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Introduction to chapter 17

This chapter focuses around The Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th) or Twelfth Night. There is a ball and quite a few allusions to Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. For those of you who may have forgotten, this is a play involving mistaken identities, disguises and is set in quite a topsy-turvy world. There is mention of some of the main characters in this chapter: Malvolio is the rude and arrogant steward in the employ of one of the female leads, Olivia. Sebastian is the twin brother of another female lead, Viola. His arrival in Illyria begins the resolution of many problems and he is definitely one of the play's strongest heroes even though he plays a rather minor role. Lastly, there is Feste, the jester. Under the mantle of foolishness, he spews great wisdom and truths that otherwise escapes the presumably "smarter, more noble characters". Although this play is a comedy, parts of it are quite dark.

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Chapter 17 - part 1

Almost a week later, over breakfast one morning, it came to pass that Mr. Darcy decided to grace Elizabeth with information she felt he should have conveyed to her some time ago.

"Bingley has recently decided to return to London. He arrives tomorrow. It will be good to see our old friend once again, do you not agree?"

Elizabeth attempted to veil the disdain from her expression, but she had no way of knowing the extent of her success. Before her sat her husband casually relaying information that he had known for at least a week! Surely he realized how personally relevant it was for her to know it, yet he had opted to remain secretive until now.

"Really? It will be good to have the pleasure of Mr. Bingley's company once more." She paused briefly. Whether or not to confront her husband about his purposeful concealment was a question running rampant through her mind. With Georgiana now present at the table, she knew she could not delve into her resentment. "I am rather shocked that he has chosen to leave Hertfordshire, but then again, you did once intimate that your friend is quick to change his mind and is influenced by the smallest thing."

"Have you just learned of Mr. Bingley's return? Perhaps he had decided to quit Netherfield some time ago," offered Georgiana, continuing this thread of discussion with her brother.

"No," he responded looking up from his breakfast and meeting Elizabeth's eye, "I believe he has been considering his departure for some time now. About a week ago in one of his letters to me, he implied he would leave, but, as Elizabeth mentioned, Bingley is known to be impulsive. I often do not put much stock in whatever it is he tells me he means to do until he actually does it."

"Yet, previously I had always found Mr. Bingley's impetuosity to be one of his most charming qualities. He is willing to please everyone and hardly ever thinks of himself." Elizabeth continued to look at her husband, unflinchingly, "However, the suddenness of his departure from Netherfield is unexpected - even from him. Perhaps his sisters do not want to be there anymore."

Georgiana spoke up knowingly, "You are possibly quite right, Elizabeth. In two of her most recent letters to me, Miss Bingley did suggest she was not content at Netherfield. Thus, her brother must want to accommodate her wishes."

"I do not believe that is altogether true. In his dispatch, Bingley led me to believe the decision to leave Hertfordshire was very much his own. In fact, he did not mention his sister at all - although I imagine her to be in raptures about returning to Town."

"And did he say why he wished to leave? Has something displeased him of late?"

Elizabeth knew her husband was aware of the nature of her insinuations, yet his initial response was nothing more than a cavalier shrug of his shoulders and nod of his head.

"Well, I shall be pleased to see him again at any rate. He is such a benevolent man and his company makes any place merrier," Georgiana supplied.

Elizabeth turned toward the young girl and examined her closely, with more care than she did normally; she hoped to read something in her expression as she spoke of Mr. Bingley. She looked for signs of admiration, recalling Miss Bingley's implication that there was the potential of a future connection between her brother and Miss Darcy. Yet, to Elizabeth's critical eye, she could find no proof of anything other than approbation for the man whom she spoke of as a dear friend. She stifled a sigh of relief.

"Elizabeth, you shall be pleased to know we will see him very soon. He has been invited to the Whitby Twelfth Night Ball and he has informed me that he means to accept the invitation."

"Delightful! I shall look forward to his company."

In fact, she did welcome meeting with the gentleman again. In two days' time, when she next saw Mr. Bingley, she meant to take every opportunity afforded to her to gauge the young man's intentions insofar as Jane was concerned. While she could not openly ask him why he had deserted her, she meant to skilfully employ whatever method she had to in order to obtain the information from the always-before open gentleman. Moreover, she believed his presence may be a salve to her at this mysterious ball where she did not know quite what to expect.

"Oh Elizabeth, are you very excited about attending your first Twelfth Night ball? I have heard you and William mention it is to be a masquerade celebration! I do not believe I could ever be brave enough to attend such a party, but I do so long to hear your accounts of it when you return."

"Georgiana, I hope the mask will ease my discomfort somewhat! I trust the artifice of disguise will be a useful weapon for me on that evening."

"You need not worry about hiding from the people who will attend," countered Mr. Darcy. "You have done remarkably well in all social situations thus far. I do not see why you expect this one would be any different."

"I believe it is the somewhat reckless nature of what I know to be true of such parties that is causing me some distress," replied Elizabeth carefully. "I hope to avoid embarrassing myself - or you - too much, Sir, but on an evening where madcap moments and concealment are requisite and even encouraged, I am not too surprised at my reticence."

"Indeed the Whitby's eldest son, whom I have heard has influenced his parents to hold this particular ball, is rumoured to be somewhat reckless and capricious. If he is responsible for overseeing the arrangements of this celebration, you would be wise to be prepared for his somewhat fanciful notions."

"Well, it shall be interesting at any rate," said Elizabeth. "I am sure I have been to no other party quite like it."

The remainder of the meal consisted of idle chatter existing mainly between Mr. Darcy and Georgiana. As she did whenever the occasion allowed her to without arousing the suspicion of the young girl, Elizabeth sank into a thoughtful silence.

She would have plenty of opportunities to reflect upon the puzzling ball at length in the upcoming days. Currently, she could think no farther than the reason why her husband continued to be evasive about the explanation regarding Mr. Bingley's removal from Netherfield. In her most recent correspondence, Jane had mentioned nothing about the gentleman's departure - in fact, she had not mentioned the man at all! Yet, beneath Jane's descriptions of life at Longbourn and her sympathetic questions about her marriage, Elizabeth detected a new emptiness in her sister's words. It was a flatness she believed stemmed from her sister's despondency over losing Mr. Bingley for what may perhaps be forever. Loving Jane as she did, she could not merely remain in London serenely without somehow attempting to make things better for her. While she did not know precisely what she could do to help her sister, Elizabeth was resolved to work unstintingly until she formulated a workable plan.

On the evening of the Twelfth Night ball, with her new sister beside her, Elizabeth awaited her husband's arrival in the drawing room. Her head was spinning. Since first learning of the possible uncontrolled frenzy of events that may be expected from this evening's celebration, her level of anxiety had risen proportionately. Yet, on an evening where uncertainty was the expected fare, she suffered no regret over her current tumult.

This afternoon, a delicately wrapped parcel had arrived for her which had heightened her confusion. When she opened it, she discovered it contained a beautiful velvet mask adorned with floral embellishments, colourful ribbons and pearl studs. It was, quite simply, the most fantastic ornament she ever beheld.

However, even more surprising than the arrival of the exquisite mask, was the note from the sender.

Elizabeth, En route to my attorney's office today, I noticed this mask and immediately thought of you wearing it to the Whitby ball. I hope you believe it to be as perfect as did I when I first saw it. You will, no doubt, be quite lovely on your own, but this may serve to compliment you further. Yours, FD

Of course, when she had shown it to Georgiana, the young girl was in raptures over it. Upon learning that her brother had acquired it for her, Georgiana demonstrated no surprise and claimed that level of thoughtful attention was customary from her brother.

Elizabeth, however, remained astonished. The note Mr. Darcy had included with the parcel was quite complimentary to her and she was not accustomed to being the object of his consideration. She could not help but wonder if he meant to call her lovely - he had never before hinted that he viewed her in such a manner. She did not want to be overly disparaging, but she had no history with him suggesting he may find her attractive and so she reasoned her doubts were sound and thereby permissible.

Mr. Darcy arrived a few minutes later and was first greeted by his sister who proceeded to be as effusive as the shy girl could possibly be over how handsome a picture her brother made.

"I dare say you and Elizabeth shall be the handsomest couple at the ball tonight. No one shall compare!" she said with a confidence that Elizabeth found foreign coming from one so customarily timid.

Elizabeth laughed gently. "I can hardly believe that, Georgiana! There will no doubt be several handsome characters at the party tonight. Not even the cleverest mask will hide their splendour."

"And what of your own splendour, Elizabeth? Are you not at least as handsome as the prettiest woman there? In my eyes, you are. What say you, William?"

Upon hearing his name, Mr. Darcy startled. Clearly, his mind had been elsewhere or he was unprepared to compliment her. For a moment, Elizabeth sympathized with him having to abruptly devise what he must feel was insincere praise on her behalf due to his suddenly insistent sibling.

"She will no doubt be...unparalleled, Georgie - with or without her mask."

His tone was level and, upon hearing it, Elizabeth felt herself overcome with a new awkwardness. She had never believed Mr. Darcy would be the sort of gentleman to easily flatter a woman of his acquaintance, but his kind words regarding her appearance and the gentle manner in which he said them caused her to rethink her initial impression of him. Of course, he must be playing to his sister's expectations, but upon hearing his compliment she felt herself turn a deep red.

In a low voice she barely recognized as her own, she thanked him, still shocked over having garnered his express approval.

After being helped into their coats while offering Georgiana their farewells mixed with promises that they would relay even the smallest details of their evening to her tomorrow, Mr. Darcy led Elizabeth outside and assisted her into the carriage which awaited them.

Once they set off, Elizabeth searched her mind for something to say to her husband. Lately, she had been doing all she could not to speak to him so as to forestall her desire to challenge his prior knowledge of Mr. Bingley's return as well as his true reasons for welcoming it. Now, however, she felt something should be said - some thanks needed to be given - regarding his thoughtful purchase of the mask which she held delicately in her gloved fingers.

"Mr. Darcy...is the Whitby townhouse far?"

"Not very. We shall arrive in under a quarter of an hour. Why do you ask? Are you chilled?"

As he said this, he moved across the carriage and gathered the heavy woollen blanket beside Elizabeth. Before she could protest, he began unfolding it and placing it across her lap. As she watched him, she wondered at his attempts to be so solicitous. In fact, once she regained her senses, she almost stopped him, but by the time she gathered her courage to do so, he had finished his task.

"Sir, I have not thanked you...for the gift of this lovely mask." She knew her words sounded hesitant and unsure. "I was not expecting it. Thank you for thinking of me."

As he often did, Mr. Darcy regarded her carefully before responding. Under his direct gaze, she felt compelled to squirm in discomfort, though she resisted the impulse to do so.

"I am pleased that you like it. Had I not found it, we could have selected one from a collection of masks stored in the attic. That room suffers from disuse, but the masks are well preserved. My own comes from that collection. I believe it was my father's."

He showed her the mask he was holding in his hands. She noticed it was a jester's mask with small bells and that it was adorned with braids that looked to be hand woven. Given what she knew of his rather stern and serious nature, she found it quite ironic that he would choose to wear a harlequin's mask, but she chose not to voice her thoughts.

"It is lovely. The handiwork alone is exquisite." She hesitated briefly, not wanting to break their conversation and thereafter be left to face her nervous anxiety alone. "Have you attended many celebrations such as this?"

"Not many. A few over the years. They are not specifically my most preferred way to spend an evening, but, alas, I would hate to have people think us unsociable. I accepted the invitation tonight hoping you would enjoy it."

At his last statement, Elizabeth looked at him abruptly and had no time to school the look of surprise from her face. She offered him a tentative smile which he responded to with a wry grimace. Soon, he turned and peered out of the carriage window effectively breaking their locked gazes.

Evidently, he meant to signal to her that he had had enough of their banter for the present time. She sighed her acceptance and opted to return to her silence until they reached their destination.

How she wished she could greet their imminent arrival at this Twelfth Night ball with her customary excitement and anticipation. An evening such as this could offer her such endless possibilities! The element of disguises and unexpected pleasures could be remarkable - if only the man next to her was someone agreeable and who wanted to be attending this celebration with her. Instead, she was attending with a character much like Shakespeare's Malvolio - full of arrogant conceit and self-pride - rather than the romantic and charming hero, Sebastian. And, unlike Shakespeare's play, she was quite certain that tonight would not bring her Feste's wisdom regarding people not being quite who they appear to be.

Disguise notwithstanding, insofar as her husband was concerned at least, she imagined there was little more than she could learn about him that could in any way oppose the image she already held of him and his overbearance.

~ * ~

The sounds of murmuring laughter and the fact that the carriage had almost stopped, alerted Mr. Darcy that they were nearing the Whitby townhouse.

"We are here," he said to Elizabeth, but his focus remained straight ahead and he could not look at her.

Once again, she was lovely, breathtakingly so. When he had first entered the drawing room and saw her, he was happy that Georgiana was prompt in her exuberant welcome of him. It gave him an opportunity to draw a much-needed breath and a pretext not to look at her.

Soon after, while Georgiana and Elizabeth mused over the expectations of tonight's masquerade ball, he had risked a longer glance at her. Generally, he thought his wife was alluring; in fact, on the evening of the Christmas dinner they attended at his relations' home, he believed she could never be more beautiful than she was then. Yet tonight in her red ball gown trimmed with what looked to be black satin ribbon and embroidery, she was even more striking and, again, he was mesmerized by the sight of her.

The sound of her voice forced him to leave his reflections behind and return to the present.

"There must be a good many carriages ahead of ours," she observed as she leaned forward to peer outside. "It appears we have come at a very busy time."

"Perhaps we have, but I imagine people will be coming and going the entire evening. That is generally how it is at parties such as these."

He tried to sound disinterested and was pleased that he was so able to dissemble before her.

While they awaited their approach to the front of the Whitby townhouse, he sank back against the cushions of the carriage. He could not help but feel somewhat apprehensive about the possible topsy-turvy events of the evening. His cousin Richard - who was attending another gathering this evening - had warned him that Laurence Whitby delighted in a rash approach to fun; thus, if the Whitbys had permitted their elder son to manage the planning of this party, there was no telling what manner of peculiar madness he would conjure up for his guests.

The carriage halted and the door swung open to reveal a servant who was prepared for their arrival.

"I believe this is when we are expected to don our masks," he advised evenly with a wry grin. "I do not imagine we will be successful in hiding our identities, yet it would not do to arrive at a Twelfth Night masquerade without appearing to at least have assumed some measure of disguise."

"Indeed!" returned a breathless Elizabeth as she set about affixing her mask.

Upon setting his foot on the pavement, Darcy noted several torches expediently placed along the exterior of the townhouse calling attention to its focus on the busy street this evening. Once Elizabeth had descended, he observed the door to the house was open and, although the Whitby servants had handily attempted to reduce the flow of traffic in the foyer, a few of the guests remained in the entrance. The noise emanating from the home's interior grew louder and more garish as they walked up the steps.

Inside, after shedding their coats, Elizabeth and Darcy were both accosted by a boisterous young boy he assumed was in the Whitby employ. The young man was dressed entirely as a harlequin from head to foot and his ridiculous bow and oddly accented voice suggested the costume had imbued his character with a jester's absurdity.

"Pardon me," said the boy in a scheming, camouflaged tone, "tradition has it that Madam must select a man's name from this box."

Elizabeth was too stunned to speak. On the other hand, Darcy felt his patience slowly ebbing and could not remain silent.

"I know of no such compulsory tradition. I believe we have the choice as to whether or not we wish to partake of this lottery."

"Oh you do, Sir. All madcap festivities this evening are optional, but nearly everyone else - apart from the more elderly guests - has decided to join in this light hearted adventure."

Darcy felt his wife's hand clutch his sleeve tentatively. "Perhaps I should draw a name, William. No doubt, we shall call more attention to ourselves if I do not. What say you?"

He turned back to face the jester. "And once my wife extracts this name - what then? What is the precise purpose of such a charade?"

"Why then, Sir, the merriment begins! The name of the gentleman Madam pulls will become her partner for the evening."

"But I know virtually no one at this party," Elizabeth cried. "However will I find this gentleman - my partner?"

"That is the best part of this game! You will have to look for him and he will look for you." The boy turned abruptly in Darcy's direction, "I imagine some young lady is currently looking for you, Sir, for Mr. Whitby instructed that nearly every gentleman's name be placed in the raffle." He shook the colourful box frantically, "As you can see, I haven't many names left. Are you prepared to draw a name now, Madam?"

Mr. Darcy felt Elizabeth look up to him askance. As much as he wanted to, he could not forbid her to join in this ridiculous game. Tricks of this sort were precisely why he had been wary of accepting tonight's invitation; now, he wished he had listened to the stirrings that had warned him against attending this undisciplined event.

Yet, before her questioning look, his response was a wry smile and a nonchalant shrug of his shoulders.

He watched in dubious fascination as Elizabeth moved toward the young boy holding the ornately decorated box. He fancied she hesitated a moment before reaching her gloved fingers into the opening and drawing out a slip of paper. The mask she wore prevented him from fully observing the expression in her eyes, but there was an air of amusement and scepticism about her.

He waited on tenterhooks to learn the name of the man Elizabeth had pulled.

"Mr. Graves," she pronounced finally before raising her eyes to meet his. "Do you know him, Mr. Darcy?"

"Largely by reputation, I am afraid. We do not travel in the same circles, but I have met him once or twice."

He struggled to keep the ring of disapproval from his voice. Graves was a man he had been introduced to briefly at his club a few years before. In fact, while fencing with Fitzwilliam last week, he had seen him, although they had not exchanged anything but a cursory nod on that morning. The young man was approximately the same age as he, but he lived a vastly different sort of life, preferring the reckless and supercilious pleasures afforded to a man of his wealth. Darcy learned some time ago that his parents had an estate in Suffolk and that he was the third and final son who had been pampered mercilessly by his overindulgent parents. Everything he knew of Graves made the knowledge of his wife spending an evening with the man distasteful, yet he could not express his opinions without appearing small-minded and jealous.

"Mr. and Mrs. Darcy! How very good it is to see you!"

He turned to discover a masked and smiling Bingley who was accompanied by an elegant female who definitely was not his sister. Upon closer examination, he noticed that the woman with his friend was Miss David, the young lady his aunt had placed him next to at Christmas dinner.

"Bingley! Returned and ready for merriment, I see." He turned slowly to face Miss David, "Good evening, Madam. I believe you have already met my wife, Mrs. Darcy."

Elizabeth and Miss David offered one another brief and polite greetings.

"I have been fortunate enough to have the privilege of making Miss David's acquaintance this very evening, Darcy. Odd twist to be paired off with someone other than members of our own party, yet I feel I have done quite well. I hope my partner does not come to regret this evening later."

Darcy listened as Miss David demurred politely, but his other senses were attuned to his wife who was regarding Bingley and the young woman closely. He knew the picture of mutual delight they presented was not one which gave Elizabeth any comfort. No doubt she was thinking of her sister and regretting the severed connection between Jane and the amiable Bingley. However, Darcy felt no such loss on his friend's account. He prided himself on possessing a keen ability to see things both rationally and profoundly. Thus, there was too much he saw while in Hertfordshire to suggest that, while Bingley and Miss Bennet's union may have offered them a good measure of shared camaraderie initially, ultimately it would make neither of them truly happy.

He offered his friend and Miss David a consenting smile and, instantly, he sensed Elizabeth's sceptical gaze upon him. However, at that point, Elizabeth's reactions and suspicions seemed secondary. Foremost in Darcy's mind was Bingley and his desire to see his friend's previously jolly demeanour restored. Perhaps if Bingley was able to discover the pleasure another female's company could offer, he would feel the loss of Miss Bennet less severely. Although he and Bingley had had no occasion to discuss his feelings over the separation in person, after reading his friend's letters, Darcy was aware of his regret and how Bingley hoped his relationship with Elizabeth's sister had led him to a happier end.

"Mr. Bingley," said Elizabeth, finally, "I must say I was surprised to learn only recently that you were leaving Hertfordshire. Was your decision to do so a spontaneous one?"

Despite half his face being covered by the mask that he wore, the bright lights in the townhouse afforded Darcy a good view of Bingley's rising colour after he heard his wife's pointed question. "Perhaps it may appear sudden, but I have been considering my removal for a while. You may recall we were preparing to leave prior to learning of the joy of your marriage."

Bingley smiled at them weakly. Darcy felt his own colour rise, but Elizabeth appeared impervious to the unintended implications of Bingley's words. In spite of his own private feelings, he could not help feeling proud of his wife's fortitude.

"I do remember discussing your decision to leave with you some time ago, but I had heard nothing of it since then. Not even my recent letters from home mention your departure. Perhaps they were every bit as surprised as was I."

"I did call on your family a few times after your wedding, Mrs. Darcy," replied a cautious Bingley. "I informed them that I was leaving three days ago. They did not appear so surprised, although your mother did express some dismay and regret. I am certain she was just being kind."

It took every ounce of will for Darcy not to laugh out loud at his friend's naivete. He fancied he knew his mother-in-law well enough to know that she may have been "dismayed" to learn that his friend was leaving, but it was only because she was miserable to learn that such a fine match for her eldest daughter was escaping and thereby spoiling all her hopes.

"Since you have seen them more recently than I have, please tell me - how does my family? Their letters impart nothing but glad tidings, but written correspondence is often not very successful at revealing the truth."

"In fact, they are well. Your father attended a shooting party at Netherfield last week, Miss Lydia has become very well acquainted with Colonel Forster's wife and the two of them are often seen in company together. Miss Catherine and Miss Mary appear to be in good health...and Miss Bennet is, as you know, missing you a great deal...," Bingley paused here and looked searchingly at Darcy, "but she is otherwise well."

Bingley's demeanour changed as he relayed the information about Elizabeth's relations. Darcy noted his shoulders slumped a bit and his words were slower. His wife's gaze never shifted from his friend's visage; it was as if she wished she could look beneath the mask he was wearing and truly gauge Bingley's thoughts as he spoke of her family and, especially, when he mentioned her sister, Jane.

"Mrs. Darcy? Mrs. Elizabeth Darcy?"

They turned to discover an elegantly dressed young man, wearing a mask made of a black and white satin checked pattern.

"I believe I am to be your partner for the evening. I am Mr. Fredrick Graves. I have already had the pleasure of meeting your husband, but I have yet to make your acquaintance."

"Mr. Graves! Yes, I drew your name this evening, but how did you hear of it? We have spoken of it to no one outside of ourselves."

"Ah, but secrets are never kept on evenings such as these, Mrs. Darcy. It is but one of the reasons why I enjoy them as much as I do. With no faces, all the world finds its voice."

As he watched the interplay between Graves and his wife, Darcy was struck with a palpable tension. Once again, he wished he had forced his wife not to play a part in this mad Twelfth Night prank. He knew he would be unable to spend the evening far from his wife's side. Graves had the reputation of being rather a libertine and he was known to boast of his dalliances. Of course, he knew Elizabeth would never fall prey to him, yet the mere thought that she was to remain with him throughout the evening was irksome. He seethed in barely suppressed frustration.

The noise around them was intolerably loud. He saw Mr. Graves lean towards Elizabeth to whisper in her ear. Her first reaction was to raise her eyebrow and look toward her husband. Darcy was pleased to see she was deferring to him, although he could not know what specifically it was Graves said to his wife. Suddenly, his pleasure subsided after he heard what Elizabeth had to say when she approached him tentatively.

"Sir, Mr. Graves would like me to accompany him and meet a few members of his party." She appeared uncertain and he appreciated her hesitancy. "I believe I must join him, but I should ask, what of your partner? You do not know who she is, but she is undoubtedly looking for you."

The fact that she was willing to leave surprised him, yet he could not think badly of her - she was every bit as caught by this silly pretence as he himself would soon be as well. Nevertheless, Darcy wished she had shown more reticence even though she possibly had no real wish to remain with him either. It surprised him how often he overlooked the fact that theirs was by no means an ordinary marriage.

"I shall find her in good time...or I shall not. I am perfectly content to remain here in the company of Bingley and Miss David." Elizabeth looked to the lady upon hearing her name and once again she seemed slightly wary. "Go and enjoy yourself, Elizabeth. This evening promises to hold many surprises for us all."

She smiled tentatively and left on the arm of Mr. Graves. Darcy fumed as he saw Graves not even spare him the courtesy of a backward glance as he walked away with his wife.

It was quite difficult for him to continue any light-hearted banter with Bingley and Miss David following Elizabeth's departure. Despite his friend innocently informing them that his sister had chosen not to attend tonight's festivities, which was information Darcy would have normally welcomed, he could not sustain an interest for very long. Although he sought to control his urge to look for Elizabeth, he examined the sea of gowns repeatedly hoping to catch a glimpse of her red dress. After nearly a quarter of an hour had passed and he had not seen her, he excused himself politely.

However, before he could venture far, his arm was grasped suddenly by none other than Laurence Whitby. Upon his arm was a young woman wearing an ornate silver coloured butterfly mask.

"Darcy?" In spite of his mask, Darcy recognized his voice immediately. "Why, here you are! We have been looking for you for the better part of the evening. I knew that despite any kind of elaborate disguise you might wear, I should be able to spot you." He allowed the young woman who stood next to him to step forward. "This is Miss Harlow. Perhaps you know her parents? They live a few houses up from your townhouse here in Town. I believe your father and her father were acquainted. Is that right, Miss Harlow?"

"Indeed it is. My late father was well acquainted with your father and we have had a few occasions to meet as well. In fact, throughout the Season, we are often at the same gatherings."

"Good! Then my work is done. Enjoy your evening and do not forget to be more than a little mad tonight. We shall soon have dancing and my parents have booked an acting troupe to perform excerpts from one of Shakespeare's plays in the upstairs sitting room. It promises to be appropriate. Can you guess which one?"

"I believe we need not think too hard to come up with the answer, Mr. Whitby," said Miss Harlow.

After a brief farewell, Darcy found himself alone with the young lady who was to be his partner for the evening.

He remembered meeting Miss Harlow in the past. She came from a well-respected family and was rumoured to have a substantial dowry. Yet, even the prospect of fortune had not led to any viable marriage prospects as far as he knew and he failed to understand why. The young woman was certainly attractive and possessed a fine figure; moreover, she was perceived as being clever and in possession of an agreeable nature. Darcy knew several gentlemen considered her an exemplary candidate for the role of their future wife. Still, Miss Harlow remained definitively unattached for reasons that were unknown.

"Mr. Darcy, I have yet to congratulate you on your recent marriage. How thoughtless of me!"

"Thank you. We have been married almost three weeks now. I do not expect it to be at the forefront of everyone's mind at this point."

"Ah, but you do yourselves a great disservice, Sir. Your nuptials created quite a stir and I understand they are still a topic of interest. This will no doubt be your annus mirabilis*." Miss Harlow paused for a moment before continuing, "I have heard that your wife is quite charming. I hope to meet her this evening. Mr. Whitby informed me that she is partnered with Mr. Graves. If that is true, she need not worry about being bored, I think."

The reminder that Elizabeth was currently somewhere in the townhouse in the company of Mr. Graves only served to rouse Darcy's discomfort anew. Yet, he was unable to brood for long following the sudden arrival of some of Miss Harlow's merry friends, a Mr. Barry and his partner, Miss Leighton. Introductions were soon made and the group immediately engaged in the necessary small talk suitable to newly formed acquaintances.

When the dinner bell sounded, Mr. Barry was in the midst of describing a property he was considering in Somerset. Around them, hilarity reigned supreme. With not a little distaste, Darcy watched as many presumably respectable personages lost their polished veneers and laughed louder than was necessary or they lost nearly all consideration of the rules of behaviour practised in polite society. Whereby there was no single act that he could point to which would suggest they were acting outrageously, he knew their facial disguises allowed them a clear liberty that they would otherwise eschew. He certainly did not recognize everyone - their masks and the fact that this was a London crowd he normally did not associate with at this time of year made several of them unknown to him. In any event, he thought they should know better than to fall so quickly to the puerile frivolity of the evening.

When Mr. Barry finally finished his account, they proceeded to enter the dining room. Instantaneously, Darcy noticed Elizabeth was already there and seated next to the boisterous Mr. Graves. She looked up to him and offered him a nod of acknowledgement.

He led Miss Harlow to her seat, noticing he was placed beside her for the evening and stifled a sigh of disappointment. As delightful as his partner's company was, he longed to know how Elizabeth had spent her time since leaving him. Still, the fates seemed against him - she was seated a table's length away from him and on the opposite side. Evidently, there would be no opportunity for him to speak to her during the meal.

Unable to resist, he excused himself and abruptly made his way over to where his wife was seated. He felt Elizabeth's eyes upon him as he moved in her direction. When he got there, she offered him another shy smile, and for a moment, he felt rather preposterous standing behind her. Thankfully, she soon rose and turned to face him.

"Have you enjoyed yourself thus far, Elizabeth?" Even in the dining room, the noise was louder than what it should have been. In order to hear him better, she leaned closer to him. "What think you of your first Twelfth Night party?"

Her response was tentative. "I'm not altogether certain. I have met a large number of Mr. Graves' friends. Many of them have returned to Town simply to attend this ball tonight. I understand much of the evening's revelry will take place after dinner. And you, Sir? Are you enjoying the evening?"

He saw her turn and glance over toward Miss Harlow.

"Parties such as this rarely suit my taste, Elizabeth. I find little of it entertaining."

As they talked, he felt the eyes of Mr. Graves upon them and was annoyed. Surely he could have a conversation with his wife and not have it become a spectacle! He gave the man a pointed stare that would have made any other sensible man look away, but this young man appeared determined to face Darcy's wrath head on this evening. He continued to watch and meet Darcy's stare with a sardonic grin.

"Darcy, I must say, having your wife as a partner for this evening has turned into a wonderful stroke of good luck for me!" cried the man in a self-assured fashion. "However, you have also done well. Miss Harlow's company will be every bit as entertaining. That will lessen the problem of having to share your wife with the likes of me, I hope."

Darcy tried to interpret the man's words as meaningless fodder, yet Graves' flippant remarks stung. He wanted nothing more than to respond to his audacious compliments in a manner that would have left the idle blackguard with no question as to how he felt about them, but he refrained upon noticing several pairs of eyes upon him. Even his Uncle Matlock was looking at him cagily, as if willing him to remember the very public display such a heated reaction would cause. Mr. Darcy was not sure if he was imagining it, but the room had seemed to grow considerably quieter as it waited for his response.

"I am sure we will all enjoy the evening as much as possible - particularly given the fact that so much of it is nothing more than pretence and playacting." He looked down to Elizabeth and offered her a smile, "Ultimately, however, I much prefer reality."

He noticed Elizabeth crimson and avert her eyes. He hoped she was thankful that he had intervened on her behalf, but he could not be sure. No doubt she may consider his interference intrusive, but she had absolutely no idea what sort of man she was paired up with for the evening. Clearly, he could not inform her now, when so many eyes were turned to regard the scene they were creating, but he wanted her to know he did not look favourably upon arrogant boldness in the manner Graves had shown.

Turning quickly in the direction of his uncle, he saw Lord Matlock meet his eye and nod quickly before looking away. He sighed in relief; there at least he could be assured that he had done no wrong in his answer to Graves.

"I see dinner is about to be served; I shall return to my seat. I will see you after dinner, Elizabeth. Remember to reserve at least one set for your husband on your dance card."

With that, he turned and walked over to his place near Miss Harlow. He had meant to sound nonchalant and hoped Mr. Graves had interpreted his words as being indicative of the notion that he was not in the least bit bothered by him. After all, Darcy did not want to appear a jealous husband who did not possess the ability to curb his fury over another man's attentions to his wife.

Upon being seated, he looked down the table to discover Elizabeth regarding him silently. The conversation around her had resumed its frenetic pace, yet she was not engaging in any of it. The ridiculous masks they continued to wear made it impossible for him to tell what she was thinking following their exchange and he was glad of it. He was anxious enough without the added worry of wondering if she was regarding him with censure. At this point in the evening, he felt he was justified in his selfishness and would not be sorry for it.

Dinner consisted of roast chicken, sweetmeats and a variety of winter vegetables. Wine and ratafia** was available to drink. All around him, Darcy saw others enjoying the fare, but he could eat little of it at first. Each time he looked down the table he saw Graves leaning toward Elizabeth or her smiling at something he said. Undoubtedly, the gentleman was spewing any one of several of his ridiculous notions and his captive audience was evidently unable to give him the condemnation he so deserved.

Finally, he espied Elizabeth talking to Bingley who was seated across from her. The two of them appeared to be immersed in deep conversation and this relieved Darcy's spirits considerably. At least while she was talking to his friend, he could rest assured that Graves' insidious behaviour could not affect her.

After that, Darcy was able to enjoy dinner and the company around him much more freely. Miss Harlow was indeed a witty dinner companion just as had been suggested and a few of the others offered him a pleasant respite from the loud merrymaking that was going on elsewhere in the room. One gentleman, a Mr. Preston, was particularly interesting. He proved to be a theatre aficionado and spent a good deal of time reviewing the recent productions he had seen. Darcy, who had decided that he must take Elizabeth to at least one performance before they left London, was intrigued by this man's commentary as was Miss Harlow who had seen several of the same plays.

Twenty minutes later, Darcy was surprised to discover that he had been so busy enjoying the company, he had not even thought of looking at Elizabeth. This pleased him considerably since he expected to be constantly turned in her direction throughout dinner. When he looked down the table, he noticed Graves was still making every effort to speak to her, but she appeared disinterested and was not meeting his eye. As he continued to study her, he viewed her as she sat back against her chair and turned her head toward him, but rather than sustain her gaze, she looked away abruptly.

She appeared resentful, but Darcy could not think why. Was she perhaps tiring of Graves' incessant chatter? Did she begrudge him for leaving her so brusquely before dinner after throwing a sly comment in her direction for the benefit of Graves? Was she close to realizing why celebrations such as this were tiresome affairs? He had no true way of knowing.

Suddenly, another thought entered his mind: could Elizabeth be piqued that he now appeared to be having a better time than she was? He recalled the quick glance she had levelled in Miss Harlow's direction after he first walked over to her. Had that been a look of displeasure she had thrust at the lady? Anyone could see that, in spite of her mask, his partner was attractive and a woman of rank. Had Elizabeth noticed this as well?

Mr. Darcy was careful not to allow himself the pleasure of thinking Elizabeth cared enough to be jealous, yet the idea would not leave him. As if to confirm his suspicions, when he next looked at her, she was not studying him at all, but was looking intently at Miss Harlow who was speaking to the gentleman across from her.

Perhaps she was envious! Even if theirs was not the standard marriage, Elizabeth may not be wholly grateful upon seeing an attractive woman claiming her husband's attention. If this was the case, Darcy empathized with her; he no more enjoyed watching Graves ingratiate himself with Elizabeth than she did watching Miss Harlow interact pleasantly with him.

The notion that they may be like-minded in this instance calmed his apprehensions enormously.

Once dinner was over, only a few men left to engage in more gentlemanly pursuits with Lord Whitby. Most others either remained seated or ventured off to the ballroom where dancing was to begin immediately. Darcy wanted nothing more than to dance the first set with his wife, but as he sipped the last of his coffee, he noticed that Mr. Graves was already leading her out of the dining room. Of course, there was his own obligation to Miss Harlow, his partner for the evening. After providing him with several occasions to not obsess over Elizabeth throughout dinner, he felt somehow beholden to her. Given how much worse his situation could have turned out, in the end he was happy to be paired with her and not some fawning girl who would spend half the evening tittering unnervingly.

As Darcy and Miss Harlow walked toward the ballroom, they noticed the musicians had finished tuning their instruments and were surely prepared to begin with the first dance.

Upon entering, he noticed Elizabeth already stood opposite Mr. Graves, prepared to begin their first set. Lady and Lord Whitby were the leading couple for this piece and they had apparently determined that this was to be a country dance.

After garnering Miss Harlow's acceptance, they joined the formation and soon the music began. As he and his partner progressed up and down the line, he was careful to glance over at Elizabeth and her partner from time to time, while still maintaining brief snippets of conversation with Miss Harlow. He noticed Elizabeth gaze fall upon them as they linked arms and turned. Once again, he wondered what she was thinking as she watched them.

As the dance pattern became more intricate, Darcy was unable to follow Elizabeth's progress closely, but he did not fail to notice Graves took every opportunity to tightly grasp her gloved hands while proffering her a sly smile. Darcy ground his teeth at this audacious display from the man. To overtly flirt with his wife while he was in the same room was no doubt a measure of the man's folly as well as his arrogance.

Moreover, Darcy noticed several examples of the guests' far from respectable conduct. Already, several men were notably well into their cups and were garishly demanding the servants bring them more wine. Dancing three couples down from he and Miss Harlow, was a couple whose lewd behaviour astounded him. As they were dancing, the man made every effort to sidle up to his partner. Darcy even saw him move his hands suggestively up and down the lady's arm, instead of doing what the dance called for which was to grasp her hand delicately. All that he saw served to further disgust him and he knew that if it were not for the scene it would create, he would be tempted to escort his wife off the dance area and leave the festivities immediately.

When the set ended, a mistrustful Darcy lost no time in leading Miss Harlow toward the punch bowl where Elizabeth and Mr. Graves stood.

"Wonderful fete thus far! Would you not agree, Darcy?" beamed Graves.

"Yes. The musicians are exemplary and the guests have managed to resume a less unruly demeanour during the dance," Darcy could not help replying.

"Less unruly? Why Darcy, that is the purpose of Twelfth Night celebrations! These masks help us to cast off our otherwise rigid devotion to correctness. I, for one, am all in favour of a bit of unruliness on a night such as this."

Darcy felt himself bristle at the man's words. He was quite tempted to say that he knew that Graves' adherence to respectability was by and large tenuous at best, but he refrained and smiled wryly at him instead.

While their conversation continued, Darcy risked a glance at Elizabeth. She appeared to be wearing a smile, but her posture was somewhat stiff and she was often furtively looking about the room. Additionally, she was not wholly following the discussion which was odd given her usual penchant for banter. He now knew for certain that his theory about her not enjoying herself on that evening was correct: she looked as though she wanted to be anywhere but where she was presently.

When he noticed the new formation of dancers, he seized the opportunity to talk to her.

"Elizabeth, if you are not engaged for this dance, would you do me the honour of dancing with me?"

He saw it then...she took a deep breath and followed it with a smile he hoped was one of relief.

"I am not engaged, William."

The moment her gloved hand linked with his arm, he knew true satisfaction for the first time that evening. As he led her to the dance floor, he felt vindicated at the notion that he had been able to release her from whatever it was that was causing her discomfort. Deep within, he allowed himself to imagine that perhaps she wanted nothing other than to dance with him and that small hope buoyed him considerably.

The set they danced was a variation of the modern quadrille and Darcy was careful to study the pattern initiated by the first couple so that he could later repeat it with Elizabeth. When he was not committing the steps to memory, he examined his wife and was pleased to discern she now wore what appeared to be a genuine smile. It seemed more and more likely that this is what she had wanted all along: to be in his presence as opposed to bearing the rude machinations of Graves and all his levity.

When the occasion arose for them to move back to back, he made every attempt not to brush against her, but on one occasion they did touch and when he turned toward her, she offered him a shy smile. It was almost as though she were flirting with him and, as much as he attempted to tell himself he was wrong, he clung to the hope that she was. In the next step, when they wove among other dancers while doing a Figure Eight, she looked up at him abruptly when he allowed her to pass before him.

The set ended far too soon to suit Darcy's taste. He wanted nothing more than to dance again with her, but he realized it would appear quite rude to monopolize her this way. Yet, he vowed to spend the remainder of the evening studying her as often as he could in an attempt to measure her reactions.

For, if he was correct and she was flirting with him, their marriage, which he had previously despaired would never move beyond the fragile balance they had so lately established, suddenly appeared to have the potential to be a very viable one indeed.

When they rejoined Mr. Graves and Miss Harlow, Darcy noticed they were surrounded by a large group. While introductions were being made, again he glanced at Elizabeth and was pleased to see her making new acquaintances with ease.

"Mr. Darcy," intoned Miss Harlow, "I see my friends, the Lintons, standing by the window. Will you not join me in greeting them? I believe you know them as well."

Unable to shirk his responsibility to his partner, Darcy acquiesced and thereby was forced to leave Elizabeth. While chatting with the Lintons, he noticed that, once more, Graves was leading her to the dance area and, again, he could no longer be quite so active a participant in the discourse which surrounded him.

Fortunately, his established tendency to avoid verbosity afforded him the privilege of remaining silent while stealing several glances in the direction of his wife and her partner. Graves continued to make every attempt to engage Elizabeth, while she responded to him fleetingly and did not meet his eye. To Darcy, her reaction was further proof of her dislike of her partner and her preference for him.

Yet, when the dance ended, he watched Graves escort Elizabeth out of the room hurriedly. His position did not afford him the chance to see Elizabeth's reaction to being swept away in this manner, yet Darcy's anger was reaching mammoth proportions. The gall of the man! Leading his wife away without even consulting with him! And why did Elizabeth not refuse to accompany him? Perhaps he had been wrong - she had not experienced discomfort due to Mr. Graves after all.

He was by no means Elizabeth's keeper, but his role as her husband earned him the right to know of her whereabouts at least.

Later, just as he was preparing to excuse himself and go in search of them, he watched as Graves and a flustered Elizabeth made their way toward him. Once again, the usual inconsequential pleasantries were made, but this time, she was still polite but noticeably more reticent upon forming the acquaintances.

Suddenly, he felt the pressure of her hand on him arm.

"Mr. Darcy, may I have a word with you for a moment?"

"Of course."

After excusing themselves, Elizabeth ushered him to a relatively more secluded corner.

"Sir, if you do not mind, I would like to return home. I am suddenly feeling the effects of a headache and it is threatening to be of mammoth proportions. I am sorry to curtail your enjoyment this evening, but I truly must leave. If you prefer, I can take the carriage home myself and then send it back to collect you later. I do not mind departing alone as long as I am able to leave."

"Elizabeth, there is no need for you to travel home alone. I have had quite enough of the evening myself. We shall give our hasty goodbyes and leave immediately."

Their farewells to their hosts, his relations and to Bingley were indeed swift despite the urgings for them to remain to see the performance of "Twelfth Night" which was due to begin in the next hour. Meanwhile, Mr. Graves was unsurprisingly disappointed to learn that his partner was leaving and tried every manner of persuasion to convince them to stay; Miss Harlow, on the other hand, accepted the Darcys' goodbyes with considerably more grace and tact.

Once they moved outside and waited for their carriage to arrive, Darcy saw Elizabeth draw a deep breath and smile.

"I hope you are feeling better, Elizabeth. Might I interpret your smile as a sign that you are well?"

She removed her mask and looked at him levelly.

"Sir, I believe I can safely say I have never been happier to leave a place in all my life! I am certain my headache will now diminish considerably. Thank you."

~ * ~

After dismissing Candace, Elizabeth sat in her room feeling both spent and restless.

This Twelfth Night ball had been like nothing she imagined! From almost the very beginning, she had been stunned and uncomfortable with the reckless exhibition she had observed from these presumably more respectful members of the ton. While she very much doubted she and her husband had similar tastes in many things, she could not help but agree with him in his disapproval of what she had seen tonight.

There had been far too much noise, too much irresponsibility and too many people. Yet again, she could not believe that this was presumably the quiet season in London. Why, there must have been well over a hundred people at the Whitby celebration tonight!

Toward her partner, she felt the most disappointment. Mr. Graves had proven himself to be an arrogant, shameless man at every turn. Recalling how he leaned far too closely while he was speaking to her made her shudder. And, he had encouraged her to join him on the terrace to enjoy what he referred to as the romance of the evening! Had this man no sense of decency whatsoever? She was, after all, a married woman! Perhaps this was behaviour married women of the ton routinely engaged in, but did he truly believe she would submit to his whims? Moreover, he actually had said very little of importance the entire evening. Did he truly need to behave so forwardly when attempting to converse or dance with her? In her mind, the answer was a firm and definite no!

Yet, taking part in the game had been her suggestion. Her husband appeared quite willing to forego the ridiculous lottery. Nevertheless, given how nearly everyone had been paired up with someone other than a person from their immediate circle, how could they have refused without calling further notice to themselves? In the end, they had had no choice. Furthermore, she had been curious, longing to join in the merriment, hoping for a more enjoyable evening. How foolish she had been to think that a partner such as Mr. Graves could ever offer her any manner of inoffensive satisfaction.

Meanwhile, her husband seemed to enjoy the night's merriment in spite of his earlier misgivings. She had watched him laugh openly throughout dinner and speak freely with those he met. This was a Darcy she did not recognize. He appeared especially pleased to be partnered with Miss Harlow! Even if his cousin had intimated that her husband was quite capable of adding to the enjoyment of a place, apart from this evening, she had always seen him be rather discomfited and guarded in social settings.

Upon espying Jane's letter on her dressing table, she sighed. Mr. Bingley had shed absolutely no light on his true reasons for leaving Netherfield. Despite her penetrating questions and many attempts to remind him of their shared times in Hertfordshire, he had remained frustratingly tight-lipped over the entire affair. Once or twice, she noticed him squirm in his seat over dinner at the mention of Jane's name, but otherwise she had gleaned utterly nothing!

She began pacing the room in an attempt to vent her suppressed frustration. As she moved past the chaise lounge, she noticed the glint of the yellow-gold ribbons of the mask she had worn this evening. She recalled how she pulled it off immediately upon departing the Whitby townhouse. Ah, what an uncomfortable object it was! The velvet interior caused her to perspire and the slot for her nose was narrow which resulted in her spending a great part of the evening willing herself not to adjust it constantly.

In sum, the night had provided her with no enjoyment and a great deal of unhappiness. When she had pleaded a headache to her husband, she was not lying. Even now, her head was full and not at all peaceful. As she continued to pace the length of her room, she knew the cure for it would be bed rest, but she was simply too agitated to sleep and relax comfortably.

She decided she would not retire and would instead busy herself by doing something useful. Yet, what could she do at this time of night? She truly had not the slightest idea. She could venture downstairs and select from the myriad of books lining the library shelves. After all, it was unlikely that Mr. Darcy would be in the library at this time of night. But the servants! How would she explain her current state of deshabille before them? Of course, she could slip back into her dress, but the enterprise seemed rather pointless given the fact she would only have to remove it once she returned to her bedchamber.

Suddenly, a useful idea struck her! She would expound her energy and move the chaise from its position adjacent to the room's entrance and arrange it closer to the fireplace instead. She would have to be very quiet so as not to alert the staff to what she was doing, but the piece did not seem to be heavy at all and she imagined she could transfer it quite easily.

She set about her task with an enthusiasm that felt remarkable. The pain in her head was still there - she could feel its dull throbbing in her temples - but she near forgot about it once she began her work. She was not surprised to discover she was right; once she began sliding the piece, it almost appeared to move on its own across the wooden floor. Yet, when it came time to remove the chairs currently situated by the fire, the floor creaked and she groaned. If she were not more careful, someone would certainly hear her and think her quite mad to be doing this by herself when there were more than enough servants who could do it for her during the day.

So immersed in her undertaking was she that she did not hear Mr. Darcy's approach from behind her until he spoke in an alarmed manner.

"Elizabeth! May I ask what it is that you are doing at this time of night? Do my eyes deceive me or are you in the process of rearranging the contents of your room?"

She almost recovered from her surprise once she turned to behold the sceptical look on his face. She was caught and now she must face his mocking incredulity directly. She was certain she looked quite idiosyncratic and peculiar.

"Mr. Darcy...I see I have disturbed your rest. Forgive me...I ...decided to shift the chaise lounge from its original spot....You did tell me I could change things if I saw fit."

"I most certainly did - and I meant it - but I never implied you were to move anything by yourself. You should have called a servant ...or even me...to help you in this endeavour."

Instantly, she felt like a very young child who had been caught misbehaving and was now in the midst of being reprimanded. She watched as he completed the rearrangement effortlessly and responded to him sparingly when he asked her about where she desired he move the chairs which previously occupied the spot.

When he was finished, she was surprised to see that he too appeared uncomfortable and nervous. Rather than bid her a hasty goodnight as she presumed he would, he himself began pacing the floor hurriedly and then, for seemingly no reason at all, he would stop and regard her questioningly. No doubt he had been unprepared to see her in her shift with her hair loose. Suddenly remembering the need to preserve some element of her modesty, she clutched at her nightgown worriedly. But, in the end, it was of little use. He had had more than ample opportunity to see her in her dishevelled state and the infuriating man would not withdraw his gaze from her.

Meanwhile, he himself was by no means formally attired either. He was in his nightshirt, hastily tucked into a pair of breeches, no doubt. Missing his cravat, Elizabeth tried not stare at his neck which was quite exposed. Her shock at seeing him at all uncovered was too great; thus, she could not direct her eyes away without having them periodically return to his bare neck.

He moved to sit upon one end of the chaise and crossed and then uncrossed his legs. Abruptly, he stood again and resumed his pacing. Elizabeth was quite unsure of what to do. Should she bid him goodnight and hope he would forget the incident had ever occurred? Did he mean for her to join him as he sat? Was he perhaps looking for some form of conversation? That seemed unlikely, but she could think of no good reason why he did not immediately depart from her room. She hoped he was not about to chastise her decision to move the furniture again, for if he did, she did not think she could bear it.

"Elizabeth, I have struggled terribly and, in the end, I have reason to now hope that it was for naught. Tonight has led me to think you may be feeling something akin to what I do insofar as our marriage is concerned. I for one cannot suppress my wishes any longer. Furthermore, I do not think we can presume to continue in this chaste existence to any further extent. You must know that I want for us to stop living as indifferent acquaintances. I desire you fiercely, Elizabeth."

Suddenly, his anxiety seemed to have evaporated and Elizabeth watched in amazement as he ventured toward her and grabbed her hands gently. His eyes, which had so often been unreadable in the past, suddenly demonstrated an almost poignant tenderness and longing. As he held her hands, his thumbs began stroking her wrists and the sensation only served to increase her confusion and turmoil.

Elizabeth's surprise was tremendous. While she imagined several reasons as to why he had opted to remain in her room when he truly should have left, never had the idea that he wanted to impart such information entered her mind. It was quite shocking! She felt her colour rising and attempted to wrest her hands from his grasp. But her actions only served to provoke him to tighten his hold on her and, to her chagrin, the look in his eyes became even more expressive. Upon attempting to open her mouth to speak, she realized she could not find the words to tell him of her surprise. Her silence spurred him on to continue, once he realized she was not about to speak. His tone immediately became both level and, at times, fervent.

"I see that you are overwhelmed, but can you honestly expect me as a man to live with you in name only? Surely, this notion has entered your mind once or twice. I assure you, I have thought of little else for the past two weeks. I have laboured to assume an indifferent air when I was with you following our marriage and the exercise has grown increasingly insufferable. Yet, I should not be amazed; I confess I was far from apathetic in regard to you even in Hertfordshire." Here, he paused briefly and surveyed her closely. "I realize I initially fought our union. Actually, I staunchly contested our marriage. Then, I was only concerned with your poor connections and how they may diminish my own position. I was merely thinking of the degradation our marriage would cause and focusing on your own stated dislike of me. But, now, I think we have moved beyond that: despite my Aunt Catherine's displeasure, we have not suffered the world's scorn and I believe you do not harbour the same intense aversion to me that you once possessed. The fact that you were not my equal in the eyes of society seems almost inconsequential to me now. Instead, all I can think of is how lovely you are and how very much I want you, Elizabeth. The time has come, I think, for us to share a marriage bed."

For a moment, Elizabeth wondered if he meant to force himself upon her. She would never be able to fight him if he did. And, he was after all entitled to be intimate with her. Their marriage vows gave him that right. Yet, for a reason that was unknown to her, she somehow knew he would not. Perhaps she was being naive, but she imagined Mr. Darcy would expect her to submit willingly to him or not have her at all.

Among the many aspects of his speech which shocked her, Elizabeth was further appalled to hear he believed she no longer disliked him. While she had discovered some redeeming qualities in his character after marrying him, she was by no means partial to him. Still, in spite of the anger which she felt upon hearing him insult her inferior connections and tell her of how he had struggled to remain uninterested in her, she could not help but feel complimented that he desired her regardless of how little she understood his reasons why.

Yet, her sense of being flattered was not enough to allow her to readily agree with his suggestion that they share a marriage bed. Quite the contrary - she was angry beyond comprehension. Throughout his speech she had tried to steel her emotions so that they were at least as casual as his often were as he spoke, but she knew she could never appear so unaffected before him after having listened to his preposterous confession. So much of the content of his words were offensive; she wondered how he would dare consider his pronouncements as effective tools in convincing her to concede to his desires. She knew him to be an intelligent man, however in this instance she questioned his poor reasoning with vigour. And he had the audacity to appear before her in an overall calm manner, asking her to submit to his need for her merely because he expected her to! Amidst all his talk of his own struggles and his own uncertainties, he had evidently never for a moment considered her own similar feelings.

In an angry huff, she succeeded in finally extracting her hands from his and she moved to what she considered a more safe distance away from him. Almost immediately, her head began to somewhat clear and, at long last, she was able to find the voice which had escaped her earlier.

"Mr. Darcy, your expressed sentiments this evening have rendered me quite stunned. For once, I feel unable to know how to respond and yet, generally I have no such trouble. I suppose you expect me to express my appreciation to you and go on to say how flattered I am that you regard me as a desirable marriage partner in spite of my lowly connections. Truly, if I could feel any modicum of gratitude, I imagine I would express it openly to you now. But I cannot - largely because I do not consider anything you have said to me this evening at all favourable. Quite the contrary, in fact!" Elizabeth hesitated briefly and felt the tiniest flicker of shame, but it was extinguished almost immediately upon seeing her husband's fists clenched in fury. "Forgive me, sir. I know this is disappointing news and I almost wish I could share your feelings only because the fact that you have them at all suggests that you are much more contented in this marriage than am I."

Still, Mr. Darcy offered her no response. He merely walked further away from her and faced the mantle and she saw him draw a series of long, deep breaths.

Hoping to put an end to this horrible scene once and for all she forced her voice to maintain its usual timbre.

"Believe me, Sir, my purpose is not to offend any more than I generally seek to give offence to anyone. Yet, you must feel some relief in knowing that this desire which, as you describe it, has caused you only apprehension and worry, will be easily forgotten now that you know it will lead you nowhere." "I cannot believe it! I enter into your bed chamber this evening and speak of my desire for you - for my true wish that we move beyond this stalemate of chastity - and this is the response I get in return for my honesty? Indeed Elizabeth, I would have expected more from you than such a selfish rejection. Prior to this evening, I was fool enough to believe you were intelligent enough to realize that we cannot continue in this vein. I see now that I was wrong."

"Indeed you were wrong Mr. Darcy, but not in your estimation of my character! I think you are inaccurately assessing your own and that makes it quite simple for me to resist your presumably selfless offer. Allow me to give you my interpretation of what happened in this bedchamber tonight, Sir. You will find that what I beheld is quite different from your own view." At this, he turned to face her directly and his face assumed a frozen look of disdain. "This evening you entered into this room and spoke to me of your desires, your wishes, your struggles to accept me as your wife. Never once did you consider my own feelings in this matter and, if you did not know them before, I will shed some light on precisely how I feel immediately. Even if I was predisposed to agree with you concerning the improbability of our being able to continue this chaste existence as you call it, do you imagine I could ever forgive you for your role in the separation of my dear Jane and Mr. Bingley? You, William, have seen to it that my beloved sister has been kept from achieving true happiness with a man she cares for deeply. And you have boasted of your success! Tonight, I was placed in the regrettable position of watching my husband smile benignly as a man whom my sister loves flirted with another! Please do not offend me further by even attempting to deny it or offer petty excuses for your interference."

To her chagrin, he presented a wry smile.

"Indeed I will not deny it," he said levelly. "I have never believed your sister and Bingley would make a good match. And yes, I used my influence to reason my friend out of making an error in his choice of wife while I was with him in Hertfordshire - and I cannot say I am sorry for it. I would do the same thing again, if I suspected he was still in danger. Thankfully, for the moment, he is not. And, if he is so fortunate as to find an appropriate future wife elsewhere, I, for one, will not stop him."

Elizabeth felt she was near to erupting into furious tears and did all she could to stop them. If she could prevent it, she did not mean to let him see her cry.

"And what have you to say about your shameful treatment of poor Mr. Wickham? Did your jealousy and your resentment know no bounds insofar as that gentleman was concerned?" Her voice shook, but her eyes remained dry and for that at least she was grateful. "Tell me, does it make you particularly happy to know that he is living in near poverty after you saw fit to deny him of his rightful inheritance?"

"Elizabeth, I beg of you, do not stand before me prepared to defend that nefarious rake." His own tone became unstable and she was pleased to see that at least he did not intend to feign indifference. "Trust me when I tell you that insofar as that man is concerned you know not what you speak."

"Oh, but I do know! I know too much! I have known it all for several months now after Mr. Wickham himself revealed the tawdry affair to me! What have you to say to that?"

"Only that he is a contemptible liar and that I am shocked that you would stand here and protest his plight to me - your husband - after I have asked you not to. You try my patience too much, Madam!"

"I rather believe it is due payment following your complete disregard for my own," she hissed.

He turned to leave, but suddenly twisted to face her once more with an incredulous look upon his face.

"I suppose I should thank you for informing me finally of what you were truly thinking. Clearly, you think me no better than the most base degenerate and, given all the sins you have levelled against me, it is truly no wonder you hold the opinion that you do. And yet, if I perhaps had not been so direct in my approach - if I had instead courted and wooed you - then mayhap my own wishes would not have been so thoughtlessly swept aside by you in the long run. Perhaps, only then would you have seen fit to adhere to your marriage vows as you promised to less than a month ago. Yet, I have never believed in behaving duplicitously in order to get what I want - particularly not in this instance when we both have made sacred promises before a minister. I certainly intended on keeping my vows regardless of our circumstances and I foolishly believed you would come to see that this bitterness you hold so dear is destructive and unnecessary. I see now that I gave you too much credit and it is there where I flattered you too much and not in my honest expressions of my feelings this evening as you initially suggested."

Elizabeth looked away voicelessly desiring nothing more than his absence from her.

"Before I leave, allow me to clarify one thing to you, Madam. Before I entered your chamber this evening, I was struggling over my attraction to you and I did hope you would be easier to persuade. After all, following this evening's performance when you did nothing but flirt with me repeatedly, I felt I had every reason to think your wishes were not so different from my own. Instead, you have grown offended over my presumed faults and condemned the honesty which I employed when I told you why I struggled so fiercely to fight my vulnerability to you in the first place. But I am not at all sorry that I was candid before you. I detest lies and concealment and will never engage in such deception if I can at all prevent it. Even though I can hardly expect you to be objective, you cannot be so naive as to think I would welcome a connection with a family who is so clearly inferior to my own in terms of fortune and social position. Perhaps you will think that I am again being boastful and arrogant, yet several ladies of my acquaintance would be quite content to be in your position and live the life you have now been given. Between the two of us, I believe I have been the one who is most compromised in this marriage however much you may disagree."

Elizabeth balled her fists and moved to stand before him in an effort to reveal to him precisely how she felt about his honesty and his now even more ridiculous offer that she share a bed with him simply because he was her husband.

"Sir, you could not be more wrong, I assure you. Delude yourself into thinking that you could have hoodwinked me into wanting to be your wife in more than just name if you like, but I know the truth even if you do not. Even when I first met you, I viewed in you a vanity and an arrogance that I found abhorrent. I will grant you this; there are females who would love to live a life of opulent splendour and would not mind being tied to a husband who holds her in contempt - but I am no such woman. And I will not renounce my wedding vows as they are sacred and deserve more than to be shunned by either of us; yet - make no mistake - I could never be overjoyed about the prospect of sharing a marriage bed with you regardless of however much deception you chose to employ in order to persuade me. You, Sir, have married no fool."

As she spoke her voice was low and decisive; even if he wished to, he could not mistake her meaning. She saw him flinch and felt a shiver of satisfaction at the proof that she had moved him.

"Enough, Elizabeth! You have made your stance on this issue quite clear. I will trouble you no further in the immediate future, but this is an issue which will not fade away with the passage of time. Pardon me for preventing you from resting...or if I have halted your plans to refashion your bedchamber. And now, I bid you good night."

He left the room abruptly leaving Elizabeth in confusion. Finally liberated of him, she threw herself on the bed and cried bitter tears of anger, frustration and even of regret. She had worked so methodically to avoid such a bitter argument - and now all her efforts had been for naught.

As she wept, she was seized anew with astonishment over the fact that Mr. Darcy had openly claimed to desire her. Of course, he had expressed other, less admirable truths as well, but that one issue caused her no little surprise. In fact, he even confessed to admiring her while he was in Hertfordshire! In the end, Charlotte and her Aunt Gardiner were right while she, on the other hand, had been so entirely wrong.

Yet, his cruel intervention in Mr. Bingley and Jane's relationship and his dismal treatment of Mr. Wickham prevented her from exonerating him. Moreover, his obvious disdain for her family and their inferiority only added to her feeling of resentment. Had he demonstrated even the most minute sense of remorse, she fancied she could almost come to one day forgive him. Yet, he had stood before her and attempted to justify his actions and make her appear as little more than an ungrateful shrew!

She had no notion of how she could be expected to sleep following this exchange, but she knew that she was feeling the effects of her headache in earnest now. If she got no rest, how would she ever be able to face Georgiana in the morning?

More to the point, how on earth could she expect to face Mr. Darcy ever again knowing what she did now?

She hardly knew.

~ * ~

*annus mirabilis - This is known as "a year of wonders". A pretty high-faluting expression for a triumphant year. (I remember Queen Elizabeth's Christmas message in 1992 referring to that year as her annus horribilis.)

**ratafia - This is a sweet cordial flavoured with fruit or almonds. It was considered a very festive drink and both men and women in Regency England drank it.

Painting: Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770), Carnival scene.

Chapter 18

Bleakly, Mr. Darcy faced the next morning after having had very little sleep and no restful thoughts whatsoever. Although he could not remember them, he was certain that even his dreams had been burdened with Elizabeth's scornful looks and bitter reproaches.

He wondered again how it had all gone wrong. How had his attempt to make his marriage more fulfilling for them both gone so horribly awry?

With a groan he remembered. Elizabeth had more than a few reasons for greeting with disdain his suggestion that they become intimate as a husband and wife should. It mattered not that she was mistaken about so many things she accused him of last night. Regardless of his relative innocence, if his wife believed him capable of wilfully committing such heinous acts for no other reason than to delight in his own power, his marriage was a sorry one indeed.

He had no notion of how he would ever meet with her again without this coming between them. Surely, they could not forget it. The emotions that confrontation had inspired in them both were of such a passionate intensity, they could never be completely obliterated from their memories.

Perhaps what was most painful was the fact that when he had entered her room, he expected so much to be different. Last night at the Whitby ball, he interpreted her every look, her every smile, the gentle manner in which she placed her hand upon his arm - as hope that she was also beginning to realize their marriage could be much more. The knowledge that she could be burning for him as well - even just a little - had buoyed his spirits and strengthened his resolve.

What a fool he was! Her looks, her smiles and her touch upon his arm - in the end they meant nothing at all. From the moment he entered her room, her deep-seated prejudice against him had been evident. Nothing he could have said would have made her view him any more favourably or have made him any more successful. Quite simply, when it came to Elizabeth, it appeared he was doomed from the start.

Alone in his room last night, subsequent to her rejection, he was too angry to be rational. Although he had always considered himself a fair man, he was in no position then to credit any of her accusations as being plausible or even remotely justifiable. She seemingly considered everything about him offensive and petty. Yet, she had given his own plight no significance at all! Did she not know of his responsibilities? Of how he worked to preserve his good name and his position so that Georgiana and their future children could bear the name Darcy in good conscience and with pride? Even if the thought of their having children at all seemed unlikely now, he still owed it to his late father's memory not to besmirch their legacy. Had she not herself seen how once she became a Darcy, she turned into an object of close scrutiny by all who encountered her?

In the cold light of the morning, however, he could see she had been given some grounds to continue to regard him with such obvious scorn.

He certainly understood why she would hold against him his decision to persuade Bingley from selecting Miss Bennet as his wife. No doubt, she thought him cruel and cunning. Yet, at the time, he truly believed her sister had revealed no evident sign of partiality for his friend. In fact, Darcy rationalized, the genteel eldest Bennet sister showed him as much consideration as she had towards Bingley, the man Elizabeth claimed she loved deeply! Of course, Darcy had not spent nearly enough time talking to her or keeping her exclusive company, but she had always met his comments with a polite smile as she did whenever Bingley spoke to her. Still, Elizabeth did share a close relationship with her sister; conceivably she was in possession of information regarding her sister's feelings that Darcy was not aware of.

Possibly then, Darcy had been wrong in persuading Bingley to reconsider his intentions insofar as his sister-in-law was concerned; but he could not overly blame himself. After all, how could he have known the inner workings of Miss Bennet's heart? And how could she continue to disparage him for wanting to preclude his friend from marrying a woman whom he believed at the time did not return his affection?

Yet, there were other aspects of his argument with Elizabeth that she resented - and, he supposed, she was not altogether unjustified in her umbrage. Perhaps he had been somewhat rude when pointing out to Elizabeth the defects of her family, but they well deserved his censure so he could not really regret voicing his thoughts in regard to them either. On nearly every occasion when they had been together in Hertfordshire, the Bennet family demonstrated some mark of impropriety. In fact, only his wife and her eldest sister seemed to possess any indication whatsoever of how to behave suitably in polite society.

Darcy rose and walked over to the window. As he did so, he looked at the brandy decanter on the table near to the fireplace with distaste. Last night, he was incredibly tempted to drink himself into oblivion after their argument - but he had abstained. Somehow, he knew he could not face the next day suffering from the effect of too much drink. Unlike so many men of his acquaintance, he did not enjoy the feeling of carelessness and oblivion that came after consuming excessive amounts of spirits. In the past, even when situations had appeared their most dismal - following his father's death and, more recently, the Ramsgate incident with Georgiana - he had not looked to brandy as a means of coping with his struggles. And, as painful as it had been for him to hear Elizabeth's refusal and her angry words, he was, this morning, pleased he had resisted the brandy's lure once again.

As he glanced at the frosty garden outside, his mind returned to his chastisement of Elizabeth's family. He did not repent his reminder of her family's considerably lower position in society than that of his relations. True, Mr. Bennet was a gentleman, but he did not have nearly the same connections as did he. As far as he knew, Elizabeth's family could not trace any visible origins to aristocracy as could the Darcys or the Fitzwilliams. Thus, even if she was offended, he was being honest and was not sorry for it - although he realized he perhaps should not have been so vehement in terms of his approach. But, ultimately, her marriage to him had offered her very much more than she could have possibly dreamed of. For her to so effortlessly reject him was barely credible.

Insofar as Wickham was concerned, Darcy could not look past Elizabeth's badly informed justification of the man's predicament. He could only guess what truculent malice he had relayed to her about Darcy's purportedly ungenerous character. The very notion of it made his blood boil! And, of course, Elizabeth had been only too willing to listen as Wickham bespattered his good name, already herself feeling so opposed to the man who would be her husband. The cur's thirst for revenge knew no limits! However hard Darcy attempted to rid himself of his connection to Wickham, the man continued to beleaguer him and now he was responsible for not only almost ruining his sister, but for influencing his own wife against him as well.

Although Elizabeth claimed to be no fool, he wondered if a wise person would be so predisposed to accept as true the vilifying lies regarding his character that blackguard had spewed.

Ah, but he was angry. How dare she ascribe to him such odious conduct! Had the time since their marriage taught her nothing of his benevolence? He - who had walked about so tenuously attempting not to provoke her and to make her feel welcome into a world and environment that was completely foreign to her? He - who had addressed an angry letter to his Aunt Catherine demanding she issue an apology to his wife or else be forever unknown to him? He - who had refused to respond to any of her bitter letters since then?

By no means did he want her charity, but she could have offered him some credit. Instead, she appeared ready to believe the very worst and had bandied it about before him acrimoniously. Of course, she did not know of the measures he had taken against his aunt. Yet, knowing how actively he had worked to safeguard them from being the target of any of society's censure, she should have known better.

He - vain? He - arrogant? He - hold her in contempt? Were the charges not so offensive, he may have been tempted to laugh at her misconceptions. Throughout his life he had struggled to not acquiesce to the self-importance and disdain that had overcome so many of his moneyed friends - and he had prided himself on his success. For her to now so readily accuse him of these faults seemed a cruel and unimaginable joke of the very worst sort.

In vain, he attempted to recall his reasons for initially contesting his marriage to Elizabeth. Besides the obvious disparity in terms of their status, none of them seemed at all relevant to him any longer. Yet, when he had told her of how he had come to accept and welcome her as his wife, her response was to raise her eyebrows and smirk doubtfully. If only she could appreciate how much he had been affected by her from almost the very beginning, she would know he was speaking the truth. How he had secretly placed himself in locations that afforded him a clear view of her or where he could overhear her as she spoke to others. How he had done all that he could so that he could speak to her even though their verbal exchanges often left him unbalanced and wondering. Perhaps she would laugh to learn how vulnerable he had always been to her - yet laugh at himself he could not.

He had no idea how he could continue to live with his wife following the bitter words spoken by both of them last evening. How he wished he had not rushed into her bedchamber after hearing the sound of the furniture pieces being moved! If only he had withstood the temptation to run to her on any excuse, they would not be facing the agony they were both feeling. He knew that Elizabeth today would surely be as much pained as she was angry over the entire incident. Almost certainly, she was probably as loath to meet with him as he was to meet with her.

However, remembering the vision she presented in her night shift with her hair tumbling down her back, he could not guarantee that if he were faced with meeting her again - looking as she did last night in her bedchamber - he would not be every bit as tempted by her. That was the most difficult aspect of this entire fiasco. Regardless of his anger and his sadness this morning, he still ached for her and hoped they could move forward in their marriage. Yet, she wanted none of him and cared nothing for his desire for her. As he recalled her fury and her bitterness last night, feelings of resentment, regret and uncertainty washed over him and he was powerless to stop their flow.

Yet, as he waited for the arrival of Hyatt, an idea began ruminating in his mind. It was a notion that Darcy could not discount and one which soon seemed to provide the answer he needed.

He would remove to Pemberley - on his own at first - and then Elizabeth and Georgiana would come down later accompanied by an escort who would keep watch over them. Distance was the very thing they needed! The days apart would provide them both much needed time to mull over their circumstances and, hopefully, when they met again, they would be less angry and more amenable. Even if theirs was not ever going to be the future of domestic felicity he had hoped for, at the very least they could learn to live together in relative calm, as they had done before last evening.

He must at least attempt to restore some equilibrium or they were indeed doomed to live a miserable life.

While Hyatt set about preparing Darcy's clothing for the day, the details of the scheme virtually worked themselves out in Darcy's mind. He would leave for Pemberley on the morrow if he could arrange it and possibly use the journey and his time alone in his beloved home to find some form of peace for himself over the entire affair.

He hoped Elizabeth would also use the opportunity to reflect upon the matter - yet, before she could do that, there were certain truths which needed to be divulged to her. Perhaps it was too much to hope that they could one day forgive one another, but, now that this vicious ugliness lay between them, nothing could be resolved until the truth came to light.

He attempted to ignore the tiny voice within that accused him of wanting nothing more than to vindicate himself to her and to make her see how wrong she had been in the estimation of his character. Of course, he needed to expose Wickham for the detestable liar that he was. It was absolutely necessary that Elizabeth come to know that he was not a man of selfish pride and arrogance; for, deep in his heart, he knew he was a good one. And insofar as the revolting defamation she had learned from that scoundrel, she had to know that he was not the uncharitable brute Wickham had led her to believe he was.

Had he not been so overwhelmingly furious last night, he could have imparted the information to her then; yet, before her, his mind raced and he was too overcome to think logically. Now, he must get hold of his senses and tell her the truth. He had already warned her father about Wickham's character before departing for London; it was time he showed his wife the same consideration - but to her, he would bare all. He knew now that he could trust her with the sad news concerning Georgiana. And he would list for her his impartial reasons for advising his friend not to offer for her sister.

Hopefully, that would at least convince her that there was more than just her own perspective to consider in this situation.

~ * ~

Elizabeth greeted the morning with trepidation. She knew she could not remain sheltered in her bedchamber the entire day, yet the thought of meeting Mr. Darcy again was impossible for her to fathom.

She knew she must have drifted to sleep at some point throughout the long night or early morning hours, but any rest that she had was by no means serene. She recalled all too well how often she had gone over the hostile words she and her husband had exchanged. Two of her pillows were this morning drenched with her tears. How on earth could she be expected to explain this to the servants?

Then again, she imagined they possibly knew already. A footman or another watchful servant no doubt overheard their argument last night. Neither of them had taken any great trouble to lower their voices in the middle of their heated dispute. Both Mr. Darcy and she had been too preoccupied to be cautious. It was almost as if, throughout their discussion last night, all the bitter recriminations they had kept from one another for so long refused to be kept private any longer. They, both of them, had unleashed horrible accusation after horrible accusation; neither of them had been unwilling to concede defeat once the row began.

Yet, in spite of her troubled head this morning and the fact she did not believe they could move past this without difficulty, she was not wholly sorry they had quarrelled. Of course, it would have been preferable to debate their opposing views in a less confrontational manner, but given the disparity that existed amongst them and their conflicting characters, it was unlikely that they would ever be able to talk sensibly. For different reasons, Mr. Wickham's loss and Jane's heartbreak would forever remain topics which would keep them apart. Any lessening of their impasse seemed unlikely at the moment.

Still, there was Georgiana to consider. Her new sister had done nothing to deserve to live in a house overflowing with disapprobation. As irate as Elizabeth was at her husband, she was well on her way to loving his sister very much and could not bear to hurt her. That the young girl believed theirs was a happy marriage was not lost on Elizabeth. Both she and Mr. Darcy had made a silent agreement to protect Georgiana from the truth for as long as possible. To now have to dispel the romantic myth Georgiana entertained insofar as their union was concerned seemed to be cruel and unusual punishment.

No, she would brave her own misgivings and not spend the day cloistered in her room. After all, she had done nothing other than finally give voice to her indignation. Her husband's suggestion that they share a marriage bed ultimately had given her the freedom to do what she had been yearning to do ever since learning of his duplicitous machinations first against Mr. Wickham and, then, her beloved sister.

But - she could not join them for breakfast. If she intended to face Georgiana and Mr. Darcy later, she would have to spend some time preparing herself for that undertaking. After all, it would not look altogether too peculiar for her to be fatigued and suffering from a headache following a late evening. Perhaps, by the time she saw Georgiana again, her brother would have already answered her many questions about the intrigues of last night's Twelfth Night ball and that would relieve her of having to face the young girl's inquisitive enthusiasm. Elizabeth knew herself too well not to recognize she was being rather spineless, but she simply could not allow herself to face Mr. Darcy just yet. And, if she was going to be locked in her room, she best take advantage of the time and sleep.

Intrinsically, she knew she would need a clear head later.

~ * ~

Great was the shock Darcy received when Elizabeth joined his sister and him for dinner later that night.

Her abigail, Candace, had repeatedly told him whenever he or Georgiana had asked after her, that the mistress was not at all well and had taken to her bed. Her breakfast tray and tea had returned downstairs virtually untouched - Elizabeth had merely piled the food to make it appear as if she had nibbled on it sparingly. Yet, he had asked to examine the trays both before they were sent to her and afterwards and, thus, he knew she had consumed none of it.

He had determined that she would not meet him today and was attempting to find a means of informing her of his resolution to depart for Pemberley at first light tomorrow. Going to her bedchamber appeared out of the question following last night's misadventures, yet how could he see her when she so plainly did not want to be seen?

It was a quandary that had perplexed him for the greater part of the day - and he had welcomed its intrusion for it prevented him from relentlessly thinking upon why his journey away from her was necessary in the first place.

Thus, when she appeared at the dinner table, looking relatively well - if a bit solemn and tired - he was stunned as was his sister, who ran to greet her immediately.

"Elizabeth! How good it is to have you join us! I attempted to visit you in your room today, but both Candace and Mrs. Graham told me you were not well enough to see even me. In fact, we have had visitors calling upon you all day and we have turned them all down." Georgiana turned to her brother abruptly. "Have you their cards, William? Elizabeth may like to see them after dinner."

"Indeed I do, Georgie," he replied, unable to address Elizabeth directly. "If she is well enough, she may peruse them later. If not, they will certainly keep."

Elizabeth offered Georgiana a small smile. "Thank you. I will examine them later. I am feeling much better; yet, I am sorry to have missed the pleasure of your company today, Georgiana."

"No matter - as long as you are well now. William and I would be quite desolate having yet another meal without you." She looked to her brother for confirmation and then continued in spite of his lack of response. "Breakfast was a very sombre affair, Elizabeth. No matter how unremitting I was while questioning William about the events of last evening, he offered me only the briefest of replies. I hope you will be more open, but you need not tell me everything now. My curiosity can wait until you are fully restored."

Darcy felt Elizabeth's eyes wander over to him fleetingly, but he did not look up. He was amazed at how his timid sister had almost completely shed her reservations and was speaking quite liberally. This was proof of how comfortable she felt in their company and the thought that he had made plans to disrupt what provided her with so much happiness made him almost spasm with guilt. How would she react once she learned of his plans to remove to Pemberley without them for a short period?

He knew he could not delay the inevitable truth for much longer.

"Er...I am pleased that you are feeling better, Elizabeth. I have something to tell both of you." He saw Elizabeth pause and glance at him worriedly. "I have decided that there is far too much business I have been neglecting at Pemberley. Thus, I must return and intend to leave tomorrow morning."

Georgiana startled, as he expected, but Elizabeth merely arched her eyebrow at him before looking down at her plate.

"But Brother, you cannot be serious! You will depart so soon? And without us? I am sure Elizabeth would love to accompany you and I should like to see her first reaction to her new home as well!" She turned and looked at Elizabeth pleadingly. "Would you not like to know Pemberley, Elizabeth? I am certain that you will love it."

"No doubt I will love it, Georgie. But, your brother evidently needs to return ahead of us. He will most assuredly send for us when he sees fit."

During her words to Georgiana, Elizabeth kept her gaze steadily upon Darcy. Her voice was light, but he knew she was not pleased to learn of his departure. Perhaps she thought him cowardly, but he did not regret his decision to remove himself from her company.

"Actually, you will be joining me quite soon. Mr. Gilmore will be accompanying you on the trip to Pemberley in a week's time. That should give you both plenty of time to prepare yourselves for the journey."

"But you must return now - on your own?" asked Elizabeth.

"Yes. Mr. Gilmore and I have heard from Pemberley's land steward and he has informed us that there are squabbles amidst the tenants over a brief stretch of land. It is madness really. The land can do none of them any good now in the dead of winter. Yet, they have come to blows over it. What's more, I have been away far too long and cannot afford to neglect it any longer."

"Please take care on the journey, William. You need not worry about Elizabeth and me, but we will be quite anxious until we hear you have arrived safely."

"Thank you for your concern, but I shall be safe." He placed his napkin on the table and stood. "And now you must excuse me. I am meeting briefly with Gilmore and then have some letters to write before my departure. Please excuse me. I shall try to meet with you later."

As he walked toward the door, he heard Elizabeth's small, "Of course."

Once inside his study, he shut the mahogany door behind him and leaned against it heavily, attempting to catch his breath. How could he have thought himself ready to face her following last night's heated dispute? Before her, his emotions had again been frenzied and unmanageable. Accordingly, he had practically run down the hallway, wanting nothing more than the security of his study and his own private company.

He wondered if Elizabeth was not the smallest bit relieved to be rid of him as well. Was she happy to learn of his departure? Should he have given her a longer period away from him rather than just a week? Yet, if he had given her a fortnight or even a month, would that not have caused Georgiana to question them further? After all, why would a newly wedded couple such as themselves wish to spend so much time apart? No, in the end, his decision to have Elizabeth and Georgiana remove to Pemberley in a week's time had been for the best.

Now he was faced with the uncertainly of when he would be able to speak to Elizabeth alone. They may ultimately have no time to meet this evening given his sister's presence. Yet, he must find some manner of conveying to her all that she needed to know regarding Wickham and his interference with Bingley.

Writing her a letter wherein he could defend his motivations and outline his reasons for departing London could resolve this problem. That certainly was not the most efficient means of communicating with her, but he may have no other viable options to consider. He would certainly not be able to visit her in her bedchamber and he could not ask Georgiana to leave them alone without again raising her suspicions. Evidently, given her obvious dismay and many questions she raised upon hearing he meant to leave them, his sister already viewed his hasty departure with some scepticism. Likewise, he intended to be gone by the time Elizabeth awoke tomorrow, so he could not meet with her then. That left him with no time whatsoever to see her privately.

Thus, it was decided; if the evening provided him with no opportunity to have a private audience with his wife, he would compose a letter to her and explain himself completely.

He could certainly not leave her without making some attempt to vindicate himself. Otherwise, their time apart would do neither of them any good at all.

~ * ~

After dinner, Elizabeth accompanied Georgiana to the music room.

She chose to perform immediately, hoping that the young girl would then be content to spend the remainder of their time together playing the pianoforte herself. Elizabeth's own musical attempts were more flawed than usual; her rendition of Mozart's Don Giovanni - one of Georgiana's favourites - was atrocious. She fared no better playing Bach's St. Matthew's Passion, a difficult piece which she ought not to have attempted. When she was finished, Georgiana offered her a small smile of encouragement and clapped as though she had performed skilfully. Yet, Elizabeth knew all too well how pathetic her playing was that night.

Throughout Georgiana's recital, Elizabeth's mind raced. Not only was she overcome with the lingering shame after meeting with her husband again following last night's quarrel, but the news that he planned to leave them immediately added to her inattentiveness. Of course, he had not said so, but she knew this sudden voyage was his attempt to get away from her and it did not please her.

She thought it quite insensitive of him to leave without making any attempt to resolve the contentious issues between them. Even if they could never hope to completely forget what transpired, certainly he did not mean for them to ignore the dispute and spend the rest of their lives treading softly around one another. Nor did she particularly enjoy the image of herself as a shunned wife; although she had not accepted his offer to share a marriage bed, she by no means meant to co-exist with a man who made no effort to understand her or who did not want to spend any time whatsoever in her company.

Moreover, if he was being truthful in saying she and Georgiana would begin their journey to him in a week's time, she would be away from London when Jane visited the Gardiners in a month's time. As much as Elizabeth loved her new sister, she longed for Jane's familiar serenity and her relentless comfort. Surely, he could not be so cruel as to deny her the right to spend time with her most beloved sister when she had been so kind to his own?

It was impossible for her to allow him to depart without speaking to him. She intended to tell him it was quite cowardly of him to run from her and provide him with an opportunity to explain his purpose to her. Hopefully, he would also be able to relay to her what his intentions were insofar as their marriage was concerned.

At the end of Georgiana's third song, she excused herself claiming that there was an urgent matter she needed to discuss with her brother. Fortunately, the young girl accepted this readily and did not question her any further.

Once she was outside of his study, she wondered what she would say to him. Although she was eager to speak with him, all of her reasons suddenly appeared either inconsequential or quite ridiculous. Still, she could not turn back now. A footman sitting nearby was looking at her strangely as she hesitated outside the closed door of the study. She offered the domestic a hesitant smile and knocked lightly on the door.

At the sound of her husband's throaty "Come in," she turned the handle all the while praying she would not regret her decision to meet with him later.

~ * ~

The sight of Elizabeth tentatively entering his study offered Darcy his second great surprise of the evening. He had not expected she would willingly seek a private audience with him. In fact, he was in the midst of writing his explanatory letter to her when she came in.

"Mr. Darcy," she said in a determined tone, "I believe that we should...talk prior to your departure tomorrow. I am sorry to trouble you when you are so obviously busy, but I found it necessary to speak to you."

Hurriedly, he attempted to conceal the missive he was writing. His astonishment at her boldness continued, but he was encouraged to learn that she cared enough to make this important first step as well. He decided to allow her to speak initially and then hopefully be given an opportunity to talk later.

"I quite agree. It will do us no good to separate given the current level of animosity between us. I believe there are a number of things we should discuss."

"Indeed. I am curious to know why you have this impulsive urge to depart. My sister arrives at my aunt's next month. I would very much like to see her, but my wishes are apparently insignificant."

He breathed deeply, readying himself for the wrangle which was bound to break out.

"Elizabeth, I did not know of your sister's plans to visit London. Believe me, I do not mean for you to be kept from her. Yet, everything is now set for me to remove to Pemberley tomorrow and for you and Georgiana to join me there in a week's time. Delay your journey if you must, but I much prefer we not incite any additional suspicion regarding our marriage by remaining separate at this early stage."

"But if I do not see Jane in February, it is uncertain when I will be given the opportunity to meet with her again once I am in Derbyshire! Forgive me, but I think you are being quite unreasonable in this matter."

"Then ask her to join us at Pemberley. She can journey with your relations whenever it is convenient for them to travel." He looked away from the surprised look upon her countenance. "I do not mean to keep you apart from your family, Elizabeth - although I am certain you think me heartless enough to do just that."

He paused to allow her to absorb his last statement. He saw her take a deep breath before continuing.

"I do not think you are completely unfeeling. We do, however, seem prepared to attribute to each other the very worst of motives. ...You must know we cannot carry on in this manner. Even if we are to separate for a brief period, we shall certainly have to meet again. Unless, of course, you mean to...Mr. Darcy, are you by chance considering ending this marriage?"

Once again he was stunned. Although he was still quite angry at her refusal last night and at the charges she had laid against him, he had not ever contemplated annulling their marriage.

"Mrs. Darcy, I assure you, I have given the notion of ending our matrimony no thought at all. Please understand me - regardless of our latest quarrel, when I made the decision to marry you, I did so intending to remain married to you. For me, nothing has changed. After all, our union occurred because we had a desire to not fall victim to society's scorn. An annulment would very much defeat our original purpose, would it not?"

There was no mistaking the flicker of relief upon Elizabeth's countenance.

"And your sudden decision to depart? Is that not a concerted effort to be rid of me, Sir?"

"In part - yes. I felt it would be difficult for us to continue to meet and play the role of a happily married couple given what transpired last evening. I hoped that the separation would give us time to calm ourselves and think rationally. I do not think it is such a bad idea."

"No...it is not a bad idea, although I fail to see how we can be expected to form any resolution at all if we remain independently mired in our anger and are not given the opportunity to understand why we each feel as we do."

"A very good point," he conceded levelly. "By all means, begin to show me the error of my ways. I will listen patiently, although I expect to be shown the same level of tolerance when it comes time for me to speak."

Her gaze locked with his and her colour began to rise. He watched as she chewed nervously on her bottom lip, carefully considering her response.

"Mr. Darcy, I should think you already know what precisely offended me last night. I assure you, I did not hide anything from you." Her tone was casual, but the flash of her eyes betrayed her true emotion. "If you must hear it again, your poor treatment of my sister and your shameless denial of Mr. Wickham's inheritance, I find particularly repugnant. Forgive me, but I cannot look past those faults. Given this, I have every reason in the world to think ill of you and to not...welcome you...into my bed."

At this point, she walked toward an armchair and sat down, crossing her arms. As she spoke, her colour had risen significantly and he could appreciate how it had not been easy for her to be so candid. Still, he could not abide her staunch defence of a man he so vehemently detested. That the man's name was being brought up in his house at all was barely credible. He had sworn never to speak - never to think - of him again. Now, Elizabeth had the nerve to bring up every painful memory of his association with the rake. He simply could not stand it any longer.

He moved to stand opposite her.

"Elizabeth, I have asked you not to endorse Wickham to me. He is a bounder of the most heinous sort and I cannot tolerate the idea that you are so fervent in your defence of him!"

She stood and the look in her eyes was turbulent.

"Really! And, I suppose, I am simply to accept your word and overlook all that I have been told in relation to your own conduct! I imagine it would be quite convenient if I could suspend my disbelief - for your own sake - but, forgive me, I cannot be so tolerant."

"If your reasons were all valid, you would be quite right to hold me in such contempt." He paused and looked at her warily, "Yet, there are facts which you are not aware of which may cause you to reconsider your feelings. Shall I begin to tell you of them now?"

She nodded earnestly and sank back against the cushions of the armchair as she once more sat down.

"Some of the information I am about to relay to you, Elizabeth, is of an intensely personal nature. I see now that perhaps I should have told you of it long ago, as my doing so may have prevented you from feeling the acrimony you do now. Yet, I am a private man, and I have not been accustomed to having to speak of such confidential matters to anyone. Nevertheless, I will be forthright and divulge everything. I only ask that you listen to my rather long account and attempt to credit my point of view as well as your own. Some of what I say will, no doubt, cause you pain, but I cannot allow that to prevent me from speaking the truth. I believe I owe that to myself as much as I owe it to you."

"I believe I can promise you that I will listen, Mr. Darcy. I would like to think I am not so unreasonable a creature that I would not offer you your due in this instance."

Suddenly, he was unable to remain still. In spite of his desire to withhold his frustration and remain calm, he began pacing and could not face the intensity of her stare directly.

"You first accused me of encouraging my friend to separate from your sister. I believe you called my intervention officious and no doubt think me quite mean-spirited." He hesitated and saw her nod in agreement. "According to you, I overlooked the level of fondness on both sides and did only what I thought was best. Yet, there is more to this matter than what you accept as true. I did notice my friend was partial to your sister while we were in Hertfordshire. I did not think much of it initially; after all, my friend is often falling in and out of love. However, on the evening of the Netherfield ball, I noticed that his feelings for your eldest sister were somehow different - more intense - than they had been for any other lady previously. Then, while I was dancing with you, Sir William Lucas's inadvertent mention of how my friend's attentions to Miss Bennet had raised the anticipation of their future marriage caused me to seriously consider the two of them as prospective spouses for the first time. What I saw were two different reactions to each other. Bingley was besotted - that much was clear to anyone. Yet, your sister's feelings were more difficult to measure. I did not see any particular affection coming from her."

At this, Elizabeth's back straightened and she looked as though she were prepared to interrupt. In an effort to prevent her, Mr. Darcy spoke more quickly.

"Please do not misunderstand me; your sister did not rebuff my friend's attentions - quite the contrary. Still, she did not particularly encourage them either. She was open, amiable and pleasant toward us all. I did not see any manifest difference in her interactions with my friend."

"Yes, but she is shy!" Elizabeth cried finally. "In Hertfordshire, we all know Jane to be the most reticent of all the Bennet sisters. That does not mean she does not feel deeply. Truly, Sir, you could not have been more wrong in your estimation insofar as her affection for Mr. Bingley is concerned."

"Perhaps she is known to be somewhat more reserved in Hertfordshire, but, as a newcomer, I did not possess a general knowledge of people's established reputations. I only saw what I saw," he said brusquely. "If I was mistaken, and I believe I may have been after learning from you more of her true disposition, I cannot be faulted for not inherently knowing the extent of your sister's admiration for Bingley. Believe me when I say, I was only thinking of my friend. I did not wish for him to make an unequal marriage."

"But you also saw what you wished to see! Mr. Darcy, I know that you did not want Mr. Bingley to be in anyway tied to my family. Do not stand here and deny it. You admitted as much to me last night!"

Her eyes flashed in anger. His account of why he had acted in the manner that he had insofar as her sister was concerned had done nothing to assuage her annoyance. In fact, she appeared considerably more frustrated after having heard him. He knew he still had much to do to convince her he was not wholly to blame for his friend's desertion; yet, he could not stand before her and pretend to approve of her family when they had given him so many sound reasons not to approve of them.

"And there you are partially wrong again, Elizabeth! Bingley's connection to your family could never injure him to the extent my connection to your family could hurt me. Yet, I eventually learned to overlook those objections and, thus, so could he." Here he paused briefly before continuing. "You and your sister may be lacking what are considered "suitable" relations and that may cause gentlemen such as Mr. Bingley and me to face some degree of censure. However, you cannot fail to see that your mother's more common background is nothing in relation to her discreditable conduct and the unseemly behaviour of your youngest sisters. Your father - who I have since come to esteem - also did not inspire much of my favourable sentiments at the time. Therefore, if I did in fact not wish for my friend to tie himself to your family, I believe I had good reason."

He saw Elizabeth rise and move away from him. Following her, he continued, but his voice, when he spoke again, lost its angry edge.

"Elizabeth, I do not mean to pain you - truly. You and your eldest sister are so far above your family in terms of your own conduct and manners. You are more than worthy of the respect you have earned in Hertfordshire and here in London. Yet, on the evening of the Netherfield ball, all of the improprieties shown by your nearest relations were heightened given the fact that I was viewing them as the potential family of my dearest friend. Believe at least this - when I encouraged Bingley to leave Hertfordshire, I did it primarily because I felt your sister was indifferent to him and not merely because of your family's poor social graces or your inferior connections."

She turned and regarded him wordlessly. They were standing quite near to one another now and Darcy felt the need to distance himself or run the risk of being powerless to finish his justification.

"And we would have left Hertfordshire had the scandal concerning us not erupted. Every preparation to depart had been made. Bingley even contacted his solicitor and was in the process of placing Netherfield on lease again. Yet, our subsequent, hasty marriage prevented his removal. As you know, he remained in Hertfordshire after our wedding and only informed me of his plans to depart a fortnight ago. From what he has told me, he continued to visit your family - visit your sister actually - after we left. And then it was he who distinguished your sister's lack of interest. I assure you, I did nothing else to persuade him. He left based on the feeling that his suit of your sister was futile. If you need proof of this, I can have you read his letters wherein he states his reasons quite clearly." Darcy moved toward his desk and opened the drawer containing his friend's most recent letters.

"Sir, I need not see them...In fact, I would very much appreciate not reading Mr. Bingley's letters at this time. Perhaps sometime in the future...but now...I simply cannot."

"As you wish." He walked back to the front of his desk and faced her directly. "As I see it, the only basis you could have for continuing to be angry at me for this is because I did not inform or explain to you immediately his decision to remove to London. Yet, I did nothing to knowingly hurt your sister or my friend and so I cannot feel guilt-ridden over my actions."

He saw Elizabeth take a step back and grasp the edge of the table. Fearing that her legs would give way, he crossed the distance between them and gently led her back to the armchair. He took the seat next to her, suddenly overcome with fatigue.

"Forgive me, Elizabeth. I can see that you are pained. We need not go on. My account will definitely keep. This conversation tonight is in no way helping us to resolve our differences."

"No..." she murmured. "Please continue. At this point, I must know all."

Darcy stood and hesitated. The worst part of his story was definitely out. Even if Elizabeth believed Wickham to be unfairly victimized, what he had to say about him could not touch her as profoundly as did his news concerning her sister and Bingley.

"Please, Mr. Darcy. At this point, it would be almost cruel for you to stop what you have to say. I am well enough and ready to hear you."

"Very well, then. You only need let me know should you require me to stop."

Her only response was to nod gravely.

"You accused me last night - and again tonight - of heartlessly disparaging Mr. Wickham. I believe you suggested that I am to blame for his relative poverty and that I denied him the inheritance left to him by my late father."

"He confirmed it for me himself! Please do not stand before me and tell me that he has lied."

He prefaced his reply with a scowl. As loathsome as the thought of providing Elizabeth with the particulars of Wickham's depravity was to him, evidently she would never be satisfied until she knew everything.

"I am afraid I must disillusion you insofar as your opinion of that man is concerned. Elizabeth, if you mean for me to be honest, I cannot stand before you and have you think me such a heartless monster who would knowingly diminish someone who had been a friend to me in my younger days. I have no awareness as to what he has said about me, but I cannot allow your criticism against me to go uncontested."

She regarded him cagily and, suddenly, his frustration grew. In a lower voice, so as to not allow Georgiana to overhear them, he began narrating his entire wretched history with the man he despised like no other.

"As you know, Mr. Wickham is the son of my late father's steward. His father was a fine man and my father held both he and his son in high regard. In fact, George Wickham is my father's god-son and my father showed him nothing but consideration. While George attended school and even later when he went to Cambridge, my father paid his tuition and, as a result, he was given a gentleman's education. His own father would never have been able to supply him with the same privileges and so my father assumed the costs of his studies with joy. He hoped that in the end, Wickham would enter into the church. You see, Elizabeth, my father genuinely loved George Wickham and envisioned a very different life for him. Yet, I saw him differently."

When he turned to regard her, he noticed she was following both his movements and his story with rapt attention, but the look on her face remained sceptical.

"Being nearly the same age, we were sent to university together. That afforded me the opening to see the lack of restraint and decency which governed his behaviour. He had absolutely no regard for his studies and, so, he failed miserably. He also became quite the libertine, treating the women who were taken in by his handsome appearance as mere playthings. The allowance my father gave him was spent on gambling and drink; I often had to give him money for food and clothing. Thus, I watched my friend develop into a miscreant, but I could do nothing to stop him. My father, however, remained blissfully unaware of who Wickham really was."

"Even if what you are saying is true, he has since reformed his character. The man I met in Hertfordshire was no miscreant, I assure you. I fancy myself well able to uncover duplicitous facades and, every time we were together, he demonstrated none of the dissoluteness you suggest overcame him while you were in school together."

"I assure you, there has been no reformation insofar as Wickham is concerned. I know that for a fact!" His tone was bitter and he looked away in disgust. "I am not surprised to learn that he concealed from you his depravity. How else could he have managed to fool you into thinking him creditable if he had shown himself as the nefarious cur that he is?"

When he turned toward her, Elizabeth met his gaze briefly. That she was shocked was apparent, but also visible was her persistent doubt of him. Ignoring his last question to her, she urged him to continue.

"I believe you were suggesting that your father knew nothing of Mr. Wickham's transformation while he was in college?"

"In fact he did not. I could not inform my father that someone who had been his favourite had fallen so reprehensibly. I did not have the heart to thoroughly disappoint him. When my father died, he left a proviso in his will suggesting that, if Wickham took orders, I was to assist him and see to it that he was given a position in a respectable parish as soon as the living became available. He also willed him one thousand pounds. His own father died not long after mine and, shortly thereafter, Mr. Wickham wrote and informed me that he did not wish to take orders after all. He requested that I forward him some money, claiming that he had lately been inspired to study law. To be honest, I was thankful, but doubtful. What I knew of George Wickham made it apparent to me that he should never be a clergyman. Thus, I forwarded him three thousand pounds, knowing that a paltry one thousand would not be enough. I wanted to believe some good could come from him, so I ignored my misgivings. I imagine my guilt also compelled me to do as he asked. Truly, I hoped never to see him again. By that point, his reputation was blackened and I thought it best to sever all ties to him. Several mutual acquaintances relayed story upon story of his gaming and debauchery - and I wanted none of him. I heard mention of how he had impregnated - and left - at least two young women from Whittlesey, a town near Cambridge. Still, I recalled all too well how my father loved him and felt I was dishonouring his last wishes. Thus, I hoped the money would assist him to realize something akin to the vision my father had of him, but deep within I knew he was too far gone."

"Why, this is a very different account than what I was led to believe! And, are you quite certain that there has been no misunderstanding here? Did not Mr. Wickham later repent his decision to forgo taking orders?"

"Madam, there was no misunderstanding - at least none of the sort you are suggesting! Wickham himself initially resigned all claim to a living in the church and accepted the money I sent him. However, instead of studying law, I learned that his life continued to be filled with indolence and vice. For three years, I heard little from him, other than his written admissions that his life had become ghastly. He blamed everything and everyone other than himself for his misfortunes. In time, I heard that he was barely scraping by and that he was no longer being offered credit anywhere. Only then, did he write to me asking for a letter of presentation, telling me that he then believed that he should be ordained after all. He meant for me to seek a living for him and hoped that I would sympathetically pay attention to my late father's wishes. I think you can hardly impugn me for resisting his petitions; he had proven himself to be such a blackguard, I could not sanction the risk of his continued misbehaviour. Nor could I ever knowingly recommend him for anything - much less as someone worthy of being a clergyman." He shuddered in remembered disgust. "Several letters from him followed, all beseeching me to establish a position for him within the church. In good conscience, I denied him and he proceeded to malign me in his letters or to anyone he met. Word of his defamation reached me; there was more than one source claiming that George Wickham was now spewing horrible lies concerning all of the Darcys and the Fitzwilliams. I did not, however, know that he continued in his falsification of my character in Hertfordshire until you made me aware of it last night. Although I had no intention of ever speaking to him again, I hoped he had learned to constrain his loose tongue. I know now that I was wrong."

Elizabeth shuddered and looked away, perhaps believing that Darcy's story ended there. However, there was still more for her to hear concerning the man she had been so eager to champion before him.

"But I have not told you his worst betrayal yet. Last summer, he grievously entered into my family's life again. What I am about to relate to you requires your utmost secrecy. Believe me, I trust you, Elizabeth, for I have come to see that you love Georgiana almost as much as I do myself."

"Georgiana? Pardon me - I fail to see how any of this concerns her."

"Ah, but it concerns her almost exclusively. And, because I love her, it concerns me as well." He paused briefly and took a deep breath. "After my parents died, Georgiana's guardianship was left to my cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, and to myself. A year ago, she was taken from her school and entered into an establishment in London. Last summer, a woman who helped manage it, Mrs. Younge, escorted my sister to Ramsgate. Unbeknownst to me, Mrs. Younge was acquainted with George Wickham and informed him of their travel plans. He proceeded to follow them there and then he by deceit convinced Georgiana that he was in love with her. My sister, being young and inexperienced, only possessed the knowledge of the kindness George had shown her when she was a child. She truly had no chance to protect herself from his lies. She was a mere fifteen years old at the time, had not been presented into society yet and, thus, she had lived a quiet, sheltered existence. I had not informed her of his profligacy in an effort to protect her. I see now that I should have told her everything. Wickham seized upon her naivete and convinced her to agree to a secret elopement. Fortunately, I arrived without prior notice a day before the intended scheme was carried through. It is only because Georgiana worried about my reaction upon learning of her absence, that she told me of the plan. It is because she loved me almost as she would a father, that she relayed the horrible truth to me. Had she not, I would have lost her." He sighed as he remembered her near ruin. "My only reason for not publicly exposing this is to safeguard my sister, who cannot be blamed for falling prey to Wickham's treachery. I soon discovered the whole truth and went in search of Mr. Wickham. Meanwhile, when he learned of my anger, he fled - much like the coward he is. I also learned the truth of Mrs. Younge and how greatly she had misled us. I have been more prudent ever since when choosing Georgiana's companions. Mrs. Annesley who, as you know, is now visiting her daughter in Dorset, endured severe scrutiny prior to being given her position in my employ. When she returns, you can ask her of how meticulously every aspect of her former life was examined."

"But why would Mr. Wickham seek to ruin Georgiana? Surely he could not blame her because you chose not to establish a living for him in the church?"

"The answer is quite simple. He wanted her fortune. As you know, Georgiana has a generous dowry and Wickham's steady need for money compels much of his behaviour. No doubt, my sister's thirty thousand pounds would have served even someone like him quite well. He may have had a good year's worth of gambling and reckless living at his disposal," he said, unable to keep the bitterness from his voice. "I am certain he would have abandoned Georgiana after he was done with her money. And, of course, he would have had his revenge on me. So, you see, had he been triumphant in destroying my sister, he would have everything he ever wanted...and more."

He looked down to Elizabeth who, in her shock and disgust, had covered her face with her hands.

"As difficult as it may be for you to credit this story, this is a sincere narration of what transpired between Mr. Wickham and me. This is why I cannot bear to hear you defend him and why I cannot meet with the man and be congenial regardless of however much you enjoy his society. His very existence is a scourge to me. I have managed to keep this story private; only my cousin, Richard, and now, you, are in possession of these facts. If you at all doubt me, I invite you to speak to my cousin about this situation. I understand that you have grounds not to trust me, but I hope you know Richard would have no reason to lie to you."

"I do....I do believe you, yet it is hard to credit. How can Mr. Wickham have told me lie after lie...and in such an earnest manner? He has every appearance of goodness. Oh, it is all too much!"

"Yes, but scoundrels such as he use any means available to them in order to deceive," he charged resentfully. "In the end, you are no worse for believing him than was my sister or any of the merchants who continue to give him credit and then find themselves short. He is, in my estimation, a menace and someone who I hope to never encounter again."

"I may be no worse than the persons you mention - but I believed myself to be a great deal better," said Elizabeth in a small voice.

The dismay in her tone seemed to draw his attention away from his own anger. When he looked down at her, he noticed she was staring ahead blankly and seemed to be distracted and bewildered.

"Elizabeth, may I get you some wine? Clearly, I have shocked you with this tale."

She nodded her head and looked away. When he offered her the half-filled tumbler, she accepted it readily and proceeded to take small sips from it. For a while neither of them spoke, yet the room seemed to be charged with anticipation of all that remained unsaid.

"Sir, if I may, I have one other question to ask you." She watched as he nodded his acceptance. "Last night, you accused me of almost relentlessly flirting with you. Surely, you were joking."

He sighed audibly. Despite his desire to be absolutely candid with her, he had hoped to avoid this one particular topic of mortification. Now that she had initiated the discussion, he could no longer avoid it.

"I can see now that I was wrong, yet, last evening, I believed you were flirting with me. You seemed more willing than usual to be in my company and you have never before grabbed hold of my arm of your own volition." He felt his colour rise and, when he looked at her, he saw her own face was flushed. "It seems rather ridiculous now, but I then interpreted your actions as a signal that you were every bit as eager as I was to make our marriage a real one."

"But we do not love each other! I may be naive concerning such matters, but I do believe a certain level of affection is necessary between a man and a wife...in order for the enterprise to not be so wholly unpleasant."

"I concede that we do not love one another. Still, I had hoped we were on our way to gaining respect for each other. I was rather surprised to hear you suggest I held you in contempt. Believe me, Madam, nothing can be further from the truth. If I did, I would be less moved by what occurred between us last night. While I may not always be able to demonstrate what I feel, I am no insensitive brute - contrary to what you suggested yesterday."

Darcy turned and walked back toward his desk to obtain a greater distance away from Elizabeth.

"Perhaps this is unknown to you, but I do wish for a successor to my estate. I could, of course, wait for Georgiana to have a son or daughter, but I have always wanted to have my own child take over my duties one day. I hope to train my child as my father trained me. You may think that quite gratuitous, but it is how I feel and I will not stand before you and tell you otherwise." He stopped and felt compelled to look at her. "Yet, last night, when I came to you, I did so not as a man who wanted an heir; I came to you as a man who wanted his wife. I hoped you would have developed some similar feelings for me, but it is now clear to me that you have not."

Elizabeth looked up to him askance.

"In my circle, marriages without the affection you speak of are quite prevalent. Many of my married friends have gone on to have children with wives they do not love. Yet, I imagine they respect their wives as much as their wives respect them. I believe that once a couple learns to esteem one another, they are well on their way to finding pleasure in marriage."

"I see. Sir, if I may, I would like to give you my response to that. Would you like to hear it?"

She rose and faced him. He crossed his arms before him and raised his eyebrow sceptically.

"Indeed I agree that esteem is a necessary element of any mutually beneficial relationship. Yet, I would like to not have to learn to respect you, nor does the idea of you learning to respect me give me any satisfaction at all. I believe true esteem is earned, but it must begin with a general understanding. And it should occur naturally and not require...a concerted effort."

She hesitated and Darcy saw her wince. He walked toward her, but she raised her hand to stop him.

"Mr. Darcy, I...appreciate your desire for an heir - and perhaps we can move past this. But it shall take time. Even if it is common for your friends to be intimate with their spouses without affection, I had hoped my own marriage would be rather different. I can assure you of one thing; I will not develop feelings similar to your own unless we begin to be more honest and open with one another. Perhaps then, there may be the hope for understanding and, later, true respect."

"And shall what I have relayed to you tonight assist you to understand me at all better?"

"It is certainly a beginning - and it is further than we would have been had you not told me. We shall meet again at Pemberley. In the meantime, please journey safely tomorrow. I know I will spend our time apart giving a great deal of consideration to all that you have said this evening. I hope that in return, you will consider my own feelings." She looked at him knowingly, "I believe we can both admit to at least this, Mr. Darcy - we, neither of us, have spent very much time appreciating one another. Until we do, our marriage can bring neither of us any true satisfaction."

As greatly as Mr. Darcy wanted to respond, he was unsure of what he could say to her. She, very cleverly, had presented her opinion to him and there was truly nothing he could say to counter her.

"Good night, Mr. Darcy. I hope you sleep well. Your journey tomorrow will be a long one and you would do well to rest."

With that, she left him.

He was unsure how long he spent rooted to the same spot after she left. Yet, when his steward joined him later, he dismissed him instantly.

He had not moved.

After his meeting with Elizabeth, he definitely did not have a head for business. Before retiring, he threw the half-written letter he had penned to her amidst the dying embers of the fire -and then proceeded to pour himself a tumbler filled with his finest brandy.

Chapter 19

On the day before she and Georgiana were to depart for Pemberley, Elizabeth sat in the library holding onto the letter she had received from her husband the day prior.

Directly above her, she heard the sound of heavy trunks being moved in Georgiana's room. Her maid and Mrs. Annesley, who had returned from visiting her daughter two days ago, were assisting Georgiana determine what to bring with her. Once they were done, Mrs. Annesley would begin repacking her own things.

Elizabeth had been unable to answer many of the questions Georgiana and her companion asked her regarding how long they could expect to be at Pemberley. Truly, she did not know if Mr. Darcy intended for them to return to London in April or if he meant to stay away for a longer period. Thus, she had advised them to bring both their winter clothing and some lighter clothing they may need for the early spring.

So much still remained unknown to her.

She scanned the short missive again hastily, taking time only to inspect the neat and finely proportioned handwriting which so conspicuously matched her husband's character. She wished, somehow, that the letter could impart to her some indication as to her husband's thoughts when he had written it. Had he used the time away from her to re-evaluate some of his actions concerning Jane and Mr. Bingley? Did he continue to begrudge her for so blindly crediting each lie Mr. Wickham had told her? Did he still presume they could move past their rancorous argument and become man and wife in more than just name? Perhaps, however, he simply no longer desired her.

Over and over, the scene in Mr. Darcy's study replayed itself in Elizabeth's mind. Initially, she vowed never to think of his words again, yet her mind returned again and again to the explanation he had given her on the night before his departure. She shuddered while remembering the heavy prejudice which had overcome her when her husband began to relay to her his reasons for separating Jane and Mr. Bingley. As she had listened, she was seized by a passionate annoyance such as she had never known before. At the time, the fact that he revealed little remorse for his interference had served to provoke her choler still more.

In the days following his going away, however, Elizabeth had been given time to consider Mr. Darcy's story in depth. While she still faulted his intervention and blamed him for initially causing Mr. Bingley to doubt the fondness her sister felt for him, her anger had lost some of its sharpness and she half-heartedly admitted that her husband was not entirely culpable. After all, had not Charlotte, who knew Jane far better than did her husband, also suggested that Jane appeared rather unaffected and impervious in Mr. Bingley's presence? Did she not urge Elizabeth to persuade her sister to show him more affection in order to relay her true feelings? Thus, Mr. Darcy was not in every respect wrong for believing Jane to be indifferent - and he was not the only one who was unable to read her sister as well as Elizabeth herself could.

Moreover, how could she continue to hold him accountable when it appeared Mr. Bingley himself had made the ultimate decision to leave Netherfield after believing Jane did not welcome his attentions? Yet, why had her beloved sister made no attempt to reveal to him her interest? Jane was rather reticent, but why could she have not somehow let her partiality for Mr. Bingley be known to him? Questions such as these abounded in Elizabeth's mind until she wisely determined to think on them no further. Until she had occasion to ask Jane to justify her behaviour toward Mr. Bingley, she could not hope to arrive at a satisfactory answer on her own. Nevertheless, her wonder over her sister's conduct burgeoned.

In a letter to Jane telling her of their removal to Pemberley, Elizabeth had also referred to Mr. Bingley's arrival in London. She questioned the reason for his abrupt departure, but she did not think her sister would be able to explain herself fully in a written response back to her. Unfortunately, issues such as this could not be openly rationalized in a dispatch; thus, her curiosity would have to wait until she met with Jane personally. In the meantime, her Uncle Gardiner had accepted Elizabeth's invitation to travel to Derbyshire and stay at Pemberley as soon as he was able to leave his business for an extended period. Her continued investigation would have to wait until then.

However much she resented his criticisms of her family, she knew Mr. Darcy's view of her mother and her younger sisters was in the end not so very different from her own. Over and over, she had attempted to rein in her mother's loose tongue and admonish her sisters' reckless behaviour - but to no avail. They appeared intent on exposing themselves to society's scorn regardless of her efforts. Her mother would not be quieted and she seemed to find it no great burden to speak what was best left unsaid - regardless of whoever was present to hear her. Kitty and Lydia behaved shamelessly in full view of anyone who cared to look; their flirtations had caused Elizabeth mortification again and again. And Mary - well, Mary was a good sort, but she had no awareness of how silly she appeared before others who were not so willing to extol the virtues of feminine honour and righteousness.

She sighed as she thought of them. Yes, overall, Elizabeth could not fault her husband's admonition of her family too much - but she could not like it either. After all, given the rude impropriety Lady Catherine had demonstrated to her, Mr. Darcy was in no position to believe his own family members were all above reproach. His aunt may have been blessed with wealth and a life of privilege, but her inability to stop her tongue made her not much better than her own mother in all the ways that truly mattered.

Her husband's story regarding Mr. Wickham, however, caused her a great deal more torment. How could she have so willingly believed a man who, according to her husband, was a scoundrel of the very worst sort? And, why would Mr. Wickham tell her such an adulterated tale in the first place? When he had first relayed his account to her concerning Mr. Darcy's cruelty, Elizabeth had not been in anyway tied to the man who would later become her husband. Why, then, had he felt it necessary to cast aspersions on Mr. Darcy's character? Nothing about Mr. Wickham's misrepresentation seemed logical or reasonable at this point.

As much as she had tried to discredit the truth of her husband's story involving Mr. Wickham too much of it made sense and was impossible for her to discount. Mr. Darcy's explanation contained information which could seriously injure his or Georgiana's reputation if news of it was spread. Consequently, regardless of how clever he was, Elizabeth could never believe he had fabricated any of it. What purpose would he have to invent a story wherein he and those he loved best suffered so grievously due to Mr. Wickham's avarice?

No. Even though Elizabeth had attempted to regard her husband's account as nothing more than a defensive resentment toward a man he obviously abhorred, in the end she knew she was wrong. After being given an opportunity to weigh the two versions of the same story, Elizabeth had to admit her husband's rang true while Mr. Wickham's was based on nothing other than malevolence. Additionally, recent news from Lydia regarding a sudden engagement between Mr. Wickham and Mary King, who had recently inherited a tidy ten thousand pounds, confirmed for her his unscrupulous and covetous motives.

Nevertheless, the fact that someone whom she had supported and defended to everyone in Hertfordshire and to Mr. Darcy himself, ended up being nothing but a cunning rogue shamed her. And she believed herself to be an apt judge of human character! She, who had listened to that blackguard and without doubt credited lie after lie as truth! How heartily Mr. Wickham must have laughed upon finding her so gullible and trusting.

It was too much for her to fathom and it offered her pride a mighty blow. How could she have been so easily led into thinking the very worst of Mr. Darcy? She should have seen the impropriety behind Mr. Wickham's story immediately - after all, she had not known him a day before he had seen fit to tell her what should have been a most private affair!

Jane had warned her to consider there might be mitigating circumstances to Mr. Wickham's tale of woe, yet she had shunned her sister and thought her too generous in her estimation of Mr. Darcy's character. And, before her marriage, her Aunt Gardiner had attempted to remind her that her allegiance should be with her husband and, likewise, she had paid her no mind at all! Both of them such rational and discriminating persons whom she loved dearly - and, still, she had thought her own powers of discernment bested theirs! What a fool she had been!

Elizabeth could not help but feel her ignorance. Why had she so effortlessly abandoned all good sense in this instance? She was horrified at her lack of judgment and could not help but ask herself why she had been so inclined to think the very worst of Mr. Darcy?

Of course, she knew the answer, but she did not like it as it revealed to her a mean-spiritedness she could not approve of within herself. Had she not overheard Mr. Darcy refer to her as tolerable and had he not refused to dance with her on the evening when she first made his acquaintance at the Meryton assembly, she may not have so unquestioningly heard Mr. Wickham's narrative. Yet, hear him she did and dance with him on that evening she did not - and the result was that she had turned into the most willing of persons ready to find Mr. Darcy objectionable. Each of their subsequent meetings had been subjectively tainted by the indignation she felt toward him.

Not surprisingly, it did not help matters that her husband had shown himself to be proud and above one and all he met while he was visiting Netherfield. Regardless of how much she had realized about her own misguided conduct and opinions, she could not forget or condone his arrogance. Who was he to think himself above everyone and everything? He was rich and well connected to be sure, but that did not sanction him the right to look upon those who were not with aversion.

Likewise, she could not forget his initial refusal to marry her. He himself had told her that he had fought a valiant fight not to wed her. Ultimately, of course, he had succumbed to the pressures of gossip, but he admittedly was not happy to do so. Certainly, she was no more contented about the prospect of having to marry him, but she could not agree with his claim that, between the two of them, he had been the most compromised by their union.

Clearly, he had no notion of how her own dreams of making a match based on love and respect had been thwarted. Nor did he seem to appreciate what a sacrifice it was for her to be separated from the home and people she loved. She had always believed she would welcome leaving Longbourn once she married. In fact, she had looked forward to the prospect of setting up her own house away from the noise and bustle which came from living in a house of five sisters and a nervous mother. Yet, upon arriving in London she missed her childhood home with a fervour that was most painful. While Georgiana, the household staff and even Mr. Darcy had done all they could to make her feel at ease and while she had come to view the townhouse as being comfortable and pleasant, it was not Longbourn - nor was likely to ever inspire the fondness that place did for her.

She rose and walked to the window. Outside, the landscape was grey and lifeless. The heavy January rain had nearly melted the snow and what remained was a watery, slushy residue. She recalled how almost a month ago she had looked upon this same scene, then covered with snow, and determined not to have herself become blanketed by Mr. Darcy's influence as the buildings had become blanketed. Had she been successful in meeting her resolve? As wonderful as it was to now have the means to live affluently and to not have to worry about her financial future, had she in turn also given up a part of herself in being Mrs. Darcy? Had all the lovely clothing she had recently acquired and the lavish events she had attended made her a little less like the Elizabeth Bennet she had been in Hertfordshire? Was she now like the uninspiring remains that she saw outside the townhouse? She hoped not for she very much liked the person she was before and never wanted to be someone who looked upon luxury as her due now that she was the wife of a rich man.

She moved toward the heavily lined bookshelves and examined the titles carefully. Furtively, she had read almost all of her husband's collection of Byron and she enjoyed the poet's loose adherence to form and the excited passion evident in virtually all of his work. Yet she had never shared her opinion with Mr. Darcy, unwilling to let him know he had influenced her choice of reading material. She wondered if she had been right to keep it from him and felt rather miserly for not telling him of something that may have given him pleasure and provided them with something interesting to discuss. Still, discovering they possessed a mutual appreciation for Byron's poetry had been rather disconcerting; she had always before believed them to be so different in terms of their tastes.

Finally, she allowed that she perhaps had been somewhat wrong in her estimation of her husband's character -and the thought did nothing to give her comfort or satisfaction. It was not Mr. Darcy alone that she faulted regarding her misconceived notions - it was she and her unremitting pride that she now blamed as well.

She did not, however, regret refusing his petition to share a marriage bed. Obviously, they were both nowhere near ready to be intimate. She wondered if she would ever be disposed to be his wife as he wished her to be. The thought that he desired her was flattering, but it was also somewhat embarrassing. Remembering his boldly pronounced longing for her still caused her to crimson. Truly, before that night in her bedchamber she had no idea whatsoever that he viewed her at all favourably. She had entirely shunned the suggestion when it was presented to her by Charlotte and, then more recently, her aunt. To be sure, she had caught him staring at her repeatedly, but when he did so his mouth was always set in a grim line of what she took to be displeasure and he had always looked away hurriedly as though he did not wish her to know he was looking at her. He had done nothing at all to suggest he found her anything but tolerable. He certainly had never complimented her - other than the time when Georgiana had almost forced him to do it on the evening of the Twelfth Night ball... But, then there had also been the letter he had attached to the mask he had purchased for her to wear on that evening. In it he had called her lovely - and she had tenaciously proceeded to doubt his sincerity after reading it.

Regardless, the number of times when he had chastised her or made her believe he was indifferent to her far outweighed the few instances when he had expressed any favourable sentiments at all. Thus, she could not question her naivete too much. After all, she was no mind reader.

She knew, of course, that she had made a sacred vow to obey her husband and provide him with an heir. Before her marriage, she had always dreamed of having several children and rearing them very differently from the manner in which she was raised. She hoped to be an attentive mother, like her Aunt Gardiner, and not a meddlesome, trying one like her own mother was. Her husband, she imagined, would be a responsible parent and would do all that he could to ensure that their children were well provided for. As much as she loved her own father, she knew he had been negligent as a parent and too often had allowed his wife to have her own way. Only she and Jane had been afforded the pleasure of his attention - her other sisters had been too heavily influenced by their mother and the result was they all were rather silly and uncouth. Thus, it was little wonder that she envisioned for her children a father who was more interested in his family than her own had been.

But, what type of father would Mr. Darcy be? All that she had heard from Georgiana, her husband and the servants suggested that the late Mr. Darcy was an excellent man and a mindful parent. Would his son be anything like him? Try as she might, she could never at first imagine her husband to be involved in the duties of childrearing. He would, she thought, be very much like most men - happy to be given an heir and then only seldomly interact with his children when it was convenient for him to do so.

Yet, even that image of detached parenting no longer seemed appropriate in regard to her husband. After all, he had been charged with the responsibility of raising his sister from a young age and he had done an admirable job. Georgiana, although rather shy and timid when she was not surrounded by persons she knew well, was everything charming and decent. Surely, her brother's care over her had influenced her somewhat to become the genteel young lady Elizabeth knew her to be now.

Had he not suggested that he wished to train his child to take over his responsibilities as Master of a great estate? If that were true, he would need to develop some form of a relationship with his heir. And what of any other children he had - did he mean to overlook them? Somehow, given what she now knew of his conscientious nature, she could no longer believe he would be a disinterested father. If only as a means of ensuring that his children would one day be raised to wear the Darcy name and give it the credit he felt it deserved, he would be involved in raising them.

Yet, could she give him children? Would she ever be able to share a bed with him and...do whatever it was that needed to be done in order to become with child? Being raised on a farm, she was familiar with the act itself, but animal husbandry seemed so cold and passionless. Books she had read gave her a clearer picture of what occurred between a man and his wife - but those accounts had always involved characters who felt a passionate love and regard for one another.

Would she ever be able to relent and allow Mr. Darcy into her bed to claim his rights as a husband? Inevitably, if they remained married, she would have to concede - but she could not easily imagine doing so. Undoubtedly, she found her husband handsome - even when she had detested him most, she had not been able to deny he was a man who was more than pleasant to look at and who carried himself well. It had not surprised her to learn of Miss Bingley's interest in him - and, until word of his arrogance got out amongst her neighbours in Hertfordshire, many mothers and their daughters believed he would make an excellent prospective husband. Yet, there was so much that still lay between them. How could she ever overlook all the misunderstanding - all the pain - and engage in the most intimate of acts? The very idea was wholly unimaginable to her at this point.

Randomly, she chose from among the poetry anthologies on the shelf. Just as she was sitting down, a footman entered with the news that Miss Harlow had come to call on her. Elizabeth asked the servant to direct her guest into the sitting room and, when she was alone again, she wondered why the young woman would choose to visit her. They had not spent much time together at the Twelfth Night ball and, although Mr. Graves believed her to be a good deal of fun rolled up into a neat little package, Elizabeth knew almost nothing about her at all.

When she entered the sitting room, Miss Harlow was already seated awaiting her. When she saw Elizabeth come in, she rose and smiled.

"Miss Harlow! What a surprise to hear that you have come to call! Please sit down."

"Good day, Mrs. Darcy. One of my servants informed me just yesterday that you are departing for Derbyshire tomorrow. Accordingly, I made it my first priority to visit with you today."

"Thank you. I wish my husband was here to greet you as well, but he returned ahead of Georgiana and myself. He would have been pleased to visit with you as well."

Miss Harlow smiled demurely. "Yes, my maid also informed me that Mr. Darcy was no longer at home. I trust he has arrived safely and is busy looking to all matters which come with managing such a large estate."

"Yes, he has no doubt been quite occupied. I understand he has a competent staff to assist him in the supervision of Pemberley, but there are certain matters which require his input and final approval."

"Mr. Darcy has always been known to keep an efficient staff in London. Your cook is rumoured to be the finest chef of all the great houses here in Town and Mrs. Graham has been in the family's employ for as long as I can remember. It is no wonder to me, therefore, that his servants at Pemberley are just as capable."

"Indeed you are right. The staff here is efficient...In fact, they are so good, I completely forgive them for having loose tongues and gossiping about our departure." said Elizabeth, stifling a smile.

"Oh Mrs. Darcy, you must not think your domestics speak carelessly of what occurs in your house. That is not at all true! Mrs. Graham's daughter is my personal maid and we have developed a...relationship of sorts over the years. It was she who informed me of your removal - and she was by no means gossiping. I was merely relaying to her the pleasure I had of finally meeting you last week and it was then that she told me of your leaving."

"Miss Harlow, I am afraid my poor attempt at humour has made me sound like a suspicious mistress." Elizabeth replied merrily. "I did not know that Mrs. Graham's daughter was in your employ, but I am in no way sorry that she told you of our departure. If she had not, I would not have had the pleasure of your company today."

The two women exchanged a smile as a servant entered carrying the tea things. While the tea and refreshments were being set up, they spoke freely and, by the time they were alone again, they were well on their way to becoming friends.

"Please call me Elizabeth, Miss Harlow. I must say I am sorry that we have not had occasion to spend more time together before now. I come from a house with five sisters and, for a brief time after my marriage, Georgiana stayed at her uncle's, the Earl. As you can imagine, the house was a great deal quieter than what I was accustomed to."

"I will call you Elizabeth only if you agree to call me Alicia."

Elizabeth smiled her agreement, enjoying herself for the first time in well over a week.

"Elizabeth, I should have called upon you before now, of course. My mother kept insisting we come, but I was reluctant to do so. I knew you would be inundated with callers and, although I am not married, I can appreciate the wish of newlyweds to be alone in the first days following their marriage."

Elizabeth continued to smile while attempting to conceal her discomfort. After all, Miss Harlow would have no way of knowing just how unlike most newlyweds she and Mr. Darcy were.

"We were rather besieged, Alicia, but Mr. Darcy insisted we entertain few callers. In fact, I think we saw only the Matlocks and even their visit was brief. They came again yesterday to wish us well on our journey. Otherwise, we have lately had few visitors."

"And - do you enjoy being married, Elizabeth? I ask out of curiosity. As you know, I am not married and cannot imagine undergoing such a tremendous change as you yourself have."

"Well, my life now is vastly different than what it was when I was in Hertfordshire." She replied carefully, struggling to regain her equanimity. "But, all in all, my lot is not an unhappy one."

"I would imagine not. Mr. Darcy is the very best of men." Miss Harlow said confidently before hesitating briefly, "May I be honest? With you I feel as if I can be more candid than I am with people I have known for many years."

"Of course."

"Well, your marriage created quite a stir among the ton. Mr. Darcy, you see, has been the object of close scrutiny for many young women who hoped to land him." She hesitated and looked at Elizabeth carefully. "I see that I have shocked you. You must think me the most terrible gossip to come here and tell you of all the women who coveted your position."

"No...Not at all. It does not surprise me to hear that my husband had female admirers. Handsome men such as he generally attract a good deal of attention. I suppose it did not hurt that he was rich either."

"No, it did not hurt his prospects at all." Miss Harlow said, her eyes glinting with delight. "Yet, he appeared disinterested in everyone. He was very careful, making certain never to raise the hopes of any one young woman who would have been only too happy to be the object of his attention. At every gathering he attended where I was present as well, he would dance but rarely and never with the same lady twice. He was quite scrupulous."

"Yes...well, my husband does not particularly like to dance." Elizabeth struggled to keep the resentment from her voice. "According to him, it is an exercise he enjoys but rarely."

"Oh, but he does dance, Elizabeth. He may not be a man who takes pleasure in dancing every reel, but he fulfills his obligations and always dances with the ladies in his party."

To this, Elizabeth offered no reply. It would serve no good purpose to contradict Miss Harlow and, in fact, she found she was quite interested in learning what else this young woman had to say about her husband.

"If truth be told," Miss Harlow continued, "Mr. Darcy is respected wherever he goes. In my opinion, he deserves the praise he receives. In spite of his wealth and privilege, he is rather different from other men of our acquaintance who have little respect for themselves or anyone else."

"Well, as you know Alicia, Mr. Darcy is quite interested in preserving his family's good name."

"And it does him credit. So many other young men are irresponsible with their positions and use their influence in the most unseemly manner. To the best of my recollection, Mr. Darcy has never been so reckless. I imagine that is why, after his father's death, he was able to assume all his responsibilities with relative ease."

Elizabeth attempted to deter any evidence of uneasiness that she felt upon hearing such praise for her husband. Naturally, she knew her husband's reputation was above reproach, but she had never before heard anyone speak at length as to why he was so highly regarded.

"Even in my brief time in London, I have met a few young men who are carelessly rich," said Elizabeth as a vivid image of Mr. Graves entered her mind. "Thankfully, my husband is very different."

"Well, I am afraid I cannot be so thankful - nor can my mother who wants nothing more than for me to make a good match and marry."

"Oh, but you are still quite young, are you not? You will no doubt meet a man worthy of you in time."

"I am not so very young, Elizabeth. I am five and twenty. My mother is terribly worried and angry that I have already refused two sensible offers of marriage."

Elizabeth smiled sympathetically.

"Well, my own mother is very much like your mother, but in our case, she is somewhat right to be concerned, I suppose. My father is a gentleman, but our estate is entailed away from the female line. I am not one and twenty, but I am certain my mother thought I would never marry."

"She must be well pleased to see you so agreeably settled then. In my own case, I need not worry about money, but my mother wishes to know that I will be protected in the future. I understand her concerns, but I am not willing to marry just any man - much to my mother's chagrin."

"Alicia, I may be terribly naive, but I do not believe that because you have not yet met a man whom you feel is your equal that you will never be fortunate enough to do so."

"Ah, but I am getting older, Elizabeth. I will not always be young enough to be considered handsome - soon, I will be too old to be considered at all."

Privately and reluctantly, Elizabeth agreed with her. While she did not believe Alicia Harlow had quite approached the age where eligible young men would overlook her as a prospective spouse, she knew that by society's standards, Miss Harlow was quickly approaching the age where she would be deemed unmarriageable. Elizabeth by no means agreed with this generality, but she knew it to be real and, thus, could not negate it.

"Elizabeth, I have kept you too long! Forgive me. You must have quite a lot to do before your journey tomorrow."

"In fact, I do not have a great deal to do. Throughout the time that my husband has been away, my maid and I have been preparing what to bring with us to Pemberley. My trunks are nearly packed, although I should check on Georgiana's progress. Our things will leave before us later this afternoon."

They walked to the foyer where a servant was sent to fetch Miss Harlow's coat and hat. While they waited, they continued to chat amicably and made plans to correspond during the time Elizabeth was away.

On her way to Georgiana's bedchamber, Elizabeth mulled over Miss Harlow's complimentary words concerning Mr. Darcy. Despite the lingering confusion she felt towards him, she knew that he was an honourable man who was capable of great kindness to those he felt were worthy of his notice. His own sister believed him to be quite faultless and, in his absence, she had time and again extolled his virtues, believing Elizabeth to be like-minded in terms of her estimation of her husband.

In fact, if Mr. Darcy was even half the person her new friend and his sister credited him to be, Elizabeth had much to learn about the man she was married to.

~ * ~

That same evening, Mr. Darcy sat alone in his study after dismissing Mr. Croyden, his land steward, After arriving at Pemberley, he found that there was in fact little for him to do. The winter season was not generally a busy time for the Master of a large estate and so he found himself looking for ways to occupy himself. He was certain Croyden found it quite odd that he continually asked him to relay the details of the land squabble which had been long since resolved or that he spent more time than usual tallying the rents which had been collected in his absence. He had always been known to be fastidious when it came to his estate-related duties, but this added diligence must have appeared quite peculiar to the bewildered land steward. Yet, Darcy had no way of relaying to him that he needed something to help him idle away the hours or he feared he would go quite mad.

He had spent time writing letters he had neglected to write while he was in London. He wrote to the Earl and informed him of his return to Pemberley and of Elizabeth and Georgiana's impending arrival. He knew his relations would proceed to call upon her and pepper her with questions regarding his hasty departure. Guilt overcame him at the idea of placing her in such an awkward position, but he could not insultingly wait to inform them until after they departed for that would inspire his relations' scorn even further.

He also wrote to Bingley and invited him to visit at Pemberley, feeling a sudden need to assess for himself his friend's present feelings toward Miss Bennet. After he had arrived in London, Bingley had not visited him at his townhouse, but Darcy had seen him periodically on his morning outings. However, they had had no chance to discuss Miss Bennet or his pain over losing her at great length. Suddenly, Darcy had to know firsthand if he had been wrong to initially suggest his friend bring to an end his courtship of Elizabeth's sister and how much of Bingley's decision to leave Hertfordshire was due to his influence. If Elizabeth was correct and he had wielded his power over a now suffering Bingley, Darcy must begin to rectify his mistake - regardless of how much he dreaded doing so. In the end, it was the only honourable and correct action for him to take. And, if Miss Bennet's visit coincided with that of his friend's and they managed to rekindle their affection, Darcy vowed he would wisely step aside and allow his friend to make his own judgments concerning his future. After all, he would tolerate no one's interference in his own life, why should he then expect others to do what he thought was best?

His friend had replied to the invitation straight away, suggesting that his sisters wished to accompany him if Mr. Darcy would be so kind as to extend the invitation to them as well. His friend was no doubt encouraged by Miss Bingley to make such a request and Darcy could not very well deny him. Yesterday, he had sent him his response express inviting them to all come as soon as it was convenient. To Darcy, the thought of how Elizabeth would react to the news of the Bingley visit was troublesome; certainly she would not be happy to learn that Miss Bingley would be journeying with her brother. Yet, he comforted himself with the notion that now that he was married, his friend's sister may be a good deal less willing to consistently bait and slyly criticize his wife as she had done in the past. Perhaps, however, Elizabeth simply did not wish to entertain his friend after learning that he had found her sister unwilling to accept his suit. That, unfortunately, was something Darcy could not fix - all he could hope for was that their prior amicable relationship would go a long way toward resolving any potential conflict.

He also wrote to Elizabeth. That had been the most difficult of all letters to write, even though it had been the shortest. In total, it had taken him no less than six attempts before he had penned a short note he felt adequately informed her that he had arrived safely and was awaiting their arrival in a week's time. This morning, he had received her reply, an equally succinct letter, telling him she would be leaving tomorrow and that the driver had told her the trip would take a little less than three days. That meant that in four days she would be there - and they would meet again.

Pushing away from his desk, Darcy rose and walked to the mantle. He noticed that the fire needed stoking and he grabbed the iron rod and began poking at the embers carefully. Almost instantly, a flame was visible and he took a moment to notice its vibrancy and feel its heat on his face. A sense of satisfaction washed over him. He knew that there were more than enough servants which he could call upon to revive the fire, yet to do so would be to deny himself the pleasure of doing something useful and all week he had felt compelled to do anything which would make his time at Pemberley not seem so wasted.

He rose and sat down heavily in an armchair facing the now slowly roaring fire while allowing his mind to wander aimlessly. In the hallway, he heard the quick movements of a housemaid or a footman and smiled wryly.

After hearing that the new mistress was due to arrive within the week, Pemberley's servants had worked frenetically to ensure that the house would show itself in the best possible light. Throughout the week, Darcy watched as the butler busied himself by polishing the large collection of silverware and ordering more wine to ensure that the wine cellar was well stocked in case they were overrun with visitors wishing to meet the new Mrs. Darcy. Mrs. Reynolds informed him that the housemaids had been charged with washing the best china and crystal. All of the rooms, from the first floor to the ground floor, were swept and the carpets were brushed vigorously. The footmen were instructed to clean the windows and the smell of beeswax and linseed oil permeated throughout after the furniture in the principal rooms had been dusted and polished. It was by no means uncommon for the servants to engage in these tasks, but Elizabeth's imminent arrival inspired new passion in the domestics and so the work was completed in an even more careful manner and his staff took greater pride in their results.

Special care had again been taken to prepare Elizabeth's quarters prior to her arrival as well. In particular, Mrs. Reynolds had worked a small miracle making up Elizabeth's bedchamber. Just as Mrs. Graham had done in London, the room had been aired and arrangements had been made to acquire new bed linens from Lambton. Once again, her room adjoined his, but this time there was no lock on the connecting door. Darcy recalled hearing how his father had ordered that the bolt be removed following his marriage to his mother; a sense of chagrin swept over him at how different his own marriage was in comparison to the felicity his parents had shared.

Even the notion of there being the potential for such liberal access to Elizabeth's bedchamber was unsettling to Darcy. Of course, he did not mean to enter her room again - and he knew now that she would never be likely to invite him to enter. Yet, the fact that she would be sleeping in the bedchamber next to him once and that he could, if he chose to, enter her room at any time - was heart wrenching. He considered briefly occupying his former room down the hall, but then decided against it fearing that his doing so would immediately relay to the servants that the Master had made an unhappy marriage. The notion that Elizabeth may view his move to another room as an indication that he was attempting to rid himself of her was equally disturbing. If they were ever to move past their latest hurdle, they could not do so being away from one another. Consequently, he decided that his turmoil regarding her proximity was something he must overcome - after all, if he was to remain married to Elizabeth he would have to become accustomed to her presence in the room adjacent to his own.

He had hoped that after their discussion on the evening prior to his removal, he would be better able to manage his emotions insofar as Elizabeth was concerned. However, in the end, this week apart from her had done him little good. Thoughts of her still plagued him mercilessly and the image of her consternation and bewilderment as he relayed to her the true reasons as to why Bingley had left Netherfield and his tale of Wickham's treachery would not leave him. He wondered if his manner when relaying the truth appeared overly harsh and vindictive. He had been angry at her and her preconceived notions of him, but in the past week his rage had subsided into little more than regret and frustration over the entire ordeal.

Darcy leaned back in the armchair and raked his hand through his hair in a distracted manner. How could he have so foolishly believed she was ready to become his wife in earnest? The thought seemed ridiculous given what he now knew regarding her feelings for him. Yet, on the evening of the Twelfth Night ball, her every look and touch had made him hope as he had never allowed himself to hope before. No doubt, her gentle conduct toward him was nothing more than the public pretence he had insisted upon before their marriage, but to his impatient and willing heart it had meant so much more. He groaned. How could he have been so foolish to see admiration when she obviously viewed him with such abhorrence? Only little more than a week had passed since the incident, but Darcy viewed the man who entered Elizabeth's bedchamber as he would someone completely foreign to him. How differently he would have acted had he known the truth behind his wife's reticence toward him!

Nevertheless, when she said that they could not continue to live as they had, she had been right. In spite of the pain his request had ultimately caused them, they could no longer carry on as wedded but indifferent acquaintances. His petition to allow him to bed her had done too much for them to ever carry on so blithely. He hoped that their time apart had given Elizabeth an opportunity to reconsider her resentment concerning his interference with Bingley and his treatment of Wickham. Indeed, when he had not been occupied with estate matters, his every thought had been of her and her view of him as an arrogant, vain and contemptuous man. And, as much as it pained him to consider it, his time away had shown him that, in her eyes, perhaps he had unwittingly demonstrated some of the attributes that he found so repulsive in others.

Changes had certainly been wrought, but until he met with her again he would have no way of telling whether or not the changes were favourable.

He leaned forward, placing his elbows on his knees and staring wonderingly at the fire before him. Had he changed in the last week? He imagined not, but his days alone had given him time to contemplate his arrogance and his almost complete disregard for Elizabeth. Yes. It no longer seemed so impossible to imagine why she had been so angry with him. Although most of what she accused him of had been not altogether true, she had some reason to resent him for not making the truth known to her sooner. And he applauded her courage for seeking him out and demanding his honesty. Her bold move caused him to not only to now have the opportunity to examine himself closely, but her as well. Clearly, she was not a simple woman who was content to merely accept things for what they were; she demanded to be made a partner in this marriage and, in the end, he could not fault her. Given what he knew of her and her quick mind, he should not have been surprised to discover how truly remarkable a woman she actually was. And, ultimately, he did not want a simple woman to be his wife - he had always longed for a marriage that was different from that of his friends. Thus, if there was any possible way for he and Elizabeth to obtain the marriage they had discussed prior to his departure - one built on a mutual and natural respect and esteem - there was nothing he would not do in order to get it. Her rejection had delivered to him a crushing blow, but they may have needed its force in order to move beyond it.

He stood up and glanced around the study searchingly before moving back toward his desk.

How he missed her! He saw her image everywhere and found himself looking throughout his home attempting to see it as she would. He hoped she would be pleased with it - and wondered what he would do if she was not. Unlike his eagerness to show her their London townhouse himself, he would allow her to discover Pemberley on her own - but he longed for her to be curious enough about it that she would want to know it and later come to love it as he himself did.

Her arrival and her reception of him would tell him something of her intentions, but the days following it would provide him with a much clearer understanding regarding how they were to proceed. Oddly, her rejection of him made him long for her in a manner that was somehow even more intense and the fact that he had to suppress his desire for her became even more difficult to fathom.

Nevertheless, in the meantime, he could do little but wait for her to come to him.

~ * ~

On the second day of their journey, Elizabeth watched as Georgiana read Clarissa. Her own attempt to follow The Mysteries of Udolpho had proved useless. She was unable to identify with the lead character's struggles and she could not at all empathize with Emily's attempts to rid herself of the villain who sought to claim her inheritance. Yet, back in London, Radcliffe's romantic portrayal of Emily St. Aubert had thrilled her and she had gloried in this character's commitment to honour and sacrifice. Today, however, not one iota of the book moved her and no longer was she intrigued by its mysteries; thus, she had easily cast the gothic novel aside.

Their journey thus far had been a slow and protracted one. Apparently, certain patches of road were quite icy and the drivers had to be careful for fear of having some serious harm come to the team of horses. Last night they had stopped in Oxford and stayed at a small inn in Henley-on-Thames. The evening had passed quite uneventfully. Elizabeth had found the room given to her comfortable, yet rather sparse, and its bareness had increased her feelings of loneliness and alienation. She fell asleep quite early, perhaps weary after the long trip, but she had awoken periodically throughout the night and was the first to venture downstairs for breakfast. She was eager for them to be on their way.

Mr. Gilmore informed them that they would stop again tonight in Warwick. Their decelerated progress meant that they would not reach Pemberley until late into their third day of travelling. Elizabeth was not altogether sorry to learn that she would arrive so late; doing so meant that she would have little time to spend in Mr. Darcy's company before she could retire to her bedchamber and there be able to probe his reaction to her in private.

She still had no sense of how he would greet her or how she would respond to him following their separation. She hoped she would be able to maintain her composure and that he would not regard her as an unwelcome visitor. Since seeing him last, so much seemed different. And, to her surprise, she had felt his absence at the oddest times! While writing to her family, visiting her relations and when Candace had shown her her packed trunks two days ago, her mind had often turned to him and she wondered how he was faring. Even though they had apparently tried to avoid one another in the days prior to his departure, she found his absence disturbing. She did not miss him exactly, but she had become accustomed to his presence in her life and, thus, felt his removal more than she imagined she would at first. Perhaps, she reasoned, it was the speculative manner in which they had parted which was affording her little peace of mind.

Surely, that must be it.

She sighed and Georgiana raised her eyes from her book and offered her a comforting smile. Her gaze shifted to Mr. Gilmore who already had closed his eyes and was relaxing comfortably. Undoubtedly, even he must have suffered a fitful sleep last night as well.

She smiled furtively. If Pemberley was half as magnificent and luxurious as Miss Bingley had led her to believe, perhaps they would all be given the opportunity to rest soon. In her own case, however, too much of her future rest was tied to her husband and his reception of her. The thought that so much of her prospective happiness was connected to Mr. Darcy was disconcerting.

Yet, she had come to hope that there were means for them to find some satisfaction in their marriage after all. As impossible as the idea seemed to her now given their history, she no longer believed she could live with a man she distrusted or one who distrusted her. Their verbal duels and heated exchanges had left her quite spent. He had told her he did not mean to end their marriage and, in the end, she was rather relieved to hear it. After all, an annulment was not a favourable prospect for her or any woman. In fact, she would end up considerably less protected than would Miss Harlow should she remain unmarried. She had not entered the marriage with any considerable wealth so she did not fear losing anything materially. However, she would be forever looked upon as the woman cast aside by Mr. Darcy and that was a thought which caused her tremendous apprehension. But, neither was she prepared to remain in a marriage which made them both miserable. As far as Elizabeth could tell, she had only one option and that was to attempt to rectify some of the wrongs that both she and Mr. Darcy had made concerning each other.

She refused to think on it further. Worrying about what may or may not happen was far too daunting a task for her at this point. Better to busy herself with other things.

Proffering Georgiana a wide smile, she once again picked up Radcliffe's novel, determined to rediscover its intrigues as a means of escaping her own.

The next day, as they journeyed through the vast, twilight woods leading to Pemberley, a restlessness seized Elizabeth, causing her to fear that she would no longer be able to remain seated placidly in the carriage. She was both eager to know what her new home looked liked but disinclined to be there as well.

As Georgiana spoke animatedly of the estate grounds and pointed out several different features of the property, Elizabeth made a concerted effort to maintain the appreciative smile on her face. Yet, her mind raced and she could say little in response to her sister.

She was here...and he was here as well - possibly even waiting for their arrival.

How did he view their imminent meeting? Was he dreading it and resenting having to put forth a welcoming aspect before the servants and his sister? Or, could he perhaps be glad of their presence, relieved that they had traveled safely? Perhaps he had been somewhat lonely, having to spend so much time on his own and was even now anticipating the prospect of company.

She had no way of knowing, but such confusion regarding his thoughts did little to settle her unbalanced spirits or put her mind at ease.

After making a turn, Elizabeth's eye fell upon the large house which was situated on an expansive stretch of rising ground. Pemberley. The fading light did nothing to hide the building from her view. She could see that several torches had been lit in expectation of their arrival. Their flame cast an almost illusory glow on the mansion, compelling Elizabeth to enter the magical dwelling.

The entire effect was breathtaking. And this was to be her new residence? It seemed impossible that she could ever live in such magnificent beauty! To be its mistress was yet more incredible! Never - in her wildest imaginings - could she have dreamed that she, Elizabeth Bennet of Hertfordshire, would come to call such a place home.

As the horses began to slow their pace, Elizabeth peered out of the carriage window and espied her husband's stately figure standing midway down the steps leading to the door. She quickly let the curtain fall and sank against the seat, breathing a heavy sigh. Suddenly, she recalled the presence of others in the carriage and abruptly offered Georgiana, what she hoped would be seen as, a smile of relief.

"We are here, Elizabeth."

"Yes."

When the door swung open, Mr. Gilmore and Georgiana insisted she be the first to descend. As she rose to make her exit, she found herself looking directly into the warm eyes of her husband. He reached out for her hand and gently assisted her descent.

"Welcome to Pemberley, Mrs. Darcy," he said levelly.

continue Happenstance here


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