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In search of happiness

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Chapter 1

Men would not live long in society if they were not the mutual dupes of each other. - Françoise VI de la Rochefoucault

Early spring 1811:

'What a lovely evening, do you not agree, Mr Darcy?' Caroline Bingley inquired, looking up at him through darkened eyelashes, heavy with the charcoal she had used, while next to her, her older sister pushed her décolletage just a little bit further into his line of vision.
In Fitzwilliam Darcy's opinion, the evening was tolerable at best and even that just barely. The ballroom was a crush of people drenched in heavy perfume and dressed to impress while their faces were nothing but pretty masks, awkwardly painted and expressionless. Empty smiles and hollow chuckles, affected laughter and false joviality were all around him. It was a farce, a well-practised piece on the stage that called itself London society. It was also a cattle-market, where young women were paraded around like horsemeat to be given away to the highest bidder. Darcy was generally considered a very eligible bachelor, though if he were honest, he had little inclination marrying any of the young ladies he had seen so far in the eight years since he himself had entered the salons, dining parlours and ballrooms of town.
'What do you think of Miss Haversham?' the younger of the two sisters carried on, even though he had not deigned reply to her first question.
Following the lady's gaze, he spied a girl of at most sixteen with an expression that spoke of the pressure she was put under, presumably by her parents. Intimidated summed it up best. Her mother, judging by the striking similarity of the two women, stood next to her, obviously giving her even more instructions while glancing rather pointedly in his direction. Naturally, considering his wealth and connexions. On top of that he was not bad looking either, though in the habit of frowning a good deal and making him appear rather forbidding. Darcy was used to the scheming matchmakers who called themselves quite harmlessly “mother” or “mama” and they had to be kept at bay, after all.
'She is tolerable, I suppose, but not handsome enough to tempt me, Miss Caroline.'
Both Miss Bingleys gave a tinkling laugh and the elder cried out with undisguised glee: 'Oh, Mr Darcy, you are too cruel! But I have to say I do agree. She certainly is quite plain and she is so very artless and without any style and stance; besides, her father is said to have been in trade until very recently when he came into an inheritance from an uncle or so, I cannot remember the particulars. Not that it matters. One never knows with these upstarts, does one, now?'
It was a little surprising to Darcy that his two companions were want to ignore the fact, that their brother's and with that their own fortune had been acquired as much by trade as that of the Havershams if not more so, for they had not had a wealthy relative who had left them his fortune. No, their means were all down to their late father's hard work and wise investments that had now made his children independent. Not that it would have mattered to him in the slightest anyway. Darcy preferred to judge a man by his character and not by his profession (or lack thereof) and from what he had heard, the old Mr Bingley had been as upright a man as any: educated, friendly, and wise. His son had long since become one of Darcy's closest and most trusted friends. Besides, after an evening spent with either of the two Miss Bingleys always close by, artlessness did not sound bad at all. His best friend's sisters were anything but artless. Yes, they thought they hid their designs well and thought that they could fool anyone into believing them sincere and knowledgeable, yet, their education extended no further than what was necessary to build a glittery façade behind which was nothing but vacuous complacency and idle vanity. If Miss Haversham was tolerable, the Miss Bingleys were not. If he was not tempted by the young and frightened looking girl with her delicate features, he was even less so by the painted and gaudily dressed women by his side and yet, as long as they were close by, it kept the others in check. In short, it was a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils; a matter of better the devil you know than the devil you don’t, that he bore with their company. That, and he did it for their brother's sake.

'You are very dull this evening, Mr Darcy. Is something the matter?'
As far as he could discern, he behaved just as he did at any other ball he had the duty to attend. When he had last gone to a ball for pleasure, Darcy was not quite sure. It must have been years since.
'I thank you for your concern, but let me assure you, I am perfectly fine, Miss Caroline.'
Or at least he would be if she deigned to stop trying to rouse his attentions. Shifting a little to the left, he remedied the fact that the young lady had come almost indecently close to him. With a small sigh, hardly suppressed but skilfully disguised as a chuckle, Darcy glanced towards the dancefloor where the two ladies’ brother was presently dancing his second set with a pretty young lady with golden blond hair, a rosy complexion and a fine figure that any man would find worth looking at. But throughout the evening her eyes had stayed as vacant as those of any other woman present, the smile merely dabbed onto her face for decoration, not from enjoyment. After eight years, Darcy himself did not bother to smile any longer. A smile in the ballrooms across town meant nothing; unless one happened to be Charles Bingley. It was presumably this that had endeared Darcy to his friend in the first place. An open soul, cheerful and friendly without pretence and devoid of falsehood. No traits that either of his sisters had inherited.

Thankfully he was presently relieved of the presence of the older of them by a young and heavy built man with a pasty face asking her for the next two dances and as it was, she was not yet engaged. Since she had declined two dances already, it left Louisa Bingley no choice but to accept the man's hand for the next set unless she wanted to forgo all dancing for the remainder of the evening and though she was, in general, a more languorous and complaisant creature than her younger sister, she was nonetheless intent to marry within the next twelve-month, come what may. In short, she had to dance. Caroline Bingley, on the other hand, had deftly declined the third man in a row already and as the consequence of which, Darcy had to suffer her presence for yet another indeterminable period of time unless he managed to come up with an excuse to leave the ball there and then. But with both her brother and her sister dancing, it would be impolite, to say the least, to leave her to her own devices.
So it was fortunate that this was the second set Bingley had danced with his latest infatuation and even more so that the dance was about to end, the other couples already gathering to join or replace the current dancers. In a few moments, he would be free to leave and leave he would; unless Bingley had already engaged himself for yet another dance, of course. One could never know, for Charles Bingley, unlike himself, was an avid dancer.

However, as it was, for the first time this evening, Dame Fortune smiled down on him. Not five minutes later his friend took his place beside his sister. Fitzwilliam Darcy was free to leave early as he did at most balls. He had made an appearance to keep up appearances and that would have to suffice. At least for today.

Ah, a glass of port, a few pages in a book, and the evening would not be completely wasted after all.

 

Chapter 2

It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society. - Krishnamurti

His next engagement was two days later and fortunately, it was only for a dinner at the Brandons', people with at least some degree of sophistication and taste. The one downside was, however, that they had three unmarried daughters of marriageable age and no sons. Their dowries were said to be an impressive fifteen-thousand pounds each and yet, there was little else to recommend them. They were like all the other girls Darcy had met over the years: rather shallow, with no opinion of their own and their accomplishments, though manifold were nothing out of the common way. The eldest played the pianoforte, her sister the harp and the third the harp-lute. All of them sang, drew and excelled in watercolours as much as the next girl not suffering from colour-blindness. They diligently embroidered cushions, arranged flowers and netted purses – at least when they were not out to take tea in one of the many fashionable tea rooms before going for yet another appointment at one or another modiste.

Yes, to say that eight years of society had made him somewhat cynical was nothing but an accurate observation. Fitzwilliam Darcy had to admit as much himself. How his friend Bingley could find so much enthusiasm to attend pretty much every single ball or dinner was beyond him, but then again, with a pretty face, obliging manners and a becoming dress his friend was a lost man. For Charles Bingley, the task of finding a wife amongst the young ladies of the “Ton” had not yet lost its charm.

While his valet tied his cravat Darcy wondered if perhaps he was not too fastidious in his demands for a wife. He was seven and twenty, a man in his prime, master of a vast estate, proprietor of an impressive townhouse situated in one of the most fashionable streets of Mayfair, and with an income of ten thousand a year. He was in want of a wife and still, not one woman had ever managed to catch his attention for any length of time and that time was usually the duration of a dance, a set at most.

Slipping into his greatcoat and taking his hat, Darcy climbed into his waiting carriage that would bring him no further than two streets from his own abode. Yet, London, with its quirk for uncomfortable drizzle lived up to its reputation. The rain had set in a couple of days ago and never since stopped, and though Darcy much preferred to walk, it would not do if he arrived at his host's house all wet and rumpled. He would have to postpone his walk until after dinner. It was but a small sacrifice and at any rate, a walk after a rich dinner was the best way to prevent indigestion, was it not?

'Ah, good evening, Mr Darcy,' he was greeted by his host five minutes later. 'It is so very kind of you to accept our invitation to such a humble party as ours this evening.'

Well, definitions of “humble” seemed to differ, for Darcy would not have called a dinner for more than twenty people much of a humble affair. Though granted, compared to some functions he had attended, it probably was. It was a matter of context he supposed.

'Mr Brandon,' he bowed in return, handing his hat, coat, gloves and cane to the butler who had opened the door. 'The pleasure is all mine.'

'You are too good, Sir.'

'Not at all. It is always a joy to be able to spend an evening with such good friends and in such good company.'

That technically was not an untruth, it was a joy to spend an evening in good company with witty conversation in a relaxed atmosphere, just that society had so little of either. The talk would stay shallow, to relax would be impossible and as for the company being good, that could only be said because such company as this was in fact, not bad. But there was a distinction between good company and not merely bad company as far as Darcy was concerned. Not two months into the Season and he already wished himself back at Pemberley. Why did this time of year have to be so very tedious?

But there was nothing he could do about it, as little as he liked to admit it even to himself, he did need a wife, if only to produce an heir and unless he would give in to his aunt's demands and marry his cousin, he would have to find one amongst the women in town. As much as he loved his relatives, wedding his cousin was not an option for him. Anne de Bourgh, he was sorry to say, was one of the dullest creatures he had ever met and he was glad to say, that she had just as little inclination in marrying him as he had in marrying her.

The parlour was already crammed with people engaged in conversation, and bracing himself to talk about the weather for the next half hour, Darcy duly joined them.

'It is a pity that it has been raining for so long now, is it not?' a Mr Dawson approached him without so much as a greeting unless the slightest inclination of the head counted as such.

They had been introduced only the other week, but already he distrusted the man. There was something sly and unbecoming about the man who strongly reminded him of his old childhood friend, George Wickham. But now there was a man he would rather not think about. Though one thing he had to give Wickham, he was a good conversationalist, he would have loved a gathering like this and would have excelled in charming everybody with his easy ways and pleasant countenance. That he was a dissolute and conniving man mattered little as long as one made good conversation.

'Yes, very tedious, I have to agree. One does not quite know what to do all day long being ensconced in the house all of the time,' Darcy answered, though in fact the weather had bothered him little.

There had been matters of business to attend to and when that had been taken care of and after a little exercise, he had made himself comfortable in his library to read, a pastime he had little time for in summer when his estate took much of this attention.

'Indeed, indeed. A ride in the park has been made near impossible, has it not? Not that one would meet many people. All one would achieve with such foolishness is being soaked through and getting one's clothes dirty to a point where one is not fit to be seen.'

Darcy had actually enjoyed the near solitary rides through Hyde Park and down Rotten Row. But true enough, he had hardly seen a soul, save for a couple of grooms exercising their masters' horses and he had looked rather grubby by the time he had returned home. The loose soil of the bridle path had turned to mud and riding at a faster pace than a simple trot did result in specks of dirt upon one's boots, breeches and even sleeves.

'On the other hand, this weather makes these sort of gatherings all the more welcoming,' he replied instead, and even while he did so, his companion had spotted yet another acquaintance and was already in the process of turning around, leaving Darcy to his own devices once again.

'You look lost, cousin,' a voice piped up behind him, making him involuntarily smile.

'Fitzwilliam! I did not expect to see you here.'

'Nor I you. Have you decided to be sociable at last? Or is duty calling you to battle?'

'Decidedly the latter,' Fitzwilliam Darcy said with some wryness.

'I thought as much. You know, you should relax more often. A wife should do the trick. - And yes, it is my father's opinion I am repeating there,' the young colonel grinned.

Richard Fitzwilliam was the younger son of an earl, the son of Darcy's maternal uncle and since his own dear father had died four years ago, joint guardian to his younger sister Georgiana, presently at school near Bath.

'And that was just what I thought. How is the Earl? How is your mother?'

There was no need to inquire after his other cousin, Fitzwilliam's older brother or his wife for Darcy had met them that very morning in passing, and though it had been a brief encounter, it had been very clear that both the young Lord Everston and his wife were both healthy and happy – and perfectly unconcerned by the weather.

'Oh, they are well, though the Countess has suffered from a “severe cold” of late.'

Or in short, his aunt had no wish to go into society for whatever reason, presumably because for once she had been on the receiving end of gossip. It happened to the best of families on occasion. One little faux-pas in dress could lead to amusement for a couple of days until it was another lady's turn to show a lack of taste and be laughed at by those she had derided just the previous day.

'I hope she will recover soon,' Darcy remarked, though knowing full well that with that he did nothing more than participate in a farce.

'I think she will, Darcy. By the by, I have heard you are courting the younger Miss Bingley? When am I to congratulate you?'

'Miss Ca.. Ca...- Caroline?'

It had been a while since Darcy had been so flummoxed by a remark that he literally stammered. But where did that rumour, perfectly false, of course, suddenly come from? He and courting Caroline Bingley? Most certainly not!

'Yes, I heard it at White's this morning and I have to say, it took me somewhat by surprise. I never had much of an idea you cared for that woman.'

'I do not. Or at least in no other way than that she is the sister of a friend of mine.'

'And yet, I heard that you basically spent a whole evening with her by your side. Darcy, do be careful, I know you are eager to keep the ladies at bay but to resort to using another young lady as deterrent has its dangers,' his cousin continued with some seriousness. 'You know how quickly people talk, and with you being seven and twenty and unmarried still...'

He need not say more.

'I did, Fitzwilliam, and it was no pleasure, I assure you. However, there is little I can do to avoid her. She is, after all, Bingley's sister and as it stands, I have been invited by him to join their party on the morrow to go and see an exhibition. What I have most certainly not done, is encourage her in any way.'

'I would not have thought you had, but perhaps you should distance yourself from that family for a while to show there is nothing to the gossip.'

He would do just that. Tomorrow he would go to the museum with his friends and then... - well, what then? He could actually do with a little break. A little rest from the treadmill of sheer endless social obligations. But where should he go? If he went to the continent it would be a change of scene, but not necessarily of society. He would have to think about it, but for now, there was little to do than to follow the call for dinner and march into the dining room.

Two full courses of fairly decent food, dull conversation and awkward smiles from across the table where the eldest Miss Brandon had been placed by obvious design. Nothing out of the ordinary. The leaving of the ladies while the gentlemen stayed behind for cigars and port was the highlight of the meal.

'I heard you have an estate in Derbyshire?' a man unbeknownst to him approached Darcy.

Oh, but he did know him, at least by sight. It had been the pasty-faced man who had asked Louisa Bingley for a set just before Darcy himself had left the last ball.

'I have indeed, Mr?'

'I am so sorry, Mr Darcy, I have only just arrived, after attending a dinner at Lord Fairbank's house, you know? Very noble family. Anyway, my name, Sir, is Walter Hurst. How do you do?' the man simply introduced himself, reaching out a sluggish hand that went perfectly d'accord with the man's drawling tone of voice.

'How do you do, Sir.'

Already he had no opinion of the man, but since they were now introduced, he could scarcely avoid speaking to him.

'Then I take it you know how to deal with gardeners, Mr Darcy? Miss Bingley, I believe, mentioned that you had extensive grounds and the most beautiful gardens she has ever seen.'

'Gardeners?' Darcy once again more stammered than actually asked from sheer perplexity.

Oddly enough, the one time Bingley and his sisters had visited him at Pemberley for a week before carrying on to Scarborough both ladies had determined that the park had looked far too natural and could do with a bit of artifice here and there and practically everywhere. What were gardens without a hermitage or a folly? Without a Grecian temple or an impressive fountain? And the lake... - No, better not think about Pemberley at this moment.

'Yes. You see, I have only recently purchased a house in town and the gardens, quite small, of course, do need a lot of tending to be of any lady's liking. But the man who has seen to the grounds seems unable to think of anything but lawns and hedges.'

'If that is the case, I recommend you consult Mr Rapton or Mr Dawlish. The latter is perhaps less renown, but I have to admit that I myself much prefer his style.'

And not only that, Darcy doubted that Humphrey Rapton would concern himself with any garden smaller than ten acres unless his client happened to be an Earl at the very least.

'Do you, indeed? I have never heard of the man. But perhaps, you could have a look?'

'I am afraid not as I am currently engaged in preparations for a journey I intend to take and which I have planned for a while now.'

What had possessed him to say that was beyond him, but all of a sudden, what had been nothing but a vague idea, had manifested itself out of thin air. Yes, he would go travelling... - no actually, he would leave society for a couple of weeks and Mr Hurst, of all people, had just given him an idea.

'Oh, a Grand Tour?' the man, unaware of his involuntary helpfulness, asked familiarly.

'Yes.'

Well, not quite, but to voice what his real intentions were would raise more than an eyebrow, no it presumably would cause a scandal and possibly have him end his days in Bedlam.

The rest of the evening, Darcy spent deep in thought, and as was his habit, excused himself as soon as was possible without giving too much offence. Not that he was too fazed by it if he did, but as with everything, it was a matter of not overdoing things. The walk home was a relief. To breathe the fresh air, humid and cold this early in the year and despite the denseness, it always possessed in town, was more than welcome after the increasing stickiness of the over-crowded salon and the noise from the entertainment that had been provided by the ladies as soon as the gentlemen had joined them. He liked music, but where conversation and singing competed with one another it was bound to quickly turn into an ante-chamber of hell.

 

Chapter 3

I think we are becoming the best informed society that has ever died of ignorance. – Reuben Blades

The idea that had come to him the night before sounded all the more tempting as he strolled through the latest exhibition of one of the many private museums in London, once again with his friend's sisters on either arm, while Bingley himself attended the very lady that had captured his heart three nights ago. Knowing his friend, he would soon enough come to his senses. Charles Bingley was by no means fickle, but easy to impress nonetheless. Although Miss Catrell was pretty enough, as soon as she opened her mouth, the picture of near perfection was somewhat disturbed. Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses1... - A prime example.

'Why would anyone mummify a cat?' Louisa Bingley suddenly asked, staring with incredulity and disgust at the shrivelled creature in the cabinet before them.

'Because for the Egyptians cats were holy creatures,' he answered flatly.

They had all received a neatly printed guide at the entrance that among some truths, in general, was nothing but the fantastic nonsense of an overly imaginative mind. Still, ever since Napoleon, though rightfully perceived as an arch-enemy, had tried to take over Egypt some ten years ago, interest in this ancient culture had spawned all over Europe and it was some achievement to not have read at least one extract if not a whole book that covered the topic. Miss Bingley had obviously excelled.

'How can a cat be holy?' Caroline Bingley promptly chimed in as if intent to outshine her sister in regards to her ignorance. 'It is nothing but a lowly animal.'

'For you that might very well be so, Miss Caroline, but the Egyptians have worshipped many animals as manifestations of their gods. The ibis, the crocodile, the cat, the ram as well as the bull are but few that come to mind.'

'You are so well educated, Mr Darcy...' Miss Bingley all but fawned. 'How do you know all these things?'

'I read.'

'But, of course,' her younger sister picked up the conversation he dearly wished to end in order to actually be able to look at the exhibits, for they were rather interesting, despite the pathetic attempt of a brevier. 'You always buy books and on so many varying topics, it always baffles me. Then again, the library at Pemberley is an impressive one.'

'It has been the work of many generations, I should think it well stocked and extensive.'

'And yet, you have added so many volumes yourself. You always seem to buy books.'

'With so many works of quality published in recent years, whether it be literature, history or science, I would be negligent if I did not. Never before has there been a time when knowledge was so abundant and new discoveries made so frequently. One would be considered careless not to make the most of it.'

'Oh, let me assure you, no-one could blame you of negligence or carelessness, Mr Darcy!' Miss Caroline cried out, ignoring his little jab even if she had realised that it had been one.

'I wonder why they depicted people so awkwardly,' Louisa Bingley sighed, pointing at a stela with elaborate hieroglyphics carved into it. 'And they are always shown from the side, never from the front, it seems.'

'If you look at medieval paintings, you will find that they are rather one dimensional as well. Styles change and differ from culture to culture. I dare say it is futile to ask why and safe to assume that in a couple of hundred years people will look at our culture wondering what we were thinking when decorating our houses with a Grecian style frieze and Roman columns.'

'But that would be obvious, surely. Because it is tasteful, of course,' the lady on his other arm threw in.

'And perhaps that is just what the Egyptians thought, that it is tasteful to depict a person from his or her side instead of from the front.'

'Now that is nonsense, Mr Darcy!'

'It might very well be, but it could also be accurate for all we know.'

'Oh, shame on you, Mr Darcy! You are teasing us.'

Teasing either of the Miss Bingley's was the last thing on his mind, getting away from them was decidedly closer to the truth.

'And, Darcy, what do you say to this marvellous exhibition?'

Bingley, sans his companion, had finally re-appeared, all smiling and bubbly as always.

'It is interesting,' was all his reply.

'And, have you gotten through it yet?'

They had not, nor, at this point had he much inclination to do so. Again his mind strayed towards the outrageous plan he had hatched the night before and thankfully Miss Bingley then yawned claiming to be in need of a refreshment, which was just as well.

'It is so very interesting, but I have to admit that I have had quite enough for one day. There is so much to see, one can be quite overwhelmed by it!'

Her sister seconded her and ten minutes later the whole party had taken a seat in the tea room across the street from the museum. The time had come to break the news to his friends.

'It might surprise you, Bingley, but I have decided to go on a tour.'

'Oh, to Egypt?' Miss Caroline asked interestedly, while her brother seemed thoroughly perplexed.

'Perhaps,' Darcy blatantly lied.

Well, he could hardly tell her that he fully intended to stay in the country, just not as one Fitzwilliam Darcy Esquire.

'So suddenly?' Bingley, at last, managed to inquire. 'When are you going to leave? I never knew you had much inclination for travelling, Darcy. Not abroad at any rate.'

 

'I had not, and yet, of late I have thought of how much I would miss if I did not. Books and pictures are all nice and well, but they are nothing compared to the actual experience of seeing the ancient monuments for oneself. I am quite determined. As soon as I have settled my business affairs, I will be off.'

'And for how long?'

'I do not know. Does one ever?'

Charles Bingley only shrugged, his brows knitted. His friend was not a fool, he knew that something was afoot and yet, thankfully he did not pursue the matter. Not for the time being.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

 

A true friend is never getting in the way unless you are happen to going down. - Arnold Glasow

 

'Now, Darcy, would you kindly tell me what is going on? It is not like you to just go on a journey.'

It had been a matter of course that his friend would appear on his doorstep the very next morning, though the concerned look on his face was somewhat unsettling.

'Nothing is going on, Bingley. I just decided to travel, that is all.'

'Are you ill? Have you committed an offence and need to run? It all comes a bit suddenly. I mean, I have never heard you even mention a journey before yesterday.'

'Neither, I assure you. I am in perfect health and I have not committed any crime, nor caused a scandal. All I want is a little bit of peace and quiet, nothing more. I will be leaving in a couple of days.'

'So soon? Are you trying to escape the Season?'

'Yes, one could say so,' Darcy admitted with disarming openness. 'I have long thought of how tedious it is to constantly socialise, especially when one is just game for the “matchmaking mamas” and their daughters. I am tired, Bingley, tired of putting on a mask every evening to please the crowds. For weeks now I have felt a desire to just turn my back and I guess I would have already done so, were it not for Georgiana.'

'Now is that not a bit of an exaggeration, old friend? Is it not enjoyable to spend an evening with friends?'

'With friends, yes, but not necessarily with acquaintances. I am seven and twenty, Bingley, and the expectations everybody seems to have for me are weighing me down. I just need a little time to myself, be it alone or amongst people who see and value me for who I am and not for my wealth and status. It is a sham Bingley. All this is a sham and I am heartily sick and tired of it. I have grown so cynical to an extent where I hardly recognise myself anymore.'

Understanding lit up in his friend's eyes. Though possessing a completely different disposition, this did not mean Charles Bingley did not know that for his friend an evening engagement was more of a chore than the pleasure it was for himself.

'And so you are travelling to Egypt?'

'No, I will stay in the country.'

'Hiding away at Pemberley?'

'Of course not! It would be the first place people would presume to find me. What I intend on doing is... - different.'

Darcy hesitated. Was it safe to confess to his friend that what he was about to do was dress up as a labourer and just live a simple life for a couple of months? Yes, it was. Bingley would neither betray his trust nor would he judge him for it.

'And your responsibilities?' was indeed all his friend's reaction.

'I am just now busy sorting everything out. My cousin will take care of all matters regarding Georgiana, the letter to my steward is already written, and as soon as I know where I will stay, I will send on my address to both of them.'

'And what about me?'

'Oh, do not worry, old friend, I will write to you as well as long as you promise me to answer in an intelligible manner.'

'That I cannot promise, but I will at least try. Perhaps you could add false missives of your journey in case somebody asks me how you are faring,' Bingley now grinned. 'You know, I am starting to agree with you, you do need some time away and once you return, you might even enjoy the hubbub of society again. You already seem more relaxed than I have seen you in weeks.'

That he would ever truly enjoy his social tasks Darcy dared to doubt, but at least he would be more able to tolerate its follies.

'Thank you, Bingley. I appreciate your discretion and understanding.'

'What are friends for, eh Darcy? If there is anything you need help with, let me know.'

'I will.'

'Good. Then I will leave you to your preparations and carry on with my seemingly endless search for an estate of my own. My sisters are quite insistent I purchase one just like our father had intended. Louisa is all for a house close to town while Caroline insists that there is no better county than Derbyshire.'

If Caroline Bingley had been sincere, which he doubted, he would be inclined to agree with her.

'And what do you want?'

'If only I knew, Darcy. But as long as the neighbourhood is a good and lively one, it does not really matter where it is located, I suppose.'

This statement made Darcy chuckle. His friend indeed was a man as easy to please as that. How he still managed to be so sensible was a mystery, but somehow Bingley did manage to combine perfect amiability with sense and on top of that made it look as if it was the easiest thing on Earth.

 

Chapter 5

It is not easy to walk alone in the country without musing upon something. - Charles Dickens

 

Five days later, Darcy's carriage stopped in front of his house in Mayfair, trunks strapped to the back of the chaise to give the right impression of him taking off towards the continent, though in truth they contained nothing but a couple of papers and letters to be delivered to his housekeeper and steward at Pemberley. The only things he would take on his “adventure”, as he had begun to call it, was a small knapsack containing some paper, a pencil and a penknife for writing letters, a spare shirt and stockings, second-hand shaving utensils and a comb, as well as a small sum of money, a battered hymn book, after all one never knew, a slice of pork pie and a bottle of admittedly rather stale ale.

The clothes he would change into, which he had bought at a dingy slop-shop in a decidedly dodgier part of town, were neatly folded on the rear-facing bench opposite of him. A pair of shabby looking breeches, a darned shirt with a tattered collar, a plain woollen waistcoat with mismatching buttons, a patched coat, frayed scarf as well as rough-looking stockings, a pair of practical boots, and a broad-rimmed felt hat none of which fit him all too well. Yet that was the whole point of it. What labourer could afford clothes other than second hand? At least his valet had seen to the rags being well-cleaned, so well actually that Darcy had needed to get them reasonably dirty again in the dead of night.

He had also not shaved for the last two days. If his servants were wondering about his neglected appearance, they did not give it away and with the excuse of being too busy, he had not received any visitors except for Bingley and his cousin Richard. The stubble on his chin felt somewhat weird, but it gave him a surprisingly rogue appearance especially with his now un-styled hair that naturally curled around his ears and the back instead of being neatly combed and put in place with a dab of pomade.

As the carriage drove off, Darcy leaned back into the comfortable seat one last time for several weeks to come. Just a few more moments of rest before he would lower the blinds and change into what still was nothing but a costume but was about to become his regular attire for the near future.

Close to Barnet, the deed was done, Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley was now only William, a young man looking for employment, preferably somewhere out of doors, as a groom perhaps, or a gardener. He had chosen Hertfordshire for his adventure since, as far as he was aware, he did not know a soul in the area despite, or probably because of its closeness to town. Besides, it was on the way up north, and in every way convenient for his servants to both drop him off as well as eventually pick him up again. Beckoning his coachman to stop, Darcy climbed out of the carriage at a crossroads a couple of miles further on, bid his trusted man farewell and took off on foot.

As it was still early in the day, it was cold, but at least dry, and the remnants of the previous night's frost glistened in the surprisingly bright sunlight. The air was clear and fresh bearing no comparison to the dusty, foggy fumes of London. It was an odd feeling seeing his chaise drive away while he stood in the middle of the lane, undecided as to in which direction to go. Not that it mattered. Strictly speaking he had no destination, and so eventually, he just followed the path he thought the prettiest; narrow and winding, rugged hedges on either side amongst which, once in a while, the first snowdrops rose and hung their delicate heads to herald the nearing spring. A robin jittered around the branches of an old oak tree, curiously watching him as he passed, and the further Darcy walked along, the more his mood lifted. Soon he had no idea where he was, but again, that did not matter.

Philosophically speaking, his mission was to get lost in one sense in order to find himself again. Find the young man he had once been and leave the cynical creature he had become behind. Wit was something, but if he carried on as he had done for the past few weeks, if not years, he would turn bitter and that would not do.

Taking yet another turn off the road and onto a footpath that led up a fairly steep hill, a village came into view and a little further along the way a slightly larger settlement and not only that, but there, on a stile a young woman sat, her face turned towards the sun and her eyes closed as if she had not a care in the world. It was an endearing picture, but one that was not to last. As he approached, his footsteps roused the lady and with bright eyes and an engaging smile, she glanced at him curiously, though, by the look of it, she was prepared to take flight should it be necessary.

''morning, Miss. May I inquire whereabouts I am?' Darcy asked hesitantly letting the Derbyshire accent that had been strenuously trained out of him re-surface; it felt good to have the vowels roll off his tongue more softly again, more natural, too.

Tapping his hat he bowed awkwardly hardly expecting an answer. And for sure, in London, he most certainly would not have received one. She was very obviously a young lady of good breeding, simply but well dressed, a stark contrast to his own shabby appearance. But neither did she appear offended that a simple labourer dared to speak to her, her smile even broadened before it turned into a light hearty laugh.

'You may, good man. You are close to Meryton,' she pointed cheerfully in the direction of the small town.

'And that place over yonder?'

'Oh, that is Longbourn.'

'Thanks, Miss.'

'You are welcome. Have you travelled far?'

'Yes, I took off early. Lovely day, ain't it?'

'It most certainly is. Are you looking for employment?'

'I am, Miss.'

'And what is it you do?'

'Oh, everything really. I don't mind hard work, as long as I get a dry place to sleep and something to eat in return.'

'Then I dare say you will have no trouble in finding something. If you go enquire at Longbourn House, you might find that they are in need of a gardener there.'

Before he could thank her, she had got up and with another chuckle left him rooted to the spot, walking away with a spring in her step and surprising speed for such a slight young lady. What a remarkable creature! Perhaps not pretty in the classical sense, but with eyes as sparkling as that, what did it matter that her features lacked the perfect symmetry expected in ladies nowadays? Was she even real? Well, she must be, since she had accidentally left her shawl behind which she had placed underneath herself on her perch to avoid soiling her light coloured dress. Darcy picked it up. She surely must live somewhere around here, and he would make sure to return it, though he had little idea how.

Taking her place, he decided to take a brief rest, drink something and take a bite before doing just as the young lady had suggested. If he were honest, he had thought it would be more difficult to find something, had fully prepared himself to knock on many doors – he still might have to, but if the master of Longbourn House was looking for a gardener, that was at least something to go on for the moment, and a quarter of an hour later, William was on his way again, down the hill and towards the small and cosy village she had pointed out to him.

 

Chapter 6

A house that does not have one worn, comfy chair in it is soulless. - May Sarton

 

Darcy rambled on, slowly descending into a wide and luscious valley below; not that it took him all that long. This was not, after all, Derbyshire, where the hills were steeper and more rugged. No, the hills around Hertfordshire were rolling and green – calm even – and not in the slightest as tempestuous as around Pemberley. It was a beautiful and serene landscape, but truth be told, he preferred the roughness of the Peaks. It was, after all, his home.

To find Longbourn House was not difficult in the least. Aside from the parsonage, which was a rather humble building right next to the church, it was the only large house in the village nestled comfortably in a small parkland just down the lane from the church. It was not in itself a handsome building, for that too many generations had made alterations until it was a mixture of various styles competing with one another and eventually morphing into its own unique one. It did look comfortable enough though, welcoming and warm.

But as easy as it had been to find the house, the more problematic task was to find the path to its rear where he supposed the farmyard was. His dilemma was once more resolved when all of a sudden he heard a giggle and two very young girls appeared walking towards him with their heads stuck together.

'Are you looking for something?' the more boisterous of them asked at perceiving him standing there somewhat forlorn, earning a nudge from the other and the shocked exclamation of 'Lydia!'

'Eh, yes. I'm looking for the lane to the back of the house.'

'Just ahead, keep left, through the gate and then there it is,' the young lass grinned, pulling the other more timid girl along before he could thank them or make further inquiries.

But should he really dare approach the house from the front? It did not seem proper at all. With a sigh, Darcy decided that after he had already spent a half hour trying to find other means to get to his destination, he had little choice. Doing as the girl had suggested, he did indeed find himself at the back door of Longbourn House. Knocking tentatively, an elderly woman opened.

'Yes?'

She was an imposing woman. Rather large, but with a friendly face that appeared more surprised than cool. Her complexion was rosy, almost red and her hands were rough. Judging by the apron around her broad hips and her rolled up sleeves, she most likely was the cook.

'Good day to you. I... - I have heard that you are currently looking for a gardener and I...'

'I see. Wait.'

And apparently, she was not a woman of many words.

The servant disappeared across the yard, only to reappear a moment later with a man in tow who was undoubtedly the head gardener for why else would he carry a spade in his hands?

'So, you are looking to become a gardener here?'

Darcy nodded.

'And have you much experience with gardening?'

Well, that depended. He was quite good in theory, but practically...

'I have a little, Sir. I worked for Mr Darcy in London and on his estate in Derbyshire, if you’d like to see my references.'

'I’d rather see you till the vegetable patch, lad. Is there any particular reason you don't work for this Mr Darcy any longer?'

'Same old story, Sir. I fell in love with one of the maids, but I was not fancy enough for her. Didn't want to stay after that. Seeing her every day wasn't making things any better and besides, she'd started flirting with one of the footmen.'

A soft chuckle escaped the older man, while Darcy was surprised at himself for lying with such ease. Then again, he had spent a considerable amount of time coming up with this tale.

'Ah, young love. Let me tell you boy, if she didn't want you, it's probably for the best. You'll see, you'll find the right one eventually. Not much use trying to win over a woman's heart when she's set her mind on something grander. What's your name, boy?'

'Probably not,' he answered wryly taking the spade that was unceremoniously shoved into his hands. 'And my name is William, Sir.'

'Just William?'

'William Hawthorn, Sir.'

'Ah … - I'm Peters. Come along now William and we'll see what to do with you. Have you eaten anything yet?'

'I have, Sir.'

'Very good. There's nothing as bad as hard work on an empty stomach.'

The vegetable garden was through yet another gate, well-kept and surprisingly large. Most beds, neatly divided by low box hedges, had already been tilled, but two larger beds still needed taking care of and that was what he was about to do.

'So William, here you go. Finish this and that one over there and then we'll see.'

The ground was still fairly hard from the frost of the past couple of months and the few warm days this past week had done little to thaw more than the topmost couple of inches. Yet as year after year the vegetable patch had been worked over and over again, the soil was still easy enough to till. Yes, his hands were sore and after an hour his back was aching, but oddly enough the pleasure Darcy felt at seeing his own progress was well worth it. Row upon row he carried on and was quite surprised when he had reached the end of the patch already. And the second seemed to go even quicker despite his increasingly sore muscles.

'Well done, lad. Now, what do you know about cutting hedges?'

'Not all that much, I have to admit. I wasn't aware that one cut hedges this early in the year.'

'One doesn't unless the hedge has withered,' Peters grinned cheekily. 'But fortunately the winter has been mild this year and all our hedges are just as they should be. What we'll have to take care of, however, is the mossy patches in the lawn. It's the one crux with this garden if there is any. Turn your back for just a minute and there is moss everywhere. So, let's have a cuppa and then take that rake and let's go. We still have a good two hours of sunlight before we’re finished for the day.'

The tea was a welcome refreshment as was the bread and cheese that was served with it. Sitting on a bench outside, right next to the backdoor they were taking their break in silence when suddenly a loud wail filled the air.

'But I want to go too! Why do I always have to stay behind while you all can go out and have fun? It isn't fair at all! I can dance just as well as any of you. And definitely better than Mary.'

The boisterous young girl from earlier stormed out of the back door with tears of anger streaming down her face, marching straight for the gate to the park and beyond. A moment later she was followed by one of the most stunning young women Fitzwilliam Darcy had ever seen. Blond, tall, stately, with soft, even features, a porcelain complexion and rosy lips.

'Lydia, please, you are only fourteen. None of us were out at that age.'

Even her voice was soft and even, filled with warmth and patience.

'But I want to!'

Darcy could only imagine how Lydia stomped her foot indignantly. It made him smile. His sister, as tractable as she was, when angry was not much different but the distinction was that Georgiana hardly ever was angry.

'Be reasonable, love,' the other girl pleaded. 'Soon enough you will dance as much as you wish.'

'But I want to dance now! I am always left out.'

'Now, Lydia, that is not true. Whenever Aunt and Uncle Philips have a supper or card party, you are allowed to come along.'

'That is something completely different. How can you even compare playing cards to a ball, Jane?'

'It is only a dance at the Assembly Hall, nothing more. Please come inside or you will catch a cold.'

'And watch how all of you prepare? No thank you, I’d rather stay out of doors.'

Despite her claim, the young girl was led back into the house by what must be her older sister or perhaps a cousin. There was some similarity, though not much.

'Ah, the joys of being young,' Peters remarked dryly. 'Miss Lydia is the youngest of five and she is none too happy about it, I tell you. She's a good girl though. And if we are lucky, we'll catch a glimpse of the other young ladies leaving for their outing. It is always a sight to be seen. Miss Bennet is a beauty, is she not?'

'Yes,' Darcy answered truthfully.

'And she is as good as she is pretty. One day she'll make a man very happy. - But, laddie, don't lose your heart...'

'I won't.'

'Good. Now come on.'

Taking the rake that was handed to him, he followed Peters to the front of the house and both began their task until dusk slowly but surely set in. Just when they were about to call it a day, the family's carriage arrived and they indeed saw the ladies of Longbourn leave: the blonde angel, the girl he had seen in Miss Lydia's company earlier, a rather plain young lady who wore an indignant expression, a handsome older woman with a shrill voice shepherding the others out of the house and into the coach and... - and the very lady who had suggested he come here asking for work.

His jaw dropped. What a cheeky, shrewd little creature!

Chapter Text

Chapter 7

Courage, cheerfulness, and a desire to work depends mostly on good nutrition. - Jacob Moleschott

 

The servants' dinner was a joyous affair, with much cheer and lively conversation, less restraint than what Darcy was used to, but just as he had imagined it to be. The hierarchy though was evident in the seating and since he now was nothing but a low under-gardener his seat was pretty far down the table amongst the group of stable lads.

The meal itself consisted mainly of the left-overs of the family's dinner, though meat was scarce since it could easily be re-used for breakfast. Yet there were potatoes and vegetables, while what there was to be had of spare meat which had already been served at least twice, was boiled into a thick kind of stew which was in fact quite delicious, though perhaps a bit chewy.

As the new “boy”, it was only natural that some curiosity as to his person was voiced and only too willingly Darcy told them of his childhood at Pemberley – none of which he had to invent since he had been allowed to roam the grounds quite freely when home from school – then of his time in London, which he admittedly kept rather vague and in which he was assisted by Peters who grinningly pointed out that he had left his heart behind which was why he was here now in the first place. With a few commiserating sighs from the maids and a few companionable chuckles from the fellows the topic, however, soon changed and before Darcy knew it, a stack of sheets, blankets and a pillow were pressed into his hands before he had even gotten up from his seat.

'There, lad, I'll show you to your room now,' Peters pronounced, leading the way out into the darkness, across the yard and round to the stables. 'You must be knackered.'

'My room, Sir?' Darcy stammered in reply, stumbling after the man.

In all honesty, he had not expected more than a bed above the stables and it was not much more than that he soon discovered; yet at one point someone must have deemed it necessary to divide the draughty space into smaller ones and since then, each lad had his own room, tiny as it was and as thin as the boards were that separated them. In fact, his seemed almost too small to hold the narrow bedstead and the chair atop which sat a battered looking chamberstick with a mere stump of a candle in it. The room was dark, and it did feel slightly claustrophobic, but it was still a welcome sight. The only other furnishings were a small shelf above the foot-end of the bed, a hook to hang his clothes and the inevitable chamber pot.

Yes, he was tired to the bone, Peters had been right there. The surplus of fresh air, the hard physical labour to which he was not accustomed to and meeting with so many new people had exhausted him and there was still his bed to be made. A couple of bundles of straw and a slight struggle with the sheets later, he at last sank down and his head had hardly hit the pillow that Fitzwilliam Darcy, or rather William Hawthorn was fast asleep.

When he awoke the next morning, he was at first confused as to where he was and judging from the hustle outside, Darcy almost feared he had overslept. Yet when he stepped out of his room he found that it was only two of the lads bringing up the water for washing while the others, just like himself, still rubbed their tired eyes.

'Morning Will,' he was greeted by, if he recalled correctly, Jack.

There were also Charlie, Bob, Henry, and Tom as well as Peters and Johnson the groom, who was not only responsible for the horses but also the other animals on the farm with the exception of the poultry which was under the housekeeper's care. Mr and Mrs Hill, the butler and housekeeper respectively were also two names he had been keen on memorising as well as Smith, the cook, who had indeed been the woman who opened the door for him the previous day. The only other servants were the three maids Martha, Anne and Mary, the footboy John and Leah and Fanny the kitchen maids. All in all, Darcy had to admit that in his townhouse alone there was more staff working at the front of the house than was here altogether.

Having washed his face in icy cold water, shaved and then cleaned his teeth, Darcy, after quickly making his bed, was hurrying over to the main house to take breakfast. A bowl of nicely cooked porridge and a cup of wonderfully hot tea warmed him amply for his work outdoors and Peters had assured him that there was quite a lot to be done. The rest of the lawn needed taking care of, the driveway needed raking, and the compost heap needed digging, so they could start cultivating the plants for the vegetable garden. But though his muscles ached from the day before, Darcy still looked forward to his chores. Despite the prospect of a strict routine, it still felt like breaking free and also doing something productive, something that his existence in town was greatly lacking. Yes, there was business to be dealt with to be sure, but the time it took to settle his affairs was usually no more than could be achieved in the hours between breakfast and luncheon.

He did remember hearing the ladies come home at some point during the night, or rather the noise down in the stables from the carriage and horses being taken care of and hence was more than surprised to come face to face with one of them. The cheeky little imp no less, already up and taking a walk just when he had raked but a few square feet of the driveway, starting there since a slight frost as yet kept him from the lawn.

'Good morning,' she greeted cheerfully. 'I see you have taken my advice.'

Bowing deeply, Darcy replied: 'Good morning, Miss. Yes, I have, as you can see.'

'And as you can see, my advice was not wholly without self-interest,' she replied with a smile, her dark eyes dancing with amusement.

'You like your garden well-tended then?'

She appeared thoughtful for a moment before answering with mock earnest: 'To an extent. I take delight in nature and a garden, though artificial in itself, is still a pleasure to walk in.'

'But you prefer to stray beyond?'

It was not so much of a question than a statement, for he was pretty sure of her answer.

'Yes.'

'All on your own?'

'Obviously.'

'Is there no danger in that?'

Darcy was not all that certain how he would feel about his own sister rambling around the country all by herself. Not that it was any of his business. As a matter of fact, he was quite surprised that the conversation extended beyond a polite but curt “good morning”. Again, something that would never have happened in London.

'What is ever wholly without danger?' she countered, raising an eyebrow. 'From the moment we learn to walk, we are bound to take a fall once in a while, no horse is ever so docile that it might not rear when scared and turn a carriage upside down in the process. Where there is tea and a lively group of people, one might easily scald oneself... - Shall I continue with my examples?'

'No, you've made your point, Miss.'

'Well, then I will leave you to your work since I see Peters approaching and continue my walk. - Good morning, Peters!'

''morning, Miss Elizabeth,' the gardener replied, waving his hand in greeting while in his other he likewise held a rake.

'Lovely lass, that, but they all are. Only Miss Mary is perhaps a little too severe, but then again, we are spoilt. The chap you've worked for, Mr Darcy, is he a married man?'

'No, but he has a sister. As yet a slip of a girl but as pretty as they come and as kind, though she wouldn't speak to us, of course,' Darcy tried to dance around the subject and thankfully succeeded.

'Ah, our Miss Bennets have no such scruples, I assure you. Always a greeting and a kind word, well often more, and Mrs Bennet is no different. It can be rather trying to get things done when she is around, for she likes a good chat.'

Or rather milk her servants for the latest gossip, Darcy thought with a grin. Again his aunt came to mind, much to his other aunt's disapproval and her own husband's chagrin.

'And Mr Darcy himself, was he a good master?'

Now that was a question most difficult to answer...

'I would think so. He knows his servants by name and he makes a point of never raising his voice to them or make demands for unreasonable things.'

'Then he is better than most, I'd say. But I tell you something, the established gentry is never so bad as those who only recently joined society – with the exception of the Lucases of course, they are mightily good people. My niece works for them, you know? And she has nothing but praise when it comes to her masters. I would be very surprised if we don't see the Miss Lucases today, for after a ball the ladies always meet up for a good gossip.'

'As they do everywhere, I'd say.'

'Quite so. Well, you made some headway already. There is definitely no need to scold you for chatting too much and not getting anything done. Good-good! Just let me give you some advice, you don't need to prove anything, and unless you are intending to tire yourself out by noon, rather work slow but steadily instead of rushing things. You know, slow but steady wins the race as the saying goes.'

Now, this advice was a sound one and Darcy gladly took it. Furthermore, it was advice to stick to in the future beyond his little journey since the effect was a rather surprising one. For where before the amount of work he still had ahead of him seemed quite daunting, now he rather saw what he had already achieved and that was more than he had initially thought. In what seemed like no time at all, the driveway was done, and at least part of the lawn was now devoid of frost and ready to be dealt with. And once again, when it was time for lunch, they had gotten further than Darcy had anticipated. It was almost like magic. And at any rate, his stomach was grumbling.

 

Chapter 8

To send a letter is a good way to go somewhere without moving anything but your heart. - Phyllis Theroux

 

To his own surprise, the first week passed by in the blink of an eye and with some surprise, he realised, that he had not as of yet written to either his cousin or sister, let alone Bingley. However, every night he had been exhausted to an extent that all he did was wash, get undressed and fall into bed after yet another day of hard physical labour. Not so tonight. By the dim light of the stump in his chamberstick, Darcy made himself comfortable on his bed tucked his feet underneath him and began to write a letter, first to Georgiana.

My dearest sister,

you must have been quite surprised when I last wrote to you at hearing that I will go on a journey. - Me, of all people, who cherishes nothing more than the comfort of my own hearth and a good book! Yet, that is exactly what I have done and at present, I am located in Hertfordshire in a little village about a mile from a small town called Meryton. I am staying and working at an estate called Longbourn, where I have taken up a position as a gardener - or rather an under-gardener, for obviously there is yet a lot for me to learn about gardening.
Yes, you did read that correctly. What must you think now?
Presumably, you wonder whether your brother has lost his mind or something along those lines, but let me assure you that this is not the case. As the Season progressed and I was confronted time and time again with all its pathetic pretence, I realised that I was turning bitter and disillusioned and as a consequence decided that a change of perspective might be in order, so that at last I can appreciate what I have and how things are after I have come to know a life that is so very different from our own privileged situation. Though oddly enough at present it is doing rather the opposite for I am enjoying my time here quite a lot, and you might even see it in my style of writing, that some of that severity that has defined me for so long is waning.

The people here are of a good sort, friendly, caring, and cheerful and I like them prodigiously. And these traits do not only apply to the other servants but also extend to the family itself. There is always a friendly 'good morning' to be had, an encouraging smile and an inquiry as to one's well-being, sometimes even a little chit-chat about this or that.
Mr Bennet, the proprietor of Longbourn, is a calm gentleman with a sense of sarcastic humour that can confuse people at times, but he always delivers his jokes with a twinkle in his eyes, that makes them easy to digest even if the joke had been at one's own expense. His wife, on the other hand, is an exuberant woman who likes to meddle, it would seem. Though somehow her ambitions seem different from that of the mother's in town who care only for money and prestige and not so much about what their daughters might feel. There is a real concern in her that her five girls might be happy. I would be lying if I claimed that she was oblivious as to income and position in life, but should ever the situation arise that one of her daughters has to choose between a man worth a thousand, who might make her child happy and a man of ten times his worth who would not, she would not encourage the girl to take the latter, I am sure. That is saying something, for Peters who is the head gardener has told me that the estate is entailed and there are no male heirs, only said young ladies. It is a situation which must weigh heavily on the family. But as yet there is no reason to assume that the worst is yet to happen, for Mr Bennet, though past his prime, is still a sturdy, if perhaps a little indolent fellow.
As said, there are five girls here, the youngest about your own age and the eldest around two and twenty, and I will describe them to you, for I know that you must be curious. You always are, dear sister, and I will fully oblige.
Miss Bennet is such a stunning beauty that you would have difficulty even finding such in town. She is also calm and gentle with a keen sense of propriety yet without the slightest trace of arrogance, thus as lovely on the inside as she is in her looks.
Miss Elizabeth is also very pretty, and just as witty and quick as any girl I have ever met with. Objectively she might not be as handsome as her older sister, but she has the most beautiful eyes I have ever beheld. It is her who suggested that I take up this position. Now, having written this, I realise that I have to elaborate a little. When I first left London, I changed into my now rather shabby looking self in the privacy of my carriage, and then rambled off shortly thereafter. We had passed Barnett when I alighted. Quite unexpectedly I met with a young lady who sat on a stile enjoying the first rays of sunlight this year, and since I did not know where I was then, I dared ask her. Contrary to what I had expected, she answered me nicely and mentioned that perhaps I might want to inquire at Longbourn House, for there was a vacancy for a gardener there, and I thought to myself, that I probably should. I did not know then, that she was one of the daughters of the house, so you can imagine my surprise when I found out. She, too, is very kind and friendly and universally liked by all the staff, just as Miss Bennet is.
Now, Miss Mary Bennet is the unfortunate sister who has not been blessed with the good looks of her older sisters, and she has taken to perfect her accomplishments with such a zeal that she does appear rather fastidious, stern even. I cannot say much more about her, for she hardly ever ventures out, but most mornings I can hear her practising the pianoforte for hours on end while at the same time obviously lacking the passion required to play any real music. Without wanting to sound ungracious, but even when you had only just started it was so much more of a delight to listen to you, for you actually enjoyed the art for itself and not because it was a required accomplishment for a true lady. Do not ever lose your delight in it, Georgiana, I beg you! It would break my heart.
As for the two youngest, for they almost always come as a pair, they are two boisterous creatures, but good at heart I dare say. Miss Lydia, the youngest is almost wild, while Miss Catherine is a little more sedate. They appear to be always up to some kind of mischief, giggling and sticking their heads together all day long. Miss Lydia at fourteen is the only one not yet out, though I have heard from Mrs Hill, the housekeeper, that soon she will be. I guess it is more to avoid the almost daily struggle with keeping her in check when she, once more, is to stay behind while the others are going out, but with my limited knowledge of the family as yet, I might as well be mistaken there. They are all, with the exception of the father and Miss Mary, very sociable creatures and it might be this consideration that has led her parents to decide to bring her out. Besides, it hardly promotes sisterly affection if she is the only one denied the enjoyments of her sisters.

But for now, that shall be enough of my situation at present. How are you faring, my sweetling? Your last letter had me concerned, my dear, and I hope you are feeling better by now. A cold is unpleasant at the best of times, but to hear that you had to stay in bed for so many days together still worried me greatly. You are not still coughing, are you? If so, please let our cousin know, and he will see that a doctor is sent from town straight away. I will not have you suffer, little darling, for want of proper attention. If there is anything I can do, let me know likewise, though my possibilities at present are limited. Just know that I am always there for you.

 

And with that, I shall close my missive for it is getting late and my candle is almost burnt down, only about a quarter of an hour more and I will be left in darkness to finally go to sleep. Something I am looking very much forward to, as you can imagine, with all the physical work I do these days.

Your most affectionate brother

Fitzwilliam Darcy

P.S.: You will obviously have to address your letters to me to one William Hawthorn for the time being and have them send to the inn at Meryton for me to collect them. F.D.

Folding the letter, Darcy sighed. He did miss his sister, and did worry about her. Ever since she had been at school, she had suffered from homesickness filling his conscience with guilt, while at the same time he knew very well that there was little to avoid this. To receive an excellent education was of the utmost importance, and he would be a fool if he did not provide her with one; and while her governess had done as good a job as any governess he had ever heard of, only a seminary could teach a girl real social-skills, all the more important since his sister was a very shy and timid creature. Well, just as shy and timid as himself. No, there was no other way, she needed to be amongst other girls her age, even if it meant she had to struggle on occasion. It would be a lesson that later on in life she would be grateful for, and that had to be his consolation for now.

Reaching for yet another sheet of paper, he began writing yet another letter, this time to his cousin Richard Fitzwilliam:

Dear Fitzwilliam,

I sincerely apologise for the delay in relaying to you my whereabouts, but time has flown by so fast, I am surprised that it is a week already since I left London for my little adventure and I have to say, I am quite comfortable here at Longbourn House in Hertfordshire, where I have taken up employment as an under-gardener.
Yes, as an under-gardener. You surely must think me mad, but rest assured, I have never been saner than I am at present. There are some things a man has to do and I guess this is what I had to do in order to see more clearly. There is not much more to say other than that I am well and am treated kindly and am actually quite enjoying myself.
The quarters are comfortable, the work manageable and the people are all friendliness and kindness without exception. Many a family could learn a thing or two when it comes to being a kind and fair master or mistress from my current employers, I assure you.
So I must conclude this letter now for my candle has almost burnt out and I did promise Bingley to also send him a missive, I will close with the information on how to reach me: Just send the letters to William Hawthorn addressed to the Inn at Meryton where I can easily pick them up for Meryton is barely a mile from where I am staying at present.

And with that, I will remain for the moment -
Yours etc.

Fitzwilliam Darcy

The letter to Bingley he had saved for last. It was, after all the least important of the three, not meaning that it was unimportant, of course, just that it could technically wait in case the candle had burnt down, which it shortly would. He would have to be brief and even quicker in writing. The letter to his sister was written in his usual neat style, the one to his cousin was already less meticulous with a few blots of ink here and there and a couple of words crossed out, where his quill had slipped as the paper had slid down the book he used as a desk.

Dear friend,

hopefully, this letter finds you well, though I have little reason to doubt it. You always enjoy the diversions of London, so I dare say I will hardly be missed. No, I am not repining my loss of elegant society, quite the contrary, I am merely pointing out the obvious.
I have arrived in safety, have found employment and a roof over my head as well as a comfortable bed to sleep in and food that is more than just palatable, in short, everything is just as I had hoped it would be – or rather even better.
As you can clearly see from my manner of writing, or rather the almost indistinguishable scrawl I have adopted in this missive, this letter is a very rushed one, for I have to make do with just the last flicker of my candle to write these lines to you and as shorty the flame will die completely, I better tell you now how I am to be reached: I am staying at a place called Longbourn House in Hertfordshire, but obviously your letters cannot be sent here. The Inn at Meryton which is but a mile from here will serve for that purpose and is where I will be able to pick up my correspondence without too much trouble and without raising suspicion about my true identity. Well, that is, as long as you address them to one William Hawthorn, which is the pseudonym I currently live under.

Yours etc.

Fitzwilliam Darcy

Just as the candle flickered out, Darcy had finished the last lines, folded the last two letters in complete darkness and put them aside to seal and post them the next day before curling up and going to sleep.

 

Chapter 9

Chaperones don't enforce morality; they force immorality to be discreet. - Judith Martin

 

It was not difficult to get permission to go to Meryton since he was promptly charged to run some errands for Smith saving her having to go herself to make her orders. Besides, there was little to do around the garden that morning but tend to the seedlings, rake the driveway and the flowerbed in front of the house. As soon as he was done and he had completed his tasks with both speed and thoroughness to the full satisfaction of Peters, he was on his way whistling a cheerful tune as he marched along the unfamiliar path. He had not gone half-way and just rounded a corner when he perceived four young ladies ahead of him, and it did take little guessing who they were. Miss Lydia's skipping was unmistakable as was Miss Bennet's graceful walk. But it was Miss Elizabeth's effortless stride that had caught his eyes first and which pointed her out as the one out of the four sisters who was most accustomed to walking as well as being the one to take the most joy in the activity. With firm yet springy steps she walked mainly beside her older sister, occasionally stopping to glance at what he guessed was a flower or bird before catching up with her siblings once again with a quickness that showed that her usual gait was not quite as slow as their current pace.

At first, he was unsure whether to keep his own pace and overtake them or to slow down and stay behind before he collected and scolded himself for being so silly. He was a servant on an errand and in all likeliness they might not even recognise him here where he was not expected let alone greet him if they did. It was thus decided, Darcy carried on as he had done before.

It was by the bridge that he overtook them shortly tapping his hat and bowing before turning again to hasten on.

'Oh, good morning William, how are you?' Elizabeth Bennet inquired much to his surprise.

So she had recognised him despite him being out of context so to speak and if he was honest, it quite pleased him. Her eyes sparkled with amusement as she looked up at him and then suddenly averted them to glance into the distance.

'Very well, Miss Elizabeth, I thank you,' he bowed again, also acknowledging her sisters, whom all smiled back at him.

'Are you running errands now as well?' Lydia piped in, taking another step and stopping right in front of him.

'It would appear that way, Miss Lydia,' he smiled.

'And where are you going?' the young girl dug deeper, all curious eagerness.

'Lydia, stop being nosy,' Catherine whispered audibly enough to have him chuckle.

'It is no secret, Miss Catherine, I am just on my way to the fishmonger to pass on Smith's orders and then I'll be posting some letters, nothing more.'

With some consciousness he realised that Elizabeth Bennet had returned her gaze towards him, looking at him curiously.

'But did John not take care of the mail already? Has something happened?'

Oh no! He had not considered that many lower servants were all but illiterate... - and from her expression, it was obvious that she did not really believe that since the time they left the house that something serious had occurred.

'No, nothing has happened,' he stammered, feeling himself blush under her scrutiny. 'I... - I have just written to my sister.'

'You have a sister?' Lydia again asked unabashedly.

'Yes, I have.'

'Have you any brothers, too?'

'No, only one sister and a handful of cousins.'

'Are they living very far away?'

This time it had been Miss Bennet who had asked, her face compassionate as she probably thought of him being so far away from his relations.

'Some are in London, some are in Kent and Derbyshire and my sister is in Bath.'

They had slowly begun to walk on, a group oddly mismatched and yet comfortable enough with the arrangement to not think it necessary to part just yet and even as they entered town no one seemed to wonder at the Miss Bennets being accompanied by one of their servants as if it was the most normal thing in the world. And it probably was. After all, many a male servant was charged to watch out for his mistress when out walking, though they usually lagged behind.

'So you have learned how to write?' Miss Elizabeth dug a little deeper when her younger sisters were conveniently occupied staring into the window of the milliner's shop.

'Yes. I had a very liberal master who had pride in having all of his servants educated well enough to know their alphabet,' Darcy thought fondly of his father as he spoke.

And again it was nothing but the truth. While many a master did not like the thought of educating the lower classes, his father had never agreed with this sentiment and neither did he. The small school at Pemberley was by now a fixed establishment and there to stay.

'And who was this liberal and wise man?'

'Mr Darcy, Miss.'

She obviously tried to recall the name but then slightly shook her head: 'I have to admit that I have never heard that name before, but then again, I assume he lives in London?'

'Part of the time, Miss Elizabeth, the other he spends on his estate in Derbyshire,' he replied cautiously, not much liking the road their conversation went down.

It was not so much that he did not want to tell her about Pemberley, it was more that he did not like that with every question it became more likely that half-truths would no longer be sufficient and he would have to resort to actual lying and deception which was something he did not like doing at all, only when it could not be avoided. It reminded him too much of his former childhood friend who had done so habitually and disgustingly naturally.

'You seem to think a great deal of the man,' she remarked archly. 'Is there a reason why you are no longer employed by him?'

'There always is, Miss Elizabeth, I would venture to say. In my case, it was a personal matter that had nothing to do with my master nor my employment.'

'Ha, you were unlucky in love!' Lydia Bennet had sneaked up on them again unexpectedly, unabashedly threading her arm through his though in a manner that was still so childish that it was impossible to take offence. 'You poor one! She must have been very daft then if she did not want a man as handsome as you.'

'Lydia!' her three sisters cried in unison, shocked by her brazenness.

And so was he at first. His face promptly turned a deeper shade of red from sheer embarrassment before the silliness of the situation took over and he started to laugh. Yes, actually laugh. No two ways about it, Lydia Bennet's behaviour was shocking, but it was also refreshingly open. And at any rate, his reaction had a soothing effect on the others who had begun to smile again, though their faces were still flushed charmingly from their initial mortification.

Chapter Text

Chapter 10

Gravitation is not responsible for people falling in love. - Albert Einstein

 

Was there anything more vexing than to think about something one had decided not to think about? Probably not and yet, here she sat once again on the stile where she had first met him: William. It was beyond her why it unsettled her slightly and why she shifted uncomfortably with her own confused conscience before leaning back again against the higher step of her seat letting her thoughts stray down a dangerous road, knowing that she would regret pondering on something as futile as this as soon as she was back home. But right now, it could not be helped. Her mind was in turmoil and thus Elizabeth Bennet gave in to the inevitable and let her thoughts wander.

It had been on an impulse that she had suggested he should try his luck and ask for employment at Longbourn. With the sun to his back, she had not been able to make out his features properly then, well, almost not at all, but she had liked his voice. It was calm and gentle and had a pleasant lilt to it that had recommended him and watching him plough on with his duties, he most certainly was a hard worker. Polite he was, too, and he had wit, which was rather unexpected. That he could also read and write had astonished her, and she would have almost called him gentlemanly if it were not such a ridiculous notion to proclaim an under-gardener as such. Yet he had poise and also manners, there was little doubt about that. When he spoke it was, despite his thick, yet oh so pleasant Derbyshire-accent, in a way she had never heard any other servant ever use and he was well able to match her quickness and argue his point.

In a sense, she agreed with Lydia. What a fool that woman, whoever she was, must have been to reject him. He was handsome, almost painfully so with his dark curly hair that always looked a little unruly, but charmingly so. His eyes were the deepest blue she had ever perceived in a human being and sparkling with intelligence. His nose was rather prominent, almost aristocratic, his chin showed a certain amount of stubbornness or more like a firmness of character while his mouth revealed humour and sensitivity and his smile was disarming, to say the least. When he laughed it was a warm joyous sound sending shivers down her spine despite herself, and she caught herself wishing to hear it more often.

Then another thought struck her. What if that silly woman had been of society? What if it had been a scandal in the making? He did hold an attraction that made it possible, and yet, could she really believe that of him? He was not a flirt, as many a footman was. He never crossed the lines of decency, never turned familiar, other than Lydia - but perhaps he had once before, led by his heart...

Vexing man! Even more vexing was that there was a hint of jealousy creeping up on her. It was ridiculous! He was nothing but a gardener. But the most handsome of his kind she had ever seen. No, he actually was the handsomest man she had ever laid eyes upon and his calm friendliness and kindness, for what else could it be called to not take offence over her youngest sister's brazenness but laugh instead, were so very pleasant.

Yes, vexing man, indeed!

But there was nothing to it, she longed to know more about him, though it was impossible to ask him directly. It was none of her business, to begin with, and it might raise suspicions as to her true feelings. What were those feelings anyway?

She did not quite know, or rather did not dare to know. It was too close to affection for comfort. If she did not take care she would lose her heart and that was plain silly. She had too much sense to give in to her irrational feelings! Everyone expected it of her, she knew that very well. Yet, the heart was a treacherous thing to have... - And a more treacherous thing to lose.

With a sigh Elizabeth Bennet rose from her perch and with an exasperated shrug of her shoulders began walking again with zeal and purpose, the latter being to direct her attention towards physical exercise and away from him. From William. William Hawthorne.

But it was not to be, for no sooner had she stepped back onto Longbourn's grounds when her eyes fell on him as he gathered a couple of dry branches together he had just cut off a hawthorn bush. How befitting! He wore a leather apron, leather cuffs to protect his coat from the long thorns of the shrub, and gloves of the same material, an attire that hid his physique well. At least that was some consolation, for his figure beneath his clothes surely must be impressive. It was even so in the ragged clothes he always wore. He was tall, the tallest of the fellows working for them; his shoulders were broad and his arms surely strong, just as capable of holding a girl in an embrace as carrying a bundle of dead twigs.

Again her heart ached at knowing that it could never be.

'Silly goose!' she scolded herself, at first not realising she had spoken the words out loud.

It was only when he turned that she realised her mistake.

'Oh, Miss Elizabeth, I did not see you there,' he smiled, bowing as best as he could without dropping the bundle in his arms.

Blast the man!

'I have only just arrived. I was rambling about a little,' Elizabeth replied in a rather forced tone.

'You sound vexed, if I may say so. Is something the matter?'

'No. I just... - I just stumbled, that is all.'

'Have you injured yourself?'

'No, not at all, thank you, William.'

He bowed again before returning to his work and leaving her to wander on. No, he would never approach a lady, he very obviously knew his place too well. Not even their accidental meeting on their walk to Meryton had made him any more familiar than was proper and if it had not been for them, he would have continued along the road on his own. But truthfully, as often as they had accompanied John or their maids, or even Peters when he went to visit his niece, she had then thought absolutely nothing of it. Now her opinion had changed. She had put herself in harm’s way. Not physical harm, but emotional. Harm not from him, but herself. Yes, very vexing man! Downright infuriating even.

 

Chapter 11

You have to walk carefully in the beginning of love; the running across fields into your lover's arms can only come later when you're sure they won't laugh if you trip. - Jonathan Carroll

 

Still angry at herself for being so silly as to be in serious danger of falling for their new gardener's charms; charms he seemingly was completely unaware of and which made him all the more attractive due to that fact, Elizabeth rounded the corner of the house and almost ran into Jane.

'Ah, there you are Lizzy! I have just come out looking for you in the hopes you had returned already. Mother is all excitement, for we have just received an invitation to another ball at the Assembly Hall,' Jane remarked in as dry a manner as she with all her natural goodness could muster, though she did roll her eyes for emphasis.

Elizabeth appreciated the warning since it was always the same reaction her mother displayed at such news and it was, in general, better to be prepared before stepping into the house and be caught wrong-footed.

There was a ball in Meryton every month and each and every time their mother acted as if it was the most special occasion in the world and not a regular occurrence at all. The balls were pleasant enough at any rate, though there was little diversity in them. The society in and around Meryton was rather limited, and as of yet she had not met with a man she could seriously consider marrying. Yet to find husbands for her five daughters was the very reason their mother always worked herself up into quite a fit despite the fact that none of her daughters considered any of the men as more than a partner for the next dance.

Frank Lucas was about Lizzy’s own age, but as immature at times as if he were twelve; Thomas Harris was only interested in wine and cards; Peter Ratcliffe was much the same, though he added being a decided rake to his other vices; and William Goulding the younger was far too devoid of humour and conversation to be borne for any length of time beyond a set. At least he was a good dancer who posed no danger to one's slippers. The other young men usually attending were the sons of merchants and reasonably wealthy farmers, not worth their consideration in any particular way according to their mother, although Philip Jones, the apothecary's son, was a nice enough chap. Dancing with him, usually was the highlight of Elizabeth's evening at a ball at the Assembly Hall.

It was only for the shortest of moments that she thought about how good a dancer William might be, or rather if he could dance at all before she pushed the thought far to the back of her mind. He had haunted her thoughts enough for one day already.

And at any rate, Jane carried on with some concern: 'Mother is determined to allow Lydia to come along with the rest of us.'

It came as no surprise. Of late their parents had often discussed the topic if it could be deemed as such. A discussion that was, for it was more that her mother had already ruled that her youngest daughter should, while their father had neither objected nor seemed to agree. In short, the matter was already decided in favour of Lydia who would finally come out, just as she had wished since the day Mary had her own reluctant coming out two years prior and all but insisted upon since Kitty had done so last year.

Elizabeth was not all that certain about the decision, but if their father did not openly object, there was no point arguing. And there was hope yet, that Lydia would outgrow her boisterousness eventually, though presumably not within a mere fortnight.

Linking her arm with that of her sister they strolled towards the entrance and into the usual hubbub of the house.

Her mother was indeed in a flutter. All excitement, already busy planning what they would wear, which colour of shoe-roses would suit them best and with whom they might all dance, even though the event itself was still more than two weeks away. It was rather surprising that she did not order her daughters upstairs to get themselves ready immediately. And in a sense she did, for tonight they were to attend an evening of cards at their aunt's in Meryton. An amusement that had only been decided on this very day, when they had visited Mrs Phillips and Lydia had complained about being bored out of her wits and having nothing to distract her. Their mother's sister, always desperate for society herself, had immediately obliged her youngest niece by planning the diversion necessary to keep her happy and thus they had returned home with their aunt's informal invitation.

It would be not much more than a family affair and yet no sooner had Mrs Bennet voiced her excitement about the upcoming ball which lasted well beyond a quarter of an hour, when she ushered them to their respective rooms to get changed.

Kitty and Lydia followed her order with zeal, Mary rather grumbling and Jane and Elizabeth with compliance. Their father would not attend as was his habit. Reading quietly in the library was more to his taste.

'Is it ungracious of me to lament that we are forever meeting with the same people?' Elizabeth asked when she had joined Jane to help her with her hair for want of a maid.

'Not necessarily,' Jane replied thoughtfully. 'It is only natural that we wish for some variation, I think. But there is some comfort in knowing exactly what to expect when entering a dining parlour or ballroom.'

'That is most certainly true. But eventually we will have to find husbands and as yet, there are none in sight, I fear.'

'There are quite a few eligible young men here, Lizzy.'

'Is that so?' Elizabeth replied archly. 'And whom would you choose? Not that we put our hopes on the same man.'

'You know what I mean, Lizzy.'

'So you conjecture that there are theoretically a few eligible men around, but not practically. How unfortunate!'

Again her mind strayed towards William. But no, that once again was nothing but nonsensical. It could never be and she knew it. She would guard herself against such ridiculous notions in the future. And it was not that he had shown the slightest interest in her anyway. He knew his station, and so should she.

Elizabeth carefully braided her sister's hair and pinned it in place, marvelling over Jane's beauty instead. Jane was beautiful. She was also the kindest creature ever to tread the earth. Wherever she went, men were bound to be charmed by her, and rightfully so. It showed they had good taste.

She grinned wryly catching her sister's eyes in the mirror.

'What is it, Lizzy?'

'Oh, nothing. I just thought that any man not worshipping you must be a fool.'

'I would rather have a man love me dearly,' was Jane's earnest reply, accompanied by a small sigh.

'And if the right one comes along, he sure will. He is bound to, you know? But for now, worship will have to do, I fear.'

Jane blushed slightly, the colour on her cheeks making her look even prettier than she was anyway, before beckoning Elizabeth to sit and have her take care of her hair in turn. It was a ritual frequently repeated.

 

Chapter 12

No man will be found in whose mind airy notions do not sometimes tyrannize, and force him to hope or fear beyond the limits of sober probability. - Samuel Johnson

 

Taking a deep breath, Darcy put down the bundle of twigs, carefully avoiding the sharp spines. Even though he was well protected he still had managed to prick himself a couple of times. But his mind had strayed towards a lovely pair of bright eyes. A silly notion, he was well aware of it. But Elizabeth Bennet's curious glances earlier in the day had unsettled him. Did she suspect anything? He would not put it past her. She was, after all, a very intelligent creature and he was not the best of actors.

Pushing all thought of her magnificent eyes aside, Darcy began to stack the branches into a neat pile, covered them with some dry leaves he had raked up earlier in the day and then set fire to the heap just as he had been ordered. Something caught his eye amongst the remaining leaves and it made him smile. Curled up fearfully, but beginning to peak out its nose, was a hedgehog.

'You seem in a good mood, William,' Peters remarked as he stepped up to him. 'And I see you're done already. You know, with every other man I would ask myself whether he had done his task properly, but you can take it as a compliment that I don't need to ask you.'

'I thank you, Sir,' Darcy grinned, pointing at the little creature now scrambling away into the underbrush.

'Ah, our little friends. I like them. They take good care of the vermin,' Peters shrugged unconcernedly, his face a little tense.

'Is something the matter, Sir?'

'You cannot, by chance, drive a carriage? It's only a pair you'd have to handle.'

Whatever he had expected, this was most certainly not it.

'I can, Sir.'

'And harness a horse?'

'Yes, Sir.'

'Very good, William. Then make haste and get into a livery, will you? Johnson is tied up and so are the boys. Blasted creatures to be calving and foaling all at the same time. The whole stable is in confusion, let me warn you.'

Well, Darcy knew that phenomenon all too well. Even though Pemberley had an abundance of resources at hand, it could still, on occasion, lead to situations such as these, and by now he knew Johnson well enough to know that he would not leave his more pressing responsibilities here in order to convey his master and mistress to somewhere. Not if it could be avoided, that was. After all, a handsome sum of money was involved.

He left Peters, who was not very good with animals, according to his own admittance, at the fire and hurried over to the stables. Peters had not exaggerated. The mare was doing fine, but the cow was a young creature having her first calf and she was in a frenzy, hard to manage and having difficulties.

'Livery?' Darcy asked, keeping it curt.

Henry pointed at the saddle chamber, or rather the small closet beyond. He only hoped he would find a set that would fit him and was in luck. Changing quickly, he then pulled one of the smocks over his head so as to not soil himself while cleaning the horses and set to work.

Without help, it took him the better part of an hour, but at last, the beasts were gleaming in the fading sunlight and since he had little time left, he only dashed over to the kitchen shortly for something to eat before scurrying over again and start harnessing. It had been a while since he had done so himself, but he still managed. And none too soon, for Darcy had barely tightened the last strap, that he got notice from Hill that the carriage was awaited.

He climbed onto the box, and remembering at the last minute that he was still sporting the raggedy smock, he pulled it over his head and pushed it under his seat before taking the reins and edging on the horses.

In a joyful scramble, save for Miss Mary, the six ladies of Longbourn piled out of the house and Darcy had barely time to jump from his seat to open the door before Lydia, all eagerness could have done so. She was so full of excitement that it made him smile and think of Georgiana. If only she could ever be so joyous and carefree...

Extending his hand, he helped the ladies into the chaise, earning once again a quizzical glance from Miss Elizabeth, yet she said nothing. She looked absolutely breathtaking and his heart did a little somersault. Oh dear, that was not good at all. He could not possibly... - No, that was silly!

But then again, he had suspected it for a while now. From the moment that he had caught himself hoping she would step out and cross his path as he was working away in the garden a couple of days since. Yet, he had thought nothing of it at the time, but now that he knew what it probably meant, it confused him. He had never fallen in love before, had always been too cautious about such a foolish sentiment, but he had come here to find himself and consequently let his guard down. It seemed that his little adventure came at a price after all.

With some trepidation, Darcy climbed back onto his seat and drove off towards Meryton. At least he knew where he was going from their morning's walk. That was something to be thankful for. It saved him from the embarrassment of having to ask the way.

The Phillips' lived on the High Street of Meryton, just opposite the small circulating library and only a stone's throw away from the milliner's and the inn where he had posted his letters. It was a comfortable looking place, though by no means grand and it clearly showed that the people within were of the occupational kind. Mr Phillips, it appeared, was an attorney. A perfectly respectable profession.

Again he helped the ladies, this time out of the carriage, and when Elizabeth smiled at him in gratitude it was even more unsettling than her scrutiny. The blush that crept over her face was most becoming and confusingly titillating and once more his heart did a somersault and beat just a little faster.

Instead of pondering, however, he took care of the horses, which for want of a stable had to be left on the street and settled himself on the box trying to make himself as comfortable as was possible. There was nothing much to do other than to stretch out and wait and Darcy dearly wished he had a book or at least a paper to read to occupy himself while waiting. But no sooner had he thought the same when his boredom was relieved in the form of a maid stepping out of the Phillips' house, handing him a pitcher of ale, a mug, a couple of sandwiches and just that, a book.

Shakespeare, he noted with some amusement. Not exactly a work that most servants would appreciate, and even he preferred the other works of the bard to “Richard III”. But alas, it had also been the winter of his discontent, in both its literal meaning as well as manner of speaking, so perhaps it was quite fitting. He ate one of the sandwiches, poured himself a drink and began to read.

Soon engrossed in the drama unfolding on the pages, Darcy suddenly became aware of someone watching him. At first, it had been nothing but an inkling, until it grew to an almost unsettling feeling and at long last, he turned. There was no-one there. Of course not, what had he been thinking? But when he turned around again, he became aware of the dainty figure standing in the window, half hidden by the curtain, and he knew he had not been imagining things after all. He was being watched, and closely. Watched by none other than Elizabeth Bennet. As if caught she suddenly disappeared and for the remainder of the evening, she did not approach that window again.

Only when the party finally left, did he see her once more, and it was with some feeling of conscience that he noticed that she avoided his gaze. Odd little creature!

Chapter Text

Chapter 13

You can always tell about somebody by the way they put their hands on an animal. - Betty White

 

He had gone to bed late, naturally, for when Darcy returned home, the chaos in the stables had by no means subsided. If anything, it had gotten worse and by the looks of both Henry and Tom at breakfast later on, it was a safe to assume that they had had barely any sleep at all. There had been no alternative but that he had to unhitch the horses on his own, just as he had hitched them a few hours prior. He rubbed them down and led them to their box and was then sent to bed while his comrades still toiled away. But at last their efforts had paid off and all creatures large and small were well.

Darcy was up at first light, long before the others even stirred and it was hard to resist peeking into the stable to take a look at the new arrivals. There was nothing as comforting as the smell of horses anyway; or the gentle neighing as if they greeted their visitor; or to see the little ones standing on shaky legs for the first time yet determined to walk within the hour.

The foal was already standing proudly at her mother's side when he entered. It looked at him almost curiously and still a little shyly, yet when he reached out his hand, it did not back away but let him caress its soft fur.

'So you know how to handle animals as well, I see,' he suddenly heard a soft voice behind him and wheeled around.

In the shadows though illuminated by the still dim light streaming through the stable door in which she stood, he saw none other than Elizabeth Bennet, dressed up for one of her walks despite the early hour. She looked a little ruffled as if she had not slept at all, or if, not very well.

'Yes. They are companionable creatures and they don't judge you, no matter how grumpy you are.'

'Very true. Though I have to admit that their size is quite intimidating. Our horses, I have been told, are all gentle creatures, and still, they have such strength that I always feel comparatively small and powerless. And besides, to rein in such a proud creature is almost a shame, is it not? - As you can see, I am no horsewomen, William,' she remarked challengingly.

He startled at her confession, then smiled.

'I venture to say that the idea is more to emphasise said strength instead of reining it in, to control it to a certain degree and to be controlled in turn. A good rider knows his beast and it knows him and it is only with mutual understanding that it'll do anything you ask of it, Miss Elizabeth. I've had horses...'

He stopped, biting his tongue. He had almost given himself away.

'I've had horses to deal with that didn't trust me and the result were several nasty bruises that clearly told me they would tolerate no further attempt on my side to rein them in.'

'I was not aware that it is the work of a gardener to handle horses.'

'I've never claimed I was a gardener before I came here to work as such, Miss Elizabeth,' Darcy remarked carefully while cursing himself for his carelessness.

'No you did not,' she replied, thoughtful once again, stepping closer to where he stood his hand still caressing the tiny horse that seemed to quite enjoy his gentle ministrations.

'They are the cutest things when they are little,' she added after a while, tentatively stretching out her hand likewise. She wore no gloves.

It was such a gentle gesture that he almost envied the foal.

Good gracious, he had been here little more then a week, feeling nothing but at ease and the first thing he had to do was the one thing he had always tried to avoid if he possibly could. - Be thoroughly taken by a woman, charmed to a point where reason was threatened by something more primaeval, something dangerous. Something that was bound to put an end to his peace of mind.

'I need to get going,' Darcy all but pressed out from between his teeth, more fiercely than he had intended.

But fortunately, it was perfectly true. Well, almost. He was the first one up and still, he had to get over to the house, break his fast and then once again work was waiting for him. It was some consolation if there was any to be had.

At seeing two pails on the rim of the well next to the kitchen door, he pumped some water and stepped into Smith's very own kingdom careful not to spill the almost overflowing buckets onto the freshly swept floor.

'Good morning, William,' he was greeted by the cook. 'You are up early.'

'I couldn't sleep. Where do you want the water?'

'The hob, if you please. Leah has sprained her ankle and is good for nothing,' she informed him with a sigh. 'Well, at least she can peel the potatoes, so I guess it could have been worse. But Fanny is running around like a headless chicken.'

And indeed, no sooner were the words spoken when Fanny stepped from the scullery into the kitchen bearing a basket of coals and looking positively panicked. If he remembered correctly it was washday. The girl's concern thus was well founded. Endless buckets of water had to be carried in and out of the laundry, hot, cold, soapy, grimy sometimes all at once, however that worked. And it was but little comfort that they had a laundress to do the actual washing, for one woman could only do as much.

Relieving the young maid of her heavy load Darcy carried the coal over to the hob likewise.

'You are quite a gentleman, lad,' Smith chuckled.

'And since I am early, I could pump some more water, if you like,' he offered with an embarrassed grin.

'Please, dear. I would have John take care of it, but he is busy polishing the boots and that always takes him forever. Don't know what he's doing with them, but at least he does it thoroughly.'

Darcy only chuckled. It was presumably the only time of day that the boy was sitting down for any length of time before he was made to run errands again all day long. And young lads were not exactly known for their eagerness to do any such thing as exert themselves if it was not absolutely necessary if he recalled his own youth correctly. - Unless there was fun to be had, of course.

By the time no bucket was left empty, the stable lads as well as Johnson and Peters had arrived also and breakfast was ready.

'What do you want me to do today, Sir?' he inquired between sips of thin tea.

'The box hedges around the beds need a little trim and then nothing but the usual,' was the short answer.

Peters was not much of a morning person. If one did not know, one could almost think he was cross, but by ten his mood had usually improved significantly. Darcy was slightly reminded of Bingley. His friend was not a morning person either.

 

Chapter 14

I hold that the parentheses are by far the most important parts of a non-business letter. - D.H. Lawrence

 

Her night had been restless, her mind too full of thoughts to find much sleep. It was on an impulse when she had suggested to send a book out to William so he could occupy himself while waiting. After all, normally there were two men waiting; but they had been informed that the stable boys were all tied up in the stable and could not come. Yet, he had performed the task admirably, once more had been courteous and not in the least awkward when helping them into or out of the carriage as if he had done so at least a hundred times.

Curiously she had watched how he would react to the book, whether he would be taken aback to be given something as challenging as “Richard III”, perhaps even toss it aside, but no, he had appeared bewildered at first and then had started reading in the dim light that fell through her aunt's windows, leaning back comfortably on his perch until he must have sensed her scrutiny and had looked about him with searching eyes. Even now Elizabeth was not sure whether he had seen her or not, but it had been absolutely necessary then to step back from the window and for the rest of the evening she had avoided it altogether.

When she awoke at dawn it had been in vain to attempt to go back to sleep and so she had gotten dressed to stroll the countryside. The temptation of looking at the little creatures had been too great to resist, however, and at this time of day, it was unlikely that she would run into anybody anyway.

But there Elizabeth had been mistaken. She had stood in the doorway for a while to adjust her eyes to the semi-darkness within and there William had stood, gently caressing the foal with such tenderness it almost brought her to tears. It was absolutely necessary to run, and yet, her curiosity had once again gotten the better of her and instead of doing what she ought to have done, run from her own silliness, she had spoken out.

It had been stupid. Absolutely stupid!

And now she was even more determined to find out what his secret was, for that there was one, she was certain of. For one he had not always been a gardener, he had basically admitted as much. But then, what had he been? A groom would be the obvious answer, but she had drawn the wrong conclusion once already when assuming that he was a gardener by profession. He could just as well have been a footman, he was sure handsome and tall enough for it and he had the manners as well as the speech. If that was the case, however, it would have been better for him to stay in town.

The thought that the mysterious woman who had rejected him had been of high social standing crossed her mind again. What other reason could he have to hide away here in the country where little was to be gained and where he had but little opportunity?

There was nothing to it, perhaps she should write to her aunt in town and inquire at least after his last employer and then she could go from there. Mr Darcy... - An elegant name somehow, yet unpretentious. It was easy to remember as well but she was almost certain to not have come across it in the papers as yet. Or perhaps she had. It was always difficult to remember a name when one could not connect it with a face.

After her brisk walk in the cold air, that was exactly what she did, assembling a careful missive to her aunt Gardiner in London. Not an easy task when trying to avoid revealing her innermost feelings.

Dear Aunt,

I hope this letter finds you and my cousins and uncle well. Here in Hertfordshire spring is coming slowly but surely, but then again, I am always impatient for the weather to get warmer so I can stay outside as long as I please without being scolded that I might catch cold.

So far, so good. But how to breach the subject at hand? Neither could she claim to have made a new acquaintance nor could she allege that she had read about Mr Darcy in the papers since both were easy to detect as falsehoods on her side and that would not do. But she could say that she had lately heard the name mentioned in a conversation. It was, after all, the truth even if a little stretched.

There is nothing in the usual gossip that I assume might interest you – though I will add a shortened list of the goings on so you might roll your eyes at our ever insignificant lives here in the country: Martha Maberly had yet another child, her tenth, if I have not lost count and I am not at all sure whether it is a boy or a girl, but I am at least certain it is one of the two.
Henry Watson is engaged to Josephine Goulding, poor one, for I know hardly a couple as mismatched as them. But they may as yet have merits each I have not discovered for he is dull and forever preaching sermons and she is lively and never paying much attention. Well, thinking about it, perhaps they will suit each other just fine after all.
Mary King had her coming out much to mother's chagrin for she has turned out to be rather pretty, though Lydia insists that her freckles are intolerable and mama cannot but agree with her there.
Oh, and speaking of Lydia, she is to come out at the next ball in Meryton, which takes place in about two weeks when the moon is full again.
Charlotte Lucas had a severe cold these past few days but her voice has returned to the degree that she can pass for a crow cackling when she is speaking instead of a ghost moaning. She laughed heartily at my comparison, I might add.
And that is really all there is to tell. As I have warned, it is not much.

The only thing of interest was a conversation I have overheard of Sir William speaking about a Mr Darcy he has met in town. He must be a prominent creature by Sir William's account, but I could hardly inquire without attracting mother's attention, and you know, whenever there is talk of men, she will assume they are eligible and in want of a wife. But I have to admit my curiosity is piqued and I feel quite stupid not having heard of such a seemingly important man, especially if he should be tempted to take Netherfield Park and so I apply to you, for you know London and its inhabitants as well as anybody, whether by hearsay or actually knowing them. - And here you have another example of our pitiable state of ignorance.

It was still a blatant lie, but it would be difficult for her aunt to ever find out and besides, there had been many gentlemen who had looked at Netherfield, which had stood empty these past five years at least, and then be gone never to be seen in the neighbourhood ever again.

Now all that remains is to assure you that we are all well, that Lydia is excited beyond anything we have as yet experienced. Kitty likewise, for there is little fun getting into scrapes without her sister as you very well know. Mother is busy planning for the ball. Father is safely ensconced in his library. Mary is practising the piano as much as she can between making extracts and reading Fordyce's Sermons. Jane is looking radiant and I am laughing and speaking just as much nonsense as ever.

Yours etc.

Elizabeth Bennet

Yes, that would do. She folded the sheet of writing paper, then sealed it, determined to bring it to the post as soon as she had finished breakfast and before she had time to think again.

 

Chapter 15

In an age like ours, which is not given to letter-writing, we forget what an important part it used to play in people's lives. - Anatole Broyard

 

Over a week passed until Darcy heard from either of his friends or his sister, but that was to be expected, and just as he had written them, they all arrived in a bunch. He tucked them away. There was no time to read them now, but later on, he would find a quiet spot out of doors and tend to them. For now, there were seedlings to tend and gravel to be smoothed and weeds to be pulled. An endless cycle of work, yet not an unpleasant one. It was the first time that he really felt that leisure was a luxury, an idle hour a gift and not a curse, a thing that needed to be filled with meaningless conversation just for the sake of it. He had long since suspected as much, now it was a certainty, something most of his peers would never understand.

When dinner was at last over, he was free and seeking out a little bench right at the back of the property, where no-one ever went at this time of day, and where finally he could break the seal of his sister's missive without the danger of an interruption.

Dearest brother,

yes, I was indeed surprised, to hear about your “adventure” but I am also happy for you, for I know how little you like to be in London and how tedious you think social gatherings to be. You did seem out of spirits when last I saw you at Christmas at the mere prospect and it pained me. You are always so good, that I wish nothing more than for you to be happy and I feel miserable in the knowledge that I can contribute so little towards you being so.
I sometimes cannot help thinking that perhaps we are taking too many things for granted and so we are thus doomed to always stay unsatisfied because satisfaction rarely stems from the fulfilment of all our wishes, but rather from still having something to wish for. If we are jaded, we lose so much and yet do not know it. In short, I heartily agree with your step and do not think you mad at all.
Moreover, it does put a quite un-ladylike grin on my face to picture you as an under-gardener, all murky and dishevelled. It is a difficult thing to imagine as well, to see my neat big brother dressed in smocks and worn out boots, but I dare say, whatever your clothes, you will still cut a fine figure. It is impossible to think of you otherwise no matter the attire.

The family you serve sounds lovely, and I wish I could meet them one day. If Miss Bennet is really as pretty as you say, it would be a great pleasure looking at her and Miss Elizabeth seems to be a very interesting young woman. She appears to have good sense, too, if she thought you might be the right man for the position. It already recommends her to me.
As for the younger Miss Bennets, I am not sure I would get along with them since they seem so very different from myself. And yet, I do get along with Miss Bingley, though Miss Caroline does intimidate me on occasion, I have to confess, and I am never quite certain she really likes me. In short, one can never be certain and there might as yet be many surprises along the way. And at any rate, it is not likely I will actually ever meet any of them unless they are in the habit of going to town for the Season, which in turn does not seem to be the case since they are obviously in the country at present when the Season is in full swing. - Another of these terms so threadbare it is almost laughable, do you not agree?

I will have to conclude now, for though my candle is far from burning out, it is almost time to get ready for bed, and while normally I write my letters in the afternoon, down in the parlour as any other girl in this place, I thought that considering your current circumstances, it might be better to retreat to my room to do so now and since the only time I get to go to my room is in the evening, that in turn means my time is limited, for Mrs Brooke is very strict about our curfew.

You most affectionate sister

Georgiana Darcy

His sister's letter made him smile and sigh all at once. She was not happy, he knew that, but to read she thought herself responsible for his happiness was painful. If anything, he was responsible for hers, not the other way around. And for her fifteen summers, she sounded decidedly too serious. At least her judgement of Caroline Bingley showed that she had good sense and it made him chuckle in amusement. He could not have put it any better.

Carefully he stowed his sister's letter away and tended to the next at hand.

His cousin's letter was more in the style of a military dispatch, short and to the point, which was quickly explained in the two last of the five lines that stated that he had already gone down to Kent to visit their aunt due to a problem with one of her tenants and the fact that the parsonage needed some work to be ready for her new parson. In short, all was well and taken care of, no need to worry. Good!

Last was Bingley's missive, as always hard to decipher but surprisingly long.

Dear friend,

I am mightily glad you are faring well and are enjoying yourself.

Here in London, the weather is rather foul and foggy this time of year. Not comfortable at all, so it is all the more pleasant being huddled up in a ballroom, though I dare say you would disagree.

Louisa got engaged two days ago, to a Mr Hurst. You might know the fellow, he at least claimed to know you. The wedding is to be held in April and I am already dreading having to deal with all the settlements. What do I know about marriage? Not all that much aside from that it is a pleasant enough state. I have to say, her decision surprised me, but he seemed a good enough fellow and he has an uncle in parliament.

Miss Catrell has likewise gotten engaged and that is just as well. To a baron, no less. I am quite proud of her. She is a charming little creature and I truly like her, but what would she want with a mere “Mister” such as myself? No, she is born for greater things than that! Besides, her interests are so very different from my own.

Caroline, of course, is forever pestering me where you have gone and whether I have heard from you already. As yet I have managed to evade her. She is also going on about purchasing an estate so I can pass myself off as a proper gentleman as she puts it. You would not know where to find such a thing, would you? I start to be quite at my wit's end. There was that one estate in Somerset I liked quite well, but Caroline was quite against it, claiming it was both too far away from town and our relations. Hertfordshire is both close enough to London and northward, so that should please her.

But speaking of Caroline, I just hear her now in the vestibule and so

The letter had not been signed, a sure sign that Bingley had hastily folded it up and not bothered to return to it before handing it to his footman to be posted. It obviously had been a close call, but for now, he was still safe. Good, again nothing to worry about.

The evening as yet was too pleasant to go inside just yet and so he strolled around a little. The nearly three weeks had brought about quite a change. Ha, and there was the little hedgehog again sniffing its way through the underbrush. For a moment Darcy stood and watched it before finally deciding to go to bed. The answers would have to wait for another day, today it was getting late and Darcy felt tired all of a sudden.

Chapter Text

Chapter 16

People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in their true beauty is revealed only if there is light from within.
- Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

 

The past week had stretched near endlessly in Elizabeth's impatience, but at long last Mrs Gardiner's answer arrived. She had avoided William as best as she could during this time, which proved to be more difficult than she had imagined. Sure, Peters was around in the garden most days as well, but though she had always greeted him, his presence had never bothered her. Well, neither did that of William’s, quite the contrary, but paradoxically it was just that which was bothering. It was almost as if some undetermined power wanted them to meet whenever it was least expected and only the night before she had almost run into him again when she had gone out to catch some fresh air after a late dinner, due to a long afternoon at the Lucas’.

Only at the last moment had she spotted him sitting at the very back of the garden where no-one ever ventured at this time of day and where her steps had consequently led her for exactly that reason. To just escape the noise of her sisters for a couple of minutes before going back in. To just sit and watch the sky change colour as the sun slowly set. It had been fortunate that he had been too engrossed in reading the letters he had obviously received that day, and she had to admit that she had been quite curious what they might contain, while at the same time scolding herself once again for being so nosy and silly. He had been smiling, occasionally a soft rumble escaped him when he found something particularly amusing and then he had sighed and almost looked sad.

But now, at long last, Elizabeth had her answer, or at least part of it. At least she hoped so. And then she could attempt to find out more about William himself, once she knew more about the cryptic Mr Darcy, a man who as yet evaded her but whom she felt was the centre of this mystery, if it could be called such. Tearing herself away from the window and from William busy cutting the edges of the lawn, she began reading eagerly.

My dear niece,

I am delighted to hear that you are all well and can assure you that so are we. Little Francis had a cold last week, but he is up and running about the house again now as it was not a bad cold, nothing but a runny nose and a sneeze here and there. Thank goodness!

As for Lydia coming out, it might be just as well. It is never easy being the youngest of the family and having to watch on as everybody else has their share in some fun one is cut off from. And perhaps it will cure her of some of her silliness. She is still very young, do not forget that. You have been silly at times when you were but fourteen and even still when you were fifteen. Do remind me, when was the last time you attempted to climb a tree?

I have to say, I am as surprised by Miss Goulding and Mr Watson as you are. I only saw them once or twice, but you are quite right, their disposition is very different from one another, and yet, as you observed so accurately, it might be that which holds the attraction. Love is a mysterious thing and one never knows when and where we might find it. Take your uncle and myself, for example, we literally ran into each other as we both rounded a corner and he was courteous enough to escort me home and carry my parcels. However, I do not recommend this way of meeting men. It is bound to end up with unseemly bruises on both sides and if you cannot see past that, it is unlikely that anything will come from it.

Elizabeth had to laugh at that. She never knew and yet, there was little doubt that it was true. The next lines, however, had her blanch in mortification. Her ruse had been on the verge of being discovered, though fortunately, her aunt had found herself an explanation for the discrepancy. But it had been a close call.

So Mr Darcy is thinking about renting an estate in Hertfordshire? That is some surprise, for he has one of the finest estates in the country near Lambton in Derbyshire where I grew up. So yes, I do know the man. Pemberley House and the park surrounding it are delightful, but perhaps they are inconveniently far off. Or he is acting on behalf of a friend since it is unlikely that he has any financial troubles and needs to retrench like so many other noble families of late. The Darcys have always been sensible and careful people as far as I know.
The family is not titled itself, but they have relations in the highest ranks. His uncle is an earl if I am not mistaken.
I do not know the man myself, not personally, only when he was little and he was a sweet little boy then, though also mischievous. He always escaped his governess to run over to Lambton to meet with the boys in town. Especially during the horse-chestnut season, he was quite a fixture. And he always had his dog in tow. A wretched little creature he had found in the gutter one day but gentle by nature and as loyal as any dog I ever saw. A person so loved by another creature can never be bad, do remember that. And Sally our maid absolutely doted on little Fitzwilliam Darcy, for every time she fetched water or was sent on an errand, he would offer to help and he sometimes did and I actually remember him sitting at our kitchen table picking the peas for our dinner. My mother was quite shocked. Young Master Fitzwilliam and picking peas was not to be borne. It was a sad day for Sally when he was finally sent to school. He turned quite serious afterwards if I recall correctly and we never saw much of him from then on. But then again, it was the time his mother passed away shortly after his sister was born. He could not have been much older than twelve, if not younger.

As said, I do not know him now and have only seen him twice at the theatre and I would not have known him at first if he had not been pointed out to me. You know how these things work. There is always someone there who knows this or the other person. He did not look happy then, but then, he must have a lot on his mind considering his father has passed away as well about four or five years ago and he cannot be much older than seven or eight and twenty now. And with an estate of that size and a little sister to look after, the last couple of years cannot have been easy on him. He has, however, turned into a very handsome man. Some might say the most handsome you will ever see, and though I cannot agree there, for that is a title which for me your uncle will always hold, I still have to admit that he is quite a sight. Tall, with a fine figure, a fine cut face, a sensitive mouth, that one would love to see smile more often and a rather prominent nose as well as thick dark hair that has a slight curl to it and never stays quite put. His manners are impeccable, naturally, and from what I have heard he is just as good a master as ever his father was, and by all accounts, the old Mr Darcy was a very good one. So, if he should decide to take Netherfield Park, then all of Meryton shall only gain, and if it is one of his friends I dare say it shall likewise be the case. He does not seem to suffer fools very easily.

Did I mention that as yet he is still unmarried? I recommend not to tell your mother or you will never hear the end of it.

I will have to close now, for your uncle and I are invited to dinner at the Newtons and these days I need considerably longer to look presentable than I used to. The children forever pull on my dress, but at least the older ones are slowly but surely growing out of it.

Yours affectionately

Madeleine Gardiner

Tall and handsome, with a fine figure and a prominent nose and a sensitive mouth as well as dark unruly hair... That sounded strangely familiar. But no, that notion was even more ridiculous than any she had come up with so far. It could not possibly be.

Yet everything fit too perfectly. He was good with animals, thorough in his work, he had a sister and he was courteous and well-spoken, both traits that pointed to a good education beyond a school for tenants' children. Not to mention that his appearance matched the description of her aunt to a T.

Was it possible that William and Mr Darcy were not former servant and master but one and the same person? But then, it was even more puzzling as to why he was here. And besides, even the thought was preposterous.

 

Chapter 17

The light of starry dreams can only be seen once we escape the blinding cities of disbelief. - Shawn Purvis

 

'Lizzy?' Jane's voice sounded from the other side of her door. 'Lizzy, are you well?'

She sounded concerned, worried even.

Waking from her stupor Elizabeth collected herself before swiftly replying: 'Yes, I am quite well, Jane. I was just far away with my thoughts. Come in.'

'That I easily believe, for I knocked a couple of times and received no answer,' Jane smiled as she stepped into the room. 'Is there any news from Aunt Gardiner? Mother said you had a letter from her. How is the family?'

'Well. Everything is in perfect order,' Elizabeth replied, not quite recalling what her aunt had written at the beginning of her letter.

'Are you sure you are fine? You do look pale, Lizzy.'

Her sister approached her, a small frown crossing her pretty features as she reached out her hand to feel her sister's forehead.

'Yes, I am sure, Jane. I am just a little confused, that is all.'

'So something did happen, did it not?'

Now Jane's voice trembled.

'No, as said, all is well in Gracechurch Street. It is just that... - Jane, if I gave you a description of a person, would you tell me if you are reminded of someone?'

'Certainly. But, Lizzy, you are speaking in riddles.'

'Yes, I am quite aware of that, but please indulge me,' Elizabeth pleaded before taking a deep breath to continue: 'A tall, handsome man with a fine figure, hair that never stays quite put, a fine cut face, aristocratic nose and a sensitive mouth.'

'That is it? Sounds like a hero from Kitty and Lydia's romance novels, though you forgot to add brooding. But no, no one comes to mind. Why? Are you intending to write a romance?'

'No, of course not. It is just that... - Oh, never mind!'

Her sister's answer had unsettled her. Did she just imagine things? Perhaps she had gotten lost in a fantasy and nothing more. It was silly anyway.

'You are upset,' Jane observed, pulling her into an embrace. 'Of course I mind, Lizzy. How could I not? You have not quite been yourself for the past week, do not think it escaped me. Please tell me what is the matter?'

'Other than me being a silly goose, nothing. Absolutely nothing. It is just that I cannot get this man out of my head and it vexes me! I have never been so silly in the entirety of my life. Pray why do I have to start now? It is ridiculous!'

'So he is actually a real person?'

'Yes, very real. Unfortunately.'

'But should I not know him as well then? It is not as if we meet many gentlemen around here and most certainly not any that fit your description. Believe me, he would have been noticed and not just by you and me. If there were such a man, you would never hear the end of it from Kitty and Lydia.'

'He is not a gentleman, not even close.'

'Oh?!' Jane exclaimed and then sank onto her sister's bed as realisation dawned upon her lovely face. 'Goodness, I do know a man that fits the description.'

Her face was now a mask of thorough shock.

'Read!' Elizabeth ordered and handed over her letter. 'Mr Darcy is the man he supposedly worked for before he came here.'

Jane read the letter once, then again, her face turning from gentle curiosity to eventually sheer disbelief.

'But...?'

'Exactly, and right now, if you glance out of the window, you will see the very man feeding an apple to a hedgehog. It has been following him around all morning. You might recall that he also has a sister. He told us so when we met him by chance on our way to Meryton last week and discovered that he could write and read.'

'I do remember. But Lizzy, this is impossible!'

'One would think so, for what reason would a man like Mr Darcy have to come here and work as an under-gardener? The notion is downright absurd.'

'It ought to be so. Do you think he is in trouble of some kind? Perhaps over the woman, he has left behind?'

'I thought so as well at first, but what if she never existed? Think about it. What if it was merely a handy explanation of why he left his former position? A position he never held in the first place? Had there been any trouble with a woman all he needed to do is to remove himself to his estate in Derbyshire and that would have been the end of it.'

'That is true, it does not make much sense,' Jane answered thoughtfully, putting down the epistle. 'If William really is Mr Darcy.'

'None at all, I quite agree.'

'And you are determined to find it out, whatever it is. No use denying it, I can see it in your face. - But Lizzy, do be careful, there might be some danger in all of this.'

'I will be, I promise. But I must get to the bottom of this, if only for my own peace of mind.'

'You do love him dearly, do you not?'

'I at least like him very much and the more I get to know him, the more I do and I do not quite know what to do about it. It is by no means his looks alone, it is just that he is so very kind and calm and I like talking to him. He is intelligent and has wit. The other day when I went into the kitchen for an apple Smith was going on and on about him, how he helped to bring the water into the laundry all the while doing his own work as well. Everywhere I turn he is nothing but praised. Johnson was quite impressed as well when he drove us to Aunt Phillips the other day.'

'I dare say, if he really were a gentleman, you could not do better, Lizzy.'

'And that is yet to be determined. Not that it will save me from heartache, for a man like Mr Darcy surely could have any woman as wife he chose to take.'

'And he might be wise enough to choose you.'

'At present, I doubt that it would be a wise decision at all, Jane,' Elizabeth laughed.

It was good to have confided in her sister, and even better that Jane did not scold her for being silly. Then again, Jane never did.

 

Chapter 18

Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you mad. - Aldous Huxley

 

To say that he had been surprised when he had been joined by his little friend the hedgehog would have been an understatement but alas, there it was curiously following him around, making Darcy smile.

Just as he had told Elizabeth Bennet, he liked animals and for many reasons. Not judging was only one of them, but they were also loyal, gentle and trustworthy, or had anybody ever heard of a dog giving away a secret entrusted in complete confidentiality? - Well, perhaps with the exception of his aunt's cat that was. That creature was a little demon capable of anything and deceit especially. Most of the time anyway. Darcy wondered how often a maid had been scolded for breaking something when in truth it had been the innocent looking culprit sitting next to the countess. At any rate, he preferred dogs. Well, and hedgehogs of late.

He could not help it but bend down and share his apple with the little prickly animal.

'Hm, Prickler is actually a good name for you, my friend,' he murmured. 'No, not everything at once or you'll upset your stomach, little one.'

'Whom are you talking to?' Peters' voice sounded from behind him.

'Prickler.'

Glancing at the hedgehog Peters began laughing.

'I see you've made a new friend, William.'

'So it would appear, Sir. Is there anything else for me to do? The lawn is cut, and I've done the edges as well.'

'I see you have anticipated me, lad. No, then you are free for the rest of the afternoon. And you well deserve it. Never had such a hard-working man before and most certainly none who didn't grumble about having to do so much. Mr Darcy must greatly regret the day you left.'

'That I dare doubt, Sir.'

'Then at least your head-gardener does. And now go away and take Prickler with you.'

'If I can persuade him to leave, Sir, for he is a bit prickly to carry.'

Again Peters laughed jovially. However, there was no need to worry, for the creature did indeed follow. It was actually quite comical. There he was, strolling through the gardens of Longbourn House with a hedgehog in tow.

Going up to his chamber, Darcy picked up some sheets of paper as well as his pencil and penknife and left for a little ramble. Well, he knew exactly where he would go. He knew the moment he had decided to walk a little and while doing so could also take care of his correspondence. The little hill where he had first met Miss Elizabeth would do just fine. The stile would make a decent desk and it was not too far off once one knew the shortcut through the meadows. He took it now. There was a small path there from the many times this route had been taken and Darcy was pretty certain that it was all Elizabeth Bennet's doing. He never saw anybody else take off towards this direction.

For a moment he hesitated, wondering if this was such a wise idea, almost fearing he might run into her, just before he recalled that she had not left the house. Or at least not through the front door where he would have seen her. But in order to get to the stile, she would have had to cross the lawn and that again would have brought her into his line of vision.

Prickler still hard on his heels considering his short legs Darcy made his way uphill and soon found his destination. Putting down his writing utensils, he sat down and began writing as the soft wind ruffled through his hair.

The letter to his cousin could be kept short. Fitzwilliam was not much of a letter writer himself and he had often bemoaned receiving long letters for they quickly could become tedious to read through. Well, he was a busy man. A few lines thus were sufficient.

The letter to Bingley came next.

Dear friend,

do I have to pretend to be surprised at the news about Miss Catrell? Probably not. Though I have to say, that I rather think that it is you who deserves someone better instead of her. If she is taken aback by your lack of a title, then you have not lost much.

What had me honestly surprised, however, is your sister marrying. I think I do recall Mr Hurst. He is a rather portly fellow, is he not? He asked me about my gardens at Pemberley one evening. If it is indeed the very man, then it is him who gave me the idea for my present adventure albeit inadvertently. Take it as a compliment towards the man or leave it. If your sister has made her choice, then I am happy for her and I will keep my honest opinion to myself. Not that I have ever heard any evil about the man, so do not worry. And you know me too well to not know that my opinion of society is not very forgiving at the best of times. Not at present at any rate.

I am still quite content where I am. Just now I am sitting out of doors perched on a stile – hence the pencil. It would be a little too tedious to attempt to use a quill and ink under these conditions. Oh, and I made a new friend. He is a bit on the prickly side, but I guess he cannot help it. Ah yes, he is still here curled up in a neat little ball snoring softly at my feet. But do not tell Brutus or he will be jealous.

You asked whether there is a suitable house here in the neighbourhood and indeed there is. Netherfield Park is to let. But do I dare mention that I doubt it will suit your sister? I did not have a chance to look at it, naturally, for it is three miles from here and this is my first afternoon off in the time I have been here, so you will have to come and see for yourself. It is said to be grand, but I think your sister's thoughts are more along the lines of Chatsworth or Matlock than of a more modest country house. However, I ascertained from Smith who used to work there as a kitchen maid in her youth, that it has no more than twenty family rooms. (By the way, Smith is the cook. Just in case you were wondering.) The society here is also rather limited, though very nice by all accounts. So as said, it is well worth your consideration.

Yours etc.

Fitzwilliam Darcy

He had written without much thought, just basically slotted down what had come to mind and now looking at the missive again he was almost shocked to see his composition. It was most certainly a first that he had written so openly and unrestrained. For a moment he considered starting again but then decided against it. Dinner hour was coming closer and he at least wanted to start on the letter to Georgiana even though it was unlikely that he would finish it. But he would have to be more careful there.

Dearest sister,

do not fret, it is not on you to make me happy but on me to make you so. I almost feel like scolding you for thinking such nonsense but alas, I am also touched by your concern for me. However, it is not you who burdens me, but the tediousness of society. You are nothing but joy, my little darling sister. Ever since you were born I was nothing but proud of you and I love you dearly, never forget that. If you could be here, my present happiness would be complete.
I have been pondering for a while now about your stay in Bath, and though your last letter sounded cheerful, I know full well that you do not like being at school so far away, and so I have come to the conclusion that the situation must be remedied, though how I am not quite sure of yet.
If I were to marry, of course, that would solve a lot for both of us and

No, he was about to say too much of what he ought not feel. Carefully crossing out the last line he began again.

But all will work out in good time.

Yes, that was much better, if, perhaps, a bit vague.

I liked your assessment of Miss Caroline, soon to be Miss Bingley, for her older sister is getting married. I just had the news from their brother and was, admittedly, quite surprised. Not that she does marry, but that she marries a man she has not known for very long. Yes, Caroline Bingley can be a little overwhelming at times. I share the sentiment.

So, I guess you are curious to hear what I have been up to and so I will not have you wait any longer, though it is not much, really. Today, for example, I cut the lawn and made a new friend by the name of Prickler. At least that is what I call him and it is quite fitting. If I could draw in any shape or form that is past a triangle or quadrangle I would do so now, for I am sure he would put a smile on your face just as he does on mine, but then again, just imagine the cutest little hedgehog and you will know exactly how Prickler looks. At present, he is curled up at my feet and fast asleep. Well, he should have done so during the day, but he was too busy following me around. Is that not curious? Then again, I always got on better with animals than with people. They are delightfully devoid of all pretence. If they like you, they will come and if not they will stay away unless you force them and even then they might justly soil your shoes or alternatively sink their teeth or claws into your calves. I know what I am talking about, I have met Aunt Josephine's cat. I believe you were as yet fortunate enough to avoid this introduction, if not I apologise and commiserate with you.

Again he stopped, aghast at his own frankness. But then he had to laugh. It was actually quite funny, so it was just as well. And at any rate, it was time to return to Longbourn. As it was, he was already in danger of running late. As if to emphasise the time, his stomach rumbled and so Darcy gathered his things together including the still snoring hedgehog and took off downhill at a running pace. If it were not too silly he would be quite tempted to do what he used to do as a boy, and stretch out on the ground to roll downhill. Though thinking about it, that would probably rumple his papers, not to speak of poor Prickler. No, now was not the time for that kind of nonsense. But one day, he would show this game to his children. Ha, at least then he had a good excuse for making a proper fool of himself! And he would not care one jot as long as it made his children and wife laugh.

Darcy almost stumbled when he realised that he knew exactly whom he wished to be his children's mother. He really needed to get the better of his wayward emotions or he would be in trouble before long.

Chapter Text

Chapter 19

He who opens a school door closes a prison. - Victor Hugo

 

He did arrive on time, however, and leaving his new friend under a shrub with the rest of his apple that he had tucked into his pocket, Darcy went inside, washed his hands, and sat down.

'You look cheerful, William,' Smith remarked warmly. 'Just look at you, you couldn't be a more handsome lad if you were a gentleman's son.'

'He'd hardly sit with us if he were, Smithy,' John grinned and was promptly scolded for being so familiar with the cook.

It was, however, in a good-natured way and produced many chuckles from the others.

'So, what have you been doing with your time off? Not met with a girl I hope,' Peters inquired with twinkling eyes that made it clear that he was but joking.

'I've been writing to my sister.'

'Ha, and write he can as well!' Fanny exclaimed admiringly, then eagerly added: 'Can you show us?'

Once more Darcy was taken aback. He had quite forgotten how unusual it was for a servant to be able to read and write, mainly because it was so normal on his own estate. Besides, he had been caught completely off guard when he had been asked by the gardener what he had been doing and not thought much about his answer before giving it.

'If Mr Bennet does not object, I sure could,' was his thus carefully voiced answer.

'Because then I could write to my parents and they'd be mightily impressed,' Fanny beamed and several others nodded.

'Aye, but can they read?' Henry justly threw in, helping himself to some more potatoes and gravy.

'No, but they could've someone read the letter to them,' the girl replied in a matter-of-fact.

It was the usual custom, Darcy knew that much, though how anything of real importance could be conveyed in such a way, something that was not for everybody to know, was beyond him. Just thinking about his own letters to his friend and sister and imagining someone else to read those lines meant to be treated with confidence was mortifying.

But all around him his comrades now discussed all the possibilities of what they could do if they could read or write. Even the upper servants were far from objecting to any such scheme and so the butler offered to ask Mr Bennet at the first opportunity that would arise. Darcy felt quite out of his depth, but alas, it was too late. All he could do was hope that Mr Bennet would not like the scheme and put an end to it. There was reason to believe he would, for if he had wanted to educate his staff, he surely would have taken care of it already, would he not?

The said first opportunity, however, arrived much sooner than he would have hoped, and even before their meal was over. Mr Bennet had caught a slight cold, much to the worry of his wife, and had retreated to his library early in search for some peace and quiet and hence required the fire to be stoked and some more wood to be brought up. Not five minutes later, Hill returned with a triumphant smile on his face.

'Mr Bennet is all for it. Said it never crossed his mind before, but now that I've mentioned it, he thinks it a very good idea. So, William, you are to teach us how to read and write. In the evenings after dinner for a half-hour or so.'

'Very well, Sir,' was all the astonished reply Darcy could muster.

He really should have known better. An educated man himself, Mr Bennet would not be intimidated by servants who were so likewise, though on an obviously rather humble scale by comparison, and knowing the man's indolence, he should have also guessed that until now, not teaching his servants had been a mere oversight and not a purpose.

'Ah, but I knew how it would be, for when Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth were small they sometimes came down and taught us what they had just learned themselves. Do you remember Jenny?'

Mrs Hill nodded and so did Smith.

'You are, of course too young to remember,' the butler added, looking at the lower servants. 'But so it was. In short, Mr Bennet thinks it a very good thing.'

Well, and Darcy could not help thinking that perhaps Mr Bennet had only agreed because he wanted to be left in peace. Their master quite liked his solitude by all accounts and suffering a cold, this sentiment was bound to increase.

However, the whole group was so eager, that no sooner was the table cleared and everyone gathered around it again – with the exception of Mrs Hill who had gone up to serve the tea – and expectantly looked at him. He had to do something.

How was he to go about it though? There was neither paper, aside from his own limited stack he needed for his letters, nor a blackboard or book in sight. But then an idea came to mind. With the help of a little dusting of flour, he spread onto the surface of the kitchen table and wrote “DOG”. It was a nice short word and as good, to begin with as any other and one could play with it as well.

'Now, does anybody know what this might say?' he asked, cringing slightly, for he sounded much like his governess had done when first teaching him, and he had never much liked that woman.

Smith, who sat back and at first had been indignant that her neatly polished table was thus abused, grinned and nodded approvingly.

'This says “dog”. D-O-G.'

Everybody repeated the word as well as the letters. Something both tragical, in a sense, and comical to watch grown people do.

'Now if I turn the letters around and assemble them differently, what does it say then? Remember D-O-G.'

Almost everybody repeated the letters, which again brought back some memories.

'G.O.D. - God!' Leah cried out and promptly clapped her hands over her mouth in embarrassment.

'Exactly,' Darcy smiled, making her blush even more furiously.

He wiped the words away again and wrote “ODD”. This time it was Peter who figured it out.

After “DO” and “GOOD” he finished the lesson, actually quite pleased with himself. And so seemed the others as well. But in the long-run, he would have to find some other means to teach. Flour was all nice and well, but eventually, they would get beyond one or two short words and then he needed something more practical and besides, they would need to learn how to copy the letters he showed them. But learning how to read simple words and letters was a good start and for the moment this would have to do.

In the meanwhile, however, he would return to writing to Georgiana. Well, now he had at least something to tell her. He grinned walking over to his chamber and in doing so leaving the other folks behind as they still sat in the kitchen, singing now while doing the one or other needle work. Mainly darning stockings, fixing buttons or patching things up. Darcy was rather lucky that his own, though shabby, clothes did not require any repairs just yet, for truthfully he had not much of an idea what to do. And so he lit his candle, pulled out his letters and pencil and finished before going to bed. What a curious day!

 

Chapter 20

The odds of going to the store for a loaf of bread and coming out with only a loaf of bread are three billion to one. - Erma Bombeck

 

'Ah, Lizzy, there you are,' her father smiled as he stepped out of his library.

His nose was red but that was pretty much all that gave away that he suffered from a cold. Neither did his voice sound raspier as it normally did, nor did he appear feverish. But her mother was still in a flutter, bemoaning her fate as a prospective widow being thrown out into the hedgerows by the heir to Longbourn House. Some distant cousin they had never met in their lives due to an argument her father had had with his. What they had argued about had always aroused her curiosity, but as yet, she had not found it out.

'Are you about to go out?' Mr Bennet inquired further.

'Yes, I am, Papa. How are you this morning?'

'According to your mother dying, according to myself quite well, I thank you,' he replied dryly. 'Lizzy, I have a request, could you have a look through your old school books and pick out a few?'

'Of course, Papa.'

This was a most puzzling request, to say the least.

'Very good. Bring them into the kitchen, please.'

'I will, of course, but why?'

'So the servants can be taught how to read and write. It never occurred to me that they could not. Cannot everybody read and write?'

'No, unfortunately not. Only very few, Papa. Will they require paper then as well?'

'Yes, I would assume so. If you could find a couple of scraps, bring them down also.'

'May I inquire how all this came about?'

She did have an inkling.

'Hill asked me last night whether I would object to the servants learning how to read and write. It appears our new gardener knows how to and when they found out about it, they were eager to learn from him. - Ah, and speaking of the devil, there he is, raking the driveway. What is that thing beside him?'

'A hedgehog, Papa.'

'Is it indeed? Well, then that is curious.'

'It is. It has been following him around all day yesterday as well,' Elizabeth remarked carefully, though a small smile played around her lips.

'So? Has that been the case? Even more curious.'

As to this remark, Elizabeth was not so sure how to take it and her father's increasing scrutiny was slightly unsettling. Mr Bennet was an observant man, and his seeming disinterestedness had fooled many a person. If he did go out in society, there was very little that escaped him, no smile, no frown and most and for all no attachment.

'Then off you go, Lizzy. Get away, before the rain comes and do not stay out for too long. Dark clouds are gathering and I would prefer you not being caught in the rain and catch a cold. It is enough that your mother will soon have to mourn me without the addition of your premature demise.'

Elizabeth laughed and left, walking out of the house with a swift step. Said clouds were still some way off, but they did look ominous. She greeted William, she could hardly avoid that without appearing rude, smiled at the hedgehog and then took off, walking briskly towards Meryton to run an errand for her mother. She would have preferred to just ramble around, but Mrs Bennet had ordered some ribbons and lace the previous week; and though the shop could have sent them, in the danger of foul weather it posed a good enough excuse for her to leave the house without much fuss.

The walk, though not of her choice, was a pleasant one nonetheless. And thinking about her father's request, she quickly decided to visit the library likewise to see whether she could find some suitable books and then went on to purchase a set of slates and some chalk. They were, after all but a penny each and would serve a good cause. Besides, they were more practical in the beginning than paper. She was quite ashamed of herself for not having thought of such a scheme herself and not sure whether she was vexed or pleased that now William had taken the matter in hand. Well, she did not know any of the particulars how this had come about, so she could not rightfully judge the matter anyway. However, the least she could do now that she knew what she ought to have done, was to provide the material necessary to make it possible for him to teach his fellow servants properly. That was if he actually was a servant and that was still to be determined.

How she would do so, still evaded her, but eventually, the opportunity would arise. It always did and most of the time when least expected.

With that in mind, she finally led her steps towards the milliner's and picked up her mother's purchases, only to find that both Kitty and Lydia had placed orders likewise and not yet settled their account. Instead of passing on the notice, Elizabeth paid for her sisters. It would be easier this way. Both scatter-brained and gifted with the carelessness of youth, it was better this way. It did however, drain Elizabeth's funds after the other purchases she had made and her allowance was not due for another three weeks, so she would make sure that they both paid her back. That was if they had still any of their quarterly allowance left.

She had often argued with her father that when it came to Kitty and Lydia it might, perhaps, be wiser to give them their money on a monthly basis instead of one large sum every three months, but since it was more comfortable for him this way, she had not had any success. With a sigh, she picked up her many parcels and left for home.

The dark clouds had come ominously close by now and so Elizabeth hastened her step even more than she normally did. She would make it, surely. It was barely a mile to Longbourn. What was a mile of brisk walking? Nothing but half an hour – and that was taking her load into consideration, for it was slightly hampering.

 

Chapter 21

The best thing one can do when it's raining is to let it rain. - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

Elizabeth had been sure she would make it home in time to avoid the rain, but about half-way on her way back home the skies opened and it all but poured down. Two choices were before her, either to seek shelter somewhere or to run. The former was, at this time of year where the trees barely just sprouted their leaves more of a futile effort while the other was made difficult by the many boxes, parcels and bundles she was carrying. They were not actually heavy, nor were there all that many, but to protect them from the rain Elizabeth had tucked them rather awkwardly under her pelisse. She surely must look silly, but at present that was the least of her worries.

Both options, however, were shortly and unexpectedly joined by a third, when she perceived a man walk down the lane towards her carrying an umbrella. A man she knew. A man she thought about all too often already anyway. There, amidst the pouring rain, whistling a cheerful tune William rambled along on his way into town and no sooner did he spot her where she stood underneath the insufficient shelter of the branches of a lithe willow trying to make up her mind, that he hurried his pace and was soon by her side holding out his umbrella to her.

'Miss Elizabeth, please take this or you will be soaked in no time.'

Adding after a glance at her and in a wry voice: 'If you not already are.'

She did not take the umbrella, however, asking instead: 'And you?'

'Never mind me. I'm a sturdy fellow, I'll be alright,' he grinned back, now holding it over her head while the rain slowly but surely drenched his own rumpled looking clothes.

'Are you posting letters again or are you picking some up?'

'The former, Miss.'

Well, now was as good a time as any to start her “investigation”, was it not?

'To your sister or one of your cousins?'

'Both actually.'

'My father told me you are now teaching the other servants to read and write as well...'

'Yes, I guess I am. It happened quite by accident, but when they heard that I'd written to my sister they were all eagerness and hard to refuse.'

'You, William, make me heartily ashamed of myself! I should have thought of it myself. You know, when I was little, Jane and I taught Smith and Mr and Mrs Hill.'

'Which is just as well, for there is nothing better than to learn by teaching it to others.'

'Very true,' Elizabeth answered thoughtfully.

'So it is only natural that when you outgrew your ABC that you would forget all about sharing it with the others. At home, it is such a normal thing that I quite forgot that not all masters have the same sentiment.'

'But yours had.'

Ha, the conversation went exactly where she wanted it to go!

'Yes, I was fortunate in that respect.'

'Only in that?'

'No, it was a good position I held.'

'Had it not been for the sake of a girl,' Elizabeth replied rather slyly.

He did not reply to that but merely cast his eyes down an unreadable expression crossing his features.

'Are you happy here?'

'Very. I much prefer the country to town.'

'But surely, if you had told Mr Darcy as much he would have found work for you on his estate in Derbyshire.'

Again he startled, looking almost shocked, before shaking his head slightly and replied vaguely: 'Perhaps.'

'But alas, there was this girl.'

Once more he did stay silent but longingly glanced towards Meryton as if he wanted nothing more than just run from her.

'You never said what your position was, William, and I have to admit that I am quite curious,' she carried on undeterred despite his apparent discomfort.

'I... - I worked around the house most of the time,' he positively stammered now, not looking her in the eye.

'Ah, that explains why you are so good with horses,' Elizabeth remarked archly.

'Well, occasionally I had to accompany Mr Darcy.'

She seized her chance: 'You mean your father, I suppose?'

At this, all colour left his face and Elizabeth was almost worried he would faint if that were not such a ridiculous notion. Men did not suffer fainting fits.

'Mr Darcy is about my age, Miss Elizabeth. He has no children,' William pressed out from between his teeth.

So, she had hit a nerve.

Oh! She had completely neglected that possibility... - He could be Mr Darcy's illegitimate brother, of course, just as well as the man himself. It did happen, more often than people liked to admit, and it again would explain why he might have left his previous position. Odd she had not thought of that before. It would also explain why he looked so much like her aunt's description of Mr Darcy.

'Only a sister,' she remarked absent-mindedly.

Her head was spinning. Perhaps all this questioning had not been such a good idea after all. Definitely not without thinking it through properly. Alas, now it was too late. Elizabeth would either be proven right or a right fool.

'Yes.'

Again, the girl in question could be both men's sister. But if he considered her a sister, then he would also have to consider his former master a brother, would he not?

'And a handful of cousins?' she dug deeper.

'Yes.'

Again no mention of a brother. This line of questions would not get her anywhere and he appeared to grow ever more impatient to continue on his way. Well, he was quite soaked by now; the brim of his hat was threatening to fall into his face with all the water gathered there and his clothes had wet patches all over.

'Do they know you are here?' she ploughed on, however.

'Who?' he asked, looking puzzled now.

But at least the colour had returned to his face, this times heightened and he did shift uncomfortably from one foot to the other all the while ceaselessly holding the umbrella over her head.

'Your family.'

'Of course.'

'And they think nothing of it?'

'Well...'

No, again this would lead to nothing. As yet all of his answers were too open for interpretation and that would not do. She had meant to be more subtle, but alas, her curiosity had gotten the better of her and now there was no way back. Right or fool...

'Why are you really here, Mr Darcy?'

For a moment there was nothing but silence and then there was merely the soft thud as the umbrella fell to the ground and into the mud beside them, splattering them both.

It was not before several long minutes had passed that he finally answered in a rather harsh tone of voice that sounded quite unlike him, without his Derbyshire-accent: 'I was so tired of all the pretence of London society that I just needed to get out. Needed to be with people who would accept me for who I am without the need for me to put on a mask. Every night I wished myself far away, turning more and more bitter as the weeks passed, up to a point when I neither knew nor liked myself anymore. Is that reason enough?'

There was no doubt that he was speaking the truth. He looked like a lost little boy as he stood there in the pouring rain. Yet, at the same time, there was a decided stubbornness about him that showed that he was anything but a boy. And at any rate, it was a good enough reason. One that explained everything in all its simplicity.

'It is,' Elizabeth calmly answered. 'And your secret is safe with me, William, for as long as you like. By the way, where is your little friend?'

The informal address towards a servant, not a master was enough to assure him that she meant what she had said and with a soft smile he reached into his pocket and pulled out the sleeping hedgehog.

'I didn't have the heart to leave him out in the rain,' Darcy answered gently before tucking the little creature back in.

Chapter Text

Chapter 22

Health is the greatest gift, contentment the greatest wealth, faithfulness the best relationship. - Buddha

 

Picking up the umbrella again, Darcy, after shaking it thoroughly to get rid of the mud, once more held it out to Elizabeth, who with some difficulties took it. Under normal circumstances, he could hardly be called a curious man, but there was an obvious question that he would have liked answered and so, momentarily forgetting about his letters, he fell into step with her relieving her of her hampering cargo.

'Miss Elizabeth,' he began hesitantly when he had managed to assemble the many parcels into a neat pile that would neither squash Prickler in his pocket nor make his arms fall asleep, 'now that you know who I am, may I inquire how you found out? I have to admit that I was quite certain I would go undetected for the duration of my stay, but was obviously wrong in my assumption.'

'Not entirely, I assure you. You were quite convincing. I have never seen a gentleman work so hard and do such dirty work and most certainly not without complaining. But you spoke too well for a mere under-gardener, despite your rural accent. And you read Shakespeare. Come now, that is not very characteristic for a servant, is it? Even one who knows how to read.'

'Apparently not.'

'And so I took the trouble of finding out more about your former employer to see whether he deserved your praise or whether there was another reason than that mysterious silly woman why you had come here to find work,' she explained.

Did he imagine it or did she look somewhat challenging putting some emphasis on “that mysterious silly woman”?

'You see, at that point, you had me quite confused,' Elizabeth Bennet carried on. 'And so I wrote to my aunt who lives in London and who, incidentally, knows you. Well, rather knew you when you were a little boy, but she had at least seen you since and gave a description of your appearance and only then did it occur to me, that you might actually be Mr Darcy and not one of his former servants.'

Her aunt knew him? As a boy? He could not help digging deeper, for now ignoring the need to tell her that there had never been a woman he was in love with. Though now there was and she was walking right beside him. But no, as yet, he was still nothing but a gardener and he would remain so for at least another few weeks.

'She grew up in Lambton,' Elizabeth Bennet added as if she had guessed his line of thought.

Oh?!

'Pray, what is her name?'

'Well, now she is Mrs Gardiner, but she was born Madeleine Harris,' the lady beside him replied.

'Harris? Surely not the Harrises of Bell Street?'

His voice now turned eager. He well remembered, if not the Harrises themselves, their maid quite well. A good-natured woman ever smiling, ever calm. He had adored her as a boy. She was a model of patience, good cheer and hard work. That she had worked so ceaselessly while having a bent back had impressed him even more. But darn, what had been her name? He was almost ashamed that he could not remember it. He should. Especially considering how often he had gotten into trouble for mingling with the lower classes. But with the innocence of a child, he had seen nothing wrong in his behaviour. They were, after all, nice and mainly decent people with very few exceptions. Then he had been sent to Eton and gradually his outlook on the world had been altered by the notion that he was something better...

'I have to admit that I do not know. But I could ask my aunt if you like,' she offered just as they reached the front steps of Longbourn House.

'Perhaps sometime, Miss Elizabeth. But for now, you should go inside and get yourself dry,' he smiled.

'That sounds like a very good plan. And the same applies to you, William. Get yourself into the kitchen and warm yourself.'

Now she sounded like a stern army commander and by the grin on her face and the sparkle in her eyes, it was apparent that she was well aware of it.

'I will. The rain is mighty cold.'

He handed back her parcels, bowed and rounded the house. His clothes were indeed dripping wet by now and a slight wind had roused and made him shiver. He would have to take care that he did not get ill. It would not do. Colds were unpleasant at the best of times, but thinking of having to drudge on while feeling weak and feeble would be close to unbearable.

It was the first time in weeks that it crossed his mind, that he was lucky to have been born into a wealthy family where they could afford a doctor and a warm fire in the bedroom, hot tea and warm baths when feeling unwell and as if to undermine his thoughts, he actually had to sneeze. Oh dear!

He stepped into the kitchen, taking great care to wipe his shoes as best as he could in order to not offend Smith. His feet were quite wet actually, for though the boots he had acquired were, in dry weather at least, perfectly serviceable, now that he had waded through several puddles, they proved to be water-permeable.

Darcy sneezed again, gaining the attention of the cook.

'Oh goodness, William, have you caught a cold? I said from the start that you shouldn't go out in this kind of weather,' she sighed, though in truth, she had not even seen him leave. 'Come, come and sit down and have a good cuppa. It'll be no good if you should fall ill now. Peters says planting season is about to start, now that it has gotten warmer. All hands will be needed.'

Well, it was impossible to argue about that statement of it being inconvenient getting ill.

'I'll be just fine, Mrs Smith, thank you, but a cup of tea would be very welcome indeed.'

'And push your chair towards the hearth. Just look at you, you're all sodden.'

'That I am for sure, Mrs Smith. Are you sure I won't be in the way?'

'Oh, you'll be, but we can't have you ill, William. So, I'd rather put up with you being in the way than to listen to Peters complain about the inconvenience of you being unable to work.'

Once again he sneezed, undermining her words with annoying determination. Pulling out his handkerchief, Darcy blew his nose, which had also started running. Not a good sign at all. But alas, there was little he could do now but to let nature take its course and ponder on Miss Elizabeth.

By the sound of it, it had been fairly simple to discover his real identity, but then again, the young lady seemed to possess a sharp mind and a very lively fantasy. After all, there were many young men that fit his description. But perhaps it would have been wiser to have given his friend's name instead of his own as his former employer. If only he had thought about that. But he had not, and now he had been found out. Still, she had promised him to keep her discovery to herself, and there was little reason to assume she would break her promise. And maybe, just perhaps, there was a chance he could... - But no, that was most certainly out of the question!

He was so deep in thought that he did not realise that Fanny was standing right before him holding out the promised tea to him and only when she cleared her throat with a small giggle, did he rouse from his musings.

'What are you thinking of so deeply?' she asked cheekily.

He smiled, took the cup from her and answered ruefully and not quite truthfully: 'Oh, nothing in particular. I was just wondering when the rain would stop so I can go back to Meryton and post my letters. I had no chance to, you know?'

It was not a complete lie. And he would have to go back.

'Not? All those sodden clothes and not posted your letters? Now that is unfortunate!' Mrs Smith piped up from the other side of the kitchen.

'Well, on my way thither I came across Miss Elizabeth stranded underneath a tree hoping for the rain to stop, but instead it got worse and so I helped her bring home her purchases and lent her my umbrella. Oh, which reminds me...'

He reached into his pocket. Yes, his friend was still there, sleeping peacefully untroubled by the dampness that had seeped through even to him. Bless!

 

Chapter 23

Health is not valued till sickness comes. - Thomas Fuller

 

The next morning, Darcy felt utterly exhausted despite having gone to bed early; his head was throbbing and his throat aching and he could barely speak. Not a very promising start to the day, to say the least. He was almost thankful that it was still raining, for it meant that aside from taking care of the seedlings in the hothouse, there was little he could do around the garden itself. Still, it did cost him some effort to drag himself out of bed.

Well, had he been at home, he could have stayed in bed all day, with a comfortable fire in the grate and an endless supply of lovely hot soup and tea as well as a good book to occupy himself with. But as it was, he was only a servant now, and he would have to take care of his chores regardless. And then there were still his letters... - Perhaps he would have preferred for it to be dry and sunny after all.

He washed and shaved as he did every morning, shivering from the cold water he had to use. With him trembling anyway it was highly unpleasant, but what must be, must be. If only he could take a nice warm bath. One with a dash of peppermint or spruce oil, preferably. That always worked wonders with a blocked nose and sore throat. Or a nice spoonful of honey. Obviously, neither was an option. If anything he would have to be content with onion brew or chewing fennel seeds.

Once again Darcy made his way over to the house following the other lads for their usual breakfast of plain porridge and thin tea before taking care of the saplings, carefully tending to them, replanting the larger ones into bigger pots with a nice amount of horse manure at the bottom, clipping some seedlings here and there for good measure and then watering them all. It was work that technically could have waited for another week, but should the weather be fine, there were other things to do then. And besides, it was comfortably warm in the hothouse, with the small furnace stoked to give an even temperature throughout the day and more importantly the night without it being too hot and the work, which required some attention distracted him from his discomfort.

By lunch, the rain had turned into a mere drizzle, though working outside was still out of the question, for it was far too wet. Darcy did feel a little better and so the remainder of the day cooped up in the shed with Prickler at his feet, he spent polishing the gardening tools and sharpening the spades, sickles and scythes with a wet stone before wiping all of the tools down with lard, polishing them once again until they were nice and shiny. At least he stayed dry, though other than in the hothouse, here it was cold and draughty and by dinner-time, his head pounded and his voice had all but left him and he felt worse than upon rising. Still, he was determined to walk over to Meryton to post his letters but Peters was having none of it.

'You ain't going nowhere, laddy, but straight to bed!' he grumbled, though not without a fatherly pat on Darcy's back. 'Just give those darn letters to John and he can post them for you on the morrow.'

Could he dare it? In town where no one knew much of his background except that he was a gardener at Longbourn, he felt secure enough to leave the letters addressed to his sister and cousin as well as Bingley, without fearing detection, but with John? Well, it was not as if the boy could read much as yet. And at any rate, his aching head refused to come up with an excuse as to why he had to post them himself. He had no other choice it seemed.

With an exhausted sigh, he handed the letters to be posted and three pence over to John, half expecting the boy to try and read what was written on the envelopes. He did indeed see John's eyes flicker over the lines he had written for the shortest of moments until by sheer luck of convenient coincidence, the maids brought back the food from the family's table at which John promptly claimed the remaining piece of apple crumble for himself, tucking the letters unceremoniously into his pocket without further ado.

It had been a close call. He would need to be more cautious in the future. But how was he to manage? He had not thought what it might entail teaching his fellow servants how to read and write, and never would he have thought that it might bring him into a quandary at any rate. It was blatantly obvious that he was not made for deception. First, Miss Elizabeth and now this... - How much longer would he be able to stay here? Just when he had started to feel like himself again.

That he should fall ill, was another thing he had not figured into his calculations, but as it was, he could feel himself burning up with a fever on top of it all. Darn, was everything going wrong today? It sure seemed so. Alas, there was little he could do but go to sleep early again and hope for the best. And so with a heated brick wrapped in old linens, thoughtfully supplied by Mrs Hill, he made his way over to his chamber, curled up in bed and fell into a dreamless slumber.

 

Chapter 24

I love you more in that I believe you had liked me for my own sake and for nothing else. - John Keats

 

The first indication that something was wrong was a lonely looking hedgehog scuffling across the lawn. No William anywhere in sight even though after two days of rain the sun was shining as if it wanted to make up for the past days of inclement weather. But there was only Peters, his clay pipe between his lips, raking the driveway looking slightly grumpy as always at this time of day.

'Good morning Peters,' Elizabeth approached the man taking an inconspicuous detour, for she had fully intended to simply cross the lawn and ramble over to her favourite haunt instead of walking out the gate. 'All on your own this morning?'

'Morning, Miss Elizabeth. Well yes, William is lying sick in his bed with a fever. Wanted to get up that boy, that's how he is, always dutiful, but I told him that since we're going to be busy from next week on, that is, should the weather stay this way, he'd better stay in bed and get rid of that blasted cold he's got. Mighty unfortunate, Miss, but what can one do?'

Not much, Elizabeth had to admit. And it was all her fault! If she had not delayed their return to Longbourn with her nosy inquiries, the poor man would not suffer a cold now. But no, she had not been able to keep her curiosity in check and now he lay in his bed with a fever.

For her it had been easy enough, all she had to do upon her return home was change into a dry frock and sit in front of the fire in the parlour with a nice hot cup of tea. But he, as a servant, in all likeliness, had no such comforts waiting for him, at most, it would have been a cup of tea for him and perhaps a quarter of an hour in front of the fire in the kitchen, if even that. Well, if he really were a servant accustomed to working out of doors it presumably would not have been all that much of a problem either, but alas, he was not. What a revelation that had been!

Under normal circumstances she would have been angry at having been deceived, but he had spoken of his reasons so earnestly that there was little doubt that deception had not been on his mind when he had chosen to come hither to work for them as a gardener and besides, it was hardly his fault that he made her heart beat just this little bit faster every time she cast her eyes on him, was it?

No, it was not! And the worst part was that now she knew he was really a gentleman. And one of a kind at that. He was kind, caring, intelligent – all that, but also apparently stubborn to a fault. Yet, she rather liked that.

Deep in thought, she rounded the park and marched up the hill for once oblivious to the beauty surrounding her. No, something had to be done for him. The question was just, what? What could she do without giving away his secret as she had so faithfully promised him?

'Eliza!' a voice shouted out to her from some distance away and a little further down the path, just where it led down towards Lucas Lodge, Charlotte stood waving at her.

Waving back, Elizabeth quickened her step, schooling her face, so obviously contemplative before, into a mask of her usual cheerfulness. It did not fool Miss Lucas, though.

'I thought you had turned deaf all of a sudden,' she smiled teasingly. 'You were far away, were you not? In thought, I mean, for in body you were pretty close by. - I was just about to pay you a visit. So, what were you pondering on so deeply?'

'Oh, this and that, really. You know me, I always think about the one or other thing when rambling about,' Elizabeth tried to divert her friend, again with little success.

'I know you well enough, Eliza, to not be fooled. You might think about the one or other thing on occasion, but when walking, you mainly just enjoy what meets your eyes unless something has happened that causes you to worry. Has something happened?'

Charlotte Lucas looked concerned now, slowly falling into step beside her.

'No, aside from that it is now definitely decided that Lydia shall have her coming out at the next assembly.'

'And that is what worries you so? Well, I know she is still very young and boisterous, but she will learn how to behave eventually, do trust me.'

Actually, Charlotte could not be further from the truth as to what was on her mind, but Elizabeth could hardly tell her that.

'I suppose I have to believe the best for the time being. It is just that Kitty always follows where Lydia leads and while she is behaving with propriety now, I do wonder...' she sighed.

That was actually nothing but the truth. She did worry about Lydia's coming out and how it would reflect on the family and Kitty in particular. Only last night Lydia had declared how funny it would be if she were the first one to find herself a husband and that determined sentence alone gave Elizabeth and Jane cause to worry. Not that they did not want to see her youngest sister happily wed, but it was presumably not a stretch of the imagination to how she would behave in the meantime in order to attract a man who would take her for a wife.

'Yes,' Charlotte's voice reached through to her again, 'but think about it, you and Jane are there to guide her. And considering that either of you might get married in the next twelvemonth or so, perhaps now is as good a time as any for her to come out and have both of you still around.'

'I am pretty certain the chance of Jane and I getting married within the next year are pretty slim, Charlotte,' Elizabeth answered with a laugh. 'As you might have noticed, there is quite a lack of suitable young men around here with whom to marry.'

'True,' Charlotte sighed, then grinned. 'But you never know. There is the good chance that Netherfield Park might be let at last to a handsome young man with a large fortune and in want of a wife.'

'Yes, and then there is the even greater chance that when we stand on top of this hill just long enough that a knight in shining armour happens to come along to sweep us off our feet.'

'Well, yes that chance we should not discount either,' Charlotte, quieter than herself but always just as quick to counter with her own wit replied with a laugh. 'So, I stand by my claim, there is a strong chance that either one of you or even both will be married within the next year and what then? Lydia will be left unguided except for by Mary and Kitty.'

It told volumes that her friend did not mention their mother. But as well-meaning, loving and caring as Mrs Bennet was, she generally turned a blind eye to her youngest daughter's wild behaviour. Lydia, as the youngest had always been indulged as if seeing her grow up was too much to bear, too much of a reminder that one grew old. On the other hand, bringing her out in society contradicted her own theory there. Life's philosophy often defied all logic, it seemed.

'Perhaps you have a point there, after all, Charlotte,' Elizabeth replied lightly, though her heart felt anything but light. 'Oh, look, the first lambs have arrived.'

'See, new year, new arrivals and what next? New love?'

'I have never taken you to be a romantic, Charlotte Lucas!'

'Alas I am not, but you are, Eliza. No do not dare deny it, you are fine now, but when in love, you will be just as much of a fool as everybody else who believes in love, while I, on the other hand, would be perfectly content with a good house and an establishment of my own.'

'And what if you should fall in love? After all, it is beyond our control if, when and with whom we fall in love.'

'Do you speak of your own experience or have you read such nonsense in a book? If it is the latter, I suggest you change your taste in reading. As you have pointed out, there are not exactly many opportunities here and I, at any rate, cannot be choosy.'

'Neither can I, I fear. But that does not mean we have to despair as of yet. As you have said, perhaps soon enough Netherfield Park will be taken by a handsome young man with a large fortune and in want of a wife; and after all, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.'

'Exactly!'

They had reached Longbourn and once they stepped over the threshold their conversation could not continue with the same unrestrained openness - if one could call it all that open on her part - since there were too many ears to listen in on what they were saying for lack of anything better to do.

Chapter Text

Chapter 25

Rest when you're weary. Refresh and renew yourself, your body, your mind, your spirit. Then get back to work. - Ralph Marston

 

The unpleasantness of the situation was made worse by the embarrassment of having been here for barely a month before falling ill, and even Peters' assurance that those kinds of things happened all the time, did little to console Darcy in his present state. He did not deal well with being ill even at the best of times and being ill lying in a tiny chamber with little to do but stare at the wall was ultimately worse. Well, he had not been this grumpy since he had left London and it was the only consolation that of late he had found society even more bothersome than a fever.

But with nothing to read, all Darcy could do was feel sorry for himself and besides, it was cold up here over the stables, and the air was somewhat stale. It had not bothered him before, but now it did as querulously he turned from one side over to the other and back again. If only he could sleep a little, but even that was denied him for some or other sinister reason. Not that he was bothered by his work-fellows or the animals shuffling around down below, no, he just was too restless. Restless and cranky and all in all wallowing in self-pity.

Tom had been kind enough to bring over his meals so he would not need to go over to the house, and yes, he was grateful for that. Very much so. On the other hand, a little company would have been nice as well. Even if he only listened to what the others were saying or the kitchen maids singing as they did their chores while he sat by the fire. Yet there he would have been in Smith's way again and besides, he was quite groggy and glad that he could lay down. His head ached quite a bit.

And then there was the concern for Miss Elizabeth. After all, he had not been the only one who had gotten thoroughly wet two days ago. And if he had caught a cold, what about a fair lady? Was not a lady's constitution a lot less robust than that of a man? What if she too had to stay in bed suffering just as he did? The only consolation in that respect was, that she had a loving family to care for her, and likely something to read and a warm fire to sit in front of.

A curt knock on the door sounded, rousing him from his thoughts and in stepped John, sporting his dourest expression, without as much as waiting for an answer, carrying a tray of steaming hot tea and a book.

'You are lucky, William, to be able to lie around all day,' the young lad remarked, plunking down the tray onto the chair beside Darcy's bed with little regard to the fact that tea was spilling everywhere. 'I wish I could do that whenever I felt like it.'

'Well, in this case if I could, I would willingly swap with you, for I would prefer to be out and about without having a fever and sore throat,' Darcy croaked back, eagerly reaching for the book.

'Miss Elizabeth thought you might want to read something... - Had it from Peters that you were ill when she was out walking.'

Really? That was very considerate. Oh, and it was also good to know that she was out and about and obviously not sick herself.

Realising that John looked at him inquisitively Darcy raised a questioning eyebrow to indicate his growing irritation with the boy. John was not the most industrious lad to begin with, hardly ever offering to lend a hand even when everyone around him was busy, hustling and bustling around, while he sat at the kitchen table idling away his time; that is until ultimately Smith or Hill caught sight of him and made him help. But it really always required one of the senior servants to remind him of his duties. However, in the end, he was nothing but a typical boy of fourteen, slightly sulky, always hungry and never very fast. He would grow out of it eventually, as every young boy did.

When after a couple of minutes John still just stared at him, Darcy asked: 'Well, what is it?'

'Why would Miss Elizabeth send you a book?'

'I presume because she thought it might help me pass the time. She knows that I'm teaching you all how to read and write - as you might know from the fact that she provided the slates and old textbooks.'

'Hm,' was all the boys huffed reply before he turned and walked out of the room, habitually forgetting to close the door behind him.

Getting up to pour himself a mug of tea and to close the door to keep out the draught, Darcy could not help wondering whether it had been Elizabeth Bennet's wisest idea to send the book after all. He appreciated her thoughtfulness, but then again, he did have to question whether he himself would have thought of something like this had one of his servants been ill. Darcy, without praising himself unduly, knew he was a very considerate master, but no, he in all likeliness would not have done so despite knowing that basically, all his servants knew how to read. In this instance, it was close to an admission that Miss Bennet and he were by now better acquainted than they should be.

But on second thought, Darcy consoled himself with what he had heard about the Bennets, and that they were in general very considerate and though not mingling with their servants, always treated them kindly and with respect - as fellow creatures and not a commodity taken for granted. Perhaps he should not ponder on John's general sense of being treated unfairly. What was the point anyway?

Despite his resolution, he decided nonetheless to find out more about the boy. With many young servants in their first position, it was nothing more than being severely homesick that made them such timid and generally unhappy creatures, and as it was, he had not heard of any relative of John's living nearby. If he had to venture a guess, judging from the lad's accent, he was not from around here. If he thought about his own first months at Eton, he had a pretty good idea what went on in the boy's head and heart. Perhaps, once he returned back home, he could do something for him.

Taking the first sip, Darcy was pleasantly surprised to find that the tea was stronger than the servants' usual brew and the next pleasant surprise was, that the volume sent by Miss Elizabeth happened to be Defoe's “Robinson Crusoe”, one of his boyhood favourites. Ha, and indeed, he had not read it in a good while, though he had always meant to do so yet never got around to it. - Until now and by sheer coincidence!

 

Chapter 26

You cannot believe in God until you believe in yourself. - Swami Vivekanada

 

'What are you looking for, Lizzy?' Mary, normally not one to be fussed with goings on around her, startled her as she looked through the books sitting on the shelf in the sitting room. Those were the books that their father did not value as much as the ones he kept in his bookroom and thus had banned from his retreat along with the ones that she and her sisters had accumulated over the past few years.

'A book,' Elizabeth replied evasively.

'I recommend you read ”Watson's comments on the Ten Commandments” then. I have just now finished it,' Mary replied with an important mien, holding out said book for her.

'Admittedly I was looking for something a little more adventurous and exciting.'

Mary huffed indignantly and put away her volume before disdainfully pulling out Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.

'Adventurous enough?' she asked testily all but flinging the book into her older sister's hands. 'I really do not understand how any of you care so little about serious works when they are most beneficial in forming the mind of a young lady. Life is far too serious to spend our short time on earth reading through such trifling works.'

With a small sigh Elizabeth caught Mary's eyes before remarking kindly and with a cheeky grin on her face: "And I do not understand why you always take things so seriously, Mary. Do you not think that us enjoying our lives as best as we can is the greatest compliment we could pay God for his marvellous creation? To cherish what we have, the beauty that surrounds us, to revel in each other's company, and laugh as much as we can - not at other's but with them?"

For a moment Mary looked confused and her almost habitual frown had softened a little until a moment later it was firmly back in place.

'You, Lizzy, can afford to be cheerful and light-hearted, but not all of us are gifted with beauty enough to be forgiven such follies,' she replied bitterly, her mouth set in a firm line. 'Some of us have to work for their praise.'

Elizabeth was stunned and her first impulse was to pull her younger sister into her arms had Mary's attitude not absolutely forbidden it. Instead, all those afternoons preparing for a ball came to mind and the endless compliments Jane and Kitty as well as herself on occasion received from their mother while Mary was merely granted an acknowledgement that she at least had tried to make an effort to look half-way presentable. It was not that their mother loved Mary any less than her other children, but her sister was right, Mrs Bennet took pride in her for being so meticulous in her pursuits of acquiring accomplishments and not in her beauty or calm temper. It seemed that this distinction had left a mark and it was painful to see once one noticed it.

Yes, Mary was the plainest of them, and though excessively pale she was still a fairly pretty girl with even features, a sensitive mouth, surprisingly dark eyes that gave her a somewhat exotic look, and though her hair was rather mousy in colour, every time the sunlight caught in it, it had the most beautiful streaks of gold in them. Though she had a willowy figure, Mary always came across as being a bit gangly instead of graceful as she did not take much care of her appearance or posture.
At the same time, Mary was little inclined to have others help her nor was she willing to alter her ways to become more approachable and amiable. But as of yet, she was not a lost cause; or at least that was what Elizabeth dearly hoped.

It also suddenly occurred to her how William, or rather Mr Darcy, must have felt when deciding to hide away in the country for a few weeks. Whereas for her sister, if it would have even been possible for a lady to do so, she would have likely needed a while longer to realise that occasionally it might do her well to relax a little and just enjoy life instead of taking everything so seriously as she did at present; to step back for a while instead of diligently following a routine that obviously gave her little enjoyment, if one looked but beneath the surface. It also showed good judgement on his part actually, to know when a change was in order. Not many people were willing to change and even fewer would do something as drastic as he had done. Ha, it was hard not to admire him for that alone!

Consciously she turned the book over and over in her hands long after Mary had left her to her own devices, deep in thought. Was it wise to let her guard down now that she knew who he really was?

With a decided sigh, Elizabeth stepped back into the hall at long last and went in search of John. Since he usually was to be found in close vicinity of the kitchen, it was not all that difficult and sure enough there he was, trying to look busy polishing a lamp. Or if one wanted to more accurately describe it, he was presently spreading the soot onto its surface more evenly. Well, it was not as if Hill had not complained multiple times already about his tardiness and it was only due to the fact that he had nowhere else to go, that as of yet neither her father nor mother had had the heart to dismiss him.

'John?' she addressed him, making him whirl around on the spot in the process.

'Yes, Miss Elizabeth?' was his stammered reply at being caught dawdling.

'Could you please bring this over to William? And also some tea? I heard he is ill and had to keep in bed today, so I thought he might be in need of some entertainment...'

With rather beady eyes the lad looked at her, taking the book from her with some hesitancy before bowing his head and stalking off, giving Elizabeth the feeling as if she had just now made a massive mistake. And perhaps she had. Had it really been wise to send the book? Darn, she had not thought how it might look and while they had always taken care of their servants, perhaps this had been a tad too much attention. She should have thought about the difference in caring for a sick person by taking care of his basic needs when being so and paying attention beyond that like providing entertainment for him. Now it was too late. Where on earth had her good judgement gone? She had always been proud of having good judgement and now this!

 

Chapter 27

Knowledge will give you power, but character respect. - Bruce Lee

 

The next morning, the world looked so much brighter again and the sore throat was nothing but a slight scratch at the back of his throat. So far, so good. The fever was gone as well and though Darcy still felt more tired than he normally did, he was still eager to get out of bed and back to work. It was still very early and as yet no-one stirred and so, swinging his legs over his narrow bedstead, he got dressed and went to fetch some water for all of them to wash. A routine now so very familiar to him it was almost inconceivable to think that only a few weeks ago it had been a completely different routine that had made him re-evaluate his life. It had been a good decision however, and he dreaded the day he would have to return to his old life and re-enter society. It was quite silly really, but true. Just being able to be himself was a blessing he had not known since he had been a boy. Here, he was in no danger of finding himself entangled in an engagement of some sort or another that he did not want, especially of the marrying kind.

Well, not that he did not want to get married. He knew he was of an age where it slowly but surely became necessary to settle down and start a family if he wanted his line to live on, but as of yet no woman had ever managed to captivate him. Though actually that was not true anymore, there was hardly a moment when he did not think of Miss Elizabeth: her intelligence, wittiness and beauty. Despite the fact that he had little to do with her due to his position, his feelings grew daily. It was from the little he did know about her alone, that he was suddenly aware of what he had been searching for in a wife all along. A woman with intelligence and a kind heart, with wit and an opinion of her own; as she was also very pretty, especially her sparkling eyes surrounded by long and thick lashes that made them stand out even more, it didn't exactly help quench those feelings of having finally found what he had been looking for all those years in society. But despite her now knowing his true identity, there was no way he could court her as yet. No, he would have to go back and if necessary, take Netherfield himself in order to do so if Bingley should decide against it. This was his one chance of happiness and he would not give it up. However, he had to go slowly. Another week or two here would not hurt his cause, or at least so he hoped. Besides, he was needed here presently and to let Peters and the others down was not a thing he could do in good conscience.

Searching through his knapsack for a fresh pair of stockings, since the ones he had been wearing the past few days were in desperate need of a wash and truth be told quite smelly, appallingly so to be even more precise, he found something he had quite forgotten. Something that upon unpacking his things had slipped right down to the bottom of his meagre bundle of belongings but now surfaced. Her shawl! The one she had forgotten on the stile three, well almost four weeks ago when he had first met her. It was almost like a sign. A good one at that. After wearing rough clothing for several weeks now, to hold something as soft and delicate as this felt rather strange where before it would have been the other way around. Yes, it had taken some days to get used to the rough cambric shirt and donning the old and grimy clothes each and every morning, not to mention lacking the luxury of changing one’s undergarments more than twice or thrice a week. Surely, Miss Caroline would be appalled and the thought was actually quite pleasing. With some self-deprecation, he grinned before finally dressing. He had been dawdling around for long enough. By now the others were up and ready as well and it was time to go.

Darcy, after neatly tucking the shawl back into his knapsack, once again, made his way over to the house along with the other lads to break his fast and then set out to work, and as usual the first chore of the morning was to rake the driveway.

'I see you are better again,' Peters remarked. 'Good!'

'I am, Sir. And I am very sorry to have fallen ill.'

'Ah, but you had a nice long lie-in hadn't you?' John piped up. 'Must have been nice to just idle around and read a book all day long.'

'It did help to pass the time and I'm very thankful for it. And yes, the rest did me good,' Darcy calmly replied while sitting down.

'Idle around indeed,' Smith chimed up with some indignation. 'He was ill John, and when you were ill last winter, you were just as much allowed to stay in bed as any of us.'

'Yes,' Fanny added, 'and you were ill for more than a week, not just a day.'

'I was ill, what was I supposed to do?' John flared up rather unreasonably considering his former statement.

But just when Darcy thought all was well again, he caught the boy's glare and with a dangerous calm in his voice, John added: 'By the way, I have posted the letters to your sister and cousin.'

Cup half-way to his mouth, he stared at the youth, whose face now sported an almost evil smirk. Blast, John knew! Being the youngest, he was by far the quickest learner, perhaps the one thing he was fast with.

No, that was unkind. Darcy well knew that John might not have a person in the world who cared much for his well-being other than his work-fellows and such behaviour, though unpleasant, was often necessary to survive under such circumstances.

'Thank you, John, I greatly appreciate it,' was his gracious and very careful reply.

'La, it wasn't as if he hadn't to go to Meryton for Mr Bennet's letters anyway,' Martha remarked with a small shake of her head that indicated that she too, thought the boy to be rather petty.

'Yes, and even if there hadn't, he still would have had to go into town to hand in Smith's orders,' Leah seconded her.

John only looked at both with a defiant expression on his face, seemingly well aware that he was the least valued of the servants but as yet too green to grasp that this was mainly due to his own behaviour.

Chapter Text

Chapter 28

The soul that sees beauty may sometimes walk alone. - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

 

Darcy had barely worked for half an hour when upon turning around, he spotted his little companion once more scurrying across the lawn and towards him. It really was curious that such a shy animal should attach himself to him so thoroughly and so with a small smile, he bent down to greet Prickler. He had actually missed the little hedgehog over the past day. Such a trusting little animal, just like Brutus his dog.

'William, may I have a word with you?' Peters suddenly spoke up behind him, his voice sounding decidedly stern.

'But of course, Sir. Is something the matter?'

Turning around, Peters did not look all too comfortable, shifting from one foot to the other.

'Well, the thing is such, you know, with you having left your previous position due to a woman... - this woman was not by any chance Miss Darcy? The sister of your former master?'

With all colour draining from his face, all Darcy could do for the moment was cling onto the rake in his hands. His game was up, or so it seemed unless he came up with a reasonable explanation...

'No! No, of course not!', was all he managed to say in reply and fortunately not without indignation.

And indignant he indeed was if only from sheer bewilderment. However, Peters seemed perfectly happy with this answer, for though it was still early in the day, a satisfied grin lit up his face.

'Good, I thought it was utterly ridiculous when John told me that you had written to Miss Darcy. Miss Darcy! You know, he doesn't like it very much when others get something he doesn't because they put in more of an effort. He'll learn eventually, I hope, that appreciation is to be earned and as yet, I haven’t seen you set a toe out of line.'

By now Peters was close to laughing from sheer amusement, an emotion Darcy could not quite share at this point, though the relief of being safe from detection for the time being and so easily at that was almost overwhelming. He had gotten away with it but with John if not knowing, but at least suspecting something, there was no telling how long it would last. He could trust Miss Elizabeth, of that he was certain, but that lad was an altogether different matter.

With still slightly shaking legs, Darcy continued with his work only to shortly stop again after meeting a bright pair of eyes.

'Good morning, William, how are you this morning?'

'Much better, I thank you, Miss Bennet. - And also for the book you sent over. It allowed me to pass my time quite agreeably.'

A soft laugh was his reward making his heart once more beat just a little faster.

'I had hoped it would. Being ill is never very pleasant and so it had occurred to me that you might enjoy a little distraction from feeling poorly.'

Now he had to laugh: 'That, Miss Bennet, was very aptly put and I have to confess that I did bask in self-pity if only a little. It might surprise you but most men are pitiable creatures when sick and usually deal with it in the most pathetic way possible.'

'Are they indeed? Who would have thought? I will keep that in mind, William. With my father preferring to suffer in silence, I have to admit I have not much experience in that respect. Ah, and I see your little friend is back as well. He was missing you yesterday and looked quite lost without your company, scurrying through the park in search of his companion.'

'Hm, then I guess I will have to make it up to him somehow.'

'So it would seem. But I gather that for the time being, he is perfectly happy to have you back and follow you around.'

'As I have told you, Miss Bennet, animals do not judge.'

'No, they do not,' she smiled before turning around on her heel and walking off, this time in an altogether different direction.

He really had to take care not to stare after her as she wandered through the fields with a spring in her step, in obvious enjoyment of the morning with the sun just breaking through the clouds which had gathered in the sky overnight and with the mist slowly lifting only leaving the morning dew on the grass and leaves. It was a sight he was pretty sure he would never get enough of. There was such enjoyment in everything she did, and especially in walking, that it was impossible not to feel some of it as well.

Besides, the fresh air did him good and the scratch at the back of his throat from the morning was now almost completely gone. He was still admittedly slower in his work than he normally was since, by half past ten, all the daily tasks were yet to be done. Together with Peters, who in the meanwhile had been taking care of the saplings in the greenhouse, he started to lay out the rows in the vegetable garden to plant the first beds with parsnips, carrots and beets for an early harvest, and though it was perhaps a bit optimistic, also a row of beans and peas each for good measure.

Peters had long since explained to him that occasionally this could pay out, and had the additional benefit that Smith would be not be burdened with the work of preserving all the vegetables at once.

 

Chapter 29

Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it. - Confucius

 

Two days had passed since Mr Darcy had recovered and if she was honest with herself, she had tried her utmost to avoid him. That she had run into William the very first day after his illness had been due to her not having expected him being out and about so soon again, and while she could not bring herself to ignore the man then, she again had felt the danger. He had looked pale yet cheerful, engrossed in his work until he had turned around and spotted her standing there.

Sitting in front of her mirror, Elizabeth tried to find the motivation to get changed, before walking over to Jane to do her sister's hair when suddenly the door was flung open.

'Lizzy, can I borrow your pink sash?' Lydia asked excitedly, bobbing up and down on her feet. 'I think it would look very becoming with the dress I am going to wear tonight, do you not agree?'

She held up a beautiful made over silk-gown that had once belonged to Jane, all eagerness for her first ball that would take place tonight. Elizabeth was still not all that certain that it was such a good idea to bring her youngest sister out into society at the age of just fourteen, though Lydia herself insisted that, after all, she was now much closer to her fifteenth birthday than to her fourteenth.

'Yes, you may Lydia, for I intend to wear my blue frock anyway so I will not need it for tonight.'

'Thank you!' was all her sister's reply, before she reached into Elizabeth's bandbox in which she kept all her ribbons and lace and quickly dashed off again.

'Lydia!' she heard Mary exclaim in some anguish before with a clatter something fell to the ground. 'Do take care where you are going!'

'Oh, I am so sorry Mary. What is all this stuff anyway and why are you not getting ready yet?'

'This, Lydia, is my sewing basket, as you can clearly see and now I have to tidy it again. See what a mess you have made; all my yarns are now in a pile whereas they were neatly rolled up before.'

'La, it is not my fault that you did not hold on to it tightly, what have I to do with it?'

'If you had not run around like that, there would have been no need for me to hold on to it tightly,' Mary replied testily. 'How was I supposed to know that you were to come along barging through the corridor without paying attention as to where you were going?'

Oh dear, it was like a cat chasing its own tail... - Had you not done this, had you not done that. It was the same old story pretty much day in day out.

'Do not worry, Mary, I will lend you a hand,' she heard Jane say quietly and judging by the sound of hasty footsteps, Lydia just carried on as she had moments before.

With a sigh, Elizabeth rose and went to help her sisters with the sewing basket, still not much inclined to get changed. Oddly enough, she had never looked forward to a ball as little as this one but it seemed as if Lydia's enthusiasm had quenched all hers.

'I really do not know what all this fuss is about,' Mary still grumbled.

'You must know how hard it was on Lydia to be the only one having to stay at home,' Jane answered softly while picking up a couple of pins and needles.

'She has been looking forward to this day for a long time, so it is only natural that she would be excited,' Elizabeth added, though to an extent she had to agree with Mary.

'If it were for me, I would rather spend my evening reading a book!'

Neither Jane nor her replied to this statement and suddenly Elizabeth got the feeling that perhaps the reason why Mary disliked dances so universally was that during most of them, she spent her time sitting in a corner watching as the others danced one dance after the other. Thinking about it, Elizabeth could not remember if Mary had ever danced after her first ball, which truth be told had been somewhat of a disaster with her sister's awkwardness and their mother's well-meant exclamations of 'Do watch your step lest you stumble, Mary!' had not exactly helped either.

'Are you about to get ready, Mary? If so, perhaps all three of us could help one another,' Elizabeth remarked as off-handedly as she could so as to not make it too obvious that she took pity on her sister and almost expected a refusal.

But Jane, with a gentle smile, added: 'Yes, that is a very good plan seeing that Kitty and Lydia are so busy with themselves. What gown are you intending to wear?'

'My green one, as always.'

Yes, indeed as always. For some reason which was quite beyond her, it was Mary's favourite, though the colour made her look rather sickly and the cut was not very flattering either.

'You know, I had thought about wearing my pink one, but then thought that I actually prefer the blue one,' Elizabeth blatantly lied, 'if you like, I can lend you the pink dress just for a change. Pink suits you so much better than me anyway and seeing that you are the same height as I and just as slight, I dare say it will fit you perfectly.'

Again that was not exactly true, for she had never seen Mary in any other colour than browns, greys and greens, none of which were flattering to her pale complexion.

From her sister's expression it was clear that she wanted to object but knew not how for she was obviously speechless and so instead she hesitantly nodded. Ha, so far so good, for once they had managed to outwit her, and with a little luck, it would not only be Lydia who enjoyed this evening. If only they had thought of this before!

Dragging her along into Elizabeth's room, Mary did not quite know where to sit once they had all piled in, and finally chose to take the window seat, making her hair once again glow in the sun of the late afternoon, illuminating it like a halo while she watched on with a frown as Jane began to dress Elizabeth's hair and then vice versa. When it was Mary's turn, Elizabeth almost expected that she would finally object, but to her great surprise, Mary did not. Instead she graciously sat down in the chair in front of Elizabeth's vanity and though still frowning let her sisters have their way with her. The effect of a more flattering style instead of her usual stern bun, was already quite astonishing and thankfully, the dress indeed fit her almost perfectly only requiring a little alteration at the bust which was done by Jane in no time at all.

'I hope you are happy now,' Mary remarked coolly as if they had done her harm but it was easy to see that she was actually quite pleased.

'Very happy, Mary,' Jane, most beautiful as always, smiled, catching a quick glance from Elizabeth. 'You do look lovely.'

'Yes, but I am not!' Mary heatedly exclaimed before storming off, much like Lydia had not two hours before.

 

Chapter 30

A bachelor's life is no life for a single man. - Samuel Goldwyn

 

The Assembly Hall was already packed with people when they arrived and the humming of many voices filled the ballroom. Just as she had expected, there were all the usual faces, some excited, others joyful, and some bored. Casting a curious glance around, Elizabeth quickly spotted Charlotte standing together with her mother to the side of where the musicians were occupied with tuning their instruments and walking over to them greeted her friend with a brilliant smile and a small and rather mocking curtsy.

'How are you this evening, Charlotte?'

'Oh, very well. And you will not believe the news! But it appears as if my prediction has come true and Netherfield Park will be let at last. Apparently, there is a young gentleman in town who came to have a look at it by recommendation of a friend and he supposedly closed with the attorney directly.'

'Has he indeed,' Elizabeth asked, raising her eyebrow sceptically.

'Yes, and as it is from what I hear, he said since he is staying at the inn for the night, that he will be attending the ball.'

'So that is why everybody is staring so eagerly at the door?'

'Well, he must be a man of some consequence, Miss Elizabeth,' Lady Lucas remarked before leaving to greet Mrs Bennet and compliment Lydia on her coming out.

Surely, in town, a coming out would be more than just attending a ball for the very first time, but in the country, it was nothing but the young lady being allowed to lead the first dance and be done with it. Needless to say that Lydia was beaming as brightly as at least ten chandeliers at the prospect while her sisters had all rather dreaded this for fear of them exposing them all to ridicule.

'And do you know the name of this mysterious stranger?' Elizabeth asked when Lady Lucas was out of earshot.

'No, unfortunately, I could not find out, which vexes me greatly,' Charlotte replied laughingly. 'And it is also quite a mystery who his friend is, who suggested he should take a look at the house. As yet no-one has admitted to it.'

'Well, I would wager it is one of the families who spend their winters in London.'

'Yes, that seems likely,' her friend admitted and left it at that.

Not that she would have any chance to add anything for at that very moment, the young man himself stepped through the door with a most amiable and open expression on his handsome face, smiling broadly at the prospect of being in their company faltering only for an instant when he caught sight of Jane as if startled. And presumably he was, for it was hard to not admire her eldest sister. That he should be so young surprised Elizabeth, however, as did his eagerness to please and dance. What was less of a surprise was that Jane was the first woman he stood up with, much to Lydia's dismay, who had to make do with Frank Lucas instead. Not that it bothered her all that much seeing that a moment later she was happily dancing.

'I see that as always gentlemen are scarce,' Charlotte remarked wryly. 'I wonder why we never seem to have enough young men around here. I have to agree with you that here is a decided shortage of dance partners. Our new neighbour seems to be quite taken by Jane. Just look at how he never takes his eyes off of her!'

In all honesty, this time around Elizabeth was almost glad she had not yet been asked but unfortunately neither had Mary who once again sat in her usual spot right in the corner of the room where it was most difficult to see her and her much-improved appearance.

'Well, Jane is without a doubt the prettiest girl in the room so I am not in the least surprised that he should ask her first.'

'True. Mary looks lovely this evening. She should wear pink more often. It suits her complexion.'

'Yes, but it was only by chance that we managed to persuade her to try it on and I am almost certain that for the time being it was also the last time,' Elizabeth sighed.

Seeing her mother beckoning her towards herself, Elizabeth made her excuses and joined Mrs Bennet who was still busily talking to her dear friend.

'Lizzy, did you know that Netherfield Park has been let at last? Well, this young man dancing with Jane has taken out a lease and he is said to be very well off indeed. At least a couple of thousand a year! His name is Bingley and he seems such a dear. Quite charming how he excused himself, seeing that he did not know anybody around here who could introduce him, graciously apologising for being so bold and without ceremony. But who could be offended by such an amiable handsome young man? And it is not as if we pay much heed about such things as a formal introduction here, is it now?'

Well, at least her mother was not and at any rate, her statement that his amiable ways made it quite easy to overlook that with doing so himself, the introductions were not quite proper.

'And that he should ask Jane for the very first dance! What a compliment!'

This went on for some time, as always. After all, her mother was an excitable person both in the good and not so good sense.

As the music ended, it was fortunate that her mother changed the topic from Jane and Mr Bingley to Lydia and how well she danced and how pretty she looked for otherwise, Elizabeth was quite certain, that it could have been embarrassing. It was nothing but compliments for her youngest once the couples either made space or re-assembled on the dance floor. And when, after bowing deeply to Jane, Netherfield's new tenant asked her second oldest daughter for the next, and not before making yet another claim for Miss Bennet's hand later in the evening, their mother's happiness was almost complete. It appeared as if he intended to dance with all her daughters seeing that he also asked Kitty and Lydia when they were free and not only that, but he also carefully inquired after Mary.

'So, I have heard you have taken Netherfield,' Elizabeth started when the dance had begun shortly thereafter, quite puzzled by the man's knowledge about her family.

'Yes, I see I have not been here for four and twenty hours and am already the talk of town,' her partner grinned back in his cheerful manner that indeed seemed to be habitual.

'And, is that so surprising seeing how small Meryton is?'

'Certainly not. And obviously not as well, seeing that everybody seems to know at least my name already.'

He was a good dancer and despite chatting merrily, he did not miss a step even once. Would William, well, Mr Darcy, be just as good? She had not meant to think of him at all, but before she knew it, her own mind had betrayed her once again.

'Your sister is a most charming young lady,' Bingley carried on his eyes looking to where Jane was dancing with William Goulding now.

'Yes, she is,' Elizabeth absent-mindedly acquiesced. 'And she is as good at heart as she is beautiful.'

For a moment Bingley fell silent before making an odd comment about his mysterious friend, the one who recommended that he should take a look at Netherfield, having been right about Jane as well as herself and basically all her sisters. Elizabeth would have liked to make further inquiries, had he not with what seemed like a guilty conscience, changed the topic to the ball in general and with that making the conversation rather uninteresting. Yes, the assembly hall was nicely laid out, could even be considered grand for a town as small as Meryton and yes, gentlemen were always lacking. It was too vexing to be denied an interesting conversation, though without a doubt, he was a cheerful and enthusiastic conversationalist even now.

'So when will you take possession of Netherfield?' she finally managed to steer the conversation back down more interesting paths, if only for a short moment.

'Oh, I do think by the end of next week. Right after my eldest sister’s wedding. As soon as I am back in town on the morrow, I will send my servants over to have everything prepared. Now that I at long last found a house in the country, I am quite eager to move in,' Bingley replied to her inquiry and with that, the second dance of the evening ended leaving Elizabeth once again to the company of Charlotte Lucas while he went on to dance with Lydia and then Mary who, much to her surprise and pleasure, was currently engaged elsewhere. Who would have thought?

Chapter Text

Chapter 31

It is only the farmer who faithfully plants seeds in the Spring, who reaps a harvest in the Autumn. - B. C. Forbes

 

The week had passed in no time once again and while at first Darcy had still felt slightly under the weather, the tremendous amount of work waiting for him had made him soon forget about his cold. With the ploughing, sowing, and planting of the first crops, both Peters and he along the other lads and various hired farmhands, had been incredibly busy to say the least. Needless to add that the lessons were suspended for the time being. There was just too much to do to bother much about education. Aside from the fieldwork, there were still the usual daily chores to be taken care of, and in order to get them out of the way more quickly, John had been made to help them. Not that he was of much help, truth be told. If anything, he stood more in the way than assisting with any of the tasks at hand and did as little as he possibly could. Yes, he still had a lot to learn, there Peters was perfectly right.

What was more vexing, however, was that in all this time he had not seen Miss Elizabeth, nor had he received any correspondence. While the former was a little unsettling, the latter was easily explained for not once had Darcy managed to go into Meryton to see whether there had been any letters for him and John certainly did not offer to inquire in his stead. Perhaps that was just as well, considering all suspicions. He would most certainly not ask him to pick up his letters, even if there were any. No, John, while he had always been rather snotty, over the last few days had become quite hostile towards him as if waiting for his fellow servant to step out of line in some way or another. Even Smith noticed as much and repeatedly scolded the boy for it but to no avail, John kept on moping and scowling. The only consolation was that after John had told Peters that 'William' wrote to Miss Darcy, he had not said another word about it to anyone.

It was already early in the afternoon and they had been working on one of the fields that was close to the London Road, when he spotted a chaise and four some distance away coming nearer. Had it been one of the usual carriages with either a single horse or a pair, he probably would not even have noticed, but this one decidedly stood out in all its grandeur. And it looked disconcertingly familiar. Darn, he had underestimated Bingley's enthusiasm for everything new and also his habit of making hasty decisions! For this was no doubt his friend's coach. He really should have known better than to recommend Netherfield Park for there was little guesswork needed that this was where he was bound. If only Darcy had kept his mouth shut and not mentioned it. He had brought that onto himself, really.

And perhaps he should have paid more attention to what was talked about in the servants' hall and he might have been at least prepared for this encounter, since there was always much gossip going around. But by the time dinner was served, all of the farmhands were just too tired to do much more than eat and then take care of the animals before going off to bed. Now all he could do was stare at the carriage in some surprise before it became absolutely necessary to bow his head so as to not be recognised for though he would not have minded his friend spotting him among his fellow workers, it was undoubtedly Bingley’s younger sister looking out of the window with disdain written all over her face as she observed the pastoral scene before her.

If only he had not taken off his broad-rimmed hat earlier on, concealing his face would have been so much easier, but this way, in the end the wisest thing to do was turn around just when the carriage was mere paces away and hope that Caroline Bingley had not recognised him.

'What a pretty lady!' he heard Tom sigh next to him. 'Where are they going, I wonder?'

'Netherfield, I guess,' Peters sighed, 'not that it's any of our business.'

'Aye, and besides, she looked as if she'd had a pile of dung under her nose,' Henry grimaced. 'No comparison to our own Miss Bennets who are always smiling and treating us with kindness. Pretty she might be, but I already don't like her.'

Darcy almost burst out laughing at hearing this. Henry inadvertently had hit the nail on its head just looking at Miss Caroline for less than a minute.

By dusk they finally finished one last field and made their way back to Longbourn, thoroughly exhausted and just in time to find the whole house in an uproar.

'What's going on here then?' Bob inquired yawning as soon as he set foot over the threshold of the kitchen and finding an exasperated Mrs Hill making tea.

'The young gentleman who has taken Netherfield has arrived and Mr Bennet refuses to go and pay him a visit. Mrs Bennet is beside herself. I just hope the tea will calm her down a little. Ever since Mrs Phillips brought the news about his arrival some three hours ago, this has been going on, despite Miss Bennet assuring her mother that her father was only teasing. You know how Mr Bennet is and that he can be quite a jester at times.'

Though Darcy had barely ever seen the man, from what he had heard he thought it to be a fairly accurate description of his master. - And mistress, for that matter. Mrs Bennet, amiable and loving, could occasionally be a bit exuberant and since it was likely that she was aware of Bingley being unmarried, she must naturally hope for him to fall in love with one of her daughters. If he had to bet on it, he would put his money on Miss Bennet: beautiful, sensible, and compliant. In short, she was everything Bingley greatly admired in a lady and for once he could not but approve should it come to that.

For some reason, even the courting-game seemed less daunting here in the tranquillity of the country and though undoubtedly Mrs Bennet could hardly ignore the fact that his friend was very wealthy, he was still certain that it was her daughters' happiness she had foremost on her mind for otherwise, surely, she would have married them off already. At least her eldest. It was all but impossible that Miss Bennet had not had her share of admirers over the last couple of years.

Again he had a sinking feeling when thinking that he had not seen her next younger sister for so many days together, when normally he would see her walking out of doors almost every day. And then there was his other worry, for he had not seen Prickler all that much either, though that might be easily explainable by Darcy having been so busy and there being so many people working with him all of the time. Perhaps he had just overlooked his little friend among the high grass of the boundary ridges.

 

Chapter 32

Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom. - Thomas Jefferson

 

The next morning saw Mr Bennet come into the stables to ask for his horse to be saddled just as the lads had returned from their breakfast and were once again busy to go out and prepare the fields. Darcy lent them a hand before setting out for his actual work around the park, work that had been rather neglected over the past weeks.

'Good morning,' Mr Bennet greeted them cheerfully and with a mischievous sparkle in his eyes, that reminded Darcy strongly of Miss Elizabeth. 'I know you are busy, but if one of you could just saddle my horse so I can give my wife a bit of a surprise, I would appreciate that.'

All of them scrambled to oblige their master, but in the end it was Darcy who took care of the matter seeing that the others already had their hands full with the workhorses – the same horses that usually drew the carriage, and also two pairs of oxen who, though docile and good-natured, where also lazy beasts that had to be coaxed and shoved to do what they were supposed to.

'You are very versatile,' Mr Bennet remarked off-handedly while Darcy led the horse out of its stall and began grooming it. 'One has to wonder why a man with your abilities is content with such a lowly job as that of an under-gardener...'

'I... - I enjoy working in the garden, Sir.'

'Do you indeed? Curious. Well, you obviously also enjoy working with animals.'

'Yes, Sir.'

'And you read and write seeing that you are teaching my staff to do so. That is no small feat.'

'Well, at the moment there is little time for that, Sir,' Darcy gently pointed out while scratching out the hooves.

'Yes, I can imagine. I hope the old schoolbooks helped?'

'They did. I thank you, Sir. - And the maids as well as John pour over them whenever they can with the little I have been able to show them in the meanwhile. They are quite eager to learn and I hope I can resume the classes this evening at long last. The slates also helped and again I thank you, Mr Bennet.'

'Well, that was all my little Lizzy's doing.'

This was no surprise. Of course, it would be due to her consideration. A small smile flickered over his face, thankfully concealed by the horse's head.

'Seeing that you were employed in London before you came here, you would not happen to know a Mr Bingley and his sister?'

'Only from hear-say, Sir,' Darcy lied, feeling the colour rise to his cheeks.

His master looked at him curiously and there was little doubt that he had noticed, but if so, he did not remark on it.

'And, do you happen to know his character?'

'I have only heard the best of it. He is said to be a very amiable man and his sister is very elegant.'

'Ah, well then, I will be glad to make his acquaintance. I thank you, William.'

'Sir,' Darcy bowed, leaving to get both saddle and bridle.

It took him almost no time to put both on the horse and for some reason, it was kind of a relief to see Mr Bennet ride off. For a man doing so but rarely, he was actually quite a good horseman. But before he could ponder any longer why the barely perceptible scrutiny of his master unsettled him or how much he missed to ride himself, duty called and he once more made his way over to the front of the house to rake the driveway, then tend to the vegetable garden for an hour or two before taking care of the lawn and some of the flower beds in front of the house where the first weeds had sprung up and needed taking care of.

Again no sign of Miss Elizabeth, but at least his little friend appeared by his side once more.

'Good morning, Prickler, how are you? Hm, and where have you been all this time?'

The hedgehog in some kind of reply gave a small sound before curling up under a shrub to sleep a little. Well, seeing that hedgehogs were mainly nocturnal, this was only natural and Darcy had to smile at hearing the first soft snores.

All of a sudden he had the distinct feeling as if someone was watching him and feeling slightly unsettled by this, he turned to see whether he was merely imagining things or whether he was correct. At first, he saw nothing, but then, in some distance, he did spot a lone figure standing in the fields intently looking in his direction. There was little doubt as to who it was, for he knew her appearance quite well by now. So she was still out and about, but why then was she avoiding him? Had he somehow upset her? Now, that thought was an unsettling one. If only it was in his power to approach and ask her. Yet this was impossible.

But again his musings were interrupted, this time by the return of said lady's father and since everyone else was out in the fields, he had to take care of the horse again amongst all the other things Peters had charged him with.

'You were right, William, Mr Bingley indeed seems a very amiable, gentleman-like chap,' Mr Bennet greeted him. 'And can you believe it, he told me that it was your former master who recommended Netherfield to him. - Mr Darcy! Ah, the world is but a small place, is it not?'

Blanching Darcy replied: 'Yes, indeed.'

Blast, Bingley! Well, no, blast his own carelessness when he had recommended the place to him. It had been a foolish thing to do given his present circumstances. But alas, there was little use crying over spilt milk, was there?

'At first he was almost reluctant to tell me who had been so wise to advise him in the matter but then it slipped,' Mr Bennet added cheerfully. 'And it slipped him quite accidentally, I tell you. And before he could stop himself he added that the man knows the country quite well and greatly enjoys staying here and had taken it upon himself to greatly recommend my daughters to him. You would not know anything about that?'

How had he ever thought he would get away with this ruse? He had never been good at the art of deception and this was proof of it now.

'Well, what I do know is that Mr Darcy has decided to stay in the country for few weeks under a false name just to get away from everything. He is not the most sociable creature and the Season is usually quite tiring for him, Sir,' he again stayed as close to the truth as he dared, hoping to evade further questions.

'Ah, I feel for him then. No wonder he has decided to work as my under-gardener and doing a pretty good job at it. By the way, I took it upon myself to pick up your letters from the inn, if only to confirm my suspicions.'

Speechless, Darcy took the letters and bowed, before taking care of the horse.

Behind him, Mr Bennet chuckled: 'And, how will you avoid Miss Bingley?'

'I do not know yet, Sir. But then again, I assumed that I was dismissed, so there would be no problem then.'

'Why would I dismiss such a hard-working man such as you?'

'Because I obviously deceived you, Mr Bennet?'

'Ha, but what a hypocrite would I be if I held that against you, seeing that I declared to my wife, that I would certainly not go and call on Mr Bingley, though I have clearly done just that? And right behind her back! You surely must have heard her lamenting last night, for she was likely wailing loud enough for all of Meryton to hear. Ah, the little joys of married life...'

Again the man's eyes sparkled brightly and Darcy once again bowed.

'Stay as long as you like, for all I am concerned. But just let me warn you, John suspects something as I have been told by Hill, though I initially dismissed it seeing that the allegation was too wild and also, I think my Lizzy is on to you as well.'

'Miss Elizabeth has already found me out, Sir.'

'Ah, has she indeed? Interesting that she did not say anything then...'

And before Darcy could say another word, Mr Bennet had turned and marched towards the house.

 

Chapter 33

The most important thing in the world is family and love. - John Wooden

 

'Lizzy, would you mind stepping into my library for a moment?' her father approached her just when she had returned from her ramble.

'Yes Papa, what is it?'

She really did not have much of an idea what he wanted to speak to her about and truth be told, her mind was still reeling slightly at the realisation that she had not been able to resist the temptation to stand there for a moment and watch William do his work with stoic calm, tending the vegetable garden carefully as if he had never done anything else, once in a while looking about him, presumably to check on his little companion.

'Is a father not allowed to speak to his daughter just for the enjoyment of it?'

'I suppose it is,' Elizabeth answered warily, well aware that her father much preferred to just sit and read in silence instead of making idle conversation.

'Well then, do take a seat, my child. How about a cup of tea? Hill has just brought some in and it is still nice and hot and seeing that you have been out...' he trailed off, raising one of his eyebrows much in the same way as she was in the habit of doing.

'Yes, please.'

With somewhat awkward attention Mr Bennet poured the tea and it was obvious that something was on his mind, though what it was, she could not even fathom. Her father was a mystery more often than he was not and even knowing him quite well did not mean he was easily read by his expression. Even her mother, after more than twenty years of marriage, was still unable to do so, and though that probably did not say much in her case, it still bore testimony to her husband's unfathomable character.

'I have been out riding this morning,' Mr Bennet began, startling his daughter. 'And with good intentions, you might say, when you hear that I have called on Mr Bingley.'

'I thought you would, seeing that you always call on our new neighbours.'

'Am I so easily seen through then? Oh dear!'

'By no means, Papa. Quite the contrary.'

'I am glad to hear it.'

Waiting for what was to follow, Elizabeth took a sip of the scalding hot tea. Very strong tea, just as her father preferred it to the more moderate brew her mother insisted on.

'Now Lizzy, anything interesting you have come across while you were out?'

'Well, unless you count the new blossoms and the first daring butterfly as such, no.'

'Ah, then you look so cast down for no reason?'

'Cast down, Papa?'

'You can hardly deny that you have not been quite yourself over the last couple of weeks, can you? I know you Lizzy and I saw the repeated frowns upon your face. Do tell me, what is the matter?'

'Nothing, Papa. Aside from Lydia's coming out and all the things that needed taking care of. It was quite tiring.'

'And also to make Mary see reason and put in an effort?'

'You noticed?'

'You, of all people, should know that I am a very observant man, Lizzy.'

Yes, that he was and in this instance that was quite disconcerting. He might be in the habit of hiding away in his library, but with that, safely ensconced in his little haven, he did spent much of his time sitting by the windows, for his bookroom was right at the corner of the house facing towards both the driveway and the park giving him a perfect view on what was going on outside while he mused over his books. It also gave sufficient light to read in the otherwise dark chamber with its old-fashioned panelling and unfashionably dark and almost rustic furniture that must have seen at least the civil war if it was not even older, just like this part of the house which was the oldest and quirkiest with its many nooks and crannies.

'I see I startled you.'

'A little, perhaps.'

'Good. And?'

'I already told you, Papa.'

'So it has nothing to do with your discovery?'

'Discovery?'

'That William is really Mr Darcy, of course.'

It was but lucky that she had just put down her cup for otherwise, there was little doubt, she would have dropped it.

'You know?'

'Yes. I found out but this morning. I have suspected for a while that you liked the man but did not think it necessary to warn you against him, seeing that you are my most sensible daughter and would know that a match between you and a mere gardener could never be and besides, neither of you ever stepped out of line even when you were perfectly unaware that I was watching you. And now I think such a warning will be obsolete anyway, seeing who he really is, is it not?'

'I have to admit that in my opinion it made things more complicated,' Elizabeth sighed sadly.

The words had escaped her before she had time to check herself. But her father's revelation had been too much of a surprise to react any differently.

'How so?' Mr Bennet inquired, comfortable leaning back in his armchair.

'Well...'

'You do not know how to approach him?'

'Yes.'

'But you do like him?'

What use was there denying it? Her father had guessed too much already and any falsehood would be easily detected by him at any rate.

'Yes. Yes, I do. He is kind and caring, is intelligent and has a good sense of humour and there is no pretence about him as with so many other men.'

'Ah, I see. Well, my child, you will figure it out. But if I might make a suggestion, do not let your mother know about any of this as yet.'

That indeed was as good an advice as any, for if Mrs Bennet ever found out that such an eligible man was working for them, she would not rest until she had driven him away with her exuberant enthusiasm to see her daughters married. No, for now she would have to be content with fussing over Mr Bingley, for there was little doubt that he would soon return her father's call and visit them. And indeed, no sooner had her mother been informed about her husband's visit to their new neighbour over lunch, at first thoroughly aghast and disbelieving, before she heartily declared that she had never doubted he would do so to begin with, that she flew into a frenzy of when it would be appropriate to invite Mr Bingley for dinner and what to serve him and that nothing under two courses would do.

Chapter Text

Chapter 34

One of the reasons people hate politics is that truth is rarely a politician's objective. Election and power are.- Cal Thomas

 

The day once again had been a long one as they increasingly tended to be. The weather, though it was only early April, was fine and warm enough for the lawn to grow shaggy quite quickly and the weeds seemed to constantly threaten to take over the reign in the flowerbeds like an invading army. It indeed sometimes felt as if Peters and he fought a losing battle but then again, by the end of the day, the feeling of having exhausted himself was still satisfying, though admittedly not quite as much on the same level as it had been at the beginning.

Sitting down for dinner, Darcy felt oddly conscious about Mr Bennet's discovery about his true identity, but aside from John who of late always looked at him rather suspiciously, everybody else treated him as always. So it must have been his own guilty conscience that made him feel somewhat ill at ease. He had come here to evade all the falsehoods of society and yet he now resorted to falsehood by pretending to be someone he was not. Then again, and quite ironically, he was more the man William Hawthorne was than he had ever been Fitzwilliam Darcy if that made any sense. It was quite a philosophical problem. How could one be completely oneself while not being oneself, but at the same time not be oneself while one was?

'You seem out of spirits today, William,' Tom remarked off-handedly while helping himself to another ladle of beef stew. 'Something the matter? No bad news, I hope. Have you heard from your family?'

His letters were still of some interest to his fellow workers as he was the only one receiving any.

Half muttering Darcy answered: 'I have, but that was not what I was thinking about. As a matter of fact, I didn't have the time to read their letters yet. I was just day-dreaming.'

'And what were you dreaming about?' Peters chuckled.

'Nothing, in particular, it was more of a general thought. I was musing how much has changed since I came here. You know, with the flowers starting to bloom and the birds nesting and all that. In town, the changes were never so distinguishable as they are here in the country. With all the chimneys from the many houses, it often feels as if there is a constant fog and the only plants that are flourishing well are evergreens. I mean, there are roses and lilies of course, but it is not the same as here. - I'm sorry, I don't quite know how to put it.'

'Ah well, though I've never been to London, I don't think I would like it much,' Bob threw in. 'I had a cousin who thought he could make his fortune in town, but he's dead now. Typhus, you know.'

'In some parts, fresh water is indeed a problem and in summer the stench of the river is literally breathtaking and not in the positive sense of meaning,' he replied with some sense of compassion and an inkling of guilt.

It was hard to deny that there was an increasing need for charity of late. Ever since more and more people ventured into industrialised mining and weaving and even agriculture, some became richer and richer, but many ultimately became poorer and poorer. Working conditions were also changing, putting whole families in jeopardy if not tearing them apart. Here everything was still as it had always been, but in town, the change was all the more prominent. Where once a servant was almost part of the family, in some cases serving the same family for generations, many of the nouveau riche now dismissed them at the drop of a hat.

For some reason, Caroline Bingley came to mind. She was the very epiphany of this new, modern age. Yes, there had been ruthless scoundrels before, but in a different sort of way. Again, something that was best left to a philosopher to ponder on.

'Aye, and the rich don't care about anything but themselves, as always!' John pretty much spat angrily, keeping his eyes firmly fixed on Darcy who had been pretty much lost in his own thoughts once again.

He had not had such gloomy thoughts since he had come here, and to have them now, was a little disconcerting.

'They always exploit the poor and as long as their own comfort isn't threatened, they won't stir a finger to change anything,' the boy carried on, his voice unmistakeably accusing.

'Yes, but that is only part of the problem,' Darcy admitted calmly. 'The other is that some parts of town are very much out of control as more and more people move there in the hope of work and a better life.'

'And, can you fault them?' John shot back.

'No, I can't. Don't we all in a sense? It is just that our ideas of what a better life means differ, I suppose. For some, it is to live peacefully, for others to make a fortune; for some, it is family, for others solitude.'

'Damn, you are quite a philosopher, William,' Peters laughed and seeing that Smith just ordered the girls to clear the table, stuffed his pipe with some care before lighting it. 'You know, I have come to think that if you'd put your mind to it, you could actually make something of yourself, boy.'

'Perhaps, Mr Peters. But as it is, my happiness lies in simplicity, I guess.'

'And hedgehogs,' his superior positively laughed now.

'Well, only one actually. Though now as the days grow longer, Prickler seems to finally remember that he, in fact, is a nocturnal creature. Most times he seeks me out in the morning before curling up under the nearest bush to take a nap.'

His comment produced some overall good-natured chuckles, even from John.

'So, what are we going to learn tonight then?' Fanny inquired eagerly when the table had been wiped down and the slates and books had replaced their plates as again they now did every evening.

'Hm, I thought instead of focusing on the writing, we might do some reading tonight. I had a look through this old schoolbook last evening while you were busy with your tasks and think that this story is a good one to begin with.'

He held out the book opened to a page with a simple nursery rhyme which, even if they could not read every single word, they probably still knew well enough to figure it out.

'Would you like to start, Fanny?'

Blushing, the young girl took the book from him and began to read the first few lines. It was really quite astonishing how far they had come in those few short weeks considering that during the planting, there had been no lessons since he and boys had been too tired. Had Darcy, in the beginning, thought that his fellow servants would eventually tire of his teaching, he soon found that it was more to the contrary. John was next, then Leah and since by then, it was safe to assume, that most remembered the words, Darcy decided to turn the page and have them read the next rhyme, equally well known, of course.

Reading... - He still had to read his letters, later when he was finally alone. At least no one had asked how he had come by them. It would have been very difficult to explain that their master had picked them up for him. But alas, Darcy feared that his stay here was drawing to a close nonetheless.

 

Chapter 35

A smile is the light in your window that tells others that there is a caring, sharing person inside. - Denis Waitley

 

Lighting the small candle on the chair beside his bed, Darcy plunked down on top of his berth, only removing his shoes as yet and began to finally read his missives. As always, Georgiana's letter, or rather letters since there were actually two of them, came first and as always, they made him smile and sigh at the same time.

Dearest brother,

I wish I deserved all your praise, but I have to confess, I have been rather naughty these past few days. I stayed up late, secretly reading a book we are not actually allowed to read, but of which I had heard so much about that I was too curious to not ask Phillippa Dean for her copy, which she sneakily and ingeniously glued into an old cover of Shakespeare's Hamlet. You can be assured that I deserve all the scolding you will give me for it, but I have to say, that I greatly enjoyed Miss Radcliffe's 'The romance of the forest'.

It was difficult not to laugh out loud reading those lines. Georgiana was never disobedient, so this “confession” admittedly took him by some surprise. And while Miss Radcliffe's work was most certainly not akin to anything that deserved the title of literature, Darcy was pretty certain that the moment schools ceased to ban her books, the girls' interest in them would wane significantly. And at any rate, they were pretty harmless. Nothing but romantic nonsense if one thought about it. So, no scolding required. Seriously, it was rather amusing to see that his sister was, in fact, developing a cheeky side to her. Shy and timid as she was most of the time, Darcy preferred to assume this was a good thing.

I am glad to say, that as yet, I have evaded an introduction to Aunt Josephine's cat, and if I can at all help it, I will try and keep it that way. Though she cannot possibly be quite THAT bad, can she? But at any rate, your new friend sounds delightful and I would dearly love to see him. But you always had a knack with animals. I remember when you first got Brutus. Oh dear! How shaggy he looked and how timid he was and always ready to defend himself. Poor thing! Though I have to say, that in the first few weeks, I was slightly scared of him, especially when you were out of the house. He would yelp when no-one was around and growl as soon as someone approached him. I can only imagine what he must have suffered at the hands of the people who owned him before. Good thing you found him! And look at him now, there couldn't be a more trusting animal, could there? And besides, I could not imagine a more beautiful dog than him with his glossy black fur, even if he is not the most expensive breed. Have I ever told you that his one floppy ear makes me smile every time I see him running around in the garden? It looks so funny. By the way, does he still growl at Caroline Bingley?

It would be so wonderful if I could come back home, Fitzwilliam. It is not that everything is bad down here, but it is just that I miss you and Brutus and everyone else so much. This is not home and I feel it every day. It also appears now that as we are all getting to an age where our coming out is drawing nearer, there is some competition arising as to who is more elegant, accomplished and pretty and though most girls are nice enough, there are increasing jabs that though I find them silly, are still making me uncomfortable for many different reasons. It is not Miss Hanson's fault that she has red hair and freckles, is it? Or how can Miss Dean, the one I borrowed the book from, change that she is rather short? And Emily Bryson has a very deep singing voice so whenever she fails to hit all the high notes, she is made fun of since none of the other girls seems to have any trouble with them, except perhaps Miss Cartwright who cannot sing to save her life, but is really good at playing the violin. I greatly enjoy listening to both of them and am saddened that they are made fun of just because their skills differ from that of the others. I hardly dare sing at all these days for fear I will be made fun of.

Having met with so many young ladies in society, Darcy could easily imagine the increasing competitiveness, even that such behaviour was encouraged by their teachers. It was not without foundation that he himself had often sarcastically compared the marriage market to that of a cattle one. It was just that the former was less fun to attend and any acquisitions therefrom was one that lasted basically forever. No re-selling, no going back until death finally took a pity. Darn, did he have to think about those things again? This day had been rather vexing in that regard. It was as if speaking to Mr Bennet had brought back all the reality of his actual life and that this was nothing but an all too short break from it.

There were only his sister's farewells left in this letter since once again, she had written it after retiring to her room and consequently was obliged to finish it in haste due to her curfew.

The next one was but a short note asking frantically whether he was alright or not, seeing that he had not written in almost two weeks. Those two weeks when he had had no time to go into Meryton. Sitting up, he decided that, despite the candle already burnt down low, he had to answer her directly and postpone reading Bingley's letter. He could not have her worried any longer.

My dearest little sister,

I am so sorry for having you worried, but let me assure you that after a slight cold I am very well indeed, but have been extremely busy these past two weeks with helping the other lads plough and plant the fields. I will not go into the particulars, for I have to hurry, it is getting late and as always, I only have a small stump of a candle that will not last me very long and at any rate, it might astonish you, that only today I was able to get your letters from the inn and even that more by coincidence than anything else.
However, several things have occurred since I last wrote that might affect my current situation:
First of all, I have been found out by Miss Elizabeth and, as of today, her father. Surprisingly enough, I am allowed to stay as long as I like, but I do think that my stay is slowly but surely coming to an end, especially in the light of another occurrence that came to pass. Bingley has taken up a house in the neighbourhood. Now if it were only Bingley coming to Hertfordshire, it would not be much of a problem seeing that he already knows not only of my whereabouts but also of how I presently live, but naturally he has also brought his younger sister with him, since Miss Bingley is now, at least according to my calculations, married. - I have received a letter from him this morning but did not yet have the time to read it but in his last, he said something along the lines of the wedding taking place sometime around now.

And right now, his candle burnt out, leaving Darcy no choice but to finish his letter in the morning and going to sleep instead. And surprisingly enough, sleep came quickly, despite the many things on in his mind. Over-thinking things could be a curse if one was in want of a restful night, but alas, the physical exhaustion and time in the fresh air won out, which quite honestly was something to be thankful for.

 

Chapter 36

It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

Truth be told, Darcy was not much surprised to see his friend arrive early the very next day after Mr Bennet had paid him a call, but thankfully he was on horseback and without his youngest sister in tow. That was something to be thankful for, for though Bingley had already said too much and Mr Bennet now knew his true identity, as long as he could avoid Caroline, he would be safe. Or at least so he hoped unless Bingley somehow inadvertently gave him away. He really should have taken into account how open a person Bingley was; he was simply incapable of deceit and on top of that, he was chatty, not in the negative sense, but Charles Bingley liked to converse. There were no two ways about it.

And there he was now, just as Darcy had finished raking just half the driveway, a work that became more tiresome with every passing day, if he were quite honest with himself. Where first it had been quite relaxing, satisfying even, it had now turned into a never-ending task repeated daily. At least Prickler was there again, once more curled up beneath a shrub close by.

'Good morning,' Bingley greeted cheerfully, though seemingly without recognising him, at least for the time being that was, for there was little to do but go over and take care of the horse. It needed tethering and perhaps some water and hay. Actually, Darcy could not suppress a small smile as he stepped closer and took the reins, careful to keep his head down to keep his disguise a little while longer.

'Morning, Sir,' Darcy greeted back bowing slightly, though a small smirk had crept onto his face. 'Will your horse require water? I could go and bring over a bucket, Sir.'

'Oh, that...' Bingley replied then halted abruptly.

There it was, the moment of recognition. Ha, it had been faster than anticipated, but then again, Bingley knew he was here, he must have expected to lay eyes on him some way or another. Yet, the expression of dawning realisation was still priceless. It seemed as if Bingley, despite knowing he worked as a gardener, had still had some trouble picturing him in ragged work clothes. Quite honestly, he himself had had them even two months ago when he had first decided to go on this rather unusual journey.

'Da... - Darcy?! Dear me, I did not recognise you at first!'

'I know and yes, it is I. And I guess I have to thank you for Mr Bennet finding me out...'

'Dear me! I am so sorry.'

'Surprisingly enough I am allowed to stay nonetheless, so it is of little matter, Bingley. But perhaps it might be wise to be a little less open about how you came to take Netherfield in the future...'

Again there was this odd feeling of being watched and carefully searching the windows from beneath the brim of his hat he was little surprised to see the Miss Bennets assembled on one of the upper windows glancing down at their new neighbour with various expressions on their faces. The two youngest seemed excited, Miss Bennet was smiling serenely, Miss Mary was half-frowning, and Miss Elizabeth caught his eye with a questioningly raised eyebrow.

'What is it?' Bingley at least.

'The ladies are watching us already, or rather you,' Darcy chuckled slightly forced. 'You seem to have made quite an impact already.'

'Well, they are very pleasant ladies are they not?'

'Yes, and Miss Bennet is also very beautiful...'

'Darcy, she is an angel...' Bingley cried out admiringly. 'Oh, darn! William, I mean, of course.'

'I think you should better go in before this turns ever so much more awkward,' Darcy advised, though struggling to suppress a laugh. 'And at any rate, I need to get on with my work. There is much to do at this time of year. - If you want me to, I'll look at the hind leg, Sir. Your poor horse might have stepped onto a thorn or a pebble.'

He had quickly fallen back into his role as he perceived the door being opened to reveal Mr Hill, normally working without gloves or a wig, standing there in all his glory as a butler. But still, this could only go wrong.

'Are you idling around, William?' John's voice piped up behind him, the lad grinning sneakily and with some malevolence.

He was carrying a basket with various parcels, some slightly stained, indicating that he had just run an errand for cook seemingly getting some extras she had not included in her order the previous day. A fairly frequent occurrence, not so much cook's fault as Mrs Bennet's who was prone to change the menu at the last possible moment if the fancy caught her. Not that she was inconsiderate towards her staff, no, her fickleness rather stemmed from the desire to please any guests that might come by, and unlike the more formal social environment in London, a family dinner in the country could easily end up being a party of several friends who had called on a whim. As for the sudden change in today's menu, Darcy had the slight suspicion that it had been done in the hopes that Bingley would be persuaded to join them. Again it was hard to suppress a smirk.

'No, I merely offered my assistance to the gentleman who's just arrived and whose horse seems to have trodden onto something,' Darcy replied as off-handedly as he could considering the circumstances.

The boy's mistrust as justified as it was to an extent, was quite disconcerting.

'Always putting yourself forward then.'

'It is called common courtesy and it should be quite normal to offer one's assistance when it is needed.'

'I know who you are, William. - A liar! I tried to warn Peters about you, and also suggested to Mr Hill to go and tell Mr Bennet about you having dallied with none other than Miss Darcy. Sister? Ha! You shouldn't have given us lessons, William if you intended to keep your secret. Darcy is not such a difficult name to make out.'

'I guess it is not. But pray, what exactly is it that bothers you so much about me, John?' Darcy asked calmly, ignoring the boy's accusation regarding the “affair”.

As irritated as the boy's behaviour made him on one hand, there was also something that seemed to reach deeper than mere jealousy.

'What it is that bothers me you ask? Well, ever thought of the consequences your actions might have brought about?'

'Consequences?' Darcy did have an inkling where this was going, but still part of his mind refused to go there.

'Aye, consequences. For a man it is easy, whether rich or poor, but for a woman it is not and also not for any children that came out of such a relationship.'

'Children?' Darcy stammered, wondering where this conversation was going and moreover, what had caused it.

While he quite agreed with John, that men got out of such affairs comparatively easy, that some even made a disgusting sport out of it, there was an underlying passion about the boy as he now stood before him that was a little disturbing. Well, perhaps passion was not even the right word for it. Hate, perhaps? Anger? Desperation? It was hard to make out. On the one hand John was abrasive to a point where one just wanted to put him in his place, and on the other, thinking back on his own youth and the time his mother had passed away, seeing this seething lad in front of him was like looking into a mirror and seeing his own younger self.

'John,' Darcy hesitantly started, 'I can assure you that nothing untoward has been going on between Miss Darcy and myself. Ever! But you are correct, I have written to her...'

Perhaps it was just as well that John did not let him finish his sentence, as he swiftly turned around and stalked off, seeing that Darcy had no idea how he would have finished it. One thing was clear, however, his time here had come to an end. It definitely was time to leave.

Chapter Text

Chapter 37

Honest communication is built on truth and integrity and upon respect of the one for the other. - Benjamin E. Mays

 

It was a good thing that there was so much to do around the garden, and mainly work that did not require much attention, so that Darcy had some time to contemplate on what best to do while he was taking care of the moss and weeds. When leaving London, he had everything so carefully planned out. Everything but one tiny little detail: returning to his old life. It should have been easy enough, but knowing that people had come to rely on him was one thing he then had not taken into consideration; that he might feel bad for leaving them behind, especially now that he had given them the hope of at least a basic education only to now... - Well, and there was also Prickler. As silly as it was, he would miss the little creature dearly.

The lunch hour was approaching slowly but surely and Bingley had already left a while ago and he was still no closer to a solution as to what he should do. The thought of letting so many people down was still as uncomfortable as it had been when he had first started to contemplate the issue.

'Are you quite alright, William?' Peters spoke up behind him all of a sudden.

Darcy had not heard him approach.

'Yes, Sir. I'm fine, Sir,' he stammered back then thought the better of it.

Better be done with it than ponder on this dilemma any longer and probably make it worse. It was like having a toothache; the short sharp pain that came with pulling an aching tooth was nothing compared to the constant agony when leaving it untouched.

'Sir, I... - I will need to leave by the end of next week if not sooner. As soon as you have found a replacement for me.'

'Pardon?'

'I know it is a bit abrupt, but as said, I cannot stay here any longer.'

Peters stared at him aghast, a picture of complete and utter bewilderment.

'But why?' the gardener eventually asked. 'What have you done, lad?'

Now he sounded positively suspicious as if he half expected that William Hawthorne would suddenly confess to being a criminal on the run.

With a sigh Darcy got up from the ground where he had been kneeling to pull out the weeds, wiped his hands off on the rough frock he sported and hesitantly began: 'What I have done is quite simple, Mr Peters, I came here to find myself, but now it is time to go back home.'

'I can't quite follow...'

'No, of course not, for the situation is a rather awkward one and all of my own doing. - Well, John was right in one respect, that I have indeed been writing to Miss Darcy. - My sister.'

It took a while for his words to sink in, but when they did, Peters, much to his surprise, started laughing until he was clutching his sides. This was most certainly not the reaction Darcy had anticipated. Anger? Yes. Annoyance? Certainly. But laughter? Definitely not!

'Sir?'

It took another minute or two until the man had calmed down enough to reply: 'Ah, my boy, the moment I saw your hands when you applied for the position I knew you were no gardener or anything that had to do with manual labour. You were quick to learn, however, but it was fairly apparent that while you knew much in theory, the practical side was an altogether different matter. You could, of course, have been a footman, but you were far too keen to work, if I may say so. You are not much of an actor, Mr Darcy, but you are, by far, the best under-gardener I've ever had.'

Now it was on Darcy himself to let the words of his superior sink in.

'You knew?'

'That you were Mr Darcy himself? No. That you were not who you claimed to be? Yes. You are not the first young man who had his heart broken and consequently sought to get away from it all and do something like this, though most would probably turn to drink and gambling,' the old gardener smirked.

'I have to admit that I never suffered a broken heart. There never was a woman, rather many who sought to marry my fortune and it became increasingly tedious.'

'I can imagine. And so you came here to get away a little?'

'Yes. - Mr Peters, if you suspected me to be a fraud right from the start, why did you hire me nonetheless?'

'What do I care who you really are as long as you do your work?' his opposite shrugged. 'And since you were very diligent with your chores, I had nothing to complain about. Besides, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a man whom animals trust can never be a bad one and seeing that that little hedgehog of yours is never very far from where you are... - By the way, where is it?'

'Oh, Prickler is over there, Sir,' Darcy pointed at the large hydrangea bush under which the little creature once again had curled up, snoring peacefully.

'He'll surely miss you.'

'And I him, truth be told. By the way, Mr Peters, if you could keep my true identity hidden, for the time being, I would be very grateful.'

'Well, it would be very odd, if I suddenly addressed you as Mr Darcy, wouldn't it? Anyway, it's not my secret to share but yours. - And now get back to work, boy.'

With a broad grin and cheerfully whistling a tune, Peters made his way back over to the vegetable garden. Planting the first sturdy seedlings was something he preferred doing himself and as it was, Darcy had enough work of his own and was quite happy not to have to plant row upon row of onions, leeks and cabbages, the last of which would need to be carefully protected against any sudden frost by some straw and twigs.

Kneeling back down, he continued pulling the weeds from the bed at the side of the house, but not before, and with some regret as to what would soon come to pass, checking on his little friend. Prickler was sleeping so peacefully as if he had not a care in the world and likely he hadn't. Where before, right after winter he had been rather gaunt, his now plump and round belly spoke of him being especially well fed. And talking about food, only another half an hour and it was time for lunch.
Darcy's stomach was grumbling while at the same time he still dreaded facing the others to break the news of his leaving. But it had to be. And besides, he fully intended to come back and possibly even quite soon. As soon as was possible.

 

Chapter 38

It's not the situation, but whether we react negative or respond positive to that situation that is important. - Zig Ziglar

'Oh, what a nice gentleman Mr Bingley is,' Mrs Bennet repeated herself for the umpteenth time. 'And I am so glad that I thought of inviting him and his sister to dinner tonight. Not that I dared hope he would accept, but I am very glad he did.'

Mr Bennet only huffed before continuing to eat; Kitty and Lydia giggled violently; Mary, back to her usual stern hairstyle and drab gowns, rolled her eyes; Jane blushed most becomingly; and Elizabeth herself merely nodded absent-mindedly. Her thoughts were far away and by no means occupied with tonight's dinner. Ever since the conversation with her father a few days ago, her mind had been reeling. Not that she had gotten anywhere close to a solution as yet. In fact, the whole situation was still as vexing as it had ever been.

'I wonder whether Miss Bingley is as nice as her brother,' Jane currently addressed her.

'Well, we will see, I suppose,' Elizabeth replied thoughtfully, finally waking from her most unsettling reverie.

'Oh, she surely will be. And there can be little doubt that she will also be a very elegant lady. All of you will have to wear your best, girls,' their mother chimed in. 'Jane, you should wear your new white gown and the blue sash with it. I know you wore it at the ball but Mr Bingley, being a man will hardly recall. Men never do.'

'But Mama, the invitation was merely for a family dinner. Do you not think that our usual dresses will suffice?' Jane tried to reason.

'Nonsense! You will want to look your best, Jane. After all, Mr Bingley paid you quite a bit of attention at the ball.'

That much was true and yet not at all surprising seeing that Jane was by far the prettiest woman in their admittedly rather limited circle. Not only that, but she was also the kindest of them all.

'I for my part believe that too much attention is paid to how a person looks on the outside instead of on the inside,' Mary interjected. 'Vanity can never be a virtue, and I for my part shall not take part in such folly.'

'Oh shush, girl, who asked you?' their mother promptly reprimanded her while Elizabeth could just about catch the words Lydia whispered into Kitty's ear: 'Well, that explains why Mary is always wearing the plainest gowns of all of us...'

Kitty in turn merely giggled.

'No, nothing will do but your new white gown, Jane, and the blue sash will complement your eyes quite charmingly.'

Knowing full well that there was no point in brooking any opposition, Jane resigned herself to her fate.

Their father, as was his habit, had barely said anything, but his rising from the table was a clear indication that the meal was over as far as he was concerned and eager to get away, Elizabeth followed his lead and likewise stood up.

'Oh, Lizzy, I do recommend you keep your tongue in check for once,' her mother held her back. 'It will not do if what you like to call wit scares Mr Bingley away or that you should make a bad impression on his sister. She is bound to be used to the very highest of society and with that to exceedingly good manners. Do think of your sister.'

'Yes, Mama,' she calmly managed to reply, and even without rolling her eyes once again, before following her father out of the dining parlour.

'And Jane, you have to do something with your hair. Have you seen what Mary King did with hers the other evening? Now I think it looked very becoming, do you not agree?'

Though Elizabeth, already on her way up the stairs, could not hear her sister's reply, Mary King's hair had looked anything but becoming. And besides, it was not as if every invitation they ever received was not followed with the same endless tirades of their mother as to what would do best. In the end, neither of her daughters would pay her much heed and would instead take her own counsel or, on occasion, that of one of their sisters while Mrs Bennet would congratulate herself that her daughters' charm and elegance had been all her own doing.

While Elizabeth had escaped one evil, if one could even call it that, another had re-surfaced. What to do about William? Or rather Mr Darcy. Again it left her quite in a quandary. However, she had barely sat in the window seat of her room for more than five minutes, when there was a knock and, with some hesitation, Jane stepped in.
'Lizzy, are you quite all right? You have been awfully quiet these past few days, and while I did not want to pry, I do start to worry, Lizzy.'

'It is nothing, I assure you.'

'If it were nothing you would not always be so very far away with your thoughts these days. Is it still about William? Have you found out something?'

Though Elizabeth would have loved nothing more than to confide in her sister at this point, she had given Mr Darcy her word not to say anything to anybody and she was a woman of her word. On the other hand, seeing that her father now knew likewise who his under-gardener really was, perhaps that promise had become void. But no, a promise was a promise and she would not say anything.

'Yes, Jane, I have found out something, but as it is, I gave my word not to speak about it,' Elizabeth, eventually replied, choosing to be honest while at the same time not to betray William's trust.

A worried look crossed her sister's face though she did not say anything. Not at first at least. Instead, Jane wrapped her arms around her younger sister and pulled her close.

'You know,' Jane eventually whispered, 'in matters of the heart, sometimes the brain can be a bad advisor.'

'Perhaps, but to follow one's heart blindly, can lead down the road of destruction, Jane.'

'Lizzy, you are far too wise to give your word to a dishonourable man and seeing that you did give William your word not to say anything, the only conclusion I can come to is that he is indeed Mr Darcy just as you assumed from reading Aunt Madeleine's letter. Is that so? A nod or a shake of your head will suffice to set me at ease.'

Hesitantly Elizabeth did nod, and Jane's face broke into a smile.

'See, then all will be well as long as you do not let your head rule over your heart too much.'

From downstairs their mother's voice drifted down the hallways of Longbourn House and broke the last bit of tension that had hung between Jane and Elizabeth, ending in an exasperated sigh from one and the usual roll of her eyes from the other sister.

Perhaps Jane was right, perhaps it was time to follow her heart and with that, do what both her father and her sister had suggested. She would no longer avoid William, since to her, that would always be his true self. The very man she had fallen in love with. He was honourable, he would not be her downfall, and the worst she had to fear was a broken heart. If she was lucky, on the other hand, perhaps she would become the happiest of women.

 

Chapter 39

I see my path, but don't know where it leads. Not knowing where I'm going it what inspires me to travel it. - Rosalia de Castro

It was shortly after five o’clock when a carriage approached Longbourn House, rounding the corner on the other side of the boundary before turning into the little lane that eventually would lead to the driveway of the estate. A chaise and four Darcy knew all too well. It was not as if he had not expected Bingley to visit Longbourn for a second time that day. Not with seeing that he had been made to rake the driveway again to have it nice and smooth and that most of the afternoon Peters and he had spent tending the already well-tended flowerbeds at the front of the house even more to make them look as pristine as they possibly could. In the end, not a single early blossom was out of line, not a twig astray. Since Bingley, apparently was a little early, something that did not happen all that often, they had hardly finished their chores when he did arrive.

'From what I gather Mrs Bennet has some hopes that the young man will fall in love with one of her daughters. And seeing that all of them are so very pretty, I dare say he shall,' Peters mused quietly as they picked up their tools to retreat in the most inconspicuous manner possible. 'Do you know the man?'

'Yes, Sir. He is a very fine young gentleman. As a matter of fact, I was the one who recommended Netherfield to him,' Darcy all but whispered back.

'Is that so? That was very good of you then.'

It was hard to make out whether Peters was teasing or speaking in earnest, but at this point, Darcy had to admit to himself that perhaps his recommendation had been born less from the want of helping his friend than from his own desire to be able to return to Hertfordshire once he was back to his old self. If the latter being the case, it had been done quite subconsciously. And besides, it hardly mattered now. What was done was done and there was little use denying that Netherfield Park was both conveniently close to London while at the same time on the way up north and by all accounts perfectly suitable for a gentleman such as Charles Bingley. What did matter, however, was that Peters still treated him just the same as he had always done, and in all honesty, that was a very good thing.

He would have stood to the side next to Peters, a little distance away and in the shadows, to bow as soon as the carriage passed, but as it was, at that very moment he spotted Prickler scrambling across the driveway towards the hedge on the other side completely unaware of the danger dashing towards him. Without much thinking, Darcy rushed forward and reached the little creature just in time to pick it up and bring it to safety. For sure it was a somewhat stupid move seeing that four temperamental horses in a trot had to be brought to a halt, but how could he not rescue his little friend? As it was, the carriage came to an abrupt halt mere inches away from both of them and while the coachman merely looked bewildered and slightly taken aback, Bingley inquired whether everything was alright and Miss Caroline, whom he only saw now, looked out the window and down her nose to see what was going on. At spotting him, her initial curious and slightly shocked expression turned to one of disdain and disapproval and she promptly began a tirade directed at her brother.

'Now really, did you see that, Charles? What could this imbecile possibly mean by running in front of our carriage? And what is that horrible creature he is holding? You might think country manners to be charming, but I really beg to differ. People here obviously do not know how to properly train their staff. And to run around this dirty!'

'Caroline, please. Ever since we arrived here, you have made it sufficiently clear that you do not approve of Netherfield nor of its surroundings, but please... - Are you alright, Dar... - eh, man? You are not harmed, are you?'

'No, Sir, I've not been harmed, and I beg your pardon, Sir,' Darcy stammered, hoping his friend's slip of tongue went unnoticed by the man's sister. 'It was just that...'

In fact, he was pretty certain that any moment now, Caroline Bingley would recognise him even without her brother's aid, if not by his appearance than by his voice, but all she did was deepen her scowl and huffily lean back in her seat. As unexpected as it was, for now, he was safe. From Caroline that was. Peters was obviously not impressed with his recent actions either.

'What on earth were you thinking, lad? You could have killed yourself! And what an impression it must have made on the lady...'

'The impression I may have made on Miss Bingley matters little, Sir. Nothing pleases her but herself, money, and advancing in society. Her brother, on the other hand, did recognise me, and that is that. He knows me well enough, after all,' Darcy shrugged, remembering full well why it was Bingley was here in the first place.

Perhaps it was not so surprising after all that Caroline had not recognised him. Other than Elizabeth Bennet, she, as well as most other ladies from town, would not concern herself with a servant, much less look at him twice. It was but rarely that she even thanked her own servants, and he very much doubted that she knew any of them by name. Well, her abigail perhaps, and only with any luck. He would not wager on it.

'He recognised you and didn't say anything?' Peters questioned with some astonishment, interrupting Darcy's unpleasant musings. 'He surely must have been surprised.'

'No, he knew about my being here and he's seen me already this very morning.'

'Oh, of course. Well anyway, your little friend seems quite happy and safe again, so I suggest you put him down and we see whether we can grab something to eat. The kitchen will be in turmoil, let me tell you, seeing that Mrs Bennet turned the whole menu upside down, insisting on two full courses and that nothing but three different sweets per course will do.'

Well, they had gotten a taste of it during lunch already. Not that there had been much of a lunch, to begin with. It was more like sneaking a slice of bread, a bit of cheese, and an apple. Fanny had looked close to tears, Leah was running around like a headless chicken again and Smith seemed close to a nervous break down while John was grudgingly peeling potatoes, apples, and carrots, his gaze still shooting daggers at Darcy as soon as he had stepped into the kitchen. Which reminded him, he still had to tell everybody that he would leave...

Taking his mind off such gloomy thoughts, Darcy replied dryly: 'As said, knowing Miss Bingley, I'd say Mrs Bennet is quite correct in her assumptions regarding the meal. I once heard the lady complain that the sugar served with her tea was too sweet.'

'Oh dear! - Ha, on the other hand, it likely means that some of the food that had been intended for today will be for us... - I personally hope that we can get some of that nice joint of roast beef that was left over the other day. It was meant to be served as a cold salad, but perhaps that's not fancy enough for tonight. One can always hope.'

'Certainly, Sir.'

Chapter Text

Chapter 40

Stay positive and happy. Work hard and don't give up hope. Be open to criticism and keep learning. Surround yourself with happy, warm and genuine people. - Tena Desae

They made their way inside, and as Peters had predicted, the kitchen was in turmoil. However, the pleased expression on Smith's face clearly showed that despite the chaos surrounding her, everything was well under control and the battle, for surely that was the most appropriate word for it, was all but won. John, much to his discomfort sported a livery that was slightly too big for him and the butler as well was back to his formal attire, wig and all. Only a short while now and dinner would be served. The platters, terrines, bowls and gravy boats were all placed neatly on the table, ready to be filled and the fruit displays were already arranged to their best advantage. Nothing too fancy Darcy noticed, merely oranges, apples and some pears; nothing in comparison to what could be purchased in London even during the deepest winter. However, all of them had been meticulously polished and looked as tempting as any pineapple, melon or other exotic fruit ever could. While Pemberley did have a well-stocked hothouse with quite a variety of different trees, in his opinion there was little that was more delicious than an apple straight from the tree.

'Ah, for you, dinner will be a while, still,' Smith remarked, while on the other hand, that she did not chase them out of the kitchen was yet another good sign that despite everything, all had gone well. 'I first need to get all this stuff out of the way and then prepare for the second course, which thankfully isn't all that much anymore. With all this food, I have to wonder why a second course is even necessary. Ah, and Tom, Charlie, Bob and Henry will have to take care of the horses...'

She trailed off before turning back to her pots and pans on the stove.

'Is there anything I can help you with?' Darcy could not help himself asking.

But perhaps they needed more coal or water or the like.

'Ha, why don't you clean yourself up and help us serve,' John piped up sullenly. 'After all, you like to put yourself forward and mingle with the ladies, don't you? Think you can do everything better than the rest of us.'

'That's enough, John!' Mrs Hill interrupted him before he could say any more, while cook, unfortunately, seemed to think it quite a good plan, ignoring the faintly malicious smirk that had spread over the boy's face, clearly indicating that all John's design was to get his fellow into trouble. - And successfully so.

'Now, that's a very good idea, John. This way the food would be out of the way a lot faster and I could start preparing for the second course, and there is still Hill's old livery that doesn't fit him anymore. It might not fit you perfectly, William, but perhaps with a little adjustment, it'll do just fine. Besides, you are handsome enough to be a footman.'

'He sure is,' Leah giggled and Fanny nodded in agreement.

Oh dear! That was most certainly not what Darcy had expected nor intended. Beside him, Peters shrugged, his expression one between concern and amusement. Well, in for a penny in for a pound. At any rate, before he knew it, Mrs Hill had dragged him with her, poured water into a wash bowl and wandered off again to get her husband's old livery while Peters had been asked to get Johnson's wig.

'What if I drop something?' Darcy tried to reason. 'After all, I've little experience carrying plates and I wouldn't know from which side to serve and...'

It was the first time he kind of had to agree with Caroline Bingley. In town, no-one would ever consider sending a mere under-gardener to serve. Even the thought was preposterous. Yet it was hard to deny that sending the maids to help would raise just as many eyebrows there than sending a gardener. And as it was Miss Bingley would find fault at any rate, no matter what. From what Bingley had said, she already was determined not to enjoy herself.

'Oh, don't you worry, you won't need to serve, only help bring the food upstairs and leave the rest to John and Mr Hill. - Oh, don't bother with your fingernails, you'll be wearing gloves anyway. As long as your face is clean all will be well,' Mrs Hill assured him as she was returning with a well-used livery slightly smelling of lavender to keep the moths at bay.

No, all would not be well. He was in trouble and yet, there was no time explaining matters. If she would even believed him, that was.

Soon enough after taking his time cleaning himself up, Darcy found that in any event, he would have been in a right dilemma, seeing that just now Bingley's groom and footman stepped in through the backdoor where they would wait until the carriage would be called for again. And as it was, while neither of them knew him personally, they had seen him often enough to be able to recognise him. Yet another thing he had stupidly not thought about. He was truly trapped between a rock and a hard place.

After putting the wig on, there was little to do but pick up the terrine Mrs Smith held out for him and follow Hill and John up the little staircase and through the house and over to the dining room. It was the first time Darcy saw any of the house itself. It was by no means grand, but well and comfortably furnished and all in all surprisingly modern considering that the outside was such a broad array of styles spanning several centuries. Just like Pemberley, this was a home, not a display to impress others and he had to admit that he quite liked it. Not that it mattered right now. From within the dining-parlour he could hear voices and at any moment, Hill would open the door...

 

Chapter 41

Part of the secret of a success in life is to eat what you like and the let the food fight it out inside. - Mark Twain

Just as Elizabeth had expected, Miss Bingley was much less pleasant than her brother. To be quite frank, she was insufferable. From the moment she had stepped into the house, she had made it perfectly clear that in her opinion this visit was anything but a pleasure and that, had she been given the choice, she would have preferred to stay at Netherfield even if it meant that she would be bored to bedlam.

'I have to say, this is a very comfortable room,' Miss Bingley cooed, and not for the first time.

It was a little like watching a well-trained parrot repeating the same pleasantries over and over again while not knowing what they actually meant. Even her attire fit that picture quite perfectly. While the colour of her dress was a breath-taking shade of lavender and the fabric the finest silk to be had, the cut was a little daring and the adornments decidedly over the top. The pink and purple roses, abundant ruffles and golden lace nearly smothered the rather petite and slender woman underneath and the fashionable turban sporting a gaudily dyed ostrich feather did not really complement the dress. Then again, what did Elizabeth know about high fashion? And seeing some of the bonnets at the haberdasher's down in Meryton, or Mary King's rather odd hairstyle during the last assembly, perhaps it was she herself who had it all wrong. At least they had managed to persuade Mary to wear one of Elizabeth's gowns again and style her hair a little less sternly. Even a couple of curls escaped her pins. If there was nothing else to take joy in during this dinner, then Mary’s small achievements in improving her looks was to be her pleasure for the night. Well, that and that Jane was pleasantly engaged in a conversation with Mr Bingley, who once more paid her the utmost attention.

'Oh, that is very kind of you,' her mother presently replied, seemingly unaware of the insincerity of their new acquaintance's remark. 'Especially seeing that you must be used to the most elegant of saloons. But as it is, I try and do my best to have everything as comfortable as I possibly can, and my girls are just like me. Always trying to improve things by covering the screen in the latest fashion. And only last week did Jane finish the matching cushions. They turned out rather well, do you not agree? But she is, without a doubt, my most accomplished daughter and so gentle, elegant, and beautiful.'

Fortunately, Jane did not take notice, nor did Mr Bingley, while Mr Bennet seemed as if he suppressed a sigh. Yet, he did not do much to steer the conversation in another direction either and so it was on their mother and Elizabeth to sustain the conversation. Not that Elizabeth had contributed much at all, for what was there to say anyway to a person who was intent on being displeased?

'Quite so,' Miss Bingley agreed curtly her lips curling in superior contempt.

Apparently, all her fears had come true. Here was a family who were so unaffected and warm, friendly and welcoming, so very unlike she herself was, that it must be hard to bear.

'Ah, and there is our dinner. You will not find a better cook anywhere around here, let me assure you,' Mrs Bennet prattled on earning her another look of barely disguised contempt from Caroline Bingley while one dish after the other was placed on the large table in front of them.

'Now that is very fortunate.'

'And have you many acquaintances in town?' Elizabeth said, at long last making an effort to finally change the subject, seeing that there was little conversation to be had speaking about their own concerns.

'Naturally. We quite regularly attend Almack's, that is if we do not have a private invitation to see to which is but rarely. My brother is quite a favourite among all the young ladies in town and I am certain that he will make quite as good a match as my older sister has recently done. You know, her husband's uncle is in parliament and very influential. There is one lady in particular who has caught his attention. The sister of a friend of Charles' and a very accomplished young lady. And so elegant, one can hardly believe that Miss Darcy is only just fifteen.'

Bedside Elizabeth a platter of baked salmon and asparagus was nearly dropped making both Elizabeth and Miss Bingley jump a little at hearing the clatter. It could not possibly be, could it? She had not paid much attention to the servants as they repeatedly entered but seeing Hill and John on the other side of the table, the former gesturing to the person behind her as to where to put the dish, and seeing the very decidedly male gloved hand, there was but one conclusion. Oh goodness!

Mr Bingley's bewildered expression in looking up confirmed her suspicions. It was none of the maids who usually helped out on occasions such as this, but William, or rather Mr Darcy himself, had been made to help serve dinner. How in the world had that come to pass? He seemed to have a knack for being made to help out the others, and as far as she was concerned that was testament to his amiability, though perhaps not exactly wise in this very instant. Her aunt's letter came to mind and put a small smile on Elizabeth's face nonetheless, that was, however, quickly erased by the presence of the woman to her right.

'Now really, it is so difficult finding well-trained servants these days, is it not?'

'Perhaps that is so, Caroline, but then again, it would do many a master or mistress some good to put themselves into their servants' shoes from time to time,' her brother interjected.

Though he still smiled and had kept his voice even, there was little doubt that he was quite angry.

To Elizabeth’s astonishment, it was Mary who picked up the conversation: 'It does well for all of mankind to occasionally humble oneself. Before God, we are all the same and none of us can ever be so secure in our position in life as to prevent a fall from grace or be met with misfortune on the way.'

'Quite so, my child,' Mr Bennet agreed, looking on as both John and William left towards the kitchen, while Hill stayed behind to serve them.

'Yes, but one can hardly expect a gentleman or lady to work as a servant, can they?' Miss Bingley replied with a small huff. 'Everyone has their station in life and as it is, some are born to work, while others are meant to guide them and give them a living. Which reminds me, only when we arrived one of your gardeners almost caused an accident. It was quite foolish of him to risk all our lives for the sake of an ugly flea-ridden creature. I strongly recommend talking to that man, before he does something else so utterly thoughtless and dangerous.'

The silence that descended on the party after that statement was almost palpable and only very slowly the conversation resumed, mainly due to the attempts of Mr Bingley trying to be as pleasant as he possibly could. He seemed careful in choosing topics that cut out his own sister from joining in for the time being and thereby, the first course was spent talking about the ball at the assembly hall and little else. Even her father, though he had not joined them at the assembly but had heard everything about it, commented once in a while. But one could only talk so long about the same subject without some repetition and so, before long, mainly due to her own mother's inquisitiveness to find out as much as she could about London, that was where the conversation ultimately led again. When it was time to clear the table and serve the second course, Miss Bingley had once more managed to make everybody feel uncomfortable with her not so charming, elegant aloofness. If that was how young ladies of good breeding behaved these days, Elizabeth understood all the more why Mr Darcy had all but fled London to come here to work as a gardener and quite frankly, she was perfectly content not to be a young lady of society.

 

Chapter 42

Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work. - Vince Lombardi

It had been a close call once again, that much was true. Darcy had almost given himself away. But truthfully, it had been difficult to keep his anger at bay when hearing Miss Bingley speak about his sister meant to marry her brother. It was not even that he would mind it, but to speak so in front of other young ladies, and one young lady, in particular, was nothing but rude. Even had she said it straight to the Bennets faces, Caroline Bingley could not have made it more clear that she thought them to be inferior. Something that in itself was ridiculous. Mr Bennet might not be the wealthiest of man around, but he was a gentleman, while the old Mr Bingley had been in trade. And as yet, when it came to society, nobility still came before money, even Miss Bingley seemed to agree, seeing that she had pointed it out repeatedly whenever it suited her. Darcy did not even care to try and count all the barons he had met that had nothing but debts and were still deemed a suitable match for the one or other younger daughter, while a tradesman, no matter how wealthy, hardly counted for anything. Not that he himself agreed. And not that he had much time to ponder.

While Smith was again very busy, Fanny had been ordered to put some food on the table for the staff to eat, and that was where he now sat, quickly shovelling in his meal, seeing that soon the table upstairs needed to be cleared again. And actually, Peters was in luck, there was the roast beef, some coleslaw, bread, butter, cheese, gammon, apples... - everything was cold, but delicious nonetheless.

'Hey, could you pass me the mustard, please?' Bingley's coachman asked and it was obvious that he tried to remember where he had seen Darcy before.

'Sure,' was his own short reply in reaching for the jar and passing it on.

Had Darcy hoped the man's curiosity could be kept to himself he had been wrong, eventually, he asked: 'Do you have a brother in town?'

'No.'

'But you do remind me of somebody...'

'Why, William used to work in town for a Mr Darcy. Perhaps you have seen him there,' John piped up, once again that sneaky smirk on his face that did not bode well.

'Mr Darcy? Oh...'

Well, it was only natural that now the man looked at him more closely and a powdered wig was hardly enough of a disguise to conceal his true identity. Slowly but surely realisation spread over the coachman's face as he incredulously stared at the very man himself.

'Mr Darcy, of course! Goodness me,' the man eventually stammered and then suddenly and to Darcy's great surprise started to laugh, just as Peters had done. 'Now, no-one will ever believe me when I tell them that Mr Darcy of all people, is working as a footman in the country...'

Oh dear! He was doomed to eternal ridicule. Or in the very least be considered a very eccentric fellow, which was perhaps preferable. Seeing that many a gentleman had the one or other odd quirk, it could even be that aside from a nonchalant shrug of the one or other shoulder, no-one would be much fazed. But he really should have been more cautious. He had acted reckless and this was now the storm no-one but himself had caused. There was nothing to it, he would have to weather it.

'As it is, I am working as an under-gardener,' Darcy tried to reply as nonchalantly as he possibly could, though his hands had gone sweaty.

'Oh, do you indeed? But may I be so bold and ask why?' Bingley's man dug deeper.

'Well, to find happiness. To once again appreciate the things given to me.'

He was faintly aware that everybody was staring at him open-mouthed and with disbelieve written all over their faces, John's in particular. Whatever he had thought William Hawthorn might be, that he was, in fact, a gentleman, he obviously had not anticipated.

'But as it is, there now is the bell meaning that the table needs to be cleared...'

No-one moved. Not even Peters even though he already knew. It appeared that the manner of how his true identity had been revealed had unsettled even him. Ah well, no use crying over spilt milk, was there? And as such, it was only the milk boiling over on the stove that woke Smith from her stupor and with her the rest of the others.

In no time at all, the table in the kitchen was cleared so the next courses could be dished up. But while everyone was busy, Darcy could feel that the mood had shifted. Where before there had been companionship, there now was reserve and distrust. If anything, this was worse than society's ridicule, or being considered plain weird ever could be. These people had been his friends, his family almost. They had made him happy, trusted him, had accepted him as one of their own and now they had been disappointed. It was hard to bear. What did it matter if Miss Bingley found him out now? With any luck, she would never look at him again. However, that was little consolation at present. When Darcy turned to help Hill and John clear the table upstairs, he was held back.

'We will manage, Sir,' the butler bowed, pointedly avoiding his eyes.

'But I have offered to help and I wouldn't have done so if...'

'No, Mr Darcy, you stay down here or leave, whatever suits you best.'

'Oh, for Heaven's sake!' Peters suddenly raised his voice. 'He's been one of us for weeks now and since he's come here he's been nothing but helpful and kind. Stop being miffed, Hill, will you? And you lot, too! Only because he's a gentleman doesn't make him a leper all of a sudden. For all, I'm concerned he's still good old William and he certainly doesn't behave any differently now that we all know who he really is than he did an hour ago.'

To Darcy's great surprise it was John who seconded the enraged gardener, closely followed by Smith, the stable lads and, not to be underestimated, Mrs Hill.

'Ah well, I think you might have a point,' the butler at long last replied with a resigned smile. 'But you have to admit that the situation is a somewhat odd one.'

Chapter Text

Chapter 43

When one burns one's bridges, what a nice fire it makes. - Dylan Thomas

'I have to say the food was surprisingly good,' Caroline Bingley complimented, though her affected smile did not reach her eyes. 'I would not have thought that you would be able to get such a variety of different things here in the country. But then again, Hertfordshire is not all that far from London, is it now?'

Her tinkling and insincere laugh was even worse.

'Oh, but we have a second course to come, Miss Bingley,' Mrs Bennet informed her with a gracious smile, making the young lady's eyebrows rise in some surprise.

'Oh! Really?'

To herself, Elizabeth thought it to be rather unfortunate that another hour or two would pass before she could even consider to excuse herself, and it seemed that Hill was in no hurry to clear the table. Several minutes had already passed since Kitty had rung the bell and as yet no-one had appeared. It was obvious that not only she had noticed as much, but also Miss Bingley, her face barely containing the superiority she surely must feel at being faced with such apparent tardy servants.

'Yes, of course,' Mrs Bennet replied cheerfully and at long last the door opened.

Yes, Elizabeth had been correct in her assumptions. Alongside Hill and John, it indeed was none other than Mr Darcy who entered the room, looking slightly odd with his white wig and the slightly ill-fitting livery. That he still managed to cut a fine figure was some achievement. However, his presence here actually begged the question of whether he actually wanted to be found out. While she had gathered that his friend knew of his being here, there was no doubt in her mind that said friend's sister was oblivious to that fact. On the other hand, nothing was ever as well hidden as it was in plain sight, was it not? One could almost call it a truth universally acknowledged. And indeed, Miss Bingley hardly took notice of the servants. As a matter of fact, she did not even attempt to make clearing the table any easier for the men as should be normal. Another sign that the lady did not possess half as much good breeding as she appeared to think she did.

Mr Darcy seemed to notice it, too, and catching Elizabeth's eyes the slightest of smiles crossed his face as he reached for Lydia's plate, precariously balancing it on his arm in an attempt to imitate John, while Hill was already taking care of the mainly half-empty platters.

Apparently, Miss Bingley could not help it as she testily asked, at seeing the apparent clumsiness of him, yet still not realising his identity: 'I take it your footman has not been with you for very long. I declare, one almost needs to be scared that he might drop something. And how slow he is...'

'Perhaps, but as it is, one cannot train a servant without taking certain risks,' Elizabeth smiled back archly.

How Darcy managed to keep his mouth firmly closed was quite a mystery. She would have either laughed already or said something outrageous. But as it was, while he was indeed struggling slightly, taking great care that he would not accidentally drop a knife or fork, let alone the whole stack of plates, he stayed perfectly calm and instead waited patiently until he could take the plates without being a bother to anyone. Just as a good footman was trained to do, actually.

'That might be the case in a small household,' Caroline Bingley corrected her haughtily, 'but let me tell you that in big houses, the servants are trained first before they are allowed to serve their master. At Pemberley, Mr Darcy's estate in Derbyshire, one would never find a servant that does not know how to do their tasks properly. He is very particular about that, I assure you.'

It was hard not to look at the man in question, still waiting to be able to get at Miss Bingley's empty plate, or to laugh inwardly at the absurdity that the man the lady now spoke of was the very one she was unwittingly belittling and hampering. From the head of the table, a slight cough sounded over to her, telling her that her father clearly thought along the same lines and was just as desperately trying to suppress a chuckle and Mr Bingley looked as if wished for nothing more than the ground to open beneath him. Even Jane blushed.

'Whenever he gets married,' Caroline Bingley carried on undeterred and unaware of the awkward glances cast her way, 'there will hardly be anything to do for his wife. Not in such a well organised household as his. His housekeeper is very thorough and she has to be, or otherwise she would not have worked for the Darcy- Family for so long. And I flatter myself that while his sister has, as I have already mentioned, taken a liking to my brother, I would say it is only a matter of time until another most desirable union. If you get my meaning...'

Never in her life had Elizabeth been as mortified as there and then and the expression on Mr Bingley's face clearly showed that he, too, was more than a little embarrassed. Even Jane had to cast down her eyes from sheer shame. Yet the lady who ought to feel all those emotions obviously did not.

'In one instance only, Miss Bingley, you are perfectly right,' Darcy finally spoke up unable to hold back any longer, 'my wife will want for nothing, least of all love. But as it is, that woman will not be you. Nor, for that matter, has there ever been anything but mutual regard and friendship between your brother and my sister. And now, if you will please excuse me, I am needed downstairs in the kitchen.'

Several things happened at once. Her father started laughing; Kitty and Lydia started whispering animatedly to one another; Mary merely sat dumbstruck her expression a curious mix of disapproval and amusement; her mother went into hysterics; Jane blushed most becomingly; Bingley appeared rather relieved; and his sister preferred to pass out and avoid the situation altogether. It was more out of common courtesy than compassion that Elizabeth suggested for the lady to be brought upstairs and into one of the guest rooms to recover from her shock and humiliation, though that Miss Bingley would recover from the latter any time soon, could be rightfully doubted. One thing, however, was for certain, never would she say a word about what had come to pass, not if it meant that at the same time she had to admit to spreading rumours that were perfectly false and had been duly rejected in the process. Mr Darcy could consider himself safe, Elizabeth dared say. All for the better and yet, what now?

 

Chapter 44

Everything is funny, as long as it's happening to somebody else. - Will Rogers

'Dear me, dear me, what are we to do?' Mrs Bennet lamented over and over again for the past five minutes, ever since seeing the chaos into which her dining room had dissolved.

Calmly Darcy took a decanter of wine, poured a generous amount of it into a glass and handed it to the hysterical woman. What else was he to do in the face of a situation he himself had created? By the time she had finally managed to take the first sip, Jane and Mary had woken from their stupor and were by their mother's side. Elizabeth was still upstairs seeing that Caroline Bingley was taken care of alongside John and Hill who had carried the unconscious lady into one of the guest rooms. Not that she deserved it in his opinion with the way she had behaved. Did he regret anything? No. Well yes, but not in regards to Miss Bingley, it was more the fact that he had upset everybody else with the exception of his master who was still chuckling at present and which made Darcy feel ill at ease for some reason or other.

'You!' Mrs Bennet, suddenly flared up after having calmed down sufficiently, staring incredulously and angry at her “footman”. 'How could you?! How dare you! Have you any idea what you have just done? You have ruined the chance of...'

'I would say, Mr Darcy, that you are dismissed,' Mr Bennet threw in, interrupting his wife, his face still one of immense amusement.

'Mr Darcy? Mr Darcy! Really, Mr Bennet, I think you have lost your mind,' his wife shot back, as yet unable to connect the dots.

'By no means, my dear, I assure you that I am perfectly sane. As for everybody else, I cannot possibly say, but you have to admit, that this dinner has turned out to be a rather interesting one.'

'Interesting? It is a catastrophe! Oh, what are we going to do? This will cause such a scandal!'

'And there I quite disagree, Mrs Bennet. Not if we simply keep it to ourselves. Though I doubt there is much of a chance of that, seeing Kitty and Lydia already with their heads stuck together. I will have a word with them. But just think about it, Dear, it would serve as an anecdote for years to come. What more could one possibly want? Had it been a normal dinner, it would have merely served for a little bit of gossip, that much is certain, but after a week, other topics would have replaced it and it soon would have been forgotten, but like this...'

'Papa, please,' Jane Bennet pleaded, her hand on her enraged mother's shoulder. 'Mr Bingley, I must make our apologies.'

'No, Miss Bennet, it is I who must make apologies, after all, I caused all this,' Darcy objected.

'Yes, you did!' the lady of the house quite vehemently agreed before taking another sip of wine.

'And I too have to apologise for my sister's intolerable behaviour. I should have paid more attention and should have said something instead of just letting her talk on so discourteously, but I must admit I was... - preoccupied,' Bingley blushed furiously.

Yes, that he had been completely engrossed in a conversation with Miss Bennet and quite oblivious up until it had been too late to do much about Miss Bingley's thinly veiled and spiteful comments, was hard to deny. It would appear as if she had gotten worse without her sister's company. Darcy would not have thought that possible before he left London to go on his adventure.

It was at this moment that a loud wail sounded through Longbourn House. It appeared that Miss Bingley had regained consciousness. The wail did not last long, however, as it was replaced with rather angry yells and screams. With a sigh, Bingley got up.

'I think it might be best to bring my sister back to Netherfield, seeing that she - we - have caused enough distress for one evening. Would you like to come as well, Darcy?'

All eyes were now on him.

'I will call for your carriage, Bingley and then... - Well, I quite honestly do not know.'

Suddenly and quite unexpectedly, Mary Bennet started chortling. Who would have thought that she of all of her sisters saw the funny side of all this mess? Certainly not he. But then again, looking at her more closely, she seemed to have changed since he had arrived; gone was the stern bun and had been replaced with more flattering soft curls around her high forehead. The pink dress she wore also complemented her much more than the previous grey, brown or green attire had done and brought some colour to her pale cheeks.

'I would say it is the little sins that are punished immediately,' she stated at last in a matter of fact tone of voice, just when Darcy had been about to step out of the room in quest of informing his friend's coachman that the chaise was required as soon as possible.

Had he thought that the kitchen had been spared by what was going on upstairs, he would have been wrong. Everybody was chattering, the food was all but forgotten, getting cold on the table, while the dirty dishes piled up next to the sink without being tended to.

'Your master requires his carriage,' Darcy informed the coachman, who was gossiping just as much as the rest of them.

'Oh, already?'

'Yes.'

'Fair enough. I'm on my way. Hope the master isn't too upset. But damn, I would have given a month's salary if only I could’ve been there when Miss Bingley got her just desserts.'

It would appear that while Bingley's servants were unshakably loyal to their master, this loyalty did not extend to the man's sister. Not that this was much of a surprise, but it did make Darcy wonder how his own servants talked about him and his family. And thinking of it, it was a good sign that the Bennet's servants had nothing but praise for the family they worked for.

'It was the most hilarious thing I have ever witnessed,' John threw in. 'I myself was tempted to “accidentally” spill some soup on that ghastly dress of hers.'

'John!' Mrs Hill scolded, but only half-heartedly.

Funnily enough, as scandalous as his own presence here might have been, it appeared to him that it was all forgiven and forgotten, while slighting the Bennets was not.

Eventually, Bingley left and everything quieted down and the kitchen was finally tidied up with the usual efficiency, everybody lending a helping hand. Darcy carried in buckets of water for the scullery, John polished the cutlery, Smith stored away the untouched food of the second course and when Mr Bennet stepped into the kitchen to speak to him, all was clean and in order once again.

'May I have a word with you, Mr Darcy?'

'Yes, of course.'

'I think we both can agree that you can no longer stay here, but seeing that you have no means of transport to get you back into town, I thought it would be best to offer you my horse.'

'But...'

'Oh, I expect it to be returned to me,' Mr Bennet smiled, 'and I am very sure that it will and not before long. There is a guest room prepared for you, by the way.'

'I thank you, Sir, but I will not require it. I am perfectly happy to sleep in my usual chamber for one last night.'

'Very well, then good night to you all. Oh, and I know I will not hear that any of you have gone about spreading rumours about tonight, is that understood?'

Since everybody nodded, it apparently was and knowing his work-fellows well enough, Darcy was certain that they also meant it.

 

Chapter 45

Nothing always stays the same. You don't stay happy forever. You don't stay sad forever. - Cat Zingano

He was leaving.

Yes, Elizabeth had known that it would be inevitable at some point, but she still could not help feeling desolate as she watched on from her window as Mr Darcy was mounting her father's horse, but not before saying one last good-bye to his little prickly friend. What would become of the little creature now? He was bound to miss his friend, looking for him but without avail. William Hawthorn had been with them but a few weeks and yet, his leaving left so much sadness amongst them. The only consolation was that his friend Mr Bingley was now their neighbour, but with what had come to pass the night before, would Mr Darcy be at all welcome at Netherfield? Then again, Mr Bingley had been kind enough to send a change of his own clothes over for his friend to wear, so there was reason to assume that Mr Bingley was not all that angry. But then there was his sister... - No, as long as she would stay at Netherfield, Mr Darcy would certainly not be welcomed there, and having met the lady, that presumably was for the better. Yet there Elizabeth stood, missing William already and he was just now mounting his horse. Yes, William, for to her he would always be William, the kind and gentle man she had come to know, like, and love.

'Lizzy?' Jane interrupted her, and wiping away a tear or two, Elizabeth turned to face her sister. 'Oh Lizzy, I am so sorry!'

'I will be alright, Jane. It was bound to come to an end, you know? I have always known it and I was foolish to not guard myself better. It was silly to begin with when I did not know who he was and also later when I did.'

'No, Lizzy, it was not! It was only natural that you should like him so very much.'

'As natural as it might have been, it was foolish nonetheless.'

Putting her arms around her younger sister, Jane Bennet pulled her close and just held her. It was comforting, but it also led to Elizabeth feeling even more lost than she had before and her tears started to run freely.

'You know what?' Jane asked after a while. 'Go get your pelisse and I get mine and we shall venture outside.'

'But...'

'No buts, Lizzy! Let us go on a ramble.'

That it was meant to cheer her up was obvious seeing that Jane hardly ever went for a walk just for the sake of it. But she had had a point, the sun shone brightly, the flowers blossomed more beautifully than in the past few weeks, bees were buzzing everywhere and the birds were singing their lovely tune, a concerto of the most beautiful kind. It was only when they returned that Elizabeth spotted Prickler wandering around the garden as if he was looking for someone, and he certainly did.

'No, little one, your friend is not here anymore,' she whispered reaching out her hand while trying her best not to start crying again.

Surprisingly enough the little hedgehog scattered towards her and sniffed her hand before looking up at her curiously.

'You know, Prickler, one can really consider oneself happy to have a friend such as you. If you were not so very prickly and deserving of your name I would be tempted to give you a hug, but I fear all I can do is stay here for a while longer and keep you company. It is a sad day for both of us, you know? I miss him, too.'

Standing to the side, Jane smiled before quietly retreating and only the slight rustle of her dress told Elizabeth that she had left while she herself stayed out of doors just a little longer. Eventually, however, she had to return and join her family for lunch, put on a smile and try to forget her broken heart for the time being.

'I still do not understand how you could tolerate this man staying here with us!' was the first thing she heard when stepping back into the house.

'Why would I not? He worked hard and did not meddle about which is more than can be said of many a servant. As it is, not one of the servants has anything but praise for him and it will be a struggle to find another gardener only half as hard working as Mr Darcy has been. The situation is quite a curious one no matter from which angle one looks at it, is it not, Mrs Bennet?'

'A curious one? I beg to differ, Mr Bennet, it is an impossible one! And now Mr Bingley will never return here and what about Jane? It was very poorly done, Mr Bennet!'

'So you think? Well, I quite disagree, seeing that I have already received a letter from Mr Bingley apologising for his sister once again and inviting us to dinner at Netherfield by the end of this week; as soon as his sister has gone on to stay with some relatives up north. I dare say they will be thrilled at the prospect...'

'Mr Bingley invited us to dinner? Oh, why did you not say so immediately?!'

'Perhaps mainly because you would not let me.'

'Oh, never mind. Jane? Jane where are you? Jane have you heard...' and with that the door to the parlour closed behind their mother as she had obviously found her eldest daughter within.

'You look pale, Lizzy. Is something the matter?' her father asked, all of a sudden turning around towards her.

'No, I am quite fine, Papa.'

'Good, I thought so. Well then my dear, let us go about our business as usual, shall we?'

'Yes, Papa.'

'Oh, and put out some watered down milk for your new little friend and perhaps a bit of the ragout from last night.'

Leaving her completely bewildered Elizabeth stood rooted to the spot for a moment or two before heeding her father's advice.

Chapter Text

Chapter 46

Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit to them. - Bruce Lee

The ride back to London was a difficult one. While on one hand, Darcy was quite happy to return and eager to take care of things he should have seen to a long time ago such as bringing his sister back home, on the other he also and undeniably left a part of himself behind in Hertfordshire. The better one, if he was any judge. Then there was Prickler. He would dearly missed the little creature and only hoped that he would not miss him too much in turn. And last but not least, he had left Miss Elizabeth behind and that, perhaps was the hardest part of all. Whether Bingley would invite him anytime soon could be roghtfully questioned, especially with his sister staying at Netherfield as well. It would be decidedly foolish of Bingley to ask him to come and stay after all that had happened. On the other hand, there was Mr Bennet's horse. Unwittingly, or perhaps wittingly, the man had given him a lifeline. With Mr Bennet, one could never be too certain as to his true intentions. He was an intelligent man, there could be no doubt about that, and also full of surprises as he himself had found out first hand. But then again, whether his wife would accept his return with as much cordiality and good-will was yet another question.

Thus mulling things over and over in his head, Darcy had reached London before he was even aware of it. But now that the streets got busier and busier, he needed to take care where he was going and that was just as well. There was no use pondering over things that were out of his hand, especially not when there were other things he very well could and should take care of. For the time being.

That his servants were surprised by his sudden arrival would have been an understatement. They were positively shocked seeing that they had thought he was somewhere abroad, so that was actually understandable. But it was some relief to see that they were quite happy to have their master back. It would appear as if he indeed was a fairly decent master judging by their reaction. Brutus, on the other hand, seemingly could not decide whether he was angry for having been left behind for so long or happy to have his master back and the result was a curious mix of a grumpy dog wagging his tail all the while attempting to very pointedly not look at Darcy yet as inconspicuous as was possible squinting in his direction. As it was his dog failed miserably in his attempt to punish his master by ignoring him and before he knew it Darcy was thrown to the ground as his good old friend jumped at him out of the blue and his face was licked with gusto. Such behaviour was not something he would normally tolerate, but alas, he was just as happy to be back home, as bittersweet the feeling was. But Darcy rightly presumed that it would very likely be taken the wrong way if he showed his joy as enthusiastically as his dog. It took some time until Darcy managed to get back onto his feet and after cleaning himself up and a quick late luncheon there was business to attend to. The stack of correspondence thankfully comprised of invitations to various parties he had missed, there was one from his Aunt Catherine that could also be neglected for the time being and after that only two that needed taking care of were left. One was a note informing him of an old acquaintance's passing that required a letter of condolence, the other was the more cheerful announcement of one of his neighbours up in Derbyshire that they had been blessed with a son and heir and which in turn required congratulations. Next was the letter he had to write to Georgiana's school informing them that his sister would return to his care as soon as possible and then to assemble an advertisement for a companion to guide her. Oh, and he also needed to inform his cousin and steward that he had returned.

Darcy was almost done with the last epistle and ready to retreat to the library to read when there was a knock on the door of his study and yet another letter was delivered. It was from Bingley. With some trepidation, he broke the seal and unfolded the paper.

Dear friend,

again I have to apologise for my sister's inexcusable behaviour as well as for my own inattention in the matter. I only became aware of what she was about when the table was cleared and I saw you step into the room, but there can be little doubt that she has been behaving like this well before then. As it is, I have arranged for her to go and stay with our relatives in Scarborough and if it were up to me, her stay shall be of some duration. I think I finally can understand why you longed for some escape, especially seeing that your disposition is so very different from my own.
My main objective of this letter, however, is to invite you to dinner at my new estate. As far as I understand, you have not seen it yet though you have been living so close to Netherfield. If you could come by at the end of this week, I would be honoured to call you my guest, Darcy. Seeing that Hertfordshire is not too far from town I hope I do not ask too much.

Yours etc.

Charles Bingley

Darcy's heart did a little jump of joy at reading his friend's lines, for once perfectly discernible, and immediately he reached for his pen again.

Dear Bingley,

it is with great pleasure that I accept your invitation.
But it is I who has to apologise for no-one but I brought this upon all of us. Had I not gone off as I did and had thought before recommending Netherfield to you and what it would mean to both you and myself, none of this would have come to pass. It was careless of me, to say the least, and I am heartily sorry, dear friend.

Yours sincerely

Fitzwilliam Darcy

Calling for his footman he paid for an express and finally allowed himself to retreat into the library to read for an hour or two, Brutus at his feet. Well, that had been the initial idea, but in the end, his dog ended up next to him on the sofa, with his head in his master's lap to enjoy his ears being scratched, the floppy one and the one that stood almost upright.

 

Chapter 47

Many a trip continues long after movement in time and space have ceased. - John Steinbeck

 

Friday came surprisingly fast, especially considering his impatience to return to Hertfordshire. Then again the time had simply flown by as he had been busy meeting with his cousin who had just returned from Kent and been looking for a suitable companion for his sister. Not that it was a bad thing that time had been flying. Quite the contrary since often-times impatience had a tendency to make hours appear like days and Darcy was quite impatient to return to Hertfordshire, the one place he had at last found his happiness. In his few idle hours it indeed appeared as if the time would never pass. Yet, there was always hope that kept him going. Yes, hope was a good thing. With a little luck all would turn out well and he would be the happiest of men. Of course, it would also be somewhat awkward to return there as himself, but then again, what was there to fear? After all, he had made friends, as unlikely as one would think it would be that a man of his status could be friends with a bunch of servants. But it was the simple truth. Even though things had changed such that it would make it impossible that they should ever again speak so unrestricted to one another as they once had when he was but William Hawthorn the under-gardener, they still had been his fellows and always would be in a sense. He would be forever grateful to them for having shown him kindness and a sense of belonging, something that society had rarely ever done. Bingley was one of the rare exceptions. After all, what did it matter what status a person held in life? Was it not the character alone that truly mattered? Looking at Miss Bingley, she was part of the London high society and yet was lacking in so many respects. The dinner at the Bennets had clearly shown that how she spoke about others when in his company, she did also when amongst those others, just swapping out people to belittle behind their backs, or even barely veiled to their faces if only she thought them inferior enough. In the end, it had been all but impossible to keep his tongue any longer and perhaps it was even for the better.

Fitzwilliam Darcy was up at first light before the first servants stirred. Yet, it was impossible to go back to sleep for another hour or so, even though his bed was decidedly more comfortable than the one in his little chamber back at Longbourn. More airy as well, naturally. Yes, he had a lot to be thankful for, but that did not mean that he had to like every single aspect of his life, did it? Already the invitations for various balls and dinners and balls came in again. How people had heard of his arrival in town so promptly would presumably stay a mystery. One of the many puzzles never to be solved. Slipping into his morning gown, Darcy made his way down into the kitchen and stoked the fire before putting the kettle on and making himself a cup of tea. The water was just about to boil when a very surprised scullery maid stepped into the kitchen to take care of what her master had already taken care of himself.

'Oh! Good morning, Mr Darcy, I... - I'm mightily sorry, Sir,' the young lass stammered, giving an awkward curtsy.

'Good morning. And whatever are you sorry for? It is I who should be so after all this is your territory, is it not?' he replied smiling. 'But as it is, I was up early and in need of some tea and so I made myself some. Do not worry, you have done nothing wrong.'

Again the maid curtsied before taking the coal scuttle and bustling off seemingly unable to decide what to make out of her master making his own tea at the crack of dawn. It had seemed such a natural thing, that it only now dawned on him that it was not at all. Be that as it may, his tea was ready and resisting the temptation to take one of the large earthen mugs the servants used, Darcy poured it into the polished silver pot instead before putting it and a cup and saucer on a tray to carry everything back to his room. Was it silly to miss the companionship he had had as William? Perhaps. And having his tea all by himself made him feel decidedly lonely. In fact, Darcy had not even realised how lonely he was on occasion until he had gone on his journey; and he often had been lonely even when he had been in society, thinking about it. But alas, for now, a cup of tea would have to suffice as a companion. - Oh, and Brutus, who presently scratched on the door of his dressing room. Half an hour later Darcy decided it was time to ring for his valet and get dressed. There was one more interview to be held and then he would be off.

Mrs Younge was a young widow who had applied for the position of Georgiana's companion, but had not made too much of an impression on him. There was something unsavoury about her that reminded him faintly of Caroline Bingley. Her false smile in particular. Three months ago, he would have likely hired her, seeing that she had impeccable references. However, her plastered on smile that was supposed to be pleasing had not once reached her eyes and where once Darcy had been used to it, now it made him wary. No, she was most certainly not a suitable paragon and friend for his sister. He would have to continue to look for someone kinder and more honest. Nothing less would satisfy him, nor his sister, as far as he was concerned.

The one good thing about the interview was that it had been rather short and after taking an early lunch, Darcy could take off northwards once again. At first, he had thought about riding Mr Bennet's horse himself, but had changed his mind and taken the chaise instead. He would have had to take it anyway to transport his luggage, though he was not sure of how long he would stay as yet. While he had to sort things out for Georgiana's arrival, it was impossible to be away for a long length of time and as much as he would have liked to stay in Hertfordshire for as long as he could, his sister's plight took precedence. Besides, his loyal friend looked more than just a little disappointed at his master leaving again so shortly after his arrival. Well, there was definitely enough space in the chaise for one more passenger...

'Come on, boy, get in!' Darcy ordered with a smile and hardly believing his luck, Brutus jumped in as if half-expecting to be thrown out again.

'Yes, you're really coming with me. There are many new friends I would like you to meet. And I'm certain you'll like them just as much as I do. But you'll have to behave yourself, do you hear?'

Brutus gave a small huff, for want of a better word, before making himself comfortable at his master's feet where he promptly fell asleep. Well, as it was, Darcy's own eyes also drooped soon after and he dozed off, only waking up when the carriage stopped in front of a neat brick-built manor house with the typical façade of a building erected a few decades prior and the traditional formal gardens to go with it. Though upon closer inspection, the lawn could do with a bit of raking, the moss definitely needed taking care of, and the low box hedges had obviously not been cut in a good while. Further still, the flower beds looked pretty empty, with only the occasional tulip peeking through the ivy that had taken hold and grew wildly. At least the gravel was neatly raked. Ah, and there was his friend, grinning broadly and looking mightily proud, and as far as Darcy could judge for good reason.

'Darcy, it is so good to see you. And do let me apologise again for my sister's abhorrent behaviour and my own failure to realise what she was doing,' Bingley came towards him with outstretched hands. 'I am quite ashamed of myself. But I dare say, your well-timed comment will do some good.'

'Well, it had never been my intention to embarrass her, Bingley, and I am heartily ashamed of myself likewise. I am truly very sorry.'

'Since that is then settled and we both appear equally shame-faced, what do you say to my new abode?' his friend cheerfully changed the subject.

'It seems perfectly suitable for a man in your position as I was certain it would be after hearing what I did about the place.'

'And very right you were, my friend. Very right you were. You would not know a good gardener around here?'

'I know a very good one, but he is unavailable I fear, working for one of your new neighbours and too happy with his position to leave it.'

'I heard he has a very good under-gardener,' Bingley teased. 'What about him?'

'Left in dishonour after causing a minor scandal,' Darcy replied dryly making Bingley laugh.

'Ah well, too bad. But I will find someone sooner or later, I am sure, and now, let me show you to your room. I could, of course, call Dawson, but I have to admit that I am a bit nervous about tonight...'

'Why are you nervous? It is not as if we have never dined together before, and I have to say, I have lately acquired quite some taste for the simpler dishes.'

'Yes, it is just that...'

'Just what?'

'Well, I have invited other guests as well.'

Oh? That Darcy had not expected, though perhaps he should have and he had an inkling who those guests might be to make his friend so nervous. All of a sudden he was, too.

 

Chapter 48

Happiness cannot be travelled to, owned, earned, worn or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace, and gratitude. - Denis Waitley

 

The end of the week came surprisingly quickly but that was presumably because Elizabeth looked so little forward to the dinner at Netherfield to which they had been invited. And was it not always that the things one did not look forward to always arrived with abominable speed while the things one did look forward to, seemed forever away? The only good thing as far as she was concerned was, that Jane would meet again with Mr Bingley and with that, her sister's joy was what she herself would have to be content with. At least his harpy of a sister would not be there. Another good thing. With their mother fussing over Jane's attire and hair, as always, Elizabeth sat in her room together with Mary getting ready likewise. It was a novel experience to not have her sister complain about having curls and wearing a flattering colour, but one that was quite nice. Who would have thought that a little attention would get Mary so far as to cheer up a bit and hide a little less behind her books? Jane and she should have thought about it a lot sooner. But alas, what was done was done and could hardly be changed and at any rate, now Mary smiled at her in the mirror as she was braiding Elizabeth's hair with nimble fingers, before pinning the neat braid up into an intricate bun, only leaving a few curls at the front to frame her face quite pleasantly. Not that there was much need to look pretty. Not in Elizabeth's opinion anyway. While her disposition was not made for sadness, she had been unable to not feel cast down these last couple of days. Little Prickler seemed to be in the same state of mind for every time she had come across the now actually pretty chubby hedgehog, he had looked at her with some kind of expectation, as if she could conjure up his friend out of thin air.

'What is wrong, Lizzy?' Mary, at last, inquired at seeing Elizabeth's thoughtful frown. 'Would you rather I put up your hair in a different manner?'

'Oh, no. No, it is not that. I was thinking about something else altogether.'

'Of course you did,' Mary smiled and again managed to look rather pretty.

Especially with her still loose hair falling around her face in soft curls and her new gown bringing a bit of colour to her pale cheeks.

'You know, I should scold you for being a silly goose,' Mary continued, 'but I just do not have the heart for it. I actually feel rather sorry for you, but one can never know what the future might bring. After all, God moves in mysterious ways.'

'And you speak in riddles, Mary.'

'Oh, I am very sure you know exactly what I am talking about. Do you think me blind? I should not condone you falling in love with a gardener, no matter how handsome and kind and even though he turned out to be a gentleman in the end. But you could have hardly known as much, could you?'

'I actually did for quite some weeks.'

'Then I should scold you even more for not saying anything. But again...' her sister shrugged, pushing in one last pin to make certain Elizabeth's thick hair would not come loose again out of its own accord.

While having mellowed down a bit since their last ball, Mary was still a mystery to her. She either preached or spoke in riddles, there was hardly an in-between. Sometimes it felt as if she did not know her next younger sister at all. Well, as it was lately Elizabeth felt as if she did not even know herself at all. Who was that young woman with those dark eyes and hair staring back at her in the mirror? A very silly one, that much was certain. But as it was, she looked well. Mary had done a fantastic job with her hair. Who would have thought? Then again, with her nimble fingers adept to manage even the most delicate embroidery perhaps that was not all that much surprising after all. Again, Elizabeth wondered how it was that she knew so little of her sister. A person she had seen almost every day, ever since Mary had been born. There had been times when they had played quite well together as children, but when that had stopped, she could not say. It had happened so gradually that it was impossible to pinpoint the exact moment that she had lost sight of Mary.

'Lizzy?' Mary asked with a small frown. 'Are you certai you are quite alright?'

'Yes, I just have to say, that I am not much looking forward to this evening, that is all,' Elizabeth finally confided.

Not that it was much of a confession.

'Neither do I, but you know, with something like this it is better to confront oneself instead of hiding away. It will make a meeting later on the more awkward the more time passes.'

While this assessment, in regards to their own dinner and what had come to pass then, was most certainly an accurate one, that was not the very reason she did not want to follow Mr Bingley's invitation. But Mary need not know that. Instead, Elizabeth got up from her chair and beckoned her sister to sit to have her hair done in turn.

Where before Mary had always protested to be done up nicely, it appeared that she had come to enjoy looking her best and seeing Mary's slight smile she wondered if, perhaps there was more to it than just having realised how well it made her look. Thinking back to the ball, Mary, for once in her life had been dancing, and she had danced surprisingly well considering that before she had mainly merely watched. There had been Mr Bingley, all politeness and eager to dance with all her sisters, Frank Lucas, and St Crispin's new curate. - A Mr Ryan, who had been sent to help old Mr Mansfield, long-suffering from gout, with his parish. He was a rather plain man but he had wit, a pleasant smile, and preached a good sermon by the account of their aunt Mrs Philips. Was it possible that...?

Chapter Text

Chapter 49

My dad used to say, 'Just because you dress up in a coat and tie, it doesn't influence your intelligence.' - Tiger Woods

 

They arrived at Netherfield a little early and just in time to see a very grand carriage round the corner towards the stables. It was an easy assumption to make that in order to have a proper hostess, Mr Bingley had asked his other, recently married sister to do the honours at the table. All Elizabeth could hope for was, that she was not in any shape or form like her sister. Though on the other hand, that probably would prove quite difficult. That Mr Bingley could be such an amiable man while having such a harpy for a sister was surprising enough, but to have two such sisters would be unlikely, would it not? In the very least she must be somewhere in between and that would do already. And there now was their host himself, hurrying down the stairs to welcome his guests, his face all cheerful and inviting and his blue eyes sparkling with delight making his choice of wearing a blue coat a very sensible one as it complemented his eyes perfectly. With a rather strained smile, Elizabeth lowered her eyes to hide her own silly disappointment.

'It is so good of you to come, after... - Well, you know. And while I know that it is a bit unusual for a man to host a dinner all on his own, I hope you will forgive me if I have made the one or other mistake,' he smiled while eagerly opening the carriage door before Tom was able to even jump from the box. 'Though my housekeeper and cook did their best to advise me and in all the years they have been with my family I could always rely on them.'

'Oh, good servants are always a blessing indeed, Mr Bingley,' their mother cried out taking Bingley's outstretched hand. 'I always say so and have always been proven right. One has to treat one's servants well and they will pay you back in kind. No servant can be relied upon who is not happy in his position and who takes no pride in his work.'

'Very true, Mrs Bennet. Miss Bennet....' Bingley muttered, though his attention had obviously turned to other things.

His smile had broadened when his eyes had fallen upon Jane and eagerly he stretched out his hand again to help her out of the chaise likewise. If they had followed protocol, Elizabeth as the second oldest, would have been next, but as it was, she had opted to sit in the very corner of their coach and so it was not until Mary, Kitty, Lydia and their father had alighted, with some laughter and giggling regarding her two youngest sisters, that she braced herself and, at last, got up reaching for the hand that had been extended for her, though her eyes were still firmly fixed on the ground so she would not stumble. - Or rather to be able to compose her face and hide her sadness. There had been the tiniest flicker of hope that Mr Darcy would be there, but now it was quenched. He was not. She had obviously been mistaken in regards to Mr Bingley's other sister as well, so perhaps the man himself had purchased another coach for himself, possibly in preparation of his own wedding as assumptive as that might be. But he did seem to like Jane very much and she, in turn, him, so it was not all that far fetched if one thought about it.

'Thank you,' she all but whispered.

Why all of a sudden her hair stood on end and she felt as if she was being closely watched Elizabeth was not certain of. That was until the moment the man beside her spoke.

'It is a pleasure, Miss Elizabeth.'

In surprise, her head shot up to come face to face with none other than Mr Darcy.

'I have to apologise, to not have been here when you arrived, but I have only just arrived myself...' he trailed off with a warm smile.

Blushing furiously, Elizabeth did not quite know what to reply and instead she gave a shaky curtsy. As William, in his shabby work clothes, he had already looked very handsome, but in his regular, well-cut attire he was nothing short of breathtaking. At least in her eyes. And not when he smiled like this.

'Are you quite well?' he asked with some concern in his voice.

Gone was the thick Derbyshire accent replaced by the usual sophisticated English of the aristocracy. It kind of seemed wrong. This was not the man he really was but whom he had to be.

'Yes, perfectly so, Mr Darcy,' Elizabeth finally managed to reply, but slowly recovering from her shock. 'And how are you yourself?'

'Quite well, too. I have had a busy week as you can imagine. There was a lot of business to attend to and I am just now looking for a companion for my sister so she can return back home. - She is not very happy at school and I am afraid I should have taken care of her happiness much sooner. By the way, I have to admit that I miss raking the lawn and only this morning I have puzzled my scullery maid when she found me making myself a cup of tea,' he replied wryly making her laugh.

No, he still was good old William, just the polished up form of him. The gentleman version, if one liked to call it that.

'You know, your little friend has been missing you quite desperately.'

'And how is little Prickler?'

'Sad, but healthy.'

'And getting quite chubby from all the treats my Lizzy tries to cheer him up with,' her father threw in, interrupting their tête-à-tête.

The sly smirk on her father's face was quite telling. Mr Bennet had known all along that Mr Darcy would be there. Of course, he had. It was just like him to keep it a secret and see her surprised.

'I have brought your horse back with me, Sir,' Darcy bowed towards Mr Bennet. 'It is a very fine animal to ride.'

'It is indeed, and I make use of it far too rarely, but as it is, I am the happiest in my bookroom and not on horseback. Those days are over. - But I see the others are getting impatient to get inside, especially Lydia appears to be quite hungry. Not surprising if one considers that during lunch her mouth hardly stood still and not because she was eating.'

'Papa!'

'Oh, but it surely has to do with the fact that the next ball at the Assembly Hall is but two weeks away and she has nothing fit to wear...' Mr Bennet continued matter of factly, though not without a hint of sarcasm.

'As far as I am aware there are very few young ladies who ever have anything fit to wear,' Darcy interjected dryly, offering Elizabeth his arm. 'But as long as that is their only worry, I would say we can consider their lives to be in perfect order and ours as well.'

'Very well said, Mr Darcy. I cannot but agree,' her father replied cheerfully before hurrying to take his impatiently waiting wife's arm.

 

Chapter 50

It's easy to impress me. I don't need a fancy party to be happy. Just good friends, good food, and good laughs. I'm happy. I'm satisfied. I'm content. - Maria Sharapova

 

This dinner was decidedly more pleasant than the last one, quite lovely actually and not at all formal. It was more as if a couple of old friends had come together to eat and not still almost strangers. And while at first Elizabeth had been a bit timid, not at all certain how to act around Mr Darcy, his easy manners and cheerful conversation, the occasional joke and chuckle, quickly put her at ease and besides, he was sitting right next to her. With Miss Bingley absent, Mr Bingley had decided that no formal seating was required and so their former “under-gardener” had found his place by her side quite naturally, just as naturally as Jane was smilingly sitting next to Mr Bingley. It was this one simple fact that made her heart beat just a little faster: Mr Darcy had come to her side!

'Would you like some more ragout?' Mr Darcy inquired courteously, his hand already reaching out for the dish before them.

'I thank you, but I would rather have some of the roast beef,' she answered truthfully pointing at the platter a little down the table.

Ragout, as lovely as it might be, was not much to her taste. She preferred less flavoured food and the joint of beef looked very delicious indeed, neither too dry nor bloody.

'With pleasure, Miss Elizabeth,' he replied smiling, indicating to the footman to pass over the platter.

'Thank you, Smith. - Would you rather have an end piece or a slice from the middle?'

'Hm, what a difficult question...' Elizabeth smiled back at him, colouring slightly over her indecisiveness. 'I like both.'

'Then that is settled,' the man beside her grinned before putting two slices onto her plate.

'Now really, Lizzy, you will never eat that much meat!' her mother scolded from across the table.

'Oh, but she can take some home with her and give it to her little friend,' Mr Bennet threw in. 'As we have already established, he is getting quite chubby anyway. I have a sneaking suspicion that we might have a little surprise someday soon.'

'What do you mean, Sir?' Darcy inquired eagerly and at the same time with a hint of worry in his concern for his little friend.

'Oh, nothing in particular. It was just a silly thought. - So, how have you been faring without needing to rake the driveway?'

'Who said I didn't?'

The good humour in Fitzwilliam Darcy's tone of voice was unmistakable and for a short moment, his accent had crept back into his speech, making Elizabeth smile again while Mr Bennet chuckled and his wife did not quite know how to react. In all the years she had been married she still had some difficulty determining what was spoken in earnest or, as in this case, not.

'And I dare say your lawn is in perfect order, too?' her father carried on with a smirk.

'Very much so, though my garden is decidedly lacking in hedgehogs.'

'Is it? I never would have thought so. Shame, everyone should have at least one, do you not agree?'

'You are quite right, Sir. A garden is most lacking without hedgehogs.'

'I am sorry to be so bold, Mr Darcy, but what made you come to Hertfordshire and work as our gardener,' Mary all of a sudden interjected, and by their mother's reaction it was obvious that she too had been wondering yet for once in her life had been too awkward to ask herself.

'That is very easily explained, Miss Mary. I was in search of happiness and that is best found with starting to appreciate the simple things in life. So, consequently I turned my back on, well myself, and for a few short weeks decided to work with my own two hands.'

He glanced down at his still much-calloused hands, his nails still in a rather shocking state for a gentleman. But there was pride in his smile and perfect contentment that lit up his eyes.

'And did it work?' Lydia chimed up.

'Very decidedly,' Bingley now threw in. 'He was a miserable right old sod when he left London, let me tell you.'

'And that was nicely put,' Darcy admitted wryly, pouring some more wine for Elizabeth and himself.

'So you have found it then? Happiness, I mean,' Mary dug deeper.

'I have found peace of mind. My time here has made me see that while society is all nice and well and in a sense important, once in a while a man can afford to be a little... - let's say eccentric. And why not? Why should a man not do what he likes to do once in a while to compensate for those things he has to do whether he likes it or not all owing to the station in which he happened to have been born into through no choice of his own?'

'Those are definitely words of wisdom, Mr Darcy,' Mr Bennet sighed theatrically, his eyes flickering over to his wife before, with a surprisingly heartfelt gesture he reached for her hand and kissed it. 'Do you not agree, my Dear?'

Mrs Bennet, in her astonishment, was rendered speechless, but at long last gave a small nod, her cheeks flushed most charmingly.

'So, you like working in the garden then, I presume?' Elizabeth continued the conversation seeing that her two youngest sisters had started to giggle quite violently at their parents' rare display of affection.

'I do indeed. Not that I knew I did when I left, for I had never tried it before. But now, I have to admit that I am already pondering on how to improve my garden down in London for a start, seeing that it is nice and small. - Well, it is small.'

For a long while longer the conversation continued thus, gradually getting more and more comfortable. That was until the topic turned towards Mr Darcy travelling to Derbyshire in a short while, right after he had found a suitable companion for his sister. It was a stark reminder to Elizabeth that while he was here now to return her father's horse and pay his friend a short visit, he was not here to stay. Suddenly she felt quite wretched again. It was all nice and well to follow one's heart, but what if it was bound to be broken? When nothing was certain?

She was startled out of her melancholy reverie by the sound of his voice softly inquiring: 'Are you quite well, Miss Elizabeth? You do look pale all of a sudden. Is something the matter?'

'Yes, I am quite well Mr Darcy, thank you.'

Elizabeth was well aware that her voice sounded anything but convincing.

'Are you certain?' Mr Darcy dug deeper, looking intently at her, so much so that she had to cast her eyes down for fear of drowning in his concerned gaze.

'Yes. It is only that I barely drink any wine...'

Admittedly her excuse was as stupid as it was improper, but unable to think of something better it would have to suffice.

'Would a breath of fresh air help?' Darcy offered. 'I would be happy to escort you; and perhaps one of your younger sisters could accompany us?'

 

Chapter 51

When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love. - Marcus Aurelius

 

As always of late, Fitzwilliam Darcy woke up early. So early that as yet there was little hope for a cup of tea let alone some breakfast unless he sat down to partake with the servants. However, that was no longer an option, and most certainly not here at Netherfield where he had to consider his friend. It was already odd enough that they had something to talk about how he had worked as a gardener and as a rather mediocre footman, but alas, it did not appear to have at all damaged his reputation with them and he was still treated with the same respect as he always had been. Just as he had said the night before, a man of his station was allowed a certain amount of eccentricity and in comparison to Lord Byron and his lot, dressing up as a servant and disappearing from the face of the earth for a few short weeks was nothing that would result in anything more than the occasional smirk and rise of an eyebrow, if even that. Last evening had been delightful to say the least, and he was still surprised how easily they had all managed to sit together and comfortably converse as if the whole situation was not somewhat odd. But as lovely as the dinner had been, the highlight of the evening had been his little walk with Miss Elizabeth, strolling through the overgrown grounds of Netherfield Park accompanied by Miss Mary, who discreetly trailed behind. It was not that they had said all that much, but if he was any judge of it, their silence had been a companionable one. Yet, he could tell that something had been on Miss Elizabeth's mind, something that had caused her sorrow, and if only he knew what it was, he would do anything to make her smile and her eyes sparkle again. But he knew not and so all he could do for the time being was to cherish this one short moment in time.

Unable to stay indoors any longer and with Brutus, who had been sleeping on the rug in front of his bed, in apparent need to go outside, Darcy stopped pondering and instead got dressed to take a little walk before breakfast. It was quite natural that his steps led him towards the direction of Longbourn and before long, he spotted a familiar creature sitting on a stile. Not the very one where he had first met her, but another one sheltered by an old oak tree making her look almost like a fairy in the early light of day that glistened through the lush green leaves softly moving in the light breeze of late April. Whether he was surprised or not at seeing her, he could not say, and yet he could have stood there watching her for hours if he was honest with himself. But Brutus had other ideas as he slowly trotted towards Elizabeth with some curiosity before his master had even realised what he was up to.

'And who are you?' he heard her say as the dog approached her with a wagging tail. 'Have you gotten lost?'

Reaching out she scratched his trusted friend's ears and the wagging got more animated. Truth be told, Darcy quite envied his dog at this very moment. Watching on for a moment longer at last Darcy moved towards the two of them.

'Good morning, Miss Elizabeth. How are you this morning?'

'Mr Darcy!'

And now he had startled her! Clearly surprised she almost jumped from her perch, startling Brutus in turn. With something akin to confusion the dog glanced from one to the other before deciding that he was quite happy where he was, especially since her hand was still resting atop his head. Well, Darcy could understand his friend all too well. He could not hold it against him that he chose Miss Elizabeth over his master. He would do, too, given the choice.

'I... - I am well, thank you,' she stammered after a few speechless moments, regaining some of her composure.

Had she been crying? It certainly looked like it. Something was amiss and he was almost certain now that her excuse from last night had been just that, an excuse. Taking out his handkerchief he handed it to her with a challengingly raised eyebrow which was bound to tell her that he did not believe her.

'It is just... - I do not know. It is just that... - I feel so sorry for poor little Prickler. He is still looking for you, you know? And I am but a poor substitute for your company.'

While it still did not appear to be the complete truth, he had the feeling that he had gotten somewhat closer to what was troubling her. Did he dare hope that perhaps she was not speaking of Prickler at all, but of herself?

'And there I quite disagree, Miss Elizabeth. Just look at Brutus here, he would happily go with you and leave me behind if only you let him,' he smiled.

'”Et tu Brute?”, indeed, if he did,' Elizabeth laughed half-heartedly while neatly folding his handkerchief again after dabbing her eyes somewhat sheepishly yet not giving it back.

'Well, he got his name by mere chance. When I first got him he was but a tiny haggard pup that could hardly be persuaded to even eat. In short, he was a very dull creature and you seem to know your Latin well enough to know what the name Brutus translates to in English.'

'The dull one...' she gasped. 'What a pitiable creature he must have been to receive such a name and justly so it seems.'

'He was,' Darcy replied thoughtfully thinking back to that fateful day he had found his dear friend injured and run over in the gutter of a busy thoroughfare close to his home, before turning cheerful again: 'Though thankfully the name is apt no longer. But as it is, it stuck, just as we are stuck with our parent's whims when naming us.'

'Very true, Mr Darcy. Though I would say, either of us has gotten away lightly when our parents gave us our names,' she smiled back shyly.

'Yes, we did indeed, Miss Elizabeth. Shall I bring you home? We could pay Prickler a visit.'

He held out his arm and she tentatively took it. Yes, perhaps he should return to Netherfield and break his fast, but on the other hand, that could very well wait and he was not particularly hungry in any event. Not anymore. And while he had to ride over to Longbourn again later in the day to return the horse, every moment in her company was a moment in time he cherished beyond anything.

Chapter Text

Chapter 52

Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness. - Desmond-Tutu

 

The dinner had been oh so nice and she had enjoyed it immensely, but oddly enough, when Elizabeth had finally lain in her bed, she had felt rather sorry for herself. Mr Darcy was all she had ever admired in a man. He was courteous, polite, intelligent, had a good sense of humour, and was extremely handsome for good measure. Not exactly in the fashionable, dashing way, but rather in a timeless sense. Indeed, he was still the William she had come to love, only the gentleman version of him. Still as amiable as ever, kind, attentive, and helpful. She could easily come up with several other positive adjectives for Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy Esquire but what was the point of it? He might be here right now, but he would leave again to go so very far away as Derbyshire. As it was, to her he could just as well be a world away. Yes, she had tried to take Jane's advice, and follow her heart but what it had led to was that now it was bleeding. And yes, she was well aware that she was again being silly. She had been silly falling in love with their gardener and she was silly now, being in love with a gentleman of, according to Miss Bingley, and in that regard she had little reason to doubt that haughty woman, so much consequence and wealth as Mr Darcy. With a rather self-ironic smile she had thought to herself that she would have had a better chance winning over the Prince Regent had she happened to fall in love with him, but... - In the end, Elizabeth had barely slept and when the sun had risen behind the horizon, she had gotten up and sneaked out of the house to seek comfort in nature. While crossing the park she had looked out for Prickler, but he was nowhere to be seen. Over the last few days he had retreated more and more barely peeking out his nose and only once in a while could she see him ramble around towards one particular corner, hiding behind a thorny hedge where she could not follow.

As tempting as it was, she carefully avoided the one place she always associated with him, with William - the very stile she had first encountered him and which inevitably had brought him into her life. Stupid girl, to have ever recommended he should ask for work at her own father's estate! It had been thoughtless. When she realised that subconsciously her steps had led her in the direction of Netherfield, she stilled and with some desperation sank onto yet another stile to rest a little before turning back home. But as the birds sang in the trees behind her and the sun rose ever so much higher, tears started to escape her eyes, slowly making their way down her cheeks until they dripped from her chin. Not for long, however. Not that she was not still troubled, but enough was enough and perhaps it was better to think of other things. With some determination thus, Elizabeth willed her thoughts towards her surroundings, the warmth of the sun, the birds in the trees, the bees, butterflies, flowers, everything that was so beautiful around her. That was when suddenly she was interrupted by the appearance of a rather cheeky looking dog of indeterminable breed, one ear floppy the other standing half-attention, wagging his tail in friendly anticipation.

'And who are you? Have you gotten lost?' she asked softly, reaching out her hand to scratch him behind his ears, much to the dog's delight, apparently.

Cheeky creature indeed. She had never seen him around here and yet, looking closer, he appeared to be well cared for and was definitely well behaved. Or as well behaved as such an impish creature could be. Almost immediately her mood lifted even more and suddenly a familiar voice greeted her.

'Good morning, Miss Elizabeth. How are you?' Mr Darcy addressed her, a leash in his hands that clearly indicated that none other that he was the dog's master.

Why, oh why, did she have to blush? But after her initial surprised outcry, she finally managed to give a stammered answer that she was well. His scrutinising stare spoke volumes. He did not believe her.

'It is just... - I do not know. It is just that... - I feel so sorry for poor little Prickler. He is still looking for you, you know? And I am but a poor substitute for your company,' she added after a few moments, hoping he would not dig any deeper.

He did not, thankfully, though his eyes held some concern and instead he began talking about his dog instead until he gallantly offered to accompany her home and pay Prickler a little visit. Until now it had not really occurred to her that he might just as dearly miss his little friend as it did him. But by all appearances he did. Taking his offered arm they walked along in silence, easily falling into step with one another. After all, what need was there to speak just for the sake of it when one felt so comfortable in another person's presence that every word uttered would have been nothing but noise?

Again Prickler was nowhere to be seen and not even Mr Darcy's soft calls seemed to be able to make him peek out his nose from any of the shrubs. There was little use denying it, the man looked positively worried about his little friend and so was she.

'He has been hiding a lot these past few days,' she tried to offer some comfort.

'Well, he is a wild animal and it was surprising enough that he followed me around anyway. He will be fine, I am sure,' Darcy replied, though with some unmistakable disappointment in his voice. 'And as it is, I will have to return to Netherfield unless I want to miss breakfast. Besides, I would not want for Bingley to worry about where I have disappeared to, though perhaps the fact that Brutus is gone as well might give him a hint. I will come back later at a more appropriate hour to return your father's horse, will I see you then? Perhaps we could go for another walk?'

He wanted to see her again? Wanted to walk with her again? It was as if the sun had risen all over again and since Elizabeth was quite unable to speak, she merely nodded while her face lit up in a hopeful smile.

 

Chapter 53

It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves. - William Shakespeare

 

It was already past noon when finally, both he and Bingley were on their way to Longbourn. It had been quite vexing that Bingley had some business to attend to all morning, but to go without his friend would have been rather impolite. Yet, while Darcy had been busy himself in London, the few hours until their departure to see their friends, and two young ladies, in particular, had stretched on endlessly. But now, at long last, they were on their way and after what seemed to be ages, the little village came into view and with it Longbourn House. Approaching from this perspective and at this time of year, it was barely discernible behind the hedges and walls and the many ancient trees surrounding it, not even on horseback, and while he had walked the path towards Meryton many times before, Darcy had not really taken notice of just how much the old house belonged exactly where it was. Unlike so many modern estates, it was rather a part of the village even while it was also meant to dominate it. A perfect allegory for the family living there.

In the recesses of the garden he could see Peters cut some flowers, his back turned towards them, and Tom dutifully dashed towards them to take their horses, smiling broadly, though seemingly not quite sure how to address his former workfellow. Well, admittedly, neither did Darcy, but a grin and an awkward shrug later and the two of them were laughing cheerfully while Bingley stood by, looking slightly bemused.

'Somewhat odd, ain't it?' Tom at last blurted out before bowing bashfully.

'It is indeed,' he could not but agree. 'I admit the situation is very odd.'

Next, to him, Bingley unsuccessfully suppressed a chuckle and Tom's face sported a decided grin.

'Ah well, I’ll take care of the horses then,' the lad stated simply, reaching for the reins, and with that he was off, whistling a cheerful tune, carefully leading the animals over to the stables.

Well, had he had any doubt before, now Darcy knew that he was no longer one of them. And while they did not hold his deception against him, there never again would be the same familiarity that once had been. The only hope Darcy had was that someone had thought about continuing the lessons. He would have to inquire about it. The same awkwardness reappeared when Hill opened the door. Again, it became blatantly obvious that he was no longer one of them. It was odd, and not necessarily in a good sense. Who on earth had decided, once upon a time, who was to be the servant and who the master? It was nothing but a matter of chance. He had been lucky to have been born into consequence and wealth and that was really the only distinction if he thought about it.

Mrs Bennet, her oldest as well as her two youngest daughters were sitting in the parlour, the former two occupied with some embroidery and the latter two with dressing up their bonnets, pinning ribbons and silk flowers in some abundance onto them. In the room next door, someone was playing the pianoforte, and Darcy was almost certain that it was Miss Mary, which begged the question as to where Elizabeth was.

'Oh, Mr Bingley, Mr Darcy, what a pleasant surprise,' they were greeted cheerfully by the lady of the house, quickly rising from her seat as did Jane Bennet.

Miss Bennet, in turn, smiled serenely and gave a small curtsy her eyes lighting up the moment she saw his friend. As quiet and guarded as she was, her demureness could easily be mistaken for indifference were it not for the slight colour rising to her cheeks and the barely perceptible nervousness. Yes, she would do very well for Bingley.

'I have just said to Jane, that we should organise an afternoon party sometime next week,' Mrs Bennet prattled on. 'The Gouldings have returned from London only the other day and the Lucases held a dinner last week, but then again, there is always something to do in the country, is it not? We for our part are very lucky, indeed, to have such an extended circle of friends. One would not think the country to be so very busy, but we dine with four and twenty families.'

'Now that indeed is very lucky,' Bingley remarked sincerely. 'It is just the right amount of people to socialise with. Not too many and not too few. In short, it sounds pretty much perfect to me.'

That perhaps Bingley was flattering Mrs Bennet just a little bit, did not mean he was not in complete earnest. Bingley was happy wherever he went anyway, whether it be five hundred families to dine with or two.

'Oh, I knew you would think so!' Mrs Bennet cried out happily. 'I knew you would like it here in Hertfordshire, and indeed, who could not like it here?'

“Indeed, who could not?” Darcy thought to himself. He certainly did. The only place he preferred to this serene place was Pemberley, but then again, there was nothing like home, was there? While Bingley and their hostess merrily chatted on, Darcy stepped towards the window and at last his question was answered for there, on a bench sheltered by a little trellis that in some weeks would be covered by roses, Elizabeth sat reading, once in a while looking up expectantly before turning yet another page. Again he could have watched her for hours. It was truly a sight he would never tire of and it was not that it mattered whether she was sitting on a stile, outside in the garden, or on a settee. Not as long as he could be close to her. The only thing he would prefer to being able to look at her was holding her in his arms and close to his heart. It was as if his stare had drawn her attention as she suddenly looked up and straight into his eyes and his breath caught. However, this close to magical moment was interrupted by her mother, who suddenly seemed to remember that she had not yet offered her guests any refreshments. While he initially was a little vexed at this interruption of his pleasant reverie, or rather disappointed, the fact that she called for Elizabeth to come in and join them, certainly made up more than enough for her interruption. Not that Mrs Bennet had taken any notice of what had been going on. No, it had been done quite unconsciously. While the lady of the house was all courtesy and smiles with Mr Bingley, she, just as her servants, did not seem to quite know how to behave towards him and consequently, Mrs Bennet rarely addressed him. But again, that mattered little as once again, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, Elizabeth Bennet ended up beside him at the table. And that did matter very much.

 

Chapter 54

I love you the more in that I believe you had liked me for my own sake and for nothing else. - John Keats

 

It had been Bingley who had suggested to take a short walk and while the two youngest had little inclination to ramble around the countryside and rather strolled towards Lucas Lodge to pay a visit to Maria Lucas, the younger sister of Miss Elizabeth's friend, and Miss Mary had insisted that she still had many things to do, Jane, was now happily walking beside Mr Bingley and Darcy beside Elizabeth. However, again he had the feeling as if something weighed her down as they meandered around the park he had tended only the week before knowing it as well as his own back home, if not better.

'It is a beautiful day, is it not?' he asked when the prolonged silence between them, at last, started to be a little unsettling after a quarter of an hour or so.

It was perhaps not the wittiest start to a conversation, but it was better than saying nothing at all and besides, it was warm and sunny the air full of the sweet perfume of the many blossoming apple trees they were passing, and bees were humming here and there as busy as they could be.

'Yes, very lovely,' she replied with a tentative smile. 'So much so, that I just could not stay indoors any longer and with my younger sisters' constant chatter, I took refuge out of doors. - I did not notice your arrival.'

They slowly carried on walking even though Jane and Mr Bingley seemed to have decided that half a turn around the garden was more than sufficient for them and that the same little bench Elizabeth had sat on earlier on was more to their taste than ambling about.

'So your book was an interesting one?' he inquired with curiosity, wondering what she had been reading.

'At least to an extent,' Elizabeth replied vaguely, puzzling Darcy.

'And what have you been reading?' he dug deeper.

'Cowper. Not exactly my favourite author,' she admitted laughingly, 'but Charlotte recommended it to me and I thought I had better indulge her by making my way through the volume regardless.'

He, too, laughed softly and suddenly and much surprised at his own boldness, reached for her dainty little hand resting on his arm, their steps, out of their own volition, leading to the one spot where they had first met. They were already half-way there when he finally took any notice that they had left the park.

'Well, I have to say, I prefer other authors as well, but depending on my mood, occasionally I quite like to read Cowper.'

'But is that not always the case?' she asked thoughtfully. 'I mean, there are times when we prefer a cheerful tune and others when it would downright annoy us. I would assume it is the same with books, is it not?'

'Very true. And what is your favourite song, Miss Elizabeth?'

'I could not possibly say, for as we have just established, it greatly depends on one's mood. When I am in the mood for dancing, I like the “Barley Mow”, while it grates on my nerves at other times and when I am in the mood for contemplation, Beethoven's “Moonlight Sonata” seems a good choice. So what is your favourite, Mr Darcy?'

They had reached the summit of the small hill and now stood side by side looking down into the valley before them. A valley which had changed so much in the last couple of weeks. The greys and browns had been replaced by greens and yellows and every colour imaginable in the shape and form of the many flowers dotting the meadows and the orchards beyond.

'“Für Elise”,' he answered gently. 'My favourite song is “Für Elise”.'

'It is a beautiful song,' she all but whispered.

“As beautiful as you are,” Darcy thought to himself. “If not more so.”

He had fully intended to not rush things; to wait and give her time, but as they stood there his heart overflowing, he knew that he would forever regret not seizing the moment. He at least needed to know whether she would ever consider him if nothing else, if there was any hope that she could ever feel for him what he felt for her.

'Miss Elizabeth,' Darcy started again nervously, his heart beating violently at what he was about to confess, 'I... - I do not quite know how to put my words, but... - but even had your father not lent me his horse, or Bingley not taken Netherfield, I would have come back regardless. I could not have stayed away. - Please, Miss Elizabeth, you must allow me to tell you how dearly I have come to love you over the past few weeks. I know our first meeting was a strange one, and my admiration might even seem wrong considering it all, but if you could only give me a chance? That is all I am asking for now, a chance to win your heart.'

'You love me?' she muttered in astonishment her soulful eyes searching his to find nothing but truth mirrored in them.

'I do. You intrigued me from the moment I first saw you, and with every little chat we had, every time we met and be it only the shortest of moments, I liked you more until I realised that I had lost my heart to you.'

'Which is only fair, I dare say,' Elizabeth replied tears now streaming down her face, though her bright smile showed that they were tears of joy, 'since you have mine.'

Bringing her hands to his mouth to kiss them, for an instance or two Darcy was unable to say anything as his overwhelming joy made him speechless and he was in great danger to cry alongside her. It was a most wonderful moment, and one he would never forget as long as he lived.

At last, he managed to mutter: 'Yes, then that is fair indeed, Miss Elizabeth.'

Letting go of her hands, he once again offered her his arm and they walked for some time longer in perfect harmony. Suddenly it was so very easy to talk openly with both now knowing the feelings of the other. It was really as if they had always known each other and not merely for a couple of weeks. And best of all, where before Elizabeth had appeared so withdrawn, now her eyes were sparkling again and all her worries seemed to have disappeared.

'Ah, there you are at last,' Mr Bennet's voice sounded up from behind them when they had finally reached Longbourn again.

The shadows had grown quite significantly since they had taken off and sundown was not very far away. That her father sounded so calm, amused even, was somewhat of a surprise and Darcy did wonder at it.

'I... - I am very sorry, Sir. We did not notice how quickly the time had passed and...'

'Well, you are here now and at any rate, you have been well chaperoned.'

Getting up from the small seat he had been resting on, Mr Bennet stepped out of the shadows, his face sporting a broad grin, while his eyes also held a certain amount of sadness.

'Ah well, I knew how it would be...' the man sighed, showing that while they had not realised it, he must have been following them at some discreet distance as he sneakily inquired: 'So, is there anything you want to tell and ask me?'

'Yes, Mr Bennet. I would like to ask your permission to court your daughter Elizabeth,' Darcy replied rather bashfully.

'What is there for me to do but to agree?'

'You could throw me off your grounds and forbid me to ever speak to Miss Elizabeth ever again...'

'Yes, perhaps I could, and part of me is tempted to do so,' Thomas Bennet replied wryly, 'were it not for the fact that if I did, I would never hear the end of it. - In short, you have it.'

'Oh, Papa, thank you!' his daughter cried out and it was obvious that she as well as Darcy had held their breaths.

'Ah well, he is a kind and wise man, intelligent too and he has wit, so there is every chance that you will be happy with him, Lizzy.'

'And I will see to her always being so,' Darcy could not help promising solemnly.

'Do not make promises you might not be able to keep. There will always be ups and downs in life, out of our control usually surprising us at times when they are least expected and sometimes bound to make us miserable. However, I will take it as a promise that you will always try.'

'And that I definitely shall.'

'Good. And now, you shall go and tell my wife. But please, only after I have firmly closed the door to my bookroom behind me.'

Chapter Text

Epilogue

A tree is known by its fruit; a man by his deeds. A good deed is never lost; he who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love. - Saint Basil

 

Late Autumn 1816:

He had gone through this before, and one really should have thought that the second time around, it would be less harrowing, and most certainly the third, but alas, it was not. Impatiently Fitzwilliam Darcy paced up and down the length of his library at Pemberley, once in a while sitting down only to jump up again a moment later to resume his pacing. Brutus had long since fallen asleep on his blanket in front of the fireplace. The poor lad was getting old, he noticed with yet another sigh. It was close to midnight and at this point, it had been several hours. Endless hours of agony for his beloved wife. If only he could take away her pain, he would not feel so very guilty, but just as Darcy had last time around, and the time before that, he did feel horrible for being the cause of Elizabeth's current discomfort.

'Daddy?' a little voice sounded from the door, 'Daddy, will Mama be alright? Is she very ill?'

He had not seen his eldest daughter step into the room, barefooted and in only her nightdress, rag doll under her arm staring at him with fearful eyes.

'Yes. - Yes, she'll be alright, my little darling,' her father answered hoping to sound as confident as his words. 'And anyway, should you not be in bed, Poppet?'

'I can't sleep,' she shrugged as matter of factly as was possible for a little girl five weeks short of her fourth birthday.

'Well, I can't sleep either,' he admitted, stepping towards the little girl to pick her off the cold floor.

Immediately she flung her arms around his neck and snuggled deep into his embrace.

'I love you, Daddy,' she whispered into his ear, making him smile despite his unrest.

'I love you, too, my little Annie.'

'But Daddy, if Mama isn't ill, why is Doctor Harris here?'

'Well, you see, he is here to give you a new brother or sister...'

'Don't be silly, Daddy, why would Doctor Harris bring me a brother or sister?'

Oh dear, sometimes it could prove tricky to deal with little Annie's quick-wittedness. In this instance, for example.

'And besides, everyone knows that babies are brought by the stork,' little Anne Darcy carried on in complete earnest, so much so that it was impossible for her father to suppress a smile.

'Indeed,' Darcy chuckled while resisting the temptation to pace again.

Instead, he sat down beside his daughter on the sofa in front of the slowly dying fireplace and seeing that she was shivering, he took off his coat and wrapped her neatly in it. Tiredly Brutus blinked at them, before snoozing off again.

'Can you tell me a story, please?'

'And what kind of story would you like to hear, Poppet?'

'A fairy tale!'

Well, he knew just the one that would delight her. It had a princess and a pauper, one could say and an evil hag, in short everything that would make it sufficiently interesting. - Oh, and most importantly it featured a hedgehog, or rather five of them.

'Once upon a time,' Darcy started, a smile spreading over his face as he remembered how he first had met his wife, 'there was a very grumpy young man who was not very happy with his life, and in order to search his happiness, he set out into the world to find it.'

'How grumpy was he, Daddy?'

'Very grumpy,' Darcy replied, making as grumpy a face as he could muster, until little Annie had to laugh. 'As grumpy as John normally is when he has to deal with Mr Elton.'

Mr Elton was their present neighbour and a good for nothing scoundrel strongly reminding him of none other than his old childhood friend George Wickham, who in turn was now a permanent resident of Australia due to his habit of swindling people out of their money. As for John, well, he would make an appearance in the story, too, just that Anne did not know that. Not yet anyway.

'That is very grumpy!' she agreed, wrinkling her nose, though still giggling.

'Yes, it is. And as said, this grumpy young man took off on an adventure, for surely somewhere there must be happiness for him. He took nothing but a small satchel and left his house, just like that, to where he knew not,' Darcy continued, caressing his daughter's soft brown curls, so much like her mother's.

'Did he walk for long?'

'Very long. And he almost thought he would never find what he was looking for, for as yet, nothing had happened. It was like going for a stroll in the park and surely that could not be the way to find happiness, could it?'

In agreement, she shook her head. No, it really would have been too simple. Darcy smiled.

'Well, as it was, what he did not know was, that it actually was that simple. But still, the young man grew timid and as he steered his steps up a steep hill, he suddenly came face to face with the most wondrous sight he had ever seen, for there on a stile, what did he see?'

Curious dark eyes glanced up at him questioningly.

'A fairy.'

'A real fairy?' Anne Darcy gasped in surprise, her eyes widening.

'But of course, Poppet. She was so breathtakingly beautiful, that at first he did not know what to say to her and she would not speak to him unless he approached her first. And since he felt quite lost, at last he greeted her kindly, bowed and asked for the way. She smiled, her eyes sparkled at him as she pointed him in the direction of the most magical place he had ever seen at this point a little down the valley. It was as if the place had appeared all of a sudden and for him, it was quite unexpected to see such beauty where he had least expected it, for the rest of his surroundings was quite bleak. With another smile and a raise of her eyebrow, she challenged him to keep her garden in order and then eventually, he would see what she would give him in return. At first, he was not all that certain whether he should, seeing that after all he was searching his happiness, and dawdling around did not seem sensible at all. But one look into her beautiful dark and sparkling eyes and he agreed before he even knew what he was doing.'

Darcy was quite surprised at his own skills at inventing a fairytale, but then again, over the last year or so, ever since Anne had grown old enough to like them, he had had ample of practice. What was also astonishing was how clearly he remembered that particular day when he had first met her mother. The shawl she had forgotten on the stile he still had, and whenever he needed to leave his family to attend business, he took it with him. Elizabeth thought it rather hilarious when he had eventually wanted to return it. - On their wedding day. But while at first, he had forgotten all about it, later on, he had not had the heart to give it back. He had simply needed something of hers when she was not around.

Looking down again, he realised that the little girl's eyes were closed, but just when he thought she had fallen asleep she curiously inquired: 'Did he fall in love with the fairy then, Daddy?'

'Yes, he did,' her father smiled, before casting another worried look at the clock on the mantelpiece.

Six hours had passed since the first sharp pains and still nothing. Now news.

'Yes, he did,' Darcy repeated before continuing. 'When they got to her garden, as lovely as it looked, the young man realised, that someone must have done something bad to it, for while it was still beautiful, no flowers were blooming, the leaves on the trees were looking very sorry for themselves and no birds were singing. It was a sorry sight for such a lovely place and immediately he went to work. The dried leaves had to go first, he thought, and with some approval, the fairy looked at him as he began plucking them from the branches. Almost immediately new leaves sprouted, as green and lush as any. Then he raked the flowerbeds, and the flowers peeked through the soil no sooner had he done so.'

'Was it magic?'

'Of course it was. It was a fairy garden, after all, Poppet. And as he worked on tirelessly, completely forgetting his original quest altogether, what do you think he found?'

'I don't know.'

'What he had been seeking for. Happiness. Among the flowers and trees, he found happiness. Eventually, the birds returned and sang the most beautiful songs, and one day, by mere chance, a little hedgehog peeked out from underneath a bush and began to trustingly follow him around.'

Annie started to giggle again, asking: 'Like Prickler always does with you, Daddy?'

'Yes, exactly. Just like Prickler does with me.'

It was perhaps silly of both Elizabeth and him, but neither had had the heart of leaving the little creature behind. Not when the little hedgehog seemed to miss him so much when he was not there. Now Prickler was roaming Pemberley's extensive shrubbery, or rather right now, his little frind was safely ensconced in a comfortable straw-filled box in the coal cellar where it was neither too warm nor too cold to hibernate. And as it was, the little tyke had had some surprise for them in store when after several days of absence he, or rather she had re-appeared with five little ones in tow. Mr Bennet had been right. Well, as pretty much always. And just as naturally he took great delight in that fact. But with all that, the name Prickler had stuck regardless, though Prickly would have perhaps suited her better.

'And what about the fairy?' his daughter demanded to know, suppressing a yawn, though with little success.

'She was very happy with him. So much so that it drew the attention of a little... - garden gnome, who grew quite jealous.'

It was difficult not to grin at making John a gnome, but it did fit quite well. Or it once did, for John, who had turned out to be the result of an indiscretion involving the daughter of a titled man and a mere footman, was now diligently learning how to run an estate. As Mr Lambert became older, eventually Darcy would need a new steward, and John was a smart lad and had outgrown his laziness. Besides, ever since he had come to terms with his situation he was no longer a sullen young man, but a pretty cheerful fellow to be around and on the verge of being married. Annie loved to play hide and seek with him, and he doted on her as if he were an older brother. His lessons, diligently continued by the five sisters after Darcy's leaving Longbourn had paid out. For all of his former work-fellows, actually.

'But why?'

'Because the young man was everything he was not. He was helpful and kind and liked what he was doing while the gnome, though with being a garden gnome he should have liked to look after a garden, did not. But he had to regardless. It was expected of him and that was what made him unhappy and jealous.'

'That's sad,' she yawned, rubbing her tired eyes.

They were decidedly drooping by now and yet, she was definitely too curious to fall asleep before he had finished his tale. He knew that determined look on her face very well, it was the same Elizabeth always sported when she had set her mind on something. Darn, another twenty minutes had passed and still...

'Yes. But it is unfortunately true that when we are permanently forced to do something we don't like, that it'll make us unhappy,' Darcy remarked softly, struggling to keep his anxiousness at bay.

'Daddy, Miss Dean always insists that I'd eat my vegetables even though I really don't like them!'

Despite his worries, Darcy had to chuckle once again before asking: 'Is there not one vegetable you like eating, Poppet?'

After all, there was something they could do about it, was here not?

'Peas and carrots aren't so very bad,' his daughter trailed off, yawning again. 'So, what happens next?'

For a moment Darcy was perplexed until he realised that she was speaking about the story. His story.

'The young man put in a real effort to befriend the gnome but at first to no avail. However, his attempts to do so didn't go unnoticed and every time she passed him, the fairy smiled in approval. Eventually, many weeks had passed and while he was completely happy and at peace, the man realised that it was time to return home. To go back to his friends and family. And he did. There were many things he had to take care of. Hesitantly the fairy let him go. But there was one thing he left behind, and that was his heart and she had known that. She had known that he would return eventually and he did as soon as he could.'

'Did they get married?'

Yes, it had been right to cut the story short, for her voice was now so very sleepy that it was barely discernible. No need to add an evil hag or a trusted friend or an unhappy sister he first had to make happy before he himself could be so to prolong the tale.

'Yes, they did. And they lived happily ever after, my little darling.'

Darcy kissed Annie's forehead as she snuggled up closer to him and Darcy leaned back in his seat willing his thoughts to stray towards his happy past and not the unsettling present. He still felt devilish delight thinking back about how he had put Caroline Bingley into place, smiled at the thought of Georgiana returning home from school with a beaming face and how she and Lizzy had first met, becoming friends almost instantly. Well, now his little sister was married herself since June last as were most of his sisters in law. Jane to none other than Bingley, naturally. The only exception was Lydia, who had decided that marrying was not so much to her taste. Well, she was still young. Barely twenty, she was allowed to be foolish still. Though whether she really was, Darcy was not al that certain, actually. Thinking about it, she was both pretty sensible and practical these days. - Another quarter of an hour gone...

No, he had to go upstairs and be by Elizabeth's side before he would go insane. There was no way he could bear this suspense any longer.

Carefully he picked up his sleeping daughter and carried her back upstairs into the nursery, shortly marvelling over both his little girls, sleeping so peacefully in their cots, little Lottie with her bum in the air as always and Annie curled up into a tight ball clutching her doll. As worried as Darcy was about their mother at present, he could not suppress a content smile at the sight before him as his heart swelled with love and pride for his little family. Gently he placed a kiss on both their heads before leaving them to their dreams. He had not descended the stairs half-way when he heard it. The petulant cry of a newborn baby who had just entered this world and did not quite know what to make of it yet. Hurrying his steps he all but barged into his wife's bedroom but none of the people within looked surprised to see him there.

'I wondered how long you would last this time around, Mr Darcy,' Dr Harris remarked dryly and his wife, despite her apparent exhaustion looked also quite amused, her dark eyes sparkling in the flickering candlelight.

The nurse's face he could not see, as she wrapped the screaming bundle into a blanket and by the time she turned around she had schooled it into a neutral enough expression, though the corners of her mouth still twitched slightly. Not that Darcy took much notice. His gaze flickered between his beaming wife he loved so much and the tiny babe that was presently put into his arms he had not even realised he had held out. With its hair still wet, the face red and swollen, and the little hands firmly clenched into fists it was still one of the most beautiful sights in the world, well beside its mother, that was. His Lizzy would always be the most beautiful sight for him as long as he lived.

'So, Mr Darcy, finally an heir,' the ageing doctor remarked chuckling as he packed his things away. 'Now you only need a spare.'

 

The End