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

Thanks for dropping by! Titles are below and to the right, under the following headings:
The Trouble of Practising | Longer fiction
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Impulse of the Moment | Short stories written on a whim
Drabbles | Snapshots, usually 100 words but occasionally more, and usually based on a prompt
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Note: Some stories include direct quotes from Austen's works, and there is the occasional nod to one or other of the adaptations.

Most Recent Posts:
A Great Coxcomb, Parts 1 - 5 (May-July 2017)
A Little Alteration: Mrs. Forster's Friend (October 2016)

Monday, November 2, 2015

A Friendly Game of Hide and Seek, Part 4


The Thirtieth of November


The Hursts' residence in Grosvenor Street, late morning
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Before you ask, no. I will not go with you to Mr. Darcy's house today. Do not raise the subject with me again. I am weary of it."

"It is not Mr. Darcy, but Miss Darcy to whom I think we owe a visit, dear sister."

"And how is that any better? I will not countenance your descending upon that young girl and frightening her with questions about the whereabouts of her brother. You know how timid she is! Besides, we do not know if Mr. Darcy has even informed her that he is in town."

"Of course he has! He is a better brother than Charles, who has yet to contact us."

"Why would Charles send a note or come here expecting to see us? He believes us to be in Hertfordshire!" Louisa was exasperated beyond bearing. Was Caroline's desperation making her daft?

"Oh, well...I suppose you are right about Miss Darcy. It is a herculean task to elicit more than a few words from the girl. Perhaps it is not worth the trouble."

Caroline's voice sounded a little too bright and her agreement rang a little too false in Louisa's opinion. If her sister made a fool of herself during her first week back in town, she would ruin her chances of becoming Mrs. Darcy, not that Louisa believed her chances were very great in any case. Had Mr. Darcy not removed himself as quickly as possible from their company and stayed away, she might have had hope. Caroline, on the other hand, was not likely to allow Mr. Darcy's recent behaviour to influence her own, but Caroline was always the more reluctant of the two of them to become resigned to reality.

"Admit it, Caroline: our plans have failed. It is Saturday. Charles is now either preparing to travel or already on his way back to Hertfordshire. He will return to Netherfield, and to Miss Bennet, and there is nothing we can do about it."

"I will never admit defeat!" Caroline insisted.

With that, Louisa shook her head and left the room.

Fitzwilliam Darcy's town residence, in the afternoon
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Still not here! What can you mean?"

"I mean, Madam, that Mr. Darcy is not at home."

"He has to be! This is the third time I have attempted to call on him today! First I cannot find Charles, and now Mr. Darcy is missing! They must be somewhere! London cannot have swallowed them up!"

The butler was tempted to point out that expressing her frustration in a loud voice on the steps of his employer's home was not perhaps the best choice, but he said nothing.

After some minutes of silence on his part, complaints and imprecations (rather shocking, actually) of varying volume on the part of the lady before him, a few apologetic glances from the maid that had accompanied her, and more than a few stares from passers-by, he offered what vague nothings he felt were particularly suited to the occasion—an offering that was barely heard, much less acknowledged or accepted—and very slowly and very quietly closed the door.

A little wilderness on Longbourn's lawn, in the afternoon
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Darcy looked about him as he took one of the paths through the charming grounds. Every thing appeared so calm here. Life inside Longbourn House, however, was any thing but calm!

After having revealed his feelings to Elizabeth, he had become the subject of her unrelenting scrutiny. Had he stared at her even half as much in the past weeks as she stared at him now? He could rarely look up and not find her observing him. Such a circumstance, while not unwelcome, was not exactly soothing.

He had also endured Mr. Collins's long-winded leave-taking, which he was sorry to think he might have extended by his own presence, if the excessive mention of his "noble aunt" and his "esteemed cousin" and repeated offers to convey messages to either were any indication. Whatever regret Darcy felt for his part in prolonging their suffering was lessened, however, by his conviction that his presence also kept Mrs. Bennet's complaints against her second-eldest child to a minimum. She had not yet forgiven her daughter for allowing Longbourn's heir to take his leave without having secured her hand and all the Bennet ladies' futures.

The youngest two girls, who were generally noisy, never seemed to run out of subjects to talk of, and this morning's events provided them an additional one. Sir William arrived after breakfast and announced his eldest daughter's engagement to Mr. Collins. Darcy had little time to triumph in having divined Mr. Collins's secret before he found himself endeavouring to assist Elizabeth and Miss Bennet in smoothing over the others' unfortunate responses to this intelligence. The house was still buzzing with the news.

In fact, things had been so busy that no one had had leisure to wonder why Darcy was still at Longbourn. That was convenient, for he wished very much to delay his departure. He would have been inclined to do so simply to enjoy Elizabeth's company, but it had occurred to him that his missing friend might pass him on the road if he were to leave for London just then. Bingley had only meant to stay in town a few days, and he was quick, if not as thorough as he ought to be, in dispatching business matters.

These few moments out of doors would have to suffice for the day's dose of peace and quiet, Darcy decided as he turned towards the house. Bingley, if not waylaid by his sisters, would soon be back. Considering the strength of Miss Bingley's deductive powers, her brother had every chance of remaining undetected by his relations and returning to Netherfield as planned.

Some elegant apartments near St. James's Square
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"How I wish..." began the young lady, putting away her letters. Her speech drifted off as she stared through the window, though there was nothing occurring outside to draw her attention.

"What is it that you wish?" her companion asked.

"Oh, I did not realise you heard me." Georgiana Darcy turned and smiled at Mrs. Annesley. "I was wishing we might live at my brother's house, or at Pemberley, rather than here."

"Are you displeased with the accommodations? I had thought you liked them."

"I do like them! It is just that I like spending time with Fitzwilliam more." Georgiana blushed. "I know I cannot expect to reside with him in town, and I know we are but a short distance away, but I miss his company."

"He is a very good brother."

"An excellent brother. But we have spent so much time apart." And not always to our benefit, she thought.

"You shall have Christmas together."

"Yes." Georgiana moved away from the window and sat near her companion. Mrs. Annesley was one of the very few people with whom she spoke freely. "Whenever he marries, we will be together more, like a family. I wonder if that will happen soon. I think...that is, I hope...he is considering marriage."

"To a lady you know? If you have merely heard rumours, my dear, I hope you will disregard them and allow your brother to inform you himself of such important news."

"No, I have heard nothing, and I have never met her. It is only a feeling I have." She had been so wrong about such things in her own life that she felt she had no right to speculate about her brother's interests, but she could not suppress her delight at the possibility. "He has written of her more than once," she explained, "and each time he has complimented something..."

"New?" guessed Mrs. Annesley, smiling.

"Yes, but...meaningful, for lack of a better word. He praises her kindness, her wit, her sensible nature. He not only admires her, but he respects her, I think. I have never heard him speak of an eligible young lady in that way before. She sounds like someone he could truly love." She thought it all very romantic but reasonable, just the combination that suited her brother. "If he will allow himself to do it," she mumbled.

"You think he may not?"

"She is a gentleman's daughter, but I doubt she is rich or well connected. I think if she were, he might already have offered for her."

"Ah. Those are things beyond our control."

Georgiana sighed. They were indeed. Mrs. Annesley, for instance, was a lovely, talented lady, and though widowed for some years, certainly young enough to think of marrying again and having her own family; however, she had no fortune with which to tempt a second gentleman to join her in matrimony.

Prudence had its place, but the sort of person one married was of greatest import. Had Mr. Wickham been a different man, a reliable and trustworthy man, Fitzwilliam may not have objected so strongly. That did not bear thinking of, except that she knew now what sort of gentleman to look for at some far-off, future time: one with virtues others could vouch for, with a character at least as handsome as his face.

Miss Elizabeth Bennet appeared, from her brother's report, to have a handsome character, and she hoped Fitzwilliam was fully aware of it.

"Beyond our control," Georgiana repeated, walking back to the window. "Still, I shall hope."

Longbourn, in the afternoon
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Mama, look! Mr. Bingley is come!"

The girls joined Miss Catherine at the window—all but Miss Bennet, who was detained by her mother. Mrs. Bennet suggested a few impractical and ill-advised alterations to her eldest daughter's dress, which said daughter bore with good grace.

Even Miss Mary seemed determined to get a glimpse of the approaching visitor. Darcy, perhaps due to the rush of relief he felt at Bingley's appearance, decided to indulge a playful impulse he was suppressing with some effort. He caught Miss Mary's eye and mouthed, "Wingley?" She looked confused. He was on the point of flapping his arms—discreetly, of course—but she suddenly looked abashed, and then she smothered a grin.

"It is indeed the elusive Mr. Bingley," Elizabeth remarked, having stepped back from the glass. Had she witnessed his odd moment of light-hearted...well, silliness was what it was, and he would not be surprised if she had. She was looking directly at him.

Darcy went to Elizabeth's side and was happy when she did not move away. She seemed to be warming to the idea that he admired her. He had taken her unawares the evening before, and he carried some blame for the fact that one of her favourite gowns had been splattered with tea, so he was trying to temper his eagerness with caution. He was finding it a challenge.

"Perhaps he will give another ball!" said Miss Catherine.

"Oh, he must!" said Miss Lydia. "I shall ask him again!"

"Do, Lydia!" Miss Catherine pressed her sister as if the child required any encouragement.

"Another ball would be just the thing!" Mrs. Bennet agreed. "Oh!" she suddenly cried, and she rushed from the room, voicing her need to speak to the cook about dinner.

"Lydia," Miss Bennet said as she joined the others at the window, "we must not presume upon Mr. Bingley's hospitality in that way."

"You know he will not refuse, Jane!"

"And you would not want him to!" added Miss Catherine.

Miss Bennet blushed a rosy pink and said not a word.

Miss Elizabeth seemed pleased at the sight. "I fear Lydia will follow through with her intention," she told Darcy. "Poor Mr. Bingley will have his home overrun by his neighbours once more."

Darcy took a step closer to his companion and leant down to speak so that the others would not hear. "And if he does," he said, pretending nonchalance when his lips brushed her ear the tiniest bit. He felt reckless and calculating and exhilarated all at once. "If he does, will you grant me the honour of the first two dances?"

Miss Elizabeth's face began to show a rosy pink blush that threatened to rival that of her elder sister. She nodded, and Darcy smiled with heartfelt delight.

Netherfield, not an hour earlier
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Caroline?"

Bingley's voice and footsteps echoed round the chilly halls.

The servants were scarce. It had taken an age for someone to greet him, and that someone had not even been the butler. It was as if he had not been expected back any day! In fact, the footman who finally appeared had been surprised to see him and said something about the party's having gone to town. He did not understand it. His sisters despised Meryton. As for their having gone to London, a conclusion supported by the empty corridors, that made even less sense.

"Louisa?"

Bingley peered into one of the parlours. Seeing no one, he quickly moved on.

He took a few steps and was tempted to go back and look into the room again. Had he just seen holland cloth covering two of the chairs? Perhaps in the dim light it had appeared so.

"Hurst?" he called out, climbing the stairs to the family rooms and coming back down again when he heard no movement or other sound.

And where was Darcy? Probably hiding in the library. He tried there without success.

"Darcy?"

That should have been loud enough, Bingley thought. They all should have come running by now.

But they had not.

Bemused, Bingley left the house and went to the stables. Surely Longbourn was not deserted. He could not wait to see Jane Bennet again.

Before riding off, he looked back at Netherfield and shook his head.

Where on earth was everyone?

The End

Sunday, November 1, 2015

A Friendly Game of Hide and Seek, Part 3


The Twenty-Ninth of November


On the path to Longbourn House, (so) late (in the) afternoon (as to be practically evening)
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Darcy looked up at the sky. "It is growing late. It would be foolish to return home tonight. I suppose I had better get a room at the inn."

"You will not go to Netherfield?" inquired Miss Bennet.

"Without Bingley there?"

"I am sure Mr. Bingley would want you to be comfortable," Miss Bennet said. "Not that I would presume to speak for him, but I cannot imagine he would object."

"Why, indeed, would he?" asked Miss Elizabeth. "If I understand the situation correctly, sir, Mr. Bingley is unaware that you ever left."

Darcy smiled at the arch reply. "You have a point, Miss Elizabeth. Both you and Miss Bennet put forth valid arguments."

"You are also welcome to return to the house with us," offered Miss Bennet. "We have room enough. And there is the matter of dinner."

The other girls looked up. "Yes," Miss Lydia said cheerily. "He can talk to Mr. Collins!"

"Mr. Collins pays more attention to the rest of us now he is angry with Lizzy," Miss Catherine explained without looking at him, as if she were a little afraid to meet his eye.

"Was that necessary, Kitty, Lydia?" Miss Elizabeth asked them, looking mortified.

"Angry?" Darcy wondered. "When I last saw Mr. Collins, he seemed quite pleased."

"La, he does not know!" Lydia twirled round to face him. "Mr. Collins proposed two days ago, and Lizzy refused him!"

Miss Elizabeth groaned.

Darcy began to consider this interesting information, but the girls' talk did not allow him to do so for more than a moment.

"Mama thinks that Mary might be persuaded to accept him," Miss Lydia added, "but even she finds him disagreeable, and she likes him better than any of us!"

"A propensity towards resentment cannot bode well for the marriage state," Miss Mary proclaimed in a sour tone.

"Yes, Mary," Elizabeth said, "I dare say you are right. And Mr. Darcy, who has lived in the world longer than we have, must be well acquainted with the drawbacks of having a resentful temper. So we need not elaborate on them for his sake." She turned to him then with traces of mortification still on her face. "You have probably heard more than you wanted of the adventures of the Bennet ladies, Mr. Darcy," she said by way of apology. "Perhaps sharing a dinner table with us would overtax you."

Darcy was tempted to take the way out she offered—particularly when he considered that he would be sharing that same table with Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins—but he was also hungry and tired, and he was curious to know why Miss Elizabeth was ready to dismiss him so easily. There was more than embarrassment behind her words.

"'Tis too bad Mr. Wickham will not be coming," said Miss Lydia. Miss Catherine joined in her lamentations, and they separated a little from the others as they discussed the merits of various redcoats.

Ah, Darcy thought. Being so preoccupied with finding Bingley had had the happy effect of putting Wickham's existence out of his head. He recalled that horrid conversation he and Miss Elizabeth had shared at the Netherfield ball. It had almost ruined their dance! "Has Mr. Wickham been a recipient of Longbourn's hospitality?" he asked.

"Just yesterday," said Miss Catherine.

"Lizzy introduced him to Mama and Papa," said Miss Lydia. "He is the finest man in regimentals I ever saw!"

Darcy was disgusted by the idea of more females falling prey to Wickham's charm while that man masqueraded as a protector of the populace. "I never would have supposed him to desire a military life," he said.

Miss Lydia pouted. "Lizzy did say he ought to have been a clergyman," she confirmed, "but I don't think there would have been any fun in it."

"Had he received the living he was promised," Miss Elizabeth said, "when it became vacant two years ago—"

"Lizzy!" admonished Miss Bennet.

Darcy was grateful for Miss Bennet's interruption. The edge in Miss Elizabeth's voice had threatened to incite his temper, and that would have done him no good. He took a calming breath, and when he felt himself to have achieved at least a semblance of tranquility, he spoke. "Do you refer to the living at Kympton, Miss Elizabeth, which Mr. Wickham told me some four years ago he did not want? He even signed papers to that effect and requested a substantial sum in lieu of it."

With the pause in his conversation, he had lost the attention of the younger girls, but he had that of the elder two. He certainly had Miss Elizabeth's, if her open-mouthed stare was anything to go by.

"He did not tell you of that transaction? I should not be surprised. Mr. Wickham appears to have an unreliable memory where money is concerned. It has ever been thus."

"Four years ago, did you say?" Miss Elizabeth asked.

"Yes. When he came of age, he delayed taking up a profession, which I thought due to the prospect of the Kympton living; once vacant, it likely would have been his had he taken orders. In addition, the frequent presents of money my father bestowed upon him, as well as his propensity to avoid settling debts, allowed him to live as he chose. It was after the elder Mr. Darcy and then the elder Mr. Wickham died that he asked for, and I gave him, three thousand pounds. He said he would not take orders but would study the law instead, and he was convinced the interest from the one thousand pounds my father had bequeathed him would not have been sufficient support."

"Four years," Miss Elizabeth repeated. "Three thousand pounds. No, four thousand pounds!"

"Yes."

"Yet two years ago..."

"He tried to claim the living despite all that, yes."

"And you denied him. Of course you would have. Any person of sense would have." Miss Elizabeth's expression changed again and again as she thought about what he had revealed. "He never even mentioned going into the law. What game is he playing, Mr. Darcy?"

Darcy opened his mouth to answer and closed it again. Miss Elizabeth was astute, and he could tell by the look on her face that she had begun to form her own conclusions regarding Mr. Wickham's character and intentions.

"I am afraid" he said, deliberately changing the subject as they drew near the door of the house, "I have interrupted your excursion. Did I prevent a walk to Meryton?"

"No," Miss Elizabeth said. "We had no particular destination in mind. We only meant to escape the house for a while. The day has been...somewhat trying."

As Darcy entered the foyer and heard Mrs. Bennet voice three separate and equally unreasonable complaints before he even set eyes on her, he began to see what Miss Elizabeth had meant.

The Hursts' residence in Grosvenor Street, early evening
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Caroline, I will not go out again today in search of Charles! I am tired! My feet are tired!"

"You must go with me!"

"No."

"If you do not, I will take Billings and go without you."

"Go where when you do not even know where Charles is? You will go nowhere tonight, with or without a maid."

"Night, do you call it? It is barely dark!"

Louisa peered at Caroline for a moment and then frowned, looking furious. "You will NOT call on Mr. Darcy in the evening BY YOURSELF."

"Louisa...!"

Louisa got up and left the room in a huff, and Hurst heard her admonish the butler not to allow the carriage to be ordered by anyone other than her husband, should he have need of it, for the remainder of the evening.

Hurst fully agreed with his wife. He had been tempted to mention that he might have heard Bingley at the club the previous evening, but that would hardly help matters. Even if Bingley had been there, he had no more idea than his wife and sister where the fellow was staying at present.

Besides, to all appearances, Caroline had become more concerned about Darcy than her brother. Almost every conversation he had heard about locating Charles had involved Caroline's suggestion of yet another visit to Darcy's house, even though the gentleman had not been at home to her when last she called there. The poor man had been hounded enough by the girl while at Netherfield. Hurst was not inclined to help along any scheme of Caroline's to disturb Darcy's peace. As he was certain any mention of the club as a point of interest would result in his sister's determination to run straight to Darcy for his opinion and aid even at this late hour and despite Louisa's edict, he decided against such a course.

"Caroline," he said, suddenly thinking of something.

"Brother, please do not bother. What have you to say that I want to hear?"

Hurst disregarded her prickly mood, for his own mood was lightened considerably by what had just occurred to him. "It seems you would have done better to have remained in Hertfordshire."

"I knew you would have nothing good to say right now! How can you claim such a thing?"

"Had you stayed quietly at home, Charles would have returned soon enough from his business. And, furthermore," he added with a smile, "you would have enjoyed the uninterrupted company of Mr. Darcy and not had to resort to seeking him out at all hours with no consideration for propriety like a common.... Well."

Caroline let loose an angry shriek, which caused Hurst's restraint to falter, and his chuckle followed her out of the room as she fled from his sight.

A parlour (with windows that were not full west) in Longbourn House, early evening
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Miss Bennet informed her mother that she and her sisters had encountered Mr. Darcy on their walk, and she had invited him to join them for dinner.

The mistress of Longbourn barely mumbled his name and nodded her head before blurting, "But where is Mr. Bingley?"

It appeared Mrs. Bennet was not going to wish him a good evening. She rather looked as if she were wishing him to the devil. After the way the rest of the day had gone, Darcy should have expected that.

The errant hostess really seemed to be waiting for an answer, however, so he gave one. "How do you do, Mrs. Bennet? I believe Mr. Bingley is still in London."

The way she glared at him, he half-expected her to ask why he had presumed to appear in Bingley's place.

"Mr. Bingey either provided his family with inaccurate information regarding his choice of hotel, or he changed his plans once he arrived. I took it upon myself to try to locate him," Darcy said in order to explain his presence in the neighbourhood, "and in so doing, I retraced his steps. There is every indication he is in town, and Miss Bennet was kind enough to give me a few ideas of where to seek him out once I return."

Several minutes of explanations and exclamations later, Mrs. Bennet's satisfaction in having her own Jane recognised as an authority on Mr. Bingley's habits proved almost as unpleasant as her previous discontent.

There was still dinner to be endured. Darcy wondered how he would fare when Mr. Bennet's mocking smiles and derisive comments were served up alongside the courses, as he doubted not they would be.

Thinking of it that way, aside from the sheer volume and number of voices, and the startling possibility that he could be the subject of ridicule or censure, he decided the evening should not differ much from one at the Hursts' residence.

Mr. Collins, at least, was still out. Darcy thanked heaven for small favours.

In a house in Harley Street, evening
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"You cannot be ready to retire for the evening! Why, we have not yet had dinner!"

"I have no appetite."

"My dear brother, whatever is the matter with you?"

"Charles Bingley is back in town. I saw him with my own eyes! I shall be cast into the shade once again. My cravat will be declared less fashionably arranged than his, I shall lose to him at hazard, and once Miss Carmichael discovers he has returned, she will no longer favour me with her smiles. My life is ruined."

"You are being silly! Mr. Bingley is the most amiable of gentlemen. He would never—"

"Not you, too!"

With that, the young man stomped up the stairs and went straight to bed.

In the dining-room at Longbourn
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Mr. Collins was back. Oh, yes. Darcy's growing headache was testament to that. The man had arrived just as the rest of the party went in to dinner. He had made ample conversation during the meal, and he had occasionally elicited a polite response from his listeners. Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth in particular were too well bred to ignore him altogether. Now that the ladies had left the gentlemen to themselves, Darcy was the parson's only audience, for Mr. Bennet did not attend to one word in two hundred that proceeded from his cousin's mouth.

Not only was Mr. Collins back, but he was full to bursting with news of some kind. Of that, Darcy was sure. Exactly what news, and why Mr. Collins imagined him at all interested in it, remained a mystery.

If Darcy had to guess, the man had got himself engaged. He made many not-so-veiled references to happy meetings in Hunsford and at Rosings, how man should not be alone, the great effort required in preparing one's house for a wife and family, and many more things than Darcy cared to recall at present. The man had no subtlety. Neither could Darcy detect much in the way of imagination. Therefore, he concluded Mr. Collins had deceived himself into believing Miss Elizabeth would relent and have him at last, or he had somehow found another prospective bride and secured her hand some forty-eight hours after his failed attempt. If the latter were true, Darcy did not know whether to be impressed or horrified.

Mr. Collins nattered on and on and on.

Horrified, he decided. Every feeling revolted.

At a soirée in Hill Street
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
“Say, Bingley!” called out Mr. Westmore.

“That is not Mr. Bingley! 'Tis Mr. Carlisle,” said Mr. Jones.

“I know it is Bingley!” countered Mr. Westmore.

“Well, I know,” said Mr. Carlisle, who did not sound like Mr. Bingley at all as he turned and addressed a suddenly red-faced Westmore, “Mr. Jones has the right of it!”

Longbourn's parlour, after dinner
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Miss Bennet must have noticed Darcy's harassed look upon entering the parlour with Mr. Collins at his heels, for after pouring him a cup of coffee, she took pity on him and engaged Mr. Collins's conversation toward herself. Bless that angel, Darcy thought, and he chose a seat to his liking, which by definition meant it was near Elizabeth's.

Darcy had done some thinking in the last several minutes before entering the parlour, whenever his brain could shield itself from Mr. Collins's drivel, and he had come to a few conclusions.

One: A young lady could not reasonably be blamed for being connected to silliness and vulgarity; she had no control over such a circumstance, and it simply would not be fair to hold it against her. No man with a shred of compassion could hold the presence of Mr. Collins's branch in the family tree against anyone.

Two: As enthusiastic a matchmaker as Mrs. Bennet was, she had not once, in all his time in Hertfordshire, thrown her girls in his way or so much as hinted that she wanted him for a son-in-law, even though it was well known that his fortune was much larger than Bingley's. Mrs. Bennet still seemed keen on gaining Bingley as a relation, but her eldest daughter had shown her attachment to Bingley to be genuine. Furthermore, Miss Elizabeth had been allowed to turn down an advantageous proposal, one that would have kept Longbourn in the family—not the most prudent move, but not a mercenary one, either. Therefore, Darcy concluded her relations were not as scheming as he had made them out to be.

Three: It had been ridiculous for him to believe he would forget Elizabeth Bennet simply by leaving Hertfordshire. At the first opportunity, he had come right back to her. He admitted to himself that while the idea of finding his friend had appealed to him, what drove him to trace Bingley's path all the way to Longbourn had been less a penchant for thoroughness and more the promise of seeing those fine eyes sparkle in his direction once more.

Meanwhile, beside him, Elizabeth sipped her tea in silence, a quizzical expression on her face.

"Are you well, Miss Elizabeth? You appear perfectly well, but you seem deep in thought."

"If I seem deep in thought, it is because you seem different somehow, Mr. Darcy."

"In what way?"

"I suppose there are two ways to answer that question."

"Only two?"

"At least two, but only two that I will consider for the present. If I were to reply as a demure maiden ought, I would murmur something apologetic, sufficiently complimentary of you and disparaging of myself, and likely unintelligible in the bargain, rather than telling you what I really think." Elizabeth took another sip of her tea.

"Then I would be none the wiser. What is the other option, if I may ask?"

"You may. Well, if I were to be impertinent..."

"And are you not often impertinent?" he interrupted, hearing the smile in his own voice. He hoped she heard it, too.

"I cannot deny it, sir. I would say, then, that your pride is surely under good regulation, for you do not appear to be wishing yourself away after having spent hours in the company of the humble Bennets. I cannot imagine what appeal we hold for you." She took a longer drink this time and peered at him over the rim of her cup.

"You are certain you cannot?" Darcy said in a warm, deep tone. For extra measure, he gave Elizabeth a serious—and, he hoped, unmistakable—look.

The effect was immediate: Elizabeth's eyes widened in surprise, and she choked on her tea.

Part 4