The Story

A Ball at Pemberley!

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A collaborative work by the Jane Austen Twitter Project

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(Note: The entire story was written in turns over Twitter, using the hashtag #A4T.)

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Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6 | Day 7 | Day 8 | Day 9 | Day 10 | Day 9 | Day 11 | Day 12 | Day 13

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Chapter I
| Chapter II | Chapter III | Chapter IV | Chapter V | Chapter VI | Chapter VII | Chapter VIII | Chapter IX | Chapter X | Chapter XI | Chapter XII | Chapter XIII | Chapter XIV | Chapter XV | Chapter XVI | Chapter XVII | Chapter XVIII | Chapter XIX | Chapter XX | Chapter XXI | Chapter XXII | Chapter XXIII | Chapter XXIV | Chapter XXV | Chapter XXVI | Chapter XXVII | Chapter XXVIII | Chapter XXIX | Chapter XXX | Chapter XXXI | Chapter XXXII | Chapter XXXIII | Chapter XXXIV | Chapter XXXV | Chapter XXXVI | Chapter XXXVII | Chapter XXXVIII | Chapter XXXIX | Chapter XL | Chapter XLI | Chapter XLII | Chapter XLIII | Chapter XLIV | Chapter XLV | Chapter XLVI | Chapter XLVII | Chapter XLVIII | Chapter XLIX | Chapter L | Chapter LI | Chapter LII | Chapter LIII | EPILOGUE

Chapter I

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that no diversion on earth so delights young people as the prospect of a ball, and a ball at Pemberley, that fine and celebrated house, in the beautiful county of Derbyshire, was a recreation devoutly to be wished!

The Darcys were but lately married, and the ball was considered by the neighbourhood as the culmination of the wedding celebrations. Invitations were sent with dispatch, and many a young lady went to bed that night with her head full of happy cares. Many an older lady too, for the groom’s mother-in-law was perfectly convinced the ball was given principally for her gratification.

When the letter duly arrived, bearing the Pemberley seal, she turned to her husband in great excitement and said, “I do believe I have been blessed with the most agreeable of daughters!”

However, as she expressed such a felicitous declaration, she found herself suddenly overcome by an overwhelming anxiety, which throttled her poor nerves to levels never before seen at Longbourn. The source of this inexhaustible discomfort, which afflicted Mrs. Bennet with greater force than any other, due to the aforementioned condition, was the murky fate of her daughters Kitty and Mary. And to make matters worse, this threat to their happiness — and by that, she contemplated only their ability to live well and be doted on by men of fortunate means — manifested from the Dashwoods, staying under her very own roof!

Without bothering to glance up from the book that he was reading, Mr. Bennet muttered, “How delightful. Kitty and Mary will surely be pleased, as will the Misses Dashwood, I expect. Marianne was just talking of balls the other day.”

At the sound of her name coupled with that ever-desired word, Marianne rushed into the room, her face flushed with excitement. “Mr Bennet!” she cried, glee suffusing her voice, animating her countenance. “You cannot imagine – I have only now discovered that Mr. Henry Tilney is to attend the ball. He was, as you may have heard, the subject of some speculation as to the demise of his Mama.”

Mary and Kitty gasped at this revelation. Marianne was quick to disabuse them: “Oh no! It was a certain young lady of his acquaintance that informed me of this.”

One by one, the expressions kept pouring like an intense surge from Marianne to Mr. Bennet of all invited. How one person can have much lavish talk, Mary thought listening to her. “Does she have a surreptitious life that tolerates such an extensive speech? Pray, are there any words left in our language she has not spoken as of yet,” Mary whispered to Kitty. “Does she not desire to breathe?”

Kitty giggled. “Oh! I think not, dearest. When one is as utterly handsome as the Misses Dashwoods, breathing becomes a most astonishing bore!”

The amusement between Mary and Kitty was unending. To be pleased in anyone’s company, they were indebted to each other. They were looked upon as young ladies of wit, astuteness, and silliness in years. Determined spinsters –destined to linger unattached if not engaged by sixteen. For it is universally known: one not married cannot be truly happy.

But even if the two young ladies professed themselves immune to the charms of love, seeing gentlemen as most inferior creatures, and not to be compared with the manifold attractions of books, and music, and painting watercolours, we have to confess that their hearts were set aflutter by the prospect of the ball, and each – though condemning such frivolity in public – was privately debating which of her gowns might set off her complexion to best advantage, and how she might outshine the celebrated beauty of

Miss Marianne Dashwood, a young lady who had raised considerable resentment among the mothers of Meryton, for being possessed of a most unreasonable loveliness of both face and figure.

A fact of which the said Miss Marianne seemed quite prettily unaware. Or that was what seemed.

The ball. What a magnificent event in every life of the ones invited at Pemberley. Ball. What a simple word with so many meanings on it. Because it is a universal truth that one single dance could change so many lives. Indeed. One single melody, one single movement, one single look. Every aspect is important in a ball. Especially in a ball like the one being thrown by the Darcys.

But, just then, Mrs Bennet, who had been called to attend to Mrs Hill the housekeeper’s request, returned with some news. “Girls, girls, I have just had it from Lady Lucas, that there is to be a gentleman amongst our acquaintance this evening whom we have not met before. I believe his name is Willoughby, he has a pretty estate at Combe Magna, and that is not all. His benefactor, a Mrs Smith is very likely to leave him her very substantial estate at Allenham. Oh, I know how it will be! Be sure to smile, Kitty, and please Mary, do your best.”

One may imagine how such news was received by all the girls present. Marianne, in particular, seemed most taken by such a name as Mr Willoughby, and was in raptures over the prospect of a house with the promising name of Allenham.

“Oh, did you ever hear anything so romantic?” sighed Marianne.

Elinor, who had just entered the room, was a little more cautious in her appraisal. “But, Mrs Bennet, do we know anything about this young gentleman? Is he an acquaintance of Lady Lucas?”

“Oh, I do not know all about that, but I daresay he is a fine young man if he is such a rich one!” replied Mrs Bennet.

“But, does it follow that a rich man is necessarily a good one?” persisted Elinor. “And surely, when we know so little about him, it would be unwise to become acquainted without recommendation.” Mrs Bennet looked at Elinor as if she could not comprehend her.

“Oh, Elinor, I think you should reserve all judgment until you meet him; he sounds perfectly splendid to me,” cried Marianne.

It was in the nature of these two sisters that Marianne should be all enthusiasm and unconsidered rapture, while Elinor would always follow the dictates of sense and reason. She was more than willing to

think well of Mr Willoughby, but only after decided proof that he had a good heart, as well as his own house, his own teeth, and his own horse.

Mrs Bennet, by contrast, was as exuberant in her anticipation as any young lady of sixteen, despite it being many long years since she had donned her matronly cap. She saw the ball as a wondrous opportunity to live out her youth again through the young ladies in her party, and was fully prepared to find husbands for them all among the wealthy and eligible acquaintance of her ‘dear Mr D.’

“Oh, my dear Mr D!” exclaimed Mrs Bennet, her cheeks flushing with pleasure at the thought of her favourite son-in-law. “Such an obliging, handsome man, and so very, very wealthy! He owns the better part of Derbyshire you know, Miss Dashwood, and is married to my daughter Lizzy. Of course, dear Mr D has ten times the consequence of any Mr Willoughby, and he has a particular place in my heart.”

It has to be said that ‘Dear Mr D’ had not always found such fond favour with Mrs Bennet. When he’d first come into the neighbourhood, his rather proud hauteur and consequent initial snubbing of Lizzy had set Mrs Bennet against him. He had been called, ‘disagreeable’ and ‘horrid’. But all had been reversed in the time it took Lizzy to tell her mother she was engaged to him, and Mrs Bennet had soon taken it into her head that she had always loved him.

Chapter II

Mrs. Hurst slid the neatly folded paper off the silver tray proffered by one of several indistinguishable footmen. Upon seeing the contents she exclaimed, “A ball at Pemberley. I believe new frocks are in order.”

Miss Bingley gave one eyebrow a lift of what she was sure was the perfect degree. “We needn’t worry overly about frocks with the company I suspect will be featured. Namely Bennet sisters and local Hertfordshire folk.”

Mrs. Hurst, whose opinion often reflected that of the last person to have spoken to her, added pointedly, “Cheapside.”

Miss Bingley agreed with her other eyebrow, then rose to view her headdress from the angle offered by the mirror over the mantle. “Yes, dancing with that lot at Pemberley will be like mingling with mice at court.”

“Mice at court…Good Lord!” Mr. Hurst spoke to no one in particular from a position almost allowing him to become one with the chaise longue. Mr. Hurst had the singular ability to tread no ground between the robust sportsman and the most practiced indolent. This afforded him significant pride. Neither his wife nor sister-in-law paid him any heed as they were considering the possibilities of the ball. Not that they would have done anyway.

Miss Caroline Bingley’s already acerbic disposition had not been improved by Mr. Darcy’s marriage, in part because her intention to wed Mr.D herself had been well known to everyone within her ambit, as well as many far beyond. The large part of his friends, however, (with the notable exception of his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and her daughter Anne), had been quick to accept his wife, Elizabeth, as one of their own circle; this acceptance owed almost as much to her quick wit and easy disposition as it did to their admiration for Mr.D, their appreciation of his consequence in society, and their love of visiting Pemberley and enjoying the fine entertainments it afforded them.

The Bennets were another matter, but all of the Darcys’ acquaintance were determined to welcome them cordially, if not with sincere affection, for Elizabeth’s sake, as well as a means of retaining Mr.D’s good opinion. One of the aforementioned fine entertainments offered by Pemberley was the upcoming ball, to which all, whatever their prior affiliation, were anticipating with almost palpable eagerness, and preparing for with great seriousness of purpose.

As were the host and hostess of the evening, Mr and Mrs Darcy. While the servants of Pemberley were busy making preparations for the ball, the happily married couple was enjoying a private moment in the breakfast room.

“We cannot uninvite him now,” said Mrs Darcy to her husband. “Mr Willoughby must already be in the neighborhood. I’m afraid we must accept him for just this evening.”

Mr Darcy looked doubtfully at his wife. “But imagine the damage he can do in one night,” he sighed.

But nothing could be done. From a reliable source, they had just heard that morning that their guest, Mr. Willoughby of Allenham, had ruined the reputation of a young girl. And he would be dancing at their ball tonight! No doubt making countless girls fall in love with him and breaking as many hearts.

“Should we inform others about his character?” Mrs Darcy asked. They looked at each other and both realised that it all sounded very familiar. What should they do to protect their youg relatives and guests from this blackguard?

A direct approach would be most unseemly – but what to do? Together they decided upon a list of suitable diversions, should it be necessary. A tour of the library may be suggested – and what gentleman of distinction would decline such an invitation to peruse their grand collection? If his advances were to persist, however, a game of whist or other amusements could commence in the drawing room and it would be made evident that his expertise were required. Failing that, well – perhaps an appeal to his appetite would suffice. Rarely was an offer of cake refused, by even the most discerning of guests.

“What of the rumors concerning Mr Tilney of Northanger Abbey whom you have invited? I know he and his sister are friends from your Society circles but the speculations are worthy of note and concern.”

Darcy arched a brow at his wife’s statement, a teasing lilt entering his voice as he said, “How well informed you are, Mrs. Darcy, for a lady thus far ensconced behind Pemberley’s thick walls and far from London’s gossip mills!”

“Jane passed on what she had heard from Mr. Bingley, her intentions honorable I assure you,” his wife retorted.

“Indeed I am certain she is honorable. Miss Bingley, however, who is presumably the fount of the Tilney information, has a reputation otherwise.”

“So you are convinced there is nothing nefarious surrounding the death of his mother?”

“Quite,” Mr. Darcy declared firmly. “However, to ease my lovely wife’s mind I promise to keep an eye on our questionable guests and I shall protect the young ladies from broken hearts and scandal.”

Mr. Darcy grimaced. “All this while concurrently playing host and hostess to dozens of guests and organizing the activities.”

“Be cheered, my dear. One thing we shall not be is bored. The Ball at Pemberley promises to be a rousing success!”

The same satisfaction and pleasure, the same concerns and uncertainties took place on the morrow. Some, looking forward to making such a promising acquaintance, some, regarding the new addition to the party a most unfortunate event.

Lady Russell had been expecting a letter to arrive on the post. When it finally arrived, her face wore a look of pure contentment. It was a great consolation that Captain Wentworth was at sea.

Willoughby strode through the main hall of Allenham, his riding boots clicking against the fine marble floor. Returning from a hard ride in the bucolic countryside, his mind raced with possibilities of the upcoming ball at Pemberley. Pushing aside the unpleasantness of former attachments, he focused instead on the merriment to accompany the evening.

His old friend, Henry Tilney, would be there with his lovely sister, Eleanor. Their troubled past fodder for the gossips, Willoughby knew the scandal of their mother’s death would overshadow his own indiscretions… at least for a while.

“Sir, you’ve received a letter from Miss Tilney.” His valet, Albert, appeared at his side bearing the folder paper sealed with red wax. Willoughby recognized the fluent script of its sender, though not why she had sought him after their brief flirtation. Was she, perhaps, interested still? His heart bruised but not broken from their parting, he smiled.

Elsewhere, the invitation had arrived. Mr. Collins, with much delight, called after his wife to share in the glorious declarations of the ball. “My dear Charlotte. My cousin has invited us to the Pemberley ball! Such generosity has been shown.”

Mrs. Collins was delighted her dear friend Elizabeth had requested they attend such an evening. “My dearest, this shall be a sight. I hear the tapestries at Pemberley are something to behold upon sight.”

“They are of course, in comparison to Rosings, not as grand,” Mr. Collins replied. “For Lady Catherine de Bourgh has added much improvement to her own.”

“Why, my dear Mr. Collins, we have not yet been to Pemberley. I am sure we cannot judge without seeing.”

With the prospect of seeing her dearest friend, Charlotte was very encouraged at the mere thought of the ball – for Charlotte had longed to see her friend. “Oh, I am delighted by this news, Mr. Collins. It has been such a long time since I saw my dear friend Lizzy. This brightens my day!”

“Oh, but dear, let me even brighten your day more, like I always do, since it is time for our daily reading time. Let me read aloud to you from one of my own personal favourites and Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s recommendations, Fordyce’s Sermons, which I know you so thoroughly enjoy. As I often say: nothing can be as advantageous as instruction!”

Charlotte Collins glanced at the invitation once more, before turning her gaze to her husband. “Obviously, nothing could possibly brighten my day more than our beloved reading time, darling…”

‘Except for an invitation to one of the most splendid and amusing events of the year. Amongst other things…’ Charlotte thought to herself, and with a small smile she followed her husband to the drawing room, firmly holding onto not only the actual piece of paper, but also the thought of this precious invitation.

Not so far from where Mr. and Mrs. Collins luxuriated in anticipatory revelry was a rather different response to the glossy invitation. Still seething over the iniquity of Mr. Darcy’s horrid choice, Lady Catherine de Bourgh contemplated adding the shredded contents of the invitation to one of her gardens — and in her esteemed opinion, Rosings Park featured some of the finest horticulture around.

She experienced a change of heart, however, when she considered the alternative: suffering through one of Mr. Collins’ dreadful sermons. And though her daughter Anne was — of course — far superior to that mercenary girl, Elizabeth, who had poisoned the family arbor with such discouraging qualities as gumption and individuality — and worst of all, mediocre pianoforte playing — Lady Catherine felt it was her duty to rid Pemberley of its pollution. And by that, she meant Bennets. Lots and lots of Bennets.

Yes, she could see that it was her unpleasant duty to attend the Pemberley Ball and try to clear the environs of those verminous Bennets. And perhaps there might even be a gentleman of suitable rank for Anne; surely Darcy had not given over all his upbringing and connections?

Chapter III

The day of the ball arrived, and one of those Bennets, Kitty, was sitting in her room at Pemberley, staring mournfully at the gowns in her closet.

“Mary,” she said. “Mary!” Her sister looked up from her book. “What are you going to wear to the ball? I have nothing that I would dare show my face in!”

“You know I care nothing for such things, Kitty,” her sister responded. “I will wear whatever Mama thinks best.”

Kitty sighed and rolled her eyes. “Perhaps I will go down and ask Lizzy what she thinks. Maybe she will offer to loan me one of her lovely gowns. After all, she will not want to be embarrassed by her sisters and I understand that there are to be several single gentlemen at the ball!” Mary nodded absently, her eyes still on her book.

Kitty ran downstairs and found the Darcys and a few of their guests at breakfast in the small dining parlour. Kitty flushed in embarrassment as she realized that her hair was mussed and her face pink from her hoydenish rush down the stairs. Lizzy had told her in the past that she must put her head up and maintain the pretence of perfect serenity when in an embarrassing situation, so she halted at the open door, held by a wooden-faced footman and straightened her shoulders as she took a deep, calming breath.

She glided to the buffet and selected a kipper and eggs before sitting next to her papa. He raised an eyebrow in that sardonic way he had and murmured, “Good morning, Kitty. In a rush for breakfast this morning?”

“Oh, Papa, I’m just so excited for the ball today!” exclaimed Kitty with a glow in her eyes.

“Indeed,” muttered Mr. Bennet. “No doubt that all the young ladies in the country today will be in a flutter, primping and preparing to meet the dashing Willoughby.”

“Oh, Mr. Bennet, how can you be so dull?” exclaimed Mrs. Bennet.

“Quite easily, I assure you,” he replied. “At least I possess the sense to say what it means to be dull.”

Lizzy concealed a smile then turned to her sister. “I believe you have something to ask me, Kitty. You keep staring at me so intently.”

Kitty blushed again, but proceeded. “May I please borrow one of your fine dresses for the ball tonight, Lizzy?”

Lizzy smiled. “I see no reason why you shouldn’t.” Kitty tried unsuccessfully to hide her boundless joy.

“What I want to know is more about this Willoughby,” piped in Mrs. Bennet. Mr. Darcy slyly gave Lizzy a look that clearly stated his discomfort with the topic. Lizzy, tactful as ever, proceeded to ask Elinor and Marianne if they slept comfortably.

“Oh, yes!” said Marianne. “Pemberley is a perfectly beautiful place to pass a night!” Elinor glanced at her sister and thanked Lizzy for welcoming them so warmly.

“We are more than happy to have you,” said Lizzy. “Perhaps we should invite your sister Margaret to stay with us sometime, as well.”

Heaven forbid, Marianne thought as she stared out of the window. The precocious Margaret had many unfortunate habits, not least her perverse delight in climbing up trees to look out for stray horsemen. And she had an unhealthy fascination with hiding under tables. For instance, that time when she and Willoughby had been reading sonnets to each other in the parlour, believing themselves quite alone, and a muffled shriek of laughter had erupted from the covered table beside them .

Willoughby! Did he know yet that she was under the same roof? At the sound of the door opening, Marianne turned in happy expectation, but it was only Mary.

Mr. Bennet looked over his glasses at his most serious daughter. He considered her behavior very silly indeed; nonetheless he felt the need to offer fatherly advice. “Mary, my dear, this ball will not be like our country affairs. There will be musicians. Please do not take it upon yourself to delight us with your playing at the ball.”

“Oh, Mr. Bennet!” exclaimed Mrs. Bennet.

“Of course, Papa,” Mary answered with a slight blush that surprised all present. “Though I shall be ready if called upon.”

Marianne could not help but overhear this exchange between Mr. Bennet and his unfortunate daughter Mary. Sadly, not everyone possessed the agility with the pianoforte or the vocal ability that she had heard in some – like Willoughby. For Marianne, it could feel at times like the gravest of punishments to be forced to listen to a dreadful musical performance. It physically pained her.

From a distance, Marianne watched as Miss Mary Bennet paced in agitated frustration. She felt sorry for the young woman, but she was – admittedly – too preoccupied in trying to locate Willoughby. Had he not just arrived?

Whilst Marianne’s mind was fully employed in thinking of Willoughby, other minds were more pleasantly diverted. After her brother’s misstep, Miss Mary Crawford was eager not to let his conduct ruin her chances of marital bliss. Owing to her acquaintances in London and a resolute mind, she had managed to obtain an invitation to the grand ball at Pemberley.

The prospect of meeting eligible young men was not the only thing on her mind: she had heard much of Elizabeth Darcy’s sparkling wit. Elizabeth Darcy was a real model for her. A second daughter of an unknown country family had married a very rich and wealthy gentleman. And that’s what Mary Crawford needed in her life.

But other ladies were not thinking of beaus. Elinor Dashwood was walking in the country, contemplating the house. Her spirits were a bit shadowed by her father’s death, but this invitation was an amazing opportunity to get fresh air after Fanny Dashwood’s obsessive ploy to get Norland. She needed a new start, and new friends and new acquaintances are needed to be prosperous in society.

Maybe, apart from their economical security, she could meet interesting people. In fact, Mr Bennet was humorous enough to overcome his wife’s stupid sense of getting every girl married, so close to her old friend, Mrs Jennings, who wanted to marry everyone.

“Aw,” she sighed. “If old ladies could take care of their bonnets and leave their children alone, better marriages would be done.” But, as Fanny used to remind them in Norland, “eligible men lose their senses and silly girls are too young to have any intelligence.”

Oh, yes, Elinor knew her sister-in-law was not right, but sometimes our sensibilities make us fools, fools in love, as Marianne used to say. She looked to the sky, and she thought if a sensible girl like her would ever meet a good gentleman and if she could feel the supposed magic of love, but then she remembered that apart from love, couples must have a roof above their heads, and if possible, one as beautiful as Pemberley’s.

Also nearby, Miss Tilney remembered how happy she was to receive an invitation for the Pemberley ball. She knew it would be a much welcome distraction. At the time, she wondered if maybe she could convince her brother Henry to attend as well. Henry Tilney was young, rich and unattached; along with impressionable young ladies and good music, that was what balls were made of.

But Mr. Tilney was not convinced it would be a good idea. He did not believe in the supernatural, yet his intuition was telling him something dreadful would happen at the ball.

“Don’t be so dramatic, Henry”, Eleanor had said. “It is only a ball. We will dance, we will enjoy ourselves, we will come back home.”

And when his sister had told him there was going to be a very lavish supper, Henry could not refuse; Although it is not very becoming for a hero, it must be stated that, in this particular case, Henry’s appetite overruled his sense.

Back at Pemberley, nobody could be more thrilled by the prospect of a lavish supper than Mrs. Bennet. Overwhelmed by such happy thoughts, she immediately exclaimed her happiness at her daughter’s having three French cooks.

Mr Bennet, to do his conjugal affection credit, happily retorted that Napoleon would no doubt enjoy the idea of French cooks being able to poison the English gentry at their leisure and wondered if Bonaparte had ever considered winning the war that way. Mrs. Bennet, having lost interest in her husband’s speech after exactly two picoseconds, violently yawned and then dozed off.

Unfortunately, such a happy state of tranquility could not be maintained for long, as she was soon attacked by Kitty’s violent coughs. After a few affectionate, motherly threats of sending Kitty away to live with the gypsies, her nerves were sufficiently calmed.

Kitty, on the other hand, was left feeling alone. She would have turned to laugh with her best friend and sister, Lydia, at their dear mother. It was moments like these when Kitty missed Lydia most. Mary was all well and good to have when she needed someone to talk to, and on most days, she was the only person to talk to in their once-loud home. From having four sisters to only having one at home, Kitty was thankful for Mary, yet it always came to the same thing: she was not Lydia.

Chapter IV

“Pardon me Miss, are you lost?”

Catherine Morland jumped, clutching her heart and spinning about in fright. Fright, not surprisingly, that rapidly settled into acute disappointment when she realized it was only a footman addressing her and not someone more exciting.

“Indeed, I must have taken a wrong turn on my way to the breakfast room,” Catherine replied, the flush of shame genuine but not adequate to prevent a backward glance at the dark passageway behind. No ghosts at Pemberley, she thought.

A ball was all well and good, as far as Catherine was concerned, and the invitation to Pemberley was assuredly a treasured one. The prospect of handsome men to dance and flirt with was moderately appealing to be sure. However, one never knew where adventure was to be found. Even a manor house with a reputation of respectability such as Pemberley could perhaps – if one was so fortunate – harbor at least one dreadful secret or mystery to solve.

Of course, the pristine condition of Pemberley with well-lit halls and light colors, with not a single locked door or restricted wing did not bode well. Why, even the outside facade was classical in style and cheery!

Catherine shook herself, literally and earned a puzzled glance from the footman, deciding then and there to accept matters as they are and forget the nonsense of adventure. Ignore the forebodings of something strange, Catherine – she told herself. Surely nothing exciting could happen in this beautiful place.

There was, however, the small matter of what Catherine witnessed the previous night in the sitting room of the grand Miss Darcy. The ladies had gathered there while the men still enjoyed their wine after supper. All had been well – that is, until the mention of one Mr. Wickham sent the laughter and gallantry flying from the room.

That mention, of course, had come from the lips of none other than Mrs. Bennet herself. Sighing, she had proclaimed, “My dearest Lizzy, I cannot for the life of me fathom why you did not invite your sister, my dear Lydia, and her husband, dearest Wickham. Oh, what an excellent, grand pair they would have made at the ball! I long to see them both.”

Every woman in the room had noticed immediately the identical looks of horror on the faces of both Elizabeth and young Georgiana. Catherine, in particular had taken notice. Of course, the new Mrs. Darcy had immediately stepped in to quickly change the subject before the mention of the scoundrel could cause her beloved Georgiana too much pain, but the effect did not escape Catherine.

She immediately began to wonder who this Mr.Wickham was, and what secrets this man held in relation to the two ladies, and the past of Pemberley. Could it be? Could this man, husband to Mrs. Darcy’s sister, have been duplicitous? Was there a secret between him and Miss Darcy, or could it be that Mr. Wickham was a man with worse crimes?

Mrs Darcy proposed to Miss Darcy to perform a duet on the pianoforte with her, stopping Mrs Bennet from being able to continue speaking of Wickham. Catherine, however, would not, could not be distracted. Was this the ill feeling she had about the ball? This man with the ability to cause the loudest silence Catherine had ever heard in her life, without even being in the room?

With the two Darcy women playing such a difficult piece, Catherine thought it could be her only chance to find out the truth. But who would she ask?

Catherine knew not how to enquire without rousing suspicion, and so she widened her eyes and tilted her head in confusion, succeeding only in securing Mary’s attention. Talking to someone her equal in situation could only, surely, present good results. Mary, her character in equal parts both studious and obtuse, rose only to recline herself a whisper away from Miss Morland.

“This sort of exhibition is utterly displeasing.” Mary muttered, glad for the chance to discuss her musical technique. She continued under her breath. “Music, only of the sombrest of types, should be played in such…””

“Mary,” Catherine interrupted, giving her a glance that she fancied appeared knowing and mysterious. “Do you know Mr. Wickham well?”

“Well enough, I believe.” Mary smiled. “He once told me that my piano playing was nearly as fine as my Mother’s wit. An amiable gentleman, do you not think?” Catherine knew she should acquiesce to such a claim, and so brought her hand to rest on Mary’s as a form of agreement. “And though Lizzy never condescends to invite him to Pemberley,” Mary snorted, Catherine heard no more of what she said, her mind suddenly reeling. Never. The single word resounded in her mind. An unforgiving word. Confirmation of her deepest suspicions.

Something had happened between Elizabeth and Mr. Wickham, and she was determined to uncover it. A conversation between an imaginist and a child eager for display is such that nothing but poor judgment and frivolity can come of it.

As Catherine’s brain worked feverishly – and creatively – to figure out the connection between Wickham and the uncanny silence, she was being watched by the lady of the house. The new Mrs Darcy was not as unaware of Catherine’s interest as she might appear. It was always her practice to watch those around her, and she had honed her skills of unperceived observation since becoming Mistress of Pemberley.

Lizzy knew Catherine had fixated on the mysterious Mr Wickham, and would not rest until she uncovered the whole ghastly story. She worried a little at the impact this would have – Georgiana had yet to fully recover from the ordeal, and any mention of “W” still left her blushing-and-paling furiously.

Lizzy entertained a hope that the ball would provide sufficient diversion and interaction such that Georgiana would be shaken from her trance-like state. Perchance she would even meet a suitable young man who would treat her like the delicate – but fiery – treasure she was. Catherine’s poking and investigating could ruin all these unspoken hopes, however, and Lizzy was uncertain how to deal with the matter. If she told Catherine the story, she felt certain it would ‘wander’ and grow – this was a matter that she must consult Darcy on.

“Heaven only knows what he’ll say when I tell him this” she thought, glancing once more at the obviously preoccupied Catherine. “Perhaps, if I hint at a mystery, she’ll be distracted.”

It was in moments such as this that Mrs. Darcy longed for the comfort of her sister Jane, but Jane and Charles were not due for hours. Because the Bingleys lived within an easy ride of Pemberley, they did not arrive until the night of the Ball.

If truth be told, Mrs. Bingley had not felt quite her usual self of late, and her husband had delayed their appearance. When she appeared before him in a white gown with apple green bows, he was almost of a mind to keep her to himself, and delay their ride even longer. However, his loyalty to his friend Darcy and knowledge that his wife longed to see her family prevailed, and he reluctantly led the way to their well-upholstered carriage.

Jane could not help but feel that her sister needed her at Pemberley. Even as children, Jane had known when Elizabeth had needed her help. The carriage ride seemed longer than usual, and back at Pemberley, Elizabeth busied her herself with last-minute preparations for the ball until her sister arrived with Bingley in tow.

As soon as the Bingleys were announced, Mrs. Darcy rushed from the kitchen — where she had been overseeing the construction of an elaborate cake meant to resemble Pemberley itself — and eagerly

embraced her sister.

After warmly greeting Mr. Bingley, she took Mrs. Bingley aside and whispered as discretely as possible, “I have a special mission for you, my dearest Jane. You must help me concoct a most attractive mystery to distract one of this evening’s guests. A Miss Catherine Morland has recently arrived, and has been poking about. I believe she has her sights set on Wickham’s unsavory past, and I fear for Georgiana’s

well-being. I recall Miss Morland mentioning a fondness for Gothic novels. Perhaps a ghost story to divert her focus? Am I terrible?”

Mrs. Bingley laughed merrily before agreeing to the proposed scheme. She and Mrs. Darcy joined the others in the sitting room. In agreement with the plan to divert Miss Morland, Mr. Bingley took a seat beside Miss Morland and met the gaze of Mrs. Darcy, who mischievously asked her, “Tell me Miss Morland, have you perchance heard the story of the black veil of Pemberley?”

Catherine Morland quivered in concealed delight. “I have not heard the tale of the black veil of Pemberley.”

“Well,” declared Mrs. Bingley. “Allow my sister and I to tell you a tale of truly dreadful proportions.”

Catherine nodded her head in excitement. If there was anything she loved more it was a ghastly tale. Besides, her assumptions at the secrets that Pemberley held were confirmed. How delightful!

Mrs. Darcy seated herself on the other side of Miss Morland and paused before saying, “The black veil is something we rarely speak of, because it is — as you may have surmised — an immensely dark topic worth concealing. I only impart such a confidential secret of the estate because I was happily informed you possess an uncanny affinity for mysteries. Particularly those of the Gothic variety,” Mrs. Darcy added.

Catherine had never been so flattered in her life as to be privy to such undisclosed information, and when it came to flattery, Catherine was particularly susceptible to compliments regarding her sleuthing. One might have even presumed Catherine yearned more for this mysterious ‘black veil’ than a white one, despite the preponderance of men set to attend that evening’s soiree. This was all, of course, prior to Mr. Willoughby’s entrance, and he could be said to have blackened many an innocent girl’s white veils.

But before additional information could be imparted to the avidly listening Miss Morland, a minor disturbance at the doorway interrupted. It was nothing so grand but the entrance of Mr. Tilney and Miss Tilney, but sufficient to draw the young lady’s attention.

Indeed Mr. Tilney did cut a fine figure in his fashionable suit and finely tied cravat, although perhaps not to the degree of other gentlemen in the room namely Mr. Darcy, but Miss Morland appeared, for lack of a better term, instantly besotted. Forgotten were veils, black or white.

Jane and Lizzy shared ‘a look,’ both ladies recognizing the enraptured expression for what it portended. Mr. Tilney’s reputation, even with the specter of mystery surrounding was vastly superior to that of Mr. Wickham. Both woman breathed small sighs of relief and, in a burst of silent communicative scheming that would have placed a proud smile upon Mrs. Bennet’s face, saw the potential for a worthy match between Miss Morland and Mr. Tilney!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an attractive man entering a room is sure to attract much attention. It was to the credit of this heroine, Miss Morland, that although clearly besotted, she remained composed as was becoming of a lady.

“It is a wonderful story best left to when we have time for such a tale. I promise you Miss Morland, we will do so another day,” Mrs. Darcy said.

It was Mr. Darcy who entered the room with a concerned look on his face that caused Elizabeth to stop and rise to attend to him. Mr. Darcy relayed to her that the cook needed to see her about some of the preparations. He had tried to handle this matter but it only seemed to make things worse.

Oh how Elizabeth did not like this part of her days as Mrs. Darcy. She longed for the days when she used to sit and read from one of her books and watch her sisters and listen to Papa. But things were different now, and while she thought about her days at Longbourn, she was so loved by Mr. Darcy that she felt silly for having those thoughts.

Just as Mrs. Darcy began to settle into a fond reminiscence of the past year’s events and marvel at her fortune – that being, at least in her eyes, the weight of her husband’s heart and not his pocketbook – a servant entered the room and presented to her a small, unornamented envelope addressed simply to “Elizabeth.”

Abandoning her trip to the kitchen and without bothering to search for a letter opener, Mrs. Darcy broke the envelope’s seal by hand and removed a small, folded paper from within. As she began to scan the letter’s contents, her hands started to tremor. The paragraph or so of unfamiliar script blurred before her eyes and her mouth dropped open in an expression of utmost shock…

Chapter V

After a moment of contemplation, Elizabeth ascertained that the letter was from her beloved friend, Charlotte Collins. It was clear that the letter had been hurried, merely comprehensible as a consequence of her current temperament.

“Dearest Elizabeth,” it read. “An astonishing misfortune has fallen upon myself. Mr. Collins has passed away, unforeseen and forthwith. I am astounded! I am yet to learn the prospects for myself and for Longbourn as of present. I inform you with the assurance of your reliability as a friend in anguish; and it would be gratifying if you may keep this to yourself at this moment. Yours fervently, Charlotte.”

Mrs. Darcy was utterly aghast. What was to become of her cherished friend? Could this possibly be a blessing, concealed amongst affliction and torment? Indubitably, Elizabeth hoped that the latter was to be the fortune for Charlotte.

A footman knocked and entered, approaching Elizabeth. ‘A packet, milady.’ She blanched as she took it fearing worse news. But being of prescient and composed mind, she set about smoothing her features and with a smile, begged the assemblage to excuse her forthwith whilst she dealt with these new responses to the ball.

She hurried to the small salon, a room Darcy had papered in buttery stripes to alleviate the long Pemberley winters. Seating herself by the window, she breathed deep, aghast at her most recent news and dreading opening this new missive. She watched the gardener trim the roses and then looked down at the letter. She opened it, red wax from the seal falling upon the organdy of her gown.

“Dearest Elizabeth,” it read, “Many years have passed since you and I have spoken and you must forgive my lack. I have recently become informed that you are married and a lady of standing so I rely on the memories of your affection for me those many years ago. It seems but yesterday that we were young people of seventeen and thrown into an odd companionship in Brighton with our Aunt Gardiner and Mrs.Bennet.”

Elizabeth’s breath sighed out as she looked at the miniatures of herself and Darcy on the wall, seeing not her loved one but another gentleman entirely. “Am I too forward in asking you to remember walking in their shadows on the Promenade and you and I arguing about Shakespeare and Donne? I recall you maintained a passionate dislike of Richard III but it was and remains my favoured play.”

But… I am lately returned from service with my regiment in India and am at odds with my situation. Whilst I do not mind my solitary state particularly, I find I crave family.”

Lizzy’s fingers tightened on the letter. “I dare not approach Aunt Gardiner as I owe she and Uncle more than even you can imagine. My dearest Lizzy, do you think I am able to be returned to the fold of the family who loved me? Have no fear for me if you think it is not politic as…”

Lizzy could barely assimilate such revelations in one short hour. She struggled to maintain the composure for which she was renowned and returned to the letter’s remainder.

“I am not unaware I am playing on a past fondness we had for each other. I therefore prevail upon your honesty and integrity. I have missed our times together most dearly. Richard.”

“Oh,” whispered Lizzy. “Oh Diccon.” She folded the letter and tapped her lips. “your timing is most… most…”

For a brief moment, Elizabeth forgot her recent felicity and reminisced upon a different time, when affections deluged like April rains and prudence was some insufferable word adults made use of to prevent elopements. How she had tried, so desperately to rid her mind of Richard.

He was very much unlike the other soldiers, smaller in stature but colossal of mind. He adored poetry and music, and he laughed so frequently — especially at her little quips and whims, she recalled — and it always seemed flowers bloomed more enchantingly in his presence. But she was blinded by the openness of youth then. It was a sweet memory and it brought many smiles, but she was unflinchingly devoted to her dear Mr. Darcy, and her genuine affections were such that poor Richard would never do to disrupt them.

No, there was not the slightest hint of danger. Rather, there was a great chance of mischief, and that was where Lizzy discovered herself chuckling inside. With so many lovely women to choose from, she would have a grand time playing matchmaker. After all, had she not heard of some other lady of great fortune, an Emma Woodhouse of Highbury, who relished such practices?

She went through the ladies of her acquaintance in her mind’s eye, wondering who might possess such sweetness, charm and beauty as to deserve her dear Diccon. For he was both a learned and a lively gentleman, having travelled not only to India with the army, but to the erstwhile American colonies, where he had acquired a passion for eating a fowl called turkey, and various energetic games involving balls and bats, one of which he had endeavoured to teach her one happy summer long ago.

She remembered little Kitty posted at the corner of the garden, doing her best, at age six, to catch the ball before it landed among the marrows. But of course! Kitty! She was a little girl then, with dirty knees and mud on her muslin, but now, at seventeen, she might be the perfect match for a man of Richard’s discerning taste.

But what was she thinking! Filling her mind with matchmaking when her dear Charlotte was only now mourning the loss of her husband. But then again, her dear Charlotte might appreciate her matchmaking more than any of them. Once the obligatory period of mourning was over, of course. But after that…

Elsewhere, Charlotte’s heart was trodden in grief. She could not disclose of her valid feelings. She knew full well of Mr. Collins’ public character: he was known as not a sensible man and his deficiency of nature had been the chatter of many. They would recall his air as earnest and stately, and his manner starched: altogether a mix of arrogance, obsequiousness, self-importance, and yet an unassuming nature.

Her associates would never comprehend their complimentary moments of pleasure: chasing the livestock together, saunters in their garden, dainty kisses of her wrists every sunrise, the falling asleep near by him during his readings, nor the winks at her prior to every sermon. To that, no one saw but Charlotte; no one felt but Charlotte, nor could ever take away from Charlotte.

Elizabeth did not reserve the correspondence to herself as Charlotte requested. It was imperative her husband was made aware. Mr. Darcy valued Charlotte as a part of their inner circle of associates. He loved and treated her as his own sister Georgiana. Upon reading the letter, his feelings likewise matched those of his wife Elizabeth.

He could not help but think of precious Charlotte, how she sacrificed her standing to marry Mr. Collins. Mr. Darcy too had also experienced great loss in his private life with that of his parents, his brother, Andrew, and now Lizzy’s closest companion, Charlotte.

With all the splendor and stunning decor around them at Pemberley, the ball had seemed to lose a bit of a glow and sense of urgency to move forward. It was not of importance to him or Lizzy any longer. It was now fully dependant on the guests, the musicians, and servants to keep everything in high spirits. Only beloved Charlotte’s well-being had become their main concern of their earnest thoughts.

Recalling her scattered and disordered thoughts, Lizzy bestowed a sweet smile and calm front as she joined the assemblage. Crossing to her dear husband, she ushered him to a couch somewhat away from the others. “My dearest. I have received …” She paused.

Mr Darcy was all concern. “Lizzy, I can read you as well as one of the books in my library. What has discomposed you? I am aware that you grieve for Charlotte’s grief. This, though, is different, is it not?” His keen eye surveyed her countenance. Lizzy coloured.

She could not dissemble. She handed over Diccon’s missive. Her husband perused the rather hurried script before gazing at his wife. ‘He is …?’

Lizzy immediately caught the import of his tone, his manner. “No, my dearest! We were but childhood and youthful friends. However, Diccon was exiled from part of the family, he…” Lizzy rose, paced in some agitation before facing her husband.

“Diccon took his position, in India, without the acceptance of the family. Uncle Gardiner was most displeased with him when he did so, for he was supposed to have helped our uncle with his business. It does not sound so bad as to be cut out of the family entirely, but Diccon chose to no longer reply to any of the letters from members of the family, and later we resolved to no longer speak of him. What do you believe we should do, my dear? I´m afraid that if I don’t invite him to Pemberley he will once again be lost to the family.”

“If you are afraid of losing his friendship, my beloved, then we shall invite him to our home,” replied Darcy, “so that he can see our felicity and reacquaint with your family. I am sure the friendship of Mr. and Mrs. Darcy will aid him in his quest of being reintroduced to his friends.”

“Thank you, my dear. You are most kind,” replied Lizzy.

“This has certainly been a day full of news, my dear. Have you informed your father of Mr. Collin’s passing?”

“No, I have not. I am afraid of my mother’s reaction if she is within hearing, but it must be done. Perhaps we should wait until the ball is finished.”

“I do not know my dear, it is your mother, so therefore, I will leave that decision to you.”

While Lizzy and Darcy discussed these serious matters, the guests at Pemberley were busy with preparations for the long-awaited ball. “What to wear?” wondered Catherine Morland and Mrs. Bennet. Both had all their beautiful and most expensive gowns laid down over the furniture on their rooms, an effusion of color that would impress even the most skilled artist.

Mary Bennet did not care about such things. She watched her sister Kitty whirling round the room in one of Elizabeth’s dresses. It was a creamy sort of yellow and had tiny golden flowers over the silky fabric. Kitty was in heaven. She had never dressed in such a beautiful gown.

“Does it not bore you,” began Mary, “to always be thinking of dresses? While that dress is beautiful, it is certain to make you vain, and then you will do something you will regret.”

“Oh, but Mary, do you not like dancing and gowns?” asked Catherine, wide-eyed.

“Not especially,” said Mary curtly.

“We must change that!” exclaimed Catherine with delight. “We will find you a dress, Mary, the most beautiful gown there ever was!” Kitty frowned. She certainly did not share Catherine’s enthusiasm when it came to dolling up her sister.

A rap at the door halted all talk of gowns. Lizzy entered. To anyone else, it would have been obvious something troubled her, but this was lost on her mother and sisters. Even Catherine had difficulty deciphering.

“And how are you ladies coming along?” asked Lizzy. “KItty, that dress is simply lovely on you.” Kitty beamed and thanked her sister. “Mama, I wondered if I may have a word,” said Lizzy.

“Oh must you, Lizzy?” said Mrs Bennet impatiently. There was nothing she adored so much as all the little preparations for a ball and she was rushing from one of the young ladies to another, tidying a ribbon here, and adjusting a lace there, while seeming unaware that her own headdress had slipped over one eye, giving her a decidedly rakish air.

“Kitty! Come here at once,” she said. “Your sash is coming undone and that will not do at all. Not in such company as we shall see this evening.”

“Mama,”persisted Elizabeth, “Mama, I really must speak with you. I have received most shocking and distressing news, and I fear we may have to cancel –”

“CANCEL!” bellowed Mrs Bennet. “I never heard of such a thing! What could possibly be so dire as to prevent an event of this importance from proceeding as planned?”

Lizzy endeavoured to persuade her mother to sit down, but to no avail. “I am afraid,” she said at last, “that Mr Collins has been taken from us prematurely.”

“What? Has Lady Catherine given him his marching orders at last? Horrid man!”

“No, Mama, I am afraid to tell you that poor Charlotte is now a widow. Mr Collins is dead.”

To which sad news Mrs Bennet responded with behavior that shocked Elizabeth to the core of her being. Mrs Bennet threw back her head and let out a peal of loud and most uncouth laughter!

“Mama!,” gasped Elizabeth, “what is it? Why do you laugh so when Mr. Collins has been taken so suddenly?” asked, Elizabeth, who was barely able to maintain her composure at this point.

“Mr. Collins was a horrible man,” her mother replied, “and I see no point on wasting false sympathy on him when we are the only ones present. I laugh because of Charlotte Collins’s situation.”

Elizabeth looked at Mrs. Bennet with her mouth agape. She was both shocked and puzzled at what she had heard. Mrs. Bennet went on,”She was not content to steal Mr. Collins from you when you had no better prospects, Lizzy, but now, shortly after your most fortunate marriage to Mr. Darcy, her husband, who was, after all, only a country clergyman, takes ill and dies! I shouldn’t be surprised, if, after a decent interval, Charlotte should come to fish in Pemberley’s waters for a second husband, among your high-born, wealthy acquaintance! Why, you’d almost think Charlotte planned to do away with him herself!”

Elizabeth gasped again, this time almost unable to stand. Neither realized that Miss Morland was about to enter the room, and had been able to hear their conversation. Mrs. Bennet blanched as Catherine entered.

Catherine was busying herself with her latest project in the form of Mary Bennet, and had not meant to eavesdrop on the obviously private conversation between Mrs. Darcy and the – in Catherine’s eyes – somewhat eccentric Mrs. Bennet. But as soon as she heard the words “widow” and “dead” through the thin walls of the estate, she could not contain her excitement and curiously laid her right ear against the door of the adjacent room.

Was this a hint at a big Gothic Bennet-Darcy murder mystery? This was even better than the Gothic novels she loved so much! Whoever tried to convince her these events did not happen in real life obviously had not visited Pemberley! She felt her cheeks reddening from the excitement, but then noticed the two women in the other room had stopped talking. This was her cue, and she put her hand on the doorknob, took a deep breath and opened the door.

Catherine immediately resolved not to let them know how much she had heard. “What is it, what has happened?” she asked. Catherine was determined that if there were a mystery afoot, she would uncover and solve it. She had also wanted to solve the mystery surrounding Wickham, but she was confident she could handle both simultaneously.

Catherine believed that she had a gift for mysteries and their detection; she had heard of the Bow Street Runners, a group of men who had been formed by the esteemed author Mr.Fielding (whose novel, Tom Jones, was not approved of by many people who were quite respectable!). The Runners traveled the country executing warrants and tracking down criminals – and many were said to be quite handsome!

She thought that if any ladies were allowed to join them, she would make quite a good one. She also thought that being married to a country clergyman would be quite dull, and might indeed have provided Charlotte, whoever she might be, with a solid motive for doing away with her husband, the unfortunate Mr. Collins. She decided to find out as much as she could without showing more interest than would be normal in the death of a gentleman with whom she had not been acquainted during his lifetime.

She looked at Elizabeth and Mrs. Bennet. Elizabeth’s face was bright red, while Mrs. Bennet looked as though she had seen a ghost. Elizabeth proceeded to tell her of the unexpected death of the husband of her dearest childhood friend without providing any details. Catherine was a young girl, and Elizabeth had only recently met her. Elizabeth wished to appear calm, even though she was angry at her mother, and ashamed that Mrs.Bennet’s ramblings had come – she thought – so close to being overheard.

Catherine was embarrassed now that she actually was facing her hostess and realized how unseemly was her behaviour in listening through the closed door. She felt her face flush and stammered, “I am so sorry, Mrs. Darcy. This will decrease your pleasure in the ball tonight, will it not? Please excuse me, I am sure you must wish to be alone.”

She managed to walk through the door and gently close it before she burst into tears and fled in confusion to her room. How could she be so foolish and unkind as to be spying on her hostess? She threw herself on her bed and indulged in an orgy of crying over her lack of kindness, eventually ending with an annoying bout of hiccoughs. She searched for a glass of water to try and stop them, but could not find one.

She sat on her bed, hiccoughing miserably as she tried to work out what it was best she should do. When she finally got up and looked in the mirror, she was horrified at her bloated eyes and red-streaked face. Suddenly, a knock came at her door and she gasped!

Wiping her eyes with the back of her hands and pinching her cheeks to restore color, she moved slowly across the room. Would the Darcys cast her out into the night? Her trespass into a private conversation had gotten her into trouble more than once in her youth. She scolded herself for her impetuous nature.

Her hand on the crystal knob of the door, she hesitated before opening. Casting a glance at the finery of the bedroom, Catherine was resolved to bid it farewell and return to her life of comfort but not of plenty.

Opening the carved door, she faced Mrs. Darcy. Catherine searched her face for signs of fury but discovered only grief.

“My dear Catherine,” Mrs. Darcy started, “I am afraid you caught us in a moment of despair.” Catherine could not believe that the cackle emitted from Mrs. Bennet was anything close to sorrow but nodded to her hostess in a show of support. “My friend, Charlotte Collins, has recently lost her husband. My mother has an… odd… way of displaying her feelings of sadness at the loss of our cousin, Mr. Collins, but I can assure you she is quite put out.”

Looking past Catherine into the room, Mrs. Darcy said, “I do hope everything is to your pleasure, Miss Morland. I desire to speak to you later of a matter of some importance. It is imperative that we keep it between ourselves, however, until I may broach the subject to my husband.” Nodding in acquiescence, Catherine was relieved to still be a guest at Pemberley and did not pursue the matter further as Mrs. Darcy turned to take her leave.

Chapter VI

Miss Morland was not the only guest of Pemberley to hear Mrs. Bennet’s “odd way of displaying her feelings of sadness.” News of disturbing natures have a near magical way of becoming known, no matter how diligently secrecy is attempted to be enforced.

As it happens, Miss Fanny Price’s chambers were in the same vicinity and the young lady herself exited the room precisely as the drama unfolded. A sweet-tempered girl was Miss Price, known to all as one unassuming and frankly dull yet unbeknownst but to a treasured few, Miss Price possessed a sharp intellect and keen interest in human interactions. Of course, one need not be highly intelligent to conclude that something momentous was afoot.

Approaching the two Miss Bennets, Miss Price inquired with due solicitude and consideration of respect as to the situation. Miss Kitty breezily waved her hand and continued to examine the flutter of her skirt as she danced. Miss Mary, however, did respond. “Some news of our cousin, Mr. Collins,” yet before she could say further, if there was more to say Miss Price did not know Mrs. Bennet returned to the room.

“Oh girls! Have I something to share with you! Mr. Collins, interloper and despicable stealer of our home and very existence as he was, has met his fate. He is dead! Before my dear Mr. Bennet, who I surely thought would pass before so now we are saved from losing all if…” But her words of glee died upon her lips when the door burst open, shocking them all.

It was Mr Wickham! “I demand to see Mr Darcy and Mr Bennet immediately,” he cried.

The entire company was agog. Lydia, who flounced into the ballroom at the same time, wore an expression her sister Elizabeth recognized too well. “What on earth can they mean by coming here?” asked Elizabeth, who knew only too well that her husband would be horrified.

“I have come to claim my inheritance,” demanded Mr Wickham. “Now that Mr. Collins is dead, I think you will soon see I am entitled to the deeds of Longbourn House.”

“Yes, isn’t it wonderful, Mama?” cried Lydia. “Who would have guessed that Mr Collins’s mother had such a colourful past. Because, you see, Mr Wickham, it turns out, is Mr Collins’s brother!”

“What are you saying, Lydia?” said Mrs Bennet. “How can you talk such nonsense?”

“But, tell them, Wickie, it’s true, is it not? And if I choose, I may turn out all of you into the hedgerows! What do you say to that?”

Mr Darcy chose this moment to walk into the assembly, demanding to know what on earth was going on. As soon as he saw Mr Wickham, his expression changed. Never before did Lizzy think she had seen him look so grave.

“Now look here -” Darcy began, his firm jaw set with an air of defiance and his eyes flashing at such a scene. However, before he could commence with his speech, Lizzy let out a squeal. All eyes turned as Mrs Bennet – whose sensibilities had clearly been gravely disturbed by the announcement – collapsed in a faint to the floor. Lizzy herself, overcome by such events, swayed inelegantly but recovered just in time to reach down and offer poor Mrs Bennet her hand.

As Wickham bent gallantly to lend his support, Darcy thrust through the crowd and assisted a distressed Mrs Bennet, helping her to her feet. “Oh, thank you, thank you,” she gasped, as her composure was restored and colour returned to her cheeks. “It was the shock, you see. The shock!”

“Of course,” Darcy replied, steadying her some more. “I can see something most disagreeable has not long occurred.”

Upon arriving at Pemberley, Charlotte was desperate to see Lizzy. There was such commotion going on that Charlotte was unable to grieve as she would have over the death of her husband. There was no time for grief, not that others really saw reason to do so in the first place.

What will become of her now? A widow, yes of course. Now she had no money with Mr. Wickham as the next to inherit. Only did she learn less than a fortnight ago that Wickham was in Mr. Collins’ will and set to inherit the Longbourn estate. Now Charlotte was free of this secret which had burdened her greatly!

Upon seeing the distressing of the assembly, Charlotte sought out Lizzy immediately. “My dear Lizzy what has happened?”

“Charlotte, Mr. Wickham has given us the most distressing news.” Elizabeth quietly explained the details of the news that was received.

“Lizzy, what shall become of me? I have no money and surely no gentleman would want to marry a widow!”

Charlotte looked grieved. “My only hope is to go to Africa as a missionary, or have the kindness of my friends to look after me.”

“Charlotte, surely you must not distress yourself so. You are young still, and I’m sure you will find fortitude in marriage once again. There is no reason for you to run to Africa.” Elizabeth tried to calm her friend. “Your family and friends, like myself and Mr. Darcy, will surely aid you now that Mr. Collins is no longer with us.”

“Thank you for your kindness, my dear friend. I am very glad to have your friendship at this trying moment.”

While Lizzy and Charlotte shared this beautiful moment of true friendship, Mr. Darcy still tried to calm his mother-in-law. Mrs. Bennet was greatly relieved of the news that Mr. Wickham was to inherit Longbourn. Although at first she had been shocked at the news, she now realized that Lydia would be the one to run Longbourn after Mr. Bennet died. She was glad, for she knew her daughter would not throw her away from her home.

However, Mr. Darcy and the rest of the family were not so certain, since Mr. Wickham’s character was not to be trusted. Mr. Darcy implored Wickham to go with him to his study, where he could discuss the matter of the inheritance with himself and Mr. Bennet.

Lizzy was glad her husband had taken Wickham away, for she awaited Jane’s return, and since her health was not perfect, Elizabeth was worried she could be ill with so much excitement at once.

As the three gentlemen left the room, only the group of ladies remained, most of them not knowing what to do or say in the situation they found themselves in.

“Mama, are you not going to embrace me and tell me how delighted you are to see me?” Of course, Lydia could be trusted to fill any awkward silence, and once again she did not disappoint. “It is truly wonderful to see all of you again, even though I am already bored by the countryside!” she sighed, while she walked towards the window. “All these green hills and flowerbeds… it’s nothing compared to the lovely city of Brighton. Kitty, I have so much to share with you!”

“Dear, please, tell us everything. I heard the colour of the dress I am wearing at this moment is the colour to wear this coming season, but since you spent time in the city, you know exactly what to wear and what not to wear!” Mrs. Bennet patted the free spot next to her.

Elizabeth looked at her mother and sister and shook her head. At least they were occupied with something else: a death in the family, the surprise of Wickham, a young girl searching hungrily for murder and mystery … What else could happen to make this day more surprising?

At that moment, a loud bang could be heard from one of the other rooms and all the ladies jumped up, shocked by the unexpected sound. “Of course. This dull day at the countryside could definitely need a bit more excitement.” Elizabeth sighed and she opened the door.

Awaiting haughtily in her most ostentatious frock was Lady Catherine de Bourgh. In most cases — perhaps every case, for Lizzy could not think of one occasion when it was otherwise — her arrival would be most unwelcome. But in an odd twist of circumstance, Elizabeth was grateful for the distraction. In desperate need of levity, Mrs Darcy seemingly put aside her old prejudices and greeted her former rival with something that bordered on reverence.

“How delightful it is to see you!” she exclaimed. “Please, make yourself at home, though I know our humble Pemberley is nothing to the grandeur of your Rosings Park.”

Lady Catherine was a bit mystified, but fortunately, she had grown so accustomed to people playing up to her and so certain that she deserved such deference, that she soon brushed it off, and nearly forgot of Mr. Collins’ tragic passing. Wearing a smile, she ventured right past the now-widowed Mrs Collins, only stopping to remark, “My dear child. You really ought to be wearing a black veil. Surely there must be one somewhere in this establishment.”

Suddenly, Catherine Morland was listening intently, to the point of bypassing Anne, who also sauntered in.

“My goodness, it is just as I feared,” thought Miss Morland, who had only caught the words that excited her most. The ‘black veil!’ “It is as I suspected. There must be some foul play afoot.” But for Miss Morland who longed for an adventure, the idea could not but excite her. So, the black veil was somewhere to be found in Pemberley House! Catherine resolved on finding it.

Marianne and Elinor entered the room just then, quite unaware of all that had been happening. Marianne feared that unless something exciting happened soon, she was going to be in for a dull evening.

“Apart from the Miss Bennets, is there anyone here that we know?”

“I’m afraid not, dearest,” Elinor replied. “And, I am afraid we shall only be introduced to the young gentlemen here that Mrs Bennet has already rejected for her girls.”

“If only Mr Willoughby would come,” Marianne sighed.

Elinor looked questioningly at her sister. “I’ve been meaning to ask you about him. Why do I get the impression that you have already been introduced?”

Before Marianne could answer her sister’s most penetrating question, the doors of the ballroom opened once again to admit a procession of servants armed with towers of fine table linens, trays of polished wine glasses and champagne flutes, and half a dozen or so extra chairs.

Behind them followed one of the gardeners, wheeling in a topiary that he had, for the occasion, pruned into somewhat of a lopsided heart, despite having been told on more than one occasion by the Darcys that they were not fond of such lavish displays. At the sight of all this, those gathered were suddenly reawakened to the purpose of their visit to Pemberley: the ball! There had been so much gossip, so many events both comic and tragic, that the visitors had almost forgotten that a festive evening of dancing, dining, drinking, and dalliance awaited them.

Chapter VII

Mrs. Hurst was very eager to share the events of the day with someone and that, of course, could only be her sister, Caroline, who shared her sensibilities in these matters. She found her alone in a small, exquisitely appointed sitting room and asked with some pleasure, “Caroline, have you heard? Wickham is here demanding the Bennet’s Longbourn.”

“I did hear a bother. What of the proudly deferential Mr. Collins? Is he not Mr. Bennet’s heir?”

“Has your head been in the clouds? He is dead. And Mrs. Bennet is said to have laughed outrageously at the telling of it. There has been a delicious bustle.”

Miss Bingley tilted her head just so and displayed an elegant shrug. “I would expect no less at a ball given by Miss Eliza Bennet.”

“You mean Mrs. Darcy,” Lousia Hurst ventured, even knowing her sister always meant exactly what she said.

“I believe Mr. Darcy will find, if he has not already, that marriage vows do not remove the Bennet from his bride. I must add that I cautioned her as to Wickham’s character when he first appeared in Meryton society. If that can be called society.”

“Come, Caroline. I am eager to watch this unfold and it will not be as enjoyable if you do not share it with me. And it is time we changed into evening dress. The servants are preparing for the ball and our maids are no doubt waiting at this moment.”

“Yes, Louisa, it is only right that we make ourselves available to Mr. Darcy as his peers in this odd company.”

Nearby, Lady Catherine observed that Mrs Collins seemed out of spirits. “Forgive me,” Charlotte replied, but the recent death of my husband has left me somewhat out of sorts.”

“I assure you,” Lady Catherine answered immediately, “I feel his loss exceedingly.” She continued without a pause for breath. “After all, I was acquainted with Mr Collins before you were married. I was attached to him and I believe he was excessively attached to me. But then, nobody feels loss quite as I do. He was your husband, Mrs Collins, but I was his patron, a relationship of far more significance and importance.” Charlotte burst into tears once more.

Mrs Bennet, desirous to reacquaint herself with Lady Catherine and ensure she did not miss any of the conversation made a beeline for her and Charlotte, with the express intention of imparting her own injurious feelings on Mr Wickham’s revelations.

“Oh, Mrs Bennet,” cried Charlotte, “whatever are we to do?” Mrs Bennet bit her tongue. She wanted to remonstrate with Charlotte, and scold her for marrying Mr Collins in the first place, but she would not upset dear Mr D for the world, and causing a scene, she knew would not endear her to her son-in-law.

Instead, she sat down on the seat next to Charlotte before saying, “Do not worry yourself so, Mrs. Collins, for your dear mother and I will help you find another husband. Furthermore,” Mrs. Bennet added reasonably, “I’m well known in the neighborhood to have a talent for such things.”

Charlotte Collins’s eyes welled with fresh tears. Mrs. Bennet, misinterpreting as always, said, “No need for tears of gratitude.” Mrs. Bennet clasped Charlotte’s hand warmly. “We shall begin looking in earnest tonight.”

Lady Catherine, however, had withstood quite enough of Mrs. Bennet’s society for her tastes. She dismissed the sniffling Charlotte and the insufferable Mrs. Bennet with a quick nod and stepped away from the pair in a most decided manner. “Did not the servants recently bring in refreshments?” she observed to no one in particular. “I’m quite certain I saw wine glasses…not that they are nearly as fine as the ones at Rosings.” Lady Catherine’s nose lifted a tad higher. This was sufficient enough to rouse Mr. Hurst to action, however. He immediately went in search of beverages and said loudly.

Mrs Bennet, whose lips had touched more than one glass of fine wine, would not let them go, however. For were they not old friends? The two sisters therefore had to submit to her loquacious attacks.

“Ah! My dear friends! Is this not a delightful evening? And what a fine display of eligible young men! Aye, Miss Bingley — or may I call you Caroline now that we are so intimately connected? — even you might find yourself a nice beau!” Mrs Bennet perceived that Caroline’s countenance was positively glowing and imagined that the delight of seeing HER again was its cause.

“We may not all have the good fortune of luring unsuspecting gentlemen in like predators,” she replied.

“Aye,” said Mrs Bennet, “I see what you mean! What my dear Lizzy’s friend Charlotte did vexed me excessively!”

Had Mr. Hurst been gazing out the window instead of at his own scrutinizing face reflected in the Pemberley glassware collection, he would have seen an elegant young woman disembarking from a nearly equally elegant carriage that had recently come to a stop just outside the main entrance of the estate. She was accompanied by an older gentleman, presumably her father, and by her gleeful expression, one could judge that she was wholly taken with the grandeur of the Darcy home.

Moments later, the footman — who had seen his fair share of exercise that day — entered the room and, making no effort to disguise the weariness in his voice, announced that a new guest had arrived.

“Well, who the devil is it?” Mr. Darcy shouted, quite flummoxed, as by his estimation, no one else was due to arrive for several more hours.

“A Mr. Henry Woodhouse, sir, and his daughter, Miss Woodhouse. From Highbury, sir.”

The footman waited for further instructions, ascertaining from the look in both Darcys’ eyes that they were unacquainted with the pair.

Gorgeous Emma Woodhouse was helping her father walk into the beautiful room. They were deeply impressed by Pemberley. Mr Darcy was very surprised to receive this unacquainted couple, so he remained in the biggest silence. Emma Woodhouse took a bow and smiled.

“Oh, I hope we are not unwelcomed,” she said. ”I can feel your distress for these unknown people you are watching, but I can assure you we are known, at least, thanks to my husband, Mr Knightley.”

In that moment, the faces of Mr and Mrs Darcy changed. Mr Knightley was a good friend of Mr Darcy. They knew each other thanks to John Knightley.

“So I guess, you are delightful Isabella’s sister,” he said. And both smiled. Lizzy, in such a distress for the circumstances of the day, and surprised by Darcy’s charming character towards unknown people, felt a little bad. As soon as she could manage, she decided to go upstairs and rest for a while. Mr Darcy, meanwhile, knew that Knightley would go to the ball as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, Mr Bennet, who had hidden himself in the big library of Pemberley, was interrupted by Charlotte, who wanted to have a little peace, after all the problems she had been suffering since the loss of Mr Collins. Mr Bennet knew about the terrible fate of Mr Collins and felt pity for Charlotte. She sat and they started to talk.

Charlotte knew Mr Bennet was a sensible man, with a great intelligence, with advanced ideas about marriage. After talking about Mr Collins’ sermons and his care of his garden, they talked about marriage and its imperfections. Charlotte – as Mr Bennet, had learnt – knew that the only way to survive a marriage without love is to have a lot of patience and sense of humour. And she knew she had been good at that.

After finding the warmest spot in the room for her father, Emma looked around and sensed something was wrong. It was supposed to be a ball but it looked closer to a funeral! Instead of saying that out loud, which would be improper and impulsive – something the old Emma might do – she decided for distraction instead: “Anyone fond of puzzles?”

Marianne Dashwood rolled her eyes and continued reading poems by the fire. Mary Bennet thought it would be an intelligent and rational way of passing time — better than dancing. Mr. Woodhouse, comfortable in a chair, yawned.

Emma decided to look in the nearest rooms to see if anyone might wish to join in a game. Immediately, she came upon a room in which the occupants were most clearly in need of diversion. “Would you care to join us in a game? Until our hosts are in a position to begin the ball? We’re just two doors away.”

Lady Catherine examined Emma but declined comment. Mrs. Bennet considered the issue. “Thank you. We may be along directly.”

She turned to Mrs. Collins. “There, my dear. I’m sure Mr. Collins would want you to enjoy yourself. I recall he found both balls and games most acceptable.”

Charlotte could think of nothing to say to this and glanced at Lady Catherine, who presented a pained expression.

“You have a peculiar reaction to the death of your cousin, Mrs. Bennet.” Lady Catherine eyed her target with the intensity of a bird of prey. “It is most vexing.”

Mrs. Bennet was not to be outdone in the matter of nerves. “I assure you I suffer mightily from nerves in such a situation, Lady Catherine. If you only knew what I have suffered this very day. But then I never complain. Still, in the absence of my dear friend, Mrs. Lucas, and as a mother of five daughters, and three already married, I must serve as best as I can to cheer our Charlotte. She is still a young woman and must look to her future.”

Lady Catherine bestowed her gaze on Charlotte. “Being a widow myself I can advise you in all things.”

Charlotte rose suddenly and bobbed to both ladies, who eyed her with astonishment. “Thank you. Thank you. Please excuse me.” She hurried from the room, passing Emma, wondering in which direction she might find Elizabeth.

Emma followed her example and made a hasty retreat, glad to be returning to what was after all the much happier salon.

Dazed and out of spirits, and with her mind fogged with tears and heavy thoughts, Charlotte hurried down one hall and then turned down another. The unfamiliar walls and doors quickly became a dark maze. Charlotte paid no attention at first, simply wanting to be away from the pressing advice and good will of those around her. She did not want to think on the future; she merely wanted to mourn what was lost.

She came to a breathless stop in a hall that ended in a closed door. The hall was dark but for a strip of light beneath the door. “Hello?” Charlotte spoke tentatively. She stood for a moment, listening. The house was shadowy and still behind her. Leaning against the wall, she crept toward the light. “Lizzy?”

There was no response. Her throat dry with weeping and sudden fear, she rested light fingertips on the door. In the back of her exhausted mind she was thinking, vaguely, of propriety. But she was alone, in every sense. She rested her palm flat against the door, took a breath to muster her courage, and then knocked, lightly, on the door.

The door opened quite suddenly, and the person within made poor Charlotte step back and gasp. Unable to brook more, she fainted.

For in this room, this bedroom hidden from the rest of the house, was Mrs. Lydia Wickham. In bed with a man that was not her husband.

Chapter VIII

Charlotte felt a slight breeze above her, opening her eyes to see Catherine Morland, the acquaintance of her dear friend Lizzy, fanning her.

Upon seeing that Charlotte was indeed coming out of the spell, Miss Morland helped her stand. Charlotte leaned back against the wall and took a couple of deep breaths, looking at the newly closed door.

“Mrs. Collins, are you all right, do you need me to call for Mrs. Darcy?”

Charlotte looked at the young girl, who could not be more than seventeen. “Did you see what was happening behind that door before you closed it?”

Miss Morland did not know where to look. She had known she should not have been perusing the manor on her own, but she wanted to know more about the black veil. Mrs. Darcy and Mrs. Bingley would not have put the ideas in her head if they had not wanted her to solve the puzzle.

She looked at Mrs. Collins’ questioning gaze; yes, she had seen what was happening behind that door. From the moment she had laid eyes on Mrs. Wickham, Catherine did not see an intimate friendship being acquired from the new acquaintance. However, Catherine had not thought that a person whose sister was the admirable Mrs. Darcy could be ruining her family in such a manner.

Catherine had heard of the man who was in that bed too. Over and over from a certain lady, Miss Marianne Dashwood. Mr Willoughby had ruined the reputation of more than one lady in the past. Who knew a ball at Pemberley would be so exciting.

Helping Mrs Collins steady herself, Catherine’s thoughts quickly turned to the one she had first heard of the rakish Willoughby from. Miss Marianne was a sweet girl — Catherine knew her exuberance and overzealous mannerisms earned her censure, but she found them to be endearing. Not to mention the cause of many delightful imaginations and forays into human nature. Miss Marianne had been waiting most anxiously for the arrival of Willoughby, with obvious attention and hopes – yet never revealing – even to her sister Elinor – the way she had made his acquaintance.

Catherine caught her breath sharply – surely Miss Marianne was not one of the broken girls left in the wake of Willoughby’s jaunts through the country! “No, no – that is impossible,” she murmured to herself.” Her eyes are too open and her speech too innocently excited. She has no heartbreak, just youthful gaity.”

Settling her concern on that count, Catherine again asked Mrs Collins if she should summon Mrs Darcy.

“No dear, I am alright. Just a…shock. A dreadful shock. Oh, poor Lizzy! What will this do to her? So much has already happened this day — to find out her youngest sister is at it – again …” Mrs Collins’ voice trailed off as she appeared lost in a muddle of her own thoughts.

Catherine’s ear had not missed the “again” — Was this where the mystery of Wickham was leading? Lydia WAS Wickham’s wife, and such a great mystery surrounding the man — “I wonder…” she thought.

It was on the tip of her tongue to ask Mrs Collins, but seeing the obvious distress of the older woman stilled her impulse. Mrs Collins had had a rough day of her own, what with losing her husband suddenly.

“I wonder what happened to him? Though I can’t…ask her now,” Catherine thought, as she took Mrs Collins’s arm, guiding her away from the door. It was apparent the occupants therein were unaware their tryst had been discovered. Catherine’s lip curled back in distaste.

How such a woman was related to her new favorite – the dear, sweet Mrs Darcy – was amazingly beyond comprehension. It was obvious that Lydia’s sense of decorum was entirely her mother’s. Catherine cringed slightly, lest someone overhear her unspoken thoughts. But she knew her sentiment would be supported by the Darcys and Bingleys.

Aha! Mrs Bingley! Though she was feeling a mite poorly, she would be the perfect person to help Mrs Collins! Feeling much better about things, Catherine led Mrs Collins to the quiet room where Mrs Bingley was preparing for the ball.

“Why, Miss Morland! And Charlotte! What has happened? You look as if you’ve seen a ghost, Charlotte,” Mrs Bingley cried upon opening her door.

Catherine quietly explained the situation, as Mrs Bingley swept both young ladies into her room. “Oh dear!” she cried. “Lydia will never learn to behave…Oh! What to do? What to say! We must say nothing. Not yet. We must not disrupt the ball further. Lizzy so wanted this ball to be a successful, pleasant evening. No, we shall keep these unsightly proceedings between us.”

With a firm nod of her head, Jane Bingley gave her two conspirators strict instructions on how to conceal the matter from Lizzy, while also keeping a subtle eye on the activities of both guilty parties. Catherine determined to take great pains to keep Willoughby away from Miss Marianne. She could not bear the thought of such a sweet happy girl to be used so badly.

“But how?” she wondered unaware she’d spoken aloud.

“I do not know dear, but there must be some way. Is there another, more engaging young man we could persuade Miss Marianne to entertain?” queried Mrs Bingley.

Catherine flushed. The most engaging young man of the ball, Mr Tilney, came to her mind’s eye immediately. She had almost forgotten the way her heart stopped the moment he walked in the room earlier that day. He would be a wonderful gentleman to occupy Miss Marianne’s time – if only Catherine had not met him previously! How could she turn away from those eyes, that smile, the air of intelligence and quiet humor?

Mrs Bingley noticed Catherine’s agitation, and remembered the earlier encounter as well. With a gentle smile, she placed a hand on Catherine’s arm. “My dear, I think you may count on being the sole recipient of Mr Tilney’s attentions. I saw the way his face lit up when he saw you earlier. Leave Miss Marianne to me…” Jane promised.

Catherine tossed a grateful, blushing smile Mrs Bingley’s way. Mrs. Bingley hugged Catherine to her before speaking. “You must dress in your finest and wear a smile.”

Blushing, Catherine hurried out. As she left, Mrs. Bingley’s maid entered with her ball gown. Jane had left the distraught Charlotte in the other room, and now she hurried to her. Jane tucked Charlotte up on the day bed with a warm blanket, a hot water bottle, and a large glass of sherry and went back to her own dressing.

In the meantime, not sudden deaths, not mysteries, not secret trysts, not interfering in-laws could dissuade the Pemberley staff from their preparations. Below stairs, vats of white soup, waiting to be served to hungry dancing partners, simmered in the kitchen. In the ballroom, the most accomplished musicians in Derbyshire tuned their instruments for the festivities.

Despite the losing and finding of Longbourn’s heirs, elegant carriages – carrying eager guests – continued to arrive at Pemberley. Awaiting them was the dashing and rakish Willoughby, who had already done some damage with Lydia. As usual, he was torn between desires of money, lust, and affection. On this night, might he see again the enchanting Marianne Dashwood? On this night, would he meet a woman with a large fortune to settle his debts? Or would there be some wench to drive him to distraction?

All three possibilities titillated him, and he laughed out loud. What ever happened, of one thing he was sure: he would never be short of partners, and he would dance all night.

Caroline Bingley also waited, and she was in the mood for hunting. She was on the hunt for that rare specimen who would fulfill her innermost desires. She wanted nothing more in this world than to acquire a rich husband. The deeper his pockets, the better.

However, the presence of Willoughby brought her to distraction, for while a rich man she desired, that did not mean she was immune to the looks of a man. She found Willoughby to be very handsome. She wondered if he had any money? It would be quite wonderful should her rich husband also be very pleasing to look at. Yes, that would do quite nicely, thought Caroline. Rich and good-looking.

She realized that she would need an introduction, but then she was not always one for propriety. If some behavior in regards to Mr. Darcy’s marriage to Eliza Bennet were any indication as to just what she was capable of. Caroline sneered at the thought, looking a bit like one of those unsatisfied pugs. Well – she thought – she would not be on the losing side again. It was time to get back on top like the Queen she was meant to be.

Caroline’s actions were not hers alone: there were others wise to her ways. Mr. and Mrs. Darcy looked on as they knew only too well what Ms. Bingley was capable of. Even though Mrs. Collins’ head was aching, she too was aware of Caroline’s ways and did not want to see her friends hurt. But what could be done?

This was after all, a ball, and Caroline was not unwelcome, but that did not mean that Jane and Lizzy could not put a plan in place to distract Caroline from seeking to preserve the festive mood whilst they cared for their family and friends.

Just when it appeared that Caroline was going to take herself towards Willoughby, a hand was placed on her arm that belonged to – not Willoughby, but Mrs. Darcy.

“Would you like some buns?” The mischievous twinkle in Elizabeth’s eyes was the only indication to Jane that her sister, while diverting Caroline from her exploits, was also going to gain amusement out of the effort.

“Mrs. Darcy I am much obliged, but I am afraid I will have to decline your most gracious offer.” Caroline Bingley was not appreciative of having her plan deterred by the likes of Eliza Bennet. She would never be Mrs. Darcy.

At that exact moment, distracted away from Eliza, Willoughby had the misfortune to enter Caroline’s sight again. She needed to get rid of Mrs. Darcy and her sister-in-law now if she was ever to sink her claws into him. “Mrs. Darcy I am in need of some fresh air. If you will excuse me.” She turned with pretense to toward the balcony. This was insufferable – she thought – as she continually glanced back toward Willoughby’s direction. He was so irresistibly close. If only she could get away from Eliza and Jane. It was a sudden commotion which allowed Caroline to make her escape.

A muffled crash, followed by a series of anguished cries and wails rang out from somewhere down the hallway. Mrs. Darcy and Mrs. Bingley both dashed away, their faces awash in panic. There had already been far too many occasions for shock that day, and they feared the worst. Caroline, confident that whatever accident had occurred did not concern her, took the occasion to slip away in the direction of the balcony.

Meanwhile, the two sisters had discovered, in the corridor leading from the kitchen to the ballroom, a scene of disaster so tragically grave as to inspire a regretful gasp from even the icy lips of Lady Catherine. The Pemberley cake, which the pastry chefs had lovingly spent nearly twenty hours coaxing to life, was in ruins on the floor. One chef, eyes brimming with tears, knelt down and began to sift through the chocolate and vanilla rubble. “I…I’m so sorry!” a voice muttered.

All those in the vicinity expressed their extreme condolences, with the exception of two. The first was Mr. Willoughby, who — despite his best intentions to behave appropriately — could not resist a good laugh, and it was only after several looks of condemnation that he attempted to pass it off as a nagging cough.

The other was Lady Catherine. Quick to find the misfortunes of others overshadowed in her mind by a preoccupation with herself, she turned to the nearest person – some stranger in an appallingly showy gown – and casually remarked, “I must admit, there has never been a cake of Rosings Park commissioned for a ball, but if there had been. Well – if that were to take a tumble, it would be a great shame. This one?” She scoffed condescendingly. “Probably just how those Bennets like it.”

While Lady Catherine mused, Willoughby had left his former spot and descended upon one of the girls. “Excuse me, mademoiselle” he pronounced, gallantly. “May I have the first dance?” The girl in question flushed, before happily consenting to his offer…

Chapter IX

“It would be my pleasure, Mr. Willoughby.”

The room fell silent, with the exception of Kitty Bennet who laughed, scorn in her expression. She could not believe that a man such as himself would even contemplate asking the most plain Bennet! Of course, she soon realized that Willoughby was entirely solemn about his intentions, and quieted down.

Mary Bennet, prior to tonight’s ball at Pemberley, was entirely uninterested in such a frivolous activity as dance. She had never considered that it was a benefit to one’s livelihood, and she thought it foolish that it could ever be affiliated with affection. Her sturdy, unwavering opinion had now been weakened. Before she knew it, she was full of joy and displaying exuberance — much to the discontent of her sister Kitty, who was blatantly gazing at the two, with envy in her eyes.

Willoughby looked at Mary with adoration. “You are a lovely dancer, Ms. Bennet, if a little… unpracticed.”

Mary looked away, a little embarrassed, but Willoughby continued. “As soon as I entered the room, I felt compelled to talk to you. You’re very… captivating.” A flutter sent up Mary’s heart. Was Mr. Willoughby, in the interval of one ball, to enlighten her on the pleasures of youthful attraction amid dancing? What an eventful night this was continually proving to be!

“Thank you,” Mary said, feeling a warm flush spread across her cheeks. She leaned in towards Willoughby, allowing herself to be held in his arms and guided across the floor. Goodness, she thought — for so long she had scorned the frivolous pleasures of her sisters, refusing to countenance that dancing could be such a delight. And yet what a delight it was!

Mary held her breath as Willoughby led her around the ballroom, aware that all eyes were upon them. It was like a dream, she thought — a wonderful, magical dream — from which she hoped never to awake.

Nothing could break the spell, nothing – except – “Oh!” Willoughby’s cry in her ear shook her from her reverie. Mary felt herself stumble, as she realised with horror his foot was entangled with her dress! “No!” She gasped, as her companion’s hold loosened around her waist. They were going to fall – in front of everyone! No, Mary thought, no, no, no!

Despite Mary’s earnest apprehensions, Willoughby proved surprisingly adept in breaking her stumble, sliding his hands expertly along the fabric of her dress and supporting her weight without the slightest hitch. One might have even thought the man had experience in such matters, as pertained to ladies and their movements. Even Mr. Willoughby himself was impressed with his accomplishment, which he made no effort to disguise.

The truth was — despite the sobering fact that he had just recently retired from Mrs. Lydia Wickham’s chamber — that he was enjoying this English country dance far more than he had anticipated. In spite of his past gallivanting and merrymaking, there still remained a portion of him that dreamed of finding a perfect match, for whom he would perform any task and surrender any fortune! What was it about the peculiar girl in front of him, so chaste and neglected, that awakened the twanging in his heart strings. Surely, with so many ladies left destitute in his wake, he had not gone all soft.

Mary, meanwhile, was regarding him intently, fearing what she might have said or done to account for his rather odd and wistful look. Nor was she the only one to be scrutinising his expression with a like concentration.

From her place at the end of the set, Miss Marianne Dashwood was attempting to carry on a civil conversation with the worthy but dull Colonel Fitzwilliam, while striving to catch the eye of the far more dashing Willoughby.

Meanwhile, Mrs Wickham was standing by the table piled high with refined refreshments, though her expression could hardly be further from any idea of refinement as it is commonly understood. After all that had passed between her and Willoughby in her chamber earlier, she had naturally assumed he would be devoting all his attentions to her throughout the evening. She knew, of course, that he would have to dance with other ladies to avoid any suspicion of a nearer tie between them, but to claim someone else for the first dance! And not just ‘someone else’ but her own sister! The plain, pedantic, ungainly Mary! Such a thing was not to be borne!

Of course, Lydia could not have permitted that, which is why she had slightly touched Mary during the dance, causing her sister to trip. Unfortunately, Willoughby’s great skills prevented her falling.

What a sight that would have been. Lydia would have laughed and laughed. She could imagine her sister on the floor of the beautiful Pemberley room, all eyes directed to Mary, her sister crying while Lizzy tried desperately to avert everyone’s eyes. It would have been so entertaining – thought Lydia.

Lydia carried an evil look in her eyes and Charlotte, who had been watching both Willoughby and Lydia closely, did not like the way Mrs. Wickham was smiling at the dancing couple. She was afraid for Mary Bennet, for Mary was not used to ways of the world. Anything beyond a book was new for the young girl. Perhaps it was best to discuss this with Mrs. Bingley or Mrs. Darcy.

Charlotte looked through the dancing couples and spotted Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, leading the first dance. Their grace and happiness overflowed, and many of the guests could not take their eyes of the engaging couple. Elizabeth was not an option then; even if she had not been dancing, she would have been busy with other things regarding the ball. Jane Bingley was who she had to find. But where was Jane?

They had just been together, when they were in Jane’s room as she was getting ready and they discussed Willoughby and Lydia – once again the topic they should have to discuss – and it worried Charlotte that she should have disappeared from her sight so quickly. Did they not arrive at the ball together, accompanied by Mr. Bingley?

There was Miss Morland. “Dear Miss Morland, have you not seen Mrs. Bingley since we left her room? I am in great need of her assistance?”

“No, I am quite sorry?”

“Oh, dear, I am afraid she has disappeared from my sight.” And with that, Charlotte left in search of Jane, leaving Catherine to wonder.

The ball’s events had commenced and with a fiery momentum, Lady Catherine could feel her temperament changing for the worse. Her air was not appeasing, nor was her manner of accepting any guest of inferior rank. She scolded herself for accepting the invitation to the Darcy’s function.

Nonetheless, her priority was to establish a union of another estate to hers on behalf of her daughter Anne. Her cold blue eyes stared daringly onto each rehearsed step of Mr. Willoughby with Mary Bennet. With all her efficacy, she could not fathom why Willoughby or any gentleman alive would feel compelled to dance with an obscure maiden of substandard birth. How could he not have asked Anne?

Lady Catherine’s character began to casually evolve into contempt for Willoughby. She would soon make this clearly obvious to them. She knew Mr. Willoughby did not like her. He saw her manners as dictatorial, insolent and Lady Catherine de Bourgh did not attempt to deny these accuracies.

Without turning her head, Lady Catherine browsed the room trying desperately to lay eyes upon any significant other that was of some importance. Abruptly, her eyes noticed something utterly strange, most peculiar indeed; pray, Lydia Wickham seemed to have her full attention towards Mr. Willoughby!

Her sultry, rouged lips hovered delicately over the glass of red wine in her hand. She moved her body to and fro to the exact steps of the dance, while her eyes remained fixed on those of Willoughby. Whenever there was a mutual meeting of the eyes, Lydia’s head would look down in playfulness, kiss the rim of the wine glass and slowly fix her vision upon his again.

Does her husband not notice these insufferable flirtatious actions? Lady Catherine could not believe the absurdity of the events befalling before her very presence. Why are the shades and grandeur of Pemberley thus continued to be polluted?

Meanwhile, Lady Caroline was not the only one who had noted the almost indecent flirtations between Lydia Wickham and Willoughby. Marianne was uncharacteristically feeling increasingly ireful.

However, before she moved in order to give that lady a well-deserved set down, Mr Darcy himself interposed, “Leave Mrs Wickham to me, Miss Dashwood. As my sister-in-law, I will not have it said she brought disgrace upon the proceedings here.”

Mr Darcy bowed and strode toward Lydia Wickham. She had had a surfeit of punch and giggled helplessly at Mr Darcy’s stern demeanour.

“Oh my! Dear brother, what has brought you to my side? You don’t like Wickham, I know that. Have you come to dance?” She rose unsteadily, landing in an ungainly heap against Mr Darcy.

Muffled giggles and sniggers sounded around the room. Lydia cared not. Willoughby smirked at Darcy’s discomfiture. Poor Mary burst into floods of tears. The ball was quickly looking to becoming an out and out rout.

Doubtless, Mr Darcy would have preferred this latest display of the lively tempers of his wife’s family to have been seen by no-one; and it was to Mr Darcy’s advantage that a ballroom is seldom a place where the inappropriate behaviour of one person may not be overshadowed by that of another.

As it was, young Miss Catherine Morland was one of the few observers of this spectacle of family affection. Catherine had watched the exploits of Lydia with rapt attention. Mrs Wickham had seemed to her the very picture of an agreeable woman. Had she not been distracted by the approach of a rather more interesting acquaintance, Catherine might have proceeded to engage the hapless Lydia in conversation.

She was fortuitously interrupted, however, by Miss Tilney who, having spotted Miss Morland from across the ballroom, anxiously hurried forward to speak with her. “My dearest Miss Morland,” Eleanor began, “I cannot tell you how happy my brother and I are to see you here.”

At this, Eleanor looked behind her and, gesturing with a delicate wave of her hand, brought her brother before the flustered Miss Morland. “I have heard, Miss Morland,” the handsome young man said with a smile, “that you have been uncovering all the secrets of Pemberley.”

Catherine blushed and looked down at her hands. Mr Tilney, sensing her discomfort, hesitated momentarily before extending his hand and begging the honour of the next dance. Catherine looked up, and felt more than one pair of jealous eyes on her.

From her position by the chaperones, Elizabeth surveyed the room. Was this ball — so longed for, and so long in the preparation, doomed to end in an unfortunate, not to say embarrassing fracas? She had hoped that such an event — carried off well — might have laid to rest Lady Catherine’s disdainful contempt for her and her family, but in her inmost heart, Elizabeth acknowledged, despite herself, that Lydia’s conduct continued to expose them all to scorn and reproof, and now her own dear Darcy was being sullied by her sister’s seeming inability to behave herself appropriately in public.

And were that not enough, what in heaven’s name was the matter with Mary? And as for that chit Catherine Morland, was there no end to her poking about in the linen closets and foraging for phantoms behind every Pemberley partition? It is high time, she thought, that girl was taught a lesson in good manners.

However, it would not do to reproach Miss Morland in the ballroom. Such a breach of decorum was not to be thought of by Mrs. Elizabeth Darcy. However, Lydia would have to be spoken to. Mary could be dealt with now or later, but Lizzy knew that would require more delicacy than attending to Lydia.

Before Lizzy could reach her sister, she was overtaken by Mrs. Knightley. “Oh, Mrs. Darcy,” Emma gushed. “How wonderful it must be to live here at Pemberley and how beautiful all the preparations are! You and Mr. Darcy must be exceedingly pleased to see all your friends and family here tonight, as well as some new acquaintances?”

Lizzy agreed eagerly and tried excusing herself but Emma kept on. “Mrs. Darcy,” she said, lowering her voice. “Your youngest sister has been dancing with that Mr. Willoughby quite frequently throughout the night. However, I understand that she is already married. What would you say to a match between Mr. Willougby and your recently-widowed friend, Charlotte Lucas?”

Groaning inwardly, Lizzy saw Catherine scurrying by and after hoping and praying that she heard nothing, politely excused herself from Emma and found Lydia flirting with a guest by the punch bowl. “Oh, Lizzy!” cried Lydia joyfully. “Hello, sister. Everything is simply wonderful.”

“Lydia, may I have a word?” Lizzy smiled at the guest. “Please excuse us.”

When the sisters were safely private, Lizzy commented on Lydia’s reckless behavior. “We cannot have the family disgraced, Lydia, please.”

Lizzy looked so earnest that Lydia almost felt a fleeting shame for her actions. Because, in the deepest of her heart, Lydia was ashamed of her actions. She knew that her behavior was wrong, she was perfectly aware of the fact that all the guests of the ball — in fact, people in general — saw her as a foolish, crazy, poor little girl who never could be like her dear sister Lizzy. Never like Lizzy, never like the beautiful, graceful and perfect wife of Mr. Darcy. Perfect Lizzy. Damned Mrs Darcy.

“Lydia, are you listening? I am talking to you, girl. This behaviour cannot be repeated again. Not under my very own roof.”

Chapter X

While this disagreeable conversation was taking place, a servant entered the ballroom, bearing a note addressed to Mr. Darcy. A Colonel Christopher Brandon and Mr. Edward Ferrars had arrived, with apologies for the lateness of the hour.

As Messrs. Darcy and Bennet had requested, Colonel Brandon had ridden to Longbourn the previous night, to fetch the documents concerning the disposition of the Longbourn estate. Mr. Darcy greeted friends and showed them directly into the library where Messrs. Bennet and Wickham awaited.

Elinor Dashwood happened to look up as the three men passed the ballroom door, and she very nearly lost her composure.Since he had disclosed his secret engagement to Miss Lucy Steele, Mr. Ferrars was not expected at the ball.

What could this mean? Had there been a rupture between Miss Steele and Mr.Ferrars? Was he free? Had he taken orders and accepted the living at Delaford that Colonel Brandon had offered? She must maintain her composure.

Mr. Ferrars caught Elinor’s eye and favored her with a smile of such warmth and affection that she felt there must be good news in store for her. The three men continued on into the library where Colonel Brandon delivered the documents to Mr. Bennet. Mr. Bennet sat down at the desk to review the terms of the entail.

“Well, Wickham,” he said, with a wink, “it appears you are not next in the entail of Longbourn estate after all. As you are not the legitimate heir to the late Mr. Collins, you have no claim on the estate. In the event that none of my daughters produces an heir by the time I am dead, the estate goes to my sons-in-law. As to which son-in-law is to inherit, that is left to my discretion. So if I were you, Mr. Wickham, I might consider behaving toward our family with a touch more consideration. And while you’re at it, you might endeavor to check your insolent attitude and your bride’s wild behavior.”

As he considered now the matter as settled, Mr. Bennet stood up and accompanied his host, Colonel Brandon and Mr. Ferrars into the ballroom, leaving Mr. Wickham to stew in the library, bitterly regretting that he had allowed Lydia to convince him to make the journey to Pemberly. He would never be able to convince Darcy to assist him further by continuing to irritate the man in this way.

Upon returning to the ballroom, Mr. Ferrars approached Elinor Dashwood, who was as lovely as he remembered her, though perhaps a little out of spirits.

“If you’re not otherwise engaged, Miss Dashwood, would you do me the honor of dancing the next with me?” he asked. Of course, Elinor consented.

As she looked at Edward, she noticed he was not wearing that hideous ring he’d been wearing at their last meeting. She only hoped this omission was a sign that the engagement with Lucy Steele had indeed been called off.

Meanwhile, Colonel Brandon endeavored to engage Marianne Dashwood in conversation. Though she did her best to be polite and attentive, Marianne’s was caught by the sudden glance between Lydia Wickham and the dashing Mr Willoughby. Curse the Colonel! Just when she thought Willoughby might ask her to dance, no such constraint.

Lydia’s cheeks were still rather pink, and her hair somewhat disarranged, but she managed a very commendable curtsey, under the circumstances, and accepted Mr Willoughby’s request for her hand with an almost unseemly alacrity, not perceiving, it seemed, her husband’s dark and glowering frown, as he emerged from the study.

From the snub dealt him by her insufferable old fool of a father, to his wife’s continuing and increasingly outrageous behaviour in the presence of other men, he was beginning to consider his marriage as the indubitable and unmitigated disaster of his life. Although his personal life had hardly been conducted with decorum, or indeed, any degree of respect for social conventions, Wickham’s pride, as well as any shreds of respectability that might be hiding in his character, were shocked and offended by Lydia’s conduct.

His mood was further darkened by the fact that he had returned, after many years, to Pemberley, where his father had been old Mr. Darcy’s steward, and he had spent his childhood being compared to young Fitzwilliam Darcy, the current master of Pemberley. The feeling of never being able to keep up with the Darcys, long buried, was coming back to him, and his anger at Lydia’s clear disdain for him was becoming hard to contain.

He stepped into the small anteroom between the study and the ballroom. Catching sight of Willoughby approaching Lydia, he stepped in front of the other man. “Pardon me, Willoughby,” he said. “Might I have a word?”

Willoughby eyed him warily. “Why, of course,” he replied. “What is it?”

Wickham felt deeply aggrieved — looking straight at Willoughby, he asked, “Exactly what is going on between you and my wife?” Willoughby swallowed hard, and paused a moment before he answered.

“Why, Mr. Wickham, I do not know what you mean! Surely this is not the place to be behaving so. I can only assume that you have partaken of too much of Mrs. Darcy’s delicious punch.”

Wickham’s lip curled, but he glanced around to see if the others had noticed their words. Many of the ladies were looking their way, not surprisingly, he thought, since he had always had a way with the ladies. However, he did not want to antagonize Darcy when he might be induced to assist him, so he calmed his expression and smiled at Willoughby. “Shall we discuss this on the terrace? We would not want to upset the ladies, would we?” Willoughby bowed and they made their way around the margins of the ballroom and out one of the French doors.

It was inevitable that they would be seen, two of the most handsome men in the room, and one of them single and quite eligible. Lydia, breaking off her flirtation with one of the neighbours attending the ball, gaped at the sight of her husband and her lover leaving the ballroom. She left her partner without a word and almost ran through the doors to the terrace. There, she saw the two men on the lawn below the terrace in the stiff attitudes of incipient combat.

She lifted her skirt and ran towards them, shrieking, “No, no! Wickham, don’t let him hurt you!” It was too late.

Before the words reached them, Wickham swung at Willoughby and landed him a facer. Willoughby rocked on his feet, but, unbeknownst to Wickham, Willoughby had spent a great deal of time in the Fives Court while Wickham was seducing young women. Wickham was no match for him.

Georgiana was standing on the terrace but obstructed from view, watching Willoughby struggle to get up after Wickham’s blow. As she was witnessing this sight, she could not help hoping that a challenge would be made by Wickham. He was never very good with a pistol, always better with a blade, but had his skills improved since he joined the Regiment?

Georgiana peeked out from behind the Heart Topiary to see Willoughby, pondering if this man will finally give Wickham what he deserves. Her brother came out to the terrace, speaking to the men that they take their leave at once.

Wickham laughed at Darcy, saying, “That would suit you, hey Darcy? Getting rid of me will never be that easy!”

Darcy said in a quiet yet firm voice, “Good god Wickham, do you have no pride left?”

Wickham looked directly at Willoughby, who was wiping the blood off his face with his neckerchief, and responded, “Yes Darcy, I do indeed have some pride left in me. This is why I am now dealing with this man, Mr. Willoughby. It is my understanding that this gentleman knows my wife more than he should and I mean to question him about it further.”

Darcy ascertained the situation, then spoke to both men, agreeing that Wickham had quite enough reason to want to come to blows, but not in his home and not at a ball. Darcy asked them to take this conversation elsewhere. Wickham looked at Willoughby and both agreed to leave — at least until they could finish discussing the matter outside away from the guests.

Darcy spotted Georgiana as she stepped out from behind the ridiculous looking Heart Topiary. She smirked at her brother, knowing he would not approve of her skulking on the Terrace when she should be enjoying the ball, and certainly not being subjected to such violence.

She asked Darcy, “Brother, do you think it will come to pistols at dawn?”

Darcy looked at her, trying to read her meaning and asking himself if his sister was being serious or playing with him as his Lizzy always did. Georgiana had become much more skillful with her words, as well as becoming more informed on certain subjects that he was not comfortable with. He looked at her and realized that she was quite serious.

Darcy responded with a feeling of shock: “Georgiana, you seem to truly want Wickham to challenge Mr. Willoughby, am I correct in understanding your meaning?”

“Yes, brother, you are correct. I will be glad if it comes to a challenge, I do believe Mr. Wickham is evil and nothing less will stop him from harming dozens of innocent young ladies in his lifetime if left to his own devices.”

She lifted her chin, gazing at her stunned brother who was speechless and left mouth agape, utterly unaware of the furthering drama around him and unheedful of the two men. Lydia stood upon the lowest step gazing at the two men below, noting their rigid postures and dark scowls. Dismay at the violent attitude and atmosphere of danger surrounding them was alarming but also rather exhilarating!

It was wildly pleasurable, and in that moment Lydia had no great concern over who would ultimately be the victor in a contest. Either way, she would be the winner with a strong man of passion willing to die for her.

Oh my, she thought, the notion so heady that she felt faint and swayed upon the step. Visions of her champion sweeping her off her feet and carrying her into the Manor for a victory reward of unprecedented delight clouded her eyes so that when she next blinked and looked about her two stalwart lovers were nowhere to be seen.

Meanwhile, Willoughby was still seething over Wickham’s attack, and in his imagination, he was already defeating Wickham in a quite bloody duel. “The man isn’t even able to keep his own wife in check. What an idiot,” he muttered as he was entering the Pemberley ballroom again. His shirt was covered with specks of blood. His own? Or Wickham’s?

Suddenly he felt someone’s hand on his arm. It was Mary Bennet, the plainest of the Bennet girls, but the very one who had enthralled him so at the beginning of the evening. “Are you alright, Mr Willoughby?” she asked him with that grave but innocent look of hers. “You’re still bleeding, sir. Please let me help you.”

Her grip on his arm became firmer, and she directed him through the ballroom and into one of the private parlours, where it was quiet and comfortable.

“Sit down and let me have a look.” Mary took command of the situation, and surprisingly, even more so to himself, Willoughby let her. Mary was definitely different from the impressionable chits he was accustomed to.

She said to him: “You, sir, seem to be causing no end of trouble at what is designed to be an entertaining event. Not that I have ever understood why balls are reputedly entertaining.”

She clinically pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and wiped at the bleeding cut on his chin with firmity and detachment. “You should be ashamed for acting against all propriety,” Mary preached, “although from what I hear whispered about, not that I attend to gossip which is in itself a sinful undertaking with heinous results typically the outcome, but you are a notorious individual who apparently relishes his negative reputation.”

Willoughby found himself amused at her sermonizing summation but also oddly chastised! The latter an emotion he was not accustomed to and quite disconcerting. Additionally, for reasons he refused to speculate upon at the present, coming from Mary Bennet, the aspersions wounded deeper than the superficial cut to his face.

“For one who disdains gossip, Miss Bennet, you appear to have gleaned a great deal of me.”

Sitting back on her heels, Mary fixed him with a calm gaze that did not fit with the look of embarrassment he was hoping for! To make matters worse, he was the one feeling embarrassed! What a remarkable turn of events. And why in blazes was he suddenly thinking of how the green flecks in her eyes reminded him of dew-kissed grass at dawn? Had he gone mad?!

Chapter XI

Out on the terrace, Darcy regarded Georgiana with stunned amazement after her bloodthirsty wish for Wickham to meet his fate at the hands of Willoughby. Not that he had not entertained the notion of dealing with the blackguard Wickham in a permanent manner from time to time. But hearing it from the lips of his sweet sister was disturbing. It was also, he had to admit, intriguing to see her bravely facing the truth of what Wickham was and talking of it in a forthright way.

“I appreciate your feelings, dearest,” he said, “but death at the hands of one of our guests, even one as dubious as Mr. Willoughby, is probably not the wisest option.”

Before Georgiana could frame her disagreeing response, a piercing shriek issued forth from the shadowy hedges beyond the lawn. Kitty ran out from the bushes in such a terrible state at what she had just overheard: Charlotte Lucas was talking of plans to leave England and run away to Africa.

Kitty sought out for her sister Lizzy at once. Arriving in the ballroom, she spotted her.

“My dearest sister I have the most frightful news of all.” Lizzy listened to Kitty, and her eyes widened as she could not scarcely believe what she heard.

“Are you most certain Kitty? Charlotte would not do such a thing by running off?” she cried.

“Oh dear sister that is not all,” gasped Kitty. “I overheard her mention she was sent word just now of an inquiry into Mr. Collins’ death!” cried Kitty. Lizzy could hardly draw breath.

“This cannot be, dear sister. I am sure Charlotte is over herself right now and is not thinking with a clear mind. I will speak to her at once.”

Lizzy left in haste, seeking out her dear friend, and she noticed Emma looking in her direction. Lizzy was able to divert her route around the room. As she was approaching Charlotte, her mother stopped her at once.

“Oh, my dear Lizzy, there you are! I have been looking absolutely everywhere for you. That charming girl Marianne Dashwood told me she saw you running outside, but I did not believe her, obviously. No daughter of mine would dare disgrace herself like that; running whilst in the middle of a ball? The most enthralling and anticipated event of the season? That is what I heard Mrs. Smith, you know, she lives at Longsborough Hall, say just now to…”

“Mama, I am so sorry, but I really do not have time for this, I am afraid,” Elizabeth interrupted her mother with an apologetic look on her face.

“Oh, I completely understand, do not worry, my dear! I was already wondering when you would finally realise that rose pink ribbon does not match your magnificent dress. And of course, as the lady of the ball…”

“Mama, please!” Elizabeth exclaimed, throwing her hands up in the air with a frustrated sigh. “I have more important issues to worry about right now than the colour of my ribbon! Why don’t you amuse yourself some more; I am sure there are enough gentlemen who would love to talk to you and ask after your still available daughters!”

“That is most definitely true. I should not keep them waiting any longer,” Mrs. Bennet said, and after adjusting her dress, she went back to all the hustle, bustle, and commotion, leaving Elizabeth to continue her search for her dear friend Charlotte.

Elizabeth’s mad dash through the rooms of Pemberley was halted upon hearing her youngest sister’s call. “Elizabeth! Have you ever seen men make such a fuss over a trifle flirtation?” Lydia’s smile did nothing to disguise her part in the tryst or the ensuing trouble. “I swear Mr. Wickham’s love for me grows daily. Why else would he challenge a man as formidable as Mr. Willoughby?”

Elizabeth retained her own thoughts on that matter, and she felt certain that Wickham’s newly discovered role as their cousin and future owner of Longbourn meant more to him than the silly bit of a girl standing before her. Divorcing Lydia because of her indiscretion would expose her to only more scandal. She had to counsel her sister.

“Lyddie, you don’t know what you’ve wrought by dabbling in an affair of the heart,” Elizabeth said. “You must refrain from further behavior while at Pemberley. I will not have its reputation besmirched. Now, return to the others, no doubt you’ve been missed by our mother.”

Watching the younger woman leave the room, Elizabeth wondered what kept Wickham from indeed divorcing Lydia. As heir to Longbourn, he had no need of keeping a troublesome wife. Elizabeth followed Lydia into the hallway, turning away from the path her sister had ultimately chosen and returned once more to her quest to find Charlotte.

Meanwhile, Lady Catherine withdrew to her bedchamber, reflecting with no small satisfaction that the shades of Pemberley had certainly been polluted this evening. Wiles and wantonness! Duels and depravity! Surely Fitzwilliam must see the error of his ways and cast off his upstart wife and all her ridiculous relations before they brought Pemberley to rack and ruin.

It was at times like these that she most regretted the loss of Mr Collins. A timely quotation from Fordyce’s Sermons, a pungent homily on the sins of the flesh – these were the duties that men of the cloth were paid to perform. But wait! Wasn’t there another clergyman in the house?

Mrs. Bennet, spying on Lady Catherine in silent contemplation, thought it an ideal opportunity to ingratiate herself with her new relation. “Kitty, Mary!” Mrs. Bennet hissed. “Come join me girls. I want you to charm and delight — as best you are able — Lady Catherine. Anne’s governess is looking decidedly poorly, and seeing as there may be a slight chance neither of you will wed, I can think that being Miss Anne’s companion could be a solution to the problem.”

Kitty and Mary blushed to the tips of their ears. Mrs. Bennet, oblivious, helped herself to another cup of punch. Kitty fumed. “This is really too much,” she thought, “even for our mother.”

“Come dears,” Mrs Bennet exclaimed, even going so far as to tug at Mary’s petticoat. Mary drew herself up in her most dignified fashion and retorted that she was otherwise engaged.

Her mother eyed her dubiously and whispered, “Your father has forbidden that you play the pianoforte, so what other engagement could you possibly have? Come now, and cozy up to Lizzy’s In-Aunt, or some such thing, whatever she is called.”

Kitty, quite taken aback at Mary’s show of spirit, looked on in wonder. “I am terribly sorry to disappoint you, Mama,” carried on Mary, but I am engaged for the next four dances.”

The look on Mrs. Bennet’s face was quite the picture of apoplexy. “FOUR DANCES? YOU??” she cried.

“Yes, Mama. Me.” Mary turned and left her mother spilling her cup of punch, turning round for one last rejoinder. “Indeed, four dances, and all with Mr. Willoughby. Good night, Mama. I think it may be time for you to retire. You are showing signs of nerves.”

And with that, Mary took her place on the dance floor, elegantly attended by the most dashing, handsome man in the room, in her humble opinion – even if he did have a cut on his cheek. The music began. She curtsied. He bowed. And Miss Bingley and Miss Marianne Dashwood were all astonishment. Indeed, there were many a face registering just that emotion, including Lydia.

Mary’s head was almost spinning. She knew the steps to this set very well indeed, so that was not a concern. Still, this seemed to have the feel of a novel. Not that she wasted her time with novels generally. But she knew what they were like.

She was so used to people rolling their eyes when she spoke sincerely that she could scarcely fathom the warm look she had received from Mr. Willoughby as she had done her duty in speaking to him honestly. She never had any desire to be married, but now she could not resist imagining Mr. Willoughby attending on her father in his library, followed by trumpeted squeals of delight from her mother.

As she separated from her partner in the movements, a voice startled Mary into missing a step.”Please!” She was surprised to see Miss Caroline Bingley inches away. Miss Bingley’s face presented an easily scrutable expression of scorn and distaste. “Nevermind, you are excused, Miss Bennet. No doubt your head is in the clouds following the attentions of the pleasing Mr. Willoughby.”

Mary quickly regained her position and rejoined Mr. Willoughby, who did not seem to have noticed the encounter. “Why was I so afraid of this before?” Mary wondered. “I can handle this well enough.”

“Did Mr. Willoughby just say something?” Too late if so. Mary put on her most serene countenance, checked her posture, and concentrated on presenting her most elegant carriage and movements. At this moment, her movements were the center of the universe.

Mr. Willoughby made his finest of the fine moves as he danced with Miss. Bennet. No doubt, he was like an artist who knew how to paint a perfect stroke on the canvas just the way he pleased. Mr. Bingley, who was dancing on the right side of Mr. Willoughby, became even more sophisticated than before to prove himself the best dancer of the evening.

However, the second set of dances was now finished. Mr. Willoughby posed with two fingers in his waistcoat and took out a red rose, and in a pleasantly conceited countenance, he added, “Alas! It is such a shame.”

Miss. Bennet was shocked by his statement and asked, “Shame?”

Mr. Willoughby smiled and gave her the rose. “This rose is ashamed, for its beauty has become inferior in the presence of an exotic beauty standing before it,” said he. Miss Bennet smiled and accepted the rose.

This dramatic scene had affected no one more than the Dashwood sisters, especially the poor young maiden, Marianne Dashwood, who was standing like a doomed tower of an abandoned building. It seemed her memories of the past with Mr. Willoughby had come back to life. Her heart was already breaking as if a shattering of a glass, and Mr. Willoughby smashed those shattered pieces of glass with his boots.

As for Elinor Dashwood, she took matters in the light of her own wisdom and was sure that at any moment, tears would ooze from her sister’s lovely doe eyes. She took her sister’s hand in her hand and whispered in her ear, “Marianne! Control yourself. People are watching your expressions.”

Her words did not affect Marianne, and now Elinor felt the best way to cope with the present circumstances was to leave the party. She took Marianne to Mrs. Darcy and asked, ‘My dear Mrs. Darcy, it seems my sister is not feeling well and would not be able to stay here any further. I would be grateful to you to allow us for a moment to stay at your drawing room. Away from the noise will give her some ease.”

“But of course,” Darcy said to Elinor, glancing with concern at Marianne, who was indeed on the verge of tears and shockingly pale. “The drawing room is right this way,” Darcy said, pointing the Dashwood women in the direction of a richly furnished — and, thankfully, very quiet — room away from the wildness and clear irrationality of the ball.

“Do sit down, dear Marianne,” Elinor urged her sister.

The young woman had no trouble sinking into the cushions of the nearest sofa. Her chin began quivering and, at once, teardrops began falling. But not in that sweet, delicate manner one came to expect from a lady. No, these were heaving sobs. Followed quickly by angry rants. And a handful of well-placed curses – all directed at Willoughby.

Elinor was rather surprised by her sister’s new vocabulary, but she nodded at Marianne and said, “I agree… He is most deserving of your wrath.”

Elinor and Marianne looked sad, by the window – thought Edward Ferrars. He wondered what had brought anger to sweet Marianne’s eyes. And this sentiment seemed to be followed in her sister’s countenance.

When Mr. Ferrars had entered this room, in search of Mr. Bennet, he did not imagine he would be met with such a sight. To find his beloved Elinor in such a state of distress was definitely not how he hoped the evening to proceed. He wondered what was wrong with Miss Marianne but was afraid to intrude upon such an intimate moment. However, some of the words he could hear from the younger of the two were disconcerting him. Certainly Mr. Willoughby had not been flirting with her the whole ball.

Miss Dashwood, the beautiful, beloved Miss Elinor Dashwood, looked up, and saw him.“Mr. Ferrars!?!”

“Miss Dashwood! Can I be of any assistance to you and your sister in this trying moment?”

“I am sorry sir, but I believe Marianne would like to be left alone, if you do not mind.”

“Not at all. I am sorry to have intruded upon your privacy.” But when Edward Ferrars left, he certainly did not mean to leave this matter alone and went in search of this man, who had so distressed his friends.

Willoughby was found among the dancers, while he danced with Mrs. Darcy’s sister, Mary Bennet. Edward did not want to interrupt the dancing, not to cause a scene. However, it was not necessary for him to do anything, as Colonel Brandon had taken notice of the matter as well, and had his own ideas of how to deal with the scoundrel.

“How dare you?” he thought to himself. “Willoughby, you devil, blast you!” He could feel himself growing angrier by the moment. He knew, however, that his anger and rage would serve no purpose to the Dashwoods, nor would it change the way that Miss Marianne felt- – or rather, did not feel – about him.

No. No, he must take matters into his own hands, and do the right thing with the full knowledge that Miss Marianne may never love him. And, in his moment of clarity, a plan began to take form.

“That twit thinks that he is in the clear because his late wife is no longer among us. He may have her money, but it will not last long. The scoundrel will spend it all, the gambler he is, before much more time has passed. He will soon be penniless again, and dependent on his aunt. She must know soon, before it is too late, about the many other sins he has committed, so that she may disinherit him. Then we will see if he loses his charm with the ladies, so that he can never hurt any fair maiden with his deceit.”

The Colonel, normally content, was proud of himself for such dark, but needed, thoughts. He did not know, however, that a certain lady among the guests had other plans in mind for him – plans of a more romantic nature. That lady was none other than Caroline Bingley.

Chapter XII

But what can happen to a woman with such desire for a gentleman whose heart and mind were set on another lady – for the Colonel’s feelings had remained unaltered despite the events that had preceded the ball, and a lady who happened to be a guest at the ball. Such an intriguing, respectable man Colonel Brandon was! To fall so deeply in love for such a reckless young woman, who cared nothing for civil manners, whose impulsive behaviour made her family most unhappy.

It is in every educated woman the nature of thinking well of herself, and even more so in Miss Bingley, who would not allow to lose another promising acquaintance for someone of inferior position in society, like Miss Elinor Dashwood. She would make herself known this evening and ensure not only the Colonel’s attentions but also his most sincere admiration. And it would happen in the next dance.

She then proceeded to glance around the room, trying to catch his eye, and when he happened to find her, Miss Bingley remembered to smile and give him her best innocent, yet seductive, look. To her great dismay, the Colonel did not even so much as nod back to her, as politeness dictated. The expression on his face was grave, and he immediately turned to his neighbor, to engage them in conversation. Caroline was stunned, filled with rage. The nerve!

She would not be ignored. Miss Bingley was very tired of seeing everyone around her paired off in marital bliss, while she was merely a companion to her sister Louisa, and barely tolerated by everyone else.

Barely tolerated. Caroline sunk into the nearest chair as the realization, the power of those words hit her. It was impossible! Surely it was mere jealousy. Jealousy kept the women from seeking her friendship, and intimidation kept the silly, shy, men from courting her. That must be it.

Well, she would show the Colonel there was no reason to be intimidated. Not as long as one was on her good side, at least. If the likes of mere plain, common, insufferable, impudent Elizabeth Bennet could land a catch like Mr. Darcy, then surely Caroline would have her pick of eligible gentleman all over the country. Landing Colonel Brandon should be nothing at all.

Once word got around that he was her suitor, handsome men like Willoughby would flush with jealousy, and from there they would be fumbling all over themselves to win her heart. This, Caroline was sure of. Yes, she would make her way in society, and overcome her background in trade once and for all. Now, she just had to decide who she wanted more: the Colonel, or lovely Willoughby.

Caroline looked around the room, sizing up those she could potentially use in one way or another. Unexpectedly, she caught Darcy’s eye. She was amazed. Darcy was staring at her. Her Darcy. And in a more longingly sweet way than she could have imagined possible. She instinctively straightened and lowered her lids before looking back up to return his gaze.

“What’s this?” she thought. His gaze had shifted, but his face continued in its rapt expression. She turned to follow his eyes. “Damnation!” she muttered under her breath. Darcy was gazing lovingly at his bride, the insufferably inferior Lizzy Bennet, who was not even aware of it as she visited with some insignificant chit. Her determination strengthened. She would not be passed over. She composed her expression and continued her evaluative survey of the room.

At the spot where she was looking, the strains of Mr. Beveridge’s Magot filled the area and plunged Elizabeth Darcy into a sad and sentimental mood. What with the goings on of Willoughby and Wickham and with the embarrassing antics of her family, Elizabeth had had very little time to spend with her dear Darcy. Since they had opened the ball together, she had not been in his arms.

“Instead of dancing with my husband,” she sighed, “I’ve spent the night putting out fires, dealing with silly people, and overseeing cake crumbs. This must stop. I will dance with my husband again.”

At that moment, she saw her husband across the room. His eyes were on her as he walked slowly toward her. “Come,” he said, and took her hand. They joined the nearest set, and danced to the same strains they had danced to at Netherfield.

Darcy was happy to dance without saying a word, but his wife would not let him get away with silence. “Shall we have a little conversation?” she asked. “Only a little will suffice.” She laughed as she danced down the set.

“Very well, my dear,” he answered as they executed a difficult turn. I was only wondering if you were ready to take my portrait now?”

“While I do imagine myself as talented enough to take a likeness, if only in my mind, what sort of a judge is an unaccomplished woman?” She looked up at him enquiringly. “Especially when I cannot speak several of the modern languages well nor cover screens.” Darcy was not able to answer – the structure of the set was such that it forced him to watch as she linked arms with another.

As the first dance came to a close, Caroline persisted with the Colonel. He was infuriating! “I do so long to dance,” she expostulated, and he, after her wheedling and touching of her hair – in such a way that he might see the elegant line of her neck – submitted.

This was a concern to all who knew Miss Caroline’s character well. While she was a lady of few immaterial attractions, she had more than enough of an effect on the salivating of men’s carnal desires, and the desires of their shallow pockets to succeed with many. Elizabeth had not thought Colonel Brandon to be such a man, and yet upon noticing them stand together to dance, she accepted that perhaps any company was favourable to him.

The Colonel’s mind, however, was far less agreeably engaged. For the duration of the dance, he thought only of Marianne, his own anger stirring within until it appeared in his mind with startling ferocity. It would not do to dance here whilst she was suffering but inches away! And with Caroline an ill-bred charmer skilled only in deceit. He cursed himself and, inspired by his revelation, bowed slightly and hurried away.

Elizabeth noticed his hurried departure and, again despising her role of hostess and thus cleaner, overseer and correspondent, hurried towards him to offer assistance, forgiving already what she had considered a lapse in judgment by standing up with Caroline. “I do hope you are not intending to sneak around unaccompanied,” she mock-seriously said to him as she approached.

Colonel Brandon looked up with a start, as his hostess’s voice brought him out of his angry reverie. “No, Mrs. Darcy, I intend not. I do apologize for my lack of attention. Will you please do me the great honour of joining me?” he responded with a bow and offered arm.

“Of course – but what is your mission, Colonel? And don’t try to distract me. I recognize the determination in your face – it is easy to see why you and Darcy are such friends,” Elizabeth gently questioned as she took Colonel Brandon’s elbow.

The Colonel thought for a moment as he debated how much of his knowledge to share with this woman. Aside from being his close friend’s wife, he knew Mrs Darcy to be both intelligent and discerning. She had some experience in handling tricky matters. His intuition told him to enlist her help.

As they walked in the direction of the library, Colonel Brandon briefly outlined Willoughby’s illustrious career. He refrained from giving great details, having noticed that the rake had been paying special attention to the young Mary Bennet, and not wishing to distress Elizabeth more than strictly needed. Instead, he focused on the general questionable structure of Willoughby’s character. Particularly his personal vendetta against the “gentleman” in regards to Miss Marianne and that other broken girl from his life.

Elizabeth listened to the Colonel’s tale, her heart breaking for the girls and her mind spinning with potential remedies for the situation. This then explained the sudden change in Miss Marianne during the ball, after her exuberant excitement before. “Yes,” Elizabeth thought. “This is something I can work with.” As they reached the library door, she turned to Col Brandon. “Would you allow me to go in alone?”

Colonel Brandon thought a moment. Elizabeth, seeing his hesitation continued, “I, as hostess and friend, may be more welcome right now than a gentleman. Let me see how things stand, and then I shall return to you.” Colonel Brandon saw the wisdom in this and agreed.

As Elizabeth entered the library, she saw her fears confirmed: Marianne was still in tears on her sister’s shoulder. Elinor, Elizabeth noticed, shared her sister’s angry hurt, but also had an almost wistful impatience.

Suddenly Elizabeth remembered the way Edward Ferrars – Colonel Brandon’s young parson – and Elinor had been dancing earlier. They had the look of people long separated and only just rejoined. Elizabeth quickly surmised that Elinor’s sisterly devotion and sense of propriety had prompted her to attend to her sister’s hurt. Greeting the sisters, Elizabeth gently loosened Marianne’s grip on Elinor’s arm, and turned her to herself.

“Elinor, please, let me have an interval with your sister, and you return to the ball. There are some seeking you,” Elizabeth suggested.

“Oh – but Marianne – I couldn’t –”

“Oh Elinor, go! GO! You can do nothing for me, but you do have your own life. Such as it is. You need to show what you feel. Edward has newly returned and you have only danced once with him. For shame, Elinor!” Marianne exclaimed.

Elinor blushed, but smiled at her sister’s outburst. “Very well, I leave her with you Mrs Darcy. She’ll soon be to rights, I think.”

Elizabeth laughed. “Yes, I do think we are on the road to recovery. She’s right though – go dance, talk to your Mr Ferrars. Be happy.”

As Elinor exited the room, Elizabeth and Marianne shared a smile. With this encouraging evidence, Elizabeth felt it time to prod gently into the heart of the matter. Before she had a chance to ask, Marianne began to talk as if the world were ending – words pouring out in her characteristic manner.

“Oh Mrs Darcy, I feel so ashamed – so angry – so hurt! How could he? How could I! It all started with the chance meeting in town. I had gone to visit John and Fanny – why Elinor thought it a good idea, I still do not know, but I went. And one day while shopping – aimless enterprise, when one has no money – I saw a smile across the store. It stopped my heart. And I… Oh Elinor would kill me if she knew, but I went to the counter next to the smiling gentleman, and I reached for something too tall. I knew I could not reach, and I knew – I knew! – he would. And he did. And I thanked him, and we introduced each other.

“Oh, I know it was wrong of me, but how could I not? He was all I had dreamed of – all I have read of – he is the true romantic hero, I know. I just know! And so we met a few times, in the store, very proper — nothing too scandalous. I am a lady, after all. And I felt myself in love. I know you know who I mean, but I must say his name – oh Willoughby … what a promising beginning. My visit was soon to end, but he promised to write, and then to come. And I ne’er heard from him. I thought him busy. But then I heard. He…he…” Marianne could not bear to say what she had heard and burst into tears again.

“There now,” Elizabeth comforted her. “I know. I know what he is, and I know that a man who has done what you have heard he has done is not worth one of the tears on your beautiful face. So dry your eyes, and turn those eyes on a man who loves you with his whole heart.” With that, Elizabeth planted a kiss on the top of Marianne’s head and headed for the door. It was time for Colonel Brandon to make his own case.

Back in the ballroom, Caroline Bingley was smoldering with rage and embarrassment. “How dare the Colonel with only 2,000 pounds a year leave her stranded on the dance floor?” She needed something to cool her rage, headed for the punch bowl, and quickly downed several tasty cups of Negus.

Caroline’s anger had finally subsided, but unfortunately for her, the Negus was more powerful than she had imagined, and her sense of balance was askew. One well-shod foot buckled beneath her, and splat! Caroline was face down on the ballroom floor.

Looking on at her sister-in-law’s antics, Jane Bingley felt a smidgeon of guilt. Was it so wrong to be happy that at that moment? It was one of her husband’s sisters and not one of her own making a spectacle of herself. Jane knew that Lizzy would laugh if she asked her, but where was her sister?

Caroline’s mishap had to be shared with Lizzy. Jane was not a mean person, but she found this occasion amusing, in that Caroline, who was on occasions spiteful, had the unfortunate – was it really that unfortunate? – accident. Oh, that was a horrible thought, Jane concluded, as she went to aid Caroline.

However, in her embarrassment, it would seem Caroline did not want her help. After assuring herself that Caroline would mend, she went in search of her sister. Just as she was about to exit into the hallway, she ran into her Lizzy. Her sister was speaking to a tall gentleman, who at that moment threw his head back at something she had said.

“I do hope I am not too late, Elizabeth.”

“Not at all, Colonel Fitzwilliam. All will be pleased you were able to tear yourself away from your duties.”

At that moment Elizabeth turned and saw her sister. “Oh, Jane. May I introduce Mr. Darcy’s cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam. Colonel this is my sister, Mrs. Bingley.”

“Pleased to meet you, Colonel Fitzwilliam.”

“I assure you the pleasure is all mine,” said the Colonel with a charming smile. They stood in idle chit chat for some time before they were interrupted by a screech.

“A redcoat!” cried Miss Lydia Bennet. Jane sighed. It would appear that she had spoken too soon, as one of her sisters was sure to make a spectacle of herself. And Kitty was not far behind Lydia.

Colonel Fitzwilliam barely had a moment to brace himself before the two young and often foolish Bennet sisters, Lydia and Kitty, flew into his chest and caused Colonel Fitzwilliam to land on the floor with quite a clatter, and as it turned out, the Bennet girls splayed on the floor in a none-too-ladylike display that attracted the guests of the evening’s ball into the hallway to learn of the cause of the disturbance. Once it was viewed by a number of the guests, the hallway fell silent, and that silence spread throughout the household.

Elizabeth and Jane exchanged a look, fearing that once again their family would be the source of great gossip and dismay for all to view this evening and for the weeks to follow, and rumor and gossip was known to spread fast; Lydia and Kitty were certainly no strangers to what can occur from such gossip.

Elizabeth was close to tears as she met the eyes of Caroline Bingley, whom she believed was taking delight in the tangle of group laying on the floor, still in a state of disrepair. Lizzy pleaded with her eyes for help from Caroline, but all she received back was a sly smile and a look of contentment as the guests began to gasp one by one.

Not sure what to do, and just when she thought her heart could not take this mess, Mr. Darcy came into view and his striking eyes and loving smile let her know he was there to rescue her and set things straight. He approached the bodies on the floor and – one by one – offered each a hand. When he reached Colonel Fitzwilliam, they both started to howl with laughter as Darcy helped him to his feet.

The laughter spread through the gathering and it seemed that the ball had all but been saved by her darling husband, when Lizzy looked up to see a tall, exceedingly handsome young man peering around the corner. His skin was tanned as though he had spent years beneath the sun in some faraway land, and black ringlets spilled haphazardly onto his finely sculpted forehead, giving him an exquisitely wild appearance that instantly attracted the attention of every female in the vicinity.

His eyes met Elizabeth’s and a warm grin spread across his face and lit up his dark countenance. “Lizzy Bennet!” he exclaimed, pronouncing the name with all the joy of a desert wanderer stumbling across an oasis after days without water. “You have grown, but I would know those eyes anywhere!”

At the sound of his gentle voice echoing past her, Elizabeth drew in a sharp breath as a flood of memories coursed like fire through her veins. “You…you have grown, too,” she replied. Unable to unfix her gaze from the newcomer, she gestured for him to fully enter the room.

“Friends, family, I would like to introduce you to an old, dear friend of mine…Dicc — er, Richard.”

After an evening of unparalleled intrigue and impropriety, this latest development – just one in a line of astonishing occurrences – was welcomed with salivation. For this was supposed to be a quaint, English ball, and there could be no mistaking the stilted ratio of impressionable young ladies to well-constituted, deserving gentlemen. This dashing newcomer, who seemed to inspire delight in all he came across, appeared just the right antidote for all these fine debutantes’ ails.

Even the host of the affair, Mr. Darcy, sensed the sudden improvement in the air, and replied, on behalf of the assembly, “Why, Mr. Legitage. It is so great to make your acquaintance after all Elizabeth has told me.” Mr. Legitage bowed, all the while pondering how if he could never taste that adorable Lizzy’s lips, at least she had chosen well.

“I fear I must apologize, however,” Mr. Legitage said, “for having done something that might be seen as imprudent. You see, you must forgive me, for I fear I may have left my manners in India. But I have brought along an old friend of mine. Let me assure you: he is an inordinately pleasant fellow. Allow me to introduce someone whose reputation precedes him. Please, extend a warm welcome to a man of great principle, Mr. Brook!”…

Chapter XIII

The room fell silent with intrigue, and Mr. Brook acknowledged all of the guests at the ball with a prodigious smile on his face. Legitage continued, “He is but fine in the art of literature, and I’m sure you shall find he will be quite the intelligible guest.”

Everyone remained quiet, pondering what this unfamiliar face beheld. Elizabeth promptly broke the silence. “How wonderful to be graced with your presence, Mr. Brook!”

He shook his head. “No, no, it is my pleasure! Pemberley is such a lovely place to reside, is it not?”

“Oh yes, yes, it’s very agreeable! I love being able to visit,” Kitty interrupted.

“Kitty! It’s not polite to be so pretentious,” Mary informed her.

Elizabeth continued. “May I enquire as to what you take pleasure in writing, Mr. Brook? Tales of adventure? Affairs of the heart? Or something entirely different?”

“You flatter me incessantly,” Mr. Brook replied, “but I fear I have not been blessed with positive experiences on the matter of love and such things. I once bore deep affections for a lady I thought virtuous, but alas, she spurned me for another man, and through deception. I discovered them together by a most unfortunate accident. And since that unforgettable day, I have been closely guarded. No, instead I dip my quill to observations in society, such as this fine ball I am most privileged to attend. But fear not. Few trouble themselves to read my ill-begotten words.”

At this, Elizabeth Darcy conveyed her most sincere objections, while the remainder of the guests — suddenly alerted to the possibility of fame — adjusted bonnets and collars and prepared to put on their most agreeable personalities. Elizabeth allowed the newcomers to mingle at their own peril, and struck by a benevolent idea, pulled Miss Marianne Dashwood aside.

“Do you see that respectable man, Colonel Brandon? I know you shun his attentions, but I must plead with you to reconsider your opinions. This may surprise you, but I once despised my own Mr. Darcy, and now we are the closest of companions. I love him so, ever more by each passing day. For he championed my heart only after I laid before him great obstacles. And now, how I adore him. Do not resign yourself to such prejudices.” Marianne nodded, but the words seemed to have little effect.

In the meantime, Mary Bennet had attended to Mr.Brook’s words. After secretly observing the Willoughby-Wickham fracas, her heart, so lately opened, threatened to close forthwith. Vaguely she heard someone say that the card room would be opening shortly.

“Damn,” she whispered to the shadows.

“Do you prefer reading to cards?” a voice asked. “That is rather singular.” She turned and the gentleman called Diccon, and who appeared to be Lizzy’s friend, smiled at her.

She felt so at odds with herself. Not at all the person she used to be, and she began to react with an instinct that had laid deep and buried. A blush coloured her cheeks, softening her prim face, and she looked down at her hands.”’I do,” she replied. “To my detriment it would seem. I fear there have been too many years of reading others’ lives and not enough of living my own.”

Mr.Legitage said with seriousness, “My dear Miss Bennet, for I know you must be Lizzy’s sister whom I was never privileged to meet, I fear you are too hard upon yourself. There is nothing like literature for widening one’s world, I assure you. May I prevail upon you to dance with me and we may discuss this further?’

Mary Bennet nodded, holding out her hand, stepping by the side of this man who seemed to have been molded of all the most perfect things a man could be. She glowed as she walked to the floor. Some indefinable thread strung between Mr. Legitage and her, and for the first time ever she was truly happy.

Nearby, someone was observing introspectively. “I have absolutely no idea what is going on in this ballroom today, but I love every single second of it. It is completely astounding when one thinks about all these unexpected developments in the course of a couple of hours and we have no idea of what is yet to come” Catherine Morland thought to herself as she looked at the new couple that had stepped onto the dance floor. “Come to think of it, this would be perfect material for a fascinating novel! Perhaps a Gothic touch added to it…”

“ENOUGH! I do not know what kind of ball this is, but I have had enough of all this nonsense!” Catherine almost fell of her chair as soon as she heard Lydia Bennet’s voice from right next to her. “This is simply unacceptable!”

“What is, Lydia? Quiet down, please, everyone is staring,” Mrs. Bennet muttered while she smiled at their audience.

“Mama, this ball and this family are supposed to be about me. And now, my shy and unattractive sister Mary is more popular?”

“There is only one way to solve this and make sure everyone knows what Lydia Bennet can achieve in her life. That man is MINE!” Lydia stood up, readjusted her dress, and walked straight towards her newest object of affection: no one else but Mr. Brook.

Mr. Brook, however, having just witnessed Lydia’s tantrum — for, though he had been stationed across the room, his writer’s instinct had gifted him with a most keen talent for observation — immediately and awkwardly crossed through the crowd of dancers, knowing the young girl would not dare make a spectacle of herself by following him. He helped himself to a glass of Negus and approached Catherine with the intention of inquiring about the outburst that had just taken place next to her.

“It would appear some of us are not enjoying the festivities,” he joked.

Catherine looked up at Mr. Brook and smiled. “You’re the writer, aren’t you? Mr. Brook?”

“I do indeed write, though I would not be so bold as to refer to myself as a writer.”

“I am sure you do not do yourself justice, Mr. Brook,” Catherine replied.

“Do you like to read, then?” Mr. Brook asked.

“Oh!” Catherine exclaimed. “I adore it! At the moment I am entrenched in The Mysteries of Udolpho. Do you know it?” Catherine could not believe that she had just professed her fondness for Gothic novels to a distinguished gentleman and hoped that, perhaps, as a writer and lover of books himself, he might forgive her guilty pleasure.

“Know it?” Mr. Brook responded. “I have read it twice! Have you gotten to the black veil yet?”

In the same breath as what was perhaps the loudest gasp of the evening, Catherine whispered, “Black…veil?”

At the same time, Charlotte entered the ballroom. She had been outside, savoring in fresh air from the balcony on the east side of Pemberley estate. She had her head down upon entry only due to brushing a bit of leafage that came upon her dress. She pinched her cheeks and lips to help restore it to colour. Then, upon a quick glance into the looking glass, she smiled genuinely for the first time the entire evening.

She was pleased knowing she looked agreeable. Charlotte, all at once, noticed the images beyond her reflection in the looking glass. She could see a formation of a large crowd of young ladies surrounding these two unfamiliar masculine configurations. The men were not familiar to her so she turned away and proceeded forward for closer observation.

Moving gently between each person, giving the occasionally greetings, curtsies and salutations to those she passed, the two new gentlemen’s statures came into full view. She recognized Richard immediately. She recalled his previous visits to the Bennet household many years previous. He looked in good health from his time in India. She could also see from his stares that he was very much still captivated by his first love Elizabeth.

However, the other was a man of obviously wealthy means. “He must be a writer,” Charlotte whispered inwardly. ” Look how happy and comfortable Catherine is in speaking to him.

Charlotte could not release her eyes from this gentleman. He was absolutely stunning! It was more than just his demeanor she found pleasing but also his stately stature and polished outer garments. He was utterly bewitching; nonetheless, perfect!

Charlotte’s staring of the man of distinction was suddenly broken with an inappropriate shove by Mrs. Bennet as she passed hurriedly through the throngs. She gave no apologies, of course – just the usual earnest, pathetic desire to reach the newest lures before the others. One could only imagine what she was going to say to the unassuming gentlemen.

Charlotte could not help but giggle as she watched Mrs. Bennet hop like a hare between all in attendance. Ah, there is Lady Catherine de Bourgh making it apparent that she abhorred and felt selfish disdain towards Mrs Bennet. It was Lady Catherine’s usual look of horror and death given to her: all Bennets and simpletons.

“Mrs. Bennet is such a tiresome personage,” Charlotte said to herself smiling. Poor Mr. Bennet had the experience of three and twenty years being insufficient to make his wife understand a traditional world. She was a mother of disagreeable understanding, little discernment, uncertain temper and shared the same traits as her silly daughter, Mrs. Lydia Wickham. Nonetheless, her business this evening and for the rest of her life was to secure the remainder of her daughters, and that was all that mattered in her little domain.

Meanwhile, Miss Caroline Bingley was observing Richard’s unwavering gaze toward Elizabeth. Miss Bingley’s expression was not sanguine. “How does she do it?” Miss Bingley wondered. “First, she ensnares Mr Darcy, who was meant for me, and now this … parvenu …”

With the snake of jealousy most active within her breast, she leaned over to her sister. “See! Elizabeth Bennet does not discourage this Richard person’s attentions. Disgraceful!” So saying, she made her way across the ballroom toward Mr Darcy.

That gentleman was deep in conversation with Henry Tilney, who was gratified to escape Catherine Morland’s attentions. Mr Darcy turned toward Miss Bingley. His spirits sank as he read no good intention in her mein and gaze.

“Miss Bingley, is there anything wrong?” His tone was solicitous but nonetheless cool. Only for his friend Bingley did he tolerate the lady’s company.

“Mr Darcy.” Miss Bingley’s voice was unctuous but her glance toward Richard was anything but. “I rather think that that gentleman is something more than he claims to be. I beg you to…”

Before she could finish, Lydia Wickham’s strident tones were heard above the general buzz of the ballroom. “I will NOT leave. I won’t!” And before their astonished eyes, the spectacle of Lydia being carried out of the room by Colonel Brandon silenced the whole company.

Mrs Bennet promptly succumbed to an intense fit of the vapours, while the Dashwood sisters looked on in horror. Scarcely had any guests seen such a display as that of the red-faced Lydia, matter-of-factly carried out in the arms of the Colonel, and loudly protesting all the way.

They had scarce quitted the ballroom when the weight of the robust Mrs Wickham proved to be too much even for the weathered soldier Brandon. “Colonel!” Lydia cried in a playful yet demanding voice. “Put me down this instant! Only think what my Mama will say!” This exclamation was followed by a good-natured shriek of laughter which proved that Lydia was not in the least put out by her unorthodox method of exit from the ballroom.

Glancing down at his newly acquired charge, Brandon gravely addressed her. “I beg your pardon, Madam,” he began, though his expression proved him anything but regretful, “if I appear to have taken liberties, but I found it necessary to remove you forthwith from the chamber, lest you cause even more suffering to my good friend Darcy, and his wife.”

“Oh, pish!” cried Lydia happily, collapsing on a nearby settee. “I do believe, Colonel, that you removed me in that… refreshing way in order to have me all to yourself.” She smiled winningly at Brandon who, despite his many years in the army, could not resist the blush which crept up his cheeks at being so addressed by the most scandalous woman at Pemberley that evening.

“I… I beg you, Madam, not to address me in such a manner. I am well aware of my indiscretion, and have only to beg the pardon of all the good people here tonight.”

With this, Brandon would have tried to leave the still-smiling Lydia, but was prevented by her grasping his hand and crying, “Oh, Colonel! Pray, do not leave me now, all alone after that display! Whatever shall I tell my husband?”

The Colonel paused as the cold realisation dawned on him, that his display might have injured others besides his dear hosts. Yet his contempt for the Wickhams won over. “Madam, I care not. If your husband is not ashamed of the way in which you display yourself at balls, then he can have no quarrel with honest men attempting to save you from your indecencies.”

This would have been the end of the matter, as Brandon turned swiftly and purposefully away, had not a loud and commanding voice cried out as Wickham burst forth from the great double doors. “Brandon!” came the cry. “What business have you been cooking up with my wife?!”

Wickham was already in the throes of deep regrets as to the circumstances of his unfortunate marriage, and no longer considered that any sum (and certainly not the paltry one conferred on him in such a disdainful way by Darcy) could compensate for being yoked forever to a woman of no wit, no morals, no decorum, and an already fading beauty. And now he found himself in the unenviable position of being forced to confront a man he knew to be both decent and inoffensive, and all because of his wife’s persistent inability to conduct herself appropriately in public.

He could not believe Brandon guilty of anything other than a excessive concern for his hosts’ discomfiture, but even if he did have designs on his wife, well frankly, he was welcome to her. Indeed he would welcome the excuse to devote himself to a little amorous adventure of his own, and most especially if he could catch the eye of the lady who was unquestionably the most beautiful in the

room — the handsome, the genteel, the incomparable … Miss Dashwood!

Chapter XIV

From her position on the other side of the ballroom, Elizabeth could not help observing the very striking image that Mr. Brook presented. With a force, almost too great to withstand, she was instantly reminded of the very man to whom she had tied the knot.

“Goodness me,” she declared, “if Mr. Brook is not Mr. Darcy’s doppelganger, though perhaps the use of that Germanic, rather gothic turn of phrase may be stepping beyond the limits of the dance floor.”

Her mother, who had caught Lizzy’s exclamation demanded to know what she was about. “Out with it, Lizzy, you look as if you’ve seen a ghost!”

“In a manner of speaking, I have, indeed,” her daughter replied. “I wonder that no one else has had the same conjecture.” Lizzy stared again. Mr. Darcy and Mr. Brook were as alike as two peas in a pod.

Suddenly aware of a figure at her elbow, Mrs. Darcy was surprised to see Mr. Willoughby, his head bent toward hers. He was studying her expression most intently. “I always find the most effectual mode of ridding myself of temptation is to give way to it,” he whispered into her curls.

Elizabeth sensed that Mr. Willoughby was trying to induce her into causing even more scandal at her own ball. She resolved she would follow his advice nonetheless, but in a quiet manner. She would speak to Mr. Brook and inquire if his family had known the Darcys in the past when he was not being followed by every single lady in the premises not engaged or in love already.

Elizabeth excused herself and went in search of her husband, who she found trying to extricate himself from Miss Bingley. “Would Caroline never realize that Darcy was lost to her?” contemplated Mrs. Darcy, until she realized that the real focus of Miss Bingley’s attention was her old friend Diccon and his friend, the very topic she had been thinking upon.

Mrs. Darcy worried. Mr. Brook seemed to be a man of wealth and had suffered in love. She did not want him to suffer more. He deserved a happy, intelligent, and devoting lady while Diccon was a very good friend to her and she believed he deserved all there was of good in a young lady. Upon these reflections, Elizabeth had an idea.

She took a deep breath and looked around herself. This was the ball she and her lovely and attentive man of her life, her dear Darcy, had prepared with such a delicacy, affection, and love – with time and consideration. And she was decisive not to leave everything to the uncertain fate. She was the hostess, the real one indeed — the only one — and she was ready to fix everything and to everyone in this ball. Because she had an idea — and when Elizabeth Bennet, the unique Lizzy, had an idea….all was possible.

She had noticed Diccon talking to Mary, and they had even danced together. Certainly Diccon and Mary were a better couple than Mary and Mr. Willoughby. Yes, that was resolved: she would ask Mrs. Bingley’s help in such an endeavor and the fate of her dear friend was to be a beautiful one.

But what to do about Mr. Brook? And where was Charlotte? Certainly Charlotte would be able to aid her in finding a perfect match for the writer. An intelligent and prudent women whose morals would not cause him pain again (Kitty certainly was not good for Mr. Brook) was necessary. And that was when Lizzy found her answer: Charlotte.

Elizabeth realized that Charlotte would wish to wait for the mourning to be complete before finding herself in a romance, but a friendship would do them both some good.

Elizabeth looked about her, wondering where Charlotte might be found. She could see the couples making their way up the set, and the chaperones sitting in their little circle next the fire. Many were clearly doing ample justice to the excellent collation spread on the table in the next room.

“Ah,” thought Elizabeth. “Perhaps that is where Charlotte is to be found!”

She made her way through the double doors, and stopped, her hand on the handle, scarcely able to believe her eyes. Her sister Lydia was making her way, none too steadily it must be said, across the floor, a large glass of water in one hand. Elizabeth watched, transfixed, as if in slow motion, and approached the table where Mr Brook was standing in converse with Mr Bennet.

The two were clearly engaged in a lively debate on some literary subject, and Mr Brook was becoming decidedly animated. So animated indeed, that the very moment Lydia drew level with the new arrival, he flung out one arm in gesticulation, and his hand collided with the glass in Lydia’s unsteady grasp.

Disaster! Mortification! Everyone turned to look at the extraordinary sight of Mr Brook standing there before them all, his white shirt utterly sodden!

Elizabeth thought she had seen everything. But this latest debacle was too much, even for her. She sank into the nearest chair, head in her hands, and struggled to maintain composure and to keep the tears from her eyes.

Mr. Darcy rushed into the room to see what the commotion was all about. Barely able to restrain a laugh, he invited Mr. Brook upstairs to his bedchamber. Observing calmly to Mr. Brook that the two were of nearly the same height and build, Darcy suggested that Brook select an appropriate suit of clothing from his own closet. Mr. Brook was profuse in his gratitude, to say nothing of his chagrin at having caused such a scene at the expense of Mrs. Wickham.

“I beg you, do not be uneasy,” Darcy said. “Mrs. Wickham has a talent for exposing herself to ridicule wherever she goes.”

While the two gentlemen were above stairs, Mr. Bennet was ushering his youngest daughter out of the ballroom. He led Lydia into the drawing room, where Wickham was found, pacing back and forth, looking extremely discomposed.

“Wickham,” began Mr. Bennet, “you were not an invited guest at this ball. You came here under the mistaken impression that you were to inherit Longbourn estate, owing to the untimely demise of my cousin, Mr. Collins. Now that you have been disabused of that notion, I beg you to take my daughter home. She is quite done for this evening and is badly in need of some rest.”

Just as Wickham was about to protest, Mr. and Mrs. Bingley entered the drawing room. “Really, Mr. Wickham,” Jane urged in her mildest accent, “it is clear that my sister is most unhappy this evening. You cannot arrange for pistols at dawn with every man upon whom she bestows her affections. Have some regard for what is left of my sister’s reputation, and yours. Take her home.”

Lydia had been sitting so quietly during most of this speech that no one noticed as she slipped noiselessly out of the room. Her intent was to apologize to her sister, Mrs. Darcy, and to leave the place immediately. As she left the drawing room, however, she was arrested by the sight of a young man utterly unknown to her. Mr. Frank Churchill had arrived, belatedly, at the ball.

Lydia was beside herself, torn between the desire be introduced to the handsome newcomer, and the desire to behave like a lady for once n her life, and apologize to Elizabeth. As she stood, fairly gaping at the hapless Mr. Churchill, he approached and said, “I beg your pardon, Ma’am. May I take the liberty of greeting.”

Lydia was charmed. Apparently the handsome stranger cared as little for social niceties as she did! “That was easier than I thought it was going to be,” she thought. She approached Frank Churchill to respond to his overture.

Meanwhile, back in the library, tensions were rising between Wickham and the Bennets. Wickham turned to Jane, a steely resolve in his eyes. “No, Mrs. Bingley—that is the one thing I will NOT do.” He wheeled around to face his father-in-law. “Mr.Bennet, let us not mince words. I know that you have never liked me, and that your family was opposed to our connection. I married Lydia when faced with some—shall we say highly effective persuasion— from Darcy.”

At this point, Wickham turned and met Darcy’s eyes evenly. “Thus coerced, I tried to make a success of our marriage, and to be, within reason, a good husband to Lydia. However, Lydia did not make the same effort. She is lazy, flighty, and worst of all, she has betrayed me on numerous occasions. To hell with the lot of you! I want a divorce!”

The rest of the room’s occupants gasped, then looked at each other in stunned silence. Mr Bennet’s eyes rested on the floor a brief moment. The ladies in the room exchanged pained looks as the environment grew tense.

Wickham, despite his violent outrage of merely moments before, steadied himself and made direct eye contact with Mr Bennet. “I would appreciate it if any divorce was undertaken swiftly and efficiently, Mr Bennet. With all due respect, I feel that I must remove myself from your daughter, for my own wellbeing as much as for her own.”

Mr Bennet considered Wickham’s words with a serenity which Mrs Bennet had always so much admired. “I am the first to admit that Lydia can be somewhat idle, and certainly, as her father, I appreciate that she can also demonstrate a hysterical dimension, very much like her dear mother. I am not a man who believes that a man should make himself miserable over his affection for a woman, but divorce is both difficult and expensive today. If you could just stay married to Lydia about 200 hundred years, it will be much easier to separate from a spouse that shames or unnerves you.

To himself, Mr. Bennet thought, “Divorce — a fine word!”

Wickham lamented, “Of all of your daughters, why did I have to pick Lydia? I could have picked the witty one (with a nod to Lizzy), or the pretty one (nod to Jane), or the sickly one (nod to Kitty) or the nitpicky one (nod to Mary), but I ended up with the icky one.”

Jane Bennet Bingley had reached her limit for the evening. It was all too much for one in her condition. Bingley was by her side, fanning her gently, and moving her away from the latest humiliating episode of life with the Bennets when Mr. Brook reentered the room – spotting a grave expression on his likeness, Mr. Darcy’s, face.

It was not the cheesecake and the puddings that had changed the mood of Mr. Darcy. The arousing scandals sprouting from all the corners of the ball had made him worried. Mrs. Darcy observed the gloomed countenance of her Mr. Darcy, who was already grinding his teeth with anger as his sister-in-laws had become a laughingstock before all the guests. Mrs. Darcy now felt that the best way to cope with the circumstances was to bring the party to an end.

She was troubled that Mr. Willoughby had already captured the attention of Lady Catherine de Bourgh who thought of him as the right suitor for her daughter Anne. As for the Bennet family – well, they were depressed as soon as Mr. Wickham mentioned divorcing Lydia.

How should one go about putting an end to a ball? Lizzy thought for another moment and decided perhaps it would be wiser to let the ball go on rather than attract more attention to the guests who were unaware. The questions and gossip would run like wildfire through the ballroom and may even produce more havoc — and that would not do.

She did know that she should speak with Darcy, knowing he had recently exited the study just a short time ago, no doubt to get away from all this ugly talk of divorce from Wickham. He could not have gotten far.

Lizzy soon spotted her dear Mr. Darcy talking with Mr. Brook and her former beau, Diccon. She reflected on how delightful the scene was in the middle of all this madness. She did not want to interrupt what looked like a gratifying moment for Darcy.

She turned toward the entrance to the ballroom, her eyes sparkling at this beautiful sight, the music still playing, guests continually dancing and hearing great laughter from all corners. She reasoned with herself that perhaps all was not lost. She allowed herself those few moments of revelry, then spotted her sister Lydia talking with a gentleman she did not recognize; again, the thought of Lydia continuing to humiliate the family was back to being foremost in her mind.

Lizzy quickly crossed the floor towards her youngest sister — trying not to draw attention to herself or where she was heading — when she was abruptly stopped by Miss Bingley, who stepped directly in her path.

“Hello Mrs. Darcy”, Caroline said, speaking with all her usual condescension. “I do believe as hostess to this ball, you are required to provide introductions for all your guests, is that not so?” Lizzy acknowledged Caroline, raising her eyebrows and nodding her head.

Caroline continued, “I have been admiring the two gentlemen that Mr. Darcy is talking with presently and insist you immediately fulfill your duties as hostess by introducing me now.”

Lizzy could not believe that of all the people to cross her path at this very moment, that it had to be Miss Caroline Bingley. This was not to be born! With Lydia still talking in her usual ill-mannered way, she hesitated a moment. Fortunately, she spotted her beloved sister Jane, fast approaching their youngest sister; at least she need not worry herself about what Lydia was up to that instant.

Thankful that Jane had taken on that task, she drew in a deep breath, addressing Caroline with a forced smile. “It would be my pleasure, Miss Bingley. Please follow me.”

Lizzy could not help hoping that Mr. Brook and Diccon were better at judging character than she was, almost giggling to herself about how wrong she had judged Darcy and her dreaded brother-in-law, Wickham. The two ladies reached the gentlemen at very same time that the very man she was thinking of approached — and before Lizzy could speak, Wickham said in a quiet tone, “Darcy, I must speak with you on a private matter before I take leave of your precious Pemberley.”

Darcy, trying not to lose his composure at that dig, replied, “Yes Wickham, all right. Will you please excuse me, gentlemen. I must attend to this matter,” and with a bow, he turned toward the door.

While Darcy and Wickham were walking away, Lizzy tried to remain calm. She took the opportunity to introduce Miss Bingley to Mr. Brook and Diccon. Caroline was all smiles and could not believe her luck: two eligible gentleman. But who should she target with her affections and attentions: Mr. Brook or Mr. Diccon?

Mr. Brook took in the elegance of Caroline’s gown but noted the hardness of her smile and the way her eyes sharpened as they took in the cut of his borrowed clothes. “I see Mr. Darcy has been generous with his wardrobe. Mrs. Wickham can be quite the amusement, I dare say, though one tires quickly of her antics — both publicly and… privately.”

Extending her hand toward Mr. Darcy, Caroline gave barely a glance to the other man in their party. Her focus on Mr. Brook’s handsome face had quite taken her breath away, and the exposure of his chest earlier had not escaped her memory either.

“Tell me, Sir, will you be staying at Pemberley long? I do so hope we’ll have the chance to become better acquainted,” Caroline said. Her eyes glittered so much with the possibility of adding this man to her stable of eligible men, she failed to take in his look of horror. Her claw-like hand reached for his arm to turn him to take matters in a more private direction.

“Madam, I regret that I am only here for a short time. My work gives me little opportunity for balls.” Deftly twisting out of the way, he excused himself and moved back to speak with Diccon, who was watching with amusement.

“That lady is dangerous, Brook. She is known in London as the ‘Black Rose.’ Beautiful — but deadly to suitors,” said Diccon.

“My heart is not an option, my friend. The Black Rose may be a beautiful dalliance for some, but my desires lay elsewhere.” Brook’s eyes scanned the room, a secret smile on his lips as they rested upon the lady.

Chapter XV

Diccon was at a loss as to the direction of Brook’s gaze, the press of bodies too great to discern. “Balls, I have discovered, are the best places on earth to study the variances of human nature, do you agree, Miss de Bourgh?”

Anne glanced upward into the face of the man standing beside her. Pale cheeks flushing as a result of being caught avidly observing the fascinating dramas unfolding from gilded wall to moonlit lawn, Anne quickly ducked her head to avoid Mr. Legitage’s intense eyes. But a warm chuckle rapidly brought her eyes back to his face, noting the sparkling humor within and irresistibly smiling in response.

“For me,” he went on, “this sea of humanity is paradise on earth!”

“Why is that?” Anne asked.

“Perhaps you know, being at this perfect vantage point to not only see what is transpiring but to also overhear snippets of conversation as the guests pass by toward the refreshment table, that Mr. Brook is a writer?” Anne nodded, Legitage continuing, “He is a modest fellow and pretends to be of little renown and poor talents with a quill and parchment, but in truth he is prodigiously skilled and quite notorious.”

“Notorious? However do you mean? Is he… dangerous?!”

“Most dangerous,” he replied in an ominous tone, somewhat mollified by the wink and grin directed at Anne. “But I fear I cannot reveal precisely how.”

“But.. How can you be sure he is not harmful if so dangerous?”

Legitage smiled, quite pleased with the flush of the sickly girl’s face and heightened awareness in her eyes. “As it happens,” he whispered conspiratorially, “I am his publisher!”

“Truly?” she gasped.

“Truly. Do you like mysteries, Miss de Bourgh?” Again she nodded. “Then here is one for you to solve, adding to the fun of the evening: Discover the pseudonym Mr. Brook writes under. I promise you will be shocked and know just how dangerous he is!” And with that, and a final wink, he left her side, Anne breathless but feeling better than she had in ages!

How thrilling, to be party to such mystery and intrigue! Anne’s cheeks bloomed and her eyes flashed at the thought. She was not an avid reader, and the books she favoured tended towards light romance — not the sort of thing Brook was likely to be enamoured of, if his publisher were to be believed. Perhaps, she thought, Brook tended towards gothic horror or even – -she gasped — tales of murder and deceit!

Yet he seemed so pleasant and amenable and, of course, handsome, and she just could not countenance such a thing from this gentleman, not after making his acquaintance and seeing the warmth in his deep,

dark eyes. So, what to do?

Anna took a sharp breath and began to walk, following the direction that Brook had taken previously. She would confront him, she decided — there was no other way. She would seek him out and demand that he tell her the truth! If he were such a wicked fellow who wrote such unpleasantness as his publisher claimed, she would find out once and for all for herself!

Anne felt emboldened by her decision and pressed on, harbouring no doubts except one: what if his publisher were not telling the truth?

While that transpired, Kitty Bennet turned to walk back to the punch bowl when she noticed Mr. Brook standing alone, quietly observing the assembly. She had hoped to find an occasion to speak with him and hoped he would fail to notice her until she was upon him. But Mr. Brook watched her approach and gave a gracious bow.

“I trust you are enjoying my sister’s ball, Mr. Brook,” she asked as she returned a pretty dip.

“Ah, yes indeed. And happy to be here.” He smiled down at her. “You are Miss Kitty Bennet, if I remember our introduction.”

“Yes.” Kitty looked down for a moment with what she hoped looked like modesty but was in fact amazement that he remembered her at all amongst all the ladies he had met this evening. “I have read some of your columns in a sheet sent to us by my aunt and uncle in London. I recognized you straightaway.” Kitty could see she had taken her turn in surprising him. Indeed he looked shocked.

“I would not have guessed one soul here had read anything I ever wrote. Or would be able to recognize me as I have never appeared publicly under my nom de plume.”

“Oh, yes. After coming upon your work I asked my aunt to please send me all of your articles.”

“I am most flattered. But how would you have known…”

Kitty could not suppress the giggle her father always told her sounded most exceedingly silly. “Once in town visiting, I heard someone in a crowd mention your column. I immediately turned to listen and overheard…couldn’t help but overhear…it was someone talking to you…you as the author. Naturally I recognized you when you entered here. But I’ve said nothing and will not reveal your identity.”

“That’s very kind of you, my dear. You should know I write other material under other names as well.”

“Oh. I only know about your travel essays. I’ve always wanted to travel and your descriptions of standing alone in foreign places is so romantic. I mean, informative. I mean, I love to imagine myself standing in those places.”

“And I am sure you will someday.”

“I fear I never shall do. And everywhere I have been I’ve seen with the constant hum of talk by my mother and sisters. Your descriptions make me feel as if I am there alone.” Kitty hesitated, then added, “I sense in your writing that you are lonely.”

“You are perceptive, little one. I am often lonely on my travels.” He smiled down on Kitty, seeing a little something other than silliness in her gaze.

The evening was turning with much excitement to be had, but Mrs. Bennet was unaware of her youngest daughter’s dealings. Thankfully, she had begun to engage in cards and was deep in conversation.

Elsewhere, Charlotte was in deep contemplation. Her heart was longing for more; her desires had been suppressed for too long. She longed to make this new acquaintance. Part of Charlotte was secretly glad her husband had passed only this morning. What a dreadful thought. Then again, being free of one’s husband whom you never regarded with full affection can be freeing.

Across the room from Charlotte, Mr. Hurst struggled to understand what was happening. “Good God, what the devil are you doing?” Louisa Hurst pulled her husband into a more upright position. “Hush.” She smoothed her skirts back into place as she sat beside him.

“Is there some sport?” He was momentarily interested.

“I hear there may be cards later.”

Mr. Hurst looked at his wife as if she had lost her mind. “Well, why the devil are you tugging at me now?”

“I believe you owe me at least one dance, Mr. Hurst, and I know I shall not get it once gaming starts.”

Mr. Hurst collapsed heavily back onto the chaise and looked about the room. “Any brandy in here? A terrible thirst is upon me.”

“Can you think of something else for one minute?” Louise snapped. “Caroline took a most embarrassing spill. And then she was practically insulted by Mr. Brook.”

“The devil you say. Why aren’t you commiserating with her then?”

“I’d rather steer clear for the moment.” Louisa considered the state in which her sister’s temper was likely to be.

“For once I agree with you, my dear,” he said vaguely as he looked for a footman bearing liquid refreshment.

“So, shall we dance?” She gave him a look full of the promise of how the rest of his evening might play out if he declined.

“My darling.” Mr. Hurst brought himself to his full height and offered his hand to his wife. “There is nothing I’d rather do.” The musicians were just beginning a new set and many others joined the Hursts on the floor.

Miss Elinor Dashwood was going for a drink when she saw Colonel Brandon and Mr Legitage. Legitage was a dark, tall man with very good humour. The Colonel and Legitage were talking about his experience in India. Mr Legitage told him he had journeyed in a boat called the Laconia.

Legitage decided it was time to dance again, and after watching his old acquaintance and new widow, Charlotte, he decided to dance with her a bit, so he could learn about her life during the years he had been away. He was the supposed beau of Lizzy Bennet, but he always remembered Miss Lucas’ sense and wit.

So in this way, Elinor and the Colonel were left alone. Brandon was eager to know about Marianne’s mental health. Being in the same room as that rascal, Willoughby, could have distressed her too much.

Elinor calmed him: “Marianne can be shrunk, but inside, she’s a strong girl. I know her heart was full of that — let us say — gentleman, but we are sisters and we both have sense. And I, well, I have sensibility too,” and then she sighed and looked to where Mr Ferrars was.

The Colonel smiled and bowed to her. She was left alone, but not for a long time. There was a person who had been aware of that look. Maybe in a serious girl, most of the people could not have understood, but Emma Knightley — who was still free of the company of her husband — could feel there was some great feeling, at least from Elinor’s side.

She went straight to Mr Ferrars and asked for Mrs Ferrars’ health. Emma had met her during the last summer in London. While her dearest George was in business with John, Isabella had introduced her to Edward’s mother and family.

“Oh, Mrs Knightley, I am very happy to see you again. As usual, I must fear you will be more talkative than me,” Mr Ferrars said.

“I’m sure I will be,” she answered. “You know, God creates us in excess or lacking, so the world is compensated. For example, I try to be fun just in case. The rest is annoying.”

Mr Ferrars laughed at Mrs Knightley’s wit, and she became aware that Elinor’s attention had been caught. “Oh, yes.” she thought to herself. “Here we have something, but should I help?” and she remembered her beloved George.

Meanwhile, Wickham wandered out on the grounds of Pemberley alone. His mistake in marrying Lydia was weighing on him severely. Darcy would never understand the jealousy Wickham felt for him, including his felicity in marriage. He thought of the Bennets, with whom he had aligned himself. The same family as Darcy, but Darcy, as usual, had the better catch.

Lizzy’s eyes sparkled at the sight of Darcy alone. Lydia’s also sparkled at the sight of Wickham, but he was not the only man who could put such joy into Lydia’s flighty heart. Wickham immediately wondered what he could do to make himself happier and Darcy less so. Only time would tell. But the idea had consumed his mind, and there was no stopping it. Wickham, for once, would have the last laugh.

During Wickham’s contemplation, Mr. Bennet reflected on his son-in-law’s words. It was Lydia’s nature, he knew, but the fact that a divorce was to be thought of in his family was absurd. Mr. Bennet may not have often taken much interest in his familial affairs, but even he had a sense of pride in being a Bennet, and he certainly did not want to taint the name of his Lizzy.

He needed the refuge of a library, so he retreated into the grand room of Pemberley, which Darcy took so much pride in and continually added to. There, he found Marianne, quietly sobbing. “Well, that’s quieter than I’ve ever heard her be during her times of distress, thought Mr. Bennet.”

“My dear Miss Dashwood, may I be of some assistance?”

“Oh, Mr. Bennet, I thank you, but I fear no one can console me! The very thought of Mr. Willoughby here pains me and it’s best if I am left to my mournings alone!”

“As you wish,” shrugged Mr. Bennet. He retreated to the farthest corner of the library with the air of one who is not to be disturbed. Marianne stared after him in confusion, suddenly wondering at the change in him from gentleman to disinterested bystander. She wondered instantly if it had anything to do with herself, but then brushed away the notion.

To the casual observer, Mr Bennet appeared to peruse the library shelves at random; but, in truth, he was following a hunch. To a man with Mr Bennet’s agile mind, the name Archibald Brook had awakened memories of a writer whose notoriety knew no bounds.

Some years ago, in the circulating library at Meryton, he had happened upon the memoirs of a certain Bald Hook — saucy recollections of the Prince Regent’s worst excesses. Needless to say, Mr Hook’s memoirs had been snapped up by all and sundry, and Mr Bennet was in no doubt that he would find a copy in the library at Pemberley. If he could but lay his hands on it, what sport he would make of Mr Brook!

Marianne could no longer bear to hear Mr Bennet whistle happily — she desired either solicitude or tranquility. “Miss Marianne — pray wait,” said Mr Bennet, with a voice less sarcastic than Marianne was used to. “I beg you to forgive me.”

Marianne’s countenance immediately flushed. “Sir, I am not certain if I comprehend your meaning. What should you apologize for?”

“‘Tis true,” he said with a gentle sigh, “that I have intruded on your privacy. I shan’t inconvenience you any longer.”

“That will not be necessary at all,” Marianne said, surprised by Mr Bennet’s gallantry. “I cannot lock myself up all night.”

“Aye, your friends shall soon lift your spirits, depend upon it. And otherwise my wife, whose attention span is about as big as that of our goldfish Poppy, shall divert you with a vast deal of astute observations.”

Marianne considered this, both certain that Mr. Bennet was trying to be kind and, also, that his remarks about Mrs. Bennet were correct — at least in regards to that goldfish comment. For the first time in rather a long while, Marianne found herself smiling.

“Many thanks, Mr. Bennet,” she said. “You have lifted my spirits. I believe I have the fortitude to attempt a return to the ball.” And with that, Marianne nodded at him and slipped out of the room.

This left Mr. Bennet to his own devices. He grinned to himself as he began scanning the shelves in earnest. How pleased he was to discover that Mr. Darcy was the most organized of gentlemen! The heavier volumes of nonfiction were grouped according to subject matter, but the essays and the novels…well, they were delightfully alphabetical. In regards to Bald Hook’s, er, “memoirs” — one might expect that they straddled the genres.

Mr. Bennet studied the F’s: Farnesworth…Feebler…Fiat…and, ahh, yes! A work by Mr. Hook. He plucked it from the shelf.

Chapter XVI

While Mr. Bennet proceeded to engage himself in the world of literature, Miss Marianne made her way back to the ball just as she told Mr. Bennet she would. Running through her mind were thoughts of trying to put a brave face on it to recover from earlier, so that no one would any longer be able to detect her true feelings about Willoughby and his abandoning her, or his seeking out the likes of Lydia Bennet for that matter.

Willoughby was a lot of things, but a seducer of women was at the top of that list. It was clear to her now that he had never been in love with her, but merely with the idea of courting her. She cringed to think of the easy target she had made of herself. She was ashamed.

The thought almost made her succumb to misery again, but she forced herself to remain steadfast. She would show him. She would show all of them, that she refused to let herself be a laughingstock. Losing Willoughby would NOT be the end of the world for her. She would rally, and find a gentleman suitor who would put Willoughby and his late wife and all her money, to shame.

The thought brought a smile to Marianne’s face. She prepared to return to the ball and behave like any other respectable lady. Taking a deep breath, she pinched her cheeks and stepped into the ballroom. Looking up as she did so, she, not gracefully, bumped right into Willoughby himself.

She made her small curtsy, as expected by good society, and tried to make a quick getaway. As she stepped to her right, he stepped to his left, not allowing her to move. She paused. She needed — yet did not think she had — the strength to get past him. She bobbed once more, whispered Sir, and tried once again to move past the devastatingly handsome man.

This time he grabbed her arm. “Marianne.” Her name was more sung than spoken as it came from his lips. Her eyes opened wide in shock. “I’m sorry, forgive me, Miss Dashwood. How beautiful you look this evening.

Marianne could not believe this was happening. Had he not been paying all his compliments to Mary Bennet and Lydia Wickham? How did he have any left? And why after all this time did he start using them on her now? Just as she had decided that she was to move her affections away from him? She needed a distraction, or at the very least — her sister.

The distraction came, as one usually does at a ball, in the guise of Mr Bennet. After pocketing his find from the library, he felt she was still under his care. “Miss Dashwood, would you be so kind as to allow an old man to escort such a pretty young girl into the ballroom? Unless I am interrupting something?”

Just as Willoughby was about to say Mr Bennet was interrupting, Marianne was grateful for the wise smile of Mr Bennet once again.

On the kind arm of the gallant Mr Bennet, Marianne swept past Willoughby with the grace and confidence that comes from a heart at ease. As they glided into the ballroom, Mr Bennet gave Marianne’s hand a fatherly pat, and asked “My dear, would you trust my choice of your next dance partner?”

Marianne, grateful for the feeling of having a loving, protective father again, murmured her acceptance. With a knowing smile, Mr Bennet’s eyes scanned the crowd, looking for one gentleman in particular — ah, there he was. With skillful navigation, Mr Bennet led Marianne through the ever-more-excited crowd gathered around the perimeter of the ballroom. Marianne’s own eyes darted from face to face as they walked — to where, or rather to whom was Mr Bennet taking her?

Her young heart swiftly caught the adventure and romance of the moment; the light back in her eyes the dubious Willoughby had doused momentarily. She determined that no matter what — or who — she would enjoy the next dance with everything in her. It was a night to start anew.

Mr Bennet’s steps slowed, and he glanced sideways over at Marianne, as he stopped beside the proud dignity of Colonel Brandon. Marianne’s resolve faltered a half-second, but something about the light flickering across Colonel Brandon’s face as he stood unawares caught her attention. Her imagination.

As he noticed their presence, she watched his eyes shift from surprise to concern to delight. She could tell he wanted to know how she had recovered — their last meeting had been a torrent of tears in the library, where even after a bracing talk with dear Mrs Darcy, she could not quite bring herself to accept Brandon’s concern. Now though, she could appreciate it. She could appreciate him. And she smiled as she accepted his offered hand, remembering Mrs Darcy’s own tale as they walked to the dance floor.

Mr Bennet smiled watching them. He had grown fond of the exuberant Miss Marianne, and he had long respected the Colonel. The pairing was a good one, in his eyes. As he watched them bow and curtsy to the musicians’ opening strains, Miss Elinor caught his eye — she was also watching her sister, with a hopeful light in her eyes and soft smile on her lips. The look became her, and Mr Bennet noted that the young preacher Brandon had taken under his wing was also aware of the quiet beauty of Miss Elinor’s face. “Hmm…Mr Ferrars and Miss Elinor? Yes, yes they’d make a fine pair. But they have a different set of obstacles to overcome” he mused.

Deciding to leave young Edward and Miss Elinor in the capable hands of fate, Mr Bennet began to drift through the crowd. This ball had been unlike any other in his memory. While it had its moments of trials — sore trials indeed — it was also most diverting. There was also the added benefit of having escaped the prattling of his wife for most of the evening. A happy event, to be sure!

In his ambling, he suddenly found himself nearby the main ballroom entrance. Standing in the doorway was the grand figure of Lady Catherine. Standing erect and sneering down her nose, she was agitatedly searching the crowd for someone. So intent was her searching, she failed to notice the important personage swiftly approaching her from behind.

This individual was equally engrossed in making sure her attire was unruffled by her speed. The feathers perched on her brow were cause of particular attention. Just as she reached to adjust the tilt of an exceptionally long green feather, she collided with Lady Catherine. That grand lady teetered dangerously, and would have fallen had not Mr Bennet instinctively reached out a hand.

As he made sure both ladies were uninjured, Mr Bennet wondered at the identity of the newcomer. She was every bit as grand and condescending as Lady Catherine. If she was even half as obliging with the sharing of her opinion, this evening just got even better.

“I beg your pardon, madam,” spoke Lady Catherine icily, as she glared at the new arrival.

“I must beg your pardon, madam,” responded the new Lady. “You have clearly forgotten you stand in a doorway. A doorway I must enter.”

As each Lady stared icicles at the other, Mr Bennet — chuckling to himself — beckoned his Lizzy over. Lizzy, who had seen the collision, was groaning at the way the two Grand Ladies should meet. She knew there was potential for this but she and Darcy has decided it was a risk worth taking. “Lady Russell, I am so glad you’ve arrived — I was afraid something had happened!”

Lady Russell drew herself up to her full height , noting delightedly that she was decidedly taller than Lady Catherine, and smiled graciously upon Mrs. Darcy. “My dear, she said. “Never be afraid of something happening. Fear, rather, that nothing will ever happen. That is the true bane of any existence.”

Mrs. Darcy acknowledged her remark with a slight bow of her lovely head and an impish smile, bordering on a grin, as she ruminated — as much as one can ruminate in a crowded ballroom — that quite possibly Lady Catherine had met her match. Lizzy could not help a chuckle escaping on that thought, and she eagerly anticipated the one-upmanship clearly to be an entertaining result of these two ladies coming head to head at a ball.

Lady Catherine, not to be undone, steely waited while Mrs. Darcy would make the introduction to this interloper. “Indeed, thought Lady Catherine, this is probably some other wretched relation of the Bennets.” And once again, her thoughts took a turn down the road of happy felicity that her beloved nephew Darcy would have had, had he married his true partner that he had been destined for since the cradle — her beloved Anne.

Oh, well. One cannot turn back the clock, she thought, and she cheered herself up mightily with the lovely idea that there was always the possibility that Elizabeth Bennet, now Mrs. Darcy (she shuddered) would die in childbirth, and Mr. Darcy could be finally united with his soul mate Ann.

So enraptured by these febrile thoughts was Lady Catherine, that she missed what Mrs. Darcy was saying. Lady Catherine did not catch the connection to the family, why this tall personage was here, even what her name was. And before she could insist that Mrs. Darcy repeat her introduction in an audible voice — because of course it was not her fault that she had missed it! — Mrs. Darcy was whisked away by her husband who, whispering in his dear Lizzy’s delicate little ear, reminded her that indeed this next dance belonged to him.

And if Elizabeth did not think him too forward on insisting on his husbandly rights, the orchestra was starting the familiar strains of the tune they had first tripped the light fantastic to at Meryton in the public rooms.

“This is our song, darling, he whispered.”Do you remember when you first heard it?”

Lizzy looked up at him from under her long lashes framing her pair of very fine eyes, and said, “Indeed, sir, I do. At that time, I was dancing with a very unwilling partner, who said barely a word to me the entire dance. I was mortified.”

She smiled, and Mr. Darcy returned that smile and look of love and admiration and quietly took her small white hand in his. “I was so mortified,” continued Elizabeth to Darcy, “that I punished him by eventually falling in love with him and marrying him. What do you think of that!”

Darcy did not miss a beat — or a dance step — and replied, “I think it is the most wonderfully diabolically clever thing that you have ever done.” Conversation then ceased, and they glided on the dance floor, the admiration of everyone — except a certain Miss Bingley — in the room.

Meanwhile, the two grand dames were staring daggers at one another in the doorway. Neither gave an inch. Mr. Bennet had never been so entertained since the time he watched his wife try to insert herself into a literary discussion of Shakespeare and she waxed poetic on the happiness of the marriage between, Romeo and Juliet, clearly having never read through the end of the Bard’s play.

But that was the woman he married. Who had captivated him so completely when she was a beautiful, fetching 16 year old girl with a tinkling laugh. Well. That laugh was now a guffaw, her empty head had wrinkles, and he had made himself a bad bargain there. But, she did provide him with entertainment and diversion, and for that he was grateful.

Had Lady Catherine heard Mrs Darcy introduce the new Lady, she would have been immediately aware that Lady Russell was indeed a relation of the Bennets, and a rather warm attachment was present. Being the long-lost cousin of Mrs Bennet, she had met the girls when Lizzy was but three years old, but lost all contact when taken to settle close by a certain Mrs Elliot in the village of Kellynch, several hundred miles away; and now, resettled in a close by village, Mrs Darcy had found it most appropriate to invite her to the ball at her new home.

She had asked for Mr Darcy’s opinion, and he had reminded her that Lady Catherine would be present too, and it would not be a pleasant moment were they to meet improperly. Having decided in having Lady Russell join their party nonetheless, the invitation was sent and she was there, standing next to Lady Catherine, still not properly introduced.

And they would have stayed the same if not for Mr. Bennet, who was inclined to partake in some additional secret amusements at the expense of Lady Catherine. “Lady Catherine, is this woman bothering you?” he asked.

Lady Catherine peered down her nose at Mr. Bennet in mild astonishment. She found herself unsure what to make of Mr. Bennet at this moment.

Meanwhile, Lady Russell was trying to hide her smile behind her hand as she suspected what he was about. While they had not had much time to correspond, they had become immediate friends the few times they had been able to meet. Lady Catherine at that moment took in Lady Russell’s restrained smile, and as she believed herself to be the object of her amusement found that she was most seriously displeased.

Like a bull getting ready to charge, Lady Catherine kicked her feet back, picked up her skirts, and let out a delicate sniff. She huffed dramatically: “What in heavens’ name may I ask is amusing Lady Russell?”

Lady Russell raised an eyebrow and replied, “I was just observing how stunning a beautiful peacock can be.”

Lady Catherine did not know if Lady Russell was in turn prepared with a very imprudent retort, but luckily was saved from having to speak by yet another commotion in the room. This time, it came from the door. Someone was making an entrance into the ball.

”Oh dear,” one young gentleman was heard to say. ”Who is that elegant woman?”

The man near him seemed much more interested in who the lady’s male companion was. But Lady Russell knew immediately who the party must be. She sighed. Only two people could make such a selfish grand entrance to a ball, in such a haughty manner. None other than her ”friends” Sir Walter Elliot and his condescending eldest daughter, Elizabeth.

“Oh, I see you have decided to make an appearance after all!” Lady Russell’s sharp voice ricocheted off the high ceiling and her vexation soon filled the room. “Ladies and gentleman, may I introduce Sir Walter Elliot and his eldest daughter, Miss Elizabeth Elliot.” She turned to the other ball guests whose expressions were painted with both surprise and delight at the sight of the new party.

“Hello, everyone. I so look forward to meeting all of you,” Miss Elliot said rather haughtily, thinking to herself that it was they that ought to be looking forward to making HER acquaintance. She grinned slyly before adding, “We have a bit of a surprise for you, one that will surely be welcome by the look of things here.”

She surveyed the room, instantly noting the lack of young, handsome gentlemen. From behind her emerged a tall, romantic-looking fellow with a somewhat melancholy, distant look in his eyes.

“Miss Elliot,” the man pronounced in a stately manner, before bowing politely. She curtsied back, without effort or anything that resembled enthusiasm. “I have just returned, earlier than was expected, from the high seas. Is your sister by any chance among the Pemberley party? I am most anxious to see Miss Anne after many years absence.”

Before Elizabeth Elliot could respond, Lady Russell stepped forward and replied, “Miss Anne was unable to make the journey due to a prior-” she stopped before applying extra emphasis to the word, “engagement. But I shall be happy to pass on your kindest regards, Captain Wentworth.”

At this, the Captain felt suddenly faint of heart, as if one of his ships had been blasted through the bow and had already begun its descent some many leagues below surface. “I see,” he muttered, as he trembled all agony and no hope. He summoned as much civility as was possible and added, “Please also impart my congratulations, to her and the fortunate gentleman.”

“The gentleman?” Elizabeth Elliot inquired back, puzzled. “Why, you need not burden Lady Russell with that task. Her betrothed is here among us!”

Chapter XVII

She pointed to Richard Legitage.

In any other woman, the evening’s progressions would have induced a nervous condition, at the very least a fit of the vapours. But Lizzy resolved to remain calm in the face of the storm, to be Mrs. Darcy, and she smiled as her husband squeezed her hand. She looked across the swaying sea of ebony and ivory in the ballroom, Mary in her view, but a Mary unrecognised.

“Darcy,” she urged. “Look.” Her sister’s countenance shone, escaping ringlets of brown hair sliding around her alabaster neck. Her fine chest rose and fell quite alarmingly.

“Ah.” whispered Darcy. “Sometimes it takes a musician to pluck the right chords, Lizzy. I see something of myself in Mary — solitary, opinionated, dry, even sour…” Lizzy’s eyebrows rose. “Do not deny it,” Darcy said equably. He tapped Lizzy’s arm. “Our Mary has been played, Lizzy, and I am happy… for she needed to be tuned, shall we say. But I think it behooves you, as her sister and Diccon’s old friend… to discover more about your Diccon from Then until Now.”

Indeed, this was the tenor of the Darcys’ conversation, after — to Lizzy’s astonishment — her dear friend Diccon was exposed as Anne Elliot’s betrothed. This did seem quite unlike the virtuous chap she had picked berries with in her childhood, but then a prolonged visitation to India can alter a man. If there was one thing she could be certain of — and it needed no validation, regardless — it was that she had picked the right “berry” for her lifetime companion.

Fortunately, Mary did not seem all that dispossessed by this revelation. In fact, her lips — so accustomed to adopting a stationary position — stretched widely into a most effervescent smile. For it was in this moment that she uncovered a revelation of her own: Mr. Legitage was strikingly handsome and gentlemanly, but her heart had already been plundered by a much lesser man. Mr. Willoughby was as flawed as they come, but alas, she loved him!

Lizzy sighed with relief, thankful to see that Mary was not only unaffected by the news concerning Mr. Legitage, but seemingly quite blissful as well. It pleased her to see her sister’s pale, bespectacled face, normally so austere and humorless, exhibiting such signs of happiness.

“Why,” she thought to herself, “if I did not know any better, I would suppose that Mary were in love!”

As she studied Mary more closely, she noticed that her eyes – merry as a mistle thrush’s and as focused as a hawk’s — were clearly trained on the southeastern corner of the room. Lizzy followed her dreamy gaze and nearly recoiled in surprise and displeasure when it led her to the dessert table, in front of which stood Mr. Willoughby, whose mouth was, for the first time that night, thankfully not occupied with the seduction of young ladies, but with one too many apple puffs, which he chewed vigorously while tossing out a wink here and there.

“Oh, Mary,” Lizzy muttered under her breath.

At the same moment, about ten feet away, Captain Wentworth was also muttering to himself. “Woe is me,” he breathed.

He was still struggling to grasp the words he had heard spoken by Elizabeth Elliot and Lady Russell only a short time ago. He had prepared himself for the most diverse scenarios while counting the days until he would see his Anne again, but the prospect of her no longer being his but someone else’s? Somehow it had never even crossed his mind.

He sighed once again and suddenly noticed a young girl, not too far away from him, sitting alone on one of the chairs, taking in everything that was going on in the room. He sat down on the chair next to her, which caused her to look up in surprise and her cheeks immediately turned a soft shade of red.

Fanny Price and her keen interest in human interactions had been sitting on the same chair in the same corner of the room for quite some time now. She was extensively enjoying herself, watching others. All the various people here: such a fascinating group! However, no gentleman had even looked at her up until now. Suddenly, she found herself sitting next to one of the most handsome men in the room. She opened her mouth to say something, but she was unable to make any kind of sound. At last, she managed to find the words she wanted to express so badly. “Sir. I am most delighted with your presence. I have heard your name mentioned. Are you really a naval officer? Perhaps you might have met my brother, William Price. He is but a midshipman but I so long for news of him.”

“I am sorry, madam. I have not had the honor. But perhaps if you honor me with this dance we could converse further and I might discover I know his Captain.”

“Oh, I thank you, Captain,” replied a blushing Fanny, and the couple moved to the dancing floor.

Elizabeth smiled as she watched the couple. She had been worried about Miss Price. She had not seen the girl move from her sitting position all night. It had been worse than Mary at the Meryton Assembly where Lizzy had first met her husband.

Charlotte tried to keep up with a few of the young ladies as they took a turn about the room. She could not wait for the pending card game to initiate. However, even as best she could, she started to lag behind the ladies. Slowly, she found herself back on the balcony of Pemberley estate alone. Alone again.

Thoughts of being unattached, a spinster-in-the-making engrossed her thoughts. Will she ever find love again? Charlotte leaned against the grand pillar for feeling faint in her delicate state; however, she needed more flow of air. She raised the hem of her dress and gently climbed to the first stone mantle of the estate. She sat comfortably, took in a deep breath or two, and could feel the cooler air channel through her lungs and veins.

Soon, Charlotte’s body started to relax only too much. In her noticeable daydream condition, her body slightly lost balance. She gasped in a panic as she felt the weight of herself falling towards the hard pebbled grounds below! She tried to gain footing and to grasp hold of the pillar but her short arm lengths were futile to her.

Charlotte screamed as loud as she could with an urgent cry for help…when suddenly a hand embraced hers tightly and pulled her safely from the balcony ledge. Upon opening her eyes, she realized she was being carried to a nearby chaise and cared for by a tall, dark and handsome man…

“Are you comfortable here, Mrs Collins?” said the man.

“Yes, yes quite well, I ….”

The gentleman interrupted her softly by laying her head down on the nearby chaise. “Shh. You are in a fragile condition. Please allow me to call upon the servants to attend to you.” Charlotte stood up hastily and touched Captain Wentworth’s hand gently.

“Oh please do not kind Sir…for I am fine.” However, feeling lightness of breath, she lowered her head down again. “Besides, who am I? I am only Charlotte, a widow, spinster, and a nobody.”

“Please do not say these things Mrs. Collins, for it is not true!” the Captain said, understanding her feelings. “You are a young lady and you will rally again, and be happy with another.”

Charlotte, fighting back emotions, looked softly into the eyes of the Captain. “Thank you, sir. Thank you for saving my life, but as for my future — it is too late for me. I’m 29 years old, I have no money and no prospects. I’m already a burden to the Darcys and I’m frightened.” Charlotte gave way to tears.

Long days at sea had left the Captain unused to the more emotional reactions of women in Charlotte’s condition. Awkwardly glancing at the crying widow beside him, Wentworth did his best to comfort her.

“I am sure that Darcy and his wife are most happy to have you at Pemberley, Mrs Collins.”

Charlotte smiled at his gallantry, but could not hide the distress that her situation caused her. She was saved further upset, however, by the sweeping re-appearance of the indomitable Lady Catherine. She passed through the great doors of the ballroom, vying for precedence with the handsome figure of Lady Russell.

Scarcely had she spotted Mrs Collins, however, before her course was altered, and she swept towards her, secretly hoping to shake off the persistent Lady at her heels. “Ah, Mrs Collins! I have been meaning to speak to you of the parsonage on my property. I am led to understand that you have some personal effects still within the walls.”

Charlotte looked down at the floor, mortified, and nodded, fighting back tears yet again. “Indeed, Lady Catherine, that is so.”

Lady Catherine opened her mouth, doubtless to issue yet another command with the greatest of condescension; but she was cut off by the sympathetically smiling Lady Russell, who said, “I beg your pardon, my dear, but did you say the name of Collins?”

Charlotte nodded.”My late husband,” she told the Lady.

“But this is too strange! For there was a gentleman telling me, just a few minutes ago, of a clergyman by name of Collins, whom he met only yesterday at Portsmouth. Oh, where is the gentleman? I shall fetch him for you at once, Mrs Collins!” And with that, Lady Russell swept across the floor of the ballroom, suddenly very much interested in the affairs of Lady Catherine.

Charlotte, Captain Wentworth, and Lady Catherine waited with a sense of mingled apprehension and anticipation. “What can the Lady mean?” Charlotte pondered, crumpling her damp handkerchief in her fingers.

Lady Catherine effected a rather unladylike snort. “Lady Russell,” she opined,” is apt to foment the most worrying ideas once she gets a maggot in her head.”

Her pronouncements were interrupted by the sound of a jardiniere crashing to the floor in the conservatory. “Oh my goodness!” Charlotte had paled considerably. Captain Wentworth ushered her to the chaise. Lady Catherine remained at her stoical, repressive best. That is, until a most unlikely personage appeared, covered in soil, greenery, and with a most apologetic expression.

It was none other than the dashing and debonair Mr Henry Crawford. “My apologies, ladies. Darcy asked my advice about possible improvements to the Pemberley estate, and I was trying to assess the view from the orangery. Though indeed, I can scarcely conceive how such a fine place could be improved. Such fine timber! Such a happy fall of ground!” He stopped a moment and seemed to notice Charlotte for the first time. He went at once to her side, his face a picture of concern.

“Has a doctor been summoned to attend to this lady? If not, I suggest it is done at once. For unless I am very much mistaken, and I am rarely so, even though I say so myself, she shows all the signs of being in a most ‘interesting condition.'”

He knelt down by Charlotte, and spoke in his softest tones, “Is it not so, madam? You are – are you not – with child?”

“Dear Sir, I hardly feel it appropriate to be discussing such a subject with a gentleman who is but a stranger to me,” began Charlotte, “but if you could alert my dearest friend, Mrs. Darcy, I would be greatly indebted to you.”

As Charlotte watched Mr. Crawford stride away, her thoughts turned to melancholy once more. It was indeed true. Charlotte’s hand flew to her gown where in her imagination a perfect miniature of Mr. Collins was forming just under the spot where her hand caressed her swelling form. To think that the child would never know his father was almost too much to bear. That the boy would never hear his father pronounce those little compliments for which he was so renowned. Charlotte thought her heart might break as she recalled her dear beloved, always so erudite, so apologetic, and so lately departed.

Chapter XVIII

Meanwhile, Mr. Brook looked curiously at the gathering. His writing sixth sense was telling him that something of great consequence was developing for Charlotte there. He took a deep breath, and without thinking any more, Archibald was headed to the group.

He could not think about anyone but Charlotte. “Why was she in such a state?” he wondered. Definitely, she had cried, according to her painful — though beautiful, at the same time — eyes. He was there, staring at her in blank, without knowing what to say.

Why was he feeling that way now? She was a recent widow and she was into so much suffering. Yes, all true, he answered to himself — but she was also an angel. A delicate angel in pain before his eyes.

He had to do something for her pain. He moved as quickly as he could and sat by her side. He bowed to Captain Wentworth, a form of thank you, and acknowledged Lady Catherine before inquiring: “Mrs. Collins, is something the matter? You do not seem well. May I be of any service to you?”

“I thank you, Mr. Brook. I am most disturbed from a fall that thankfully the Captain was quick enough to rescue me from.”

“I am glad. But are you sure this is the only reason for your current distress? I fear there must be something else the matter.”

It was then that Lady Russell returned and interrupted them. “I have been unable to find the young gentleman who I had spoken of, Mr. Edmund Bertram I believe was his name.” And as she spoke from her elevated position in the corner of the room, Lady Russell found herself watching Captain Wentworth with interest.

It was nearly eight years since the handsome naval officer had stolen the heart of her beloved Anne, and she had been quietly satisfied to see the look of torment on the man’s face when Anne’s engagement to another was revealed.

From the very beginning of their acquaintance all those years before, she had been determined to do all she could to save Anne from an unsuitable alliance with Wentworth. With Anne’s engagement recently announced to another, Lady Russell was content that Anne was no longer in danger from Wentworth’s charm.

Wentworth himself was deeply conscious of the Lady watching him. To see once again the woman who had contrived to separate him from the one woman he had ever loved was almost too much to bear. “A man does not recover from such a devotion of the heart to such a woman!” he thought to himself. “He ought not; he does not.”

And with that thought, he vowed to do all he could to win back the hand of Miss Anne Elliot.

Seeing that Mrs. Collins was well attended, Admiral Wentworth – yes, he had become Admiral, but he was far too humble to let anyone know it — moved away from the small group that had formed around her. He had come to Pemberley to see his Anne, and to determine whether there was any chance that she might still hold any regard for him. But Anne was nowhere to be found.

Recalling the tricks and falsehoods that Lady Russell had employed to separate him from Anne eight years and a half ago, Wentworth would not trust the report of Anne’s engagement until he heard

it from her own lips. Legitage was a fine man. Wentworth had nothing to urge against him. But Legitage was also a naval officer. Could he suppose that Lady Russell would approve Anne’s engagement to one naval officer when she was so violently opposed to such an attachment before? No, this could not be the case.

Admiral Wentworth could not imagine why Anne’s connections would impose upon him in such a manner, but at the same time, his heart told him that the news of Anne’s engagement to Legitage did not ring true. In any case, he would refrain from judgment until he could see and speak with Anne herself.

Unknown to him, Anne was, at that very moment, seated in a carriage with his sister and brother-in-law, Admiral and Mrs. Croft, a carriage which was making its way toward Pemberley. Though she was included in the invitation to the Pemberley ball that had been delivered to her father t’other day, and though she had prepared for the ball with unusual care, Anne was dismayed to find that when she went downstairs to accompany her father and sister, and Lady Russell to the ball, they had already gone, and gone without her! Could Lady Russell really descend to such malicious tricks rather than risk the chance of Anne and Admiral Wentworth meeting?

Of her father and sister she could believe anything, but Lady Russell? Could she not see what the breach had done to Anne? Did she not wish for Anne to have any happiness in this life? In any event, Anne was determined that she would not let this chance go to waste.

She dispatched a hasty explanatory note to the Crofts, who were only too happy to be of assistance. In consequence of this bold action on Anne’s part, she entered the main entrance of Pemberley house just as Admiral Wentworth was walking toward it. The two stopped and gazed at one another, and looked at each other in silence before either spoke.

Anne had learned only a few days before that Admiral Wentworth was to be at the ball, and that he had become Admiral. At first she had thought she should not go, as she had recently become engaged to Legitage, and had thought herself content with her situation. Richard was the first man she had met since her painful separation from Wentworth 8 1/2 years earlier, with whom she could converse intelligently; he was funny and attentive, and he told her many interesting stories about India and other countries he had visited.

Certainly no one of his background had ever appeared in the vicinity of Kellynch Hall before. When he proposed, she had accepted, and she was looking forward to having a home of her own, and to traveling outside of England for the first time. She knew that, although Richard was wonderful company, she did not love him in the same way that she had loved Frederick Wentworth; she could not expect to, but she was looking forward to a comfortable life as Mrs. Legitage.

When she heard Frederick was coming to the ball, she felt she had to see him one last time. Anne raised her eyes and smiled. “Hello, Frederick,” she said. “It is good to see you again.”

Wentworth’s breath caught in his throat: was his beautiful Anne actually addressing him after all of these years? It was those eyes that left him in a pool of emotions and barely able to control himself or even sure he could actually utter a reply to her. And then he wondered if he should address her coldly or with endearment as he so longed to do. Alas, he chose to be reserved as not to upset her after all of this time. And she was, after all, newly engaged — he understood what the rules of society dictated but he did not have to like it.

“Hello Anne. So glad you were able to joins us. You are looking well. I was afraid that perhaps you were under the weather since you did not arrive with your parents. But I can see that you are looking,” he wanted to say like the most beautiful woman he had ever laid his eyes on, but he could not let his feelings betray him as he had almost held himself together as was his plan, ”like the ride with the Crofts was pleasant indeed.”

He wanted to flee but his feet betrayed him. “Anne I, well Anne I, Anne I,” his words and the stammer was causing both of them to be uncomfortable. She just wanted to get away, as to see him tore at her heart, and he felt that she was not welcoming of his presence. “I wanted to offer my congratulations on your engagement, I know you will happy.” And he sought his retreat.

Nearby, Mrs. Darcy’s heart melted as she realized Mr. Willoughby did not seem the way people had pictured him. “Curse to people who make false statements, do they have no ethics? As for rumors, not even the best man on Earth is saved from them. Let me trust my own judgment now,” she wondered.

Mr. Darcy, who was standing with Mr. Legitage and Mr. Brook, lifted his eyebrow as he wondered what Mrs. Darcy was doing with Mr. Willoughby, “Would you do us the honor of playing the pianoforte?” Mrs. Darcy asked Mr. Willoughby.

“It would be an honor for me to be of any service to a lady of your celibacy and originality,” Mr. Willoughby replied. There he sat elegantly with the pianoforte, and all the guests now stood near to hear the song of Mr. Willoughby.

Lady Catherine de Bourgh hurriedly occupied the sofa closest to the pianoforte and Mrs. Bennet glared at her with an angry countenance. Mary was so pleased with her sister’s decision for allowing Mr. Willoughby to sing a song for all the guests.

Mr. Willoughby played the pianoforte so beautifully. His voice was like a lark and there he began his song,” Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more, Men were deceivers ever; One foot in sea, and one on shore, To one thing constant never.”

“Was it his guilt that has forced him to sing this song or that he was a changed man now,” Mr. Darcy wondered. He knew that only a man can understand another man’s intellect. For ladies, they can easily fall for someone’s kind words and innocent looks. Clever people use their clever minds but they are not aware that sometimes even a fox can be caught in a trap.

Chapter XIX

As Mr. Brook surveyed the grand ballroom, he caught the eye of young Catherine as Mr. Tilney escorted her from the floor.

“She seems keenly aware of her surroundings as well,” he thought appreciatively. Having been accustomed for some years to glances from the fairer sex, his writer’s observational sense allowed him to speculate about their thoughts. He fancied himself correct more often than not.

Watching Mrs. Bennet gush over Catherine, he was reasonably certain she was not uttering a sincere word. Aware of the many human emotions at play around the assembly, seemingly more than present at the usual ball, he could not help thinking that an entire novel could be written from what he was observing in this one room.

Willoughby was on stage for all to see, and being the center of attention was his favorite past time, especially when most of the attention was coming from the fairer sex. Mary could not help herself; she knew at this end of this song, she would approach the piano forte, suggesting to her Willoughby that she take over the piano while he continue to sing.

Indeed, Mary was lost in thoughts of being Mrs. Willoughby and how happy she would be, until she suddenly realized that the crowd was clapping and Willoughby was rising from the piano stool. She collected her thoughts and hurriedly crossed the room, paying attention to her path, when all of a sudden, she found herself facing flat down on the floor.

Before she knew what had happened, Willoughby was kneeling beside her, taking her hand. She was standing on her own two feet again. Mrs. Darcy came rushing over but found Mary unhurt and laughing at herself. Lizzy felt relief that her sister was okay, but her initial goal of separating Mary from that rake had clearly been unsuccessful.

She speculated what she should do about this Willoughby character, and furthermore, what could he mean by giving such attentions to her sister? She had no money, and nothing to tempt him to want her as a wife. She watched the pair walking together towards the terrace, feeling dismayed and determined to find out what his motives truly were by the end of the evening.

She spotted some new guests arriving. Elizabeth went to greet them. “Hello, Admiral and Mrs. Croft. What a delight to see you! We were afraid you would not be able to make it.”

The Crofts, both smiling at Mrs. Darcy and the Admiral, gestured to Anne. “Mrs. Darcy, may I present our dear friend, Miss Anne Elliot.” Anne bowed her head and Mrs. Darcy greeted her with her usual warmth and smiles.

“I was delighted to find out that Captain Wentworth is also attending the ball this evening.”

“Yes, Mrs. Darcy,” Mrs. Croft answered. “We have just been speaking with him. He is standing just behind us as you see, but I should warn you that he is now known as Admiral Wentworth.”

“That is something,” she replied. “Well I must encourage Miss Elliot to dance. Admiral Wentworth, do you know Miss Elliot?”

Admiral Wentworth stepped forward toward Mrs. Darcy and said, with as steady a demeanor as he could, “Yes, I have had the pleasure of knowing Miss Elliot, but it has been several years ago since we have seen each other.”

Elizabeth, picking up on his manner, surmised that he may feel more for Miss Elliot than anyone knows, and continued her plan to get Anne Elliot on the dance floor. “Well, here is your moment for reacquainting yourselves. The next set is starting and I am trying to encourage more couples to join in.”

“It would be an honor to stand up with Miss Elliot.” Captain Wentworth decided that Mrs. Darcy was the most wonderful person he now knew. Really, there was nothing like dancing to allow for some much-needed conversation between the two of them.

Wentworth swallowed and turned to face Anne more fully, noting her heightened color and the vaguest hint of panic in her expression. “May I have the honor?” he asked her. “I believe a reel will be upon us soon.”

Anne nodded. “Of course,” she replied. “It would be a p-pleasure.” She took his hand as he led her toward the dance floor. Wentworth was too much of a gentleman to comment upon the stutter in her speech or the tremble of her fingers when they touched.

In fact, he rather fancied that her trembling may be an indication of her feelings toward him. Buoyed up by this, he held her hand somewhat more forcefully and allowed his gaze to become increasingly ardent.

“Ouch!” Anne cried, feeling her hand squeezed within his firm grasp.

“Forgive me,” he said, loosening his hold briefly to relieve her discomfort. His eyes, however, remained locked with hers, so convinced was he that the warmth between them was shared.

Alarmed by his manner and still reeling from the assault upon her hand, Anne felt her cheeks flush and head spin. Her nerves were by now shattered – it was all too much! She could feel herself swaying in his arms, aware that at any moment she would lose herself and succumb to an inevitable faint.

While this dancing transpired and the music was sung, Lady Catherine de Bourgh sat on the sofa observing the ball. She was beside herself to see Charlotte in public, for she realized this was certainly a disgrace, as her husband had just passed. As her eyes continued to graze around her, she became more vexed by the scene. Never had she been at a ball with such commotions, and she noted silently to herself that her nephew really had poor taste in friends. She thought his mother would be most displeased.

As her attention seemed to be tiring, there by the door — slowly making his way into the room — was none other than Sir Walter Elliot, who was strutting along again.

“Oh,” Lady Catherine thought to herself. “He still has the same manners he used to have when we were young in London. Everyone used to say that we were the perfect pair. He had the looks, and I had the sense, and how true is this! Because he still moves like a beautiful bird, but he has almost lost his beautiful Kellynch Hall! I really hope Pemberley won’t have the same luck because of my dear nephew’s bad choice of heart.”

Lady Catherine was really thinking poorly of Sir Walter, that baronet, but she still smiled to herself about their possible united past. Meanwhile, Charlotte still could not understand what Lady Russell had told her. How could someone have seen her Mr Collins when he had just passed away? She was feeling suffocated and decided to sit down next to Mr Tilney, his sister, and Catherine Morland.

Mr Tilney, who was bedazzled by the young girl’s naivety, decided to invite her to dance. Catherine’s eyes were full of sparks, and she felt almost in the sky when he touched her hands. As nervous as she felt, and although she tried to behave like a heroine, and a good lady, she could not help but tell to Mr Tilney: “Mr Tilney, I love this ball. It’s so full of magic!” He smiled and she continued, “there are so many wonderful things here, and mysteries too.”

‘Mysteries? Oh, no, the way women want to marry is not a mystery at all. Just human nature; just the same way, men love to dance with beautiful girls.”

Her cheeks colored with his words, but she added, “No, real mysteries, like Mr Brook’s past, or Mrs Collins. I heard her husband is still alive.” He smiled at her, believing that she was simply confused, but could Lady Russell have found the gentleman who had been in Portsmouth the day before?

“Alive, you say?” Tilney shook his head. “I’m afraid poor Mrs. Collins will be turned out into the street now that she no longer has the patronage of Lady Catherine.”

Miss Morland gasped. “She cannot be so cruel! I will not believe that Lady Catherine would turn her back to a woman who is with child.” The news of Collins’ child shook Tilney as a possible heir to Longbourn, and it changed his plans altogether. He must away to Wickham to discuss this new development after his dance with the delightful young Miss Morland.

“Gossip, dear lady,” he said. “Idle minds turn a bout of fainting into a confinement. Mrs. Collins’ fate is sealed, I’m afraid.”

The last faint sounds of the orchestra reached their ears as the dance ended. Taking Catherine’s hand, Mr. Tilney returned her to the edge of the ballroom, kissing her fingertips before excusing himself to find his partner, Wickham.

“There you are, Miss Morland! I see you’re dancing with that lovely Mr. Tilney,” said Mrs. Bennet. Not seeing Catherine as much competition for her daughters, Mrs. Bennet could afford to be magnanimous toward the younger girl. “I had no idea he and my son-in-law had become such close confidants during the ball. Why, they’re thick as thieves!”

“Yes, Mrs. Bennet. They have formed quite a companionship this evening.” Catherine was intrigued by the hint of mystery Mr. Tilney had exuded while trying to throw her off the topic of Mrs. Collins’ pregnancy. She knew she had to delve deeper…for the lady’s sake.

Chapter XX

Suddenly, Mr. Brook felt a light tap on his shoulder. He spun around and nearly uttered a cry of disbelief.

“Why, Fanny Price!” he said in astonishment. “I had no idea you were invited to the ball!”

Fanny smiled shyly. “I fell asleep.” She was visibly embarrassed. “I woke up but a half-hour ago. But nevermind. It is so good to see you.”

Mr. Brook beamed with pleasure. “It’s even more wonderful to see you,” he said gallantly. “What have you been doing these past two years since the time I visited the Bertrams?”

Fanny sighed. “Nothing, I’m afraid. It was too good of Mrs. Darcy to invite me to come to tonight’s ball. And then I fall asleep before it even begins!”

Mr. Brook just smiled. “Well, then perhaps you can honor me with this next dance.”

Fanny looked up at him. “Of course,” she said. “I would be delighted.”

She followed Mr. Brook to the dance floor. Lizzy was in conversation with Mrs. Knightley when Emma said, “Oh, look! Is that not Miss Price? And does she know Mr. Brook?”

Lizzy turned around in shock. She had not seen Fanny all evening, yet here she was, dancing and looking prettier than usual. Lizzy sighed. All her plans for Mr. Brook were shrinking as she looked at Fanny’s glowing face and Mr. Brook’s happiness. Things will sort themselves out, Lizzy reminded herself. But that did not stop her from wishing for different situations.

Fanny, however, was unconcerned with what else in the room may be thinking of her, for she could feel many a woman’s envious eyes burning into her back. However, she kept her eyes on Mr. Brook and tried to focus on their conversation, but it was difficult. She remembered their childish love that her aunt and uncle had tried to destroy. She wondered if Mr. Brook recalled it.

Mr Bennet, wholly satisfied by all that had occurred so far, could reflect on the evening with pleasure. Fond as he was of reading, he had never perused a novel so full of intrigue, scandal, and slander as he had witnessed in the ballroom. Mrs Bennet was now done chatting with Miss Morland and sprinted toward her husband with great alacrity, losing her cap in the process.

“My dear Mrs Bennet,” observed Mr Bennet drily, “It seems you are quite exposed.”

“Exposed!” cried his lady, “Exposed indeed! My dear, are you slyly referring to the sad fate of poor Mrs Collins? It is most shocking.”

“Indeed I am not,” replied Mr Bennet. “I was simply referring to the fact your cap has found its way onto the floor.”

After a brief moment of reflection, he added that it was not very surprising that a cap would want to leave her head. Not particularly perturbed by her husband’s remarks, Mrs Bennet wasted no time retrieving her cap, only to find it soiled and dirty.

“If only Hill were here! Ah! My poor cap. It was my dear mother’s — such exquisite lace is not to be found anywhere these days!”

“Hill,” said Mr Bennet, “is happily at home. I wish I could say the same, but alas! I shall have to divert myself some way or another.”

“How can you say so!” was all Mrs Bennet’s reply. “So much has happened tonight that I’m afraid I shan’t remember half of it!”

“I daresay, my dear Mrs Bennet, that if you were to remember half the things you think of, you would be a miracle of nature.”

“Why! How can you be so tiresome? I shall not speak to you any further.” Having thus spoken, Mrs Bennet turned away — but not before giving Mr Bennet a few more reprimands and what she fancied useful advice.

Nearby, a lady was contemplating how nothing feels better than making a great match, connecting two people, and watching them paired. Emma knew this well. So as a previous matchmaker, she knew it was her duty to talk to Mrs. Elizabeth Darcy.

After seeing her host’s face drop after a couple had taken to the floor, she knew this was not the plan she had concocted for that man. Emma knew all about that, too. The trials she had put her dear friend Harriet Smith, her dearest friend Harriet Martin rather. Her advice for Mrs. Darcy was to stop while she was ahead. She had already made an excellent match on behalf of her older sister and for herself.

Emma watched as Mr Brook kept his eyes firmly on the young lady in his arms. However, just as Emma started to move towards the hostess, a newcomer came through the grand ball room doors. Emma’s eyes lit up, as an evening of perfection was now possible: her Mr George Knightley had arrived.

He was unable to arrive with Emma and her father,as he still had his commitments to Donwell Abbey and was not even sure if he could make it to the ball. Yet once he saw the smile on Emma’s face, he knew he had made the right choice.

He walked over to his wife, bowed, and asked “Excuse me, may I have the next dance?” Emma giggled, bobbed, and agreed. She reached for his hand, never thinking she would have missed him as much as she had.

She led him to the rows of couples, fancying that everyone considered her the happiest and luckiest married woman in the room. The happiest, she may be said to be the equal of many. As for the luckiest, the foundations of such a claim are less stable.

However, one match that, if it could just be made, would be deemed also the “luckiest and the happiest,” was that of Fanny and Mr. Brook. As she danced across the floor with her Knightley, catching the eye of other females – – for it is for this milder sex that women dress, gossip, and scheme — she felt her mind preoccupied with the hushed nothings that diverted the subdued couple. He could not possibly be discussing things of such a delicate nature in a busy ballroom. But how could he bear not to say them?

Before she could answer her own question — a talent formed from a singular and self immersed upbringing — a simple idea caused her eyes to widen. Not many other than her Knightley — how she loved to think those words together — could notice such a small transition hinting at her innermost thoughts.

Moving quickly, she attempted a mid-dance stumble, a blunder of which she had never been prone to before, and caught the hem of Fanny’s dress. A small error lay in the plan — Fanny’s slight ankles gave and caused her to tumble and break the lacing in her shoe. Eyes filling with tears, Fanny accepted an apology she felt was unnecessary and enquired after a room to straighten her attire in.

As Fanny began to leave, Mr. Brook remained. Staring, Emma turned to Mr. Knightley whose eyes, she felt, were peeling back her mistake. “I could think of no other way,” she said to him as quietly as possible. It was only a half truth, she admitted to herself.

Mr Knightley, with his years of understanding, shook his head slightly and gave his own dear Emma a soft smile. As they continued their dance, he hoped continued experience would finally help conquer her matchmaking streaks (but he did love her for wanting all to Love!).

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Darcy was becoming increasingly distracted with the evening’s events. Watching Miss Price leave the room in tears, Lizzy could not help feeling sorry for her. Though Fanny was not the match she had chosen for Brook, she was a sweet girl in need of love. As hostess, to have a young lady in tears was especially painful.

Mr Darcy, sensing his wife’s growing agitation, leaned in close to her ear and whispered, “Darling, it’s half-past midnight — would you like me to signal the musicians?”

Lizzy gave her husband a grateful smile and breathed, “Yes, please God, let’s move on from this stage. On to cards and quiet business!”

Darcy grinned at his wife’s fervor — he always liked to see her sparks fly — so long as he was not on the receiving end. “Consider it done.”

While Darcy edged his way along the crowded room to the musicians, Lizzy sought Jane. If the preceding events were any indication, the transition from “ball” to “gathering” had potential to be a bit tumultuous. Finding Jane with Catherine Morland, Lizzy decided to enlist both ladies’ assistance.

Catherine, despite Lizzy’s earlier misgivings, proved to be rather astute when dealing with humanity and quickly agreed that the decision to end the dancing was in the best interest of all. She remembered the curious behavior of Henry Tilney while they danced, and how he scurried over to Wickham — who was still hanging around, after his rather public outburst. The crowded ballroom allowed too much freedom of hiding away and plotting. The cozy rooms set aside for a late supper and cards would go far in terms of preventing further displays of public humiliation.

Lizzy, Jane, and Catherine had a hurried, whispered conference as the final strains of music floated in the air. While the group applauded politely, Mr Darcy stepped to the front of the room and made the announcement that the ball was closed, and everyone was welcome to retire to the adjacent rooms for refreshment and quieter entertainment. Just as murmurs began to be heard — namely the comic outcry of his mother-in-law — Mr Darcy was joined by his wife, who assured their guests that the festive atmosphere of the evening would continue, if they could be so kind as to adjourn.

Jane, taking her cue, led the way on the arm of Mr Bingley, and Catherine caught the arm of the now-pale Miss Anne Elliott, hoping the change would bring back her smile. Mr Bennet swiftly caught on to his daughters’ plan, and fairly drug the protesting Mrs Bennet out the door. Faced with the very real end of their dancing, the remainder of the ball’s crowd began to migrate out as well. Lizzy sighed in relief, and indulged in a moment’s luxury of leaning against her husband’s chest.

“Well, Mrs Darcy,” he murmured against her hair, “how goes your ball?”

“Hardly as I expected,” she sighed. “But then, things rarely ever are,” she continued, smiling at the memory of their first ball.

Their quiet moment of remembrance and love was shattered by the sound of falling metal and a sudden oath. Looking up, they were startled to see they were not indeed alone in the ballroom.

The supper room was aglow with lights, and delicious collations were spread out on elegantly festooned tables, but all eyes were focused on the ruckus in the ballroom. Looking up, the guests could not help but observe that a new guest had crashed through the nearest window, a guest that bore a striking resemblance to Mr. Collins.

Mrs. Bingley clutched the arm of Charlotte Collins, who was doing her best not to repeat her previous swoon. She turned to the befuddled Mrs. Bingley. “He’s not, not, my husband, but—“

Mr. Darcy approached the new guest. “Sir, who are you and what are you doing flying through my window?”

The stranger picked off various pieces of metal and glass from his person, dusted himself off, and rose to his full height, but before he could speak, George Knightley blurted out, “Good God, Elton! What are you doing here?”

Lady Catherine, who had been silent much too long to suit herself, felt impelled to intervene, saying, “What is the meaning of this atrocious display? Do you know who our people are?” Lady Catherine narrowed her eyes and glared at the newcomer. Humph! He was an upstart, that was for sure — she thought. Come to think of it, he did look an awfully lot like her dead parson. God rest is soul!

She would never admit it aloud but she found she missed the simpering Mr. Collins. She was particularly fond of puppetry. She smiled sadly. Yes, she missed Mr. Collins. However, that did not explain this — dare she say — gentleman.

Mr. Elton paused to look at this unknown woman. She was dreadfully unattractive with that scowl on her face. If she did not scowl, she might actually be quite handsome, but that was neither here nor there.

Turning his attention to Mr. Knightley, he gave a little wave of acknowledgment and shrugged his shoulders sheepishly. “Hello Mr. Knightley. My apologies for bursting in to the party in such an inappropriate manner, but I was giving a bit of a chase to some highwaymen.”

The word highwaymen sent murmurs through the small party. Mr. Elton nodded. “Yes, highwaymen and I do believe it was time I made myself scarce. Good evening!” Mr. Elton turned to make an exit but he was obstructed by Mr. Hurst, who was resolute in preventing his exit. “Chasing highwaymen or not,” Mr. Hurst exclaimed, “I’m dead set on having a full card game! I am quite determined. Nothing will suffer me to change my mind.”

Confronted by such a silly suggestion, Mr. Elton could see no way but to partake in cards, and as he eyed Emma Knightley — once the dear object of his affections — he thought devilishly to himself, “she may have forsaken me, but I’ll show her what winning is!” And he very well might have, had not Mrs. Hurst intervened, putting to shame any claim her husband had to resolve, or a pulse. “Let him chase his brigands and rogues,” she muttered.

Fortunately for Mr. Hurst, his life’s greatest aspiration — that full card game — received some sort of divine affectation, for the very highwaymen in question came marauding through the Pemberley archways, seizing trinkets and — to the horror of many — decapitating the handsome statue of Mr. Darcy, the fractured crumbs of marble and porcelain scattering into the drapes and shades.

And as all looked on in states varying between revelry and mortification, a calm, cool Mr. Brook unsheathed his quill and noted down on a hidden parchment: “the shades of Pemberley have been thus polluted!”

Chapter XXI

Swords and guns appeared from the most unlikely places as gentlemen sought to protect the women and the elderly within Pemberley. Ladies reached for smelling salts, fans, masculine arms and from their reticules, even mother of pearl inlaid pistols.

As cries and whispers echoed around the ballroom, one fiend, with an arm twisted up his back by Mr.Darcy, yelled, “Wickham, Wickham! Wickham, we want our money. You owe us! We want the Star of India!”

“Be damned,” muttered Brook, kneeling on top of another thief.

“What say you?” grunted Darcy.

“The Star of India, man! They think it’s a jewel. Don’t you, don’t you!” Brook shouted, pushing his knee into the neck of the highwayman.

“And? For heavens’ sake, Brook, explain!”

“It’s…” Brook struggled as his thief spotted Wickham. “It’s a child!” He bent down. “Did you know that, you scum?”

“A child?” Darcy shoved his man’s arm further up his back. “Whose? Wickham’s?”

“No,” growled Brook. “Legitage’s. A Rajasthan princess of three years.” Close by and aghast at such news, Anne Elliot took a breath and folded at Admiral Wentworth’s feet.

At that same moment, Catherine Morland let out an excited squeal. What intrigue! This was nothing like she was used to.

Elizabeth sat herself down on the nearest chair, exhausted at the passing events. She gathered her composure and looked to Mr. Darcy. “Tonight did not go at all as expected,” she sighed. He looked at her, his solemn expression unwavering.

“We will reminisce on the passing events someday and be thoroughly amused, I can assure you of that.” These words made Elizabeth feel slightly better, and realise that Fitzwilliam Darcy really was the gentleman she would be pleased to spend the rest of her life with — not Diccon, not Mr. Collins, or any of the other beaus that were once a possibility. Whilst comprehending her tremendous luck, a substantial turn of events occurred beyond the walls of Pemberley, in the rose garden, where none save the crickets and stars bore witness.

Georgiana Darcy, having passed the entirety of the evening in a state of uneasiness resulting from the unexpected presence of George Wickham, had, at last, decided that she could bear it no longer. Wrapping herself in one of her brother’s brown cloaks, she had slipped unseen from the house and ventured into the Pemberley gardens, hoping that a moonlit stroll would calm her nerves.

As she passed the rose garden, Georgiana breathed in the cool night air and paused to finger the delicate petals of a particularly large white blossom. White roses reminded her of Wickham, however, and she quickly drew back her hand as if in pain. At that instant, something sounding quite like a sob burst forth from behind the nearest bush.

Georgiana immediately forgot her own “wicked” problems and looked around, trying to spot where the sudden sound had come from. As she focused on a large, but beautiful, rose bush close by, she noticed the top of someone’s head and quickly realised someone was trying to hide… But who could it be? It had to be one of the guests; someone who had tried to run away from it all… Someone who simply could take no more of all the excitement and hustle and bustle of this Pemberley ball. Someone just like her, perhaps?

“Oh, white roses, why can’t I be more like you? Simple, but breathtakingly beautiful and elegant at the same time…” Fanny Price tried to wipe away the tears from her eyes, but as soon as the thought of what had happened in the ballroom flooded back into her mind, the tears started flooding again as well.

Meanwhile, within Pemberley, Admiral Wentworth left the commotion within the rooms in search of Anne. His first course of engagement was to secure his beloved Anne. Room by room, person by person, he went searching for her. Where could she have gone? Did one of the highwaymen hide her? He passed a wall of shining swords and drew one of them from off the wall with undaunted speed.

Many in attendance heard the sharp sound of the blade coming out from the holster and moved out of the way in fear and to allow the Admiral to pass. Desperately, he searched amongst the assembly and called for Anne!

“Frederick! Frederick! Here I am…” the frightened young Anne ran out from behind a large pillar.

“Anne! Go stand near to your father and do not leave his side. It is safer for you there and under his protection.” said the concerned Admiral Wentworth.

Anne hesitated. She had an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding but made her a nobody with either father or sister, Elizabeth; her word had not weight with them, her convenience was always to give way — she was merely plain Anne.

“Anne, please. It is best what I tell of you. Please retire to your father directly.”

“I will do as you say Admiral, but please let me look upon you carefully, for I…”

He interrupted her and lightly brushed his hand upon her pale cheeks…”I will never leave you again, Anne. I promise you that.” He looked deeply into her eyes and with not a blink of an eye, she knew that Admiral Wentworth had never stopped loving her.

However, as is often the case with love, Admiral Wentworth was left uncertain of Anne’s regard for him, and years of excruciating torment had rendered him excessively cautious. He had been so much conditioned to that way of thinking, in fact, that he interpreted his dearest Anne’s emotionless departure as a sign of iciness. Alas, if he only knew with what torrents her heart was beating, for the first time in seven years!

In the meantime, Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley, and Colonel Brandon were rounding up the highwaymen before they could inflict more damage on Pemberley’s luxurious colonnade. Where Mr. Elton had vanished to, or where this “Indian Child” had ever been remained a mystery. And as all this transpired, there were two eligible ladies in deep contemplation, yet their thoughts completely different: while Catherine Morland pondered where the “Indian Child” could possibly fit within her ever-growing stable of sinister Pemberley artifacts — such as the “black veil” — Caroline Bingley lamented that Pemberley bore more mysteries than she had suitors!

Not content to sit idly by while such fascinating mysteries were being enacted, Catherine Morland watched with glittering eyes as the highwaymen were discreetly rounded up and led outside. The ladies were clustering in a far corner of the ballroom, exchanging looks of amusement and concern. Some faces showed rather more enjoyment than distress, but the lady of the house, and her sister, were stoically calm throughout the episode. Under the gaze of the wondering ladies, the ragged men were led out, one by one. “What can they want?” and “Such a fright, I never thought I’d see!” echoed across the now empty ballroom floor.

Catherine tried her best to slip past the gossiping group of ladies as subtly as possible. She succeeded in making her way across the room and to a nearby door. Once through, her heart beating rapidly, she slipped across the terrace and strained her ears to hear what was being said amongst the newest arrivals to the Darcys’ estate.

Scarcely had she moved closer across the moonlit terrace when she heard the rough accents of the men calling out to Mr Darcy and his companions. “We ‘ave demands of you, sir!” cried an arrogant voice. “We’re only wantin’ to talk to a… friend of ours. A Mr Wickham, I suppose you know ‘im?” Catherine could not stop herself from letting out a little gasp. But it was enough to alert the men who were clustered angrily in the garden below.

Mr. Darcy and the other gentleman helping him saw her at once. Unfortunately, so did the highwaymen. Catherine ran inside as fast as she could, fearing for her life but longing she could stay outside for she wished to hear more.

Once again inside the beautiful ball room at Pemberley, she noticed Elizabeth Darcy, who was before very calm, and now had suddenly grown pale as she and Mrs. Bingley looked about the room.

“Where can Georgiana be?” exclaimed Mrs. Darcy in horror.

“And Miss Price, she is also not here!” added Miss Bingley in despair.

“Surely Miss Darcy and Miss Price were not outside?” wondered Catherine. They would have been seen by the men, as Catherine had been. “Oh dear! Poor ladies!”

The sound of sniggering was heard from the highwaymen, despite their parlous situation. Their putative leader, one who had his face partially obscured by a thick muffler, was swaggering in demeanour.

After a pause, he spoke, arrogance and contempt in every inflection. ‘You think you know everything, just because of your positions and your riches! We have ways of making things a bit less unfair.” His eye lighted upon Elizabeth, then travelled to Catherine, who endeavoured to make herself invisible — without much success.

The poor girl now wished she had worn a less showy gown. However, gaining some confidence from her readings of Udolpho, Catherine drew herself to her full height and challenged the vagabond. “You, sir are the worst sort. There are gentlemen here who would dispatch you and the others with such haste …”

Her words were halted as a scream enhanced the already febrile atmosphere. Darcy, Wentworth, Tilney, Brandon, and yes — even Willoughby — readied themselves for action.

“The scream came from the folly in the lower garden.” Darcy’s tone was decisive.

Leaving the highwaymen in the tender care of the most able of his menservants, he and his cohorts left the house and disappeared from sight. Searching for the source of the scream, they once again heard a voice. They were all in agreement that it had been a feminine tone — except it seemed different from the first one.

Darcy started to worry. “Had not all ladies been at the ball?” he asked his companions.

“I do remember seeing your sister leaving early on, but surely she would have returned to the ball by this time?”

“I do hope you are correct, Admiral” replied Darcy. However, the very familiar third scream proved Admiral Wentworth wrong.

Chapter XXII

In all the confusion and the melee, everyone had forgotten poor Charlotte, even her dear friend Elizabeth. She had been lying on a chaise in the summer-parlour, reflecting on her unborn child, and the fact that it would never see its father’s face, when suddenly the door burst open and a blackguardly man was standing at the door, a cudgel in one hand and the most ferocious look on his beard-darkened jowls.

“What ‘ave we ‘ere?” he said with the most unpleasant leer, “All alone are ye? I fancy you be wanting some company. And I’m your man for that, my lovely.” And as he started to move towards her, Charlotte let out an ear-piercing scream.

Charlotte’s mind was full of thousands of thoughts at the same time. Her child, her body — why life was so terrible and unfair to her and now the vicious and evil eyes of that disgusting and dirty no-gentleman-at-all-man: rage, helplessness, and — above all — hopelessness.

She could not bear the image of that scum taking her delicate arm. She closed her eyes and dreamt of the only person she wanted to be rescued by. Just thinking of him, hope came into her. “Maybe, dreams — once in a life — come true,” she wondered. “And maybe, Mr. Brook could write about it… and make them real.”

Alas, Mr. Brook was among the group of men looking for Georgiana and Fanny, who were both missing and giving hostess Mrs. Darcy reason to fear the worst. Mr. Brook, feeling charged from defeating one of the highwaymen, was only too glad to be amongst the group of men called upon to find the missing ladies.

He was rarely thought of in these terms, and he realized how alive it made him feel, if only he felt this strong and confident in the presence of the woman that made his heart beat deeply. He could write about her, but in her presence he could barely carry on an intelligent conversation.

Alas, he had been dispatched to find the fair Georgiana and Fanny and he needed to stop daydreaming about his love and return to the business in front of him. As life would have it with all his mental meanderings, he became separated from the search party. He was outside of one of the Darcy upstairs bedrooms and heard a struggle within. But rather than find members of the search group or other assistance, Mr. Brook chose to put his hand on the door and burst into the room to find Charlotte Collins smashing a large Chinese export porcelain vase over the head of the brigand.

As he went down, Brook jumped on him and restrained him. “Mrs. Collins, are you all right?” Brook gasped.

“Luckily for me,” Charlotte answered, “the Darcys have an excellent collection of porcelain, but I am thankful you arrived when you did.” The highwayman moaned, but was still woozy from his encounter with the vase. Charlotte eyed him and asked, “Shall I smash the other one of the pair on him, too?”

“That won’t be necessary,” Brook replied. “Could you be so good as to fetch the curtain-pull from the window?”

After a few tries, Charlotte had detached both the curtains and pulls from the window and brought them to Brook. Within a few minutes, the groggy highwayman was trussed in the manner of the finest Christmas pig.

“Who are you and what are you doing here?” demanded Brook.

“Name’s Carton—Sidney Carton,” gasped the man. “We be just a few lads, down on our luck. Our old pal Georgie Wickham has double-crossed us, and we’re out to get from him that’s what rightfully ours.”

“Well, you’ll get what’s rightfully coming to you,” muttered Brook, as he and Charlotte marched Carton out of the room.

Back in the main quarters, the inhabitants of Pemberley — in all their years on this Earth — had never seen such a fracas inside that great house. The younger female servants, terrified by these revengeful highwaymen, had retreated downstairs and had barricaded themselves inside the cold store. In the dim light, the six girls shook with fear as they heard the bangs and scuffles above their heads.

Suddenly from the darkness there came a voice. “Ladies, please do not be perturbed by my presence in this room. I’m here to protect you from the disturbance above.” Mr Wickham was blessed with such happy manners as may ensure his making friends in even the most unusual of circumstances. Whether he may be equally capable of retaining them, was less certain.

The ladies clearly had no inclination as to identity of the man but were put at ease by his company in the dark. They did not know that Wickham was a coward, more likely to run from any danger than to defend the honour of these young girls.

At the first sign of trouble, the blackguard had retreated below stairs and had left the other gentlemen to deal with the highwaymen. As he shivered in the dark, he began to plot his escape from Pemberley — preferably without the abomination he was unlucky enough to call his wife.

While Wickham plotted, Charlotte was in pain. Exhilarated by the fun of breaking porcelain over the heads of ruffians, Charlotte Collins did not immediately know the havoc she had wrought on her vulnerable body, but after a few minutes, she could not mistake the sudden cramping in her abdomen. As she clutched her sides, she thought miserably, “Must I lose my last remaining tie to Mr. Collins?”

Mrs. Bingley, who was taking stock of all the female guests, found a sickly Charlotte lying on the floor next to several broken vases. A concerned Mr. Brook helped Jane move Charlotte to a divan in a nearby room. Brook rubbed Charlotte’s hands as Jane whispered in her ear, “I will pray for you, my dear friend, for I am in the same sweet way.”

Brook’s silent prayer was different from Jane’s, but just as heartfelt. “Please let me not lose another woman I love. I love this feisty woman above all others.”

Brook felt he had better stay put with the ladies to ensure their safety. His motives were honorable as always; however, his mind was full of thoughts of Charlotte — he could not help himself. She was just the type of woman he admired: intelligent, and —

His thoughts were disrupted by Mr. Darcy entering the room. “Brook, can you come help with the search? I will fetch a manservant to watch over the ladies.”

“Why of course. Right, yes.”

Brook looked over at Charlotte, regretting that he would have to leave her side. Charlotte felt Mr. Brook’s eyes on her and looked up, her heart all aflutter as their eyes locked. Mr. Brook stood up, took a deep breath and bowed towards the ladies, and once the manservant arrived, he reluctantly took his leave with Darcy.

Darcy talked about Georgiana’s possible locations, naming all of his sister’s favorite spots on the grounds. He asked Brook to head east to the large greenhouse and search the surrounding areas while he would head over to the stables. The men agreed to meet up within the hour in front of the fountain.

As the men parted ways, Brook’s mind was still on Charlotte Collins; he could not believe how thunderstruck he felt. To be in love again, he was surprised with himself but also hoped his feelings would be returned.

Meanwhile, Darcy was determined to find Georgiana. She must be safe, she must be okay — anything else, he could not even bare to think of. He quickly arrived at the stables, and upon hearing voices coming from inside, yelled out: “Who is it in my stables? I demand you show yourself!”

He could hear the voices talking but no one walked forward. Mr. Darcy entered inside and repeated his words. He walked towards the whispering voices, looking in on each horse to see if anyone was hiding. When he reached the spot he most suspected, he grabbed the handle of the half door and opened it swiftly. What he saw was stunning.

“How is this possible? Mrs. Wickham? Mr. Crawford? Have you not caused enough embarrassment to our family this evening? Crawford, I will ask you take your leave at once. Please know that you are no longer welcome here at Pemberley.” Crawford just smirked as he stood up, brushing the straw from his clothes, and extended his hand to help Lydia Wickham to her feet.

“For the lady’s sake, Mr. Darcy,” said Crawford, “let me assure you this scene is not as it appears. I saw Mrs. Wickham running from the main house just as those ruffians arrived. I suspected she might know something of their purpose in being here and worried for her safety. I followed Mrs. Wickham out here to the stables and remained here with her in order to protect her honor, should she be discovered.”

Mr. Darcy was not taken in by Crawford’s story, and even Lydia just stared at the ground, her cheeks flushed with shame. For once, even Lydia Bennet Wickham realized her eagerness for approval and resentment of her sisters’ good fortune had carried her too far. She returned to the house, accompanied by an amused Henry Crawford and a seething Fitzwilliam Darcy, determined to reform her behavior so that, like her two eldest sisters, she might endeavor to deserve some happiness.

Meanwhile, Mr. Brook was searching the grounds near the greenhouse for Miss Darcy and Miss Price. The two young ladies, however, were so frightened by all the mysterious comings and goings, the shouting and the whispering, and the general uproar coming from the house that they had retreated to the wooded area near the stream.

Giving courage to each other, they resolved to remain out of sight until things had calmed down. Darcy was nearly frantic with worry. Elizabeth could barely stand. Even Mr. Bennet took notice. Before long, every available guest and servant was out of doors, combing the grounds in search of the two missing young ladies.

Georgiana leaned in close to Fanny. “Maybe it’s safe to come out?” she asked.

Fanny’s eyes surveyed Georgiana. She was just as terrified as she was. “I don’t know. Maybe we should wait until it gets lighter.”

Suddenly, there was a rustling from the bushes and a tall man with dark hair stepped out. “Oh, dear God,” he muttered. “No.”

Fanny and Georgiana grasped each other tightly. “Who are you, sir?” asked Fanny, her voice quaking.

“Never you mind,” said the man gruffly. “I was trying to leave the other men who’ve come here for Wickham, but I can’t leave you ladies all alone. Come on.” He sounded so angry, the girls felt they had no choice but to follow, and he certainly had a commanding presence about him.

By the time the morning was in full bloom, they had reached Pemberley. “Never mention that you saw me,” he warned.

“Thank you!” called Georgiana as the man stalked away. She wondered what Catherine would say if she knew!

“We promised not to tell,” said Fanny gently, as if she could read what was on the girl’s mind.

“Such a mysterious stranger,” said Georgiana in awe. “And so handsome.”

Fanny chuckled as they walked into the house. “Perhaps you could write a Gothic novel about it to please Catherine.”

Lizzy saw the girls enter and let out a cry of relief. “Mr. Darcy!” she cried. “Georgiana and Fanny are back!” Mr. Darcy rushed in, hurriedly, and sighed with relief.

Chapter XXIII

Mrs. Darcy went to Mr. Willoughby. “I don’t have words for what you have done for my husband today. We owe you so much, and Mr. Legitage too. How bravely he stood beside Mr. Darcy and faced those savages. A very amiable gentleman, he is.”

“Indeed he is beside himself about his secret engagement with Miss. Elliot, and my dear Mrs. Darcy: you need not thank me. It was an honor for me to be of any assistance to our noble host.”

“How did the secret engagement come to be?” Mrs. Darcy asked, still astonished by it.

Mr. Willoughby looked around and then, in a low tone of voice, continued, “His mother, the late Mrs. Legitage, had always wished that her son go to the army. He did, and then war broke out: the Battle of Waterloo. Before going, he was betrothed to Miss. Elliot and engaged, but both families kept it secret, intending to make an official announcement upon his return from war.

“He was sent with the rest of the British Army, under the command of Hugo Granderby: The Honorable Duke of Kensington. Napoleon was successfully defeated by Mr. Granderby, but there was a fear that some soldiers were missing and Mr. Legitage was one of them .When this news reached his home, his mother went into a state of a shock and locked herself in her private chamber, leading a life of misanthropist: waiting for her son’s return. Six months later, there was a rumor that Mr. Legitage had been spotted in a French village with a daughter of a well-reputed French army officer. Her name was Isabelle and there were also rumors that they might have been married.”

“Good Lord,” Mrs Darcy said, clasping a hand to her bosom. “Such intrigue – it is almost too much to take in!” And she sighed at the enormity of it all. The news was bewildering — and yet — she frowned, pondering on what she had heard. First a Mr Legitage, then a Mr Granderby — surely those names were familiar to her ears?

“This Hugo Granderby fellow,” she said, leaning in towards Mr Willoughby. “Have I not made his acquaintance before? I’m sure I know of him — or rather, his reputation. I understand him to be somewhat less of a gentleman than I should like. Especially with regards to his female companions…”

“That may be so,” Mr Willoughby nodded in assent. “I had heard that much spoken by a previous companion of his — Elizabeth, I recall her name was. Alas, they are no longer together. I believe her current suitor is quite the sportsman — cricket, or so they say. And Mr Granderby remains quite, quite alone.”

Over in the drawing room Mrs. Bennet sat her self on the sofa in a fit of hysterics. “Oh my, why have I come to this ball! This has all been very vexing indeed. My youngest Lydia will be the talk of all society and I blame it on her husband.” Only Lady Catherine de Bourgh was listening, but just. Mrs. Bennet cried out: “We are all ruined!”

Lady Catherine de Bourgh looked over at her. “Really, this has been the most contemptible ball I have ever chosen to attend. I shall dare say your youngest should be removed from all good society if you wish to keep your family name intact.” With that, Lady Catherine stood up and walked away. Mrs. Bennet sat there for a moment, still crying to anyone who would hear her, even if it was just a servant.

Meanwhile, Anne Elliot was still in shock. To discover such a thing about the man she was engaged to — was unbearable! She was a woman of sense, and yet there was also her beloved Wentworth, so long missed! She had always thought it true that women never forget love, but she had. And that pain was bigger than anything she could discover from Legitage.

She was now aware that her heart and soul belonged to Wentworth, so she cried a bit, alone as she was, in light of that discovery — which in truth, was hidden inside her heart. But Colonel Brandon saw her and tried to raise her spirits:

“Don’t cry Miss Elliot, for all this mess. The highwaymen will go soon, and the party will be restored. Maybe, what has been said about Wickham is true, but I can’t believe those lies about Mr Legitage, and I think there has been some kind of mistake. I know that gentleman. And then, there’s more things happening around here, but you don’t have to cry.”

She smiled, and once the moment passed, they saw Mr Elton, the mysterious man who had been chased by the highwaymen. There he was, trying to be safe with the ladies. He did not seem to be there for the women’s security but his own.

“What are you doing here, Mr Elton?’ asked Emma Knightley. “I still can’t understand why you are here.”

“Oh, Ms K,” he said coldly, “I have my own business, and this is not Highbury.”

Emma was puzzled by his answer and in that moment, Lady Catherine asked the gentleman, so similar to Mr Collins, to talk to her. She had to have her share in that conversation. Specially, she wanted to know who the man was!

“I demand to know your name, sir,” Lady Catherine commanded, certain her accompanying glare and her own distinguished air would be met with respect and an immediate response.

She was not a woman to be trifled with — ever. But, here, at this most disagreeable ball, she had been trifled with plenty already. Sobbing young women everywhere. Broken hearts and ruination at every turn. Witless matrons. Alive men who resembled dead ones. Altogether too much music — and poorly performed at that. It was an affront to her ears. And now she had to contend with highwaymen, for goodness sake!

Was there no one who had any sense of authority? She intensified her glare at the man before her, incensed that he had yet to reply. “Speak up, sir,” Lady Catherine demanded. “Do you not know who I am? I insist upon knowing your name and your business here.”

At last Mr. Elton cleared his throat. Pulling himself up to his full — albeit, not especially impressive – height. Bending slightly at the waist, he replied as he rose, “Madam, my name is Mr. Elton, brother of the late Mr. Collins. I have business with his widow so must beg your forgiveness for the intrusion upon your ladyship. I’m sure Mrs. Knightley will be pleased to fill you in on our former acquaintance. Emma please, do not forget the episode where you crushed my heart with your callous behavior.”

A bitter smile crossed his face as he heard Emma’s indrawn breath of indignation. “I must remove myself from your charming presence, I’m afraid. I do hope you enjoy the company of this… lady.” Elton’s eyes slid over Emma, glittering with hatred for being thrown over for a man of more consequence. Retreating back into the shadows from whence he came, Elton left the women in shock of his outlandish exclamations.

“A woman of my breeding should not be forced to mingle with ruffians and scoundrels, for that is what young Elton is. Mark my words, young woman, there will be trouble afoot,” said Lady Catherine.

Elsewhere, Mrs. Darcy was at a loss. She looked around the drawing room brightened by luminous candles and conversation, yet she felt in the dark. This was an important appointment, at a predetermined time, yet the untimely interruption of Lady Catherine prevented her assignation with the mysterious stranger. Elizabeth sighed ruefully and turned to leave, when she felt a presence behind her and turned to see the man to whom she had once given her heart.

“Lizbeth.” Only he called her that — or had she imagined it?

“Diccon?’ There — she had betrayed herself. If it was not him, she would look foolish. And if it was him … then she was putting herself in danger. Because whenever he had called her “Lizbeth,” it had been the prelude to a kiss.

Elizabeth turned to indeed find her dear friend Diccon standing near her. He must have read the discomfort on her face, because put her at ease before she had a chance to greet him.

“Do not fret, my dear” he said. “I wish only to offer you my sincerest good wishes and love, as I have not seen you since well before your marriage. I assure you, however, I take delight in your marital felicity.” Elizabeth visibly sighed with relief. She smiled and took Diccon’s hand in a warm greeting, finally able to relax a little.

Had she known how close she and her companion had come to raising a small bit of suspicion, she may not have relaxed. But, as it turned out, it would only have been a momentary threat. Mr. Knightley himself had been standing at not too great a distance away from the pair and, as he was a dear old friend of Darcy, regretfully did not like the look of familiarity and admiration when Diccon looked at Elizabeth.

This thought had short residence at the forefront of his mind, as it occurred just before Knightley laid eyes on Mr. Elton himself. Had anyone taken notice of Knightley at that exact moment, they would have immediately recognized his distaste, disdain, and disgust for the ”gentleman.” He could not imagine that Elton had any ties to the Darcy family, and was thus certain only one thing had brought Elton to the ball — Emma.

Emma Knightley, although still handsome, clever, and rich, had much to vex her that night. Although many circumstances were in her favour, such as the presence of several dear old friends, her loyal husband, and excellent food, she could not help but feel distressed at the continuous stream of inelegant remarks that were bestowed upon her.

It seemed that even Pemberley was not safe from Miss Bates’ idle chatter; after a few polite enquiries, Emma found out that Miss Bates had, in former times, been acquainted with the Darcys’ housekeeper, Mrs Reynolds. Mr Darcy, having heard how little Miss Bates could see of the world, had kindly invited her on Mrs Reynolds’ behalf. Emma, far from ever again doing injustice to Miss Bates’ merit, kindly smiled, nodded during the brief pauses of Miss Bates’ speeches, and thought of happier things than Jane Fairfax’s new muslin gowns.

“Dear me! I have not told you about dear Jane’s new gowns yet, have I? Muslin! All of them, and the finest muslin ever seen! Dear me! Her husband bought them for her in London, you see — so very obliging! I daresay you find London very diverting too, Miss Woodhouse! So many kindly people to be met!”

Emma wished to remind her that she was not Miss Woodhouse anymore, but was afraid of slighting Miss Bates’ kindred feelings.

“So many people to be met, Miss Woodhouse; so many conversations and exchanges to be had!” Emma found it hard to repress her laughter. Many conversations to be had indeed! “Jane, you know,” Miss Bates continued, “took me to London last month — so kind of her! But then, as you are well aware, she is always so very obliging!”

Emma was then struck by an excellent idea. “Mrs Bennet? I would like to introduce you to my old friend Miss Bates.” After a few moments of polite introduction and seeing both ladies chatting with vigour, Emma excused herself and hurried off.

Chapter XXIV

Mr Knightley, consumed with questions about Elton’s appearance, and what business he claimed to have, was storming up the hall — if, that is, Mr Knightley could be said to “storm” anywhere. Not paying close attention to his surroundings, he crashed into his wife.

“Knightley, dear, whatever is wrong? Oh, do tell me nothing else has gone awry tonight! I’ve just left Miss Bates with Mrs Bennet and Elton is here, and I think he’s going to attack poor Mrs Collins! Oh George — what has this night become?” Emma spoke in a rush.

Mr Knightley smiled at his wife’s energy and assured her that — at the moment — things seemed to be calming. “Mr Darcy’s men are holding the ruffians who interrupted our retreat to cards with a disgraceful show of hooliganism. And both young ladies — Misses Price and Darcy — were found safe and unharmed. Elton is another matter entirely. Miss Bates and THE Mrs Bennet you said? Well done, Emma!”

Though he always took great care to never injure or insult Miss Bates, he could not help but see the beautiful irony in the pairing.

“Knightley, do you think we should find Mrs Collins? She’s had such a hard night — and only just lost her husband. She may need reinforcements in handling Elton. He is capable of a cutting smallness that would be cruelly unjust in her state,” Emma fretted.

“Yes, you may be right my dear — come, let us see what is afoot. I believe she is with Mrs Bingley in the summer parlor.”

As the Knightleys hurried arm-in-arm to the side of Charlotte Collins, Brook was also finding his way back to the summer parlor. Darcy’s men were wholly in charge of the highwaymen, and it seemed the “borders were secure” against further onslaught. He felt it safe to give in to the softer — though not weaker — passions, and see how his Charlotte was faring.

“Oh, were that she could be my Charlotte,” he murmured to himself. “Time, only time can make us happy. After so long, what is a little while longer?”

Meanwhile, the lady whose well-being was the concern of so many was being carefully attended by Jane Bingley. A lifetime’s acquaintance and their mutual delicate situation, allowed Jane a singular ability to minister and comfort Charlotte — surpassed only by Lizzy who was mysteriously preoccupied elsewhere.

Under the careful attentions of Jane, Charlotte had recovered somewhat. She was sitting up and just sipping some tea when the Knightleys and Brook appeared in the doorway.

“Oh thank goodness! We’re not too late — Mrs Collins, Mr Elton is on his way to see you on urgent business about Mr Collins and I fear he has nothing good to say — he never does,” Emma spoke in a rush, as she hurried to kneel beside Mrs Collins.

“Emma, we don’t know that — we only suspect,” Mr Knightley gently remonstrated, not wanting to alarm the still-pale Mrs Collins.

“Do not worry, I am entirely at your service — for anything you need,” Brook said quietly, positioning himself just inside the door.

“I thank you all, for everything you’ve done or said this evening, but I cannot –” Charlotte stopped abruptly, as all remaining color drained from her face. Her eyes wide, her jaw slack, she stared at the man in the doorway. He was the perfect image of her husband.

“I see you recognize my face. I am Elton — your husband’s other estranged brother, other than Wickham. And you should pay close mind to what I have to say, as it is of a surprising- – but weighty — nature, and will have great impact on your life. You see, Mrs Collins — my lady wife is a highly cultured, sensitive creature and could never live in such a far-flung place as Meryton.”

Emma’s gasp was audible and she turned her surprised gaze to Knightley, who placed his hand on the small of her back with a gentle pat. Mr. Brook took a step closer to Charlotte and stood ready to become an insurmountable wall between her and Elton. Jane held Charlotte’s hand, not knowing what was to come but protective of her old friend. She heartily wished Lizzy were present.

Mr. Elton, enjoying the rapt attention of all, continued. “Although I should inherit Mr. Bennet’s property after his most undesired demise, I could never subject her to displeasure. But neither would I wish to deprive her of any gain at all from my rightful inheritance. Therefore, I come to propose a settlement, if you will. Perhaps you — or your friends,” he added with a meaningful glance around the splendid room, “would like to make a small contribution to my wife’s future and in exchange I would relinquish any claim on Longbourn in your favor.”

“There,” he continued. “Nicely done, what?” He smiled, well pleased with himself. “What say you, sister?”

“Pardon my intrusion, Elton, but I certainly cannot allow you to go on in such manner. Whatever business it is you have with Mrs Collins concerning your brother could be discussed amongst us gentlemen,” interrupted Mr. Brook, who had followed Mr. Elton as he approached Charlotte. Brook prepared himself to face Elton. He could not bear the thought of a distressed Mrs. Collins, and Darcy was quick to agree with him.

“Indeed, there is no need to distress the ladies any longer here, Elton, if you would be so kind as to accompany us to the studio and we shall discuss this matter further,” Darcy said, proudly leading the way without waiting for Elton’s response, who had kept the same smile all the time and only half bowed his head before turning to follow Darcy, with Mr. Brook again behind him.

Mr. Darcy led Mr. Brook — who in turn led Mr. Elton — through a series of candlelit hallways that brought them to the wing of Pemberley farthest away from the pandemonium of the ball. For the first time that night, he could hear no gasps or shrieks, no thundering knocks upon doors, no steps of footmen hurrying to inform him of yet another unexpected guest’s arrival. His ears were inundated with pure, tranquilizing silence, and he felt his eyelids droop with fatigue. Behind him, Mr. Brook endeavored to stifle a colossal yawn, but it burst forth from his mouth and sounded across the corridor for a good thirty seconds.

“Now, Elton,” Mr. Darcy began, once the last echoes of Mr. Brook’s yawn reverberated off the walls. “Let us settle this as gentlemen.”

At this, Elton smiled greedily. “That was exactly what I had in mind.”

“Yes, well you may wish to hold your tongue before partaking in any premature celebrations,” Darcy admonished. “Since the day I fell for my beloved Lizzy, I have become the financier for half the rogues in this kingdom. I may as well wear an appendage that screams from London to Bath, ‘I am a bank! Rob me blind!’ And yet, I continue to suffer these trespasses on my character, on my fortune. I have quite had enough of it! Mr. Brook, you are a writer. Have you ever seen such behavior in your many observations?”

Mr. Brook looked down at the ground, for despite his literary aspirations, he had developed a profound admiration for Darcy and no longer wished to impugn him in a public work. “My friend,” Brook replied, “in my estimation, you are as fine a gentleman as they come. And you are most undeserving of slander. This is as egregious a case as I have ever encountered.”

Darcy nodded his approval. “But what are you to do?” Brook inquired, as Wickham waited, breathing frenetically.

“Well,” Mr. Darcy responded, grinning. “I’ve stumbled upon an idea!”

Chapter XXV

“You, Mr. Elton, by your very existence, have slandered and defamed my wife, my wife’s family and friends, and in particular, our dearest Mrs. Collins. For that, sir, you must pay.”

Darcy stood and reached into his damask vest pocket, pulling out a pair of kid gloves that had been white but had suffered with the vicissitudes of the evening. Slapping them against his palm, he walked toward Mr. Elton, conscious that the tension of the evening had built to a crescendo and that Mr. Elton was merely the straw which broke an unfortunate camel’s back.

“I’ll say, Darcy…” Brook tried to intervene, but Darcy ignored him, his temper ignited, his composure awry. He flipped the gloves across Elton’s pallid face, leaving a vivid stain.

“You shall give me satisfaction, sir. Brook here will be my second. It shall be your choice of weapons, whatever you choose. On the Pemberley lawn at dawn.” Thus assuaged, he left Brook propping Elton’s sagging frame and departed in search of a fortifying and much-deserved goblet of brandy.

Outside, Catherine Morland was contemplating the events that had passed in the course of her visit at Pemberley. What intrigue! She had brought along a diary in which she decided to write in, making the most out of one of these rare moments of solitude. She smiled to herself, and just at that moment —

“And what exactly are you accomplishing out here with that… book, Catherine?” She snapped her diary shut and looked up to Kitty, who obviously deemed such an activity frivolous. Mary would have understood.

“I was simply admiring the estate.”

Kitty giggled. “Don’t squander time on writing; something most fascinating has just occurred inside. I would divulge it to you here, but I imagine you would be most curious to find out for yourself.”

Catherine took up and left with Kitty, accidentally leaving her diary by the edge of the lavish fountain at the front of the estate.

And as it happened, that diary fell into the unlikely hands of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who — thanks to her failing eyesight — mistook it for one of her many fans, which she not so kindly asked her servants to wave at the slightest sign of perspiration; oddly enough, it was those around her who seemed to sweat the more profusely!

In the midst of this, Mr. Darcy was desperately in need of some cooling off of his own, and the savory brandy he frantically sought seemed to be doing the trick. After hours of extraordinary patience and propriety, his cantankerous temper had emerged. He contemplated the ramifications of such a duel. How could he dare to risk leaving his precious Lizzy a widow. Oh, it was inconceivable! “I have done my love a great harm!” he bemoaned to himself, and he wondered aloud if such a foolhardy display of masculine bravado could be remedied.

Mr. Brook heard his cries, and quickly comforted him with a piece of information, that — in a moment’s passing — alleviated all his concerns and gave way to intense laughter: “My good friend,” Brook declared. “Mr. Elton has fled the premises, with his half-brother WIckham!”

At that most surprising yet hardly unexpected revelation, Mr. Darcy lifted his head and began to laugh uproariously. Whether his howls of amusement were purely born from the relief he now felt at being spared the potentially grave consequences of a duel, or influenced in part by copious amounts of brandy and sheer exhaustion, Mr. Brook could not ascertain.

At the sound of such merriment, Lady Catherine, who had just reentered after stepping out for a breath of fresh air, breezed into the room, fanning herself vigorously, having been unable to locate a servant to perform the service for her.

Elsewhere, Admiral Wentworth had had enough. The evening was not turning out to be favorable for anyone in attendance. One escapade and now rumors of more potential duels were disheartening him. His only entreaty was to whisk Anne into his arms and escape the polluted walls of Pemberley.

That being his concluding thoughts, Admiral Wentworth proceeded immediately to leave the ball. As he passed the first set of ladies, he set his eyes to the floor and bowed as was the custom to do. However, once he lifted his head, he noticed in the distance some small, dark droplets on the ivory-marble flooring, leading out of the Pemberley ballroom. What on Earth?

Trying not to bring any attention to the observation, he moved closer, bent down, and dipped his index finger lightly on the spot. It was wet, it was red, it was blood!

The Admiral looked around to see if anyone noticed his shocking find. Seeing that no one had, he wiped the blood off his finger discreetly with the handkerchief from his inner pocket. As he stood up to follow the trail, there was Catherine Morland, unexpectedly, staring at him directly. She saw everything and became a pale, white figure before him.

Suddenly, her eyes opened widely, for she realized she did not have her diary!

At the same time, Eleanor Tilney was strolling the grounds of Pemberley on her brother’s arm, admiring the deceitfully peaceful groves and gardens of the estate. “What a lovely prospect, Henry,” Eleanor noted. “I have never seen such a charming view. And to think of all that has occurred within those walls this past night!”

Henry laughed. “Indeed. I doubt even your powers with a brush and pencil would be sufficient to convey the excitement of the ball at Pemberley.”

This pleasant conversation was interrupted by the overwhelming figure of Lady Catherine, who appeared on the terrace and quickly descended to the lawns. The Tilneys watched her slow and lumbering progress with amusement. As Lady Catherine, followed by her faithful servant, a plump and unfortunately plain little girl, approached the brother and sister pair, she threw them a look of mild contempt. “It is early, is it not, to be walking about the grounds of Pemberley?”

Eleanor was prevented from replying, as the sad-faced attendant, who was tripping over her skirts to keep up with the formidable pace of Lady Catherine, dropped an object. Her hands were so full of trinkets, shawls, and smelling-bottles that she did not have the capacity to retrieve it.

Henry Tilney swept down and quickly recovered the item. Before he could return it to the girl, however, Lady Catherine swept away across the lawn, and the servant followed shakily behind, accepting the various abuses her employer chose to rain down upon her. The item was a small book, which had fallen open at the title page. It was inscribed with the name of Catherine Morland.

Back at the house, Darcy was taking a moment’s relaxation with his beloved Lizzy. “I declare,” he murmured, “that this will be one of the less-forgettable times here at Pemberley.”

His wife, concerned by the fatigue in her husband’s expression, could only agree. “I am concerned about dearest Jane’s welfare among all these turbulent times. Perhaps, dearest Darcy, we could prevail upon Mr Bingley to take her home — Netherfield would be so restful for her.’”

Darcy smiled fondly at his wife. He knew well the close bond she and her sister had with one another. To this day, he regretted the disquiet and sorrow he had caused the gentle Jane. “My dear, once our guests have gone, then Jane and Bingley may stay here at their leisure. I can conceive of no happier instance of seeing you both together.”

A discreet knock heralded the entrance of the butler, whose usually impassable countenance betrayed some distraction. ”What is to do?” Elizabeth’s voice was edged with concern.

“Ma’am, Mr and Miss Tilney await you in the small salon. They wish to speak to you privately.” Mr and Mrs Darcy suppressed sighs of regret that this brief interlude was ended.

On entering the room designated by the butler, the scene presented to their eyes was nothing other than astonishing. The usually affable Mr Tilney’s face was suffused with anger as he paced back and forth between the window and the fireplace. His sister was seated upon the couch, her aspect troubled indeed. Both the Tilneys turned to face Lizzy and Darcy.

Mr Tilney advanced, agitation in every lineament. “Sir, I have come to … to show you this! What a veritable coil we are in to be sure!” He thrust Catherine Morland’s diary into Darcy’s unresisting hands before seating himself next to his sister.

“What is this?” Darcy was truly puzzled.

“That, sir, is something you do not truly wish to know.” Tilney’s voice betrayed bewilderment and hurt. “It came into my possession via your aunt Lady Catherine.”

Darcy’s expression was shocked. “How so, sir?”

Tilney explained the events in the garden. “It transpires that this — journal — is penned by Miss Morland. I know she is of a fanciful turn of mind, but — sir, I am shocked beyond belief that she should catalogue the events here, and in such a colourful and strange manner.”

Darcy endeavoured to calm the young man. “Surely, this cannot be as bad as you surmise?”

“You think not, Darcy?” Tilney’s tone was somber. “I cannot but wonder at the destruction of our reputations should that book get into the wrong hands.”

Chapter XXVI

At once, the salon door was opened. There, disheveled and panting stood Caroline Bingley.

“A journal, you say? I must see this at once. I cannot be linked to any of the scandalous behavior of Mrs. Darcy’s party for vagrants and ne’er-do-wells,” she sneered.

Attempting to smooth back her hair from her face, Caroline created a worse accompaniment to the turban sitting askew upon her head. Soft brown curls escaped the vibrant blue material, tangling with the exotic peacock feathers dangling from a jeweled perch. Her gloved hand, attempting to tame the curls, betrayed her. The white fingertips were besmirched with soil and was that… blood?

In the next moment, Admiral Wentworth burst into the room, followed by a visibly shaken Mr. Bingley.

“Bingley! Wentworth! Heaven and earth! What is the matter?” exclaimed Darcy.

“Charles, you’re as white as a ghost!” cried Elizabeth.

“You must send for a surgeon at once, Darcy,” said Wentworth with deliberate calmness. “Mrs. Bingley has been … she has been … injured.”

The room fairly erupted in confusion. Bingley announced his intention to ride into town in quest of a surgeon.

“Of course I shall not detain you for a moment,” Darcy said, “but let me go, or let a servant go. You cannot go yourself. Truly you look very ill.”

It was agreed that Mr. Knightley would be asked to ride into town on this errand. Elizabeth could barely stand. “Someone must assist me in attending to my sister while we wait. And we must conceal this dreadful news from the rest of my family for as long possible,” she whispered.

Wentworth, feeling truly solicitous on Mrs. Darcy’s behalf, offered, “I think it should be Miss Anne Elliot. No one is so capable as Anne.”

Darcy, Elizabeth, and Bingley went above stairs to Jane while Wentworth went in quest of Anne Elliot. He knew enough of her character that he felt certain she would be only too glad to oblige her excellent hosts by attending to Mrs. Bingley.

Now Caroline Bingley was caught. She had thought her dear friend Jane had been dispatched entirely. It had not been her intention merely to wound Jane. Upon learning that her sister-in-law was with child, Caroline Bingley had snapped. She had always regarded the erstwhile Miss Bennet as an interloper, and now to find she might produce an heir! It was too much to bear. Miss Bingley had picked up a poker from the fireplace and struck Mrs. Bingley with all the force she could command.

“How can she have survived?” wondered Miss Bingley. “And will she expose me or will her unfailing, yet vastly disagreeable, kindness cause her to protect me?”

Lizzy surveyed Caroline Bingley with contempt as she walked out with Charles. Caroline looked away in fear. It was evident that Lizzy knew her sin. Lizzy cast Darcy a look and he comprehended everything. As he wished Knightley well in pursuit of the surgeon, Lizzy entered the room where her beloved sister was being looked after by Charlotte and Anne.

“Lizzy!”

“Oh, Jane!” Lizzy gripped her sister’s hand and stroked the marks on her face where the poker had cut her.

“I think she’ll be all right, Lizzy,” promised Charlotte.

“But she won’t tell us her attacker’s name,” added Anne.

“I already know,” said Lizzy. “Would you ladies leave us a moment?” The girls agreed and left, shutting door behind them.

“Was it Miss Bingley, Jane?” asked Lizzy. Jane nodded. “Awful woman!” exclaimed Lizzy in anger. “Darcy knows too and we will have to tell Charles.”

“No, Lizzy!” pleaded Jane, grasping her sister’s arm. “You cannot reveal such a thing about his sister! He’ll be distraught!”

“No more distraught than I am, Jane, over almost having lost you. Jane, you mean so much to all of us and we all love and adore you! You must expose her!”

“Lizzy, you must promise me you will not tell a soul, not a soul.”

Lizzy bit her lip, not knowing how to reply to her distressed sister. But she knew Darcy and his sense of righteousness would not be easily controlled. Oh this was not how she expected the day to go. Even if she could convince her Darcy to not tell Charles, she would not herself soon forget what Caroline had done to her poor, sweet sister, and to strike her across the face — how cruel.

It was at that moment that Jane squeezed Lizzy’s hand and said, “Please promise.”

Knowing not what else to do, she said, “For you Jane, I shall not tell a soul and try to get Darcy to agree as well.”

But it was at that moment that the doors to the room burst open and Darcy came in, followed by a struggling Caroline that he was pulling, almost dragging her into the room. Tempers were hot and it seemed like Darcy was going to harm Caroline, when Jane rose up as if to say something, but instead she simply fell back and was silent. Lizzy nearly fainted and Darcy rushed to her side, and Caroline took this moment to escape.

The guests were getting ready to leave now. Mrs. Darcy was tired, and forgetting the episode with Caroline and Jane, went to attend to the others. She was disappointed and angry about Mr. Elton’s scene, that had caused distraction, and she remembered Mr. Willoughby’s narration about Mr. Legitage’s past. She felt that no other moment could be better than this to hear the next of the remaining story. She left the ballroom in search of Mr. Willoughby.

Mr. Willoughby was standing alone in the drawing room where the Dashwood sisters had stayed lately. He saw a handkerchief on a table with an embroidered “W” letter on it. It was still wet with the tears of Miss Marianne Dashwood, who was not feeling well and had spent most of the evening in there. Mr. Willoughby recognized it, for he knew what was the lady’s illness. He folded it neatly and put it back on the table. On top of that, he placed a white rose which he had picked from Mr. Darcy’s rose garden.

Mrs. Darcy entered the room and asked, “Mr. Willoughby! I apologize again for Mr. Elton’s intrusion. Would you do me the honor of narrating the rest of that tale? If you are not busy, of course!” She did not trust him in the slightest, but she wanted to hear the end of that story.

“Anything for you, my dear Mrs. Darcy,” Mr. Willoughby continued. “The rumors about Mr. Legitage’s marriage and the affair with Isabelle had affected no one more than Miss Elliot, who tried to commit suicide by jumping in the lake — just where Mr. Collins used to sit and memorize his sermons. Any man of virtue such as Mr. Collins was would have not let a poor young girl take her life without any reason, so he jumped in too, knowing that he could die.

“But fate was kind to him, and his minor swimming skills had kept him floating on the surface. A group of street urchins were passing by and rescued both of them. Therefore, a mutual friendship was developed between the Collins family and the Elliot family. Miss Elliot’s parents tried to convince her to forget Mr. Legitage, but she refused to do so. Mr. Collins even proposed to her but she rejected him.

“While Mrs. Legitage was gravely ill, she one day received a letter. She was in her chamber, sitting by the fireplace, and she hurriedly broke the seal. When she recognized her son’s handwriting, she sighed in deep relief, but alas, when she read what her son had done, she cried suddenly and fainted.”

Miss Marianne Dashwood spotted Mr. Willoughby talking with Mrs. Darcy and suddenly her knees felt weak again. “Why does this man have such a hold on my heart?” she thought. “This man that is dishonest, a rake, and cares nothing but for ease and comfort without any regard of who he injures. Oh, wretched man, I shall never waste another moment’s thought on him or his handsome, most lovely dimples.”

Miss Dashwood turned to leave the room and ran directly into Mary, who was crossing the room and no doubt heading straight to the cad. Mr. Willoughby looked up and noticed Mary’s approach. Lizzy followed his eyes and could not believe that Mary was heading their way. Was there nothing she could do to dissuade her sister now?

Thinking on her feet, she said, “Oh, Mary, I am so glad you found me, I have been needing your assistance with our dear sister, Jane.”

Mary, looking disappointed, had no choice but to comply with her sister. “Yes, Lizzy, what is it you need?”

“Mary, please go into the study. You will find Jane will need your assistance after the surgeon is done with her. I shall be there directly.”

Mary did as she was told, and Willoughby, looking quite put out, bowed and said, “Mrs. Darcy, I must be taking my leave soon. Most of your guests will be retiring for the evening.”

Lizzy, with her mind still whirling as to what this gentleman was up to, heard herself saying, “Yes, but that does not mean you need to take your leave. We can have a bed chamber made up for you directly. Please stay. I do believe the room next to Colonel Brandon is available. I shall find him and he can escort you to that wing of Pemberley.”

Mr. Willoughby, recognizing that Mrs. Elizabeth Darcy was a woman he could not fool with charm and words, felt he should comply. “That is most generous of you, Mrs. Darcy. I thank you for this offer. I will search out the Colonel myself, as I know you must be busy with so many guests to attend to.”

Before Lizzy could say another word, Willoughby bowed and took his leave with such rapidity that Lizzy was left standing there thinking that she may have just done a most foolish thing by giving him more time to wreak havoc at Pemberley and upon her loved ones. Meanwhile, where was everyone? The ballroom was empty of guests, and the servants were attending to their cleaning. Mrs. Darcy decided to head back to Jane to see if Mary was safe and out of Willoughby’s sight.

Lizzy opened the door to the study and, much to her surprise, there was no Jane in sight — just Mr. Brook and Charlotte standing by the window in an embrace.

Chapter XXVII

Both Mr. Brook and Charlotte looked up as Lizzy entered and took a step away from one another. Lizzy, with a momentary look of shock, quickly regained her wits and said, “I am so sorry to disturb you. I was only looking for my sister, Jane,” and closed the door.

It was then that Lizzy heard a girlish giggle from the study, and she reflected with a smile that she had not heard Charlotte laugh like that since they were young girls. At the same time, Miss Catherine Morland was standing in the hallway looking quite distressed. “What is the matter Miss Morland?”

“Oh, Mrs. Darcy, I cannot find my diary! It has completely vanished from Pemberley.”

“Is that all, Miss Morland? I can assure you that we will be able to locate it by tomorrow morning.” She chuckled, for she knew exactly where it was.

“Yes, thank you, Mrs. Darcy — but I must tell you, some of my entries should not be read in the way they might first appear. I have had, for a long time, the ambition to become a lady novelist, but it has been a secret known only to myself, as I dared not divulge it to anyone, not even my own family. I had thought, at first, to write of the world I myself know – three or four families in a country village seemed the very thing to work on. And then I read the works of Mrs Radcliffe and a whole new world opened before my eyes — a world of brigands, and vampyres, and abandoned maidens, and villainous monks, and I was quite vanquished!

“The dearest wish of my heart became to write such a work myself, and I have since been practicing the art privately, in that very diary. Thinking no-one would ever see it but me, I have been making up stories in a Gothic vein, and using the names of those about me, making them into dastardly villains and wronged heroines – but how could I have been so foolish! How could I have not guessed what would happen if anyone were to find that diary, and read my silly stories as if they were true!”

Mrs Darcy raised her eyebrows and considered what she had heard. “My dear Miss Morland,” she said, patting her gently on the arm. “There is no need to become distressed. I should think a work of such intrigue and delights ought to be shared with the world, not hidden away in a locked drawer!”

Catherine looked askance. “But surely — a lady of your sensibilities cannot approve of such writings! They are not fitting –”

“Hush, dear,” Mrs Darcy continued and narrowed her eyes. “I agree they are not fit to be published under your own name – that would be most unseemly indeed. But what if you were to take a pseudonym? And that of a man? Who should find that so bothersome then? Send them to a London publisher, my dear, and see what might come of it. I hear London readers are only too keen to delight in the scurrilous tales of which you describe!” And she winked at Catherine before leaving the room.

Lizzy left with much more on her mind than before. Her thoughts suddenly turned back to what she had witnessed of her dearest friend. Charlotte had come out of the room in hopes of finding her friend Lizzy to share the news. Upon reaching Lizzy she was elated to have found her so quickly.

“My dearest friend.” Charlotte enthusiastically stated. “Oh Lizzy I have much to tell you. What a day this has been.”

Elizabeth had not had the chance to reach Charlotte to speak to her properly. “Please forgive my intrusion on you and Mr. Brook. I had not intended to interrupt the two of you.”

Charlotte gave a slight smile. “No need for that. I have such news to tell you dearest. I first must explain that I am much in shock by everything. Mr. Brook and I are childhood acquaintances!” Elizabeth had a look of shock. “I know Lizzy what you must be thinking. For Mr. Brook and I were just hardly five when we last saw each other. We were but no less than eight years of age.”

“My goodness Charlotte, how? I mean pray do continue.”

Charlotte gave Lizzy a look that was matter-of-fact. “Well Mr. Brook. When he saw me tonight it took him a while to place me, but once he knew without a doubt it was me — his Charlotte of long ago — his childhood friend almost lost forever.” Charlotte took a steady breath. “Lizzy, we were just playmates but there had been something there at a tender young age. We grew up away from each other never to be in touch or seen from again.”

Elizabeth could scarcely believe all she was hearing. “But now, Charlotte. Just now, in the room, you two were what?” She spoke hastily, wanting to know about the present.

“It pains me to say all of this out loud, Lizzy — to say aloud what is going on inside of me. I can’t help but feel like I am about to tread on dangerous and forbidden ground, and you know I am not the bravest person there is.”

Charlotte let out a small nervous laugh while carefully avoiding her friend’s eyes. “I remember lying in bed when I was younger, thinking of what it could have been like. Having a suitor like Mr. Brook, receiving carefully written love letters from the hand of someone special and dear to me. Hoping he would one day perhaps look at me with his own familiar eyes, but with a different gaze. A look of love, instead of simply friendship.

“But … time passed. Months turned into years and I, as a young woman, turned into a so-called spinster. Collins appeared and — well — I had no choice. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time! You agree, don’t you, Lizzy? You understand, right?”

Before Elizabeth could open her mouth, Charlotte softly laid her fingers on her friend’s arm. “I had feelings for Mr. Collins, I did. And I wanted and tried to be the best wife I could possibly be. And I know I should be wearing only black and should think only about mourning my late husband, but this is different! A small smile appeared on Charlotte’s face. “So different. It feels like… like love. Actually.”

The smile was infectious. Elizabeth’s eyes danced as she surveyed her friend. “At last, Charlotte,” she said, “at last you can comprehend what I feel every time I look at my husband.”

“It is astonishing,’ Charlotte breathed. “It is as if — as if I were reborn. Oh Lizzy, tell me that it will never end!”

Elizabeth could understand her beloved friend Charlotte. Real love was not an easy thing to find, and Lizzy knew it could give sweetness and pain. She really wanted Charlotte to be happy, and Mr Brook was the man of her dreams. And besides, Lizzy knew that Collins’ remembrance would always remain in everyone who had known the Canon. Charlotte was not a woman without a soul; she could remember her husband and the good qualities he possessed, because like every other human being — he had some.

But now she had fallen under the spell of real love.

Nearby, in the music room of Pemberley, Elinor Dashwood had fallen almost sleep in one of the armchairs. She was dreaming about Norland; there were beautiful images of Margaret playing with puppets, his mother sewing and Marianne playing the pianoforte. The sweet notes caressed her ears, and she could remember the good times when her dad was there with them. Oh, happy times!

Suddenly, she felt an instant breeze and she woke up, but the music was still playing. There he was: Mr Ferrars.

“Oh, Mr Ferrars!” she said with a surprised face.

“Oh, Miss Dashwood! I thought I was alone! I didn’t feel in the mood for sleeping yet, after so many incidents, but I wanted to be alone with my thoughts, and music relaxes me,” he said nervously.

Elinor was deeply happy to find this small secret, and she moved next to him. “Mr Ferrars, this has been a surprise for me. But do not worry: I was woken up in the most beautiful way. And fortunately for you, I was not my sister Marianne. She cannot believe that people who struggle with poetry can have musical tastes.”

Edward looked at her soft, pale face in the moonlight, and staring into her eyes, he answered: “Maybe, I don’t have the easiness of some people to read Shakespeare’s poems, but I think that inside, I have the soul to feel them.”

Chapter XXVIII

Love and felicity were in the air, even for Miss Bates. To actually be introduced to the mother of Mrs Fitzwilliam Darcy by the obliging Mrs Knightley! Miss Bates could not have been happier.

“Mrs Bennet! What a pleasure it is to meet you! Such fine daughters you have! And such splendid gowns! Such fine, expensive Indian muslin! Indeed, I do think it’s Indian muslin. It must be Indian muslin, for I am sure I have seen it before. My niece, Jane Fairfax, whom Miss Woodhouse — O! Dear me! I mean Mrs Knightley. I always forget these things, do I not? Of course, you would not know because we have just been introduced! –- must have mentioned before, had a few similar gowns bestowed upon her by her excellent husband; he is always so very obliging!”

Mrs Bennet was mortified. Her daughter, Mrs Fitzwilliam Darcy, to be compared to a woman without half dear Lizzy’s connections? It was deemed intolerable. At Miss Bates’ kindly meant words, Mrs Bennet’s complexion reddened and contorted. A group of bystanders, happening to overhear and see what was going on, immediately dispersed lest things should get out of hand.

“I am sure,” said Mrs Bennet, “that you have never seen the like of my dear Lizzy’s dress; indeed I deem it impossible.”

“Impossible? Surely not, Mrs Bennet! Frank Churchill — my niece’s husband — has such a fine eye for muslin!”

This repudiation proved intolerable for Mrs Bennet’s spirits. Accusing Miss Bates of severe “insociability,” she opened her fan, cried, opened a bottle of smelling salts, and stormed off. Miss Bates, not fully realizing what had just happened, simply wondered if Jane’s gowns really were made of muslin.

As it happened, Pemberley had the fortune of being rather large, for three members of the party had managed to seclude themselves and had missed most of the excitement that had fallen upon this evening. Mr Bennet, Lady Russell, and Mr Woodhouse had removed themselves to a quieter location without knowing of the latest scandal, which suited all three.

Lady Russell and Mr Bennet had always been firm friends; however, Mr Woodhouse was a new acquaintance, so they talked of what all three knew too well: young ladies. Luckily, Mr Woodhouse’s daughter had married a good friend and kept the families of Knightley and Woodhouse firmly cemented.

Mr Bennet had the luck of having five daughters, two making great connections. As for his youngest, he was still unsure what measures he was meant to take. His favourite, Lizzy, had not invited her to Pemberley, and yet she came, with her fool of a husband.

Lady Russell was still thinking of the pain she had caused her beloved Anne, upon seeing how Wenthworth and Anne had looked at each other. She felt horrible of the connection she had placed Anne in now. With so much imparted, Mr. Bennet, Mr. Woodhouse, and Lady Russell sat in thoughtful silence.

If Lady Russell had but known of the astounding revelation made about Legitage, she would have been utterly shocked. And in her shock, she would have been tested: did she truly regret her role in separating Anne and forcing her to the connection? If so, was she willing to take steps to repair the damage? These are telling questions — and her answers would be more so — if she knew. But as of yet, the three sat in companionable silence — murmuring now and again, sharing observations they made of the ball before hiding.

Mr Woodhouse was most concerned at the late — or was it early now? — hour the ball was extending to. Surely it was not safe for such young ladies to still be dancing in the early morning air? The ballroom was sure to be hot and then they would open a window — he shuddered.

Mr Bennet, seeing his new friend shudder, questioned him — offering to get him a glass of wine? Mr Woodhouse declined, but explained his concerns. With a start, Lady Russell realized she had not heard the faint whisper of orchestral strains in quite some time. “My friends, do you note the silence? Has the evening progressed without us?” she asked, rising — somewhat reluctantly — from her chair.

Mr Bennet hurriedly rose to his own feet, motioning to Mr Woodhouse to stay seated. “My dear Lady Russell, I do believe you’re right. Should we go see how things progress? Perhaps there’s a tasty bit of supper to be had before breakfast!” Lady Russell accepted Mr Bennet’s arm, and they went in search of the action.

They had but barely started their quest when a surgeon nearly stampeded them, closely followed by none other than Mr Knightley!

“Heavens above! What on earth is the matter? Don’t let Mr Woodhouse know about this — Knightley, is it Emma?” Lady Russell exclaimed.

“No, no — I was but messenger. It is Mrs Bingley, I’m afraid. She suffered an — well, that is — ah, she had need of help,” floundered Mr Knightley, at a loss as to how much he should reveal. Thankfully, Mr Bennet and Lady Russell were more concerned over the news than the curious manner in which it was delivered. Mr Bennet was especially perturbed — his eldest, dear Jane! Oh my!

Together, the group proceeded to the quiet room where Jane had been moved. A more private room than the library, she could rest in peace until further comfort could be administered. At about the same time the surgeon, Mr Knightley, Mr Bennet, and Lady Russell arrived, Lizzy, Charlotte, and Mr Brook also found Jane’s new location. Mr Bingley looked up in visible relief to see Knightley return – with the surgeon.

“Thanks goodness you’re here! What’s wrong with her? Can you fix it? Will she recover? Will it scar? She’s been bleeding!” he rushed.

Lizzy quietly surveyed the room — so many people crowded around dear Jane. This needed to be changed: the surgeon needed space. Drawing on her waning reserves, she summoned her Mistress of Pemberley air and calmly informed everyone other than Mary, Charlotte, and Charles to leave the room — at once. Their concern and assistance was deeply appreciated, but their continued aid would be better employed circulating quietly through the still-large group of guests dispersing among Pemberley’s grounds.

There had been far too much indiscretion flaunted in these dignified halls. Knowing Lady Russell and Mr Knightley to be very refined, she turned her home to their capable hands, and bid them good luck in the process. As the dismissed parties began to find the right place to carry out Mrs Fitzwilliam Darcy’s wishes, they discovered her well-wishes were quite necessary.

Mr Knightley immediately set to the task. As a man of not a few years, he was quick to attend to guests’ needs — however, not so quick to predict them accurately. A bowl of punch was brought in, and a small serve of broth to appease the more delicate of the party, and yet it was sustenance of another sort that was generally craved by the group: quenching of the human need for gossip, to know of intrigue, and to hear immediately what was happening in the room of Jane’s current residence. It was this, and only this, information he was unwilling to impart.

The only activity agreed to upon all sides was a poetry reading, or a selection of riddles, argued for by Mrs Bennet on the commonly held assumption that when another is talking, one’s own voice cannot be heard, regardless of how loud. Keats, Tennyson… all immediately were cast off as too steep for such a setting. And so it came to be that each person should find a partner, the pairs creating their own charade — a pleasant notion indeed! — before meeting back together in a small amount of time — ten, nay, fifteen minutes — for all witticisms to be displayed.

Mr Knightley felt the endeavour had been far too simple to devise, and after but three minutes, he noticed a swish of coat tails as Mr Woodhouse — he supposed from a quick glance over the room — departed. It was not Mrs Darcy’s wish, nor that of any a suitable hostess, to have guests crawling the grounds away from all company. And so he quickly took up pace endeavouring to offer assistance to the kind, yet confused, gentleman.

He cannot have gone far, Knightley reasoned, with the shuffling limp with which he walked. And yet, as he exited the room, he neither heard nor saw him. Something that felt like anxiety caused his hand to tremble and betray his own feelings to himself. This was so unlike Mr Woodhouse, so uncharacteristic that he was surprised he had not noticed the discrepancy before. He turned down a corridor, assuming his limp would have prevented an ascension of the staircase to his right. He walked briskly through it, noticing several open doors but could see no occupants.

Mr. Knightley found himself becoming increasingly concerned with the whereabouts of Mr. Woodhouse. Perhaps he had been mistaken. Just to be sure that he had not inadvertently missed Mr. Woodhouse, he checked each room before ascending the staircase. Once at the corridor, he stopped suddenly, hearing a loud thump from behind one of the doorways.

With trepidation, he approached the door and, taking a deep breath, placed his strong hand on the doorknob and turned it. There, he found himself in a state of shock. This had not been what he was expecting. It appeared he had found Mr. Woodhouse — with Miss. Bates.

Mr. Knightley closed the door softly behind him. Some things should be private, and his father-in-law’s brief attempt at happiness was one of them.

Further down the corridor, behind a closed door, Bingley knelt on the floor beside his beloved wife, her hand in his hand. The surgeon hovered over her, staunching the blood and sewing a cut beneath her hairline. As the needle entered her skin, Jane neither flinched nor cried out. Instead, she tightened the grip on her husband’s hand.

“You’re quite a woman, Mrs. Bingley,” the surgeon whispered in her ear, “quite a woman!” The laudanum had finally taken effect, and she did not hear.

“Jane!” shouted her husband, but the surgeon hushed him. “Let her sleep and heal now.”

Bingley, head down, could only murmur, “Who? Who could do this to my Jane?”

Mary, unable to contain her anger, blurted out, “Ask your sister!”

Shocked by Mary’s forceful statement, Mr. Bingley stood speechless, but for only a moment. “Please stay with our dear Jane,” he said in a tone unusual for him. It was both quiet and deadly. He was away before anything else could be said and soon located his sister Louisa staring out a window through which a full morning light would soon appear.

“Louisa.” She started, though his voice was soft.

“Heavens!” she exclaimed, her hand to her breast, “you nearly frightened me to death.” She looked over at her husband, exhibiting little concern that he might have been stirred from his sodden slumber. Indeed, it was a wonder to behold a man in full evening dress unconscious in such an upright sitting position. He had last spoken about an hour ago when he asked expressly to be awakened when breakfast made an appearance.

Mr. Bingley’s normally affable expression was grim, his eyes burning into her in a manner she had never seen. She shuddered. “I’ll more than scare you if you don’t immediately explain what has happened to Jane.”

“I don’t know anything about it! I’ve been right here at this window. I haven’t seen Caroline at all!” She faltered, realizing even she did not believe her plea. The feather in her turban bobbed as she shook her head. “I mean, Caroline…she…I don’t know anything really, but she…Caroline…she…”

“What do you know, Louisa?” His eyes held her captive.

Her husband interjected a small snore. “Oh, dear. All I know is Caroline came and told me she’d been resting for at least an hour if anyone should ask. And then she left.”

Mr. Bingley showed her a look of contempt and turned sharply on his heel to leave. She scurried after him to the door to watch him stride purposefully away. “Wake up, damn you!” she cried out to her husband. Being in her little brother’s good graces was important to both of them. All three of them. God only knew where the events of this evening would lead.

In the meantime, Mr. Brook found himself to be most anxious as he recalled his encounter with Charlotte. He, who had not expected to have his spirits such lifted in the course of the ball, was feeling so very full of joy — happy to have found something which he had not been looking for, but having at last found it, at once knew it was all he needed.

Yet, he could not but wonder if Charlotte would accept him, considering the unfortunate events that had preceded her presence that evening. He could wait no longer: he must speak to her at once. Whatever time was needed to pass for them to be finally together, he would wait.

He recollected with pleasure Charlotte’s sweet smile and gentle gaze, but she had not said one word regarding his declarations of love. What if, despite her feelings for him, she was determined to mourn her late husband, as would be expected? He was half agony, half hope. He must take his leave, but he would return on the morrow.

Downstairs, in the entry hall, quite a procession of weary bodies had formed. Lady Catherine, Lady Russell, and the Admiral and Mrs. Croft, having had their fill of scandal and intrigue, were preparing to depart. Goodbyes and well wishes were doled out, some sincere, others far from it, and a host of servants swarmed the doors, ready to assist as needed.

“Out of my way, girl!” Lady Catherine barked, directing her command at a young maid who obligingly retreated into a corner. At that same moment, without warning, the grand entrance of Pemberley was thrust open by a monstrous gust of wind that sent sheets of dagger-like rain inside and drenched all in its path, including Lady Catherine, who cried out in frustration.

Those gathered stared out at the sky, which was now black as coal and criss-crossed with a near constant barrage of lightning bolts. “What is this now?” Darcy bellowed, to everyone, to anyone, to no-one in particular.

His dearest Lizzy, fatigued to the point of giddy alertness, laughed childishly aloud. It was one of those peculiar moments when so many things had gone horribly wrong, one can only embrace the ridiculousness of it all. “Duels, highwaymen, sisterly assaults? Compared to all that, is this storm not wonderful?”

To the astonishment of all, their exemplary host, Mrs. Darcy, sprinted out into the perilous rain and embraced the downpour. It clamored mightily upon her head, drenching her gown and — somehow — liberating her from the suffocating tassels of adulthood.

Mr. Darcy looked on lovingly at his wife. It reminded him so viscerally of the time she had walked from Longbourn to Netherfield, the mud squishing in her shoes and those fine eyes, so vibrant, as they bewitched him into glorious infatuation. That there were judgmental guests, such as Lady Catherine, mattered not to him. Nothing was going to separate him from that angel dearest to him on this Earth!

He dashed out into the thunder, spinning and sliding ecstatically as all the anxieties of the evening evaporated from his pores. It was then, dripping as if he had swam serendipitously in the Pemberley lake, that he exclaimed, “This weather is sure to keep us boarded up another night. How about another ball?”

“And this time,” Mrs. Darcy added with a smirk, “we do it right!”

Chapter XXIX

“I’ll assume the task of invitations, and shall look over the ornamentation and finer details. I promise it shall be wonderful,” Mr. Darcy said with a twinkle in his eye.

Elizabeth smiled. “We’d best retreat inside,” she said. The thunder and lightning had begun to strike relentlessly, unnerving the couple. “I cannot imagine that THIS ball will be full of anywhere as near the amount of surprise as the past couple of days have been full of,” said Mrs. Darcy. Approaching the door step, she looked back at Mr. Darcy. “I will be perfectly pleased with the frivolity of settling on a dress, I can assure you of that.”

Mr. and Mrs. Darcy looked the picture of disheveled as they sauntered back inside. Lady Catherine, with a contemptuous smile on her face, made no attempt to hide her revulsion at the sight of a respectable, wealthy, distinguished pair appearing in this state. And at Pemberley, no less! Under her breath, she remarked “Not entirely astonishing, I suppose. I’ve come to expect no less from Mrs. Darcy.” Elizabeth heard this, but obviously took Lady Catherine’s words as having very little significance.

“The countryside is lovely in a downpour. I cannot argue that anything is quite as refreshing as the air outside at a time like this!” Mrs. Darcy continued. “The notion of new beginnings, or change; may be hard to grasp for some with limited… audacious experiences, but for those who are so fortunate to appreciate nature as I do, no pleasure is greater.” And with that, Elizabeth left Lady Catherine taken aback and utterly speechless.

Mrs. Bennet was looking out the Pemberley window and viewed Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth coming back into the ballroom from the thunderous weather outside. “What a perfect match in all facets,” she thought. “I hope this ball never ends, and pray, maybe there will be another,” she giggled, silly.

A servant then came to pour more punch in Mrs. Bennet’s once-again empty glass. He then whispered a few sentences in confidence. Suddenly, Mrs. Bennet’s glass of punch smashed to bits onto Pemberley’s marble floor.

She had only just now heard of the events unfolded regarding Jane and Caroline Bingley. She could no longer sustain footing. She nearly fainted. In her despair, she slowly moved one foot in front of the other, trying to reach her Jane. Her hands were trembling nervously and the tears started to swell up in their sockets.

“What kind of mother have I been?” she thought to herself. She had taken no notice of Jane but instead spent the evening drinking in merriment, gossiping, and suitor-watching for her other single daughters.

She took more steps but still moved cautiously through the audience as to not draw attention to herself. She screened the audience for Mr. Bennet but, blinded with love of beautiful Jane, she could not make him out. All colour left her face and her tears began to impede her vision.

“Mrs Bennet, are you alright. Can I be of assistance to you?” Charlotte said. Charlotte put her hand out to help Mrs. Bennet and lightly touched the nape of her back to hold her steady. Mrs. Bennet then turned and looked at Charlotte.

“Do not touch me,” she whispered to Charlotte with a coldness unseen in Mrs. Bennet before. Charlotte looked at Mrs. Bennet in utter shock; she could not believe the temperament she was witnessing!

“Mrs. Bennet, you’re shaking, please allow me to call upon Mr. Darcy or Mr. Brook to attend to you! I can find Mr. Bennet on your behalf,” Charlotte said consolingly,

Mrs. Bennet stared directly at Charlotte and moved away slightly from her, still trembling violently in the hands, but her words soon became as stabs to the heart.

“I said, do not touch me for I am in a foul disposition. Do you think, Charlotte, because you carry Mr. Collins’ child that you are superior to me? Do you think that because Mr. Brook has shown you a little attention that you are somebody amongst this assembly? I tell you here today, Ms. Lucas-Collins, you can marry whomever you want, give birth to whatever creature you like, live in whatever palace you so desire, but in my eyes, you will always be a plain, ordinary, hard-featured spinster and a complete nobody for as long as I live!”

Mrs. Bennet then let out a resounding groan, put her hands in her face, screamed for Mr. Bennet, then violently burst through the crowd in search of Jane but leaving poor Charlotte with no chance of a recovery from the painful, verbal wounds to her heart.

The shrill cries of Mrs Bennet could be heard across Pemberley. Caroline Bingley, safely hidden — at least for the present moment — in one of the smaller and less frequented rooms of the great house, toyed absentmindedly with the ribbons of the bonnet she had even now placed on her head. The fire which had coursed through her during the incident with the poker had been somewhat dulled since the encounter; but Mrs Bennet’s rousing cry for her husband set Caroline’s heart beating anew.

Abandoning the ribbons, she sat regally in her chair and examined the storm-drenched grounds of Pemberley through the window. Outwardly calm, inside Caroline Bingley raged with questions she hardly dared to answer. She wondered, idly, if a lady such as herself could be arrested, but dismissed the thought. She had once visited the Tower of London as a girl, and been impressed with the gloomy, Shakespearean facade. But she smiled now, to think that the insufferable Mrs Darcy and her lapdog of a husband could bring about Caroline’s imprisonment.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of heavy footsteps in the adjoining hallway. She looked up, preparing for the sight of her avenging brother, or Elizabeth. But the tread was unmistakably a man’s, and when the door opened, slowly and reluctantly, she saw a creeping figure beyond the doorway, dressed in muddy and ragged clothes, and with a a cloth sack over its shoulder. Caroline recognised him as one of the highway men — but had they not been rounded up and taken away? Clearly, he was up to no good. Caroline smiled a snake-like smile as the door creaked open to reveal the man.

It was the same scoundrel who had accosted Charlotte, alone and with child, when she had taken refuge in the summer breakfast-parlour. Only now he was enraged by having been deprived of the prize he sought — not only the rumoured treasure-coffers of Pemberley but the person of the lovely young woman he had so fortuitously discovered, alone and afraid.

But now, fortune seemed to be favouring him once more, as another young woman was now before him, apparently in the same predicament, apparently equally defenceless. But little did he know what an adversary he had encountered, little did he know what an opponent he was accosting, for as he advanced towards her, a lascivious grin distorting his hideous swarthy features, Miss Caroline took one look at him and raised an elegant eyebrow.

“My lady,” the highwayman said, attempting a gallantry he had never known. And it would have failed — in normal circumstances — except Caroline had been so mercilessly beaten down by rejection and scorn, that she rather fancied the attention.

“Good sir,” she imparted coquettishly. “I am a lady — and you are…who?”

“Sidney Carton!” the scoundrel announced proudly. It was a name not all that popular amongst the Pemberley crowd, but Caroline had long since distanced herself from those inferiors.

It is often said that people with attributes in common are destined for great love affairs, and Caroline and Sidney shared one great commonality: they were both wanted for assault, that very night! Suddenly, Caroline was struck by a benevolent — though mischievous — idea, an idea far far better than any she had conceived of that evening, or ever done. She was going to turn this gruff, unkempt puppet of a man into a gentleman!

“Repeat after me,” she commanded. “The rain in Pemberley stays mainly in the lake!”

Mr Carton blinked at Miss Bingley, incomprehension in his countenance and mien. “Er, what in the deuce is that supposed to mean?”

Caroline Bingley, never the most patient of souls, sighed gustily as she surveyed the gentleman of the road. “Mr Carton, it is that you learn to comport yourself as a gentleman should — in speech, manner and dress.” She shook her head. “As to the latter…I have no means of knowing what to do on that score. Still, the other deficiencies may be remedied somewhat.”

Caroline bade Mr Carton sit upon the chaise while she paced the room. This unaccustomed role of instructress was strange to her, yet exhilarating. Also, to have an ally among this melee of inferiors and enemies would be to her advantage. At length, she came to a decision.

“Sir. You and I must try to escape this place and the horrid people. Have you a horse?’

“Why, yes, Ma’am — but it is some way away from the house. We would need to cross some open parkland…”

Miss Bingley waved aside his caveats with imperiousness. “Come, sir, do not be such a milquetoast; let us leave — and now. I know of an exit from the servants’ staircase.” So saying, she and her accomplice shadowed their way out of Pemberley. At once, the howling of dogs rent the air.

Chapter XXX

Knowing that the master and mistress of the house were in their separate apartments, changing into dry clothes, Wentworth, Knightley, Tilney, Crawford, and Brandon all rushed out of doors toward the sound. The thunderstorm had abated into a fine mist and a brilliant sun had risen, causing every leaf and blade of grass to sparkle and casting rainbows everywhere one looked. The gentlemen, however, did not notice the beauty of the morning.

Colonel Brandon, in particular, had a high regard for all of his fellow creatures, especially for dogs. He was concerned that the howling dogs on the Pemberley estate may be injured or endangered in some way. It did not take long, however, for the five heroes to discover what the matter was. Behind the greenhouse, and near a small natural stream of some importance, the men came upon Caroline Bingley and Sidney Carton.

The unfortunate pair were found in a state of partial undress. Miss Bingley’s hair was loose and cascading down her back. They were wrapped in each other’s arms and surrounded by a ring of barking and howling dogs. Tilney and Crawford, being the youngest of the gentlemen who had gone to investigate the noise, had come upon this remarkable scene before the others. Both nearly collapsed in laughter at the absurdity of the entire debacle.

As the other gentlemen caught up, they too began to laugh uproariously. Miss Bingley, who had never known any genuine admiration from a man, also began to laugh at her own predicament. Having very little choice now, Carton was soon laughing out loud as well. Mr. and Mrs. Darcy and all their guests and servants wondered what could possibly be happening to occasion all this loud laughter mixed with the sounds of baying and barking dogs, so early in the morning. Soon, Darcy too began to chuckle. Pemberley, he mused, had probably not known such a noisy morning these five and twenty years.

Brandon and Tilney both grabbed an arm, each pulling Sidney Carton up to his feet. Mr. Crawford offered his hand to Caroline and she was more than happy to oblige the gallant-looking gentleman. Brandon and Tilney were walking at such a pace towards the great house that they were well ahead of Mr. Crawford and Caroline, when Brandon called back to Crawford to escort Miss Bingley to the study. Mr. Crawford responded with a devilish smile, having quite an alternative plan.

“Yes, Colonel, we shall be there directly.”

Brandon sensed a somewhat sardonic tone in Crawford’s answer and turned his head around and, seeing that the gentleman and Miss Bingley were following the same identical path, concluded that his tired mind and body must have imagined it. Crawford, already having had the great pleasure of dealing with the Master of Pemberley earlier in the evening, did not want to have it repeated now. Knowing that he would not be a welcome sight to Mr. Darcy, and that he was not going to be going anywhere near Darcy’s study, he pulled Caroline aside behind a tree and, pulling her close in, whispered in her ear, “Miss Bingley, I do believe we could help one another out of this predicament.”

Caroline tried not to show her pleasure at Mr. Crawford’s lips so close to her lips as she turned her head. Taking a moment to steady herself, she answered with a breathless voice, “Mr. Crawford what could possibly be your meaning? Am I to understand a gentleman such as yourself is in need of assistance from a lady presently wanted for assault?”

Crawford could not help but laugh aloud at Miss Bingley’s response, being cognizant that Miss Bingley’s inviting eyes suggested that they not follow Colonel Brandon’s directions and leave Pemberley together in his gig, being well away from the estate before anyone would notice their absence. Miss Bingley, well aware of Mr. Crawford’s reputation but also knowing that he did have some money to live on, considered his invitation.

Caroline also considered the likelihood of her future including a gentleman of rank after her behavior towards Jane. It would not be long before all of London’s high society had learned of the tale of the Pemberley ball. She was also feeling quite warm from this handsome gentleman’s proximity and knew she had no other good alternatives. Mr. Crawford’s voice broke her thoughts.

“Miss Bingley, we do not have much time. If we mean to get a good distance before we are missed, we must leave immediately.”

Caroline kissed him directly on his lips and said, “Before this night, I never thought you were a handsome man, but you grow comelier by the minute.” To herself she added, “And taller, too.”

Crawford smiled a secret smile, relieved that his famous charms had come to his rescue yet again. He would live to sport and love again. He led the now-bedraggled Caroline to a nearby tree to which his favorite hunter was tied. “Your mount, my lady,” he said mockingly to the over-eager Caroline.

His speech was interrupted by an over-eager Sidney Carton, who bellowed to Caroline, “You’d throw me over for this small, under-hung excuse of a man? He doesn’t even wear a pink cloak!”

Even though she knew the importance of making a swift escape, Caroline savored the fact that two men were fighting over her! But which should she choose: the higher ranked or the taller, bolder man?

A man of high rank clearly had advantages, but then again — well, a small man would surely be more biddable and likely to bend to her ways? She took a moment to recollect memories of a childhood pet, a lapdog named Arthur who had accompanied her on many a joyous excursion. Ah, how sweet he had been and so eager to please! She smiled, remembering their time together, when he had looked up with such doting eyes, allowing her to groom him and pet him at will.

Yes, a lapdog for a suitor would be most agreeable, she decided, and thought it time she resolved the matter forthwith. However, Sidney clearly had other ideas; with a roar, he thrust past her and launched himself at Crawford, his nostrils flaring and fists raised in a most alarming manner, asserting himself as top dog.

Sidney had no intention of backing down with fists taking much needed jabs at Mr. Crawford.

“I say, Mr. Crawford, keep yourself away from Miss Bingley. For she is a woman of virtue who should be treated as such.”

Another punch was fiercely thrown at Mr. Crawford’s abdomen. While Mr. Crawford doubled over in pain, Caroline could scarcely believe what she was witnessing. Clearly these two men were wanting to win her heart. What shall she do? Should she put an end to this?

Caroline Bingley was deeply impressed by the fight. Some more well-read women, like Mary, would think that fighting was a savage habit, but Miss Bingley always preferred not to be singular, and never preferred books to cards. Some hearts were going to be shocked very soon, too.

Marianne saw Edward Ferrars, and she decided to go straight to talk to him. She had been absent, thinking about Willoughby during the ball, but now she was having a chance to be generous and look for her sister’s sake. Mr Ferrars’ affair with Miss Lucy Steele had been public and condemned by his family, but Colonel Brandon, more generous than she could think, gave him the Delaford Parsonage. At that point, Elinor and Marianne decided to go to London and Marianne found out about her sister’s feelings. She could not understand why Edward was at the ball; it could only mean the end of his engagement, but civility had prevented sincerity.

When she was near to Edward, Edward was talking to George Knightley, who said, “Now that we are alone, what about the wedding? I suppose that Mrs Ferrars was not happy.”

Edward sadly answered, “Yes, you know my mother. It was hard for me, too, but I suppose it had to be done.”

Marianne became puzzled and ran out of the room. She was almost crying, she was so sad: “Mr. Ferrars was a good man. I suppose I had too big an imagination again,” she thought. So Edward had finally married! She never thought he could be that cynical, appearing at the ball, dancing with her beloved sister! No, it could not be! She was so nervous to the point of losing her sight, and she bumped into Brandon, who had entered into that corridor.

“…But I suppose it had to be done.”

Edward Ferrars nodded with a serious look on his face, staring into the distance, his mind occupied with something — rather someone — else completely.

“I actually was really surprised to hear the news. I mean…” George Knightley continued, trying to find the right words. “Emma completely understood the decision. She never liked Lucy. But canceling a wedding two days beforehand…that’s not you, Edward!” George laughed and a shy smile appeared on the other man’s face.

“I just couldn’t go through with it, no matter what my mother said or what society would think. My heart belongs to someone else.”

George laughed out loud, recognizing love in his companion’s eyes straight away. He knew the feeling himself all too well. “Someone else, hm? Now that doesn’t come as a surprise, my friend, not a surprise at all…!”

Chapter XXXI

A slight smile flashed briefly across Mr. Ferrars’ face, momentarily illuminating an otherwise wistful expression. “I do believe I shall go see about a bed, my good friend, before fatigue overcomes me and I fall asleep on the spot.”

Mr. Knightley chuckled slightly in response. “I ought to follow your lead,” he said. “We have been up all night, after all! I suppose, though, that I should first locate my wife!”

At that, both men had a good laugh before parting ways, one in search of the love of his life, the other seeking a means to the dreams that would allow him access to the one for whom his heart ardently beat. Turning a rather dimly lit corner, thinking of the ecstasy he was sure to feel upon allowing his head to sink into a pillow for the first time in nearly twenty hours, Mr. Ferrars did not notice the figure of a woman tucked into a shadowy recess in a nearby wall.

Before she had a chance to reveal herself to Mr. Ferrars, another door opened down the hallway. It was Mr. Darcy, walking with a purpose not to be ignored. When he spied Edward, he said, “Follow me if you will, I fear I might need some assistance with a matter that I fear…is soon to get out of control.”

Edward thought he would ask Darcy the nature of this matter, but Darcy was already around the corner so Edward sought to close the space that separated them; after all, Darcy was the host. When they reached the bottom of the stairs, Darcy caught sight of Knightley and asked him to join their party. Ferrars and Knightley fell into pace behind Darcy, still without a clue where the small group was headed. Darcy, seeming to be most irritated, slowed his pace and explained to his companions that he had seen two men throwing blows out of the window of his rooms as he was changing his clothes. Being master of the estate, this was now his affair to handle.

They came upon Crawford and Sidney swinging at each other. Both men looked tired and beaten, so when ordered to cease this fight and explain themselves, they did not put up a fight. Crawford was looking around for Caroline but she was nowhere to be seen. Sidney also was spouting something about Caroline.

Darcy thought to himself he should have asked her to leave after the earlier incident with Jane. But alas, he left Knightley and Ferrars with these two men to sort this out and went in search of Caroline and, of course, Mrs. Darcy.

Intelligent as he was (and equipped with a full knowledge of Caroline’s character and the tension between her and his dear Elizabeth, now and before), Darcy understood the importance of locating Caroline before she might happen to stumble upon any member of the Bennet family that she loathed, or even worse, Elizabeth herself.

There had been a time when Caroline was quite fond of Jane, particularly before her attachment to Charles was widely known. Darcy, then, could only imagine the horror of what Caroline was capable of doing to Elizabeth, a woman she hated and envied with every fiber of her being, if she could bring harm — possibly murder – to someone who had been so kind to her. Darcy shuddered at the thought.

His anger rose simultaneously. The nerve of Caroline to try to escape her punishment, and to bring innocent — or so he thought — men into her dark and twisted schemes!

Painfully, Darcy could admit that he was likely no match for a deviant like her. If he was to defend his Elizabeth and his home and guests, he would need to make an assistant of someone just as scandalous as Caroline, to help him get the best of her.

Striding through the park, he considered his options. When it came to scandal, few women could compete with Lydia Wickham, but Caroline would pay no heed to someone she considered ill-born and even iller-bred. He frowned in concentration. What about young Marianne Dashwood? One could accuse her of high spirits, certainly, and little regard for society’s good opinion, but he had no reason to suspect her of any scandalous behaviour.

No, he needed the help of a woman who would stand no nonsense from the likes of Caroline Bingley, a woman to whom scandal was as natural as the air she breathed. Mary Crawford.

While Darcy went in search of Miss Crawford, Elizabeth finished changing her beautiful dress to one that was just as admirable. She had noticed something on the grounds of Pemberley from her windows, but she could not tell what had occurred from such a distance.

As soon as she left her room, Lizzy went to Jane. Mary was still accompanying her older sister, who seemed to be sleeping calmly. Instead of bothering Jane with her worries, Elizabeth decided to return to the ball. Certainly, by this hour, some of the guests would have left the house and she could worry about more pressing matters — such as Charlotte and Mr. Brook, Jane, Caroline’s sudden act of violence against her sister-in-law, and all other marvelously strange things that had decided to happen all at once during the Darcy ball.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth soon realized that she would not be resting soon. Her husband, as soon as he saw her entering the room, asked her help in finding Mary Crawford.

While Lizzy and Darcy were thus occupied, Mary had been reading by Jane’s bed. Upon finishing a chapter of Fordyce’s Sermons, the Bennet girl tried to find something new to read. Upon one of the shelves she found what seemed to be the diary of Miss Morland. “But certainly Miss Morland would have not left her diary here!” exclaimed Mary in astonishment.

Her impulsive cry woke Jane from her slumber. Knowing Miss Morland’s creativity for the gothic, Jane asked Mary to read her a small fragment of the book. “Please Mary. Not much as not to intrude upon the young girl’s privacy, but surely it would be more interesting than staying in this bed”.

“Oh well, if you wish, I shall read you some of it.”

At the same time, Lydia Wickham was trying a new life choice for the first time and was not being scandalous. Standing lame where the ball for her had started, she remembered what each and every person looked like, what they said to her. She had looked her best. She could have had her choice in men, and she had. Yet, here she was, the sun rising and no man dragging her to his bed. Where were they all? They should have been fighting over her. Where was Crawford? Or Willoughby? Or even her dear Wickham, who made her laugh more than anyone?

What the young Mrs. Wickham did not know was that someone else was in the room with her, watching her dance by herself around the room. Miss Morland, though having misplaced her first volume of gothic twist on life, had a second notebook and was taking notes on members of the party. Lydia Wickham was one of her favourite subjects to write about.

From what Catherine had seen earlier in the night to this, she knew she would not want to be friends with Mrs. Wickham (she had, after all, known someone quite similar, a certain Miss Isabella Thorpe). Persons like her were not usually found in polite society; just in the novels that Catherine read, like Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho. Yet here this character was, dancing, with her own arms wrapped around herself as though in a tight embrace. Catherine took some more notes and tried to sneak out.

Miss Morland scribbled frantically in her makeshift journal — purloined stationery from Darcy’s library. So engrossed was she in her writing, eyes fixed on pen and paper, that she was knocked down by a woman scurrying by at a pace that mirrored that of a fine thoroughbred at Epsom Downs.

“O, my goodness,” she cried aloud, to see the female figure shrouded in a cape, turn the corner. “Who was that?” she gasped aloud, ruefully rubbing her knee.

Mr. Darcy came upon her, stunned to see the young woman on the floor. He kneeled to help her gingerly to her feet. When she explained how she came to be on the floor, Darcy immediately surmised it was Caroline trying to make an escape. Calling to a servant to administer to young Miss Morland, he set off in hot pursuit after the devious culprit who had felled his beloved Lizzy’s Jane with a fireplace poker. He vowed she would not get away. He was not sure yet if the law should be brought in, but he assured himself that Miss Caroline Bingley would never again darken the halls of Pemberley.

Meanwhile, news of Miss Morland’s fall spread to the hostess of the house and Lizzy left her fond ruminations of Charlotte actually finding happiness — nay, JOY — in marriage and attended to yet another wounded guest. It did cross Lizzy’s mind that perhaps balls were really not her and Darcy’s forté.

That made her smile, and she knew that however much she may not enjoy giving them, her family — her mother, Kitty, and Lydia — would faint from apoplexy if the dire news of “no more balls at Pemberley” were to fall upon their ears. She sighed, let the thought disappear into the recesses of her acute, intelligent brain, and left Miss Morland in the servant’s good hands. She went in search of Darcy.

She needed him. This was all really too much — the violence — emotional and in actuality — of the evening had left her spent. She inquired about her husband’s whereabouts with several of the guests, but none of those assembled had a clue where he had got off to. A feeling of trepidation o’er took Lizzy. Had he gone to avenge Jane’s murder attempt after all? Lizzy momentarily nearly lost her balance under the weight of that deduction. But she screwed her courage to the sticking point to set off in search of her beloved Darcy.

Chapter XXXII

As she scurried down the long, elegant corridors of Pemberley, Lizzy attempted to think like Caroline. A shudder-worthy endeavor for certain, but the only way she could think to find her husband at this point. They had just been together, not that long ago. Whate’er had prompted him to take off so suddenly must be important. And she had a hunch it was Caroline.

She vaguely also recalled seeing the other gentlemen of the ball flanking her husband — what in heaven could have possessed them? Suddenly, Lizzy had a moment of startling revelation — Caroline, through Charles’s intimacy with her own Darcy, had been to Pemberley enough times to know about The Tunnel. Could that be where she was heading?

“If I were a heathen and vixen, I’d certainly want to hide my face and escape before my brother and his close friends discovered how awful I’d been — but then, that does require knowing you’ve done something disgraceful, and I’m fairly certain Caroline’s never thought of herself as anything less than superior,” Lizzy mused. “However, I’m now almost certain The Tunnel is where she is headed — with Darcy and the gentlemen at her heels!”

Just as she rounded the corner that would place her in the wing where The Tunnel was hidden, she was stopped by Emma Knightley.

“Mrs Darcy, please forgive me — but, have you seen my husband? I expected him a time ago, and he’s yet to retire. With all that’s gone on tonight, I’m a little concerned.”

Lizzy put her hand on Emma’s arm reassuringly. “I have a hunch he’s with MY husband — actually, would you care to join me? I’m on my way to find the gentlemen myself, and the addition of another reasonable lady would be quite useful.”

“Of course, Mrs Darcy, if you think I’d be of assistance. What a strange, strange ball this has been…” Emma murmured as she took Lizzy’s arm.

“If you only knew, my dear, if you only knew,” Lizzy chuckled wryly as the pair hurried down the hall.

Reaching the hidden entrance to The Tunnel, Lizzy was startled — but not surprised — to see the door ajar and voices coming from within. Motioning to Emma to stay silent, she gently eased the door open further, and the two stepped in cautiously just as they heard the distant yowls of a pack of hounds.

Elizabeth and Emma froze and looked at each other. The distant chorus was the kind of symphony that only animals which had found something they were not predisposed to like made. Emma and Elizabeth cautiously made their way down the tunnel as they were equal parts fearful and curious of the sound of howling. They soon found themselves closer to the howling.

In trepidation, they slowed their steps and came to a junction in the tunnel. Emma was the first to peek around the corner. She raised a perfectly arched eyebrow. The pack of hounds had cornered one Caroline Bingley. She quickly stifled the giggle that threatened to escape. Motioning to Elizabeth, they both observed how ironic it was that Caroline Bingley — perfect, far superior (in her mind) Caroline Bingley — should be surrounded by howling hounds. Would justice be done?

It was only a moment, in their ironic mirth, that they realized Caroline Bingley’s beady black eyes, much like a rats in the dark, were staring directly at them.

“Mrs. Darcy,” Caroline pleaded. Her eyes were full of fear. Never in her life had she known such terror. The dogs sensed her fear, that was evident. Lizzy could not believe this scene was before her.

Emma gripped Lizzy’s arm. “Are these not your husband’s hounds?” she asked. Lizzy nodded.

“Miss Bingley,” Lizzy answered her coldly. “Come!” she ordered the dogs, who darted to their mistress. Once she calmed the dogs, Lizzy stared at Caroline, who seemed to be shrinking even more under Lizzy’s gaze than the threat of the hounds.

“How dare you injure my sister! In my own home! When she’s with child!”

Caroline cringed. “Mrs. Darcy, please understand that I never intended to hurt her so badly!”

“I can’t even begin to imagine why you assumed such an absurdity!”

“Lizzy,” Emma interjected. “Please calm yourself.”

Lizzy’s eyes filled with tears. “My beloved sister. And your sister-in-law!” she cried to Caroline.

Caroline refused to accept all she was accused of, and from behind, Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley arrived.

Caroline started weeping and cried to her brother, “Charles, these ladies must have been possessed by a devil or something, as they make false statements against me!”

Mr. Bingley was aware of his sister’s wicked ways, and in angry countenance he replied, “Shame on you! You even disgrace the name of Bingley. What on earth did Mrs. Darcy and Mrs. Bingley ever do to you to make you dishonor us all? I never thought it possible that you could behave in such a way. And now you must act honourably and accept what you have done and face its consequences. You are aware of the strong bond between me and Darcy and have dared to attempt to break it by acting so recklessly.

“Now, Darcy, it is in the name of our long friendship that I ask you to let me handle this matter myself. I cannot, and will not, deny the responsibility Caroline has in this, but it is my duty to protect my family and name despite my thoughts on the situation. I apologise to you and Mrs Darcy for ruining the ball you so kindly invited us to. And please, Mrs Knightley, pass on my most sincere apologies to Knightley.
“ Thank you all for a lovely evening. I daresay Mrs Darcy has been outstanding at hosting the ball, and you have managed to handle all the issues that arose very appropriately. We must take our leave now but shall invite you to Netherfield soon, after I have discussed the subject further with my sister. Expect a letter in the post before tomorrow. Have a good day.”

Mr. Bingley grabbed his sister by the wrist and began to forcibly drag her, despite her violent protests, in the direction of the tunnel’s entrance. Both the Darcys and Emma remained fixed to the stone ground, unable to shake the grief they felt at seeing such a fine, accomplished young woman afflicted with such madness.

“What will become of her?” Emma asked, her bell-like voice mingling eerily with Caroline’s animalistic shrieks, which continued to echo, low and penetrating, through the candlelit passage. “Can a person recover from such disgrace?”

Mrs. Darcy could only shake her head, not knowing what to say, nor what to do.

“I loathe her, to be sure,” Emma added. “But as repulsive a creature as she is, I cannot help but feel some degree of sympathy for her. Look at what she has become.”

Mr. Darcy cleared his throat, as if in an attempt to clear the air at the same time, and clasped his wife’s hand in his own.

“We will need to send for a carriage,” he announced, hoping the practicality of his statement might assuage the anguish filling both Mrs. Darcy’s and Emma’s hearts. It distressed him to see such strong women in such a fragile state, and he could only think of restoring their normally jovial spirits. With Mr. Darcy in the lead, the three swiftly exited the tunnel, followed by the household’s dogs who, having fulfilled their duty and kept Caroline at bay, were now wagging their tails in merriment, undoubtedly expecting some sort of reward. The last thing on any of the party’s human minds was ensuring that the door to the tunnel be properly closed and locked upon their exit. Indeed, it was left wide open, a black cavity yawning against a backdrop of mauve wallpaper.

For a moment, Mr. Darcy considered that he had forgotten to take care of something, but those thoughts quickly gave way to the more pressing issues at hand, namely what to do about Caroline. There was a part of him — the same part that had proposed condescendingly to Elizabeth and nearly ruined the life of her dearest sister — that compelled him to proceed as planned. However, he could not help wondering if this was, indeed, the proper course of action, or even the right one.

The footman arrived, weary from a night of restless havoc, histrionic dancing (yes, he had made secret overtures to one of the cooks and showed her the meaning of the word “footman”), and a dripping wound in his left forearm — caused when he had valiantly resisted one of the highwaymen. Darcy saw the exhaustion in the servant’s face, and it propelled him into an air of hospitality.

“It will not do,” he muttered to Lizzy. “If we let the Bingleys depart, their reputations will never be the same. I once injured your sister most unconscionably with my stupidity. Now, I am going to rescue her from a hasty decision. Consider this my penance.”

“But what of Mr. Bingley?” Elizabeth asked. “He seemed rather determined to leave.”

“Bingley, you say?” Darcy replied with a half smile. “He was far more determined to make Jane the happiest woman in the world and I coerced him to leave town. Bingley?” He laughed heartily now, then continued, “Dearest Lizzy, you should know by now that there is only one person in the world above my influence.”

“You mean me?” Lizzy teased. She loved him now more than ever. “Do what you must.”

And on her command, Darcy subjected himself to her will, as he always did. “Charles!” he yelled to his fallen friend. “Please stay.”

Chapter XXXIII

Moved by his friend’s words, Bingley paused and slowly spun around, feigning ignorance of the murmuring crowd that had gathered near him and his sister. Fortunately for both, the majority of the ball guests knew nothing of the devastating events that had transpired and had been drawn to the scene not by lust for scandal, but by Caroline’s haunting wails.

“How am I to stay?” Bingley asked Darcy, his normally carefree brow furrowed in frustration.

“Charles, you cannot abandon your wife like this. She needs you here. You are of no use to her, nor to anyone, back at Netherfield. Not now.” Darcy glanced briefly at Elizabeth, silently imploring her to do what she could to convince her most beloved sister’s husband not to leave.

“Please, Charles,” she whispered. “You must not go. Jane would be heartbroken.”

Charles felt a wobble in his feet as his capricious nature gave in to his friend’s request. “How do you do it, Darcy?” he exclaimed.

“I hardly know what you mean,” Darcy answered, feigning ignorance on a matter he had schemed perfectly. “Does this mean you’ll remain?”

“Well…” Bingley muttered. Try as he might to develop something of a backbone, he was far too good-natured to ever become disagreeable, and the only action he could conclude on was to assemble his flimsy vertebrae and follow after Darcy, returning to the house with demonic sister in tow.

Observing this fine spectacle with a perceptive eye was young Catherine Morland, who — despite her stumble at the hand of that mysterious, caped woman — was not nearly spineless enough to back down. Rather, she took to her quill and makeshift diary and authored a phrase that she believed — and society would one day come to accept — encapsulated the scene before her: “Friends always forget those whom fortune forsakes — except when Mr. Darcy is involved!”

Catherine smiled, feeling content with her written work. As she reread her own words, she felt her admiration for Mr. Darcy grow. What a man! It was almost as if he came straight from the heart of a classic romantic tale, but no, this man was real! Catherine could easily imagine herself writing a dozen novels simply focusing on this man, his life and actions.

Catherine could not help but laugh out loud. What was she thinking? This was not a novel: this was real life! All the characters, no matter how eccentric, that she had encountered this day were real. And the story had not ended! She decided she had to get back to the others, to make sure she was up-to-date on all the new developments of the Pemberley plot.

Catherine gathered her things but suddenly felt a pair of eyes on her. Someone was watching her, no doubt about it. But why? And who was it? Catherine calmly turned around and was surprised to see a familiar face watching her every move.

“M–Mr Wickham!” Catherine stammered, almost dropping her journal. She was, as expected, astonished at the reappearance of this person who had caused so much distress at Pemberley. Wickham, a rascally twinkle in his eye, advanced toward the girl.

“I think that may be better kept secret, don’t you, Miss Morland?” His voice was soft, yet held an undertone of menace.

Poor Catherine! For the first time, she wished she had never accepted the invitation to Pemberley. Her fantasies were nothing compared to the harsh realities of a dastardly adventure. This, she reminded herself, was no Mrs Radcliffe tale, no Minerva Press novel. Alas,this was…

“The journal, if you please, Miss Morland.” Wickham was barely inches away from Catherine, who noted the dissipation, the weakness of his otherwise handsome features which at first glance were so pleasing to the members of the fairer sex.

“Why are you here, sir? I thought that Mr D…”

Wickham laughed contemptuously. “Darcy? Yes, you and everyone else thought that my so-called friend had seen me off.” Wickham circled around Catherine who felt moment by moment more uncomfortable by his scrutiny.

“If you will excuse me, sir, I must go.” Catherine’s attempt at flight was halted as, with surprising strength, Wickham grasped her wrist.

“The journal, Miss Morland.” His voice held a sneer. “If you please, that is…I do have some gentlemanly impulses left, you know.”

“Unhand me, Mr Wickham. I shall not part with my diary for you or anyone!” Catherine’s temper had risen. She attempted to twist from her captor’s grasp.

Wickham’s eyes gleamed with appreciation. “I like a girl with spirit. Come, we could perhaps hatch a profitable scheme. That diary would prove invaluable.”

“No, and no again, sir.” Catherine stamped upon his foot, taking him by surprise. Wickham immediately loosened his grip and Catherine bolted toward the house, not even daring to look behind her.

Letting herself in by the garden door, she eased her pace and tried to regain some serenity. As she entered the hall, Catherine was, she thought, quite calm. However, her hair was loosened from its pins, her gown crumpled. A glance in the overmantel mirror showed alarm in her eyes and a heightened colour in her countenance.

“Miss Morland, what is to do?” Henry Tilney had descended the main staircase. Immediately, Catherine hid her journal behind her back. She sought in her mind for some excuse for her appearance and found none. It was time to tell the truth.

“Mr Tilney, I have been accosted by that vile blackguard Wickham. He is still about the place.”

Henry Tilney’s normally affable mein and manner underwent a change. At once, his expression was grim, his stance upright.

“Mr Darcy must be apprised of this at once.” He and Catherine went to the study but before they were able to knock at the door of that sanctum a great piercing shriek echoed from within the room itself.

“Oh, Elinor!” cried the unmistakable voice of Marianne Dashwood. Tilney and Catherine glanced at one another but could say no more, for Marianne’s pitiful tones could be heard even through the heavy oak door of the study.

“How can you be so cold, Elinor, so very cold!”

From within came Elinor’s voice, desperately trying to calm her sister: “Marianne, please!” Hardly had Elinor expected such a scene when she had first entered Mr Darcy’s study in pursuit of a book for Lady Russell. Yet the entrance of a distressed Marianne had brought news that could hardly please; Edward Ferrars was married, and to Lucy Steele, a woman Elinor could not persuade herself to like or even esteem.

“He is married, Elinor!” Marianne cried, her loving heart close to breaking for her sister’s sake.

“Yes, indeed, and I wish him happy, Marianne. And so should you.” Yet Elinor could not prevent a tear from sliding down her cheek even as she said these words. Marianne looked on Elinor in pure astonishment. Without a word but shaking her head, she swept out of the room, only to walk into Catherine and Tilney.

“Oh!” she exclaimed before she fled. Elinor followed close on her sister’s heels, giving the watchers an apologetic glance as she did so. Tilney exhaled slowly in the ensuing silence. He had almost forgotten what it was they had come to the study to say.

Left to himself, Henry Tilney stood in the hall, his normal presence of mind having, for once, quite deserted him. Having seen only a small part of the outrageous events of the inaugural Pemberley ball, he knew that Mr Darcy must have problems a-plenty, and no need for a further trial of his patience. But did he not have a duty to protect all the young women currently staying at the house?

Henry had met men of Wickham’s stamp before, and he had no illusions as to the charm they evinced, and the damage they could do. He was not in love with Miss Morland, but she was a sweet little thing (despite her diary), and deserved better than to be another feather in Wickham’s already over-fletched cap. No, no, action must be taken, and Henry was — if nothing else — a man of action. He sighed, set his shoulders, and made his way through the hall and out into the garden.

Elinor, meanwhile, had noticed both the intensity of Mr. Tilney’s countenance, as well as the fright and worry of Miss Morland. Her kind spirit longed to go after the pair, to inquire as to if she could be of any assistance, but sisterly duty and affection prompted her to pursue Marianne instead.

“Marianne! Marianne, dearest, do calm yourself. You will make a scene.”

She followed the sound of her sister’s sniffles and sobs. Upon encountering her, she tried to approach her with a soothing look and comforting touch, but Marianne quickly turned away from her.
“How could you say such a thing, Elinor? For shame! You have been betrayed as have I!”

Elinor sighed. “Marianne, dear, perhaps we do not know the whole story. It is not for me to judge Mr. Ferrars. He has been under no obligation to me.” Elinor immediately noticed the flash of anger in her sister’s eyes.

“You are cruel, sister, and heartless. Perhaps Mr Ferrars,” she said, “has seen this, and therein lies the explanation as to why he chose a Lucy Steele in matrimony instead of you.”

She immediately regretted these harsh words to her most beloved sister, but one look at the change in Elinor’s countenance told her that it was too late. The damage had been done, and it was now in the hands of Providence as to whether or not Elinor would ever forgive her.

“You think me cruel, Marianne? Me? A sister who would give up her own happiness for you and you accuse me of cruelty? Would you believe me a better sister if I had cried and cried at the sight of Mr. Ferrars? Would you believe me a better sister if I showed you that I was VERY unhappy?”

“I am sorry, Elinor, I did not mean…”

“No, Marianne, you did mean what you said, for you do think that not openly showing or speaking about one’s feelings is lack of them. Trust me my dear, it is not. I am not cruel and I am NOT unfeeling!”

As she said this, Elinor left the room, leaving Marianne dejected, wondering if her sister would ever forgive her. What she did not know was that even though Elinor had been hurt, forgiveness had already been given. The sisterly bond they carried was too strong, and a passionate argument would not destroy it.

As Elinor left the room, Henry Tilney still wondered if he should warn Mr. Darcy of Wickham’s appearance. Finally finding Pemberley’s owner leaving a door, Tilney decided that the best course of action would be to prevent Wickham from doing any more harm, and the only way to do so, would be to inform Darcy and procure a hunt for the man.

As soon as Darcy noticed Tilney, a frown came to his face. Something else had occurred. Henry Tilney would not have taken himself from the entertainment of cards or the presence of his sister if something of importance had not happened. “Will the disasters never end?” thought Darcy.

“Mr. Darcy. I am glad I have found you, sir. It seems Mr. Wickham has not left the premises. He accosted Miss Morland and she seemed quite shaken with the encounter.”

“Wickham has not left? I wonder why he is still here?”

“I believe we should find him, sir, and keep him locked, as to prevent him from hurting any other young ladies.”

Chapter XXXIV

Miss Mary Crawford was not sure whether to be vexed or amused by what was going on. Had she been in London, she would have had plenty material for gossip, but alas! This was not London. Not wishing to appear overly insensitive, she immediately devised to make herself of use.

Clutching a crystal glass of Burgundy wine, she set off toward the library in order to console the Miss Dashwoods. Yet upon hearing Miss Marianne’s violent sobs, Mary stood still for a moment or two and took a gulp of Darcy’s excellent wine. With sufficient composure and a resolute mind, she opened the door, only to find someone else had already rushed to the scene.

“Such red eyes you have! Almost the same shade as Jane’s new gown!” Miss Bates’ high spirits were evidently not subdued by the tragedy.

Briefly, Mary found herself at her wits’ end and offered Marianne the glass, which the latter readily accepted. “Goodness! Such a friend you are, Miss Crawford! But that is not very surprising as you are always so very obliging!” Mary hid her sudden burst of laughter by pretending to cough loudly.

In the meantime, Mrs. Hurst was still staring out the window, reflecting on the scene of her brother trying to whisk Caroline off to Netherfield while “Mr. High and Mighty Darcy” came out to give some instructions to her brother. Although she could not hear what Darcy said, it was quite apparent to her that it was some kind of an order that, of course, her brother would obey, having no regard for his sister’s feelings.

Louisa admitted to herself that she was shocked by her sister’s behavior but, reflecting further, she wondered how one so decidedly above her company could take so much rejection. First from her own brother marrying that Bennet girl who took over Mistress of Netherfield, and then the man Caroline had planned to marry choosing another — the obstinate, head-strong Elizabeth Bennet, no less.

Louisa Hurst continued to gaze out the window when she spotted a carriage coming up the drive. Who can this be, arriving the very next day of the Pemberley Ball? As the carriage arrived at the foot of the door, the footman proceeded to open the carriage door, and Louisa recognized this person, for she had seen this woman at her brother’s wedding. A Mrs. Gardiner, was it? Oh, yes, that is she, and followed by her husband from Cheapside, London.

“I wonder as to what do we owe this great pleasure? More people, so below our station, arriving at Pemberley, the home that my sister should be Mistress of.”

Mrs. Darcy was then spotted greeting her Aunt and Uncle, and at this, Louisa turned away from the window and decided that she would find her husband and encourage him to retire for the evening; although the sun had risen, most of the guests of Pemberley had yet to sleep.

Lizzy was so relieved when she was alerted upon the arrival of her dear Aunt and Uncle. She had almost forgotten they were to arrive today, for it seemed as though a week had passed by in just one long evening full of violence, foolishness, and even some folly, and she recalled her dance in the rain with her beloved husband. She instructed one of the servants to fetch Mr. Darcy and let him know that the Gardiners had arrived.

It took only a moment for Lizzy’s Aunt to see that all was not well. Her niece looked very tired, but that was not it; she would of course be tired after hosting her first ball at Pemberley.

“Lizzy, what is the matter?”

Lizzy took a deep breath and said, “Oh Aunt, Uncle, you are such a welcome sight. I do not even know where to start, so much has happened.”

She then heard her husband’s voice. “Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, I am so pleased you have arrived safely. Please come inside and we shall tell you all that has happened.”

The Gardiners entered the great hall and were invited to sit in the drawing room. The Darcys, after reassuring them that Jane was healing from the injury, shared the details of the evening. Both the Gardiners were surprised and relieved with the knowledge of Jane being well looked after and could not help but feel somewhat entertained by all they had heard.

“Mr. Darcy, you mentioned a few men, trying to flee Pemberley?”.

“Yes, that is correct.”

“Well we did spot two men, most certainly dressed as gentlemen, pass us on the entry road to Pemberley, and they were traveling quite fast for what looked like a gig.”

Mr. Darcy’s countenance seemed grieved and angry and, thus, he left the room.

“What is the matter with him?” Mrs. Gardiner asked Lizzy.

Worried for her husband, Mrs.Darcy also departed the room, leaving Mrs. Gardiner to keep wondering what had happened to them. Did she forget to put makeup on her face?

The sun had risen completely with its full grace. The building of Pemberley really shined as the light of the day touched it, and it seemed as if it had descended from heaven. Mr. Darcy, whose heart was full of grief, withdrew to his rose garden, looking at the view of the lake and embracing solitude for a while.

Mrs. Darcy came from behind and put her hand on his shoulder. He took a deep sigh of sorrow and continued, “How our imagination varies from our real lives? We make expectations only to satisfy ourselves. We make them like a castle of sand on a beach and suddenly people hit it like a sudden unexpected wave and demolish it.”

Mrs. Darcy sat with him and consoled him. She said, “Hard times have always been a part of great people’s lives. They have stood firmly and faced them. That is why they are called great people. You are one great man. Those wicked ones tried all their possible evil designs to harm you and offend you, but you took each step wisely. I am proud of you, my dearest Mr. Darcy. You are a noble man.”

“And you are a noble wife,” he continued quietly. “For the first time I felt that my reputation and celibacy were going out of my reach, like a handful of dust of gold that suddenly starts to slip and falls from the hand. And you, Mrs. Darcy, you gave your hand to stop it from falling.”

Mrs Darcy smiled and watched her husband walk off towards the lake, leaving her alone with her thoughts. Her first thought was one of contentment; how wonderful it was to be one half of such a happy union, to call herself Mrs Darcy and take delight in that. Her second thought, however, caused her to frown.

If only her husband knew of her secret — of that one time she had been less than honest — the time she had betrayed him! She put a hand to her mouth, feeling her breath catch in her throat at the recollection of it. If anyone were to find out about her disloyalty — but no, she thought, gathering herself together once more. It was her secret and hers alone. No-one else knew and she would never reveal it, never!

She watched as her husband approached the lake and a third, less distressing thought came upon her. Goodness, he was handsome! And how much handsomer would he be emerging from that lake, his shirt quite soaked through and transparent! Such musings diverted her from any anxiety in the most agreeable and pleasing way.

Lizzy turned from her wonderful thoughts of Darcy in a soaked shirt to attend to her Aunt and Uncle.
Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner found Mrs. Bennet in such a distressed state of mind.

“Oh, my dear brother, you have come at last,” she cried, bluntly stating, “for you have come at such a time to help calm my poor nerves. Do you know what has happened this evening?”

Mr. Gardiner moved closer to his sister to put a hand on her. “My dear sister, we have just arrived. Lizzy has shown us in and we have not had the chance to hear all about the ball. I must admit upon arriving we did see a few guests running around to the side of the house,” he explained.

“My dear brother, who did you see?” she looked quizzically.

“I’m not sure, but a man and two women.” Mr. Gardiner looked over to his wife as if he might have revealed something he should not have.

Chapter XXXV

Mrs Bennet was eager to know more details about the unknown people her brother had seen, but Kitty entered into the room with Mary and Charlotte Collins. Her poor nerves had to wait because the Gardiners asked after Mrs Collins’ health. That caused her to make a face of disapproval, especially when she saw Mr Brook coming into the beautiful room: that Charlotte always caught the whole attention in the same way she took advantage of single men!

Meanwhile, Marianne Dashwood went to the gardens. She needed some fresh air because she had been rude to her sister, even if Elinor had forgiven her. She met Mrs Knightley, who was taking some roses

“Oh, Miss Dashwood, how lucky to find you!” she exclaimed.”It’s so nice to see beautiful young ladies.”

Miss Dashwood smiled, which acted as an invitation for Emma to continue.

“I told George that we would meet such nice people! For example, Mr Ferrars. He had received the invitation, but he is not very social and would not come ’til another friend of ours, Colonel Brandon, insisted. Oh,you know men, they say they don’t like parties and then…”

Marianne gasped briefly, excused herself and walked into the house. Emma could not understand her, now that she felt her the right one for Colonel Brandon. Maybe she should definitively stop any matchmaking. She knew the heart’s matters are unfathomable even for oneself. Indeed, she was the living proof of this statement.

Brandon was in the garden, too, and he had seen both ladies, so he approached Emma and asked about Miss Marianne Dashwood’s quick flight. Emma surveyed Colonel Brandon thoughtfully. No, it would not do! She had promised dear George that her matchmaking days were over. But dear George was nowhere to be seen…. She took a determined step forward.

“Colonel Brandon, Miss Marianne is in great distress. I fear she may need her sister, Miss Dashwood, to restore her spirits. Would you be so kind as to find Miss Dashwood?”

The turn of Colonel Brandon’s countenance she would never forget. “Distress?” he whispered. “I can bear it no longer, I shall find Miss Dashwood if it is the last thing I do.” With that, he turned and was gone, leaving Mrs Knightley to reflect that she had not lost her touch.

Meanwhile, Lydia leaned against the balcony, her eyes searching the grounds for activity — any activity — that would keep her interest. The ball had been a horrible bore, Jane taking away any attention that would have otherwise been hers.

As she turned back to the elegant room she heard, “Mrs. Wickham, it is time for us to leave dear Pemberley.” Her breath escaped in a rush; there before her stood her husband. Crossing the floor in quick strides, he grabbed her arm and pulled her to him.

“Do not make a sound, my wife. It is best we quit this house before they discover me. I fear we’ve outstayed our welcome.”

Lydia turned to the dresses strewn around the room, tossed in careless disarray upon the fine chairs of her bedchamber.

“Leave them. We will not be needing those rags where we are headed.”

“But Wickham, we cannot just…” she started. His mouth was set in a grim line, and she knew better than to argue, the memory of his hand across her cheek still fresh from its sting before arriving at the ball. “As you wish, Wickham dear.”

Deftly releasing the catch on her bracelet, Lydia dropped the Bennet heirloom onto the floor before following the man. She knew Elizabeth would recognize the jewelry as never before leaving Lydia’s wrist, as it was her particular favorite — and know that something was afoot.

Indeed, Elizabeth was known within her circle of acquaintance for her keen powers of observation. Unfortunately, at that moment, every bit of her energy was being directed at containing the tumultuous emotions and nervous flutterings of her mother, who was babbling somewhat nonsensically (and with much hand gesturing) at her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner.

“And dear brother, dear sister! You will not believe it when you hear…” Mrs. Bennet cried, stringing together a run-on sentence that no Oxford professor had a prayer of unraveling. “And, oh, that Charlotte Lucas…I mean Collins…” she ranted. More wild gesturing. “And THEN there was the problem with Jane…and…and…” Incoherent mumbles paired with a sob and a few references to evil highwaymen.

Aunt Gardiner shot Lizzy a quizzical glance as Mrs. Bennet followed them both through the house and then upstairs. Lizzy had hoped to make sure her aunt and uncle’s bedchamber was perfectly in order. However, she could not help but notice that the door to Lydia’s room was ajar.

“Oh, my,” spoke Mrs. Gardiner, “what can this mean? Anyone might enter — or leave for that matter — as they please. I do not know that Lydia could have been aware of this.”

As Mrs. Gardiner approached the door, Elizabeth reached out to her and said, “My sister has been frolicking about all evening and is prone to absent-minded behavior, particularly in the event of a ball. It is nothing unusual, I am sure.”

This was enough for Mrs. Gardiner, but Mrs. Bennet was not convinced. “Nonsense, Lizzy. Anything might have been taken from the room, or worse. We must have my dear Mr. Gardiner investigate the matter immediately.”

Mr. Gardiner assured his sister that he would be glad to do so. Elizabeth, however, unaware of what was really at hand and never surprised by any of Lydia’s behavior, was just about to protest, but was saved the trouble by the appearance of George Knightley on the scene, looking slightly concerned.

“My dear Mrs. Darcy,” he began, “I am sorry to disturb you at this late hour. I trust that nothing is the matter here?”

Lizzy reassured him there was not. “Not at all. How might I assist you, Mr. Knightley?”

“I am searching for my wife. I am unable to locate her, and with all the events of this evening, I am concerned about her. Have you any clue of where I might find her?”

“Mr Knightley, I have not seen your dearest of late, but I am sure she is not far. If you would like, I will ask my Uncle to assist you. But at this moment, I must find Mr. Darcy on another matter.”

Lizzy dashed off down the hallway, but she was distracted by the sounds of sobs coming from down another hallway in the house. She thought, “Dash this darn house! It is so large! Which room are those sobs coming from?”

Just when she was about to knock on the door to her right, the sobs ceased and Lizzy turned, as she had more than enough on her mind. Where was Mrs. Knightley? What about poor Mr. Bingley? And she was still furious with Caroline. And what about Lydia’s room being ajar? Is it possible that there was indeed a thief inside of their home? Oh, it was too much to to think about. This time at the Ball there were supposed to be less of these events, and it seemed that it was all starting again.

Lizzy reached her sister’s room and knocked on the door and entered. Her uncle was gone from the room and it just looked a mess. Lizzy plopped herself down on the bed that was covered with Lydia’s dresses and undergarments strewn everywhere.

Just when Lizzy felt her temper rising towards her sister who could be so thoughtless, she spotted something on the floor that caught her eye. It was Lydia’s beloved bracelet, just discarded on the floor. Lizzy instantly thought something was amiss, and she went in pursuit of Mr. Darcy, but when she reached the door and entered the doorway she was knocked down by what seemed to be a running Kitty Bennet.

Lizzy looked at her youngest (non-married) sister from the carpeted doorway. “Kitty?”

Was her family each trying to outdo each other to embarrass the family once again? With the bracelet firmly in her grip, Lizzy waited for Kitty to return to help her off the ground. “What on earth could have happened for you to have knocked me over in your flight?”

Kitty looked at her sister, who had held this ball. She was almost surprised that Lizzy remembered her name. Kitty could not help but notice that she was the forgotten sister. Everyone had their role, yet Kitty’s was never defined. And yet here she was, with the possibility of being the leading lady in her own story.

Elizabeth perused the woebegone face of her younger sibling, noting the petulant purse of her lips and general sad demeanor.

“Kitty, my dear, what is the matter?” Lizzy silently acknowledged to herself. She did not have time for this conversation, but knew she had to attend to it all the same.

Kitty lost no time in replying, “It is rather hard cheese to be the ‘other sister’ in this family…. You have your Mr. Darcy, Jane her Bingley, Lydia — Wickham, and well, any good looking man in trousers, Mary her books, and me–”

It was here Kitty broke down, bursting into tears. “Nobody ever wants to be KITTY! They want to be Elizabeth Bennet or Jane or bad girl Lydia! I’m just an afterthought. It’s time for me to make my way in the world. Perhaps I should run off to Gretna Green and make a left turn and hole up in a boarding house run by a woman of dubious reputation, and have Papa, Uncle Gardiner and Mr. Darcy rescue me!”

Lizzy was distressed by Kitty’s words, whether more from the odious recollection of how Lydia’s impetuous behavior with Wickham had nearly cost her her Darcy, not to mention the entire Bennet family’s standing and reputation, or due to seeing her own flesh and blood in pain, Lizzy could not say. But she placed her delicate, white arms around Kitty’s shoulders and held her close to comfort her.

Kitty melted in the embrace. “All I want is a little bit of attention, a wee bit of being Kitty, not just someone’s sister or afterthought.”

Though Lizzy’s wit and emotional acumen is well documented, words failed at this moment — she was nonplussed — but she endeavored to be a comfort to her sister, nonetheless. “Kitty, you are valued by each and every one of us. Mr. Darcy himself commented on how your wit and conversation has improved. You are a good girl with only the right company to improve your common sense and that is happening.”

“Please don’t take the path of Lydia,” Lizzy continued, “that way madness lies. I daresay, that even now — obtuse and headstrong — as Lydia can sometimes be — that she is already regretting her impetuous elopement with Wickham. There are better things in store for you.”

“Do you really think so, Lizzy?” said Kitty, looking up to her elder sister for affirmation.

“I do. Indeed, I –”

At that moment,a crash was heard down the corridor. Followed by a scream! Both Kitty and Lizzy froze. Lizzy let go her embrace and with a nod toward Kitty to follow, started down the corridor. Another scream! Now Lizzy was truly frightened. She pulled the bell rope to summon a servant, but before she could do so, a gloved hand covered her own delicate white one.

“Don’t do that, if I were you,” a deep voice intoned.

Chapter XXXVI

Lizzy shuddered as the unfortunately familiar voice slunk around her — it felt as if a murky fog were sweeping into the hallway. Hearing Kitty’s small gasp of confusion, Lizzy steeled herself in a manner that would earn even Lady Catherine’s approval and turned.

“Unhand me, ‘Sir.’ Nobody dares restrain or attempt to frighten the Mistress of Pemberley.” Her eyes flashed fire, her voice cold. The deep-voiced warning became a deep-voiced chuckle but the gloved hand refused to leave Lizzy’s.

“You think that enough to stop me?” he sneered, stepping from the shadows that had half-hidden him from view. Kitty, now wholly confused and not a little concerned, began to shiver and grasped Lizzy’s free arm like a vice.

“L-l-l-izzy, who is he?”

“Nobody you need to deign with your acquaintance, Kitty. In fact, why don’t you return to our Aunt Gardiner — she’s with Mother. This man will not stop you, you’ll be quite safe,” Lizzy instructed Kitty, as the fire in her eyes turned to cold hard steel.

“B-b-but, Lizzy –”

“I said GO, Kitty!” Lizzy forcefully repeated.

With a frantic glance at the man, Kitty began backing swiftly away. She was not stopped, just as Lizzy promised. So why then did this man refuse to let her brave elder sister go?

“Forget Momma or Aunt Gardiner — Lizzy needs a hero! There are plenty of gentlemen here, including Darcy, who will rescue her!” So deciding, Kitty turned the corner in the hall and flew towards the Library, in search of any Hero to come to her — and Lizzy’s — aid.

Meanwhile, Lizzy and the man were locked in a silent showdown. Cold-steel resolve in both sets of eyes, neither prepared to back down. “So, Elizabeth,” he rumbled, “we meet again — and how are you finding life as Mrs Darcy?”

Lizzy’s eyes flashed a warning, as she hissed, “you are NEVER to call me Elizabeth, you — ”

The stranger tried stopping her mouth with a kiss, but Lizzy was too fast for him. A swift kick to a tender part of his anatomy had the man doubling up in agony.

“You never could hold on to anything valuable,” Mrs. Darcy muttered as she sprinted down the hall.

In another part of the house, Bingley entered the room where Jane was resting. He had left his sister Caroline drugged and trussed in an upstairs room. Mary, who had been reading to Jane, was sleeping, slouched in the chair beside Jane, a book of Mr. Brook’s on her lap. Jane stirred as her husband entered the room.

“Charles? Is that you?” she asked weakly. “Why does my head hurt?”

“Do you remember anything?” Bingley began to ask.

What Jane might have remembered, or what she might have said, we can only conjecture, because at that moment, her sister Elizabeth bounded though the door.

“Jane! Jane! I must tell you. Someone is here that we both know, and I don’t know what I am going to tell Darcy about him. My dearest sister, you must help me!”

Jane, Charles, and Mary all stared at Lizzy — rendered speechless and more than a little confused by her startling outburst and appearance. Mary recovered first, managing to ask, “Lizzy, what in heaven?” but got no further. No sooner had “-ven” been uttered than Kitty came bounding and shrieking into the room.

“I can’t find ANYONE! Where are all the gentlemen?! Where is Darcy?! Oh, HELP!”

Now Lizzy joined the others in open-mouthed surprise. Charles, swiftly realizing that the female passions aroused in this room needed a firm hand of comfort or direction, and still riding the high of his own passions regarding Caroline’s vile behaviour, stood and walked to the center of the room. As he raised his hands and began to speak, he was interrupted by another shriek from Kitty.

“LIZZY!” was pronounced in ear-splitting pitch as Kitty catapulted herself at her sister. “I thought you were going to dieeeeeeee,” she trailed off in a fit of racking sobs.

Jane closed her eyes and leaned back against her pillow, deciding to let Charles handle this. Mary blinked owlishly, trying to decipher what in Heaven’s name had disrupted her sisters to such a state. Charles wondered if perhaps it would not be easier to drug all the young ladies (and maybe the old) and lock them in rooms for a spell.

Lizzy, struggling to free herself from Kitty’s embrace enough to breathe, patted her sister’s head and wondered at her predicament. It was this scene on which Darcy and Uncle Gardiner arrived, with Aunt Gardiner close on their heels.

“We heard the shrieking — actually, we’ve heard a lot of shrieking. Please, someone, tell me ALL the shrieking has come from here?” Darcy sighed inwardly, even as he asked, knowing this grand experiment in social adventure was thoroughly and entirely out of control.

“Kitty was shrieking, but only just now, in this room — unless she was shrieking also earlier, in the hallway? Kitty, how many shrieks have you shrieked this evening?” Charles queried, with all the seriousness he could muster.

Kitty was too lost in her sobbing to answer, but Lizzy began, “Kitty and I were actually going to find the shrieking when we had an unfortunate misadventure –” Lizzy was interrupted by a third piercing shriek from the mysterious shrieker.

“I CAN ONLY HANDLE SO MUCH OF THIS SHRIEKING!” boomed Mr. Darcy. “Someone better have a good explanation, and now!” No one said a word. It was almost comical to see Darcy’s annoyed expression, when suddenly Mrs. Bennet burst into the room.

“There you all are! Miss Marianne is in the hallway and she looks a fright!”

Everyone rose from the room in haste, Darcy and Lizzy at the front.

When they arrived, Colonel Brandon was stooping over Marianne in a peculiar manner. “Colonel! What are you doing?” asked Lizzy.

Darcy had a hurt look on his face. “Brandon,” he said. “Please tell me you didn’t–”

“Mercy, no, Mr. Darcy!” exclaimed Marianne in horror. “He rescued me from a hooded man… Oh!”

Everyone turned. The hooded man was behind Marianne and Brandon. “Well, Mrs. Darcy, we meet again.”

Everyone looked at her in horror. “No, go away!”

“Is that any way to repay the man who rescued your husband’s sister and the other chit?”

Lizzy gasped. “No. YOU rescued Fanny and Georgiana? This can’t be possible!”

“Lizzy, I’ll only ask you once more. WHO IS THIS?” Darcy never looked angrier and it frightened Lizzy.

Lizzy did not get the chance to speak, as a man emerged from the shadows. He had boyish good looks, but let that not deceive you as to his true character. The stranger sauntered into the light, paused as he surveyed the room before putting his hands on his hips. He smiled wickedly, then boldly declared, “My name is Granderby! Hugo Granderby!”

The room’s occupants stared in stunned silence. Kitty’s mouth hung open in muted shock before she recollected herself and snapped it shut. The stranger — no, Mr. Granderby, Mr. Hugo Granderby — took the opportunity to bow slightly in the direction of the shocked Mrs. Darcy.

“It seems we are to meet again in the presence of light, Mrs. Darcy. That is perhaps unfortunate for my regard, Mr. Darcy.” Mr. Granderby inclined his head in the direction of the said lady’s husband. “She is very fetching — your wife — is she not, Mr. Darcy?”

“Hugo Granderby?” Mr. Darcy uttered, a look of utter perplexity washing over his face. “The Duke of Kensington?”

Granderby bowed in acknowledgment, smirking as several gasps pierced the air. “I am he, indeed. My reputation has preceded me, I can see. As is the custom.”

A bedroom door nearly flew off its hinges a few paces down the corridor, having been flung open in haste by a frenzied Mr. Legitage, who had been slumbering within. “Granderby!” he shouted, abandoning the respect and courtesy that military code required he pay to a man who was once his commanding officer. “How dare you show your face here!”

Before Granderby could speak, a second chamber door burst from its frame, revealing a bleary-eyed Mr. Brook, whose cheeks were slowly turning as red as poppies. Fists clinched, he began to run toward the Duke, who, for the first time that day, abandoned his composure and started to look for an escape route.

“Out of my way, Legitage!” Mr. Brook bellowed, with a raw pugnacity that alarmed the whole of the party — including Charlotte.

Hugo Granderby was desperately seeking an exit, but he found nothing but statues, tapestries, and shuddering denizens. “Blast!” he shouted. “What do you want with me, Brook! I’ve done you no wrong.”

“No wrong?” Brook retorted, his voice bordering on the maniacal. “It’s been far too long that you’ve splattered my reputation as a writer without some comeuppance. I’m not a belligerent man, but by god, I will fling you to the ground and defame you like a 15-year-old debutante exposed at Meryton without parental guidance or protection.”

At that, Mr. Bennet felt a marble drop through his intestines.

“Now hold on here,” Mr. Darcy inserted, attempting to play peacemaker. “What can possibly be the cause of such unrestrained rancor?”

“I’ll tell you what,” Brook roared. “Some years ago, Hugo Granderby sought to frame me as a literary buffoon. He adopted a pseudonym that has stuck with me everywhere I go and shattered my legitimacy. He wrote under the name, Bald Hook! And what he wrote was just that. BALD!”

And before anyone could react, he lunged at his nemesis and landed a punch square across the man’s jaw. Granderby fell to the ground, laughing like a madman.

Chapter XXXVII

Copious expressions of unsettlement were abundant from the onlookers to the quarrel. Granderby carried on with his laughter. Brook could not hide his frustration.

“Your actions have been entirely shameful. I have never been acquainted with anyone quite as loathsome as yourself,” Brook continued irately. Granderby did not appear surprised in the slightest, and to the revulsion of the observers, he proceeded with his display of personal amusement.

Brook persisted: “I demand a confession, Granderby. In writing.”

Granderby took a glance at the people around him and finally realised that today was perhaps going to be his humiliating downfall. With a final sigh of defeat, Granderby gave Brook a contemptuous smile. “If your intention was to prompt me to feel penitent or contrite, you will find your efforts will still have been to no avail.”

“What you fail to realize, Brook,” he continued, “is that the gossiping eloquence I composed under the name Bald Hook — that is the finest scholarship ever to be presumed to come from you. Face it: your writing is putrid and I did you a favor!”

At this surprising statement, Brook seemed a bit dumbfounded. Yes, he was a man of steadfast honor and unshakable resolve in most things, but he bore one great vulnerability, and that was criticism of his writing. Alas, some had even taken to supplanting the phrase “Achilles’ heel” with “Brook’s quill,” a Hector-like humiliation of an epithet.

“So this is what you think of my work,” Brook muttered, gyrating on his feet as if he had been struck a great blow.

“Why do you think I picked the name Bald?” Granderby roared back, rising again and poised to reassert his dominance. “You are a charlatan of an author, more fitted for the sewers at Waterloo than the fine parlors of Pemberley — in a literary sense, of course.”

Just then, as Brook felt the wounds further deepening in his breast, Catherine Morland rushed forth and proffered a most unexpected declaration: “I know not this man well, but I have read his work. Mr. Brook is brilliant! He is the writer I will ever aspire to become!”

Unaccustomed to hearing such outspoken praise, Mr. Brook felt himself grow limp at Miss Morland’s words, his muscles releasing the tension of battle, his heart soaking up her flattery like a dry, dusty sponge.

“Miss Morland,” he murmured, glancing at his young supporter. “You do not know the good you do me in speaking so highly of my work!”

The Duke of Kensington — that is to say, Mr. Granderby — decided to seize this brief moment of serenity and return Mr. Brook’s earlier charge. Quickly snatching a porcelain candlestick — a Darcy family heirloom, naturally — he leapt towards Mr. Brook, snarling like a crazed lion.

At that very moment, Mr. Willoughby came bounding up the stairs and found himself directly in the middle of the Duke’s path.

“Oh no!” Catherine exclaimed, as Willoughby’s eyes widened as soon as he noticed what he now found himself in the middle of. “Willoughby, get out of there!”

Darcy yelled at the same time, not wanting to have any more of the Pemberley guests end up hurt.

Mr. Granderby looked at this new male character that had accidentally joined the dramatic scene, and slowly lowered the candlestick.

“Willoughy, what a coincidence to see you here,” Granderby said, and he used his free hand to greet a perplexed Willoughby. “I have to say, that is quite an extraordinary jacket you are wearing. It suits you. I am, however, in the middle of something…. So, I hope you do not terribly mind continuing this conversation at a later stage?” Granderby nodded his head and turned around.

“Alright then, where were we?”

Mr. Brook looked back at him with an amused expression on his face, but it quickly became clear this peculiar interruption was not the end of this particularly interesting, but slightly odd, battle.

Indeed, the voices of the two battling gentlemen were quickly drowned out by the sound of a pair of very short legs hurrying along at a rather reckless speed. This sound was quickly followed by the appearance of Lady Catherine with her hair still in papers and wearing an expression even more sour than anything she was accustomed to wear.

Lady Catherine had retired for the night, believing Pemberley to be, at least for the moment, safe from immediate scandal. But she had reckoned without the interference of Mr Granderby. A breathless girl had conveyed the news of the disagreement to Lady Catherine, and she was arrived, an avenging dragon in curling-papers, to protect the treasure that was Pemberley from any person foolish enough to attempt to take it. Had the Lady breathed fire she could scarcely have been more fearsome; and even the gentlemen present quaked slightly to see her come steaming towards them.

“What,” she demanded imperiously, “is the meaning of this disturbance, nephew?” Though directed at Mr Darcy, Lady Catherine’s words were intended for the party at large, and it was to one lady in particular that Lady Catherine looked.

“You!” she cried, her finger pointed in accusation at Elizabeth Darcy. “Why do you mean to bring such disturbance to Pemberley?”

Lady Catherine seemed about to say yet more to the astonished Mrs Darcy, but was suddenly interrupted by yet another voice joining in the general confusion which momentarily reigned.

Meanwhile, Anne Elliot, Charlotte Lucas and the other ladies were escorted away from the bustle of the fighting men and the dragon-like Lady Catherine.

Anne and Charlotte had met each other earlier and had become quite close in their short time. They decided to take a turn about the pump room but secretly waited for the opportune time to return to watch the exciting events between the gallant men in their passionate exchange of words against each other.

“Did you see Lady Catherine De Bourgh’s sour face upon hearing the news of the disagreement?” giggled Charlotte.

“How could you miss it…,” laughed Anne in return. “I surely do admire Catherine Morland…,” she continued. “The courage and a splendor in words to approach those men unafraid, pray, I could only imagine the words contained in her notebook.”

“Oh, I do agree with you there,” said Charlotte. “How she stood up for my Mr. Brook was as endearing to my heart as it was for him. Did you notice him, he grew limp at Miss Morland’s words. He is not accustomed to hearing such outspoken praise…why did I ever let him go…,” sighed Charlotte.

Anne put her hand on Charlotte’s. “Believe me, I understand your disposition and heart…”

As the two ladies relished in a mutual moment of friendship and laughter, an increasingly tumultuous banter of words were being exchanged amongst the gentlemen and Lady Catherine.

“Good heavens,” said Lady Russell. “What on earth is happening out there?”

“Oh, I’m sure it’s the ghastly men that Darcy invited that are mocking about some foolishness past,” snarled Sir Elliot. “I honestly do not understand why Mr. Darcy would even allow ones of scattered means to even be the same room with him.”

Lady Russell did not hear a word Sir Elliot had spoken. Her eyes were fixed on Lady Catherine who, still with her hair in papers and directing her thundering voice towards Elizabeth Bennet, was suddenly interrupted by yet another voice that had the courage to disrupt an already nervous assembly of people.

This was of no moment as, before Darcy’s horrified gaze, his usually indefatigable Lizzy slumped to the floor in a dead faint.

“Hah!” expostulated Lady Catherine. “She is little more than an actress — and a very bad one at that.”

Darcy bent and gently picked up the inert form of his beloved wife before directing a blistering gaze upon his aunt.

“Madam,” his tone was firm, glacial and without any possibility of being misconstrued. “You will conduct yourself as befits a lady in my house. Insulting my wife is absolutely beyond all bearing.”

Without another word, he turned, shouldered his way through the people and sought out the small drawing room. There, he deposited his wife upon the chaise longue. Her visage was white as paper.

Anxiously he felt her forehead. As far as Fitzwilliam Darcy could ascertain, his beloved was not running a fever. His heart clenched at the thought of losing the one being in the world who governed his every sleeping and waking thought and dream.

“Oh Lizzy, please wake up.” His voice was a soft whisper. Nevertheless, it called forth a response from Elizabeth, whose eyelids fluttered open. At first, her countenance was all confusion.

“Lizzy!” Darcy’s voice penetrated the fog in her mind. She turned to see his anguished expression.

“What happened, my dear Darcy?”

“You fainted my dearest. I swear, I have never been so afraid.”

Elizabeth smiled, albeit a rather weak effort. “I am quite well, I am sure of it.”

“But you have never fainted, Lizzy! Of course there is something wrong.”

Darcy paced the room before glancing at his wife, who dimpled at him in a most disconcerting way.

“Dearest Fitzwilliam, cannot you guess as to the reason for my malady?” Silence ensued.

Darcy stared at his wife, barely able to breathe. Was it possible, this dearest wish of his heart, so vital to his family pride and his hopes of an even greater posterity? He glanced around to ensure they were alone, then knelt quickly at his wife’s side.

“Let there be no doubt, my love, on a question so important to us both. Do your words mean what I take them to mean — what I fervently hope they mean?”

Elizabeth smiled and placed her hand on his arm. “I will need to summon a physician to be sure, but I believe — nay, I am sure in my own heart — that I am with child. And that Pemberley will soon rejoice in a son and heir.”

Chapter XXXVIII

There was a light tap at the door, and Darcy rose, releasing Lizzy’s hand and walking across the room. Lizzy watched her husband, pleased she was able to share this happy news with him, although she had pictured the scene all so very differently in her head. Lizzy was to be lying in Darcy’s arms in their bed chamber with candles flickering, and the only noise throughout the whole of Pemberley would be from logs crackling in their apartment fireplace.

Lizzy contemplated further and nearly giggled aloud at the absurdity of all that had passed this one, nay, two days? Oh, she was too tired to think anymore and she decided to close her eyes just for a moment.

Darcy opened the door, slightly peered out to see who was waiting on the other side, taking a sigh of relief that it was his cousin. Darcy spoke in a hushed tone, looking back at his Lizzy, noticing she was falling into a peaceful slumber. He did not want to awaken his wife.

“Yes, Fitzwilliam, what is it?”

“Darcy, forgive me, is Mrs. Darcy ill? Shall I fetch a physician?”

“No, thank you, my dear Cousin, that will not be necessary. Mrs. Darcy is tired from the long evening and is only needing a rest.”

“Darcy, I am relieved to hear of this news and will now have to further bother you for instructions on how you would like me to deal with this, shall we say, ‘new situation?’”

Darcy opened the door wider and gestured for Fitzwilliam to enter the room, signaling towards his sleeping wife so that Fitzwilliam understood to speak quietly. “Am I to understand that our Aunt is still shouting at my guests?”

“Yes, Darcy.” And with his famous comical way of describing his Aunt, he warned, “I do believe that our Aunt may start taking swings at your guest with her walking stick if we do not rein her in quickly.”

“Darcy! Return to me this instant.” His aunt bellowed, her demand shaking the halls of his beloved Pemberley, her walking stick striking the parquet and echoing her displeasure.

“You’d better come, Darcy. Our aunt’s nerves may not hold out for long at this rate.”

Colonel Fitzwilliam frowned at the look of displeasure crossing his cousin’s face; he knew Darcy’s temper could only be held in check for so long.

“Go, my love. I am well enough and you must see to our guests.” Elizabeth urged.

Giving his wife a quick nod, he joined Fitzwilliam in the hallway and returned to face the wrath of Lady Catherine.

Elizabeth wasted no time rising from her supine position. A fit and healthy woman has no reason to be sequestered for long after a bit of rest, she mused. Lydia was still missing and Lady Catherine provided ample diversion for Elizabeth to return to Lydia’s room to search for more clues as to her whereabouts.

The sour bite of bile at the back of her throat at the thought of Wickham possibly reclaiming his bride from the safety of Pemberley’s bedchamber tore through her. Checking the hallway for desertion, Elizabeth hurried from her apartment chamber toward Lydia’s room, away from the fracas in the main hall.

The door to the room was ajar; she pushed it open and gasped at the awful sight contained within.

“Dearest!” Lizzy cried. “What on earth has happened to you? And what on earth has happened to your face?”

It was perhaps a little discourteous of her, Lizzy realised as she uttered the words, but there was no
way to disguise the fact that Lydia’s countenance was quite changed. Her hair, normally so neat, looked quite unkempt, while her tearstained eyes were underlined by dark circles which highlighted quite the most sickly pallor.

As Lizzy moved nearer, she saw that Lydia was trembling, her bottom lip quivering in a fearful manner.

“I have seen a ghost!” Lydia cried, clasping her hand to her bosom as she let out a sob. “Right here, before my eyes!” And she trembled some more.

“Calm, dear,” Lizzy said. “That is only Lady Catherine — and while she may appear to be quite old and unnerving, there is no need to take fright –”

“No,” Lydia said and shook again. “It was a real ghost! A real live ghost, here, in this room!”

“My dearest sister, there cannot be such a ghost in this room.” Lizzy was trying her best to calm Lydia. “Lydia, when did you last eat?”

Lydia thought for a moment. “Not since dinner last night, but I had little to eat.”

“Well, that could be the cause of this ghost. You need to have had proper food in you.” Lizzy gave Lydia a reassuring pat on the arm. “May I ask the reason for the distress which you are in?”

“Wickham, it is about him.” Lydia sighed heavily. “I must be honest with you. I love him dearly, but it just is not well known.”

“Surely your actions would make it seem otherwise. You have been a foolish girl for sure during the ball.” Lizzy bluntly stated.

“Oh Lizzy, if you or anyone truly knew why I carry on the way I do. I like the chase, the wanting to be desired. My husband does not show his desire for me, nor has he in months.” She began to cry. Lydia sobbed, and through it, “That is why my recent behavior has been such as it has at your ball. For this ghost I have seen I’m sure is hunting me, telling me something.”

Lizzy stared blankly at her sister in all astonishment, not knowing what to say. She did know her sister to be silly, but she knew nothing of her sister’s love toward Wickham.

Lizzy held her frightened sister and both fell asleep. When her husband returned to the room, he kissed his beloved Elizabeth on the forehead and looked for another room. He would have preferred to stay with his love, but he did not want to wake up her, even if she was taking care of silly Lydia, a source of trouble to the family, because as Mr Bennet would say, “stupidity makes more danger than evilness.”

Darcy, as a gentleman, closed the door smoothly, while looking to his dear wife. Full sun finally came to Pemberley. The sun rays touched the stone walls and a full-bloomed day arrived to that delightful spot from Derbyshire. No one could ever say that night before had finally finished. The sweet trill of the birds and the calmness of the outside could not foresee the thrilling ends which people inside the house would expect.

As Elinor had gone to bed earlier than the rest, she decided to take a stroll around the lake, because there she could think alone. As soon as she arrived to the Venus Shrine, at some distance from the house, she saw a shadow next to her. It was Edward Ferrars, the man she loved, but unfortunately, Marianne had told her that he had finally married when she arrived to their room. How hard was that night for her!

Her heart started to shatter the day Miss Steele told her her secret and totally broke in London, but this pain was even bigger. She thought she could bear hearing that he was a married man, but no. Although poor Elinor knew it was his honor that pushed him to make this decision, alas! She wished she could be a free spirit, but she knew she could not. People like Edward and her were people of honour and sense, so they were attached to their words. She controlled the pain she started to feel in her throat and bowed to him.

Mr Ferrars smiled, greeted her nervously, and the strain in his voice was evident as he exclaimed, “Miss Dashwood! I did not expect to have this pleasure — I thought myself quite alone.”

Elinor blushed. What must he think of her! In an instant, however, she had mastered her distress. “Mr Ferrars, I trust you are well.”

“Indeed, I am.” His eyes fixed upon an object somewhere behind her, as if he could not bear to encounter her steady gaze.

His distant tone did not discourage her from pursuing the matter nearest her heart. She continued with a brave smile, “And Mrs Ferrars — I trust she is well?”

His eyes widened in disbelief.

Chapter XXXIX

“Elinor!” A hasty correction — “Miss Dashwood, your enquiry after Mrs Ferrars is most kind. As I have just informed you, Miss Dashwood, my mother is in quite good health.”

“Oh, dear. He misunderstood me,” thought a very distressed Elinor. “Mr. Ferrars, I am sorry, My first inquire was after Mrs. EDWARD Ferrars.”

Elinor could not look up as she said this. She was afraid she would betray just how desperate she was at the idea that Edward could be anyone else’s. But he was and she had to conform.

As her eyes faced down, the elder Dashwood sister did not see the state of Edward’s face and body. He now understood the way Elinor cast her eyes down at him. How she refused to meet his eyes. He was filled both with happiness and sorrow. Happiness that she seemed to love him back, and sadness that she seemed to be in pain — and of his causing.

He wished to end her pain as quickly as possible. “Perhaps you mean — my brother — you mean Mrs. — Mrs. ROBERT Ferrars.”

“Your brother?”

Lucy had married Robert? Why? Why would she do this to Edward, thought Elinor, who could not comprehend what had been the reasons behind Lucy Ferrars’ actions. She hardly knew where she was, such was her astonishment and shock.

Having heard that they were married last week, Elinor’s composure was lost. As she tried to flee the scene, to try to gain some sort of balance, her skirts swirled and tangled around her ankles, and she cried out as she felt herself falling with all the force of her attempted flight. Barely was the cry past her lips when she felt a warm hand on her elbow, another at her waist, steadying her.

“Oh!” she gasped, blushing. As she regained her footing, Edward gently turned her to face him. Her blush was matched by his own, but he kept his hands resting gently on her shoulders.

“Elin — Miss Dashwo — oh hang! Elinor, let me explain, please,” Edward pleaded softly, forcing her to meet his eyes. Elinor met his gaze, resigned to the whole of her heart’s story being visible in her eyes. It felt right somehow standing there with him.

“Lucy Steele was playing a dangerous game. When we met, I was flattered by her attentions, not seeing what she truly sought — position in society, a home where she’d reign as queen, and — perhaps most of all? — a small fortune. She knew I was heir, and set her eyes on me. She has her charms, as I’m sure you know — she charmed everyone, made everyone feel special. Chosen. She was already making plans to make herself charming to my family, before I was aware of her presence in London. She’d met Robert and they were amiable. By the time I saw her in London, I was hopelessly, entirely in agony. Once the whole engagement became known, I couldn’t desert her. Or could I? I wrestled with the decision long and hard, finding I could NOT marry her — not when I had lost my heart to another.”

He paused, making sure Elinor was still listening. Elinor WAS, and her heart was beating harder and harder as the story continued.

“Elinor, I decided to end our engagement — knowing it’d cause a scandal, but my whole relationship with Lucy was touched by scandal. What we’d done was wrong, and I deserve all the censure given. Strangely, Lucy was just about to call things off herself: she realized that Robert would likely take her where she wanted socially, not me. So it was a mutually scandalous parting.”

Edward paused again searching for the right words, feeling Elinor shiver slightly under his hands.

“Edwa –” she started.

“No, please, let me finish, Elinor,” he gently interrupted. “When Brandon told me he was coming here, I came to find you. He knows it all, the whole sordid story — and thinks I have a chance. Elinor, dear Elinor, you have stolen my heart entirely. I can think of nothing but you, I live for you — is there any hope, any chance you might, possibly, forgive me for my stupidity enough, to let me earn your trust and heart?”

In the silence following his earnest plea, Elinor felt the earth shifting beneath her feet. She swayed a little, glad of Edward’s hands still resting lightly on her shoulders. She looked down at her hands, composing herself enough to answer him. Here was the very thing she had hoped for, never daring to dream it would be hers. Taking a deep breath, she raised her eyes to meet dear Edward’s. She placed her right hand on his chest, feeling his heart pounding the same happy beat as her own.

“You say I have stolen your heart, but you have stolen mine. You have my trust, you have my faith, you have me, Edward. Dearest Edward. Our pain and heartbreak have been punishment enough. Let us forget the scandalous start and write our own story.” As she spoke, Elinor’s smile was matched only by Edward’s, as he realized his heart’s desire was there in his grasp.

“Elinor! My love!” he whispered, drawing her close.

Elinor relaxed into his embrace, letting the moment’s perfect happiness wash over her weary heart. This moment made the entire night’s insanity worthwhile. Edward was plenty reward for surviving the Ball at Pemberley.

The quiet happiness of the moment could not go uninterrupted for long however, for too soon they were joined by a hound bounding up to their side.

“Hey now, don’t you dare jump on the lady, you mutt!” hollered the man arriving swiftly on the heels of the hound.

Brandon had witnessed the exchange between Ferrars and Miss Dashwood, having stationed himself outside to watch over the property, believing that someone had to make sure another wanted soul did not enter Pemberley. Watching Miss Dashwood fold into Ferrars’ arms, Brandon was feeling the loss of a companion most deeply. Seeing Miss Dashwood’s heart become whole again reminded him of his own pain: the love he had for another woman, another Dashwood.

He smiled over the pleasure the match would be for Emma Knightley. He knew many like her, always setting him up with the latest beauty. This was the first time they had been right in their thinking.

Whilst watching the sun drying out each dew-dropped blade of grass, Brandon turned towards the scene going on in the room behind his window post, and low and behold, someone had gotten past him, with a dog no less.

Brandon realized he must have really lost his touch, his mind wandering straight for Miss Dashwood. No, he could not have this, not on his watch. He ran back to the nearest entry, back to the ballroom.

A soldier’s lot can be a lonely one. How often had Colonel Brandon ruminated on just that. Especially when his capable mien and taciturn ways were excellent camouflage for the deep recesses of passion and fervor that beat in his heart. Few guessed at what lay in Brandon’s heart.

Astute Elinor had an inclination — she keenly observed his eyes always following the lovely Marianne. Mrs. Jennings and Sir John made sport of his heart, incapable of understanding how deeply his ardor for Marianne extended. Now, seeing this beast of a dog making its way toward his treasure, he sprang into action. Not even Superman could have bounded down the halls of Pemberley with greater alacrity.

A footman carrying a tray of lemon ice had the misfortune to be caught in his wake, and nearly toppled the tray, but having been well trained by Lady Catherine’s butler, that tragedy — for now — was averted. Brandon mumbled an apology and sped out the door into the garden to whisk Marianne into his arms and out of the salivating fangs of the hound.

Marianne had been too stunned by the dog to be frightened, but now felt something akin to titillation by being swept up in such a way by “stick-in-the-mud” Brandon.

She, who like many an educated young woman with very decided opinions, even contemplated for a moment, that perhaps she had got Colonel Brandon wrong, although she usually never gave credence that she could be wrong about anything. But here she was, in the arms of a rather powerful man, and rather enjoying it all.

His chest heaved. She felt his heart pound underneath his starched shirt. She remembered a similar time on the moors when Willoughby, rescuing her from a sprained ankle, had rashly picked her up and carried her back to the cottage. That seemed a long way away. And here was a man that she had overlooked most decidedly, whose lack of appreciation for music and romantic novels relegated him to an afterthought in her mind. But what she was feeling now was decidedly not “after” — it was here and now.

Sensuous and compelling. She gazed up at his countenance and saw something that heretofore had escaped her notice. A man. Powerful.

A spark like a firefly flitted between them, and she lifted her mouth to be kissed. Brandon, surprised, overcome with feeling, answered her question with an embrace. Tremors were felt by both, and whatever tentativeness might have existed between them in the past, was obliterated like so many dainty forget-me-nots during a hard summer rainstorm.

Chapter XL

Marianne caught her breath and whispered, “More. Please.”

Colonel Brandon obliged. The hound meanwhile looked on in amazement. Humans are such funny creatures.

As Marianne and Brandon walked off, so did Elinor and Edward. They both stopped in the middle of the hallway and looked at each other, observing the looks of pure and unrelenting joy on the other’s face.

“Why, Marianne –” began Elinor.

“Yes, Elinor,” said Marianne with tears in her eyes. “And you?”

“Yes.”

The two sisters let out a cry of delight and threw their arms around each other. Elinor tried suppressing her tears but found she could barely hold back. Even Brandon and Edward were moved by the scene before them.

Darcy entered with Lizzy at that moment. Marianne and Elinor pulled away and Marianne cried, “Oh, Mrs. Darcy, we are the happiest women in the world tonight!”

“Indeed!” exclaimed Lizzy. “We most certainly are!”

“Oh, Mrs. Darcy, what have you to tell us?” asked Elinor.

Lizzy blushed with pride, and Darcy put his arm around her stomach.

“Congratulations to you both,” said Brandon respectfully. “A new Darcy.” He smiled, and Marianne felt she could not have chosen a more handsome husband.

Both Dashwoods were beside themselves with joy. Lizzy was going to have a baby and they were to be married. All was well. Well, not exactly.

Back inside Pemberley House, Anne Elliot was trudging her weary way to bed. The sun, streaming through the windows, seemed to defy her. Inside her heart, all was bleak and dark. She knew that she could never love her fiancé. She had loved only one man in her life, and he was never likely to forgive her. She had broken his heart, and he would never love her again. All the lonely years and all the frenzied hours at the Pemberley Ball had taken their toll. She slumped against the wall, defeated.

Strong arms wrapped around her tiny frame.

“Anne, my own dear Anne,” whispered Admiral Wentworth in her ear. Was she dreaming? Had she fallen asleep? Could it be true? Was he really there? Anne leaned in to his embrace. If this were really a dream, she would enjoy it fully. If it were true, for once, Anne Elliot would throw propriety to the wind!

“Admiral” she paused, daring to meet his eyes, holding his stare before she uttered “Frederick?” as if unsure how to address him.

Fredrick smiled softly. “My dearest Anne.”

He glanced down and realized the impropriety of their situation and made to remove his arms from around her waist. However, he was arrested by Anne herself — dear, sweet and ever conscious of propriety Anne.

“Anne, we cannot.”

They had already breached propriety greatly, and it was hard to resist the temptation, but they must. He tried again to put distance between them, but Anne grabbed his hands and leaned in to whisper in his ear. An observer would only have seen the face of the Admiral, the raise of his brows and his mouth curved into shock, as the lady whispered the unladylike proclamation of:

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a d—.”

Just outside, Mary and Kitty burst out laughing at what a romantic scene it was. The couple blushed. Mary covered her face with her hand as Mr. Darcy entered. He ignored them, went straight to Mrs. Darcy and whispered to her, “We must show some sign to the guests that the party is now over. And they shall leave to their respective homes. For I need a peaceful sleep.

“I wonder what has happened today. Many of them will face nightmares in their dreams, whereas the others will have a most memorable walk with their soul mates in the gardens of their dreams.”

Mrs. Darcy smiled. “Oh! Dearest! I am so tired. Our ball was filled with so much excitement and suspense that our acquaintances have even forgotten to sleep.”

They both stared at each other and giggled.

“But tomorrow is a big day: an exhibition will be held near our county. We both shall go. They say there shall be all kinds of things of amusements. That famous artist, Mademoiselle Isabelle, will display her artwork. She is the fiancée of the Duke.”

Mrs.Darcy was struck into a state of shock after hearing the name of Isabelle. “I am disappointed with Mr.Brook’s conduct. Did he allow the poor man to say anything before they fought? How could he be so indecent, and with a man like the Duke of Kensington? The rumor was that he had even been elected as the new Prime Minister. What impertinent behavior, Mr. Brook might have shown!”

But as the Darcys thought, the lovers were oblivious to the scene taking place in the adjacent chamber. Even Mary and Kitty had found it to be most impertinent for them to stay; and Anne, soon recovered from her state after noticing the girls, had seen Mr Darcy walk past them and enter the room.

Although she realised the impropriety of her doing so, she was determined not to let Wentworth leave and needed no words to further explain her feelings to him. Staring directly into his eyes with the same look she had given him all those years ago, she could not help but think that, like the rest of the girls of the party, she also deserved to be with her beloved at last, and this time she would allow no one to stop her.

Neither rules nor human force could prevent her from falling into her dear Admiral’s arms. She had waited far too long for a moment like this, and she had been patient. Had she put herself in the present situation she would reconsider her actions, but there they were: holding hands, unable to articulate their feelings, anxiously waiting for the other to say something. Wentworth took the initiative:

“My dearest Anne,” the Admiral began. “We have been separated far too many years in our short, short lives. We are but brief sparks in the eternal flame of human existence, and it is our right — our privilege — to burn as brightly as we can for the duration of our journeys here on Earth. I foolishly allowed my own eyes to become blinded by pride, by misjudgment, by jealousy…. The darkness in which I found myself without you was too much to bear, and yet I bore it, riding the ocean’s waves on a steady ship but drowning on the inside, both heart and soul lost at sea.”

Anne realized in that sizzling moment that she had shunned romanticism for several years, and it was suddenly apparent why. Something painful had awoken inside of her: a desperation, a yearning. It was not merely desire — for she had known that before — but a deeper longing, like the need for sustenance after a day without nourishment, or the fireplace feel of a thicker coat on a blustery, winter eve. And her salvation was there, gripping her trembling waist as if she were the mast on one of the Royal Navy’s ships.

“I spurned you those years before,” she began, almost in apology, but she could not finish. His lips were upon hers with a ravenous fury, as if to contest against any assertion that man forgets love sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death.

And she reciprocated, as if to combat his claim by responding, “Yes, you have felt, but not as I have.” And as the two of them quarreled felicitously in this manner, they aspired to a place far beyond the English Channel, across the oceans and into a place too supernatural for human comprehension.

But there was one who did understand such divine feeling, and it was a bit of an epiphany for her, too. For Mary, who observed the scene with bookish, curious eyes, knew that it only takes a moment to be loved a whole life long! “Oh, Willoughby!”

Chapter XLI

Mary had heard rumours that Mr Willoughby was not what he seemed to be, yet Mary did not care. She had looked into those eyes, and he was the one for her. With that epiphany taking over all of her thoughts (and having had no sleep, who could blame her?), she set out to go find him.

This left Kitty standing by herself once again. She watched Mary wander off and knew this was not the time to follow. Kitty did not want to be the forgotten sister yet again. It seemed as though everyone in her family had found someone to call her own, yet there was no one that Kitty had danced with that seemed to convince her that he would be the one for her, and with her quick ability to laugh, she was never short of dance partners.

She found somewhere to sit. She was so exhausted, not just from the lack of sleep, though that would be enough to make any one of the party members want to sit. She was exhausted deep inside her soul. Just as she started to rest her eyes, a scream was heard.

Why, Kitty whispered to herself, were there so many screams at this ball?

As she heard another scream echo through the halls of Pemberley, Kitty suddenly recognised whose terrified voice it was.

“Mary?!” Kitty quickly stood up and looked around, trying to establish where exactly the screams had come from. All of a sudden, Mary came running towards her, a look of disbelief on her face.

“What’s wrong?!” Kitty asked right away.

“I just saw a ghost,” Mary stammered. “And I swear it wasn’t mother trying out one of her face powders or whatever she calls it.”

“A ghost? Really?” Kitty raised an eyebrow and looked at her sister questioningly. Perhaps they really needed a good night’s sleep. “Do you expect me to joke about ghosts at this time of day? We need to find someone to help us. Someone strong and unafraid…”

“A man. And I know just the person” Mary said and, expecting her sister to follow her, she quickly started running through the deserted rooms of Pemberley.

But along the way, her heart swishing violently between a longing for Willoughby and a fear of the phantasmal world, she collided with her sister Lydia, whose face showed a similar expression of ghastliness.

“Mary, Mary!” Lydia screeched. “Have you seen it too? Have you seen the ghost?”

“I have,” Mary confirmed, lips trembling, “at least I think I have. Could we be hallucinating?”

“I’d believe myself capable of that,” Lydia admitted, which tickled Mary ever so slightly, “but not you. If you saw it, then it must be there. Oh why are we being haunted? What have I ever done to deserve this?”

Mary summoned great restraint to avoid making a retort there, for surely if anyone at the ball was deserving of the Gothic treatment, it was Lydia. Just then, Mary’s self-appointed love of her life emerged from the shadows, a well-worn collection of Shakespeare’s Sonnets in hand.

“But Mary,” Willoughby exclaimed, “you’re white as a ghost!”

“As a ghost, you say?” Mary muttered, and suddenly an incredulous thought crossed her mind.

Turning towards Lydia, Mary shook her head rather violently, as if deeply perturbed. The action sent her chestnut curls flying and stirred a bit of blood back into her ashen cheeks, rendering them mottled like twin bunches of red and white roses.

“Ghosts do NOT exist outside the pages of novels!” she declared vehemently, the heat from her flushed forehead fogging up her glasses and momentarily blinding her. “It is the truth, Lydia, and you know it. Someone is playing a devilish trick on us. There can be no other explanation.”

Lydia bit her lip, half-terrified, half-hopeful. She prayed that Mary was right but remained unconvinced.

“Mr. Willoughby,” Mary continued. “Would you be willing to assist us in uncovering the true identity of this ‘ghost’ that has been haunting the halls of Pemberley and terrorizing both my sister and myself?”

In the meantime, on the other side of Pemberley, a romantic scene was taking place.

Anne Elliot and Admiral Wentworth were utterly in love. The emotions Anne was feeling overpowered her. She could not believe that before her stood the only man she truly loved. It was her Captain Wentworth, now an Admiral.

“Let us rest here on the chaise before we proceed to meet the others,” requested the Admiral. Anne smiled and did accordingly to what her love spoke to her.

Anne sat politely on the chaise and poised herself in such a way that the sunlight glistened on her perfect, smooth skin.

She was flawless. The Admiral could not look away from her. He kneeled beside her and looked directly into her soft, brown-colored eyes. He kissed her hand tenderly and stroked her face with the back of his index finger.

“Too good, too excellent creature! You do me justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men?” whispered Admiral Wentworth, kissing each one of her fingers.

“Yes, yes, I do, Admiral. I believe it to be most fervent,” Anne said, feeling more blissful each time he kissed her hand. “I dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I am now fully aware you have loved none but me.”

“You speak truth Anne. I love you, most ardently. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Pemberley. For you alone, I think and plan.”

The Admiral paused, looking up at Anne. He moved closer to her but seemed to struggle to say the next word.

“Anne, Anne…” he paused again, cleared his throat, and looked up at her again. “Oh, Anne, I can hardly speak. Anne will you ma…”

“What is going on here!” bellowed a gentleman’s voice, marching into the room violently. “Admiral! I demand an answer. Why do you situate yourself next to my future bride!”

It was Richard.

Frederick immediately stood up, adjusted his attire, and moved towards Richard.

“Please, gentlemen, allow me to explain. Richard, please, I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach,” said Anne with a raised but polite countenance.

“I will handle this,” both men said simultaneously, but neither looked at Anne directly.

“I have offered myself to Anne again with a heart even more her own than when she almost broke it, eight years and a half ago,” explained the Admiral. “I had not waited even these two days at this ball, could I have read her feelings, as I think she must have penetrated mine. For her alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this?”

Richard did not answer. He remained silent and with no expression. Tears started to appear in the eyes of Admiral Wentworth. He moved one step closer to Mr. Legitage.

“Richard, please, I beg you, Sir, release Anne from her engagement. I will give you everything in my possession. Anne is all I want, all I have, all I need.”

Mr. Legitage held out his hand for the Admiral to speak no further. “Excuse us Admiral, allow me to speak to Anne, alone.”

The Admiral softened his face and stood up in a stately manner. He looked back at Anne. Her face was flushed with passion, confusion, and love.

“My dear Anne, I must go, uncertain of my fate; but I shall return hither, or follow your decision, as soon as possible. A word, a look, will be enough to decide whether I shall stay here at Pemberley with you or leave forever without you.”

“Frederick, wait!” cried Anne

“You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever.”

Anne could not deny, even through her tears, that she was not flattered by the goings-on. After all, it was not often that two handsome men were willing to fight to obtain her hand, when only a few sorry months ago she had suffered from such a decided lack of suitors. Nevertheless, she thought with agony of her host and hostess; how much had happened at Pemberley over the past few days! It would be cruel to add a duel, even a death, to that account.

Brushing aside her tears, she threw herself into the midst of the gentlemens’ disagreement and exclaimed with feeling, “Pray, do not fight over me!”

Turning from one hardened face to the other, she began, “I do not wish today to turn to violence, least of all between the two of you. You are men I esteem greatly…”

Turning to the Admiral, she timidly slipped her hand in his and continued, “…but I have made my choice. I am determined never more to change my mind, nor be persuaded by any other soul. I know it to be my own heart’s choice.”

The Admiral’s countenance lit up with joy at this pronouncement and he returned the pressure of her hand with equal feeling. The two estranged lovers were content at last; now both turned to the third member of their group, anxiously awaiting his reaction to their honest confession of love.

Chapter XLII

How hard times had engraved lines on Legitage’s forehead. His eyes were as blue as a sea on any beautiful day, and yet they seemed pale and grey as a sky on a grey, stormy day.

“I made a mistake and I am paying for it. I lost everything: my mother. I don’t want to lose you. I have already gone astray from my path. It was my mother’s dream to marry you. How long will you hate me? Were I at peace? I hate Isabelle. She was…”

And suddenly his voice shivered and he broke into tears, knelt on his feet and cried, “At least forgive me. I shall live like a misanthropist. Were I not longing to see you? Let me bring Isabelle. She must tell everything.”

At the same time that Legitage wallowed in regret, Willoughby contemplated Mary’s offer to assist with the ghost hunt.

“My dear Miss Bennet, I would be delighted,” Willoughby responded.

His eyes grazed the two young women, so alike in familial countenance yet so far apart in personality. Mary’s quick mind intrigued him; he was sure he could parlay this “ghost” into more time spent around the woman with the charming glasses.

“Be quick, Mr. Willoughby. Kitty believes this nonsense and we must dissuade others of flexible mind…” Mary started.

Quick footsteps down the hall interrupted her. Catherine Morland approached the trio, her face alight with excitement.

“Did you not hear again the shrieking? There is something afoot at Pemberley, I am sure of it.” Her notebook at the ready, Catherine was eager to discover what they had heard or seen.

Relief washed over Kitty; finally someone with an ounce of sense was taking her seriously.

From across the mansion, disparate slumbering and wandering groups heard the shrieking. Lady Catherine, with her hair wrapped in papers, wanted to be of use. Catherine Morland wanted to record the scene for posterity. Archibald Brook hoped that if he could eloquently pen the disaster that he might regain his shattered literary reputation. Jane Bingley hoped that if she could find the source of the shrieking, she could stop the throbbing in her head. Caroline Bingley hoped that if the shrieking were nearby that someone would remove the gag and ropes that her brother had bound her with the night before. Richard Legitage hoped he might find something worthy of dying for. Mary Bennet hoped to put a stop to the ridiculous sighting of ghosts.

Suddenly, all of these converged at a single place: the music room, where a frightened Georgiana stood shrieking over the injured body of a child. Georgiana fell silent before the crowd that surrounded her and the child. Legitage stepped foward and scooped the child in his arms.

“My star,” he whispered softly.

Bingley left Caroline in one of the smaller sitting rooms in the east wing with their sister Louisa, hoping and praying that his most beloved Jane would learn to forgive him for bringing his sister into her life. Bingley had never been angrier in his entire life and felt there would be nothing to replace this absolute disdain he felt for his own sister.

Bingley, much to his own surprise, invited the idea of Caroline taking flight and leaving England forever. He would then never have to set eyes on his youngest sister again. As Bingley continued to walk at this quick pace, anxious to return to the bedchamber where Jane was resting, he continued with the idea
that if Louisa would accompany Caroline to some far off land, he would truly be able to live in peace and harmony with his beautiful, kind Jane and their future child.

Yes, this would be his plan, and as he turned the corner, he spotted Darcy and knew he would agree
wholeheartedly.

“Darcy, I must speak with you this moment.”

Brook, who had been talking with Darcy, suspected that Mr. Bingley would like to speak with Darcy privately and excused himself. But at that same moment, a shriek came from downstairs, making all the men look at one another. Brook suggested to Darcy and Bingley that he would go and see what was amiss, suspecting that Bingley had something urgent he wished to speak to Mr. Darcy about.

Mr. Bingley thanked Brook for taking care of the matter and turned to Darcy. “I have a plan on what to do with my sister Caroline and desire your help to put it in action.”

Darcy, still distracted and concerned with what the shriek was all about, realized that Bingley needed his undivided attention at this moment and replied, “Yes, Bingley, what is it I can do regarding this most regretful matter?”

Bingley had a moment’s hesitation, wondering if he could truly send his sister in exile, then took a deep breath and said, “Darcy, I mean to send Caroline abroad with Louisa permanently. I will provide them with enough money so that they can live comfortably, but only if Caroline agrees to never set foot on English soil again. I do not want Jane to ever think of my wretched sister again, much less have to lay eyes on her once more.”

Darcy was taken aback, but quickly recovered his sense of relief and agreed that this would be the only
acceptable way of handling Caroline, also thinking that he and Lizzy would not miss all the drama and ire that Bingley’s sister had brought to their lives.

Darcy looked around to ensure no one would hear his response and said, “Bingley, I think if we are to do this, we must take action at this moment while most of Pemberley is distracted on the lower floors.”

Mr. Bingley looked at his friend, and with much gladness, he agreed. “Darcy, if I may call upon your most trusted servant to be discreet in this matter?”

“Yes, of course, but we must hurry. I’ll send for a carriage at once.” Looking to Bingley with great care for his friend, he added, “I do hope you know what you are wishing to do in this matter.”

“I do, Darcy, I do, and to this plot of mine it will secure Jane and I a happy future.”

The screams were still being heard. “Bingley I must hurry; my presence will be needed below. I must not raise suspension to my whereabouts.”

With that, Darcy turned at once to find his servant he trusted the most, while Bingley turned to walk in the opposite direction in search of his sister. Jane could wait another moment. In another moment, all would change.

Back in the parlour, everybody was under shock because of the scene. Legitage was totally devastated at the sight of his beloved baby. The ‘Star’ was injured, and some ladies fainted because of the pain which reflected in the poor child and the father.

But no, this was not one of those melodramas which would invade English literature in 60 years like George Talboy’s arrival to Lady Audley’s house. There was a need for a rational voice over this moment, and the correct person for this was Eleanor Tilney. She had suffered enough with her family: the loss of her mother and the gossip around Northanger Abbey. She had taken care of Mrs Tilney during the illness, so she was a capable nurse and she had enough knowledge, thanks to Dr Perry, who assisted her poor mother.

So the decided lady took the baby, gave him some water, put poultice in a muslin handkerchief (which his brother had given her the last Christmas) and cleaned the baby’s injuries. In that moment, the little gorgeous kid opened his eyes, the black eyelashes moved, and the bright blue eyes saw the good lady who was taking care of him.

The tears and angst turned into joy. Mr Legitage, almost in ecstasy, took the kid and hugged him dearly. Everyone was rejoicing and moved next to the couple. Eleanor moved out of the happy circle. Legitage was very joyful and he thought about his guardian angel. He looked outside the circle and ran to Miss Tilney.

The gentleman tried to move his mouth, but sounds almost did not get out of it. A silent ‘thanks’ finally escaped. Eleanor blushed, and Legitage, even knowing how improper it was, kissed her cheek, which made her go more red. Maybe it was the worst day of his life, knowing that Anne was out of his life and seeing his injured child, but now, everything was different. That Angel had saved his beloved son. Now, he felt he was completely devoted to her.

Chapter XLIII

Such drama and excitement was all too much; Legitage wiped his brow and left the room, in need of some fresh air. He headed outside, on to the lawn, to muse on the way his life had reached this point. It could have been so different, he thought, staring out across the gardens in reverie.

Once, in his youth, he had been approached by a distinguished gentleman who suggested he might gain employment as a spy! Legitage could barely believe it now, but it had been real, and for a while he had been intrigued and flattered by such an outrageous notion. He breathed deeply, inhaling the sweet air, pondering on how his life might have been changed if he had chosen such a path.

His reverie was broken, however, by a sudden piercing scream which resonated around the grounds. Legitage blinked, chilled by the fearful sound. He did not need to be a spy to know that someone close by was in trouble, but where? And crucially, who?

Many others had heard the same unearthly sound, among them Catherine Morland. A little thrill of anticipation ran through her. For this was no ghost. She searched for her diary, desperate to record the exact time, place, and any other fascinating particulars. It would all have to be committed to memory, until she could take up her beloved journal again.

But her diary was nowhere to be seen. She took a deep breath. Another scream — this time, only a few steps to her left. With much trepidation, she edged sideways until her small foot stumbled against a large smooth stone. To her horror, the stone moved of its own accord. It was only then that she realised — the stone was a man’s foot!

As if reading her thoughts, a man’s voice whispered, “At your service, Miss Morland,” and Catherine fell into his arms in a dead faint.

Just as the man caught Catherine’s limp form, yet another shriek pierced the air. The tall hound at his side gave a high-pitched whine, swiveling his ears, trying to both find and avoid the sound.

“Easy, fella,” the man murmured quietly, adjusting Catherine’s weight gently. The hound responded by quieting and glancing up at the man as if to say “What are we going to do now?” The man stood in the hall thinking over his next course of action. As yet ANOTHER shriek ripped through the silence, he cursed under his breath.

“How can one estate have so many shrieking banshees at a ball?” he asked the dog. “It’s a wonder Darcy maintains his sanity at all with all that’s gone on tonight. Er, last night and this morning. Come, boy,” he softly called the dog, deciding his next action.

Turning Catherine in his arms, he easily lifted her and turned to go back down the hall she had met him in. The dog trotted at his side.

“Miss Catherine, you are having an adventuresome stay at Pemberley aren’t you?” he asked her still-limp form, a soft smile on his lips. “I am sorry to have given you a fright though — never my intention — must be the result of the chaos. Or the shrieking.”

Chuckling a little, he and the hound made their way through the corridors and back to the door to the tunnel — still ajar, just as Darcy left it after they had found Caroline. This was the entrance man and hound had used when they came in from meeting Edward and Elinor and it would be a nice quiet place to revive Catherine. If the shrieking got too close, he could just shut the door!

Just as the man bent to set Catherine on the steps, her eyelids fluttered. “Oh!” she gasped, regaining consciousness, but unsure where she was and why, let alone whose arms held her. As her eyes adjusted to the flickering half-light of the tunnel, a face she knew but a little was before her. “Oh,” she breathed again, the struggle between propriety and impulse visibly playing out across her face.

As is so often the case, the hound relieved the tension of the moment by sticking his wet nose against Catherine’s face.

“Easy boy.” As the man gently pushed the dog away, he released his grip on Catherine a little as well.

“It’s alright, I don’t mind — he’s rather big though, isn’t he?” Catherine questioned, reaching out a hand to the dog’s eager muzzle.

“One is always appreciative of a big hound when traipsing through dark tunnels in shriek-filled estates,” the man chuckled.

“Quite right, sir, quite right. Though perhaps a stick and light would be equally beneficial. Are we back in the tunnel then?” Catherine looked around her, wondering how she was back in this damp passageway when only the Darcys had the key.

“Yes, Miss Catherine, we are — in the midst of dealing with Caroline Bingley, Darcy forgot to close the door completely. Fortuitous mistake I think, considering the service it’s done me. And now you.”

Just then, the dog stood and uttered a low growl, hackles raising. The man motioned for Catherine to stay silent, creeping quietly to the barely open door, hound at his side. Though he saw and heard nothing, the dog would not relax. Something was unsettling him, and that unsettled the man, thus unsettling Catherine.

“Perhaps,” Catherine whispered tentatively, “we should close the door? Whatever is bothering your hound cannot be friendly.”

“I think you might be right, I can see nothing, but dogs have far better senses than we,” the man agreed, gently easing the door shut. “I am sorry if I’ve compromised your reputation any, Miss Catherine, but if I may be even more untoward, I will say that I don’t rightly care what they think about us. Darcy’s a sensible fellow, and I intend to make an honest woman of you besides,” the man waggled his eyebrows impishly as he sat on the step next to Catherine.

“You sir, are rather sure of yourself,” Catherine replied, trying to keep from laughing, but failing miserably. Suddenly, all the happy hopes from the previous afternoon were flooding back, and it seemed for a moment as if the insanity of the Ball at Pemberley had never happened. Here she was, in the company of a large protecting hound and the impudent charm of — dare she say it, even to herself? — her Henry Tilney!

Chapter XLIV

Not one thing could wake Mrs. Bennet once she had fallen asleep. Mr. Bennet was lying in their guest room and had decided to let his wife catch up on her beauty sleep. At his age, he had intended to stay with her in their warm bed. That was until a blood-curdling scream echoed through the halls of Pemberley.

“That is it!” Bennet got out of his warm covers. “What on God’s great Earth could be making such a sound?” Without a valet to help him, he grabbed his dressing gown and left the bedroom.

“So help me, if it is one of my daughters!” With that, he closed the door and marched off to find the source of that piercing wail. As if to let him know he was on the trail, another rang out.

“What I need are a pair of ear muffs to drown out that sound.” Bennet still hurried faster down the hallowed halls of Pemberley. He chuckled at his own daring. How out of character for him to get involved at all, as sitting ensconced in his library surrounded by his beloved books and a fine glass of port was his usual wont. But the frenzied activity of he past nights had awakened in him a sense of adventure, long dormant. Why not be a hero in the story, thought he, as he hurried toward the increasingly anguished screams.

The source of those screams chaffed at the rope around her hands. She looked at her brother with something akin to hatred. Had it come to this? Was she actually to be exiled to some godforsaken land — because after all, anywhere not England was NOWHERE at all — by her own flesh and blood? The man before her was implacable.

“I mean what I say, Caroline,” Bingley continued. “I’m done with your shenanigans. You’ve gone too far. To threaten the health and well-being of the fairest, kindest creature on earth, my Jane, indeed threaten her life! By doing this, you have sealed your fate. I’ll provide a comfortable income for you, but you are no longer welcome in my home, my sight or my heart.”

Caroline shuddered. The iron in her usually good-natured brother’s voice made her tremble. This was a new Bingley.

Caroline’s thoughts tried to keep apace with her dire predicament. What was warranted? What could keep her from exile and shame. Tears? Abject apologies? She opened her mouth to speak (seeing as screams had gotten her nowhere), but Bingley stopped her with a glare.

“No more of your tricks or false protestations of tender feelings for me or my Jane. You care for no one but yourself. Glass is not as transparent as you. Even now, Darcy is calling for the carriage to take you to London. From there you will sail to the West Indies.”

A sound from behind made them both turn.

“Jane,” exclaimed Bingley. “My darling, what are you doing out of bed? You need your rest.”

Jane delicately touched his cheek, the softness of her caress calming him. “I cannot allow you to send your sister away on my account.”

“But it is not for you I do it. I do it for US. And for Lizzy and Darcy. Caroline has wreaked such havoc in all our lives,” Bingley passionately intoned.

“My darling, she is your sister. We cannot any of us choose our family. We must accept them and find the good where we can.”

Caroline looked on in amazement as the woman who she had earlier tried to kill now took her part. If there were any remnants of decency in her, this might have been the catalyst for a true change of heart for one Caroline Bingley. However, character once formed is set. And Caroline’s was of a mold of selfishness not to be broken. But still, here was her chance to remain in England and nearby the man she would always love and desire, Darcy.

Caroline welled crocodile tears in her eyes, and whispered, “Sister.”

Darcy felt like pulling his hair out. Could nothing go as planned at this blasted ball? He called a footman and canceled the carriage that had been meant for Caroline Bingley. He had been rather looking forward to getting her off of his lands, but Charles was suddenly convinced that she had had a change of heart. Personally, he did not believe it, but he had determined to never try to convince Bingley of anything ever again.

He was just turning to go up the stairs when the butler approached. “There are two men who wish to speak with you, sir,” he said.

Darcy groaned, “Who is it?”

“I believe they are members of the constabulary, sir,” his butler replied.

Darcy frowned; what did the constabulary want with him? He strode purposefully down the hall to receive them. He took a moment to study the two men from the doorway. One was perhaps in his late forties and the other was around Darcy’s own age. Darcy cleared his throat and they both turned.

“Fitzwilliam Darcy, at your service.”

The older man performed introductions.

“I am Mr. Hinds and this is Mr. McKinnon.”

Meanwhile, Georgiana was unintentionally charming Richard, who wondered if he had ever loved Anne in the first place. Georgiana was accomplished in many pursuits and was everything a young woman ought to be. Yet he was nervous. Darcy would surely be disappointed in Richard for even considering his sister. And as to the matter of fortune! She would be quite wealthy and so would the man who married her. Richard did not want Darcy to suspect him of such tomfoolery.

“Sir, are you well?” asked Georgiana suddenly. “You seem lost in your thoughts.”

“I am fine, Miss Darcy,” he said. His encounter with Eleanor Bingley had opened his heart to others again. “Pray, excuse me, I best go speak with Mr. Knightley. An urgent business matter, you know.”

Georgiana was stung by his abrupt departure. “Of course, how foolish of me to think myself worthy of him,” she sighed. She found Fanny sipping tea in the drawing room and sat down next to her. Fanny immediately put down her cup.

“Why, Georgiana! What is wrong, my dear?” She pulled Georgiana close to her and let the girl cry into her shoulder. After all, friendship is certainly the finest balm for the pangs of disappointed love.

“Dear Georgiana, what is the matter?” Fanny asked, setting aside her tea and embracing Miss Darcy with sisterly affection. “Come now,” she whispered as soothingly as possible. “I am sure it cannot be so bad!”

“But it is!” Georgiana cried in reply, her tear-soaked chin trembling. “All anyone ever does is talk of my accomplishments: my painting, my piano, my embroidery! I may be ‘accomplished,’ as they say, but I know nothing! I am ignorant of the world. It is said that the greatest thing a person will ever learn is just to love and be loved in return. Well, if that is true, then I am surely the most UNaccomplished person on Earth! Oh, yes, I can cover screens and scrawl designs on tables, but I am wholly unfamiliar with my own heart! I know NOTHING of love. And yet, I think I might love…”

“Georgiana, are you in love?” Fanny asked, stroking her distraught companion’s arm.

At that moment, a forceful knock sounded at the door to the drawing room. Believing that it was Mr. Legitage, Georgiana practically jumped from the chair upon which she had been sitting and instinctively smoothed both her hair and skirts.

But it was not Legitage who scrambled through the doorway but rather a rasping Colonel Fitzwilliam, whose kind-hearted nature had compelled him to look after the two ladies, lest they be in peril.

“Why, Colonel Fitzwilliam,” Georgiana remarked, the disappointment evident in her intonation, despite her best attempts to disguise it.

“It’s lovely to see you, too,” Fitzwilliam replied, adopting the utmost gentility — as he always did.

“I had almost forgotten you were here,” Georgiana murmured.

Immediately, she wished she had kept that thought to herself, but there was no offending a man who truly put the “gentle” in gentleman.

Understanding her disquiet, he articulated back, “I do have a way of blending in sometimes, which works to my benefit many times, but also to my detriment. Surely, a girl — nay, a lady — so accomplished as yourself would do well to think of others before me. There are those with far less cheerful dispositions, desperate to have their spirits raised by such a delicate beam of sunlight.”

He smiled and bowed, and Georgiana found her state of mind quite a bit improved. But there was another in the room who was also accustomed to slipping in among the furniture, escaping the glances of watchful men and ever-more discerning females. She knew what it was to be forgotten, and yet, she had followed this worthy man before her throughout the evening with her introspective eyes, and found him to be the finest man in the whole of the estate.

“Colonel Fitzwilliam,” she started, meekly but then gaining strength. “Your goodness is admired by some, if you dare to look.”

And for once, he did look, and that camouflaged, hidden gem — Fanny Price — emerged gracefully in blazing glory.

Chapter XLV

“Miss Price,” Colonel Fitzwilliam replied, suddenly captivated by the openness and sincerity filling Fanny’s eyes. He admired, for the first time since making her acquaintance the day prior, the elegance of her figure and the manner in which her dark hair, having come unpinned, pooled across her shoulders in gentle waves.

“How are you this evening?” the Colonel continued, staring intently at this unassuming, yet positively bewitching, young woman.

“I am well, thank you, sir,” Fanny replied, unable to prevent a broad smile from spreading across her face.

Georgiana, sensing that the pair might be better off without her presence, slipped from the drawing room and began to ascend a nearby staircase which led to the wing of Pemberley housing her own chamber. As she approached the final step, her mind heavy with thoughts of Mr. Legitage, Mr. Wickham, and her own uncertain future, she noticed, out of the corner of her eye, a shadowy object dangling from the banister. Upon closer inspection, Georgiana determined that it was a piece of fabric knotted around the wooden handrail.

With a steady hand, she reached forward and grasped the fabric, pulling until it came loose. To her utter confusion, Georgiana found herself holding one corner of an unusually long, black veil.

She felt the soft fabric of the veil and noticed that it was still slightly covered in dust. “This is quite an extraordinary piece of clothing. Such expensive fabric, the embroidery is extremely detailed and precise…”

Georgiana looked a bit closer at the black veil, wondering who it could possibly belong to. “It is not customary to wear a veil like this while attending a ball. Unless… Of course! Unless the person is in mourning!” Georgiana smiled and carefully folded the veil. “I shall return this to Miss Charlotte right away, she must be looking for it.”

However, while folding the veil, Georgiana suddenly noticed a couple of red spots on the fabric. The scarlet red marks on the dark black veil could not be missed, and as Georgiana softly touched them, she gasped. The spots were still wet. As Georgiana realised what the red trace on both her fingers and the veil was, she slowly felt herself losing her balance and falling backwards, before everything became dark.

When she finally awoke, alone and frightened out of her wits, Georgiana was further mortified to find the “black veil” in her mouth, the crimson, dewy droplets slathering against her tongue. She was about to scream at the top of her lungs, when she realized: “Wait a second.” She dared to taste further. It was quite saccharine. And then, in a quiet laugh effused between excitement and embarrassment, she realized that it was decorated chocolate, from the Pemberley cake that had been dropped!

“Mmmmm,” she thought to herself, putting the veil aside, now more determined than ever to satisfy that raging sweet tooth of hers: she wanted Legitage!

As it happens, she was not the only young lady intent on behaving decadently. Fanny and Colonel Fitzwilliam were partaking in a rather sultry interaction, and yet, it was devoid of physical contact entirely. Indeed, they stared into each other’s eyes with a desperate desire, and committed more sin in a longing glance than Lydia Bennet had in the whole of her life!

The Colonel did seem to have a more than passing chance of being the only man likely to put thoughts of her cousin out of Fanny’s head. She had idolised Edmund for years, against all hope, all reason, and — to be frank — all decorum. But brought up as strictly as Fanny had been, he was practically the only man she had ever seen, and now, like Shakespeare’s Miranda, she was confronted for the first time by a whole array of handsome and attentive gentlemen, and the Colonel first among them. It were no surprise indeed, were she to say: “O brave new world, that has such heroes in it!”

Nearby, Mr Bennet had found the source of the the loudest screams that echoed through the halls, and he had also heard the conversation that had taken place between the collection of Bingleys. He understood where Charles’s thoughts had originated from, and he also saw Janes’. Hadn’t something similar happened to their own private family?

Lizzy’s words echoed through his memory: “The most notorious flirt ever to make her family ridiculous.” No truer words had ever been spoken. Though he had banished her from his house, he had not revealed to polite society what had happened, though perhaps they already knew. Jane always saw the best in everyone, even when it wasn’t even there.

Mr. Bennet wanted to believe that Miss Bingley did not mean to hurt any one… It was that moment that his inner voice roared that this woman had tried to kill his eldest daughter less than twelve hours prior. No one can change their person that quickly. No, Jane was in the wrong this time. Miss Bingley must be sent away, before she tried her hand at the woman in her way, his favourite daughter Lizzy.

He had influenced her as a child, and he was going to have to try the same tricks again. Maybe she could then make Jane see reason and let Charles send the witch away. With that, Mr Bennet left his post to find his daughter, Mrs Darcy.

Lizzy was resting in the morning room, unaware that such hubbub was occurring in other parts of the house. Although she would never acknowledge herself to be a weakling, Mrs Darcy had to admit that the past days had been taxing to her strength.

“I must not let Mr Darcy see me discomposed,” she fretted to herself. Unlike other ladies of her acquaintance, Lizzy had concern for others’ welfare, especially that of her dear husband. Indefatigable as he might seem to be, she knew that he had his limits and she would not, for worlds, see him in distress or despair. As she mused, the door to the room opened to admit her father.

“Papa!” Lizzy noted with alarm her father’s expression, filled as it was with ire — so different from his usually sanguine disposition “What has happened?”

Mr Bennet hurried to his daughter and attempted to calm her apprehensions, without much success.
Lizzy fought for some sense of fortitude.

“I must speak with Jane — and with Caroline Bingley.”

“No Papa, my mind is set on it.” With a sigh Mr Bennet watched his daughter’s departure from the morning room. What a tumultuous time they had all undergone!

Meanwhile, a dark figure was stealing across the manicured lawns toward the house. He — for it surely was a man — progressed with a purposeful stride. Pemberley and its inhabitants were due for another shock.

Suddenly, the doors of the ballroom flew open.

“Where is she? Where did Charlotte go? She was just here, was she not?” yelled out Archibald Brook, barely able to catch his breath!

“She has gone with the Wentworths, in the carriage, sir,” said the footman.

“Gone! Gone where, Footman?”

“Home, sir, to Kellynch…” whispered a soft female voice from behind the door. Mr. Brook turned around to notice the whimsical Kitty Bennet standing behind him.

“Come here, child, what do you know of the circumstance?” asked the panicked Brook.

“They have all left the Ball. Admiral Wentworth and Anne Elliot are engaged. In the following carriage contains Sir Elliot, his daughter Elizabeth and the Lady Russell, sir. They shall stay a fortnight at Kellynch then begin the proceedings to Bath to announce the engagement of Anne to the Admiral.”

“And what is to be said of Charlotte? Why does she keep their company?”

“She will remain with Anne until her child is born, for she has determined in her heart that she has been rejected and will remain a spinster forever. The Wentworths have promised to take care of her and give her a place in the property to raise the child.”

“Nonsense, I will not have this! Footman, arrange a horse for me directly, I will not have Charlotte’s life dictated by another no matter the good of their hearts!”
,
“What will you say to her, Mr. Brook?” asked Kitty.

Archibald turned and looked into the innocent eyes of the young maiden. “…that I love her, Kitty…that is it, that is all. I will take full responsibility to care for her child. I cannot, I will not, I shall not go on without her! Now, Footman, please hurry! I must make haste, I must stop that carriage!”

The footman, within seconds, was able to rally two of the finest horses of Pemberley’s stables for Mr. Brook. He raced to the majestic black stallion and, without delay, saddled onto the horse and raced down the Pemberley grounds to find Charlotte.

Chapter XLVI

He galloped for what seemed to him as hours. He nicked the horse to motion it to proceed faster. The horse obeyed and galloped fast enough for its hooves to kick up the dirt deep from the roadway. There into the daybreak, he could see the two horse-drawn carriages moving at a good-natured speed. Mr. Brook pressed on, moving closer and closer to the carriages.

“Good lord, is that who I think it is?” said Sir Elliot, catching a glimpse of a hooded man heading towards the carriage.

“Good heavens, it is…it’s that writer, Archibald Brook!” said a shocked Elizabeth, while quickly adjusting her attire.

Sir Elliot, Elizabeth and Lady Russell nearly crushed each other trying to get a full view of Mr. Brook. (An argument ensued amongst them as to who was being of less or more proprietary at the moment at hand.)

Mr. Brook, in the meantime, passed their carriage and came into full view of Charlotte’s.

“Charlotte, Charlotte…,” whispered Anne as she tried to wake Charlotte from a deep sleep.

“Yes, Ma’am, yes, I am but awake now…”

“Look…!” Anne pointed hurriedly to the man on the horse galloping next to them. Charlotte looked up with her glazed-over eyes and saw the most beautiful sight she had ever seen in her life. Her darling and true love Archibald Brook was riding beside the carriage. He was motioning the men to stop the carriage by way of urgent decree.

The carriage soon came to a complete halt. The small door swung open to Charlotte gathering her long ball gown in order to show herself attentive to the arrival of Mr. Brook.

“Archibald, my dearest, what is this that you must call upon us in such urgency?”

Admiral Wentworth motioned Anne not to say a word but to let Charlotte go out of the carriage alone. Charlotte stepped out of the carriage with the aid of Archibald Brook’s gentle grasp of her hand.

“Charlotte, please do not leave me in such a state. I cannot have this. I will not allow you to believe you are alone and that is the way your life was meant to be lived! You were meant for me, only me! Allow me to be a part of your life forever. I promise to care for you. I will wear out the words ‘I love you’ every night as you lie in my arms. I will become a father to your child and the others we shall bear together. I will give you a comfortable home and life of peace, free of disturbance…Charlotte, please, my love…will you marry me?”

All those in the carriages waited in silence for Charlotte’s answer.

Charlotte took the cold, shaking hands of Brook in hers. She moved his hands across her soft, warmed cheeks and kissed them tenderly. She then looked into Archibald’s eyes directly and said, “In thy face I see honor, truth, and loyalty. YES! I will marry you, Archibald. With all my heart, I DO…”

And with those words, Mr. Brook took Charlotte in his arms. He kissed her lips with a passion that neither had felt in many years past. They held each other tightly and knew at that very moment that they would never be apart again for better or for worse, till death do them part.

Archibald, who had always spoken eloquently before, was so overcome by Charlotte’s kiss, that he could only stutter, “I l-l-l-l-l-o-o ve y-y-ou.”

“Oh, my darling Archibald, I’m so glad you write rather than speak for a living. Don’t worry, my love, if you never recover from my kiss, we’ll find you an unconventional Australian speech therapist.”

At that remark, Archibald kissed Charlotte soundly again. No more words were needed between these two worthy people who had found their happiness at the Pemberley Ball.

Back at Pemberley, inside the house, Elizabeth was on a mission to find and convince Jane to let Caroline Bingley leave the country. When she reached her sister, Jane was in tears. She hated disagreeing with anyone, and she never disagreed with Bingley, but now she had. Bingley was actually glowering at Jane.

“Caroline MUST go,” he repeated emphatically, while Darcy looked on with his fiercest glare.

“Both of you leave now!” Elizabeth commanded the men. “I’ll speak to Jane alone.” She disregarded their “buts” and tossed them out the door. There was only one way to convince Jane of anything: fear for those she loved. Elizabeth would lie if she needed to. The tale Elizabeth concocted would have shocked even Catherine Morland. Lizzy was actually proud of herself, and after fifteen minutes of convincing, Jane had relented.

“Call Charles back,” she begged her sister. “I agree that Caroline should be sent to Australia now.”

Bingley and Darcy reentered the room, both trying to read Jane’s thoughts through her usually conservative demeanor.

“Charles, Mr. Darcy, and Lizzy have convinced me that having Miss Bingley stay here in England is impossible for our children’s safety as well as mine. It must be done, but I wish to speak to Caroline before she leaves.”

Charles responded in a most determined manner. “Absolutely not. I will not allow you to put yourself in harm’s way ever again, Jane.”

Mr. Darcy also agreed by saying, “I know your nature, dear sister, and I must agree with Charles. It shall not happen.”

Lizzy looked at both men in utter amazement of their complete disregard for Jane’s wishes.

“My love, if I were to go with Jane, there surely could not be any objections,” Lizzy said with her arched eyebrow that indicated to her husband that there was no use quarreling about this further. She would most certainly win, and she felt his time would be better spent making all the necessary arrangements for Caroline’s departure.

Bingley also knew when to step aside and allow the ladies to do what they must, and he would waste no more time on this either.

“We will meet you at Miss Bingley’s room within the half hour.” Both men were careful to kiss both of their wives on the forehead to show their love and respect before exiting the room.

Lizzy put her arm out to Jane and said, “Well, my dearest Jane, let us go and you may say what you wish to Miss Caroline Bingley for the very last time.”

Jane took Lizzy’s arm and smiled. “Lizzy, I will only admit to you that I am very happy that I will never have to lay eyes on Caroline or her sister Louisa ever again.”

Lizzy looked at her dear sister with complete relief that Jane agreed to this scheme. They reached the door where their Uncle Gardiner stood, looking like a guardsman at the palace of the Prince Regent. Their uncle looked at both of his two favorite nieces with quizzical eyes.

“Lizzy, Jane, what are you about coming to the east wing?”

Lizzy responded in her usual determined manner. “Uncle, we mean to speak to Miss Bingley before she departs for Australia.”

“Does Mr. Darcy know of this plan?”

“Yes, Uncle, he is aware of it and knew well enough not to argue with me on this score.”

“Well, well, who am I to argue with Mrs. Darcy of Pemberley,” he said with a forced smile. With eyes filled with concern, he opened the door and stepped aside to allow Jane and Lizzy to enter. Much to their surprise, there was no Caroline, no Louisa, and the window was wide open.

Meanwhile, Bingley took the opportunity to repair to the bathroom, breathing a sigh of relief. Much as he loved female companionship and all its pleasant diversions, he had been in need of privacy for some time. Upon entering the bathroom, he slumped forward, gripping the edge of the sink for support.

Goodness, he thought, catching sight of himself in the mirror — he had made it just in time! Some things were not for ladies’ eyes, and surely a gentleman must be allowed a few secrets? He stared at his reflection, which revealed his lustrous handmade wig, quite askance and to the side of his bald head. He had felt it slipping for some time and the fear of discovery had caused him to perspire profusely.

His baldness was known by no-one and he intended to keep it that way, by whatever means possible. Calmer now, he rearranged it neatly on top of his head and made to exit the door. Phew, thought Bingley, as he prepared to face the company of others — his secret was safe. No-one would ever know the truth of his shiny bald pate.

Mr. Bingley walked out with more confidence in his stride. Caroline and Louisa’s window was left wide open indeed, though the fall to the ground would suggest some sort of injury would take place. It would seem that this could just be a false diversion to make one think that is where they might have left. Lizzy searched the room to find some of their trunks were missing.

Lizzy, looking to a frightened Jane, said, “It seems they have made us to try to believe they left through the window. I do know for there is a small passageway that connects to this room out onto the grounds.”

Jane seemed to relax. Lizzy was searching the room carefully around the small secret door in the wall. She found the tiny, but long, crack in the wall just on the other side of the wardrobe.

With a cheer, she announced, “I have found it,” and with a light push, the door opened. “Yes, Jane, this is the way they must have left the house. I mean not to follow for they are gone by now, Jane. I think we should return with the rest of the party and not speak of this until it is necessary.”

Though the screaming had finally stopped, it did not stop what the three Bennet sisters had seen. Kitty felt a little lost. Though she was back with her beloved sister, Lydia (and they were both terrified by the ghostly figure they had seen), all was not the same. Lydia was not the same. Kitty had not been allowed to see her since her first appearance as Mrs Wickham and she guessed they had grown apart.

However, the weirder thing was watching Mary take control of a situation. Seeing Mary not behind a piano or a book made for a great change in her person. And watching her with Willoughby had been an experience she was not sure she wanted to have again.

And what should she make of Charlotte Lucas and Mr Brook? This would be Charlotte’s second marriage in that many years, and all Kitty had were her parents and her coughing fits. Kitty always thought it would be Mary, the true middle child, that would be the spinster, not herself. Her dreams of this being a bride-making ball seemed to have worked for everyone but herself.

As Kitty turned to leave the room, Jane and Lizzy came in, and as usual, they were in the midst of a deep conversation. Oh, just once Kitty longed to be part of the world of her older sisters. They were so lucky they had married and been able to move into beautiful homes with maids, butlers, and housemaids to gossip with.

After all, Kitty believed that part of the fun of being a lady was the ability to sit around all day long and just have your cares attended to and sometimes even boss around a person or two. Oh, and not to mention the fun of having over all of your friends and eating anything you wanted all day long. That was the life. Dreaming was not going to make that happen, so back to her sisters and their silly conversations and laughter she went.

“Oh, Lizzy, do share with Mary and I…your plans for us.”

To which Lizzy and Jane looked at each other and Lizzy replied, “What ever do you mean?”

It was all she could take after this long night, and she burst into tears. Kitty tried to calm herself down and told Lizzy about her fears of ending up alone and not wanting to return home with their parents just yet. Lizzy and Jane assured Kitty and Mary that soon there would be news which would provide them with lots of opportunities to help both Lizzy and Jane.

Kitty looked up and smiled at Lizzy, and then, yet again there was another scream from the hallway. All of the Bennet girls rushed to the door only to see Catherine Morland shaking with terror, fists clenched white, shoulders rigid and eyes screwed shut. Yet there was no obvious reason for such an abject display of fear. And then Lizzy noticed something amiss.

Chapter XLVII

“Goodness, Miss Morland, what is that on your head?”

Catherine gave a little yelp of dismay. “Is-is it still there?”

Lizzy and Jane exchanged knowing looks. “I’m afraid so,” Lizzy said gravely. “Would you like it removed?”

“Oh, please, please!” Catherine whimpered. “But be careful, I beg you — it is a loathsome creature, and may bite your hand off!”

It was a struggle for Lizzy to keep a straight face. “Before I risk life and limb, I must ask — how did this happen, my dear?”

Poor Catherine screwed her eyes even more tightly shut, if that were possible. Then, in a broken whisper, she announced, “I saw Mr Bingley appear on the stairs above me and screamed, thinking he was a ghost. I startled him and he lost his balance. He must have disturbed the creature, for the next thing I knew it had hurled itself at me and landed on my head. My scalp is itching from its warm hairy body — no doubt it is just waiting to sink its fangs deep into my skin and drain my blood!”

Lizzy’s eyes danced as she picked up the “creature” and held it out to Jane. “Please return this to Mr Bingley as soon as you can, and beg him to keep it under lock and key. We would all prefer his hairpiece to stay on his head, but we cannot have it escaping and terrifying our guests, can we?”

She took Catherine gently by the arm. “Come with me, my dear. I think we both need to recover our composure with a glass of canary.”

Catherine’s excitement in Pemberley had not stopped. Not in her wildest dreams did she think she could be a character in such a story. Heroes and villains had wandered in front of her eyes, incredible creatures and fantastic adventures were located inside those walls… It would be so dull to return to her family house, and only fantasy would be her company in the future boring days.

Eleanor took her arm and they sat together in a big chair. With visible happiness and doubt, she asked Miss Morland: “Dear,
know this ball at Pemberley has meant a lot to you, but you must be eager to see your family again.”

“Oh,no!” exclaimed a puzzled Catherine. “I wish this wouldn’t stop.”

Henry Tilney, the perfect detail that Catherine was missing in that moment, got close to them and, bending down to them, said to her: “Dear Miss Morland, I know Northanger Abbey will not have so many mysteries as this beautiful house, and it won’t be so crowded, but my sister and I were wondering if you would give us the honour of having your presence in our house when we return from this ball.”

Catherine could not be happier! More mysteries were waiting for her very soon.

“Oh, Mr Tilney! The pleasure will be mine.” And she rose and offered her hand to him, which he kissed, while winking to his sister Eleanor, happy to have her friend for more time and suspecting that her beloved brother was even happier than she, and maybe for not so friendly reasons, but heart beats.

Catherine caught the wink Henry Tilney tossed his sister and could not contain her giggle. Eleanor turned to look at her, wondering if perhaps this latest fright might have been too much for her friend. Tilney, quickly understanding Catherine’s amusement, joined in. Poor Eleanor Tilney looked back and forth between her brother and friend, feeling certain she had missed something, but utterly at a loss.

“Oh,” Catherine gasped at last, “I am sorry — but, you see — in The Tunnel,” and she fell into a fit of giggles again.

Eleanor’s eyebrows arched and she looked to her brother. “Henry, I must know what is going on here!”

Tilney coughed a few times, gathering his wits and forming an answer his sister would not mind hearing. Finally, he decided to be honest: “You know there’s been a lot of shrieking around here,” he began. “Miss Catherine was hot on the trail of a particularly shrill shriek and I’m afraid I startled her to the point of fainting. I caught her, but then needed somewhere quiet to revive her. So the hound and I retreated to The Tunnel, and the three of us have spent an enjoyable hour in that solitude.”

As he concluded, he looked pleadingly at Eleanor and gave a half-grin, “You know I wouldn’t do anything wholly bad — and I am going to make an honest woman of her after compromising her so. Not that Darcy will mind, and he’s the only chap here worth bowing to.”

Eleanor shook her head a little, her own grin beginning to peek through.

“Oh, Henry,” she sighed. “You always did have your own method.”

Tilney grinned like the cat who had caught the canary and winked at Catherine. She, in turn, could not contain her own sparkling grin.

“Oh Eleanor, do you mind terribly? Won’t it be wonderful?” Catherine gushed, reaching out for her friend’s hand. “We’ll be sisters!”

“Oh, you both have my blessing — good luck securing Father’s, though I daresay if you tell him the Tunnel story, he’ll force you to it.”

This happy point settled, the three began to chatter and plan — forgetting, for a moment, that there were still many mysteries afoot.

Elsewhere in the house, others were far too aware of the mysteries. Lizzy played off Caroline and Louisa’s disappearance as a trifling matter to Jane, but she was concerned. The passageway they had slipped through did not in fact lead directly outdoors but joined with The Tunnel, and was but a vein in the larger web of secreted passages in Pemberley. Caroline knew just enough to know where a few entrances were located, but there was no way she could navigate them successfully alone.

She wondered — and then had a thought. The girls were convinced a ghost was in the house. Perchance they were half right. If Caroline were blundering and bumbling her way through the walls of Pemberley, trying to find her way to freedom, that would be enough to set overtired, overwrought nerves on edge.

The vision Lydia claimed to have seen — well, Lydia was prone to seeing bits and missing the whole. But the sounds, that was reasonable. Reassuring Kitty that she and Mary would be taken care of, and making sure they were safely tucked away in their room, Lizzy went in search of Darcy. He and Colonel Fitzwilliam knew the passages of Pemberley as well as they knew their names; they could determine if her theory was a valid one, and if so — how to catch the Bingley sisters.

As she wandered the halls, listening for her husband’s voice, Lizzy found herself wondering if Wickham was still on the grounds — Lydia’s hysterics had indicated he had been there, but not if he was STILL there. As much as she disliked the man and his manners, Lizzy hoped for her sister’s sake — if she were telling the truth when declaring herself IN LOVE — that they could work something out.

The only realistic option would be to send the Wickhams to Australia with the Hursts and Caroline. It was a plan with definite appeal, but Lizzy was not quite sure it could be put in place. This conclusion reached, Lizzy brushed Wickham out of her mind and rounded the corner to enter the library. Surely, Darcy would be here and they could begin to tie knots in all the loose ends.

At least the couples seemed to be settling into their proper places — Lizzy had seen the look passing between Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland — she was happy for her young, imaginative friend. Tilney would be good for Catherine — lively enough to keep up with her, but steady enough to help train the flights of imagination. And he would support her penchant for writing.

Lizzy smiled as she entered the library — only to find herself smiling even broader to discover Colonel Fitzwilliam and sweet Fanny Price in the middle of a passionate, wordless conversation from opposite sides of the hearth.

“Maybe this ball was not the ball it was supposed to be,” Lizzy thought. “But some great good has come from the chaos…”

But, reflected Lizzy, there can be beauty even in the breakdown; like a phoenix, great things can arise from the ashes of a disaster. Her happiness at the young couples’ bliss was slightly perturbed by anxiety; surely her father must be gravely disappointed in her. For had she not let everyone down by allowing such scandals to take place? Had she not failed at being a hostess? Mr. Bennet, upon perceiving a frown on his daughter’s otherwise gentle face, asked her what was wrong.

“My dear, surely you are not cast down by miserable reminiscences of some of your guests’ scandalous behavior? Rather than disturbing the party, my dear, it offered some distractions from a good many tedious civilities and superficialities.

This evening,” continued Mr Bennet with a smile on his face, “has offered you a chance to show your worth. But it also offered you an excellent opportunity to study the human mind; many a person has shown their true self tonight.”

Lizzy gazed thoughtfully at her father, ruminating that even with his frailties and folly –- perhaps even because of them — she admired and loved him. True, there was some blame to be placed at his doorstep for the debacle that was Lydia running off with Wickham. It was very nearly the ruin of the entire Bennet family, including the chance that any of the daughters had of securing a decent husband, not to mention believing at the time that it meant forever losing the heart and hand of her beloved Darcy! (Perish the thought!)

Mr. Bennet had indeed been too lenient with the headstrong Lydia, neglecting his fatherly duties of teaching her any societal restraint that certainly her mother was incapable of passing on. But Lizzy understood her father. He had made the best of a bad match — having been seduced as a young man by the youth, beauty and good humor of her mother, only to find that her youthful, fatuous exterior held no hidden depths of sense, intellectual curiosity, or gentility. No, these had never shown themselves in Mrs. Bennet.

So he distanced himself from the family circle, whiling away hours with his library companions -– his beloved books. Still, he was there every day, and he tolerated his wife’s nervous condition and silliness with a rather dignified equanimity. Plus, he had saved Lizzy the fate of being Mrs. Collins, realizing that a fool for a husband was too high a price to pay for saving the entailed estate. Certainly, at the time, her mother did not agree with that. And it was not until Lizzy was engaged to Mr. Darcy that her mother truly forgave her for not following her wishes.

“Ah,” sighed, Lizzy, “Families! We can’t live with them and we can’t live without them either.” She smiled. Her father looked at her.

“I’m very proud of you, Elizabeth. My Lizzy, you are not only sensible and astute. You are kind.” He continued, “There is many a hostess in these parts that would have taken to their bed with the vapours with these sorts of goings-on at Pemberley. But not you. No, not my Lizzy.” He touched her cheek, and they shared a smile bonding father and daughter.

Chapter XLVIII

Bingley could hardly remember a worse twelve-hour period in his life. He had been worried about even bringing Jane to the Ball. He worried so about her condition, worried she would over tire herself. Ha! If only that had been his sole problem. His sister Caroline had behaved scandalously, and then she had attacked his lovely Jane, who carried their child. Just when Jane was convinced to let Caroline emigrate to Australia, Caroline had disappeared, and who knew when and how and where she would strike again.

On top of this, his hairpiece had gone flying through the air, and his poor bald pate had been exposed. How could Jane still love him? Of all the things that worried him this evening, this one was the one he should have worried about the least.

Jane found her husband sitting in the supper room with his poor bald head in his hands. She placed a tender kiss on his weary head, and he turned to see her standing there before him.

“I’m so sorry,” he sputtered. “Is everything ruined between us?”

Jane shook her head. “Don’t you know by now, Charles, that I will always love you? I don’t care what you look like. I don’t care what your sisters do. Didn’t I love you all those lonely months when you didn’t come back to Netherfield? Why would I stop loving you now?”

He buried his head on her chest. If he had been a weeping man, he would have wept, but he was English and living in the early nineteenth century, so he only said, “Shall we go home, my love?”

Nearby, Mr. McKinnon was distinctly discombobulated. He and Mr. Hinds had been called to investigate the very strange goings-on at Pemberley, but even from the tip that had led them there, there was little to warn them as to the extent of the peculiarities happening at that grand estate.

Mr. Darcy had not been pleased by outsiders poking about in his business, but after some grumbling, he had eventually conceded to allow them to have a look around. Hinds, that dratted boss of his, had promptly declared that he would leave his “best man” to investigate, as it seemed like a fairly straightforward case.

“Straightforward, ha,” grumbled McKinnon to himself. He had seen more straightforward hedgemazes. He had watched with disgust as his superior waved at him cheerfully as he left him to his doom. The young man sighed and turned to his work; he might as well get this over with sooner rather than later so that he could go home.

This thought pleased him so much that he was not entirely looking where he was going, and his foot slipped on the marble floor. He found himself airborne for a brief moment before crashing down a flight of stairs. After tumbling a few feet, he managed to grasp a banister railing and arrest his fall. McKinnon gingerly pulled himself up into a sitting position on one of the steps and assessed the damage. He felt bruised all over, but there did not seem to be any broken bones. There was a trickle of blood winding its way down his temple and into his eye, but it was not a serious wound.

He had just steeled himself to stand up, when a squeal of surprise caught his attention. He looked up to see a young lady standing at the top of the stairs. She was a pretty little thing with dark hair and bright eyes that were at the moment wide with shock.

McKinnon managed a weak smile. “Hello, miss, I am afraid I have had a bit of a fall, but there is no need to worry. I am quite all right.”

The lady, little more than a girl actually, closed her gaping mouth and just stared at him for a moment. When she finally spoke, it was to say, “You are bleeding.”

McKinnon smiled. “‘Tis just a scratch, miss, nothing to worry about.” He pulled himself carefully upright to prove it. This was perhaps not the best idea, for his legs were rather wobbly and his head spun for a moment, so he was forced to grasp the railing once again for support. The young lady noticed this and came forward immediately.

“Don’t be ridiculous, it is clear that you are terribly injured. You must come with me.” With that, she took his arm and began to half-drag him down the rest of the stairs, and he had no choice but to follow along. As she led him through a wide corridor, she kept sneaking glances at him. He was aware of this because he was doing the same at her.

Finally, after a few rosy blushes of embarrassment, she asked, “Who are you?”

“Matthew McKinnon, at your service, miss.”

Those wide eyes of hers were back on him. He could not help but grin at her expression of awe.

Suddenly, she smiled, and it lit up her face in a particularly dazzling way that left him with respiratory difficulties.

“My name is Catherine Bennet, but my friends call me Kitty.”

McKinnon wanted very much to be her friend all of a sudden, but propriety forced him to answer only, “It is an honour to meet you, miss.”

She smiled that brilliant smile again as she pulled him into a small sitting room. Well, as small as any room in Pemberley could be expected to be.

“Sit here,” she ordered, pushing him onto a well-upholstered settee. “Don’t move a muscle.”

After being the recipient of not one but two of her smiles, the thought of disobeying never entered his mind. Kitty bustled off to fetch a cloth and water, a strange excitement burning within her. She knew that she ought to simply send for her sister or at least a servant, but for some reason she was loath to share her discovery with anyone.

His eyes were such a lovely shade of blue, and his voice… a small sigh escaped her. She had never seen a better-looking man, not even amongst the soldiers she and Lydia used to flirt with. Having gathered her supplies, she returned to where she had left him. He was sitting in precisely the same spot as he had been before, and he had an adorably befuddled look on his face. She plopped herself down beside him and wet her cloth to bathe his scalp. He jumped when her hand brushed his hair.

“I can take care of it myself, miss,” he protested rather feebly.

Kitty simply snorted and applied herself to the task. “You, know, you ought to be more careful when walking downstairs. You might have broken your neck.”

McKinnon was quite certain that he had struck his head a lot harder than he had at first believed, for he found himself unable to put two thoughts together.

He was quite happy to have made such an acquaintance — even though the manner of the encounter was not how he would have hoped, and quickly he found a way of making it last longer. Whilst she was seeing to his injuries, McKinnon decided she would be the first person he would ask about the happenings that had taken place at Pemberley. So, after first rummaging in his pockets for pencil and paper, he began to question:

“Miss Bennet,” McKinnon started, stuttering slightly as he looked up from his notepad and found himself suddenly hypnotized by Kitty’s fluttering eyelashes. “Can you account for your whereabouts yesterday evening?” He gripped his pencil tightly and shifted his gaze to the olive-colored rug beneath his feet, lest he be distracted by the physical assets of the young lady seated across from him.

“Why, yes, I was here, at Pemberley, all day and all night.” Kitty cleared her throat, but he continued his close study of the carpet fibres and merely scribbled a few lines onto his paper before proceeding.

“And what precisely was your purpose in coming to Pemberley, miss?”

“To attend a ball, sir,” Kitty responded. “To dance, to dine, to…flirt.”

At that last word, McKinnon was unable to prevent himself from glancing up at Kitty, who abandoned all propriety and winked most impishly at him, causing the poor man to drop his writing instrument.

At that moment, a deep voice boomed from the doorway behind them, causing both already-wound bodies to jump like rabbits in alarm.

“What is the meaning of this!? Who are YOU, sir, and what are you doing here? Where is Mr. Darcy?” Lady Catherine de Bourgh shook her head in disgust, not surprised in the slightest to find yet another Bennet sister in a compromising position.

She strode doggedly into the room, intending to admonish Kitty and ascertain the identity of the stranger who had made himself at home on the delicate 17th century settee that she had so generously gifted her nephew. As her sight had begun to deteriorate somewhat as of late, she did not notice the square of black fabric lying on the marble floor, as if discarded carelessly by a person in flight. She stepped heavily on the piece of tulle, which slid forward under her weight, causing her to lose her balance and careen headfirst into an unsightly wrought-iron table that had been temporarily brought indoors from the gardens to provide an additional surface for food and drink during the ball.

Mr. Willoughby just happened to be nearby, together with Mary scrutinizing the halls of Pemberley for ghosts, and while they failed to uncover any spirits, demons, or poltergeists, they did stumble upon Lady Catherine, who lay at the precipice of that very realm. Indeed, this last great tumble, combined with the unparalleled stresses inflicted by those thieving, mercenary Bennets, was enough to deprive the world of her fine company.

But before passing into that mysterious chasm that awaits all living things, Lady Catherine had a final phrase to impart. Kneeling beside the dying Lady was — of all people — Mr. Willoughby — not a man necessarily known for his honor. And whatever it was that Lady Catherine had whispered, the rest of Pemberley would have to take Willoughby’s dubious word.

Anne de Bourgh shuffled in just a moment too late, appearing all the more pale and sickly. Mary had tried to fetch her, but there was simply not enough time; after all, as Catherine Morland scrivened in her notebook, “it has been long and justly remarked, that death has ever sought alliance with punctuality.”

Anne was left to appeal to Willoughby, who muttered, further drawing suspicion on his trustworthiness, “The Lady said, ‘Tell Anne she should marry who she pleases…for love.'”

“For love?” Anne remarked, puzzled, for of all the many passions her mother had so embraced, genuine affection had never been one of them.

“For love,” Willoughby answered. And as Anne dared to meet Willoughby’s eyes — her own flustered to the point of becoming binoculars and telescopes all in one — she knew HE would be her choice. Willoughby, of course, sensed this, and as he alternated back and forth between Anne … Mary … Anne … Mary … Anne, he knew this was his defining moment.

“For love or for money,” he thought to himself, head and heart in full-fledged Armageddon.

Chapter XLIX

Willoughby sighed. If only the deepest of affection were celebrated in society as opposed to wealth, it would make this heart-wrenching decision all the more unchallenging. But on this particular day, he was not feeling the most inclined to comply with convention. And without even a momentary glance or remark to Anne, he swiftly made his egress and set off for Mary.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Dashwood was seeing over the fixing of the window the highwaymen crashed into when Elinor approached her.

“Mother, I’ve not seen you for such a length of time! What HAVE you been doing? Have you been informed of the passing events? If not, I have a considerable amount to tell you!”

By necessity, Aunt and Uncle Gardiner had retired to the library to digest all the odd detail that had drifted their way.

“Such a melange of events,” said Aunt Gardiner. Uncle Gardiner nodded as he sank into the padded chair so lately vacated by Mr.Bennet. His seat faced the door and he expressed disquiet and disapprobation as it creaked and began to open.

“I beg your p… Uncle!” A voice redolent of a difficult past sharpened the pair’s attention and both stood, Aunt G grasping Uncle’s arm for support.

“Diccon!” they expostulated, as if orchestrated.

Diccon pushed the door with his shoulder, his hands clasping a child to his chest. She slept as all children do, mouth ajar, oblivious to the tempestuous wrack that surrounded her. The older couple were speechless. This man they had loved as their own and he had…

“Aunt, Uncle,” Diccon said with profound emotion. “Let me speak. I am more than apologetic for how I disappointed you by not working for you. I was foolish, nay arrogant. My time in India was spent suffocated with regret and I have longed to return to the warmth of your affection.”

“Diccon,” Aunt reached out and he touched her.

“I have taken an estate close by Pemberley for I am a publisher and of means and it would please me beyond expectation if you would accept mine and my daughter’s invitation to stay for as long as you deem pleasant.”

Eyes widened. “Your daughter!”

“I married an Indian princess… She died.” He supplied, brevity incarnate.

At that moment, a light step was heard and the door pushed open. “There you are, Mrs. G. I have been searching high and low. Your shawl.” She held it out and Aunt Gardner reached for it.

“Ah my dear, at last you are come. I would like to introduce you to our nephew, Richard.”

The woman with long dark hair smiled, a dimple in her cheek as she curtseyed. “My pleasure, sir.”

Aunt Gardiner’s mind began to tick along. “Diccon, may I present my companion… Miss Penelope Middlethorpe.”

“Miss Middlethorpe, it is a pleasure to meet you,” Mr. Legitage said, stroking his daughter’s hair as she began to whine slightly in her sleep, still the picture of absolute innocence and serenity.

“The pleasure is all mine, sir,” Miss Middlethorpe answered, smiling as she took a closer look at Legitage’s Star. “She is beautiful!”

“She is, indeed,” Legitage responded. “She takes after her mother, to be sure.” At that, a low series of laughs pealed across the room.

“Miss Middlethorpe,” Legitage continued. “I once encountered a Miss Catherine Middlethorpe of Berkshire. Are you a relation of hers, by chance?”

“I am afraid not, Mr. Legitage,” Miss Middlethorpe answered, stooping down gingerly to retrieve Mrs. Gardiner’s shawl, which had dropped to the floor, its owner seeming to have fallen into a much-needed, but unfortunately snore-infused, slumber. As she collected the shawl, Miss Middlethorpe could not help but notice a blurry reflection in one pane of a glass-doored bookcase that covered the northern wall of the room. She could not make out to whom the reflection belonged, only that it was most certainly a man, and that this man appeared to be wearing a long cloak and top hat.

“Did… Did any of you just see that? A reflection, in the window, of a man?” Miss Middlethorpe looked at the others questioningly. “He was wearing a long cloak and a top hat.”

“Oh, perhaps it is one of the gentlemen who attended the ball?” Mr. Legitage suggested. “Many of the men attending tried their best to impress the ladies with their attire,” he continued, and Miss Middlethorpe laughed softly.

“Well, from what I’ve heard, Mr. Legitage, some of them tried to impress with…more than just their attire, is it not so?”

Silence filled the room, until Mr. Gardiner’s loud laugh echoed through it.

“Oh yes, my dear, a ball like this one only comes around every once and again. Like these rumours of girls having spotted a ghost wandering around the halls?”

“A ghost?” Miss Middlethorpe asked and she looked at Legitage. “I did just see a woman walking down the hallway, wearing a white gown, her hair all loosened up, and a rather…well, scary expression on her face. However, as soon as she saw me she quickly introduced herself and left. Her name was Miss Mary Crawford, does that ring a bell?”

The said Mary Crawford was at that very moment attempting to find a quiet place where she could compose herself. Nothing like this had she ever seen before. So much had happened, so many scandalous events in so short a period. It was certainly not what she had expected at the outset, when she had accepted the invitation. Indeed it would not surprise her one jot if she were to take a walk in the grounds and come upon a body lying in a trench. And then what would she do? Would she have the composure to bear such a terrible sight? Might she even prove to have greater strength of character and mind than she had always assumed, and be able to help in the elucidation of such a crime? But that, she supposed, would rather depend on whose body it was….

But there was a corpse on Pemberley’s grounds, and if Mary Crawford were to stumble upon it, it would be no great shock to the current inhabitants. It was remarkable how the lifeless figure of Lady Catherine — once the apex of society — now rested broken and uncared for. All the riches and titles did the once-proud Lady no good, as her arrogance and self-absorption inspired the same sort of indifference from others. In life, she considered herself within a class of her own, and in death, she traveled alone, as none would dare to miss her presence.

But her daughter Anne, so plagued by a feeble constitution, had never aspired to such airs and aimed only to please her insufferable mother. Now, free of the weight that tugged voraciously at her spirit, she could embrace the freshness of life and dedicate her compassionate nature to worthier causes. Unlike the Bennets and their slippery hold on Longbourn, there were no impediments to her fortune. And now, a woman of extraordinary wealth and social status, she could think only of assisting those in need, those she had observed more intelligently than any gave her credit.

And in perhaps the most surprising act of all, with tears trickling down her porcelain visage, she whispered to Willoughby and Mary: “You have my blessing, and a gift. May you two be happy forever in love, and in comfort.”
Mr. Willoughby and Mary smiled and looked at each other. But Anne’s heart was still weeping, for she was still shocked at her mother’s loss.

Lady Catherine de Bourgh was laid to rest in a place 40 miles away from her house, in a graveyard where Maurice de Bourgh, her husband, was buried. Her grave faced the lake (Mr. Collins’ lake) and will now be covered with daffodils.

Mr. Brook, who was staying at a friend’s home, sat under an old oak tree, holding his pen and book. Thus, he began to write:

“Once in an enchanted ball, I saw a young woman who was not fascinated with all the amusements that surrounded her, for she was longing for something she did not know. I rescued her from a wicked highwayman and there I saw the most divine glow in her eyes…”

Mr. Brook suddenly stopped after writing these words and wondered why his heart was so heavy. He had never felt any such thing before. He realized that his “Affairs of Hearts” was not a fictional story but his own story. He stood up firmly and for a moment looked at a singing lark.

“Charlotte! She is the one,” he murmured. “I must go to her. I must ask Mrs. Darcy about her.”

Chapter L

As he hastened back to the house, Brook encountered Mr Darcy.

“Sir,” intoned the host. “I would be obliged if you would spare me a moment of your time. There is something which I have discovered, but it must only be discussed in private. Naturally, Mrs Darcy will be party to our conversation, but no other.”

Brook made to demur as he was anxious to behold his beloved Charlotte, so full of feeling was his heart. However, he was not beyond noticing the plea in his interlocutor’s eye.

“Very well, Mr Darcy. I am at your disposal.”

Darcy led Mr Brook to the suite of rooms used by himself and Lizzy. These were private and only himself, Lizzy, and their personal servants had access. It was their retreat from the everyday cares of Pemberley. The men entered a large pleasant sitting room overlooking the lake which was a short distance from the south front of the house. Mrs Darcy, who had been curled up in a windowseat, rose and greeted her husband. She extended her hand to Mr Brook with a smile.

“Mr Brook, please, do sit down — I have arranged for refreshments. Thank you for indulging my husband’s request.” Lizzy’s expression became pensive, occasioning Mr Darcy to entreat her to sit and rest. Darcy turned to Brook.

“My wife is increasing with our first child. Naturally, I am concerned for her welfare. However, the matter in hand concerns us all.”

They were interrupted by the arrival of the promised refreshments. For a few moments the only sound was of teacups being filled and the clink of silver against fine china. After the servant’s departure, a slight silence ensued. Finally, Mr Brook could not contain his curiosity any longer.

“Mr Darcy, Mrs Darcy, what is it you wish of me? I cannot imagine why you would wish to speak with me privately.”

Mr Darcy put down his cup and stood. ‘Please, come stand beside me, sir.” Mr Brook did as he was asked.

“Now, look at our reflections in the mirror over the chimneypiece.” Brook gasped. “We could be twins!”

“Indeed,” replied Mr Darcy. “I was struck by that very notion when you first arrived here, but dismissed it as fancy. However, I have found some old journals kept by my father. They were hidden in an ancient secretaire. Was your Mama’s name Marguerite?”

Brook nodded, a frown creasing his brow. “She lived for a while as a girl in Lambton, then moved to London. My father was a tradesman in the city.”

Mr Darcy smiled, pleasure lighting his usually stern visage. “It would seem that your Mama executed a coup de foudre upon my Papa. If his papers are truthful, then it seems that we share the same father — though I am some months the senior. My Mama died at my birth and Mr Darcy Senior sought comfort. At first, I was angry, but knowing how I dote on my dearest wife, I understand my late father’s actions. He has left a considerable competence in your name. I shall have my solicitor ratify this. You and Charlotte shall want for nothing — brother.”

Not too far from the scene of this extraordinary discovery, a small room was even now being fitted out for the comfort of Mr Woodhouse. The aged gentleman had fallen into such a continual fit of snoozing and dozing over the course of the day that he had scarcely been aware of all the excitement at Pemberley. But the recent bout of disruptive screaming had somewhat weakened his nerves. His daughter was even now bustling about the small sitting-room, arranging a blanket about his person and drawing the chair closer to the fire. Mr Knightley was discharging the important duty of draught-proofing the room.

As his son-in-law carefully laid a rug across the crack beneath the door, Mr Woodhouse, unable to contain himself any longer, turned to his daughter and said, “Emma, my dear, I have a very great inclination for the company of Miss Bates.”

Emma, upon hearing this, eagerly exclaimed, “Let me fetch her then, Papa! She may like to read to you while Mr Knightley and I see to fetching your gruel for you.”

Mr Knightley looked up sharply upon hearing his wife’s words. “Emma,” he began, “I do not think that is such a good idea.”

“Why ever not, Mr Knightley?” she asked, all astonishment.

At this, Mr Knightley turned to his father-in-law and gravely said, “Sir, I believe it is your duty to disclose what occurred between you and the good Miss Bates here at Pemberley.” Mr Woodhouse, shy at the best of times, blushed deepest crimson from forehead to jawline, and the extent of his discomfort was only hidden by the equally red scarf he wore about his neck to prevent chills.

“I am afraid, my dear, that Miss Bates and I had a little…encounter.”

Emma was at first perplexed by this, but upon seeing the flush on her father’s face she was filled with a mixture of disbelief and excitement. “Do you mean to say, Papa, that you are going to…marry Miss Bates, that you are…in love with her?”

Mr Woodhouse looked down at his hands as he bashfully nodded his balding head.

“A wedding!” Emma exclaimed in tones of wonder.

“But between such peoples as they, my dear,” Mr Knightley interrupted anxiously, “cannot you see how it is impossible?”

“What?” cried Emma, incensed. “Would you dare to hurt the fates of two people who love one another, Mr Knightley? Shame on you! If my father is happy, let him marry who he will!” And with that, it seemed, the subject was closed. Though he sat meekly watching the argument between husband and wife unfold, it might have been perceived that Mr Woodhouse gave the faintest of smiles.

Nearby a maiden servant girl made up another cup of tea while taking a break from peeping through the Pemberley kitchen doors. She and her sister had seen and witnessed all the happenings that had occurred in their two-day serving time at the Darcys’.

“You are missing so much, my dear sister. Lady Catherine has been laid to rest, and there is a new girl on the scene, Penelope Middlethorpe! Oh, she’s most handsome! Mr. Brook was called upon by the Darcys in the private room by one of the servants and now there is talk of a wedding. Oh, please, hurry with your writings and return,” the maiden smiled.

However, her sister continued to write furiously as if for the last time.

“Sister, please, I have been trying to engage you in conversation and the events outside, but I do not think you have heard one word I’ve said!”

The servant girl’s sister was listening! She had notably run out of room on her stationery and therefore was writing between lines already written. The pen was hitting the pages hard enough that the ink was soaking right onto the table. The pen to paper movement was on a rapid pace like a barouche on fire. Her eyes were fluttering back and forth, peering onto every letter she scribed.

“There!” her sister said, piercing the page again to end her sentence, staining again another spot on the wooden table.

“Is this your latest love’s labour’s lost, Ms Shakespeare?” her sister joked.

“Aw, yes, well…no, not actually, all is not well that ends well.” She paused and the two sisters raced back to the Pemberley kitchen doors giggling away. They had not wanted miss any more of the events that were about to unfold…
“What were you writing about over there?” the maiden asked her sister while trying to find a comfortable spot to sit near the kitchen door.

“Finishing up my future novel, dearest. When I get older, I plan on being a writer, you know,” the younger sister said.

“A writer? Ha, that is a future I pray I live to see!” The eldest of the sisters laughed as she placed her arm around her sibling. “In our century, women have little options except to marry, bear children, and welcome a happy outcome. I hope your desires are fulfilled little sister.”

“They will be, never you mind! The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I am an observer of people and their habits even at my young age. I will write only about the society I have become accustomed to and all their chatter,” said the sibling now at her viewing station.

“We have known the Darcys and Bennets for years! I will call their story…’First Impressions’ written by a Lady.”

“‘First impressions’? I would rather have you name it ‘Pride and Prejudice’ with the wonders and scandals that have occurred in their lives and over the past few days here at Pemberley,” laughed the eldest.

The younger sister nodded in agreement and quickly returned to the wooden table to write it down.

“Hurry, sister Jane, hurry everyone!” the sister announced to the other servants. Everyone that could gathered around the kitchen door while some others went around the Pemberley rooms with the next round of punch for the guests (but secretly wanting to be eye witnesses to the lives of others unfolding before their eyes).

“What is it, what is happening now?” whispered Miss Austen to her elder sister Cassandra.

“Shh, look over there…” pointed the eldest, Cassandra. All the staff and the sisters looked over to see another scene that had them all holding their hands to their hearts, sighing with relief, smiling with joy, and wishing that they could be a part of this amazing ball.

They found the very handsome Mr. Willoughby staring graciously at that adorable middle Bennet girl, Mary. By the smile on the young girl’s face, they could see that he had made a choice of the heart.

“My dear Mary, perhaps in the past I have not been the most perfect suitor, not to you and even to others. I have let my head rule my heart while it should have been my heart that ruled me entirely all along. I apologize. I see now that my life would not be complete without you.”

“Oh, my dear, Mr. Willoughby.” Mary had not been used to love. She had been known for her love of books, not of men. And now, as Willoughby informed her of his devotion, she did not know how to react.

“My dear, would you give me the honor of being my wife? And so make me the happiest of men?”

At his words, Mary did the only thing her soul would allow her, and she replied in tears: “Oh, yes, Mr. Willoughby. Yes.”

Chapter LI

While this joyous resolution occurred, on the roads surrounding Pemberley, Caroline Bingley watched her sister, Louisa, wondering what her next step would be.

Many hours ago, Caroline had managed to escape the room in which her brother had kept her. Along with her sister, Mrs. Hurst, and the always drowsy Mr. Hurst, she had left through a hidden door Caroline had found upon the room. Not long after she managed to leave the grounds of Pemberley, she encountered Henry Crawford once again.

Louisa was very much scandalized at the manner in which they had greeted each other. Mr. Crawford had been waiting for them for some time.
“Caroline, what is the meaning of this? Are we being assisted by this man? Crawford, is it?” said Mr. Hurst, who — as was usual – had not the slightest idea what was going on.

“Yes, Mr. Hurst, my name is Mr. Henry Crawford; however, the answer is no, I will not be ‘helping’ all of you make this great escape. I will only be helping Miss Bingley here. I am sure if you keep walking towards the west, following the road, someone or other will assist you to the next town. I believe it is not but a mile more until you reach Lambton.”

Caroline looked at Henry with surprise and was almost flattered by his demeanor. Louisa almost lost all decorum, however, and she took a deep breath and said, “Caroline you are not going to leave us on this vacant road? Surely sister, you would not!”

Mr. Hurst seemed to be stumped by this new development. And in truth, he was too tired to argue, but he was also too tired to walk.

Mr. Crawford turned to Caroline. “My dear we must make haste, if we are to create any distance between us and the Pemberley Estate.”

Caroline looked at Henry, then to her sister, and with some disgust at her brother-in-law, said, “Mr. Crawford, am I to understand that you mean to make me your wife?”

Henry smiled and knelt down in front of Caroline.

“Yes, Miss Bingley, would you be so kind as to make me the happiest man in England?”

Caroline could hardly believe this was finally happening to her, but could she do this? What should she do about her sister? She reflected that Louisa had never been very concerned about her happiness, only what was best for herself and her pathetic excuse of a husband.

Henry continued, “Miss Bingley, I can promise you that I can take good care of you as well as give you a life of adventure. We will travel with this ‘found’ money anywhere you desire; we can live by the sea, in the mountains, in Paris, whatever your heart’s desire.”

Caroline smiled and nodded her head up and down, no words coming out of her. She was moved deeply by Henry’s words and thus drew a fateful breath and said, “I am sorry, Louisa, but for once, I must think of my own happiness for a change. You will be fine — you have Mr. Hurst.”

And with that final, clear statement, Henry stood, took Caroline’s hand, assisted her into the carriage and within a few moments, the Hursts could see nothing but road in both directions.

When the dust had settled, Mr. Hurst glanced slowly and dazedly about them, as if awakening from a lengthy nap. “It is rather remote out here,” he observed with mild surprise.

He studied his wife. Louisa looked in shock at Caroline’s sudden departure. Her eyes were wide and disbelieving and her hair escaped its bonnet in little wisps. Her complexion was pale. And yet…yet…

He had to confess, if only to himself, that he still found hints in her of the young lady who had caught his fancy at a ball years ago. That, while their wedding and honeymoon had been the pinnacle of their relationship to date, and the years since a slow slide into boredom on both of their parts — leading her to gossip incessantly and him to drink and play cards rather frequently — perhaps all was not lost. Maybe, with Caroline leading her life elsewhere, he might have his wife’s attention return to him again.

He turned to her, feeling more a man than he had in half a decade, the stirring of something in his blood that resembled…passion. And then, touching her softly on the sleeve, he said, “Louisa, you look lovely.” She stared at him in surprise, but he took her arm and began leading her down the road toward Lambton, where the next step in their future might well begin.

Indeed, joy and happiness reigned throughout Pemberley and its grounds, but there was one woman who believed no one could be happier than she. Anne Elliot and Admiral Wentworth had become engaged in the course of the ball and were eager to finish the business of a wedding and start their new lives together, which should have happened years ago. Not long after the Darcys left Mr. Brook, Anne and Wentworth came to them, glowing with pleasure.

“Mr. and Mrs. Darcy,” said Wentworth. “Anne and I are deeply in love, and we would like to be married in your chapel as soon as possible. We feel it is fitting, as this is the place where we were reunited.”

Elizabeth took Anne’s hands. “My dear, are you sure? It always seemed like Admiral Wentworth was indifferent. I beg your pardon, sir, but I am only thinking of Anne.”

“As you should,” replied Wentworth. “Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. I love Anne Elliot and wish to marry her.”

Elizabeth was satisfied. “Well, then, Admiral, I feel that you must learn to brook being happier than you deserve, because I see love in Anne Elliot’s eyes that surpasses all the sparkles of the women who glance upon handsome officers. What do you think, my love?” she asked Darcy.

He also smiled and said to Anne and Wentworth, “I will make the arrangements as soon as possible.”

Meanwhile, Sidney Carton was in no mood for celebration. He opened his eyes, wincing as the sun warmed his throbbing, bruised face. Memories of his altercation with Mr Crawford flooded back painfully. He must have been knocked to the ground unconscious, he realised, sitting up beneath the bush where he had fallen flat out.

The shame of it! And the indignity — Sidney huffed and puffed and patted his poor swollen face. To be discovered like this, in the grounds of Pemberley, with leaves in his hair! He must go, now, he decided and scrambled to his feet, ready to flee immediately. However, lying in the dirt beside him he noticed a book with a very gaudy cover.

“‘Mischief at Pemberley,’ by Bald Hook,” he read aloud, his interest piqued. Taking the book, he hurried off, keen to read on. Such scurrilous tales would be a most pleasing read for his journey.
As he read, Lizzy made her way to see to the footman to make arrangements for the wedding of Anne and Wentworth. She needed to find out how readily available the church would be for them and if the vicar could make a special occasion of such a needed ceremony.

Upon her return, Kitty and Lydia descended on her with the utmost importance. “Lizzy, we have such news about the Ghost! For we know who we must have seen it to be.” Both girls were hardly drawing breaths. Lizzy looked on in much surprise.

“We have discussed much on this subject,” Lydia explained. “You know how distressed I have been. Well, sister, you won’t scarcely believe what I’m about to say!”

“My dear Lydia, please do draw breath,” Lizzy said with worry.

Kitty piped in, “Lizzy, how could we be so silly to think there is a ghost, for as we have been investigating this, we have been deceived to believe it a real ghost. My word, for Lydia and I have found the source of our hauntings to be…”

With Kitty now out of breath, Lydia blurted out, “For it is Anne de Bourgh who is the ghost!”

“What do you mean?” Lizzy, with all astonishment, gasped.

“Well, we found her walking down the corridor and she appeared to be asleep,” Lydia cried out. “You see, Lizzy, she is already a sickly creature but has appeared to be so even more when asleep. In my distress, my eyes have been playing tricks on me.” Lydia, completely filled with excitement, took a moment to let Lizzy reflect on her words.

“Well, my dear sisters, you have solved one mystery to which your own minds have played tricks on you. I would love to discuss this further, but I am now afraid I must leave you two.” Lizzy gave a smile and, with that, went off to make the arrangements she had assigned herself.

Lydia and Kitty looked at each other with wonder as to why their sister would simply walk away so coolly, especially since their silly ghost discovery seemed to have sent her into shock.
Also in a state of excitement was Marianne, who was one of the happy ones who had finally found her love at Pemberley. No ghosts or crazy monks had been part of her story. While sitting on the balcony and holding Brandon’s hand, she sighed and they both rejoiced in their happiness.

“How blind I was!” she exclaimed. “I ignored you because of the stupidity of young minds. My prejudice was unfair!”

“Don’t punish yourself like that,” her love answered. “Real love makes new eyes and it’s well beyond the past. I don’t care what you thought; all I know is that you love me now.”

“And forever,” she answered sweetly.

And we can imagine what followed for that couple in love in those moments, because when love is true, feelings and confessions of the past are told without mask, and regret and sorrow are turned into joy and hope. But would other girls find love in this place like Marianne, or would they have to wait?

Eleanor Tilney, for example, was thinking about her life and evil father. Henry was fine, but she had the secret of the Black Veil weighing heavily on her conscience. And now she had a further mystery to solve: When and how had it become the Black Veil of Pemberley? For she instinctively knew that there could not be two Black Veils.

“I must recover it,” she gasped, “before my father discovers it is missing. But where shall I start? And who can I call on for help? There is only Henry, and his thoughts are more pleasurably engaged with – Oh! Mr Legitage, you startled me!”

Mr Legitage – for it was indeed no other – laid a restraining hand on Eleanor’s arm. “Forgive me, Miss Tilney, but what is the matter?”

Eleanor looked up into his smoldering, smoky-blue eyes and lost all sense of reality. “There is no Black Veil,” she whispered, ”only black leather. And I see you wear it very well, Mr Legitage.”

Chapter LII

In the next room, Charlotte Collins, the three youngest Bennet sisters, Mr. Willoughby, and Anne de Bourgh had all gathered to organize a scavenger hunt to entertain those remaining at Pemberley after Anne Elliot and Admiral Wentworth’s wedding. Mr. McKinnon, who insisted that he needed to proceed with his investigation, was there as well, having allowed himself a brief respite during Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s funeral. Anne looked up from the map of Pemberley upon which she was strategically plotting out where to hide all of the items in their game and thoughtfully surveyed the faces of her companions.

“After all that we have been through and witnessed together over the last two days,” she began suddenly, “I feel as though we are something like family. I trust all of you greatly, and I do not believe that you would judge me harshly, even if I said something rather foolish.”

Mr. Willoughby, who had been making copies of the clues that they had collectively created for the hunt — for he had the most elegant handwriting — set his work aside for a moment and asked Anne, “Whatever do you mean, Miss De Bourgh?”

“You see, I have not wanted to share this with anyone, for fear of being seen as silly at best, absolutely mad at worst. But for the last twelve hours or so, I have caught several glimpses of a most mysterious figure, which I believe to be some sort of a spirit, or ghost.”

“What!?” Lydia screamed in shock. “I thought you were the ghost!”

“Me?” Anne replied, puzzled.

“Well, yes,” Lydia continued, so terrified that she slid her not-so-dainty foot into her mouth yet again. “You are always wearing white nightgowns, and you have not been looking very well lately.”

Anne frowned, wishing that there were a looking glass nearby and thankful that she had chosen to don a sky blue dress that day. Kitty and Mary, both disgusted by their sister’s display of impropriety, each hit her with a large book, causing Lydia to yelp.

“Ow!” she cried. At that exact moment, an ominous “Oh!” sounded from somewhere inside the walls, causing all in the room to scream. Mr. Willoughby, having had enough of phantoms and spectres, rose from his seat and began pounding his fist against the yellow wallpaper.

“Come out, now, whoever you are! Your days of haunting this house are officially over!”

“My days of haunting this house, you say!” exclaimed a voice so caked in animosity, it caused a shudder among the whole of the group. “What is it that you abhorrent leeches are doing now? Is it…a scavenger hunt? How fitting. HOW FITTING! Scavengers you are, ALL of you!” And emerging in full view was a powdered, contorted human being, dressed in ghastly white.

Charlotte gasped. “No, it can’t be!” she exclaimed.

“Oh, but it is, my sweet. Yes, I am your devoted husband, Mr. Collins, returned from the grave to put a stop to this desecration. Is not our bed still warm? I pass a day and you already find lustful pleasure in the arms of another? For shame!”

At that incrimination, Charlotte nearly broke into seizure, her sobs so violent and convulsive. Breathing became difficult and a faint was coming on, but the “ghost” then said, “You need not worry, my dear. I shall let you have your love, but I want money. Lots of it. I’m tired of being an average parishioner. Let me escape with my fortune and recline leisurely somewhere off in the distance, perhaps in Australia with your other outcasts. Nobody will ever know I’m still alive.”

Just as Charlotte was about to summon a reply, the newest heroine of the day, Anne de Bourgh, found herself extraordinarily useful once again. “Of all the mean and sinister tricks to play, this is unconscionably evil. Even my dear mother would have never conjured such a thing. My friends, behold before you a despicable man, pretending to be the ghost of his brother: Mr. Elton, will you stop at nothing to make your fortune?”

Mr. Elton, rendered completely speechless, was unable to utter any more words. Perceiving his state of utter befuddlement with great amusement, Anne seized a novel from the bookshelf behind her. And lo! Mere seconds later, a fine leatherbound copy of “The Mysteries of Udolpho” hurtled toward Mr. Elton with great speed.

“Since you are so fond of mysteries and beguilement,” she said, “you should read this novel so that you can learn a few more tricks. And I daresay you are in need of a few more tricks, as this one has not worked out as well as you had hoped.”

“My dear Anne,” said Mr. Elton gently, “surely you realize this was a mere joke.”

“Nay, it was a cruel, brutish farce originating from your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others!”

“You have said quite enough, madam. I perfectly comprehend your feelings. Lest more books should be thrown at me, I shall retreat.” Upon exiting the room, Mr Elton felt a most curious sensation against the back of his head. Charlotte, unable to resist the temptation, felt it was her due to provide Mr. Elton with another gothic novel.

“Good heavens, Mr Elton,” she said with a sarcastic smile on her face, “you look like you have seen a ghost! Your face is almost as white as that gown you are wearing; I did not realize men wear gowns these days. Is it fashionable?”

Yet again, Mr. Elton was rendered speechless, and everyone in the room was speechlessly staring at Charlotte. Anne recovered first, signified by a rather unladylike snort and quickly followed by a laugh that bordered on hysterical but was delightfully contagious. One by one, everyone joined in the laughter — everyone save Mr. Elton, who continued to blink owlishly at this turn of events.

“M-m-m-m-rs Collins,” he managed to sputter — placing deliberate emphasis on Collins. “I fail to see how this outlandish display does anything to help save your disgracefully tattered reputation.”

As he took a breath, preparing to launch into further pontification, Anne de Bourgh stepped towards him. “You, sir, have said more than is wise. You forget who you are addressing: Charlotte Collins is the dear friend of me — the new mistress of Rosings Park and all lands. I have much power, you see — and the Knightleys are not beyond my influence. If you would like to stay in Highbury, then I advise you dispose of that ridiculous costume and remove yourself from these grounds. Entirely. This is my cousin’s estate — I dare say he would agree with me.”

As she spoke, Anne’s stature seemed to grow — her back was straighter, her shoulders firmer, her eyes flashed a fire ne’er seen before. It was as if she were being filled with the very best traits and prides of her mother, tempered by the gentle compassion long hidden in her own heart. Anne de Bourgh, Lady of Rosings, was quite a force to be reckoned with; Elton realized his defeat, bowing out with a semblance of grace.

As the door closed behind Elton, Anne turned, startled at the sound of applause. The Bennet girls and Charlotte were clapping. For her! Willoughby stood and bowed with an elegant flourish.

“Brava, milady, you have set yourself up as a remarkable woman — and I have no doubt that your reign as mistress of Rosings will be far more beneficial than your departed mother,” he murmured.

Anne smiled, at this group of new friends, happy to be surrounded by people who were not afraid of her — who were there for her and not to fawn over her mother, seeking their own advancement. Even the twinge she felt in her heart seeing Willoughby and Mary together was bearable, because he had made his own choice – based on his heart’s desires. He chose love over money, and such a decision must always warrant respect.

“Besides,” Anne thought to herself, “I can make theirs a happy marriage — using my influence to smooth the way, for he is, unfortunately, known for questionable actions. And poor Mary, after so long in the shadows…. Hmm, I wonder if Kitty would –“

“Kitty,” Anne suddenly asked, “would you care to come spend an extended visit at Rosings? I daresay the house will be rather empty, and I’d enjoy having another young lady in the house. Once the first mourning is over, we can have small gatherings. Or even go to town.”

Kitty’s eyes lit with surprise, her pretty face transformed as the weight and worth of the invitation sank in. “Oh,” she breathed, “Miss Anne, that would be — it would — oh, yes, please! If my parents agree, and I’m sure they must — oh yes, yes, yes!”

Charlotte smiled and gave Anne a quiet look that let Anne know she had made the right decision. With the new influence of Miss De Bourgh and the education such would offer, Kitty Bennet just might turn out to be a delightful young lady — on par with her eldest sisters.

However, the door opened, startling everyone a little as they all chattered and laughed among themselves, planning for the future.

Turning to see who was joining them, Anne exclaimed in delight, “Fitzwilliam, you are positively grinning! What’s the meaning of this?”

Willoughby chuckled, “I do believe it has something to do with the pretty young lady on his arm. Come now, Fitzwilliam, has there been a decision made, or are you going to keep everyone in suspense?”

“You’re one to talk, Willoughby, considering your history,” Colonel Fitzwilliam retorted, his smile broadening still more, belying his words.

“Fanny, do tell us — what is going on?” Kitty asked, bouncing in her seat a little.

In this frozen moment, Charles and Jane smiled knowingly at one another — the way that married couples in simpatico do — as they observed not just Fanny and Colonel Fitzwilliam but the senior Bennets blushing and lowering their eyes. One could almost say that Mrs. Bennet was giggling as a schoolgirl.

Yes, in the midst of this, the Bennets quietly snuck out of the room and entered another. You, dear readers, can imagine what the elder Bennets got up to; it is not to be said. Well, perhaps this: that there is something in the air of Pemberley akin to that nectar that Puck sprinkled on the lovers’ eyes one midsummer night, and no one — even people over forty — is immune. And Jane and Charles followed behind them.

But while that transpired, Fanny surveyed the expectant faces beaming up at her with pleasure. It was rather fun to be the source of anticipation for someone who was used to playing a minor role in other people’s stories. But Fitzwilliam had challenged that notion and as she moved from face to face in the room, finally landing on his, she gasped with emotion and sensibility that could no longer be contained. Fitzwilliam urged her on with warm eyes and a depth of feeling that mirrored her own.

“Dear friends,” Fanny finally finding her voice, began. “I do believe I am possibly the happiest of women. Made so by the very best of men.” It was here that spontaneous applause erupted — yet again — and the young lovers were greeted with warm congratulations all around.

“Fanny,” said Fitzwilliam, “does this mean that you accept my offer of marriage?”

“Darling Fitzwillie, you had me at ‘Good morning.’ Yes.”

He put his arm around her waist and swung her ’round the room.

“Oh, yes, let’s have a dance!” exclaimed Kitty. Anne smiled at her new friend and joined in the laughter ensuing from Kitty’s remark.

“A dance?” said a deep male voice entering the room. “I am not sure that Pemberley is ready for another ball at the present moment.” But Mr. Darcy said it with a smile, and clasped the hand of his dear Elizabeth who gazed at the cheerful, contented countenances before her with pleasure. She squeezed Darcy’s hand and he leant down to whisper in her ear.

Lizzy blushed with pleasure.

Chapter LIII

As the Darcys were caught up on all the excitement that had taken place prior to their arrival — eyebrows raising at Elton’s attempt, and Lizzy giving Anne an impulsive hug upon learning of her plan for Kitty – Jane and Charles Bingley were finished with their private interlude and back to wandering the halls.

“Pemberley is finally quieting down, my dear,” Charles observed. “This is the way a grand estate should be.”

“Yes, my love, with one thing lacking,” Jane smilingly replied.

“Oh? And what is that, Mrs Bingley?”

“The laughing play of children,” replied Jane.

“Well, we are on our way to righting that wrong then, aren’t we, Mrs Bingley?” Charles laughed, impulsively twirling his wife in the middle of the hallway. Their laughter masked the conversation taking place in a room just around the corner.

“Miss Tilney? Are you quite alright?” Legitage questioned the lovely young lady, whose gaze was both fixed on him and seemingly elsewhere. Eleanor Tilney blinked rapidly, trying to focus on the here and now. For a moment, she had been transported back in time — to a happier moment in her family’s history. A time when her mother was alive, and her father — if not wholly amiable, at least more gay. A time before …

The memories had rushed in, sparked by the intense, smoldering gaze of Mr. Legitage’s blue eyes. Eyes so similar to her mother’s, but with a different heat. A different life entirely. Her mother’s eyes were never so sparkling, so deeply aware of the great adventure of merely living. Legitage, with his mysterious past and even more mysterious child, had truly lived.

Perhaps that is why Eleanor felt herself being pulled into the whirlpool of his eyes, and the memories they evoked. Perhaps that is why, against all reason, she found herself falling for this man. Was that even possible? She knew so little of him, and what she did know only raised more questions. And yet — that something in the air, the magic of Pemberley — had cast its spell on her.

Remembering she had not answered him, she shook herself slightly and smiled.

“Yes, I’m all right. Merely lost in thought, in a reverie of sorts. You see, your black cloak, with all its leather trim, reminded me of The Black Veil — which has been seen here, even tonight. It’s a rather mysterious Veil, with a dark and grisly past. Do you care for the story?” she asked, arching one eyebrow delicately.

Legitage was bewitched – he would listen to this creature read shipping lists if it meant he could watch her do so. The way her thoughts played across her face, eyes dancing and flashing by turn, her mouth quirking — as if she had a great secret and delighted in keeping it.

“If you consent to telling it, I should very much like to hear it. There have been many mysterious hints as to this Veil,” he replied settling into a nearby chair, where he had a clear view of this enchanting storyteller.

“Very well, be prepared to be shocked,” Eleanor began. “As with many stories, it begins happily and ends badly. But there’s still time for redemption. The Veil was my mother’s. Yes, I see you are surprised. It was purchased as a joke, a gift from my father during a happy interval — he felt my mother was too pretty and so brought home a heavy black veil to be worn when out of the house. We never went anywhere then, content to be home, but she’d wear it in the garden, or riding, to make my father laugh. One day, he stopped laughing. The joke was no longer, but the veil still was.

“My mother had to wear it, all the time. I confess to wondering why, if there was a reason she was hiding her visage. I never knew. Not long after, Mother grew ill and died swiftly. I was away and did not get to see her. I never got to ask her about the Veil…” Eleanor’s voice trailed off, as she was lost in the past once more.

“How did it come to Pemberley?” Legitage asked gently.

“I’m sure I don’t know! Father had it spread across Mother’s bed in her rooms — he’s made them a shrine of sort, I’m sure you heard the rumors about us,” Eleanor blushed a little. “And yet, by all accounts, the Veil is here now. It has been seen and even touched. And, if I understand correctly, has been here long enough to become something of a legend. It’s most peculiar. The only thing I can think of is that Henry slipped it out of the house and smuggled it here on a previous visit to Mr. Darcy. That would explain Father’s current displeasure with him.” Eleanor looked to Legitage and laughed, “Now you know my sordid story. What do you think?”

“I think,” he said with feeling, “that I should wear that Black Veil for the rest of my life if it meant I could hide behind it and gaze upon your heavenly face.”

While Eleanor gushed at Legitage’s words, Charlotte Collins wondered — and not for the first time –how much one woman could endure. In less than 24 hours, she had been widowed, found herself to be with child, assaulted by an errant brother-in-law, attacked by marauders, shocked, humiliated, loved, cherished, proposed to, come into a proposed fortune, un-widowed, and then re-widowed, but it also seemed she had finally seen her hopes for love dashed. Brook was lost to her forever, and there was nothing she could do but for pray for a deus ex machina.

Not surprisingly, Brook made an entrance as if on cue. Who can be in doubt of what followed? When any two Young People take it into their heads to marry, they are pretty sure by perseverance to carry their point, and the widowed, un-widowed, re-widowed Charlotte was taking no more chances. She knew that Brook was exactly what a girl wants, and she was determined to show him how well a nice girl could kiss.

She did not need much satin or lace, and she would have a year to plan her wedding and have her baby, or was it have her baby and plan her wedding? She did not care. Her prayers to the gods of Greek drama had been answered. She would be forever grateful to the Darcys for inviting her to A Ball at Pemberley and being the means of uniting them. After all, what woman could resist a Brook-Darcy? Charlotte wondered how much happiness one woman could endure.

With the woman he loved in his arms, a newfound brother at Pemberley, a new fortune in his pocket, Brook was blissfully happy except for one tiny little thing. How could he tell Charlotte that he had written the complete works of Lord Byron?

Brook contemplated his predicament for a moment and decided that perhaps a more private setting would be appropriate for the revelation that he was the romantic, yet scandalous Lord Byron.

Much like Lord Byron, Fanny and Colonel Fitzwilliam had long felt the harshness that life had to offer, and so it was with great satisfaction that fortune smiled down on the pair of them. It was an enchantment which could not cease to be magical in its offerings; for fortune would smile down on them many times into the future to the delight of those around them. Their hearts and souls danced in harmony as if it had always been so.

Elsewhere in Pemberley, Mr. McKinnon was becoming remarkably sneaky. He had used his investigation as an excuse to linger in the presence of Kitty Bennet as much as possible, lurking around corners so as not to be spotted by one of her many sisters or their respective husbands. (Or husband-to-be, for that matter.) He was continually struck by Kitty’s vivaciousness and beauty. He knew that after he left Pemberley, it was unlikely he would ever see her again. He also knew he was behaving like a lovelorn idiot, but he could not help himself.

He was just creeping around the corner when he heard a loud, male voice call his name. Straightening quickly so as not to appear suspicious, he walked toward the sound of the voice. The butler was standing just down the corridor, looking at him with a slightly raised eyebrow that said he was fooling no one.

“Mrs. Darcy wishes to see you,” he said, and led McKinnon to a sitting room where the mistress of Pemberley stood fidgeting by the window. She looked at McKinnon with distress shining in her fine eyes.

“I am in need of a constable,” she declared. McKinnon was surprised, nay, shocked. The lady of the manor had called for a private audience with a lowly constable?

“I am at your service, ma’am.” he managed.

She sighed deeply. “It is about the Duke of Kensington.” McKinnon’s eyebrows rose as Mrs. Darcy continued. “He is blackmailing me.”

“Does your husband know?”

“No, and I am not sure how to tell him.”

McKinnon could see she was on the verge of tears, so he quickly helped her into a chair and settled the cushions about her. “Perhaps you could tell me, ma’am, and we shall see what is to be done.” Thoughts of Kitty fled his mind for the first time since his arrival at Pemberley as he settled into what he knew best: asking questions. “Perhaps you could start with what His Grace wants from you,” he suggested.

Mrs. Darcy took a moment to compose herself and began. “He wants me to leave Fitzwilliam and go away with him, or else…” It was too terrible to say. Elizabeth took a deep breath, “I first met Hugo when I was but fifteen. He was so very handsome and charming, as well as the first man who looked at me twice. I was infatuated. He claimed he loved me but that his family would never allow us to be together. He proposed a secret engagement, and I said yes.”

She paused to look at McKinnon’s reaction, then continued. “At first it was wonderful. We stole moments with each other in secret, as well as a few kisses.” She blushed, then went pale, remembering, “but soon, he wanted more. I became scared and tried to leave, but he grabbed me.”

She turned her face away. “He left bruises on my arm, holding me so tight. I finally managed to push him away, and I ran. After, I avoided ever being alone with him, and soon he went away. I thought it was over.” She looked helpless. “Whatever am I to tell Fitzwilliam?”

“You already have.” A deep voice spoke from the doorway.

There he was, her husband. “Her husband” — she had been so proud to call him that, so proud to be his wife, yet how many times had she felt like she had been lying to him? Fixed in a deep lake of a tangled mess, trying to keep afloat? What he must think of her. How betrayed he must feel, by her. She had promised to obey him, and he had asked that they mustn’t keep anything between them. She had kept this from him, oh, how she had kept this from him. Now he knew.

Suddenly she needed air. She rose to leave.

“Excuse me, Mr. McKinnon…”

“No, excuse me, Mrs. Darcy,” started Mr. McKinnon, still quite shocked. “I think my business here has come to an end, and now that your husband is aware of what has been troubling you, I believe he is the most suitable person to attend to it.”

Lizzy did not feel ready to deal with that matter with her husband at present. She was scared of what he would think of her, and she did not know how Fitzwilliam would react to the Duke.

“Thank you, sir. Now, my dear…” Lizzy looked up at his solemn face and burst into tears.

Darcy, on the other hand, grinned at his dear little wife. “Lizzy, that was your past. I, and our baby…” he walked over to her, scooped her into his arms, resting one palm over her lower torso “…we are your future. I know you and not a thing you could think of saying could shock me.”

Lizzy’s tears became happy ones. “To think, I was worried how you’d react, when you have behaved so beautifully. Yet…” She looked forlorn. “What are we to do about the Duke?”

Darcy grinned. “I think I have an idea. Mr. Granderby!” he called across the corridors, gesturing towards a plush foot stool and bidding the Duke sit down. “Please, rest yourself. Undoubtedly these last few days have been as trying for you as for the rest of us.”

The Duke was understandably bewildered by the Master of Pemberley’s sudden display of congeniality, but he complied, settling onto the stool and stretching out his legs. “Let us leave the past in the past,” Darcy continued, forcing his lips into a firm smile. “Looking forward, we have so much to celebrate, and celebrate we shall!”

Lizzy watched, thoroughly amused, as her husband unlocked a cabinet and removed from it a demure glass bottle filled with an emerald green liquid. “Let us toast!” Darcy proclaimed, filling two small glasses with the unusually colored drink and offering one to the Duke.

“Mr. Darcy!” Granderby shouted, his eyes sparkling with delight. “You devil! Is that what I think it is?”

“It is, indeed!” Darcy responded.

Before another word could be said, the Duke of Kensington had downed the contents of both his glass and Darcy’s and was eagerly begging for more.

“Oh, Mr. Granderby!” Lizzy said teasingly. “Surely you should stop now!”

As Lizzy had predicted, Granderby, already slightly delirious, interpreted her suggestion as a challenge and snatched the container of absinthe from Darcy’s grasp, guzzling the remainder of the spirit until naught was left save a drop or two. Blinking his eyes slowly, Granderby rose from the stool and began to twirl like a ballerina across the room, giggling and pointing at invisible objects.

“Oh, Mrs. Darcy!” Granderby slurred, addressing a painting of a tiger hanging next to the open doorway. “You are more beautiful than ever!” He reached out to touch the painting’s ornate, gold frame and lost his balance, tumbling through the door and crashing into a waiting footman.

“Take him away!” Darcy commanded. “I do not care where he goes. Just remove him from the premises.” Glad to be of service, the footman dragged Granderby out the door, covering his ears as much as possible to withstand the horrors of Granderby’s atrocious rendition of Mozart’s Requiem.

“Now,” Mr. Darcy said, satisfied with himself. “How about we all go out to the lake and enjoy the serenity of this fine estate — one that needs no improving by the likes of Henry Crawford, that’s for certain.”

Everyone happily agreed, the crisp afternoon air refreshing their faces and sliding between the clasped hands of several new-formed couples. One of those had just formed. It was difficult to say when the moment had officially commenced, but Richard Legitage and Eleanor Tilney were most fervently in love, and eager to spread their contagions on others — such as Kitty Bennet and Matthew McKinnon. Like an aggressive fever, the same feeling appeared to overwhelm them, and they took to all the fine delicacies of sudden and unexpected young love.

“Well now, Mr. Darcy,” Lizzy said affectionately, once they were settled by the lake. “It seems we are simply incapable of hosting a ball, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

He smiled. “Perhaps we ought to put on a play, then. Is there not that new one everyone keeps talking about? Lovers’ Vows, I believe?”

“A lovely play,” Mr. Brook commented airily from within the gallery, “but I think I have a better idea. Catherine, pull out your diary — the new one.” She did as he asked. “We have all endured two extraordinary days here at Pemberley, the likes of which — it would seem — could only occur in fiction, as if written by a wide variety of minds. Why don’t we record all that has happened, filling out the story in turns!”

“Well well,” Mrs. Darcy said excitedly. “What a delightful idea!” And so they did just that, exuberantly, for some odd number of hours and became all the best of friends.

EPILOGUE

Many leagues from there, a young girl who had known nothing but cruelty and strife her whole life, bent down after receiving another unnecessary beating at the Lowood School. And in her despair, she stumbled upon a book: “A Ball at Pemberley.”

“Well now, “she muttered to herself, reading, “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” and smiled. For a moment, Jane Eyre knew what it was to be incandescently happy.

THE END

Responses

  1. […] The Story […]

  2. […] The Story […]

  3. Firstly congratulations to all the contributors. I have just returned from holidays and am astounded at the length (and breadth) of writing that has taken place in a mere 140 characters. I am in awe and can’t wait to read more.

    And secondly, to Lynn and to Adam, I want to apologise for not fronting as a contributor as originally promised, but our summer and indeed, our southern hemisphere reversed hours have made the timing somewhat difficult. I am following when I can however, and wish you and every contributor all the best!

  4. […] The Story […]

  5. […] could not believe that a man such as himself would even contemplate asking the most plain Bennet! (read more here…) View This Pollonline […]

  6. […] Everyone remained quiet, pondering what this unfamiliar face beheld. Elizabeth promptly broke the silence (read more here…) […]

  7. […] story as it progresses, go to #A4T and if you want to read the story from beginning to end go to The Austen Project … I am … right […]

  8. I love taking part in #A4T so much. It’s the main reason I go on Twitter these days!

  9. […] As cries and whispers echoed around the ballroom, one fiend, with an arm twisted up his back by Mr. Darcy, yelled, “Wickham, Wickham! Wickham, we want our money. You owe us! We want the Star of India!” (read more here…) […]

  10. […] (read more here…) […]

  11. […] “Darcy,” she urged. “Look.” (read more here…) […]

  12. […] Elizabeth smiled. “We’d best retreat inside,” she said. The thunder and lightning had begun to strike relentlessly, unnerving the couple. “I cannot imagine that THIS ball will be full of anywhere as near the amount of surprise as the past couple of days have been full of,” said Mrs. Darcy. Approaching the door step, she looked back at Mr. Darcy. “I will be perfectly pleased with the frivolity of settling on a dress, I can assure you of that.” (read more here…) […]

  13. […] “How am I to stay?” Bingley asked Darcy, his normally carefree brow furrowed in frustration. (read more here…) […]

  14. […] (read more here…) […]

  15. […] Mary had heard rumours that Mr Willoughby was not what he seemed to be, yet Mary did not care. She had looked into those eyes, and he was the one for her. With that epiphany taking over all of her thoughts (and having had no sleep, who could blame her?), she set out to go find him. (read more here…) […]

  16. […] The Story […]

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  19. […] Austen Twitter Project is a twitter collaboration between individuals online who co-wrote a book ( A Ball at Pemberley )- in their own […]

  20. […] Austen Twitter Project is a twitter collaboration between individuals online who co-wrote a book ( A Ball at Pemberley )- in their own […]

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  24. Dear God!!!!,
    This was the most horrendous piece of literature I have wasted two hours on!
    The licentiousness, the deficient vocabulary, lack of characterization and theme,or indeed sense!

    Jane Austen would be APPALLED! to see her characters maligned in this way and transformed into a repulsive herd of sex starved animals!

    The author of this —thing, could have no wit or sense or decency. Here is truly a woman “of mean understanding”.

    I would honestly prefer to pluck my eyes out than to read this again.


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