find delightful. They were so cheerful, so loving, so well educated. In what amiable light all this placed Mr Darcy!

"Everything seems to be ready," Darcy sighed. "Aunt Ellen will take care of all the rest. I hope you are satisfied."

"Aye, brother," Miss Darcy grinned. Then she added shyly. "There's one little detail, though."

"What?"

"I must practise."

"Oh, of course." He looked around as if pondering what to do. "Which means...we face another problem."

"What?" Elizabeth asked, setting Miss Darcy's terrier, which had become exceedingly fond of her, back on the sofa.

"The only one who can play the piano decently well is you, my dear sister. I am afraid no one here can play a jig."

"Oh I can!" declared Bingley with a beaming face.

"Can you?" gasped Miss Darcy. Mr Darcy rolled his eyes. Was there no end to Charles's surprises?

"Aye, but very ill."

"This is most unexpected coming from a gentleman! But what can you play? Never mind. Anything will do," laughed Miss Darcy, full of elation.

Darcy shrugged. "You go to the piano forte, Charles (grabbing his sister by the hand and pulling her to the music room in between her giggles of embarrassment). I shall take this young lady and give her a lesson in how to move her feet."

Elizabeth followed them with alacrity. She had never witnessed a more endearing scene. By now, she certainly thought Mr Darcy the most virtuous gentleman in England, and the sight of him practising the patterns of the various dances with his sister was so tender, so edifying, as to increase her admiration for him and her delight in being in their agreeable company by the hour.

The reader would not find Elizabeth's excitement and delight too difficult to understand. She was rich, she was in London, she was free from the usual constrictions connected with her sex, and she was in the best company ever. To drive to fine dinner parties where she would be welcome by gentlemen as an equal, and from the fine dinner parties to equally fine assemblies where most distinguished men handsomely cravatted and wearing the glossiest boots and most pristine gloves would await with fine conversation, the ladies all blonde and shy and in pink; the mamas sumptuous, solemn and in diamonds --- all of this away from the inconsistencies of Hertfordshire--- was a dream come true.

There was only one cloud looming over her perfect sky: her growing attachment to Mr Bingley's friend. Indeed, convinced as Elizabeth was now that Mr Darcy was far from the ogre she had always thought him to be, she could not help thinking how welcome his addresses would be now, were she to return to a lady's form.

Every minute she spent in his company, Elizabeth discovered a new virtue in his character and grew more and more in love with the usually austere gentleman. She found herself daydreaming of him in quite romantic situations which necessarily demanded that she wore a lady's dress (many a time a lady's nightshift would have been just the thing). Her attraction to him was such, as to keep her wishing she could do things a lady did with a gentleman, which, when combined with her star's whimsicalities, had the most shocking results.

The unfathomable episode took place in the solitude of her bedchamber after a close encounter with Mr Darcy on their second day in London.

Mr Darcy was not a man inclined to field sports. Except for riding his tall horse and fencing at his club, he seldom did anything else (in summer, when it was too hot, he would take a refreshing dip in the river, as the reader must be familiar with). Yet he had one passion, one sole activity that he simply adored: boxing. He could spar better than anyone else, and had occasionally been in a prize ring just for the fun of it.

Such was his delight in the sport that he had a special room fitted for sparring both in his townhouse in London and at Pemberley. And his passion for the sport was shared by his good friends, Colonel Fitzwilliam and Bingley, of course, as Elizabeth was about to discover.

"Ah Bingley," he said one morning, welcoming his good friend into the above-mentioned room. "Come in." Darcy detected alarm in Bingley's eyes. It was evident that boxing was among the things he did not recollect. Albeit Elizabeth's reluctance owed to some extent to the violent nature of the exercise, there was another issue that greatly contributed to intimidate her.

There is no doubt that a man of Mr Darcy's constitution in breeches and shirtless would extract sighs and what not from any lady that might be privy to such a vision. As it was, Mr Darcy would not dream of presenting himself half naked in front of any woman. Albeit Elizabeth had become considerably used to seeing him short of clothes, the sight of him, or rather, the sight of his chest, never failed to move her a little.

"You will ruin that shirt," Darcy pointed out.

Elizabeth shrugged. "I am cold," she lied. Shortage of breasts notwithstanding, she felt naked without a shirt, particularly in front of him.

Assuming a scholarly air, Darcy explained the rudiments of the sport to his forgetful friend. "Boxing combines blows with swiftness. You will see that it is not the most powerful who wins a match. Rather, it is he who can contrive to move faster and swifter. It is all in your feet and in your waist." Elizabeth looked down at her feet. "Well?" Darcy circled around her, and with one foot he separated her legs. Then he grabbed one limb and set it slightly forward. "There, like this. Good." He inspected the position of her head. "Chin up," he said.

"Like this?"

"Perfect." Elizabeth stood in front of him with both arms at her sides. Darcy shook his head. "You are a sitting duck. Your arms. You must assume a guard position." Elizabeth arched an enquiring brow. "A defensive attitude," he elaborated.

"Like this?" she assumed a fencing posture.

"No," he clicked his tongue. Mr Darcy was not the most patient instructor. He grabbed her arms and put them in the way he wanted. "Show me your fists. Look, this is your lead hand, and this your rear hand. Understand? There. Now, your punch is thrown with your lead hand from your guard position. Like this," he demonstrated the punch and hit her chest lightly while he leaped slightly forwards and backwards again in an instant. "Your hand must return quickly to the guard position, see?"

She nodded, biting her lip. If Darcy would have been able to see the blushing girl behind her expressions or suspected her deep embarrassment when he touched her, he would have kissed her right on the spot.

"No, no, chin up. You must look at your opponent. Do not crouch unless your opponent aims at your face. Look at me. See? Like this. Very well. Let us see. Show me what you can do."

"What am I suppose to do?" said she from behind her fists.

Darcy shook his head. "Hit me," he said impatiently.

She lowered her guard and looked at him in disbelief. "Hit you?"

"Yes," he pointed at his chin. "Hit me here."

Elizabeth attempted a meek blow. Darcy protested, "Come on. Stretch out your arm as quickly as you can and hit me when you think I least expect it."

Elizabeth tried again, this time her fist came forward with a swift movement. But Darcy dodged the blow without problem. Elizabeth advanced a step and tried to hit him again, while Darcy encouraged her to do so. Another failed try, and another. Before long Elizabeth began to feel annoyed.

At the end of the lesson, the disciple had not been able to land a single blow on the master, yet as a result of the application of many a boxing technique and plenty of scuffle, a great deal of touching and grabbing of limbs had occurred, all of which left Mr Bingley quite flushed in the face yet not precisely from the exertion.

"You should exercise more," Darcy said noticing his friend's unusual pink cheeks and difficult breathing. "You are not fit enough," and he smacked his rear with a wet towel as a father does with his child. Then he dipped the towel into a bucket and cleaned his armpits and sweaty chest, in front of Elizabeth's astonished eyes. He was unbuttoning his breeches and about to put on a robe when Elizabeth, feeling herself swept away by a gust of warmth interposed, "I...I shall change my clothes in my ..." and seeing that Mr Darcy was not paying attention, before he finished discarding his breeches she simply quit the room.

Episodes of this kind, where Mr Darcy's proximity drove her to complete distraction, were not scarce. Mr Bingley was Mr Darcy's best friend, and he spent a good deal of time with him doing all sort of activities. After the aforementioned boxing routine, Mr Darcy insisted that Mr Bingley should exercise more. Perhaps his poor health of late stemmed in his lack of regulation in taking up sport.

As soon as possible, Darcy planned a series of physical routines some of which entailed wrestling (you should have witnessed that), fencing (oh, she simply loved this. It was very much like a dance in her mind), steam baths (that was, indeed, a thrilling experience), and riding horses (Mr Darcy did most of the riding, Elizabeth merely jigged behind him and scarcely endeavoured to keep herself on her mount). To crown it all, when there was no dinner party to attend, they would play billiards till the wee hours of the night when again a good quantity of technique was imparted with the consequent physical contact particular of the game (shocking the unseemly amount of skin to skin between gentlemen!). She invariably ended each day nursing the most sensual ideas in her heart.

Being an innocent, her reveries did not include actual intercourse, mind you. But alone in her bed when she poured all her womanly fantasies onto her pillow, there was as much touching, caressing and sighing as the most fantastic reader's mind can contrive to imagine. Visions of herself and Mr Darcy lying shamelessly in bed (Colonel Fitzwilliam was sadly missing from her reveries this time!!!) holding each other, kissing each other with unrestrained hunger, soared into her mind to the point of exhaustion.

And exhausted she invariably finished, at the end of her first week, frustrated and quite spent, helplessly bound to her nascent womanly desires for the unaware gentleman and absolutely deprived of expressing her feelings in any way that could be accepted by him. As if this would not be distressing enough, shortly after their arrival in London, a series of shocking situations ensued that were conducive to her deep regret of the present state of affairs. They originated at the dinner reception with which the Honourable Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam and his cousins were received, adding to her great discomfort.

Lady Matlock, Aunt Ellen to Miss Darcy, the Patron Saint of Almack's for the ton, extended them an invitation to dine at the Matlock townhouse which by virtue of his acquaintance with her nephew included Mr Bingley. Because dear Aunt Ellen was determined to marry her youngest son to a suitable heiress, there was usually an abundance of such attending her dinner parties too, all of them desirous of becoming better acquainted with the genteel, amiable colonel.

And so it was that upon their entering the main parlour, the young men were introduced to a Miss Slowbore, daughter of Lord Grey of Slowbore, a Miss Grizzel, daughter of the great Lady Grizzel, and a red haired girl of one and twenty, Miss Matilda Shaw, heiress of a vast empire in Jamaica, all of whom were to have their coming out on Christmas Eve.

Being herself momentarily a young gentleman of some consequence, said debutants were of course eager to get to know her better as well. Granted, she had not counted on that.

After an exceedingly uncomfortable dinner, the usual separation occurred, and Elizabeth was bundled into yet another gentleman's assembly, which never failed to make her feel more and more uncomfortable.. Over port and cigars and away from the sensitive ears of the ladies, gentlemen's conversation became quite light-hearted and daring. What an abysmal difference was there between the ladies' drawing room and the enclosure of the gentlemen's library! While those innocent creatures, whose only manly company were the young boys who were not admitted to their elders' secrets talked about their children and their many ailments, indiscreet gentlemen of the ton dissected the most shameful topics as if it was the most natural thing to do.

The present masculine gathering at the Matlocks' was no different. The gentlemen there included Lord Matlock, a genteel though slightly deaf blue Tory, Fitzwilliam's commander General Buffo, another gentleman with a pair of mischievous little eyes, Colonel Fitzwilliam, Mr Darcy and herself. Because there was no introduction, Elizabeth gathered Mr Bingley must be already acquainted with all of them, which posed another challenge to her wits, particularly after the gentlemen commenced to discuss quite shocking issues, like mistresses and politics.

What with the odious smell of tobacco and the cloud of smoke that filled the air, Elizabeth could hardly breathe. But she found the tone and topics attended even more reprehensible than the cigars. Elizabeth's astonishment in hearing their colloquy was indeed extreme. While in a lady's drawing room marriages were arranged, here prostitutes were recommended with the same matter-of-fact tone with which Miss Bennet read her list of groceries. She was so repulsed that she wished she were back at home celebrating the mysteries of her mother's gatherings with all their inconsistencies.

While she was struggling for composure listening to a very vivid account of General Buffo's latest affair, Elizabeth saw that she was being closely watched by Colonel Fitzwilliam. To make matters worse, the general did not speak a word without asking her opinion or Darcy's.

"Dev'lish nice women, out there, ain't them, eh Darcy?" Darcy shrugged. "What say you, Charles? I saw a pair of pretty eyes on you, me boy."

"I am sure I did not notice," said she, blushing.

"Not noticed? How could you possibly not have? That red-haired girl looks wonderfully well."

Darcy, who could hardly bear Colonel's Fitzwilliam's comrades from the barracks, came to his friend's defence. "A lady with such brilliant colour in her hair cannot tempt anyone," he said.

"I will not be marrying her, for God's sake," chuckled the general.

"You must excuse my cousin. I am afraid no one could tempt Darcy momentarily. His heart is already taken, isn't it, Darcy?" said Fitzwilliam knowing how fastidious Darcy was in what discussing ladies entailed. "He left it in Hertfordshire this autumn, and he is here trying to forget." Elizabeth arched an eyebrow inquiringly, expecting Darcy to rebuke his cousin at any moment for teasing him so. Contrary to expectations, Darcy did not say a word.

Far from moved by the admission, the man with the little wicked eyes said, "I know of a lady who can put your love blues to heal, my friend..."

Colonel Fitzwilliam intervened. "Oh, no. That sort of thing will not work with my cousin. His is a monstrous infatuation that nothing but the very dazzling eyes that initiated it can cure." Elizabeth's heart skipped a beat at such a comment. "However," the colonel went on, "I am sure I would like that address."

"Going back to the beautiful red-haired..." the general began talking to Elizabeth, who was engrossed staring at Darcy, amazed that he had not felt offended.

"I would not be so enthusiastic about the colour of her hair, General," said the colonel. "It is dyed."

"Dyed?" asked the general disappointed. "Upon my soul, it cannot be!"

"I am certain I have never seen such an unnatural red in my life," said the colonel. "What is your opinion, pray?" Fitzwilliam asked Elizabeth who instantly came out of her trance. "Is it natural, you think?"

Elizabeth did not tarry to answer. "I imagine you can be in the right. I once knew some auburn ladies to have dyed their hair quite red," she said, unaware she was undergoing Fitzwilliam's idea of a test.

"I wonder if all her hair in her body is of the same brilliant red," said the wicked general with a roar. "What say you if you go ahead and find out? She seems quite taken with you, my dear chap," he asked. prodding Elizabeth with his elbow and then laughing out loud. Elizabeth's face went red as a beet.

That was an awful and unfortunate comment, never to be thought of by Elizabeth without horror. All through the gentlemen's thoughtless jokes Elizabeth noticed Darcy had remained immutably serious. However, the colonel's eyes were sternly and steadfastly on her, as if he was trying to read her mind. Thus, her discomfiture became unbearable, and she begged them all, with a ghastly countenance, to be excused for the rest of the evening.

The moment Elizabeth quit the room, Fitzwilliam put forward a renewal of questions designed to prove that Bingley was, in fact, a lady in disguise.

"Did Bingley not show himself unseemly proficient in lady's hair dyes? Did he not blush at the cheeky reference of ladies' nether hair? he asked into Darcy's ear.

Darcy's response came in the form of a hyperbole, "I have seen Caroline Bingley wearing a similar red, I am certain. I would not be surprised if Bingley dyed her hair himself. As to the shameful reference...it certainly made me blush as well."

"Humph," said the colonel.

"Fitzwilliam, I beg you to put an end to these stupid quizzes and stern observations which are bound to develop a fear of you in Bingley, nothing more," Darcy said, quite put out. "By the way, talk to your friends regarding their jokes. Bingley is a genteel sort of man, and is not used to the language of the barracks, and neither am I for that matter. Otherwise I shall spend the rest of the holidays somewhere else."

That was enough to chastise the colonel for a while. However, the happenstance gave Elizabeth food for reflection. How disgusting the so-called superior company of the distinguished members of the ton turned out to be! She certainly could not picture gentlemen like Sir William or her Uncle Phillip discussing such cheeky, nay shameful topics with their coffee! How wrong she had been in being ashamed of them! Her mother's shrieks and her father's thoughtlessness were a hundred thousand times preferable. Oh, how she longed to return to the simplicities of a country lady's life!

The rest of the week did not bring better prospects.

Albeit there was an over abundance of entertainment, Elizabeth was compelled to withstand a landslide of female pressure from all flanks which she found astonishing and which robbed her of all feasible pleasure she could have derived from the outing.

Soon it was clear that London in the high season was the worst place for an unmarried gentleman not inclined to marriage. At the theatre, the box belonging to Darcy scarcely hid her from the attentive mamas that passed by to say good evening during the intervals. They attended a concerto with similar consequences at which Darcy was eternally interrupted by the invariable mob of females. They positively suffered through a good number of dinner parties in the same fashion.

After the shameful dinner at Lady Matlock's townhouse, Elizabeth had had her fill of gentlemanly company. Gentlemen did have a great deal of freedom, she knew. Their practices and activities were a more interesting than those allowed to ladies. Yet Elizabeth was not a man, as her infatuation with Mr Darcy was crying out louder each passing day. She was still a girl trapped in a gentleman's body. She could perform a man's duty and enjoy his allowances, she could dress like a man and even look and talk like a man (moving like a man did need a little touch, however) but there was one thing she could not do. She could not think like one.

By Christmas Eve, her heart was almost completely at Longbourn, fervently wishing she were there. Her mind was more often than not with her sister, wondering what could have ensued between Jane and Mr Bingley. Unfortunately, there was no way in which she could extricate herself from London with the Christmas ball so close, otherwise she would have left everything behind and gone back home.

The straw that would break the camel's back, however, was added at the Christmas ball.

If anything, Elizabeth was used to inglorious performances at assemblies where scarcity of gentlemen more often than not combined with undesirable ones to ruin the pleasure of a ball. But those were rendered splendid nights of merriment compared to the astonishing mortification prepared for her at the smooth coming out of Miss Darcy. That came to be undoubtedly the worst of her dancing experiences.

To begin with she found herself beseeched by female partners. Everywhere she turned there were several ladies pressed round her, sporting the well known card, eager to contrive a dance. If she survived them, it was only because Darcy's dejection scared a good number of them.

With murderous eyes, Elizabeth watched the matrons flatter Darcy, the debutants flirt with him...she even saw one of them cheekily wink at him, yet to her satisfaction, Darcy remained immutable. Not once did she see him smile at any of them in the same manner he used to smile at her.

Before long, she realised that Darcy's haughty demeanour was but a wise devise to keep the young ladies at bay, so she made up her mind to emulate him. Soon she was showing as stern a demeanour, and taciturn a disposition as her good friend, which was, of course, quite un-Bingley-like.

Because she could not, would not dance with ladies, Elizabeth was forced to keep the disagreeable company of the gentlemen and was forced as well, almost the entire night, to endure meaningless conversation about politics (a subject in which she was not interested and could scarcely interpret), or shocking, often awful references to women. It was only when the talk revolved around horses that she could offer an honest opinion yet not necessarily follow what was being discussed (what was the difference between a stallion and a thoroughbred, anyway?).

She was thus engaged when out of the corner of her eye, and to her entire chagrin, she spied Darcy escorting a gorgeous blond to the dance floor, despite his own disinclination for the amusement.

It was a wretched sight to behold, indeed. She found herself ogling with mortified eyes Darcy's partner, wishing she would sprain her ankles after the first pattern of the minuet, envying the hand Mr Darcy held, recollecting the known tingle in her skin at his touch and regretting that she would not be getting those again. She watched him as he invariably returned to her side, when the dance was over, but there was no longer haughtiness in his features, but rather a certain naughtiness about him. Evidently, he was savouring the aftermath of the exertion, very much in the manner a tomcat relishes a bowl of cream, licking his whiskers with satisfaction when he is done.

"I see you are not dancing," Darcy pointed out while arranging the pristine cuffs of his sleeves.

"I see you are," Elizabeth retorted with a clipped tone.

"Do I detect chagrin in your voice?" he chuckled. "I hope you are not jealous." Darcy of course said this in reference to the beautiful blond whom he had just left at the refreshment table and who was presently smiling bewitchingly in Darcy's direction as she blushed most becomingly, no doubt thinking herself the subject of their conversation and universally envied by all the other ladies in having been singled out by the most desirable bachelor at the assembly.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth misinterpreted Darcy's words, and she thought he was asking her if she was jealous of the lady, which was in fact, very much the case.

"I am certain I would never dance with you, even if you were the last man in the world," she said, quite out of her wits.

"I am certain I would never ask you to dance with me!" answered Darcy with mockery.

"Perfect," answered Elizabeth with a huff. "You are wasting your time with me then. You should go back to your partner and enjoy her smiles."

Darcy scowled at him, a bit confused. What could have positively enraged his friend? "Are you unwell, Bingley? I have not seen you this dejected in my life."

"I am perfectly fine, thank you," she said recollecting herself.

"Why do you not dance with Georgiana? I am sure she is expecting you to ask her."

"Do you not wish that I marry her as well?" she ejaculated, full of chagrin. Darcy beheld his friend with absolute wonder. "Look," Elizabeth continued, "I do not need your help to find dance partners. I can perfectly engage any lady were I inclined to dance. But as it is, I am not. I am quite at ease conversing amiably here."

"Very well," Darcy bowed. "In that case I shall do as you bid me."

"What?" Darcy did not say another word, and Elizabeth was left to watch him go back to the infamous blond and engage her for the supper dance.

Oh hateful, hateful man. How dare he dance twice with another and in front of her nose! She would never, ever forgive him. She looked over her shoulder and scowled at the beautiful blond by Darcy's side. She saw her smile at him and nod at something he whispered into her ear and extend her prettily gloved hand for Darcy to hold and be gone to a corner to converse with him. "What an artful little minx!" she gasped in bewilderment. "She fancies herself so important, does she? He is in love with me, anyway!" she sobbed mournfully to herself.

However, where was she now? Nowhere in the race. Where was her glorious triumph over the opposite sex? Lost behind a dubious blond whose greatest attribute Elizabeth knew was merely being a woman.

Wretched, wretched night! Wouldst to God that she were the alluring Miss Bennet she had once been! That there was a possibility that she would never be regarded by a gentleman again was not so unsettling as the idea that Mr Darcy's piercing eyes would not descend on her as they used to earlier in their acquaintance. For her there was now a friendly look, full of camaraderie yet void of the very thing she had once had and had not valued: his unguarded, unrestrained admiration. Never again would she see that wild penetrating look of blind partiality upon his eyes, a look she now missed with all her heart.

She was still the same witty mind he admired so, but she needed her feminine assets to bewitch the gentleman into loving her. She would have given anything to be the possessor or those dazzling eyes at least for a while and be able to engage him for the supper dance.

Granted, she rode with him every day (she was becoming quite proficient), fenced, and wrestled, and even bathed with him almost every afternoon. But she wished she could do other things, things that were a lady's province and that were prohibited to her in her manly costume. The poor lady in the gentleman's skin wept in spirit full of perplexity. "I wish I were out of this already," she thought to herself. "I would rather be Mr Collins's wife and teach Sunday school each day of my life than this, or a servant's daughter and spent the rest of my life attending a great lady, or even Colonel Fitzwilliam's inamorata and ride with him in his regimental wagon to the continent." And then an enlightening thought came to her mind. "How much gayer a girl's life is!" she thought. "I would never ever change my simple maidenly life in Hertfordshire for a rich man's life!"

Elizabeth was bent on those ruminations when, in looking around, she found herself in quite another environment. She was no longer at Darcy's ball room, but rather at a simple assembly, the likes of which her Aunt Phillips held for Christmas. Lady Stunnington's daughter was no longer fussing around her. It was her own mother who passed by her with a look of decided scorn. Lady Gaunt and her astonishing simpering sister-in-law were also gone and now it was Mr Collins who swept his vengeful eyes over her with what could be read as a gross insult.

It was only when she caught sight of Jane that she realized what had happened. She was Elizabeth again!

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