JA quotes and intro

"I should infinitely prefer a book." -- Chapter 39, Pride and Prejudice
"...I wish my collection were larger for your benefit and my own credit..." -- Chapter 8, Pride and Prejudice
"I shall be glad to have the library to myself as soon as may be." -- Chapter 20, Pride and Prejudice

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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Repercussions of a Morning's Walk (Part 1 of 4)

Emma, Pride and Prejudice
After arguing with Mr. Knightley over Harriet Smith's marriage prospects, Emma Woodhouse walks out of Hartfield and into Hunsford. Her brief journey into Kent alters her opinions on matchmaking (and match-breaking).

'I am very much obliged to you,' said Emma, laughing again. 'If I had set my heart on Mr. Elton's marrying Harriet, it would have been very kind to open my eyes; but at present I only want to keep Harriet to myself. I have done with match-making, indeed. I could never hope to equal my own doings at Randalls. I shall leave off while I am well.'

'Good morning to you,' said [Mr. Knightley], rising, and walking off abruptly.

Emma, Chapter 8

Chapter One

Emma Woodhouse uttered decidedly unladylike words as she meandered through the grounds behind her home. Disturbed by her argument with Mr. Knightley, she tried in vain to fix her thoughts on anything else. Thankfully the man had excused himself - quite uncivilly, too! - without realising how affected she truly was by their heated exchange. He had insisted that Mr. Elton would never consider marriage to Harriet Smith. Clearly he thought Mr. Martin's proposal an excellent opportunity, and he held her interference against her. Could he not see that she meant well? Did he not understand that Harriet, as her protégé, could do far better?

Mr. Knightley had stormed out of Hartfield, leaving her alone, vexed, and not entirely content with herself. Harriet was still with Mrs. Goddard, and Mr. Woodhouse was taking his exercise. Never very good at sitting and waiting, and disinclined to face either her father or Harriet without her customary cheerfulness, Emma determined to walk herself into a better humour. Her father always strolled thrice around the main garden, so she had gone to the back of the house where he would not see her.

She absently pulled a stray lock, holding it taut between her fingers while she mulled over Mr. Knightley's words. Could he be right? She had to consider the possibility. He often was, after all. In a moment she felt a painful tug at her scalp and let go. "I will not harm a single hair on my head for you, George Knightley! You don't deserve it!"

Emma rarely doubted herself. Yet Mr. Knightley had been so adamant....Harriet was sweet and certainly pretty - and naïve, and occasionally silly, and not terribly accomplished, yes, she could not deny it. Then there was the problem of her parentage. Emma was persuaded that Harriet must be a gentleman's daughter, though of course she could not be absolutely certain. Evidently Mr. Knightley was unconvinced. Perhaps it was foolish to expect Mr. Elton, or any gentleman, to risk marrying a girl with dubious connections. But to see her friend wed to a simple tenant farmer! How could she condescend to visit 'Mrs. Martin of Abbey Mill Farm?' Insupportable! All her efforts, all her attentions to Harriet, wasted! Rather that the girl were another Jane Fairfax, ensconced with her family in humble lodgings, dependent upon friends better off than herself, a pitied but well-established part of Highbury society -

But therein lay the problem. Harriet had no family, or at least none who wished to claim her. She could not remain forever with Mrs. Goddard; she did not have the comfort of belonging. What a shame, for Harriet was so biddable and so determined to be pleasing. She clearly wanted to belong to someone. "And who better than I to choose that someone?" An answer, unbidden, flooded her thoughts in an all-too-familiar voice: Perhaps the lady herself? Would you allow another to determine your own future? Or would you not find such interference officious? Her expression darkened as she imagined what his might be, were he to appear before her saying those very words.

"Oh! I cannot escape that man even in this peaceful place! I may as well have followed him to Donwell Abbey!" She huffed and walked faster. Poor, sweet, unsuspecting Harriet; she probably had not the least idea of so much consideration being given to her happiness. Emma rolled her eyes heavenward at the thought.

When she looked down again she saw a young boy, fair-haired and dirty-faced, stooping by the hedges just off the path. She sidled up to him. "Are you digging for buried treasure, young man?" Something seemed not quite correct about his appearance. She quickly realised what it was and blurted out, "You must be cold!" She looked into his face. "I do not recall meeting you before. What is your name?" He stared at her and moved his lips, but she could hear none of his words. Smiling, she bent down to ruffle his hair and wondered who had allowed him out of doors wearing garments much more suited to April's sunshine than December's frost. She looked about for his companion, doubting he had come there on his own.

The untamed foliage of this part of the property reminded her of the days she would roam her father's grounds seeking out adventures, sometimes with one or two of the Highbury children, more often alone. Isabella had been beyond such pleasures, being so much older. Fortunately Mrs. Weston, née Taylor, from the beginning more companion to Emma than governess, would indulge her youngest charge in this as in everything else; she often walked out with her, promising Mr. Woodhouse she would not allow Emma to wander too far.

"The boy is all alone, then." She had as yet seen no other person. "Pity." She turned for a last glimpse of the child but he was nowhere to be found.

By now Emma had wandered beyond the formal garden, such as it was, into the little wilderness to the east of it. She pulled out a handkerchief and glanced at the EW stitched there among the half-finished petals - she had become distracted while working on it and had never sat down again to complete the design. Rarely did she find such things troubling. She had no need to prove herself to anyone. Yet when Mr. Knightley was displeased with her, any evidence of negligence was intolerable. Her eyes were fixed on this mediocre example of embroidery as she twisted the linen over and over in her hands, and thus she did not notice the remarkable alteration in her surroundings. The layer of brown leaves at her feet had given way to dirt, then grass. The trees to her left were larger, and their leaves, still green on the branches, had a different shape. The birdsong had altered. On the right were some wildflowers uncommon to Highbury. There was no wooden bench behind her now. Just ahead was a gentle, verdant slope overlooking a lane.

She inhaled sharply when she noted the change. Her unstable footing alerted her to it. Surely she was not walking downhill? Out here everything was rather flat. Was it not? Looking up did nothing to help her grasp the situation. She spun around and realised she had not the slightest idea of where she was.

Elizabeth Bennet, with her decided preference for laughing away every uncomfortable circumstance, was not accustomed to being in turmoil. Since the previous evening, however, she had met with such inconceivable revelations as to render her usual methods for regaining tranquility quite ineffectual. First the proposal - unthinkable! - and now this letter. 'Poor Mr. Darcy' was a phrase she never imagined could contain any truth in it; yet it was so. She could not imagine what he must have felt to have a beloved sister, as young as Lydia, led astray by an old friend. It would have meant ruin, heartbreak, certain misery for all the family, had Mr. Darcy not discovered them.... And Wickham, charming in every way! Who would have suspected? He was the one man she had desired to please, the one she had held in highest esteem even after he ceased his attentions to her and began to pursue Mary King. Was he only after Miss King's fortune, then? There really had been no doubt about that. And her aunt Gardiner had warned her that Wickham's sudden interest in Miss King was indelicate, even suspect. They likely were engaged by now. Will Mary Wickham soon be sorry she had ever met the man?

It was no wonder that with such an experience in his recent past Mr. Darcy viewed romantic attachments, even his own, with suspicion. He must have been reluctant in light of Miss Darcy's narrow rescue to attribute pure motives to Jane's interest in Bingley. After all, the ladies of Longbourn had little in the way of dowries and no promise of a permanent home. Jane did not display her affections openly, either. Mrs. Bennet, however, made her ambitions abundantly clear.

Having read the letter three times now, she refused to look at it again. Wickham's deception was horrid and the depth of her sister's loss painful, but a most disquieting element was the matter of Mr. Darcy's love for her. There were traces of the sentiment throughout the letter, intimations that he did, as he had claimed, ardently admire her. This was no Collins with his flimsy, changeable regard spawned by Lady Catherine's command that he procure a wife for himself. This was...well, she did not truly know. Nor did she wish to contemplate it.

In her distress Elizabeth paced to and fro in the thick grass at the base of a small hill, completely unaware that she was in someone's way.

Colonel Fitzwilliam sat in the Parsonage enjoying the full attention of the Collinses and Miss Lucas. His moody cousin had been more silent than ever, but now that Darcy had left them the pleasure of the Hunsford party was unalloyed. Mr. Collins was less obnoxious and more relaxed due in part perhaps to his guest's easy, undemanding nature. The ladies contributed enthusiastically to the conversation, savouring these last moments with the Colonel. Charlotte and Maria truly were sorry to see him go. He had been a welcome addition to their confined society. As for the Colonel himself, he was disappointed to have missed the chance to bid Mrs. Collins's friend farewell. Miss Bennet had not returned from her morning walk, and only the pleasure of conversing with the remaining ladies, as well as their assurances that Eliza would surely be back at any moment, kept him from searching the park for her. He would have liked another look at that pretty face before quitting Kent. He hoped she no longer had the headache that had prevented her appearance at Rosings the evening before. Sighing, the Colonel realised he had overstayed his visit by half an hour; he could wait no longer. He made his excuses and took leave very prettily. As he turned to the door, he caught the glint of something golden on the mantel and wondered why it seemed familiar. He shook his head and stepped into the sunlight.

Fitzwilliam Darcy stood very still, which he considered an accomplishment. He had lately come from the Parsonage where, to his mortification, he had fidgeted constantly. It had been just as difficult as he had presumed it would be to enter that house again. Even worse, he thought, groaning. He could barely keep his attention on the conversation, for he kept hearing her words in his head: '...the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.' How could he have known it?

He had been relieved and regretful that Elizabeth had not been there. His cousin might stay and wait for her, but he could not have done so. At times his hands had shaken so violently he had thought he might upset his teacup. He had had to get out and had sought the privacy of a copse near the Parsonage, where he had paced for many minutes, trying to gain mastery over his feelings. He was calmer now, though in no hurry to continue the walk to Rosings. "How long have I been here?" He reached into his waistcoat for his watch, but his hand came up empty.

Chapter Two

Emma exclaimed as she walked, ran, and at last slid to the bottom of the hill. She found herself pressing her hand against a young lady's arm to keep from tumbling headlong. Embarrassed and not a little afraid, she uttered her apologies to the stranger. Amazingly, the woman did not seem aware of her. Had she felt the impact at all?

There were papers on the ground. Emma stooped to retrieve the sheet nearest her. On one side it was addressed to Miss Elizabeth Bennet. The other side was full of writing. She felt a tug and looked up to see the young lady attempting to take the envelope from her. "Oh! Here it is," Emma said, letting go. The lady did not so much as offer a 'thank you.' She seemed to look right through Emma as if she were not even there.

"What - how strange," Elizabeth said to herself. She had been knocked out of place by who knew what - there was no one else in sight, nothing that could have touched her right shoulder. Then her letter had fallen. She collected the pages easily enough, but when reaching for the envelope she had to pull on it twice to take possession of it.

Mr. Woodhouse anxiously awaited the return of his daughter. Upon completing his walk, the servant had informed him of her whereabouts. "I do hope she has dressed warmly. Even on a mild day such as this, the weather can turn cold with little warning." He could not see her from the window.

"Quite so," said the man who had just entered the room and heard his old friend's nattering. "But your Emma knows to take care. Do not worry yourself. The day is indeed fine. I hope you enjoyed your exercise, sir." He chuckled inwardly at his friend's inconsistencies; after all, Mr. Woodhouse had just completed his own walk and had suffered no ill effects.

"Mr. Knightley! I am glad you did not go after all. I trust you enjoyed your time with Emma."

"Oh, but I did leave, sir." Knightley did not take the trouble to tell Mr. Woodhouse that his trust was misplaced. "I was on my way to the Abbey when I encountered Miss Smith, who happened to be on her way here. I offered to escort her."

Mr. Woodhouse briefly commended Knightley for his gallantry before renewing the previous subject. "I do wish Emma had remained indoors. I hope she does not take a chill."

"Oh, yes, Mr. Woodhouse," agreed Miss Smith when the elder man paused for breath. "I do hope Miss Woodhouse will be well." She added hesitantly, "And Mr. Knightley was very kind to accompany me. Thank you again, Sir."

Knightley merely nodded. He was not as pleased with Harriet Smith as she was with him. The more he observed her, the more he wondered whether Robert Martin had not had a lucky escape. He never guessed that the sight of him on the road recalled to the girl's mind that very same young farmer and the loss of his attentions. Harriet's heart told her she had been unwise to give up Mr. Martin in spite of Miss Woodhouse's assurances and her hints at Mr. Elton's interest. This had made her gloomy; consequently she was very dull company on the walk to Hartfield.

"Come away from the window, sir," Knightley entreated Mr. Woodhouse, "and let us enjoy this good fire. Emma would not have you fret over her. She will be with us before long, surely." Of course, he knew exactly what might have prompted her to seek the solitude of a 'winter walk.'

The three of them had some pleasant conversation after deftly circumventing the subject of gruel and its benefits, a skill in which one guest was well practiced due to his long acquaintance with their host. The master of Donwell Abbey soon reached the conclusion that he had judged Miss Smith too severely. She was agreeable, if not witty, company and refreshingly devoid of conceit - hesitant to put herself forward, but without false modesty or excessive reserve. By the time several minutes had passed in this way he could criticize her for nothing worse than want of resolution and perhaps too much reliance on the opinions of others. Certainly it was this combination which had allowed Emma to ruin the happiness of Miss Smith's worthy suitor, and possibly that of Miss Smith as well, with minimal effort.

Emma was distraught. The gentlewoman - at least she appeared to be a very genteel, pretty kind of girl - would not respond to her queries. Miss Bennet's dress was a little worn and perhaps not in the latest style, but well made from good fabric and well suited to her figure. There was nothing coarse in her appearance, only the usual effects of a long walk - a slight dishevelment, a brightness of complexion and the like - and though apparently in agitation of spirits, the lady carried herself with an air of refinement. Emma was excessively attentive to such things.

Elizabeth walked several paces away and sat down upon a large rock. Her attention was arrested again by the letter. She put the pages in their proper order and began to read. Why do I torture myself? She turned away. There is nothing here that can be of any use to me now. Her eyes were drawn back to the writing. 'Be not alarmed,' the letter began. "Too late, Mr. Darcy. Alarmed is exactly what I am, for more than one reason."

As she proceeded, she was newly struck by her admirer's claim to a passionate regard of considerable strength. She had accepted as fact that he was in love with her. Yet when she tried to imagine him expressing such feelings in a convincing manner, she had little success. "I still cannot make you out, sir." She stared at the letter, the first she had received from a man not related to her. "I admit I misapprehended your character. You are a far better man than I had supposed. But as to your feelings, I am entirely without penetration. My surprise today is as great as it was all those months ago when you asked me to dance at the Netherfield Ball. How could I have imagined you would want me to be the Mistress of Pemberley?" Mr. Bingley had fairly radiated admiration for her sister, and even Mr. Collins's unwelcome attentions towards herself had been impossible to misconstrue. But Mr. Darcy had never appeared as a man besotted, not even during his proposal. He had been more animated in his indignation at her refusal than in his declaration of love.

When she began to review his criticism of her family, Elizabeth suddenly felt prickly at the neck, as if she were under observation. She turned, still uneasy after what had happened before, but soon dismissed her anxiety and continued to read until the truth of Jane's situation overwhelmed her. "My dearest sister," she whispered, "It is not fair! Will you ever recover from this?" She let her tears run unchecked down her face. Some minutes passed as through blurry eyes she read again everything concerning Wickham, at last tracing the adieu with her fingers.

Emma had indeed been looking over Miss Bennet's shoulder. Lost and bewildered, with no companion save this stranger who was inexplicably oblivious to her presence, she sought something, anything to engage her interest. Everything was subdued, blunted. She could not catch the scent of the outdoors, and her mouth tasted of nothing at all; she barely felt the ground under her feet, and though she could see everything very well, she heard only the faintest of whispers from her companion. Hoping the letter would provide sufficient distraction from her plight, her eyes lit on some nonsense or other about the writer's presuming on a lady's feelings and then only grudgingly admitting the possibility that the lady's own sister might have the better understanding of the matter. The audacity of it! she thought.

She had lost her place but in the next moment made out the words 'My objections to the marriage' and, further down, 'causes of repugnance.' She continued from there until she reached the point where the writer claimed he had had good reason to separate Mr. Bingley and the other Miss Bennet. At least Emma assumed the author of the missive was a 'he.' The authoritative tone and unsentimental wording declared the writing to be that of a man, perhaps the lady's betrothed. "Yet he does not write as a lover would." She recalled with a pang the tender language of Mr. Martin's letter to Harriet. An admirable letter it was; she could admit that, at least, before returning her attention to the example before her. "This man seems to want nothing to do with her family. Does he now regret having formed an alliance with them? His opinions and actions make even less sense if he is a relation, so he must be her betrothed. It would be too scandalous if he were neither. Unless he is ending the engagement...also scandalous..." Her reflections went unacknowledged by the teary-eyed owner of the missive.

She was deeply affected by what she had read and just short of indignant on behalf of the sister. "If John Knightley had run off and broken Isabella's heart, I could not have forgiven him for it, no matter what his reasons. I could never bear to see my sister suffer in such a way."

She turned aside to ponder the details. The mention of London brought vividly to mind the image of Isabella in all the felicity and comfort of her house in town, surrounded by the objects of her tender affections, and Emma was happy to have stumbled across even a tenuous connection to her loved ones in this lonely and unfamiliar place. As for Mr. Bingley himself, she could understand how his friend might wish to offer him guidance in matters of the heart, but that same friend's circumspection seemed wholly unreasonable in light of his own choice of bride. "He even says the two eldest are blameless in their behaviour. And Miss Bennet is still a gentleman's daughter, no matter how vulgar her relations may be. He objects to the situation of the mother's family, as I recall, and not the father's."

She thought further on it, her imagination churning out ideas with rapidity. "I suppose Mr. Bingley was visiting his friend or his sister in Hertfordshire when he met this Miss Bennet. Hmm...though it is possible that the house they occupied was his own, lately purchased." She recalled Mr. Weston's acquisition of Randalls, which had preceded his courtship of the former Miss Taylor. "But surely it would not be sensible to expect the owner of a place to leave it and never return! No, that cannot be the situation at all. Perhaps they were just on holiday there, as it appears none of them are to go back into Hertfordshire." She liked a puzzle as well as anyone, but her impatience and zeal for match-making won out in this instance. "Perhaps all is not lost. Perhaps if this pair reconciles," she thought of the letter writer and his lady, "the other will meet again, and if their mutual affection is unaltered..."

Emma was too engrossed in her ruminations to notice the girl rise from her seat and slip away down a tree-lined path. Her thoughts had turned swiftly from Mr. Bingley to Mr. Martin, and she wondered how much he still cared for Harriet. It was possible that they, too, had shared a mutual affection before she had acted to save her friend from a 'most unhappy connection,' as the letter writer would call it. The explanation she had given Mr. Knightley for opposing the match now seemed to her as cold and unfeeling as that of Mr. Bingley's friend. Had Harriet shown signs of regretting her actions, had she not been so quickly cheered by thoughts of Mr. Elton, Emma might have felt something like guilt. Whatever Harriet's true feelings were, she decided not to concern herself with them at present. She needed to get home first.

When Emma finally did look up, she was alone. "Are you there?" she called out. No answer came, though she doubted she should expect one. Not knowing what else to do, she hurried down the lane.

Little Joseph Henley claimed that a young lady, a stranger draped in fine garments ('Pretty as an angel!' were his words), stooped down to pat him on the head, smiled at him, and then disappeared right in the middle of the path. Joseph was not prone to spreading falsehoods or playing tricks like some of the neighbourhood children, so when he told his mama and sisters, they did not know what to think. The eldest girl was dispatched to fetch the parson's wife, and the others carried the news as far as their little legs would take them.

The colonel had not been gone five minutes and Charlotte had begun to remove the tea service when it appeared that her hospitality was required once more. "What is it, Beatrice?" she asked when the girl rushed into the room.

Miss Henley was flushed and out of breath as she curtseyed to the mistress of the Parsonage and related her business. Her tale amused Charlotte, surprised Maria, and alarmed Mr. Collins. "Please come, Ma'am!" The girl could not contain her excitement. "Mother begs you to come."

By now Charlotte knew the servants were straining to hear what answer she would give. Mr. Collins puffed his cheeks and looked quite ready to spout words of disapprobation at the messenger regardless of her innocence in the matter; that must be prevented at all costs. Maria had been spellbound by the telling. Charlotte herself was a bit drawn in by it. A little adventure would not be unwelcome, she mused, looking about her comfortable home at various reminders of her ordered and predictable existence. Eliza would appreciate this were she here. I wonder, she laughed to herself, if she will turn out to be the mysterious lady enchanting the neighbourhood children during her rambles. Young Joseph was a favourite with her small household staff, for one of them was cousin to the Henleys. She suppressed a smile. "Lucy, tell the others to come. I shall leave a note here for Eliza." Looking over at her husband with an air of resolve she said, "We shall all go and discover what this is about."

Darcy heard the commotion when the Parsonage residents made their way towards the village. He peered through the trees and noticed at once that Elizabeth was not among them. Presumably she was still out walking. When the last person disappeared from view, he turned away and left the copse. A rustling movement brought his attention back to the Parsonage for a moment. Seeing no one, he continued on his way. He needed to prepare for his departure on the morrow; he could send his man for the watch later. He fortified himself against the barrage of questions and allusions his aunt would unleash once he crossed the threshold of Rosings. As he stepped into the lane, he could have sworn he felt the touch of a small hand on his sleeve.

Emma was growing anxious, not to mention uncomfortably warm in this spring-like place. She had spoken clearly and audibly, but the handsome, elegantly dressed gentleman would not answer. He looked quite as distraught as the young lady had. Was the letter from him? Was he the one who had separated Mr. Bingley from the sister? "Please, sir! I must get back to Hartfield! Can you help me? Where does this lane lead?" When she touched his arm, he appeared to respond to the contact but remained deaf to her entreaties. She asked without knowing why she dared, "Are you the man who wrote to-" She paused to recall the name and was reminded of the lady's tears as well. "Miss Elizabeth Bennet?" she finished at a whisper. "Are you the one who caused her distress?" She kept her voice low, not really wanting him to hear her impertinent questions.

"Distress?" he repeated softly, unsure whether he was hearing voices or just his own thoughts. "Can Elizabeth be in distress over my letter?" He thought she might be more angry than anything else, perhaps too angry even to read it. He bristled to think of her lamenting Wickham.

Emma, though embarrassed, took heart - he must have heard her! "The poor girl is in tears over her sister's heartache," she continued in hushed tones. "If only you could see your Elizabeth now!" Under her breath she added, "Surely your appraisal of her family has mortified her!" She winced recalling her own dismissive comments to Harriet regarding Mr. Martin's person and manner as well as the condescending reply to his proposal. She understood Mr. Knightley's reaction better now. Recalling her more pressing problem, she repeated forcefully to the gentleman, "Where does this lane lead, Sir? Do you know the way to Hartfield, or Highbury?"

"Now I have taken leave of my senses!" The voice had become faint and unintelligible which, Darcy decided, was rather a good thing. He ran his fingers through his hair and then stripped off his gloves and rubbed his hands together, needing to feel his own skin after the ghost-touch and murmurings. It was impossible that the wind should whisper to him of Elizabeth's misery. If only I could see my Elizabeth now, he thought bitterly, aching for the one who would never be his. He berated himself for having believed she would waste her tears on a common rogue; of course she was unhappy over Jane. I only wanted to love her; yet I have done nothing but hurt her and her family. No, that is not quite true, he amended. I only wanted not to love her. To struggle against love. Surely the single most idiotic notion I have ever had in my life.

He knew what he had to do now. He would write Bingley and have the letter delivered as soon as he reached town the following day. If Jane Bennet truly loves him, why should he not know it? After what I have done....He would not be surprised if Bingley declared their friendship at an end once he knew the truth. The thought pained him.

Darcy continued across the lane. He did not get far before he felt the pressure on his arm again. "Oh, this is too much!" he hissed as he jerked his arm back. He spun around and gasped when he saw a lone figure approaching the Parsonage. Involuntarily he followed her.

Chapter Three

The consensus was that the boy had been mistaken. Perhaps he was taking his play too seriously. Mr. Collins was adamant about it, and his parishioners could explain it no better. Some wondered at the parson's dismissal of what might very well have been a sign from heaven. Mr. Collins had considered the possibility but rejected it for two reasons. First, he had not seen it with his own eyes, and he was loath to deem a mere child more worthy to receive such an honour than he. Second, the boy made no mention of any message; the 'angel' had not spoken to him for good or ill. What could be the purpose of the vision in that case?

Several of the villagers had convened outside the Henleys' cottage and were standing about in twos and threes, speaking in low tones or silent in reflection. Mr. Collins had said his piece and was moving among the small groups introducing new topics for discussion, eager to put the matter to rest.

Joseph Henley approached Mrs. Collins and her sister, who were standing together. Maria Lucas was a bit more fanciful than her brother-in-law and hated to think that the young child had only dreamt up the vision. It seemed harmless in any case. She smiled at the boy, who looked shyly at her and was encouraged by her sympathetic countenance to give voice to his frustration. "I did see her, Ma'am. Truly, I did."

"I believe you."

At Maria's reply, Charlotte looked up. She agreed with her husband's assessment for the most part. She began to turn the conversation when she felt a sudden tingle and a light breeze blowing at the nape of her neck. Her eyes narrowed. She could perceive her bonnet lifting up and she reached for it.

Maria noticed. "Charlotte, why are you fussing so? Everything is in perfect order, as usual." Maria patted her own bonnet and watched Joseph run back to his mother.

Charlotte turned around and waited, watching and remembering. She soon saw the hint of movement - a tree branch seemed to jut out and snap back into place. That was as she had expected. However, instead of the bracing scent of sea air, which had accompanied a similar experience about six years prior, she could distinguish an array of odours - some pleasant, some not - that she associated with farming. The atmosphere was markedly different as well. In the year six, along with these other peculiar occurrences she had felt a strong sense of loss and anger, needless sacrifice, of a bond torn asunder. She had run into Lucas Lodge that eerie afternoon and above three weeks had passed before she could walk over the spot where it happened without shivering. This day she felt no desire to run. The overwhelming despair was absent, and in its place were consternation and regret, and a turning - repentance? And then something more delicate: love? Hope? She could not discern. In a moment it was gone.

The chores at Abbey Mill Farm were carried out with more than the usual vigour. Robert Martin immersed himself in his work to lessen the pain. Miss Smith's letter had crushed him, the style of it being such a departure from her amiable, welcoming manner. He suspected that she had been advised by her new friend to put an end to his attentions. He was surprised, though perhaps he should not have been. He had heard that Miss Woodhouse was vain and thought herself above the rest of Highbury society, but now he had proof that she was meddlesome as well. He could read her influence in every sentence. Harriet would not have refused him so coldly; left to herself, she likely would not have refused him at all.

He should not have written the letter. He should have called on her at Mrs. Goddard's. But expressing his thoughts on paper was so much easier, so unclouded, and he had wanted to get this 'just so,' for it was that important. He had had good reason to hope. A girl like Harriet did not pretend to care for you if she truly did not, and she had got on so well with all his family and with him in particular.

She simply was not sophisticated enough to be disingenuous. Oh, Harriet was not without abilities, quite the contrary - he had appreciated that from the start - but she never used them to tease. She was no manipulator. Before he had read her letter, he had known her to be unspoiled by the trappings of consequence and cold ambition. Pure sweetness and gentleness she was! If only he did not love her as he did! But there was no help for that. She had the right to decline his offer, and he would allow her that right. His duties would keep him busy enough while he found a way to put her behind him.

Elizabeth opened the door to an unusual quietness. No one seemed to be about. She spied the note from Charlotte and read it. Curious but too exhausted to follow her friends, and too unsettled to think of food, she removed her bonnet, gloves, and spencer and sank into a chair by the fireplace. She rubbed her shoulder. What had startled her and caused her to drop the letter? Before she could think more on it, she heard the door open, and within moments he was before her. He told her by way of excuse that he had forgotten his watch - yes, there it was. - He explained, uneasily, his habit of taking it out and putting it on the mantel in the library at Rosings. He stopped abruptly and studied her then.

She wanted to say something to make him leave. As she watched the normally fastidious man toss his hat and gloves carelessly on a table by the doorway, her lips parted slightly but no words came out. She could not have said what her countenance displayed, for she knew not what she was feeling, other than caught. She was unaware that her expression had softened. His nervousness was disarming.

"How am I to forget you when you look at me like -" He blinked. Like what, he wondered, unable to finish. He reminded himself that she had never loved him, no matter how sweetly she appeared to be regarding him now. He closed his eyes painfully and opened them again, looking directly at her, tilting his head a little. "How am I to forget?" His eyes implored her to advise him, to relieve him of his burden if she could. She clearly wished to turn away from his anguish but continued, helplessly, to face him. He laughed bitterly; this was an exquisite torture. "You would be memorable if only because I can say with absolute certainty that, unlike so many young ladies of my acquaintance, you are not interested in my money. Not tempted. A singular young woman! I have tried to hate you for it, but I find I cannot. In fact I do believe it has only improved my opinion of you."

Elizabeth did not move at first. He does not hate me - he thinks better of me for telling him 'no?' She closed her eyes and swallowed. Rising to her weary feet, she stepped forward and strove to receive him properly under the circumstances. "Mr. Darcy, you have become adept at finding me all alone. The Collinses and Maria have gone into the village, along with the servants." She waved Charlotte's note to indicate the source of her information and placed it on the table. Suddenly aware that she had been traipsing through the park for over two hours, she brushed at her hair with her hands. "Please excuse my appearance, Sir." I must look a fright after all that crying. "I have only just returned to the house. I read your letter." She frowned. "Allow me to apologise for accusing you of injuring Mr. Wickham. I am sorry for what your family has suffered on his account. I made an enormous error in judgement, defending him and blaming you as I did."

"Why do you apologise to me? How could you have known?" He noticed her reddened eyes and tear-stained face, and he remembered the words that had come to him concerning her sorrow over Miss Bennet's disappointment. He averted his gaze, ashamed to be the source of her grief, and feigned interest in a brightly colored landscape on the adjacent wall while he collected his thoughts. "Besides," he said after a few moments, "my own powers of perception are sadly lacking. I misunderstood both you and your sister, and look at the damage I have done in my ignorance! I sincerely regret the pain I have caused you both. But at least Miss Bennet's happiness is not wholly forfeit, if it still hinges on my friend's society. Bingley mourns the loss of hers, I am sure of it." He paused in recollection of something and made a strangled sound. 'Towards him I have been kinder than towards myself.' Did I truly say that? He cringed at the memory of the bitterness and arrogance behind the words, the unnecessary pain he had caused his friend through intervention that now appeared absurd and impertinent. The situation must be remedied. Bingley's belated proposal would no doubt be graciously and gratefully received by the eldest Miss Bennet. Unless-

With heightened anxiety he turned to face Elizabeth. "Will she forgive him, do you think, for neglecting her these many months? Tell Miss Bennet the fault is mine, if you must, but by all means secure her pardon for my friend."

Elizabeth was not yet recovered from Mr. Darcy's agonising plea, his letter, his proposal, or his presence in the room, for that matter. And was he now implying that Jane's misery would be ended in the happiest, most reasonable way? She found her voice. "Jane loves him still. I have never seen her so in love. Yes, she would forgive him. She would forgive him anything." Darcy's relief was obvious, and Elizabeth noticed he had moved much nearer. She stepped back a little.

He felt the separation exceedingly and reached across the distance between them with his softest voice, just above a whisper. "Was it so very bad that I asked you to be my wife? Was it so terrible?"

For a moment she considered pleading a headache. "You will excuse me. I am tired, I must sit." She returned to the chair.

"Of course. I am sorry. I should not have asked." He was beginning to see what she had meant by his 'selfish disdain for the feelings of others.' What is the matter with me? When did I grow so callous? After all, she had come inside to rest. Clearly she was not in the mood for company, certainly not his company, and he was imposing on her just as he had the previous evening.

"No, I will give you an answer." She did not want to hurt him any more, but perhaps he needed to hear this from her. Though how was she to explain it? "In light of your sex and the fact that you are considered 'one of the most illustrious personages in the land,' as my cousin frequently refers to you, Sir, you are unlikely to experience this yourself. Be glad of it." She felt the remnants of her anger kindling. "But imagine, if you would, how insufferable it would be for some self-assured young man, in whom you could perceive little to recommend him apart from his wealth and position in society, to say to Miss Darcy that her brother's mere ten thousand a year is nothing to his own twenty, her dowry is not worthy of an alliance that would make her mistress of two country estates and a grand house in town, her lack of title puts her decidedly beneath him, and - oh!" She warmed to her topic. "An opinionated aunt, a wastrel steward's son who has been draining Pemberley's coffers for years, and a brother who is intimately acquainted with the family of a tradesman are more than he should willingly take on. Indeed, it goes against his better judgement to do so."

Her residual irritation with Darcy, Wickham, Lady Catherine, Mr. Collins, the Bingleys, entails, and embarrassing relations had found its way into her speech. "Add to that, this young nobleman has not been very friendly towards you or Colonel Fitzwilliam, whom he dismisses as an impoverished soldier. He never distinguished your sister in such a way as might raise her expectations. You were not even aware that he admired her. Even if he conquered all his reservations, all his 'natural and just' feelings, and proposed, claiming to love Miss Darcy in spite of her 'inferior' situation - even if she loved him - would you give your consent?"

Darcy's face was ashen by the time she concluded. How thoughtless he had been. He would not have hurt her like that for the world.

He knelt before her and took her hand in his. After a moment he looked up at her and smirked. "It would appear, contrary to my earlier supposition, that I am not worthy of you."

"That is preposterous." They each had been mistaken about the other, nothing more. She tried to pull back but he would not let go. She was surprised to find she liked the feel of his bare fingers entwined with hers.

"Please." Darcy begged permission to retain hold of her hand. He caressed it and kissed it. "It is the truth, Elizabeth - Miss Bennet. I was being preposterous." He hung his head. "Forgive me. I know I do not deserve it."

The last of her resentment dissipated in the face of his humility and gentleness. "No one deserves forgiveness. It is a gift, always."

"Then if you will not give me your hand in marriage, give me that gift, at least."

"It is yours." Her voice trembled in amazement at his persistence in declaring himself.

He laughed a nervous laugh. "Which is mine: your hand or your forgiveness?" He stroked her palm as he spoke.

"Only my forgiveness." Finally she freed her hand from his. Seeing his melancholy expression made her teasing again. "For the present," she whispered boldly, half smiling at him. The effect was immediate: Darcy looked up in astonishment. Why am I encouraging this man, even in jest? I must be mad! She could only stare back at him and marvel that she had ever thought his eyes cruel. They were lovely and warm.

"Thank you." Darcy rose to his feet. "I shall leave you to rest. I have intruded on your solitude long enough." He watched her stand and hesitated before speaking again, looking a little sheepish as he did so. "Do you know, I never would have come back but for the strangest circumstance: I was returning to Rosings, and I felt a hand on my arm - twice, I felt it - but there was no one there. When I turned around, I saw you and followed you here." He did not mention the voices.

"Really? How very odd." Elizabeth thought back to the contents of Charlotte's note as well as her own experience at the hillside and wondered what unknown thing had got loose in Rosings Park. "I felt something much the same after I had read your letter three times." She felt that she had perhaps said too much. "I was about to put it away when something brushed against me - it felt more like a push - and I dropped the pages. I picked them up and began reading. And then I could not stop until I had gone through it once more from beginning to end." She did not say anything about the feeling of someone's eyes upon her or the tug on the envelope as she retrieved it.

Darcy raised an eyebrow, shrugged, and smiled at her. As his eyes reluctantly left her face he noticed that his watch was still on the mantel. He reached just beyond her and picked it up. "After all my talk of this," he said, putting it in his pocket, "I should not leave it here again."

"No, I suppose not." She smiled at him and remembered, as did he, how quickly the subject of the watch had been abandoned. She considered this man before her and recalled some of the things he had written, furrowing her brow in contemplation. "Utmost force of passion," she said under her breath.

"Pardon me?" Darcy asked. They were standing very near each other and he had understood her perfectly. He resisted the impulse to reach out and caress her blushing cheeks.

She believed an explanation unnecessary but offered one nonetheless. "Your own words, from your letter. I only really attended to that particular phrase the last time I read it. It was shocking enough that you wrote to me at all, but to imagine you somehow influenced by the 'utmost force of passion?' You?" She did not say, 'For me?' though that was the question reflected in her dark eyes. "I can scarcely believe it." No one had expressed such depth of feeling towards her before.

"Believe it." The two simple words he spoke resonated with conviction, though they hardly prepared his listener for what followed. For once Darcy did nothing to conceal his desire as he looked on the pretty face tilted up at him in challenge. He was not the sort of man to leave a challenge unanswered, and he was not about to do so now.

His hands found their way to her. They settled loosely around her waist and traveled slowly upward until he heard her gasp. He took his hands away only to place them gently on either side of her face. As his fingertips grazed her earlobes he could feel her shivering. He let his fingers slide down to delicately explore her neck and throat. With his thumb he traced a path up to her chin and applied the slightest of pressure to part her lips. He was intrigued; her eyes were vulnerable but her gaze never wavered. Whatever else had been mere teasing on her part, truly she had been in earnest when she had said her courage always rose with every attempt to intimidate her.

Elizabeth had thought herself beyond shocking after the exceptional events of the morning, but her slowness to react to this new development proved her wrong. It seemed a little late to slap him now. She had not anticipated this when she had provoked him. Still, she was not exactly displeased with the results and was determined to stand her ground whatever happened. Clearly he had the advantage, both in loving - as a gentleman of a certain age it was assumed he had experience, or at least the opportunity for it - and in loving her, for while he had admired her for months, she had never given him serious consideration as a suitor until this moment. If he continues to present such compelling evidence of his regard, I may be forced to capitulate, she thought with no little alarm. Her breath caught as he parted her lips.

Darcy found the sight of her ready mouth tempting. He began to lower his face to hers and then hesitated. He could take the obvious liberties. She was doing nothing to prevent it. But what if she resented him for it? That would be infinitely painful. The sting of her palm against his face would be nothing to the sting of a second rejection in less than four and twenty hours. What he wanted to do was to take her in his arms, shower her with kisses, and beg her to reconsider his proposal. What he needed to do, he decided, was to win her. He saw resolve, and perhaps curiosity, but certainly not affection in her look, not yet. Somehow he had to convince her that it would be to her advantage to settle far, far away from Longbourn and with a man she had despised only the day before. With this in mind, he ran his thumb across her lips and led her back to the chair.

"Close your eyes," he commanded when she was seated again.

"What....Why?" she said, thoroughly confused, and a tiny bit disappointed, by his actions.

"Elizabeth, please trust me. Close your eyes."

With a small shake of her head she did so. He stood behind the chair and let his hands rest on her shoulders. Then he took a deep breath, lowered his tall frame and leaned towards her ear, almost nuzzling it. "Lizzy," he whispered, and he proceeded to speak to her from his heart, from the overflow of his observations and imaginings. He told her things that a lover might, that perhaps he would have said before, had he courted her properly. His fingers gently caressed her, often brushing against the bare skin of her neck, at times catching in her hair or on the collar of her dress.

He talked of ordinary things in an extraordinary manner: her voice, her intelligence, the way her mouth curled into a wry smile just before she said something exceedingly witty...how stubbornly she could adhere to her opinions, how they shared that particular trait, what fun it was to debate with her...her dancing abilities, how he wished she had danced with him all those months ago at Lucas Lodge... her eyes (he called them bewitching), her figure (she blushed)... that he found her altogether fascinating, that he never knew quite what to say to her. He told her that he often dreamt of her, and he related one of those dreams in explicit detail (she blushed again and again). He remembered which foods she preferred, colours that had shown her complexion to particular advantage, the way her eyes twinkled with amusement at a neighbour's folly or glowed with pleasure as she chatted happily with those beloved to her.

Elizabeth could think of no other man of her acquaintance who would have spoken in this way. For years now, gentlemen had flattered her at assemblies and card parties. This, however, was something more. Darcy was unquestionably reserved in manner, but when he did speak, he was forthright. His words revealed a great deal and had done so even from the first moments of their acquaintance, from the slight at the Meryton assembly to the letter he had placed in her hand only that morning.

And his touch, this newest intimacy between them, was simply heavenly. He did nothing too improper - well, perhaps he did, but nothing, certainly, that could constrain her. Yet she stayed where she was, having no desire to move away. He poured into this new campaign all the tenderness his proposal had lacked. She responded with quiet acquiescence. It was uncharacteristic of her, as both of them were well aware. But at the moment she did not want to contradict or tease him. She was not inclined to talk; she wanted to hear him, to feel him. His lips brushed against her ear more than once as he spoke. The fourth time it happened, a moan escaped her and she was at a loss to explain how she had come to revel in the feelings Darcy had incited. Darcy, of all men! she thought as the last flicker of uncertainty was swallowed up in the haze of emotion that enveloped her.

At length he came around to face her. He knelt by her side and cradled her hand in both of his. He kissed her palm once, twice, murmured, "My love," and watched as she opened her eyes. "Do you believe it now?"

His expression was one Elizabeth had often seen. Only this time she recognised the admiration and interest contained therein. She nodded and whispered, "Yes." She was embarrassed that he could see her face. Surely he would know just by looking at her how efficacious his attentions had been.

"I am glad." He smiled warmly, his eyes brimming with happiness. He paused a moment, considering whether to say more, then shyly laughed, realising he would be telling her nothing new. "You know I would have kissed you, and I still want to, even though we are not..." Here he stopped, blushing from mortification and regret as the pain of the previous night's debacle washed over him: his miserable, failed, single attempt to become an engaged man. He had done everything all wrong in her eyes. "You must think me very ungentlemanly, but then we established last night that at times my behaviour towards you is less than what it should be."

"Yes. No! I mean, it is all so sudden - for me," she said, remembering the moment when their lips had almost met and her surprising disappointment when they had not. She bowed her head. "I do thank you for your restraint. I am ashamed to admit I may not have stopped you if you had-"

"Elizabeth, say no more or I shall be in grave danger of offending you."

"Mr. Darcy." Her mock sternness seemed to chastise him for his freedom of address, but her next words belied any such intention: "I believe that today I have found you less offensive than at any other time in our entire acquaintance."

"Miss Bennet!" His voice was firm, but he was certain his eyes revealed his pleasure in her response. Her look had been welcoming, even tender; still, it was satisfying to have verbal confirmation of his success. And dangerous as well, he decided, as he struggled not to pull her from the chair into his arms. He settled for kissing her palm once more and started when, immediately afterwards, in an action mirroring his earlier one, he felt her thumb trace the contours of his lips.

He enjoyed her touch for a few moments then sighed into her hand. "I had better go." Lest I compromise you on your cousin's parlour floor. Aloud he very reasonably suggested, "Your friends might return at any time." He stood and retrieved his things as they exchanged goodbyes. "Perhaps I shall see you in London." His tone, he hoped, left her in no doubt that they would meet again very soon.

With a bow and a dimpled grin he was gone from sight, and she next heard him open the front door and quit the house.

Elizabeth was left alone with her thoughts and the lingering sensation of Darcy's touch. What had happened? She tried to quell the odd, jittery feeling in her stomach. What had occurred to make her set aside every objection long enough to encourage such a man, even to flirt with him? Not that she had many objections now; she admitted they were far fewer in number and much less troublesome than those of the previous day. Furthermore, she suspected that if he were to come back to her this instant, she would allow him even more liberties. Passion! What had it done to her? And was it his passion or hers that had done it? Utmost force, indeed.

Eating was now out of the question. She cast a brief glance over the cold tea and neglected biscuits before walking up to her bedchamber.

Emma fled in terror when the man lashed out at her. Perhaps she had overreacted and he was only pulling his arm away, but the violence of his movement alarmed her. She admitted the entire situation was nothing short of frightening, and if he could explain her presence no better than she could fathom his inability to see or hear her properly, then his reaction was not unreasonable.

She ran back up the lane until she recognized the rock where Miss Bennet had stopped to read her letter. She noticed that the top of the hill was more easily reached from this side. Perhaps if she climbed it, she would find her way to the garden. Being careful of her footing, she scaled the small rise and saw ahead of her the beginnings of a path. Excited by her discovery, she hurried to it, following the narrow walk until she heard the crunch of leaves under her feet. She was home again!

She spun around and would have shouted for joy, but the sound stuck in her throat. Her sleeve had struck a low-lying branch, rattling it, and immediately she heard a child's clear tones:

"I did see her, Ma'am. Truly, I did."

"I believe you."

The second voice belonged to a lady. Yet she saw no woman, no child, no one at all. Her peace was in tatters.

"Oh, what a morning!" She freed her clothing from the branch. "I hope I never see the likes of it again!" She backed further down the path, watching as the dirt trail, along with its odd sounds and strange visions, faded from view and all things appeared perfectly ordinary. She had never been so happy to feel cold air on her face, never so grateful for the sight of the bare branches of Hartfield's trees stretched forth in stark relief against the winter sky.

Emma turned, picked up her skirts, and ran all the way to the house.

Charlotte knocked and quietly entered the guest chamber. She sighed in relief. There Eliza was, lying atop the bed fully clothed with the exception of her shoes. Charlotte thought she was asleep until she heard the faint humming. "Eliza, are you well? This is the second time in as many days I have returned home to find you shut up in your room. Have you eaten?" When she had entered the house a minute before, she saw that her note had been moved, but the tea service had appeared untouched.

"Charlotte, is there something in the air? Or has the world simply been turned upside down this day?" Elizabeth propped herself up on the pillows.

"Do you refer to my note?" When Eliza did not answer, Charlotte sat on the corner of the bed. "Let me tell you what happened in the village." She related Joseph Henley's story and saw in her friend's face a hint of recognition. She had no intention of mentioning the breeze and tingling and such, and if Eliza had a story of her own, apparently she was not about to divulge it either.

"Mr. Collins determined at once to go to Rosings, but I persuaded him to come home first and let the talk dwindle down. After a few hours, the tale should lose some of its glitter and appear as no more than the fanciful notions of a child at play. I would not wish for Lady Catherine to rush off to the Henleys' cottage and lecture the poor boy or his mother." She noticed that her friend looked rather pale. "But you must dine with us, Eliza. I shall leave you to rest now and shall call for you in half an hour."

"Yes," she agreed absently. She remembered the other person who had offered to 'leave her to rest' and then had done nothing of the sort. She smiled. "Thank you, Charlotte," she said, suddenly sensible of the deepest gratitude to her friend for inviting her to Hunsford. Jane would have her Mr. Bingley, and she...would have much to face in London. Would she have Mr. Darcy after all? It seemed inevitable. Her face grew warm as she recalled his method of persuasion. And who knows what he might do or say when next we meet...

As the sound of Charlotte's footsteps faded, Elizabeth closed her eyes and blessed Providence that Mr. Collins had not felt any 'ungentlemanly' demonstrations necessary to convince her of the sincerity of his affections over four months ago. The thought made her shudder.

Chapter Four

Emma was warmly received upon her return. She was surprised to find Mr. Knightley among those gathered in the drawing room. Harriet looked a little wan but better than she had expected. Her father stood and held out his hands to her, his countenance exuding relief.

Happily Emma heard everyone's greeting, and each person heard hers as well. No one shrank from her touch or behaved as if she were invisible. She even could smell cinnamon and burning wood. She was glad to have all her faculties returned to her but found the experience somewhat overpowering. She hurried to her father's side and assured him of her being quite well even while doubting the veracity of it.

"Mr. Knightley, I must say I did not expect to see you here. I-" She could not meet his gaze. "Harriet!" She turned to her friend. "I am delighted that you are to remain with us - you must stay for a week, at the very least." She tried her best to smile and said no more. Her voice was unsteady. If she continued to speak, even Harriet would discern that she was not herself.

Mr. Woodhouse pressed Mr. Knightley to dine with them. The conversation at table did not bear out anyone's hopes for a lively party, if such hopes existed, for it was hampered rather than enriched by the addition of a fourth. Emma was still too disconcerted to engage in her usual banter, and she was uneasy in Mr. Knightley's company besides. Harriet had regained some of her earlier glumness at Miss Woodhouse's appearance. Emma was not blind to it. Knightley also noticed and was convinced that the young lady had not been indifferent to Robert Martin, for he had never seen Miss Smith so downcast in Emma's presence. Mr. Woodhouse was relatively quiet after convincing Emma to don a thick shawl. He tucked into his gruel with pleasure, too happy to have his beloved daughter safe at home to comment on the others' less wholesome though much more satisfying fare.

As soon as the dishes were cleared away, Knightley expressed his intention to leave. "I have business that has been put off long enough." He considered whether to pay a quick call at the Martin residence before going on to the Abbey.

"Must you go?" Mr. Woodhouse was oblivious to the varying levels of discomfort suffered by his companions. Emma made no similar attempt to detain Mr. Knightley and would not even turn her face to his.

"Yes. There are one or two things which it is best that I accomplish without further delay." He most certainly would call on Robert Martin.

"It is always a pleasure, Sir, to have you with us. Good day to you."

"Good day, Mr. Knightley," said each of the girls. Emma sounded almost as timid as her friend.

Knightley took one last, searching look at the two ladies and left them to the solicitous care of Mr. Woodhouse.

It was but one hour until afternoon tea. Anne dismissed Mrs. Jenkinson from her sitting room, waited until the hall was empty, and made her way downstairs to the library. She needed to talk to her cousins without her mother present. If they were not there, she would wait. She had watched and listened for weeks and noted that every afternoon Darcy and sometimes Fitzwilliam might be found there. They were unlikely to be interrupted. Her mother would assume she was resting in her chambers, and in any case Lady Catherine, who was not a great reader, ventured rarely into the one room her favourite nephew frequented.

Opening the door, she heard the voices that had fascinated her more than any others aside, perhaps, from that of her dear departed father. Her memories of Sir Lewis were faint impressions now, but being in the library for more than a few moments always brought them back to her. She rarely came here anymore since Mrs. Jenkinson was quite willing to fetch whatever books she required.

"I say, Darcy, what has put you in this ebullient mood? You were barely civil at the Parsonage, and in the dining room you might as well have been at York for all the attention you paid to our aunt's conversation. Did a few hours' solitude do the trick? Or are you simply glad to be leaving the country after delaying our departure twice? Tell me you are not putting it off again! I have just got my trunks packed."

"No, we will leave tomorrow as planned. It has been a dream of a day, Fitzwilliam. I will not attempt to deny that, but I will say no more about it."

"You know I will get it out of you, if not here, then in London."

"Do your best. I am not afraid of you."

"I shall, be assured of it- Anne!" He had looked up for a moment and caught sight of her. "What may we do for you, dear cousin?"

Anne had been observing the boys' banter with an amused smile on her face. They had come of age years ago, but she always thought of them as boys when they were together like this, happy in each other's company. "I would speak with you both, if convenient."

"Of course," "Certainly," Darcy and Fitzwilliam replied simultaneously.

Anne approached them and took a seat on the sofa next to Fitzwilliam so that she could face Darcy. She addressed him in a quiet, airy voice. "Cousin Darcy, I do not wish to be presumptuous, but I must ask you this. Would it be fair to say that my mother's wishes in regard to an alliance between us are doomed to disappointment?"

Colonel Fitzwilliam immediately stood. He cleared his throat and excused himself.

"No! Wait! Do not go." Anne's voice had a firmness neither gentleman would have associated with her. "I would like you to stay, please."

The colonel, visibly uncomfortable, sat down on the sofa and looked steadily at the green vase in the corner.

"I do not mean to embarrass either of you, or myself, for that matter. I realise this is highly irregular. Let me start again. Cousin, I believe that you had not planned to make any proposal of marriage during this visit to Rosings. Am I correct?"

Darcy coloured, hardly knowing where to look. "I had not planned it, no." He felt it was the truth - he had not anticipated seeing Elizabeth again. It had been many years since he had even remotely considered Anne as a potential wife.

"Good. I will not be offended if you do not plan to do so in future." Anne braced herself for his reaction.


Darcy's relief was palpable, and Anne was glad to see it. It made the rest so much easier. "Now that the difficult part is over, I would like to ask for your assistance, each of you." She turned to include the colonel in her gaze. Both men were looking at her with something like awe. "I have long wished to spend some time in town. I have never been there for the season or remained for more than a few days. However, Mother dismisses the idea whenever I bring it up. She says my health is too fragile, and, besides, I shall be presented at court once I am Mrs. Darcy." She blushed and looked at her lap. "Now that we all are agreed that such a circumstance will never occur, I wonder if you might help me arrange a visit, perhaps for the coming winter."

Darcy looked from Anne to Fitzwilliam and back again. "Anne, you are welcome to visit whenever you like. You are family, after all. Do you wish to travel with us when we depart tomorrow? I am to be in town some weeks, I believe. I am certain Georgiana would appreciate your company as well."

"Yes," added the colonel when he saw the look of heartfelt delight on Anne's face, "and I am sure mother and father would be pleased to have you stay once they return from my uncle's estate. But will tomorrow be too soon?"

The cousins spent above three quarters of an hour in this companionable way, making plans, talking of trifles and delighting in their easy camaraderie, sorry only that such an understanding had not been reached much earlier in the visit.

Emma had no one in whom to confide. Watching Harriet as they sat together brought to mind the letter she had read in the woods and how mistaken the writer had been. She began to entertain the possibility that she, too, had been mistaken. Her experience that morning had shaken her and undermined her confidence in her own judgement. If this was the manner in which she was to be corrected, she had better not be often wrong! How she wished to talk things over with someone, but that was impossible. She dared not mention her sylvan adventure to her father, Harriet or Mrs. Weston. They would worry far too much. Her father or Harriet might even become hysterical. Ironically, the one person who could hear her out and respond sensibly was at odds with her at present, and to complicate matters, all she had seen and heard regarding the Bennet sisters and Mr. Bingley made the situation too awkward to discuss with him. Besides, Mr. Knightley had confessed to neglecting his work and already had spent much of the day at Hartfield. It would be selfish to request more of his time even if he were willing to give it.

How had it happened that the only comfort she required in her moment of distress was that of a man who was not her father? That the voice which could soothe her fears - and she was certain it could - was the same one that unapologetically pointed out her faults? For all his obstinacy, his frankness, his propensity to argue with her and scold her, she knew he had a genuine interest in her welfare. He was a man of sound judgement and he would not be afraid of the truth, no matter how farfetched it may seem. Mr. Knightley was nothing if not utterly reliable - he was a rock. And with the ground literally shifting beneath her feet as it had done today, a rock was exactly what she needed.

The afternoon progressed quietly, and Emma made it her business to observe the real state of her friend's spirits. Harriet was not happy. It became clearer by the hour, and Emma was too out of humour herself to attempt to cheer her. They each made only superficial attempts at conversation and employment. In the evening Emma watched her friend pick over supper and glance at the clock until it was an appropriate time to retire. Emma decided to follow her example. Kissing her father's brow, she assured him once again that her earlier exertions had not made her ill. She went up to her rooms believing that sleep would not come the whole night. Still she dutifully dressed for bed and climbed under the covers. After a minute or two she closed her eyes. As it turned out, she would not open them again until morning.

Harriet lay in bed looking about her at the luxurious appointments of her room at Hartfield. She thanked heaven for the night, glad of a respite from the attentions of Miss Woodhouse and her father. She shied away from anything like ingratitude, for they had been so kind to her and she was very sensible of the honour of their notice. Still, the inner conflict of the last two days was beginning to wear on her. Part of her, the 'little princess' that is in most girls even after they grow up, was devastated by the thwarted engagement. To have the banns read, a wedding to organise, the congratulations of her acquaintance, and the love and constant society of such a man as Robert would answer every wish of her heart. She even thought she could learn to like those hideous caps married women wore.

The less whimsical part of her, the part that acknowledged that she would soon need to shift for herself among the residents of Highbury (for she knew she could not remain under Mrs. Goddard's care indefinitely), realised the value of intimacy with Hartfield. It would guarantee her a place in society and allow her to be on equal footing with men of a certain level, men like Mr. Elton. She sighed. Harriet had nothing against Mr. Elton. He was prodigiously civil towards her, but she knew he would never look at her but for her association with Miss Woodhouse. She was still of the opinion that he was far more interested in her friend than in herself.

Surprisingly, Miss Woodhouse had not mentioned Mr. Elton all day. Miss Nash, however, who had been bursting with fresh intelligence of the vicar when Harriet arrived at the school that morning, had made up for any neglect on that score. Miss Nash had spoken with Mr. Perry when he called earlier to attend an ailing child. Mr. Perry had seen Mr. Elton the previous day and had been surprised to hear that he was on his way to London. He had extracted from him the nature of the 'enviable commission' which was to keep him away from whist club that night - something about procuring a frame for a picture he considered exceedingly precious. Mr. Perry had slyly suggested there must be a lady involved in the business if an ordinary picture could be termed a precious charge, and Mr. Elton had not denied it. According to Mr. Perry, Mr. Elton had spent so much of their brief conversation praising the abilities of the artist, whom he would not name, that when the man rode off the doctor was left without any idea as to the subject of the picture itself.

All this Miss Nash told Harriet, little suspecting that she was conversing with one of the few persons well acquainted with the particulars of the case. Her communication only solidified Harriet's opinion that Mr. Elton was partial to Miss Woodhouse. Harriet did not wish to hear any more on the subject and not long afterwards she left the place, only to see Mr. Knightley and to think of Donwell, and by extension Abbey Mill Farm, of course, and then the awfulness of what she'd done to Mr. Martin, and to herself, swept over her.

Mr. Knightley had offered his arm to her. It was a short walk to Hartfield and usually a pleasant one, but she had been so affected she could scarcely reply to his pointed questions. The more closely he approached the subject of Abbey Mill Farm, the more tight-lipped she became, and eventually he desisted. Besides, she had not wanted to talk much. She respected Mr. Knightley, for Mr. Martin always spoke highly of him, and she knew that when nervous or in superior company she sometimes tended to run on and on and say whatever silly thing popped into her head and look much more of a rattle than she was. She did not want to make a poor impression on the gentleman. Fortunately it appeared she had not injured herself in that regard after all. Mr. Knightley had been very kind to her during his visit to Hartfield.

That was all over, thankfully, and the problem before her now was how to achieve any semblance of peace so she might appear tolerably cheerful at breakfast. She had little hope of success.

Eventually the strain of the day took its toll, and Harriet succumbed to sleep. In her dream she was at the school and the post had just come. She saw a letter addressed to her - the surname was blotted out and there was no other direction, but for whom else could it have been intended? She took it to her room to read.

You will laugh when you know where I am gone, and I cannot help laughing myself at your surprise to-morrow morning, as soon as I am missed. I am going to Gretna Green, and if you cannot guess with who, I shall think you a simpleton, for there is but one man in the world I love, and he is an angel. I should never be happy without him, so think it no harm to be off.

It continued in like manner, mentioning some place she had never heard of and people she had never met. Who was this unfortunate girl? What a letter for her to write at such a moment! Did she not understand the foolishness of her choice? That man was no angel, quite the contrary, or he would never have asked her to elope. Mrs. Goddard made certain that all her charges were thoroughly warned against the evils of elopement. Who with any hope of preserving her respectability ran off to Gretna Green? Harriet wondered how the letter had come to her, a complete stranger. Clearly it was meant for some other girl.

As she folded the missive and considered whether to burn it, a man appeared at her door. "You cannot enter my room, Sir! It would not be proper!" Mr. Martin did not look like himself. He was exceedingly handsome and elegant. His hair was lighter, and his eyes were a different color. Perhaps it was not Robert after all, but she did not know who else it could be.

"Come with me to Gretna Green, my love! Forget Miss Woodhouse. She only wants to keep you with her to relieve her boredom. She is lonely in that grand house now that Miss Taylor has married. She ought to get married herself and is simply jealous that you received an offer first!"

"Mr. Martin!" Harriet was scandalised. "Please go! You are wrong about Miss Woodhouse. Why do you speak so unkindly about her?"

The man looked repentant and a bit confused. "I am sorry. I did not mean to offend you or to insult your friend. I just want you to come away with me."

"No!" She slammed the door on him and locked it. She looked out her window and saw Mr. Martin, the real Mr. Martin this time, talking to Mr. Knightley in the lane.

"This is madness!" She thought the letter she was holding must have some connection to the young man's presence at her door. Perhaps he had delivered it. "I must destroy it!" Deciding to burn it without delay, she walked to her fireplace. As she thrust the paper into the flames, her fingers ignited. She screamed but felt no pain. She watched in horror as the skin from fingertip to wrist turned the color of soot and the letter remained untouched. She pulled it from the fire, opened it, and read the greeting:

Dear Miss Smith,

Harriet gasped. It was written in Robert Martin's steady hand.

Wide awake now, Harriet sat upright in the bed and tossed the covers aside. She was drenched in perspiration, and her nightgown was twisted about her. "What am I to do?" she said and promptly burst into tears.

Chapters Five through Eight

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