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Work in Progress: Chapter 8

The next few days were more calm than the previous had been. Elizabeth was relieved that Mr. Collins was no longer singling her out for special attention. Kitty and Lydia were fighting to be the recipients of that attention. Nothing else out of the ordinary occurred. Elizabeth was just beginning to feel that things might, at some point, return to normal when Jane received a letter.

Lydia intercepted the letter as soon as it arrived.

“Jane!” she called. “There is a letter here. From Netherfield!”

Jane rushed down the stairs, hope shining from her face. It had been some time since she had heard from any of the Bingleys, and she was anxious to see what news the letter contained.

Her sisters watched her intently as she broke the wax seal and opened the letter. Elizabeth, at least, attempted to be discreet, but the rest of the house seemed content to outright stare at her. Jane’s eyes continued to sparkle with hope as she began the letter, but her look soon turned to one of shock.

“What is the matter? What has happened?” Mrs. Bennet demanded. “Jane, why do you look so pale?”

“Mr. Bingley has left Netherfield,” Jane whispered.

“Is that all, silly girl?” said Mrs. Bennet. “He shall be back soon enough.”

“I do not think he shall,” Jane replied. “This letter from Miss Bingley makes it clear that they are returning to town and have no immediate plans to return.”

Mrs. Bennet blanched as pale as Jane had.

“This cannot be,” Mrs. Bennet said. “No, it certainly cannot be. It must be a misunderstanding. Jane, you must be misreading the letter. Give it here and let me see.”

“Mama, the letter is addressed to Jane alone,” Elizabeth protested. “She can read well enough. There is no need to see the words with your own eyes.”

Mrs. Bennet dropped her arm, which had been reaching for the letter. “Of course you are right, Lizzy,” she said faintly. “Jane can read quite well. I am suddenly feeling poorly. Girls, help me to bed.”

By the time they has assisted their mother to her room, she was nearly limp. She fell into bed and seemed to immediately fall asleep.

“I shall sit with her,” volunteered Mary.

“Thank you,” Elizabeth said to her sister, and turned her attention to Jane.

“Come,” she said. “Mama is not the only one who needs rest.”

She took Jane’s hand and led her down the hall. Jane followed silently and obediently until they were in the bedroom with the door closed.

Jane sank onto the bed and burst into tears.

“Oh, Lizzy, what am I to do?” she said.

“Did the letter give any clue as to how long they plan to stay in town?”

“You may read the letter,” Jane said. “I do not mind.”

Elizabeth took the offered letter and read it quickly. Caroline Bingley was delighted to be returning to town. She said that Mr. Bingley was anxious to return, and their entire party looked forward to seeing Mr. Darcy’s sister, Georgiana. Caroline thought that there might be some special connection between Mr. Bingley and Georgiana Darcy, and implied that their engagement might be announced soon.

“There is no way that this is true, Jane,” she said. “Mr. Bingley would not have misled you so if he was already promised to Miss Darcy, or if he had the slightest idea that he might soon be. I refuse to believe that he could be so deceitful.”

“What does it matter, Lizzy?” asked Jane. “He is gone. If he was truly interested in me, would he have left so abruptly?”

Elizabeth pondered the question, but could not think of a satisfactory answer. Why on earth would Mr. Bingley leave so suddenly, and when things were so promising between him and Jane? Mr. Bingley, she realized, would not. However, Elizabeth could think of several people who would be quite relieved to see Jane and Mr. Bingley separated: Caroline Bingley, the Hursts, and Mr. Darcy. Mr. Bingley’s sisters had made their opinion of the Bennet family quite clear, and Mr. Darcy likewise had been very forthcoming with his dislike for people who lived in the country. Elizabeth had no doubt that one of these people was responsible for Mr. Bingley’s departure, and she shared this belief with Jane.

“Oh, Lizzy, I do think that you are mistaken,” said Jane. “I cannot imagine that anyone would intentionally come between us, especially not one of the people closest to him. And his sisters were very accommodating when I was ill at Netherfield.”

“That may be true, Jane, but just because his sisters are fond of you does not mean that they are willing to invite you into their family.”

“I just cannot believe it of them. Likewise, I cannot believe that Mr. Darcy would do anything that is not in Mr. Bingley’s best interest.”

Elizabeth stayed silent. If she knew Mr. Darcy, and she thought that she was beginning to, his idea of what was in Mr. Bingley’s best interest might very well involve a return to London.

***

Darcy looked out the window of the carriage. He was torn. Although he understood that his removal from Hertfordshire was the safest thing, he also could not keep from thinking about Elizabeth Bennet. When he thought back to their dance at the ball, he could hardly remember the words that she had spoken, although he knew that they had injured his pride as she said them. What was much more clear to him was the way that color rose into her cheeks when she was speaking of something she was passionate about, and how clear her eyes were as they spoke.

He had been around many women in his life, women who were impressed by Pemberley and by his income. She did not seem swayed by those things, and that was what drew him to her. Truly, a man would have to be exceptional in order for Elizabeth to love him. He doubted whether he could be that exceptional, although he hoped that he could. However, after their last encounter, he did not know if he would have another chance to speak to her.

Darcy looked across the carriage to where Caroline Bingley sat. She had a satisfied smile on her face, and why should she not? After all, she and her sister Louisa had succeeded in getting their brother to return to town. Darcy was tempted to agree with them as they convinced Charles that Jane Bennet was not the right match for him, but each time he did, he imagined the disappointment and anger he would see in Elizabeth’s eyes if she was ever to discover that he was involved in convincing Charles to leave. Even in his imagination, he could not stand the intensity of that anger. So he stayed quite silent, allowing Mr. Bingley’s sisters to make the argument to leave. Darcy was not proud of his silence in this matter, but his conscience was nonetheless soothed in knowing that he had done nothing that would injure the woman that he could no longer deny he was in love with.

Work in Progress: Chapter 7

Elizabeth managed to avoid her mother until they met at the breakfast table, but her luck did not hold beyond that. As soon as the meal was finished, Mr. Collins stood.

“I was wondering if I might speak to Miss Elizabeth,” he said.

“Oh!” squeaked Mrs. Bennet. “Of course. Come along, girls.”

“Do not go,” said Elizabeth. “There can be nothing Mr. Collins must say to me that cannot be said in front of my family.”

“Nonsense, Lizzy,” said Mrs. Bennet, ushering the other girls out the door. She gave Elizabeth a look that commanded her to be sensible and accept Mr. Collins. “I insist that you stay and hear what Mr. Collins has to say.”

At that point Elizabeth realized that it would be best to be done with the conversation as soon as possible; Mr. Collins seemed determined to make an offer, and she could dash his hopes as easily now as later. With a resigned sigh, she sat and gave Mr. Collins her attention.

“I know that I have not concealed my purpose for visiting,” he said. “Almost from the moment I arrived, I knew that you were the woman whom I wish to take for my wife.”

Elizabeth attempted to tell him that she was not interested, but he held a hand up for her to be silent.

“Before you speak, let me tell you why I seek a wife at this time. I will admit, I had not been considering matrimony until Lady Catherine expressed to me how much she wishes me to marry. Upon reflection, I found that, as with every other piece of advice I have received from that wonderful source, I was indeed very much in need of a wife. As the heir, I took it upon myself to travel to Longbourn to acquaint myself with my cousins. Imagine the joy I felt when I first beheld your beauty, Miss Elizabeth. I am overwhelmed, even now, by the intensity of my love for you.”

He paused for a moment and smiled a practiced smile. There was no trace of legitimate emotion behind it.

Elizabeth was overcome with frustration. It was clear that Mr. Collins believed that any woman would be grateful to be his wife. Why, he was not asking her to marry him so much as lecturing her on why Lady Catherine thought it to be a good idea!

“I know that, once I tell Lady Catherine of your amiable qualities, she will very much approve of the choice that I have made.”

Elizabeth found her voice. “You have made your decision clear, sir, but you have not yet heard mine. I cannot marry you.”

He smiled at her indulgently. “I know that your feminine delicacy leads you to demur. I am not insensible to the games that ladies play.”

“I know nothing of the “games that ladies play”, Mr. Collins, but I assure you that I am quite serious in my refusal. There is no way that we will be happy together.”

“Your refusal makes my heart stronger,” he said. “I did not realize the depth of your humility. I have chosen well, indeed.”

“Mr. Collins, allow me to be clear: I shall not marry you.”

His eyes narrowed. “You cannot honestly be refusing me.”

“I am and I shall continue to do so,” said Elizabeth. “In what way do you see us as being compatible?”

“You are lovely, and I believe that you have the breeding to make a good wife,” he said.

“So my beauty and breeding are all that interest you?” she said, her temper flaring. “Nothing of my thoughts, or of what I hold dear? Allow me to answer for you. You are not interested in either of those things, because you have made no attempt to learn of them. I am not a decoration sir, nor shall I ever be. I have done you the courtesy of setting your looks aside when considering you; perhaps you should have done the same.”

Mr. Collins looked stunned. Elizabeth reflected that he had probably rarely had the experience of a woman not being charmed by his good looks.

“Miss Elizabeth, perhaps you should keep in mind that offers for you Bennet girls have not been forthcoming,” he said.

The fire in Elizabeth’s eyes was stoked. “How dare you imply that there is anything wrong with my family!” she said. She was allowed to find fault with them, but he certainly was not. “You cannot deny that Jane is beautiful, or Lydia charming, or Kitty sweet, or Mary pious.”

At the last statement, a thought occurred to Elizabeth.

“Have you considered Mary? She may well be receptive to a proposal from you. She is bright and well-mannered and godly. She has many characteristics that would benefit her as a parson’s wife.”

A look of distaste came over Mr. Collins’ face, and Elizabeth had to still her hand to keep from slapping him.

“I do not think that Miss Mary is the proper wife for me,” he said.

“Have you even spoken to her? I do not recall you having spent much time with her at all.”

“I do not need to spend time with her to know that she is not suitable,” Mr. Collins said shortly.

“You make your meaning perfectly clear, sir,” Elizabeth said.

Both of them were silent for a moment before Mr. Collins spoke again.

“You do, however, make an excellent point about the fitness of either Miss Kitty or Miss Lydia to be my wife. Perhaps I have not given them the consideration that they are due.”

Elizabeth resisted the urge to reply with a cutting comment about how Mr. Collins’ only criterion for marriage seemed to be the lady’s physical beauty. She did not want to push Mary on a man who might never appreciate her finer qualities. At least Kitty and Lydia would be delighted to be decorative objects, and not resent the fact that they were not married for their minds.

Mr. Collins bowed. “I thank you, Miss Elizabeth, for showing me the error of my first choice. I hope that I shall have your support for whichever of your sisters I choose?”

“As long as you treat them with the respect that they deserve,” Elizabeth said shortly. “They may be frivolous, but they are my sisters and I will not have them hurt.”

“You have my word,” he said, and walked to the door of the room. As he opened it, it was quite clear that Mrs. Bennet and her other daughters had been listening to the conversation.

“Good morning, Mr. Collins,” said Lydia, curtsying and smiling beguilingly so that her dimples showed. “Is it not a lovely day?”

“Indeed it is,” he said, looking at her intently. “Quite lovely indeed.”

Work in Progress: Chapter 6

“Lizzy, have you ever seen such a ball?” Charlotte Lucas asked her friend.

“Indeed, it is quite grand,” Elizabeth replied. She craned her neck, trying to locate Mr. Wickham. She did not see him; unfortunately, she locked eyes with the unpleasant Mr. Darcy instead.

“Oh, no, Charlotte,” she whispered. “He is making his way towards us.”

Elizabeth had already had her fill of men that she was not in the slightest interested in. Mr. Collins had made quite an event of partnering with her for the first two dances of the evening. Much like his personality, his nimbleness in no way resembled his physical features. Her feet were quite sore from his many missteps. She was relieved that she had danced the maximum number of dances with Mr. Collins that was proper; to invite her to dance again would practically be a proposal of marriage. She hoped that even Mr. Collins was not so foolish.

Elizabeth set thoughts of Mr. Collins aside. It was clear that Mr. Darcy was aiming towards Charlotte and her, and she would need all of her wits about her if she was to manage a conversation with him.

“Good evening, ladies,” Mr. Darcy said with a bow.

Elizabeth and Charlotte curtsied in response.

“I wonder, Miss Elizabeth, if I might have the honor of the next dance.”

Elizabeth’s head felt thick. Why would Mr. Darcy want to dance with someone as ‘barely tolerable’ as she? She stared at him blankly for a moment, willing some witty response to occur to her—something to let him know that she was not in the slightest interested in a dance with him. Unfortunately, no such response came to mind. She answered in the only way that she could, without causing a social furor: “You may.”

She cast a glance over her shoulder at Charlotte as Mr. Darcy led her to the dance floor. Charlotte gave her a small smile and raised her eyebrows. And then Elizabeth was in the midst of the dance with the horrid Mr. Darcy.

She quickly realized that remaining silent would only intensify an otherwise awkward situation, and that her best chance of escaping unscathed was to make light conversation. Whether Mr. Darcy would hold up his end of the conversation, she had not the slightest idea.

“How do you find Hertfordshire, Mr. Darcy?” she asked as they met in the middle of the dance floor. Each continued in the opposite direction before reversing the steps, so she had to wait a moment for his response.

“It is noisy in a much different way than in town,” he replied. “There are fewer voices, but those that there are seem to ring much more stridently in the country than they do in the city.”

“Ah, so you find us strident?” she responded. “Is that another way of saying coarse?”

“Certainly I would never use the word coarse,” Mr. Darcy said. “It is true that the country seems to be a bit behind the city in fashions and entertainments, but that is not intended as a criticism.”

“Do you not?” she asked. “It seems that you have found fault with much of what you have seen so far, and what is finding fault but criticism?”

“Is this the impression you have formed of me?” he asked, frowning.

“Sir, you have given me little reason to have any other impression,” Elizabeth said, returning his frown.

The two continued the dance, both of them angry at the other for reasons that they could not put words to. It was therefore a relief to them to hear the dance ending.

“I apologize for having detained you in such a distasteful pastime,” Darcy said, with a stiff bow.

“I never said it was distasteful!” cried Elizabeth in response. “It seems clear that you have no intention but to provoke me! I am embarrassed, sir, that I allowed myself to be tricked into dancing with you!”

She turned and stomped off the dance floor. Darcy stared after her for a moment, shocked. If anyone had been provoked during their dance, it was certainly not she! However, he was more upset with himself than he was with Elizabeth. Even while she was in the midst of being unreasonable, all he could think of was how fine she looked with color in her cheeks. And she had stared at him so intently as they spoke, as if, for the duration of their dance, nothing existed except the two of them. How he longed for her to look at him like that again, only fueled by passion rather than anger. He could not make himself forget her even as she made clear that she wanted nothing more to do with him.

Darcy, you have stumbled into quite a mess this time, he thought as he made his way off the dance floor and towards the quiet of a nearby garden.

***

Elizabeth was indeed in fine form. How dare Darcy treat her in such a way! She had made every effort to be polite to him, but he mocked her at every turn. What is more, he had delayed her search for the man whom she hoped to find. Much to her consternation, she felt tears of anger rising in her eyes and she slipped into a nearby sitting room to compose herself. There were several people milling about, so she found an out-of-the-way spot to sit.

She dropped to a settee and wiped at her eyes. She was most upset at the fact that she had been reduced to tears by someone of such little consequence as Mr. Darcy. Why could she not show him the same disdain that he had for her? She shook her head and dropped it into her hands, willing herself to stop crying.

“There is nothing more upsetting than seeing a lovely girl crying.”

Her eyes flew open and she found the man that she had been searching for standing in front of her. Mr. Wickham gave her a small smile and pressed a handkerchief in her hand.

“May I sit?” he asked.

Elizabeth nodded in response.

“What has upset you so much during an evening of merriment, Miss Bennet?” he asked softly.

“It is quite the most foolish thing,” she said, still working to keep her sobs under control. “Mr. Darcy asked me to dance, and then was most unpleasant the entire time.”

Wickham was on his feet, anger flashing in his eyes. “How dare he treat you in such a way?” he asked.

“I daresay Mr. Darcy believes it to be his right to treat me any way that he pleases,” said Elizabeth, dabbing her eyes.

“Not while you have me as your champion,” replied Wickham. “I shall demand satisfaction for such a slight!”

“No, no, you must not!” said Elizabeth, jumping up. “It is a small thing, I assure you, and there is no need for my honor to be defended.”

“Are you certain?” Wickham asked, looking down at her. “I will fight for you, Miss Bennet. I cannot imagine any more worthy cause.”

“I am flattered that you think me so worthy,” Elizabeth said, and felt her cheeks flush.

“Anyone who does not is a fool,” said Wickham softly, looking into her eyes.

Elizabeth was overwhelmed by the entire situation. Especially after the disastrous dance with Mr. Darcy, Mr. Wickham seemed to be the consummate gentleman. He was charming, kind, entertaining—and, she would have to admit if pressed, quite handsome as well. If things continued along the same path, she could foresee herself becoming quite fond of Mr. Wickham.

She was hoping that he would ask her to dance—ought she not have one enjoyable partner for the evening?—but before such a thing could occur, Mr. Collins walked into the room.

“Cousin Elizabeth! There you are!” he cried. “I have been searching for you. I saw that you were dancing with Mr. Darcy, and by the time I had introduced myself to the gentleman, you had disappeared!”

“You introduced yourself to Mr. Darcy?” Elizabeth said, somewhat faintly.

“Indeed I did! I told him that his aunt was in quite good health. It seemed that he was quite busy in his current conversation, however, as he did not have the time to converse with me. But what a fine gentleman he is! I would expect nothing less from a nephew of Lady Catherine.”

Elizabeth resisted the urge to rub her temples in consternation. She knew that Mr. Darcy would have been quite offended for Mr. Collins to speak with him without a formal introduction. Elizabeth was making every effort to elevate her family above Mr. Darcy’s opinion of them, and Mr. Collins was uncouth enough to introduce himself!

“I have been searching for you, dear cousin, because I was hoping that you would honor me with another dance.”

Elizabeth looked at him for a moment, unsure of what to say. It was clear that the man was somewhat unmannered, based on his interaction with Mr. Darcy; perhaps he did not know of the impropriety of asking her to dance again? But she could not run the risk that Mr. Collins was making an intentional offer to her—an offer that she had no intention of agreeing to.

“I am sorry, Mr. Collins, but I seem to have turned my ankle during my last dance,” she said.

“Oh, how awful!” said Mr. Collins. “And you have waited so long to tell me about it! Come, I must take you to your mother. She will know what to do.”

Elizabeth’s options were to dance with Mr. Collins or to spend the remainder of the ball sitting with her mother. The choice was difficult, but an evening spent listening to her mother chatter would be over far more quickly than a lifetime with Mr. Collins.

“Allow me to help you,” offered Mr. Wickham, rising to take her arm.

“Oh, no, no, good sir, no reason for you to bother yourself,” Mr. Collins said with a sharp glance. “I am more than capable of getting my cousin to her mother.” To Elizabeth, he added, “Can you walk? Shall I carry you?”

“No!” she said, shuddering at the idea of Mr. Collins carrying her through the ball. “It is too sore to dance, but certainly I can walk.”

“Well, come then,” said Mr. Collins, pulling her by the arm.

She allowed herself to be led away because she had not the slightest idea what else to do; as she left the room, she cast a glance over her shoulder at Mr. Wickham. He smiled and bowed towards her, and then he was out of sight.

“Lizzy, what have you done?” demanded her mother as Mr. Collins directed her across the floor. “Why are you limping?”

“Cousin Elizabeth had the misfortune of hurting her ankle during her last dance,” said Mr. Collins, looking graver than was necessary. “I do not wish to see her hurt herself further, so I brought her directly to you, madam.”

“And a good thing you did, Mr. Collins!” replied Mrs. Bennet. “You are ever so solicitous.”

“I do not want my dear cousin injured,” said Mr. Collins. “Shall I stay with you and keep you company, cousin?”

“That is not at all necessary, Mr. Collins. I would not want to be the cause of your missing the remainder of the ball. Go and enjoy yourself.”

“As you command, my lady,” Mr. Collins said, and performed one of those bows that he believed to be courtly, but which were actually rather ostentatiously foolish. He cast several looks over his shoulder as he walked away, trying to maintain meaningful eye contact with Elizabeth. She was relieved when she could finally no longer see him.

“Well, Miss Lizzy, it seems that you have made quite the impression on Mr. Collins!” said her mother. “I should have expected him to be drawn to Lydia; they should make such a handsome couple. But I am certain that Lydia will find an officer, and it is clear that Mr. Collins prefers you. We shall have two weddings to plan!”

Elizabeth noticed Mr. Darcy standing nearby where she and her mother sat. By the look on his face, it was clear that he had overheard her mother talking about engagements that had not yet happened. Elizabeth flushed a deep red at the thought of her mother embarrassing herself in front of Mr. Darcy.

Darcy’s eyes then moved to Elizabeth’s, and his countenance changed. The disdain on his face melted away, and he just stared at her for a moment. Then he abruptly turned and walked away.

“Mama, please do not talk of such things,” she said. “No offers have been made.”

“Well, they will soon be,” said her mother, chastened not in the slightest.

“Even if that was true, I have no intention of marrying Mr. Collins.”

“No intention!” her mother screeched, loudly enough that several people turned around to stare.

“Do not call attention to us,” Elizabeth begged.

Mrs. Bennet seemed to suddenly notice how many eyes were on them, and, while she enjoyed sharing gossip, she was not especially fond of being the subject of it. “We will speak of this very soon,” she said softly.

To Elizabeth, it sounded very much like a threat.

Elizabeth could tell that her mother was nearly bursting on the carriage ride back to Longbourn. However, Mr. Collins rode with them, so Mrs. Bennet did not have the chance to chastise her daughter in a way she felt was appropriate. Elizabeth managed to make it into the house ahead of her mother and hastened to change into her night dress. By the time Mrs. Bennet finally located Elizabeth, it was to find her apparently deep in sleep. Elizabeth feigned sleep and heard her mother’s irritated sigh. Then the door to the bedroom was closed and Elizabeth knew that she had avoided the conversation until the morning.

Work in Progress: Chapter 5

Mr. Collins was not at all certain what his decision was in regards to choosing a bride. Before arriving a Longbourn, he had heard of the loveliness of the Bennet girls, and had assumed, as none of them were engaged, that he would have his pick of them. However, the truth of the matter was much more complicated. He had first been interested in Jane, but she was quite nearly spoken for. He had then turned his attention to Elizabeth, only to see that militia officer charm his way into her good graces. Ought he to concentrate on the younger girls? Lydia and Kitty did not have any impediments that he was aware of; in addition, they seemed as if they would be more receptive to the idea of an engagement. Perhaps it would make more sense for him to turn his attention to one of these young ladies.

Then he thought of Elizabeth’s loveliness, and he realized that he was not willing to abandon the idea of her as his wife simply because of an upstart soldier. He determined that he would fight for her affections, and make her understand that the two of them were meant to be wed. And what better opportunity than at the Netherfield Ball?

With this decision made, Mr. Collins began to plan how to best woo his cousin at the upcoming ball.

Work in Progress: Chapter 4

“Cousin Elizabeth! What a pleasure it is to have you as my dinner partner,” Mr. Collins said, leaning closer to her than Elizabeth would like.

“You flatter me, sir,” she said, leaning away from him. “At a family dinner such as this, are we not all dinner partners?”

“Indeed we are,” he said, smiling widely at her. “But with company as charming as yours, I am sure I can be excused for mistaking the matter.”

Elizabeth glanced across the table and saw that three of her four sisters were staring at her jealously. Jane, the only one who understood the reality of the situation, looked at Elizabeth pityingly. Jane knew that, were it not for her connection to Mr. Bingley, she might be in the same situation as Elizabeth.

“Perhaps after dinner you will allow me to read to you another of Fordyce’s sermons?” Mr. Collins asked.

“Oh, dear,” said Elizabeth, who was planning to use the time after dinner to read the latest novel in which she was engrossed. “I am afraid that I feel as if I have a headache. It might be best for me to retire to my room after the meal.”

“I would adore a reading from Fordyce’s Sermons, Mr. Collins,” said Lydia in a sweet voice. “I feel that they help me to be a better person.”

“Is there anything that I can do to assist you, dear cousin?” Mr. Collins asked, ignoring Lydia.

“The only assistance I would ask is for you to read to my dear sisters,” Elizabeth said. “I would not want to deny them their chance at salvation simply because I am feeling ill. I do ask, however, that I might take Jane with me. She knows how I prefer my compresses applied.”

“It does you great credit, Cousin Elizabeth, that you are concerned with the spiritual welfare of others even as you suffer!” cried Mr. Collins. “You are such a gracious young lady; if only all women were so devout.”

Elizabeth resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She sensed that there was nothing she could do to dissuade her cousin.

***

The following morning, Elizabeth was forced to fend off Mr. Collins’ continued exclamations of hope for her good health and exhortations to rest if she felt ill in the slightest. Even making up excuses to escape Mr. Collins led to more of Mr. Collins. He seemed to think himself very charming, and there were those in the Bennet household who would agree. Unfortunately for both Mr. Collins and herself, Elizabeth was not one of them.

Elizabeth waiting until Mr. Collins was deep in conversation with Mrs. Bennet before saying, “I believe that I shall take a walk. The fresh air will clear my head.”

Mr. Collins’ head swiveled around. “A walk, my dear cousin? Well, I ought to accompany you to ensure that you are not taken ill while away from home.”

“Well, it certainly would not be proper for the two of you to walk unchaperoned!” said Lydia, sounding scandalized. Elizabeth resisted the urge to sigh at the idea of Lydia as the moral center of the Bennet household. She knew very well that Lydia only wished to be close to Mr. Collins.

“Yes, we all ought to go. We can walk to Meryton! Lydia and I want to look for ribbons for the ball!” said Kitty.

So, much against Elizabeth’s will, the trip was organized and embarked upon. Jane had taken pity on Elizabeth and decided to accompany her, and Mary came along as well. Mary and Mr. Collins matched quite well, both of them dressed in dark, somber colors. Kitty and Lydia, by contrast, had decked themselves out like peacocks. Elizabeth knew that the combination of a walk with Mr. Collins and the chance of seeing officers in Meryton was far too much inducement for her sisters to refrain from dressing in all their finery.

“Do you ladies often walk to Meryton?” asked Mr. Collins.

“Kitty and I do nearly every day. Meryton is so much more lively than staying at home! One never knows whom one will meet. Lizzy does not often come with us, though. She prefers to walk the fields by herself. Mama says that she is far more solitary than a young lady ought to be.”

Elizabeth narrowed her eyes at her sister. To think that Lydia was lecturing her!

“Solitary pursuits bring one closer to God,” said Mr. Collins, beaming a smile in Elizabeth’s direction as if he was rescuing her. “I think it speaks well of Cousin Elizabeth that she enjoys such things.”

“Well, yes, of course that sort of solitude is agreeable,” said Lydia, unwilling to disagree with anything Mr. Collins might say. “But is frolicking in the mud really the mark of a lady?”

“I have never frolicked; I have only capered,” Elizabeth said, successfully keeping the irritation she felt out of her voice.

“I am sure, whatever you might call it, that you approached it with the proper ladylike disposition,” said Mr. Collins.

“My disposition cannot be judged, as I walk by myself, but I assure you that my conscience feels no weight due to the situation,” Elizabeth responded.

“Oh, Cousin Elizabeth!” said Mr. Collins, laughing. “How charmingly you speak.”

Elizabeth thought it to be time to leave Mr. Collins to the younger girls, and intentionally slowed her pace to fall behind with Jane.

“I am quite exhausted with being unintentionally charming,” Elizabeth said in a low voice.

“He does seem quite taken with you, Lizzy. He’s a handsome enough man; perhaps once we get to know him, he will not seem quite so foolish?”

“Jane, you know I admire your ability to see the goodness in everyone,” said Elizabeth, “but if it was not for Mr. Bingley, Mr. Collins would certainly be focusing all his attention on you. How would you like that?”

Elizabeth watched as Jane fought an involuntary shiver.

“That is what I thought,” said Elizabeth, confident that her point was made.

***

Kitty and Lydia kept Mr. Collins’ attention off Elizabeth for the remainder of the walk into Meryton. Elizabeth was relieved for the respite and took the opportunity to enjoy being outdoors in the fresh air. Mary kept attempting to fall behind the rest of the group, so Elizabeth hurried her along. Mary’s esteem for Mr. Collins was apparent, but if Mary did nothing to make herself noticed, she would continually be outshone by her talkative younger sisters. Elizabeth suspected that, of all the Bennet girls, Mary would be the best fit for the wife of a parson, and she was determined to give Mary any support that was needed.

As their party arrived in Meryton, the distinctive red jackets of the militia officers were immediately noticeable.

“Ooooh, there’s Denny!” said Lydia, standing on the balls of her feet and waving. She then remembered that she was attempting to be proper for Mr. Collins and took his arm, casting her eyes demurely towards the ground. However, her greeting had already worked, and Captain Denny and another man were making their way over.

Captain Denny greeted each of the ladies in turn, and they introduced him to Mr. Collins. It was clear that Mr. Collins was not overly impressed by Captain Denny, nor by the familiar way that Lydia had greeted him. Elizabeth was reminded of the fights that the roosters had over dominance of the hens. They flew at one another brandishing their spurs, with their iridescent feathers alive in the sunlight. Mr. Collins looked very much as if he would like to use his spurs on Denny.

Denny, on the other hand, peered openly and curiously at Mr. Collins. Elizabeth suspected that Denny had not formed enough of a connection—and thank goodness for that!—to any of the Bennet girls that would lead to him being threatened by the presence of another man. It was interesting to observe the contrast between the two of them.

“This is Mr. Wickham. He has just enlisted in the militia,” Denny said, after a moment of observing Mr. Collins.

Even with Mr. Collins to impress, Lydia could not bear to allow herself to go unnoticed. She gave Wickham a deep curtsy and said, “I hope that you are fond of dancing, sir, as there are often young ladies without partners at our meeting room dances.”

Wickham returned Lydia’s curtsy with a low bow. “I do enjoy dancing, and I would be delighted to serve as a dancing partner for whichever of the young ladies in Meryton are in need.”

“Perhaps you should request the first dance with Lizzy at Mr. Bingley’s ball,” said Lydia with a giggle. “She was quite rudely thrown over by a man named Darcy at the last dance.”

Wickham was instantly alert. “Not Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy?”

“The same!” replied Lydia. “Do you know him?”

“There is some connection between our families,” Mr. Wickham said. “I was simply surprised to hear the name.”

“Lydia, you cannot invite people to Mr. Bingley’s ball,” Elizabeth said in a low voice.

“Then it is fortunate that Mr. Bingley has invited the regiment to attend,” said Denny. “Wickham, perhaps you ought to secure the first dance. With such a lovely partner, this may be your only chance before her dance card is filled entirely up.”

“I am afraid that I have already secured the first dance with my cousin,” Mr. Collins said, daring Wickham to oppose him.

“I did not realize. I meant no offense to either of you, sir,” said Mr. Wickham with a bow. “Are you engaged?”

“We most certainly are not,” said Elizabeth, more harshly than she intended.

“Well, then, perhaps you will save me a dance, Miss Bennet.”

She did not know him, but Elizabeth suspected that a dance with Mr. Wickham would be far superior to spending the night dancing with Mr. Collins.

“I accept,” she said, and smiled. Wickham returned her smile in a way that made a small thrill run up Elizabeth’s spine. She found that she was not at all upset at the idea of spending more time with the handsome Mr. Wickham.

Elizabeth had the opportunity to continue observing Mr. Wickham, as he and Captain Denny accompanied their group through Meryton. Kitty and Lydia insisted on looking at trimmings for their dresses, and Captain Denny offered to go with them (for what reason, Elizabeth could not imagine). That left the rather uncomfortable combination of Elizabeth, Jane, Mary, Mr. Collins, and Mr. Wickham. Mary was attempting to draw Mr. Collins’ attention by being a perfect example of quiet piety; Mr. Collins and Mr. Wickham were both trying to gain Elizabeth’s attention, with one being much more successful than the other; and Jane was watching the entire awkward even unfold.

“Miss Elizabeth, I am shocked to think that a man, even one like Mr. Darcy, could resist your charms,” said Mr. Wickham.

Elizabeth blushed a bit at his words and smiled at him.

Mr. Collins started as if he had not heard their previous discussion. “Is this Mr. Darcy that you speak of from Derbyshire?”

“Yes,” replied Mr. Wickham. “He owns the estate of Pemberley. Do you know him?”

“Well, I know of him,” said Mr. Collins, clearly excited. “He is the nephew of my patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh! How extraordinary that he might be here!”

“Indeed,” said Mr. Wickham mildly. He then changed the topic by asking Elizabeth’s opinion on how many people would be in attendance at Mr. Bingley’s ball.

“I would expect quite a few people,” she replied. “Especially considering the happy event of his invitation to all the officers.”

“Shall there be enough ladies to go around?” asked Wickham.

“I daresay there shall be, and if not, gentlemen are less likely to mind sitting out a dance than ladies are, in my observation.”

“And a sharp observation it is,” said Wickham, smiling at her.

“But let us not forget to whom your first dance is promised,” said Collins, desperate at being left out of the conversation.

“Certainly, Mr. Collins, I shall not forget your gallantry at asking,” said Elizabeth, then turned her attention back to Mr. Wickham.

They continued their light conversation, including Jane, Mary, and Mr. Collins as often as they could manage. None who were watching them, however, could be left with any doubt that the main conversationalists were Elizabeth and Mr. Wickham.

Even a man as lacking in observation as Mr. Collins could not miss the connection that was being forged in front of his eyes. His attempts to insert himself into the conversation and draw Elizabeth’s attention were unsuccessful, and he became visibly more irritated with each rebuffed effort. It was not until the Bennet girls had bid farewell to Denny and Wickham and started the journey back to Longbourn that Mr. Collins began to return to his standard awkwardly formal manner. It was clear that he had not planned to have any sort of competition for Elizabeth’s affection, and the meeting with Mr. Wickham left him concerned about what would happen in the near future.

Work in Progress: Chapter 3

Fitzwilliam Darcy paced the empty library at Netherfield Hall. He was exceedingly relieved to have some time to his own thoughts. Caroline Bingley had been following him wherever he went, teasing him about fine eyes and relatives in Cheapside, ever since he had mentioned his appreciation of Miss Elizabeth Bennet.

And ought he not to be chastised for these thoughts? Certainly not by Miss Bingley, whose rank was below Elizabeth’s, but by himself? Miss Elizabeth’s connections were not what he should want in a family; in fact, they were so lacking that he cringed to think of it. Regardless, he could not stop thinking of her.

He was surrounded by young women who were interested in his status and his fortune. He was hardly a man when he had learned how to disengage from such women, who only cared for what he had and not a bit for what he thought or believed. When he had first laid eyes on Miss Elizabeth, he had assumed that she would fall into this category; who would expect a higher class of woman to be found at a country dance?

But then her fine humor and intelligence had made themselves known, and Darcy began to find beauty in places where he before had only noticed flaws. He craved the sound of her laughter, and wished to be the one who inspired her smile. Almost before he knew what had happened, he had strong feelings for the young woman.

But oh, her family! Her utterly ridiculous family! Mrs. Bennet was loud, crude, and overstepped herself almost continually. The youngest girls were silly fools. Mary was far too severe, and carried herself as if she was morally superior to all of those around her. And their father allowed all this! Darcy could not excuse Mr. Bennet from fault, as he had clearly not attempted to stem these coarse behaviors.

The best thing to do would be to forget Elizabeth Bennet. But how could that be accomplished, when he saw her so continually? He had to go back to town. That would resolve this issue. The distance would make it easier for him to forget his attraction to her. He had told Bingley that he would be present for the upcoming ball, but after that Darcy needed to make his excuses and escape to the safety of his home.

That presented another issue, however. Bingley was exceedingly fond of Miss Jane Bennet. How could Darcy think only to save himself, and not his friend, as well? He began to consider how he could extricate Bingley from the situation as well. Ought he to manufacture a scenario that required both of them to leave for London? Perhaps Bingley’s attachment to Miss Bennet would fade with the distance, just as Darcy hoped that his attachment to Miss Elizabeth would.

He mulled this thought over in his mind, before dismissing it. He would give Bingley the opportunity to leave with him, but he could not bring himself to speak out against Miss Jane Bennet, who seemed to him to be a fine girl, if a bit lacking in spirit.

Miss Elizabeth was not lacking in spirit; in fact, she had it in excess. That fire was one of the things by which Darcy was so enchanted. He shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. He could not marry Miss Elizabeth, and so he must leave Netherfield until his emotions were under control. It was the only rational thing to do.

Work in Progress: Chapter 2

“Mr. Collins, you look well this morning! I trust that your accommodation was to your liking?” Mrs. Bennet asked, full of smiles for her guest.

“Indeed, my dear Mrs. Bennet. I am well rested thanks to your hospitality.”

“I do hope that we did not tire you out by asking you to read,” Mrs. Bennet said.

“Oh, no! I could read from Fordyce’s Sermons all evening,” said Mr. Collins. “They are so instructive and uplifting. And how intently my cousins listened! It is a credit to you to have raised such pious girls. Why, I thought dear Lydia might float away, so intense was her look of devotion to our Creator!”

Elizabeth barely restrained herself from snorting. Lydia had watched their cousin intently, but Elizabeth knew that it had nothing to do with piety. Lydia was simply incapable of comporting herself around a handsome man.

Elizabeth observed Mr. Collins as he and her mother continued speaking. He certainly was handsome—almost too handsome. There was very little character in his face, just perfectly sculpted features. She had to admit that she had found him pleasing to look at when he arrived, but that impression was dispelled as soon as he began his raptures over his patroness. Mr. Collins was every bit as silly as Mr. Bennet had hoped for—perhaps even more so. Elizabeth’s plan was to simply enjoy the spectacle until Mr. Collins proposed to whichever of her silly sisters he decided on.

She had noticed that Mr. Collins’ conversation at dinner seemed to have the opposite effect on her sister, Mary. Mary had not been interested in Mr. Collins in the slightest until dinner. As the meal progressed, Elizabeth saw that her sister was paying an increasing amount of attention to Mr. Collins. By the end of the meal, Mary seemed quite as smitten as Lydia and Kitty, although rather less noisy about it.

Elizabeth smiled to herself as she thought of it. Kitty and Lydia were interested in Mr. Collins because he was so very handsome, regardless of his personality. Mary would never have her head turned simply by the way a man looked. However, a man who spoke of God and recited Fordyce’s Sermons? That was a man that Mary could admire.

Mr. Collins had clearly come to Longbourn looking for a wife. However, Elizabeth suspected that he was entirely ignorant of the fact that he was currently the hunted, rather than the hunter. Three sets of eyes followed where he went, each girl hoping that she would emerge the victor of Mr. Collins’ heart.

Mrs. Bennet seemed quite as keen as any of her daughters to know who Mr. Collins would choose. In fact, with the way Mrs. Bennet laughed and fluttered about, one might be forgiven for assuming that she was pursuing a suitor as well. Mr. Collins would certainly find himself occupied for the entirety of his stay.

“What a lovely day!” said Mrs. Bennet, looking outside. “Mr. Collins, why do we not take a walk about the property? That way you may see more of the estate, and enjoy the company of your cousins.”

“That is a capital idea!” said Mr. Collins. “I told Lady Catherine that I would return with a full description of the estate, so this allows me to keep my word to that fine lady.”

“I am certain that she would be deeply disturbed if you were not to keep your word in this instance,” said Elizabeth with mock seriousness. She heard a snort behind her and did not dare to turn and make eye contact with her father.

“Yes, my dear cousin, I do believe that you are correct,” said Mr. Collins, entirely misreading her tone. “You concern for others speaks highly of your character.”

He bowed, then looked up and locked eyes with her. Elizabeth realized, quite too late, that she had made herself a target of Mr. Collins’ attention. She cursed her quick tongue, as well as her inability to restrain it when necessary. She counseled herself to be less forthcoming with her wit, at least while Mr. Collins was around. The man seemed entirely incapable of understanding a joke.

Luckily, Lydia, upset at not being in the midst of the conversation, swept in to save Elizabeth.

“Mr. Collins, do escort me outside,” she said, taking his arm. “For I do so love the out of doors. It is quite my favorite thing.”

Elizabeth refrained from commenting on this, and commended herself for her newly-found restraint.

“Well then, my dear cousin,” Mr. Collins said, favoring Lydia with a bright smile, “let us go.”

Kitty scurried after them. Elizabeth looked at Jane and nodded her head for Jane to go with Mr. Collins, Lydia, Kitty, and Mrs. Bennet. Elizabeth then found Mary, who had the mistaken idea that she would not be going on the walk.

“Come now, Mary, Mr. Collins expressed a desire to speak with each of the Bennet girls. Could you deny him that request? It certainly does not seem charitable of you.”

Elizabeth could see that Mary was beginning to waver.

“You do not want Mr. Collins to think that you are ill and rush back to check on you, do you? I know that you would not wish to interfere with his walk like that.”

Mary finally allowed that she would go on the walk, but only for Mr. Collins’ sake. Elizabeth managed to switch out Mary’s normal cape, which was quite worn, for the better-quality one that Mary usually reserved for Sundays.

With Elizabeth hurrying Mary along, the girls quickly caught up to the rest of their party.

“….and, would you believe, she was more interested in speaking of the upcoming meeting room dance than she was in listening to my sermon?” Mr. Collins was saying.

Lydia turned towards him and placed a hand on her chest. “My goodness, Mr. Collins, how could she have been so interested in earthly pursuits when you were preaching the word of God?”

Mr. Collins smiled at his cousin again. “You understand me completely, my dear. What an upstanding and pious young lady you have raised, Mrs. Bennet!”

Mrs. Bennet returned his smile. “Yes, it has often been remarked that Lydia is the most reverential of my daughters.”

At this, Elizabeth could no longer maintain her countenance, and stopped for a moment, pleading a coughing fit, until she could regain control over her frantic laughter.

As Elizabeth returned to the group, she noticed that Mr. Collins was staring appreciatively at Jane.

Well, the man is obviously not blind, thought Elizabeth grimly.

What man would not want Jane? However, Elizabeth could not risk Mr. Collins proposing to Jane before Mr. Bingley got a chance. The best way to keep that from happening, as Elizabeth could see the situation, was to mention Mr. Bingley and hope that one of the more foolish members of her family would latch on to it as a point of discussion.

“Lydia, have you decided which dress you will wear to Mr. Bingley’s ball?” asked Elizabeth, trying her best to sound innocent.

“Well, I have my eye on one of Kitty’s. It looks far better on me than it does on her,” said Lydia, ignoring Kitty’s glare. “Mama, do you not think that it is selfish of her not to share the dress?”

Before Mrs. Bennet could respond, Mr. Collins asked the question that Elizabeth was hoping for. “Who is Mr. Bingley?”

Kitty took the opportunity to answer before Lydia could continue dominating the conversation. “Why, he is the gentleman who has let Netherfield Hall. He is terribly nice and quite handsome, and you ought to witness how much he admires Jane!”

Mr. Collins’ eyes cut to Jane. “I did not realize. Is there a formal connection between you?”

“Not as of yet,” Mrs. Bennet responded, “but we expect one in the very near future. Why, Mr. Collins, of course you must attend the ball with us!”

“You can dance with me!” cried Lydia.

“And me!” said Kitty, not about to be outdone.

Mr. Collins smiled. “Why, it should be my great privilege to dance with each of my cousins. But perhaps Miss Elizabeth would be willing to save me the first dance?”

Elizabeth had no idea how to respond. It appeared that, by saving Jane, she had made herself Mr. Collins’  next target. She smiled weakly at her cousin, and kept her mouth shut for the remainder of the walk, lest she accidentally injure herself once again.

Work in Progress: Chapter 1

Mrs. Bennet was in a state of agitation. As if her attempts to encourage Jane and Mr. Bingley were not enough to thoroughly engage her time, Mr. Bennet had announced that a Mr. Collins would be visiting. Mrs. Bennet had no use for Mr. Collins, whom she considered to be a discourteous upstart determined to see the Bennet girls disinherited. Nonetheless, Mr. Collins was arriving, and Mrs. Bennet refused to allow him to see Longbourn at any other than its very best.

Elizabeth Bennet watched her mother bustle about, instructing the maids and checking with the cook. Elizabeth considered extending an offer to help, but she knew her mother well enough to realize that such an offer might only serve to turn Mrs. Bennet’s ire on her. While Elizabeth sometimes enjoyed vexing her easily-excited mother, it seemed not to be the best time to do so.

“Lord, all this disturbance for a man that we care not one whit for!” exclaimed Elizabeth’s sister Lydia. “I should hate to see what it will be like when a man visits whose opinion Mama actually cares about!”

“Any men in particular?” Elizabeth teased her sister. Lydia and their other sister, Kitty, were as of late quite fixed on the presence of the militia in the nearby village of Meryton. The two girls spent nearly all of their time talking about officers, dressing to attract officers, and traveling to the village to speak with officers. Elizabeth was frankly surprised that Lydia even noticed that their mother was agitated.

“Laugh all you want, Lizzy. We shall see which of us finds a husband first,” said Lydia, making a face at her sister.

“I cannot imagine a man who would not be captivated by such a countenance,” Elizabeth replied archly.

“Nor can I,” said Lydia, and danced off.

Elizabeth’s laughter was interrupted by the announcement of a carriage arriving. In spite of Lydia’s previous protest, Elizabeth knew that her sisters were quite as curious as she to see Mr. Collins, and she quickly informed them of his arrival.

Elizabeth then stopped in her father’s study to tell him that their guest was arriving. Mr. Bennet’s eyes sparkled with the news. Mr. Collins’ letter hinted at a degree of foolish ostentation, and Mr. Bennet very much hoped to see this same attitude in the man himself. Few things delighted Mr. Bennet more than other people’s foolishness, and Mr. Collins promised to be quite foolish indeed.

The Bennets went outside to meet their guest. The carriage stopped and the door opened. A tall man stepped out. His brown curls appeared to be perfectly tousled, and drew the eye downwards towards a proud, Roman nose. His lips were full, and his chin was perfectly sculpted. Mr. Collins was, in short, one of the most handsome men that Elizabeth had ever seen.

She glanced to the right and saw that Kitty and Lydia were staring at Mr. Collins with matching shocked looks. Mary seemed unconcerned, and Jane wore the placid expression that always graced her lovely face.

Mrs. Bennet had the same amazed look as her youngest daughters.

“Mr. Collins,” said Mr. Bennet. “Welcome to Longbourn.”

Mr. Collins bowed deeply. “Thank you, sir.”

“Allow me to introduce my wife, Mrs. Bennet.”

“Mrs. Bennet,” said Mr. Collins, in a low, melodious voice. “I cannot tell you the depth of my appreciation for your hospitality.”

“Oh, think nothing of it, Mr. Collins,” said Mrs. Bennet in a faint voice. “We are so pleased to make your acquaintance. These are my girls.”

She introduced her daughters, and each of them curtsied to their cousin. Kitty and Lydia still wore shocked expressions, unable to draw their eyes away from Mr. Collins. Elizabeth noticed that Mr. Collins’ eyes lingered on Jane. Well, all that proved is that his eyesight was perfectly good. What man would not fall in love with Jane upon introduction? Elizabeth mused that Mr. Collins was due for a disappointment when he learned of Jane’s fondness for Mr. Bingley.

Mr. Collins was invited inside, and the family followed. Elizabeth saw a bit of disappointment in her father’s eyes, and took his arm.

“Mr. Collins cannot be pleasing to everyone, can he, Papa?” she whispered with a smile.

Her father patted her hand. “Give him time, Lizzy,” he said. “He is still the foolish man who wrote that letter, regardless of how charming your silly sisters might find him.”

With that, they followed the others back into the house.

It had been an odd afternoon. Lydia and Kitty seemed to be wherever Mr. Collins was, although they behaved as if it was a great coincidence. Mr. Bennet kept casting expectant glances towards Mr. Collins, who had managed to be perfectly well-behaved since he arrived. And a particular light gleamed in Mrs. Bennet’s eyes every time she glanced in Mr. Collins’ direction. Elizabeth was interested to see how everyone would behave at dinner.

Mr. Bennet was quite interested in engaging Mr. Collins in order to determine the man’s character. Towards this end, he broached a topic that he was certain Mr. Collins would prove anxious to speak of: his patroness.

“You mentioned Lady Catherine de Bourgh in your letter, sir,” said Mr. Bennet. “I am unfortunate enough to have never made the acquaintance of the lady. Do tell us of her.”

The light that appeared in Mr. Collins’ eyes made it clear that Mr. Bennet had chosen the topic well. “What is there to say that would do Lady Catherine de Bourgh credit?” cried Mr. Collins. “She is the most affable person whom I have ever had the pleasure to meet. And to meet such a gracious person who is of such elevated rank! If only all people were as agreeable as Lady Catherine, what a fine society it might be!”

Mr. Bennet agreed that Lady Catherine sounded like a fine person.

“She is quite superior,” Mr. Collins agreed. “Some consider her proud, but I have never seen such a thing. Certainly, she behaves in a way that is appropriate for her rank, but I think that statement to be quite disingenuous. Is not a lady allowed to have pride in the quality of her character?”

“She certainly sounds like a fine lady,” said Mrs. Bennet. “Do you live nearby her?”

“Only a lane separates the parsonage from the fine estate of Rosings Park,” said Mr. Collins. “Indeed, it is so nearby that I often see Lady Catherine and her daughter Miss Anne de Bourgh riding by in their carriages. I have twice been invited to dine with these two great ladies, and I can assure you that their manners are even more fine than one might expect from such great ladies.”

“Does she have any other children?” inquired Mrs. Bennet.

“Miss de Bourgh is an only child, and the heiress to all of Rosing Park and the connected lands.”

“Certainly she is fortunate for that!” said Mrs. Bennet. “Many girls do not have their own property to precede them. Has she been presented? I admit I do not recognize her name.”

“Alas, Miss de Bourgh is of a sickly constitution, so she has not been presented,” said Mr. Collins. “That is to the benefit of the other young ladies; if Miss de Bourgh were to be presented, she would so far outshine the other girls that it would scarcely be just.”

Mr. Collins was beginning to speaking more rapidly, and Mr. Bennet sensed that the time was ripe to encourage his guest.

“I wonder that such great ladies could spare you,” Mr. Bennet said, an astonished look on her face.

“Oh, Lady Catherine is very generous in allowing me time to visit with my family,” said Mr. Collins, his eyes shining. “And she has also mentioned how greatly it would please her for me to take a wife.”

The Bennet girls shared looks amongst themselves. The joining of Mr. Collins’ statements lay bare the reason for his visit, and Elizabeth could tell that her younger sisters intended to make full use of this knowledge. Indeed, Lydia’s eyelashes, which had already been fluttering at an impressive rate, redoubled their efforts upon hearing Mr. Collins speak of matrimony.

“Ah, a man in want of a wife,” said Mr. Bennet, leaning back in his chair.

“It would greatly please Lady Catherine if I were to find a fine woman to make my wife,” said Mr. Collins. “Fortunately for me, I possess the ability to provide those elegant little compliments that ladies find so pleasing.”

“How fascinating,” said Mr. Bennet. “Are these particular attentions studied, or do they arise from the impulse of the moment?”

“I will admit that I have always had a particular talent in speaking with ladies,” said Mr. Collins, favoring his cousins with a bright smile. “Perhaps it is the light of my soul that people find so pleasing.”

“No, I do not think that is it,” Lydia whispered to Kitty, earning her a stern look from Jane.

The remainder of the meal passed. Mr. Bennet was pleased with the degree of foolishness Mr. Collins showed. Mrs. Bennet, Lydia, and Kitty were pleased with the decoration Mr. Collins provided to the table. And Elizabeth was pleased that Mr. Collins had put her family in such high spirits. If she had only been able to see into the near future, she would have been much less pleased at the arrival of her cousin.

Mr. Darcy's Bride: Chapter 34

Two Years Later

Elizabeth stopped to rest, her hand on her swollen stomach. She had thought that her pregnancy with little Fitzwilliam had been exhausting, but she had since realized that the condition was much more difficult when one already had an active toddler to chase.

Fitzwilliam continued to make his way down the hall, running with as much abandon as his coordination would allow. He looked like a miniature version of his father, but his demeanor favored his mother much more: he was interested in everything and utterly fearless. Elizabeth recognized those as good characteristics, but a child of that sort was tiring to mother, especially as Fitzwilliam’s brother or sister kicked her repeatedly.

Fitzwilliam’s path took him near Darcy’s study. Darcy heard his son laughing down the hall and stepped out of the study to scoop him up.

“Are you deviling your mother, little man?” Darcy asked, tossing Fitzwilliam in the air. The boy whooped in delight.

“You do know that if you drop him I shall never let you forget it,” said Elizabeth, teasing him.

“Nor should you,” said Darcy. “Thankfully I have no intention of dropping him.”

The baby in Elizabeth’s belly landed a solid kick, and she gasped and leaned against the wall.

Darcy was at her side in a moment. “Are you well?” he asked.

“I am,” she responded. “I think the little one just wants to come out and play with her brother.”

“Her?” Darcy said, raising an eyebrow and setting the boy down. “Is it a girl, do you think?”

Elizabeth smiled. “Of course I do not know, but I felt very different when I was carrying Fitzwilliam. Perhaps that is a sign.”

“You are so beautiful,” Darcy said, reaching out to caress her cheek.

She laughed, and said, “If you find me beautiful now, you must truly consider me to be. My feet are so swollen that none of my shoes fit, and this belly certainly does not flatter the newest fashion statements.”

“You are the most beautiful like this, with our child growing inside you,” he said. “I am a most fortunate man.”

“I would say that we are all the most fortunate,” said Elizabeth, smiling down at their son. “But there is much to do before the Colonel arrives, so Fitzwilliam and I must be off.”

***

The Darcys had planned a small, intimate dinner to celebrate Colonel Fitzwilliam’s engagement. During the ball two years prior, in the midst of the confusion over Wickham and the Duchess, Colonel Fitzwilliam had made the acquaintance of Miss Maria Davies, who was the only daughter of a wealthy merchant. She had been charmed by him from the moment that he had asked her to dance, and he was equally as entranced by her.  Their courtship had begun that very night.

Now, they were to be wed. Elizabeth thought that she had rarely seen a couple better matched than the Colonel and Miss Davies. What he lacked in capital she more than made up for, and his social connections opened doors that might otherwise be closed to her. Together they made a wonderful match.

Lady Catherine was, of course, scandalized by Colonel Fitzwilliam marrying a tradesman’s daughter. Elizabeth considered that to be yet another propitious sign for their marriage.

Miss Davies was quite as lovely a young woman as anyone would want to meet. Her eyes sparkled with joy and humor, and she dearly loved to laugh, so she and Elizabeth got on wonderfully. The two of them kept quite a correspondence, sending one another letters and the most recent novels that they had read. Anne de Bourgh also corresponded with both of them often. Elizabeth was glad to have two additional allies in the family.

As Fenton styled Elizabeth’s hair, she hummed a happy tune. Elizabeth smiled, knowing that the humming was a sign that all was right between Harriet Stewart Fenton and her husband, Thomas Fenton.

“You seem to be in a good mood, Fenton,” she replied.

“I certainly am, ma’am,” Fenton said with a smile. “But it is also bittersweet.”

“What is it?”

“I am afraid, ma’am, that my time as your lady’s maid is coming to an end.”

Elizabeth startled. “But Fenton, whatever do you mean?”

Fenton moved a hand to her stomach. “We have something in common,” she said with a smile.

Elizabeth’s eyes lit up. “What wonderful news! Your child is lucky to have parents like you and Thomas!”

“But it means that I will no longer be able to be your maid, ma’am.”

“Of course it does, Fenton, but I cannot be anything aside from happy for you. How I shall ever manage without you, though, I do not know.”

“We have some time yet. I shall be able to show your new maid exactly how you like things,” said Fenton.

Elizabeth stood and took Fenton’s hands. “I am fortunate that I kept you for as long as I did,” she said. “And Thomas will not leave service here, surely?”

“Since you and Mr. Darcy were kind enough to grant us a crofter’s cottage, he has no need to do so. I do not know where we would go if it was not for your kindness.”

Elizabeth waved her hand. “Think nothing of it, Fenton. I am delighted that you will still be nearby.”

“It has been my joy to be of service,” said Fenton, and wiped away a tear. “However, if I continue to chatter on, you will be late to your dinner. Come, let us finish your hair.”

***

Colonel Fitzwilliam and Miss Davies had arrived while Elizabeth was preparing for dinner, so she did not see them until she descended for the meal. She was so excited that she had the urge to run to them, like she did to see her sisters. Luckily, her present state precluded her from doing anything so undignified. Instead, she allowed Darcy to lead her to the table to begin the meal.

Georgiana was in fine spirits due to the arrival of her favorite cousin and his fiancee. She asked all sorts of questions about the wedding, and her eyes shone in interest in response.

“Where will you live after you are wed?” she asked.

“In town, at least at first,” Miss Davies said. “Perhaps we will look to purchase an estate.”

“But Georgiana,” said Colonel Fitzwilliam, “that reminds me. Your brother and I had a talk when I first arrived, and I was able to convince him to agree to something in regards to you.”

Darcy scoffed. “I told you it was a fine idea. Do not make it sound as if I was difficult about it.”

“Darcy, you are difficult about everything,” the Colonel said with a broad smile. Darcy smiled back.

The Colonel continued. “Since we will be in town, we thought you might like to come to London and have a season.”

Georgiana’s eyes lit up. “Truly? Brother, may I truly?” she asked Darcy.

Darcy nodded. “You have proven your discretion and good judgment, and it is time that you find a husband worthy of you,” he said. “You may go to London.”

Georgiana beamed at him from across the table.

“How exciting, Georgiana,” Elizabeth said. This news was not a shock to her; Darcy had told her that he and the Colonel would be discussing it, and Elizabeth had been certain what the outcome of that conversation would be. Yet it was still a great delight to Elizabeth to see Georgiana’s happiness.

Georgiana’s face fell as she looked at Elizabeth. “But I will be leaving you all alone, and with a new baby,” she said.

“I will remind you that I am sitting right here. I do not believe it to be the case that she will be alone,” said Darcy with mock sternness.

“You know what I mean, brother.”

“I will be fine,” said Elizabeth. “Pemberley is truly my home now, and I do not think I could be unhappy under this roof. And it is not as if you will never be back.”

Georgiana nodded. “Then it is settled. I am having a season! Oh, there will be so much work to do to prepare.”

“Luckily, you have time,” said the Colonel. “Do not forget, Miss Davies and I are not yet wed.”

Georgiana smiled. “It seems we all have some planning to do,” she said.

Elizabeth looked around at the people around the table and felt a swelling of love in her heart. Truly, she was blessed.

***

That night, Elizabeth laid in her bed while Darcy stroked her hair. Although she did not share his bed this late in her term, he always came to her chambers to sit with her while she fell asleep. His presence made her feel calm, comforted, and loved.

“Did you know it would be like this when you asked me to marry you?” she said to him.

“You, and the family we have created, are more than I ever dared hope for,” he said, kissing the top of her head. “I know it has not always been easy, but it has all been worth it.”

“I love you, Mr. Darcy.”

“I love you, Mrs. Darcy.”

And with her husband’s arms around her and everything right in her world, Elizabeth Darcy fell into a restful sleep.

Mr. Darcy's Bride: Chapter 33

By the evening meal, all of the guests had left Pemberley and only its residents remained. Elizabeth considered her day to have been a success: she had managed both to not be sick and to not speak to her husband any more than was required. She did not know what the next step was; regardless of what he had done, she was still married to him, and she was still carrying his child. Elizabeth reminded herself that he had not done anything that she had not told him to; however, that did not soothe her heart.

“I will take my meal in my room tonight,” Elizabeth said.

“You will not,” her husband replied.

“How dare you tell me what I can and cannot do?” she responded angrily. “As if you have a reason to be upset with me!”

“You are angry with me, and I do not know why. You are not to go to your room until you have told me what you are so upset about.”

“Did you think that I would not know?” she said. “Do you believe me to be that foolish? Darcy, how could you do that in our home?”

Darcy was reaching the limit of his patience. “What is it that you think I have done?” he said in a loud voice.

The two of them suddenly became aware that they were standing in the hallway, where any of the servants could hear them.

“I am going to my room,” Elizabeth said. “If you want to stop me, you will have to restrain me.”

Darcy let her pass, unwilling to cause more of a scene than they already had. He was so frustrated with her that he wanted to shake her, but he knew that would make things much worse than they already were. He told a maid to bring his supper to his study and Mrs. Darcy’s to her rooms, and retreated to the safety of a room where he could be alone.

***

Darcy felt calmer after he had eaten. He hoped that Elizabeth felt better as well, because whatever was happening was not going to last another night. He went to her rooms to speak with her.

He knocked on the door to her sitting room and Stewart answered.

“You are dismissed for the evening, Stewart,” Darcy said.

Stewart looked uncertain, and turned to look in the room.

“You may go, Stewart,” said Elizabeth. “My husband and I need to speak alone.”

Stewart swept out of the room, looking nervous. It gave Darcy some insight into what Elizabeth’s state of mind had been since they last spoke, and it was not a good sign.

He walked in to find Elizabeth already in her nightclothes, sitting on the settee covered with a blanket. He suddenly remembered how recently she had been sick; barely a day had passed.

“Come sit,” she said, indicated the other end of the settee. Darcy obliged her.

“I suppose, more than anything, I feel foolish,” Elizabeth said. She no longer sounded angry, but she did sound extremely tired. “I know that I told you to do it, but I thought that things had changed between us. I was hoping that I, and I alone, would be enough for you.”

Darcy took her hand and kissed it. “Elizabeth, please tell me what crime I have committed,” he said. “I do not have any clue whatsoever.”

She looked at him for a long moment. “I saw the Duchess leaving your room this morning,” she finally said.

Realization finally washed over Darcy. Elizabeth believed that he had taken a mistress.

“Elizabeth, you are mistaken,” he said.

The fire came back into her eyes. “Darcy, I saw her.”

“Yes, you saw her leaving my room after I told her to. She came in and tried to come to my bed, but I would not allow it. I made her leave. That is what you saw. I swear that I did not have a liaison with the Duchess of Worthingham.”

She looked at him suspiciously, and then promptly burst into tears.

Darcy moved closer to her and scooped her into his arms. “I would never,” he whispered. “I would never do that to you.”

This caused Elizabeth to cry harder, practically soaking through his cravat. Suddenly she stopped and looked at him suspiciously.

“If nothing happened, why was your bedroom door locked?”

“It was not,” Darcy said, baffled.

“If it is not, then it should not be an issue for you to go into my bedroom, through your rooms, and back through the sitting room door again,” she said. “Although that will only prove that it is unlocked now, and not that it was unlocked this morning. Still. Try it.”

He gave her an incredulous look, but got up from the settee and headed into her bedroom. He twisted the knob, expecting it to give easily, but discovered that it was, indeed, locked.

He walked back into the sitting room shaking his head. “I do not know how I will prove it, Elizabeth, but I did not lock my door. I would never lock my door against you.”

She looked at him suspiciously for a moment, then her eyes got very wide.

“Oh!” she said. “Oh. Please send for Mrs. Reynolds at once.”

Darcy did not have a single idea what Mrs. Reynolds had to do with this issue, but he dispatched a footman to retrieve her anyway.

Several minutes later, a very confused-looking Mrs. Reynolds knocked on the door. Darcy opened it and bade her to come into the room.

“What is it that you need from me, Mr. Darcy?” she asked.

“It is not I who needs you, but my wife,” he said.

Mrs. Reynolds turned her attention to Elizabeth.

“Mrs. Reynolds, we took on additional staff to prepare for the ball, did we not?”

“We did, ma’am.”

“And were some of those additional staff members chambermaids?”

“Quite a few of them, ma’am. There were so many rooms that had to be made up.”

“Did you have the new staff work on preparing those rooms?”

“No. I thought it would be easier if our existing maids prepared the rooms, as they knew exactly what needed to be done. The new staff worked on the common areas.”

“Did a new maid clean Mr. Darcy’s room?”

Mrs. Reynolds thought about it for a moment. “Yes, I believe that Mr. Darcy’s room was prepared by a new maid.”

“What about my rooms?”

“Well, Stewart insisted that Abigail do those. She said that you would be bothered if everything was not the way that it normally was.”

Elizabeth smiled for the first time that day. “Thank you, Mrs. Reynolds. You may go.”

Mrs. Reynolds looked as confused leaving as she did arriving, but Elizabeth had clearly gotten the information that she wanted. Once the door was closed, she turned to her husband.

“A new chambermaid would not know that those doors always remained open,” she said. “She might have locked it when she cleaned simply as a matter of course. And remember, the night prior to the ball I slept in my own room. The door might have been locked since then, and we would not know.”

Darcy sat down heavily. “So you do believe me?” he said.

“I do,” said Elizabeth. “I am so sorry that it took me this long to do so. But between the door being locked, the Duchess leaving your room, and what Miss Bingley told me…”

Darcy was instantly alert. “What did she tell you?”

“Well,” said Elizabeth, her cheeks reddening a little that she had actually listened to Caroline Bingley, “she said that you and the Duchess had been involved when you were younger.”

Darcy’s clenched his jaw. He should have known that Caroline Bingley had something to do with this.

“We were never involved,” he said. “We did have a flirtation when I was younger, and that is not something I am proud of. However, that is the extent of our relationship.”

“I have been such a fool,” Elizabeth said, hiding her face in her hands. “I am sorry I did not trust you.”

Darcy tipped her chin up and looked in her eyes. “I must admit, with all the pieces together it must have looked very suspicious. But there was never a question of my taking a mistress. I have everything I want in you, Elizabeth.”

This statement led to a new stream of tears. Darcy held her close while she let out the emotions that had been building for the entire day.

“You are exhausted,” he said. “You need to be in bed.”

She was still clinging to his neck, so he scooped her up and carried her to her bed. He got her comfortably under the quilt and turned to leave.

“No. Please stay,” she said, reaching her hand out for him.

As always, there was nothing he could deny her. He removed his shoes, his jacket, and his cravat and laid on the bed next to her. He stroked her hair gently and she began to doze almost immediately.

“I love you, my sweet Elizabeth,” he said.

She was nearly asleep, but she still managed to smile at hearing those words from the man who meant everything to her.

***

Elizabeth woke the next morning feeling better in both mind and body. Darcy was asleep on the bed next to her. She felt a flash of guilt for the accusations she had made the previous day; she should have known that Darcy was not capable of what she thought he had done.

She snuggled into his broad chest, and his eyes opened. He looked down at her and smiled.

“Good morning, my beautiful wife,” he said.

“Good morning, my husband.”

He held her close and she could hear the steady, soothing beat of his heart. She knew that the time was finally right to share her news.

“Darcy,” she said softly.

“Yes, my love?”

“We are going to have a child.”

She felt him start at her words. He sat very still for a moment, holding her tight.

“So you are not ill?” he asked.

“Not in any permanent way,” she said. “Stewart says that sickness like this is the sign of a healthy child.”

“I am to be a father?” he asked quietly.

“You are,” she said.

He pulled her back into his arms again.

“Oh, my Elizabeth, there is no greater gift that you could give me,” he said. She felt that he was trembling just a bit.

“Who would have guessed, at that first assembly in Meryton, that we would be here?” she asked with a smile.

“I was such a fool that night to not see the treasure that was right in front of me. It is a mistake that I never mean to repeat,” he said, pulling her in for a kiss.

And finally, all was right in their world.