Section I, Section II
Author's Note: This story was inspired by the "Tempus, Anyone?" episode of "Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman".
Elizabeth Darcy rolled onto her back and flung an arm across the bed.
"Oof," said her husband, opening one lazy eye. "Is that any way to wish your husband a happy first anniversary?"
She smiled and rolled onto her side facing him. "Probably not," she admitted. "But is a complaint any way to say good morning to your four-months-great-with-child wife?"
"Definitely not," he agreed, and moved forward to kiss her.
"Much better," she said when he drew away, and sweetly: "Happy anniversary, darling."
He laughed. "Happy anniversary."
The Darcys had indeed been married for one year; and in that time, the wedded bliss promised by a union of such diverse strengths had been nearly always perfectly maintained. Not entirely always: with their diverse strengths came equally strong and diverse wills; but the differences were settled amicably, and if the balance of disagreements won lay more heavily on the lady's side, neither the husband nor the wife complained.
One of these arguments, earlier in Elizabeth's pregnancy, had been over her accustomed habit of exercise every morning. He felt it might endanger her and the child; she insisted it would only strengthen them both; and when the doctor dubiously ruled in her favor, she triumphantly resumed her daily walks about the grounds, albeit usually accompanied by her husband or a servant. But on this particular morning, Mr. Darcy was occupied with an anniversary surprise for his wife, her maid Ellen was down in the laundry, and the other servants were busy decorating for the upcoming Christmas holiday: thus Elizabeth slipped out of the house alone.
It was a beautiful morning. The grounds sparkled with frost, and the brisk December air nipped at her cloak. Just a brief walk today, she thought, and turned in the direction of the main gardens.
She wandered the silvered pathways, lost in her own thoughts. For all her insistence on the benefits of exercise and her own enjoyment of walking, she inwardly worried about the effect it might have on her child. Jane was in her seventh month and already confined to bed, and she had been much more docile and much less active. Should Elizabeth take such a great risk? She understood Lady Catherine de Bourgh strongly disapproved of frequent walking, which was enough to make her wish to continue the habit; but she would not trade her baby's health for her own willfulness. A healthy child. That was all she asked.
A twig snapped under her foot, and Elizabeth looked up. She was at the mouth of the hedgerow maze.
The maze formed a giant circle at the edge of the formal flower beds, its network of passages stretching a hundred feet to the Pemberley woods. The bushes towered two feet over Elizabeth's head; the resulting privacy made the center garden a favorite trysting place for the newlywed Darcys during the summer. She had spent several hours of her free time learning the correct route through the weave of paths, and now, after a moment's hesitation, she turned confidently down the second portal.
She emerged into the center clearing a few minutes later. Here too each leaf and blade of grass gleamed silver, and the fountain was now a magnificent statue of ice. Elizabeth walked closer and peered into its crystal caverns; she saw her face reflected back a thousand times, and was suddenly dizzy -- not just for a moment, but for an agonizingly long breath of time; her head spun, the world tilted, she grasped for a handhold --
She found one. The fountain ledge. She sat down, and almost immediately her vision cleared. It took several minutes more to calm her heartbeat. The reflection, her mind insisted. That was what caused the dizziness. The reflection. Not the exercise. But she wasn't sure... She laid a hand on her stomach and closed her eyes. It was a boy, she hoped, a big strong healthy boy, with his father's dark hair and his mother's fine eyes. But a girl would be equally wonderful. Healthy. That was all she wanted.
Her eyes flew open, and it did it again!
Elizabeth laughed with joy. "Fitzwilliam!" she called, knowing no one was nearby to hear her familiar. "Oh, Fitzwilliam," she said, "I cannot wait to tell you of this," and heedless of her condition, certain of her strength, she took off at a run through the maze.
She could not run far, of course, and soon slowed to a quick walk; but she smiled the whole way back to the house. The child was well! And strong--that had hurt! She laughed again. Where would Fitzwilliam be... probably in the breakfast room or in his study. Oh, what a marvelous anniversary gift!
The servants were instructed to leave a certain side door open for Mrs. Darcy in the mornings, and she reached this door in very little time.
It was locked.
She frowned. This was not the first time it had happened; but it was very inconvenient. She'd have to walk around to the front, then.
The red velvet ribbons on the front columns -- which Elizabeth herself had tied two days before -- had apparently blown off in the wind. She pulled the doorbell, but no one arrived for several minutes. Finally, a long-faced gentleman in dark tweeds opened the door.
"Yes, madam?" said the butler. "How may I help you?"
"You can let me in, Wilkins," laughed Elizabeth, pushing past him. "And tell me where my husband is." She took off her hat and muff, but the table in the front hall she wanted to lay them on had disappeared. Well, no matter. "Fitz -- oh, Mr. Darcy!" she called. "The most amazing thing has happened!" She peeked into the dining room, the breakfast room, the library, and his study, ignoring the butler's outraged cries behind her. Her husband was not to be found. "Mr. Darcy!" she called again. "Where are you?"
"Right here, madam."
She spun around. He stood at the top of the main staircase, looking unaccountably severe.
"Mr. Darcy!" She smiled and held out her hands. "Would you mind coming down here to hear your news? I've had quite a walk -- oh, such a walk!"
He advanced slowly down the steps with one eyebrow raised. "Yes, it's several miles from Lambton," he said.
Elizabeth ignored this enigmatic comment and drew him into an alcove off the main hall. "Oh, Fitzwilliam," she said. "The child moved! I felt him move for the first time, and on today of all days! Isn't it a perfect anniversary present?" She leaned up on her tiptoes and kissed him thoroughly -- but he did not respond as usual, and she pulled back, a shadow over her joy.
"Is something the matter, Fitzwilliam?" she asked.
His other eyebrow quirked up to join the first. "The anniversary of what, madam?" he said smoothly.
"Of our marriage, one year ago today," she replied anxiously.
He stared at her. "Our marriage."
"Yes -- with Jane and Bingley, December 12, 1812. Mr. Darcy, are you all right?" What was this? Did he have some sort of amnesia? Should she call Dr. Chisolm?
"I'm afraid I must ask you that same question."
"Why, Mr. Darcy--"
"Who are you, and what are you doing in my house?"
She took two steps back. "I'm Elizabeth Darcy, your wife!" she cried.
His eyes hardened. "Madam, I assure you, I have never seen you before in my life."
And on those words, Elizabeth fainted.
Elizabeth Darcy rolled onto her back and flung an arm across the bed, but this morning it struck no comforting husband material in its smooth downward trajectory. She opened an eye. Fitzwilliam was not in bed with her, which was odd -- he usually didn't rise until dawn. And she missed him desperately, for she had had the strangest dream...
Elizabeth fumbled for the candle and matches she always kept on the bedside table. Only smooth marble met her hand. But her bedside table was made entirely of cherry! She groped across the brocade comforter (she would have sworn her bedspread was satin) to Fitzwilliam's side of the bed. It felt disturbingly cold and unwrinkled; had he never come to bed? They slept together every night, even if their only pleasure was the other's presence. Where was he? A nearly hysterical panic gripped her: it had been only a dream, it had!
A light slowly cut its way across the bed. Elizabeth looked up, terrified: and saw her maid, Ellen Ingram, standing nervously in the doorway with a lamp.
"Ellen!" Elizabeth cried. "Thank God! Tell me, have you seen Mr. Darcy this morning? Why has he not come to bed?"
The maid dropped a curtsy and swallowed. "Beg pardon, ma'am, but it's now eveningtime."
"Evening?" That explains Fitzwilliam's absence, Elizabeth thought with relief. "Have I slept all day? The mistress of Pemberley, lying about in bed? Ellen, you shouldn't have let me do such a thing!" she teased.
"That may be, ma'am." Ellen smiled uneasily. "But after you fainted in the hall this morning--"
"Yes ma'am, and Mr. Darcy carried you up here, then said you were not to be disturbed. I was only making sure you were still all right, ma'am."
But the fainting was just part of the dream... "Ellen," Elizabeth said carefully. "Have you ever seen me before?"
The maid considered the question. "Do you mean before this conversation or before this morning, ma'am?"
"Before this morning, please."
"No, ma'am, I haven't."
Elizabeth took a deep breath. "Then how do I know your name?"
"You would know that better than I would," Ellen said placidly.
Elizabeth nodded. "Yes, I ought to," she replied, her voice surprisingly steady. "Ellen, would you answer some questions for me?"
"Of course, ma'am," the maid answered nervously. She closed the door and set the lamp on a table.
"Where are we?"
Her eyes widened. "Why, a guest room in Pemberley House in Derbyshire, not far from Lambton, ma'am."
"What is today's date?"
"December 12, 1813."
Still. "How long have you served here?"
"A little over a year, ma'am."
That's right; she was new when I arrived as a bride. Elizabeth remained calm. "You've never seen me before this morning?"
"Is your master's name Fitzwilliam Darcy?"
"Born October 15, 1795, to George and Anne Darcy, both deceased?"
"Is Mr. Darcy married?"
"Has he ever been married?"
If these facts are true, and I know Ellen and Wilkins and -- Fitzwilliam, and they don't know me, perhaps my year as Mrs. Darcy was the dream. Yet Elizabeth's shape was testament to her experience as wife, and her golden wedding band twisted solid and safe under her fingers. "Has Mr. Darcy been to Hertfordshire recently?"
"He's never been to Hertfordshire that I know of, ma'am." A pause, and Ellen continued. "But his friend Mr. Bingley lives there, who has a house about thirty miles hence."
"Mr. Bingley? Is he married?"
"Why, yes, ma'am, I think so."
"To a lady named Jane?"
"That might be the name, ma'am."
Elizabeth took a breath. "Ellen, do you think I'm mad?"
The maid considered again. "Other than that idea of your being the master's wife, you seem well in control of your wits, ma'am."
"Does the master think I'm mad?"
"I believe so, ma'am."
"Thank you, Ellen. You may go." Ellen nodded and turned towards the door, leaving the lamp for Elizabeth. "Oh, wait. Where's the dress I, ah, arrived in?"
"It's there on the wardrobe, ma'am."
"Thank you." Elizabeth threw back the covers. The maid advanced to the door. "Oh, another thing, Ellen, I'm sorry. Has dinner been served yet?"
The maid paused. "No, ma'am. It will be ready at eight, and it's just now seven."
"Thank you again." Ellen opened the door, and then Elizabeth remembered. "Ellen, one last question. Where is Miss Darcy?" she said suddenly.
Ellen regarded Elizabeth levelly. "She's not here, ma'am, nor will she be. And that's all you need to know." She withdrew and firmly shut the door.
Ellen's words hung in the air, almost audible over the roar of the wind outside. "She's not here, ma'am, nor will she be. And that's all you need to know." The maid apparently thought she had already said too much to the madwoman, or else she had touched on a subject not to be spoken of at all. Georgiana not at Pemberley, and not to return? It was incredibly strange, but Elizabeth had experienced enough incredibly strange events in the last ten hours to regard this newest item as the least of her concerns.
She dressed quickly and surveyed the results in the mirror. Her woolen morning gown was clean and neat, though hardly appropriate for dinner, and her shoes were scuffed with dirt and use. Not how I would choose to present myself to Mr. Darcy for the first time, she thought wryly, but then, he has always liked this gown. Pray God his tastes have not changed.
Seven-forty-five. Fitzwi -- Mr. Darcy would be in the library, finishing his business for the day. Seven-fifty: Wilkins would bring him a glass of brandy. Seven-fifty-five: he would enter the dining room, and eight o'clock: the appetizer would be served. Elizabeth waited until the foyer clock chimed the quarter, then left her chamber and descended the stairs.
She was right: he had just finished the main course when she opened the dining room door. He stared at her with a wary calm; she endeavored to maintain a similar serenity. "Good evening, Mr. Darcy," she said.
"Good evening, madame," he replied. "I trust you are feeling better?"
"Much better, sir. Thank you for your care."
"It was no trouble." He paused. "I had intended to return you to Lambton this evening, but it appears that the wind is too strong to make such a journey safe. You will have to spend the night here."
This reluctant invitation was exactly what Elizabeth had hoped for. It was too cold and dark to try the maze now; she would enter it early the next morning and return to her own Pemberley and Mr. Darcy. "Thank you."
He muttered an assent. "Would you join me for dinner?" She nodded and settled at the opposite end of the table; he signaled to a waiting servant, who immediately disappeared. "I did not send for you -- did you not need assistance finding the dining room?"
"What?" she said, then recollecting herself, "No, sir, I made my way quite easily."
He said nothing. The servant returned with a place setting and laid it out before her. "Thank you, James," she said automatically. He cast her a confused look and retreated through the kitchen door.
"You are familiar with my servants, then?" said Mr. Darcy, one eyebrow raised.
Elizabeth immediately realized her mistake, but there was nothing to do but go on. "Probably not all of them, but yes."
"And from what circumstances does this familiarity arise?"
She took a deep breath. "I have been here before, sir."
"Really." His expression belied any faith in her statement. "I do not remember your coming."
"It was -- a different time." Which is an understatement. She remembered her first visit to Pemberley. "You were in Town, and Mrs. Reynolds conducted us about the house."
"Mrs. Reynolds would know you, then?"
"Perhaps, and perhaps not. It was some time ago," she said, restraining her desperation. James returned with the roast beef, set it before her as quickly as possible, and backed away as if expecting an attack. She shot him a look.
She was distracted. "When what?"
"When did you visit?" he said irritatedly.
"A year ago July," she replied.
"My house was not open that summer." Elizabeth flushed and looked at her plate. "Madame, your manners and appearance this evening suggest you are a lady. That dress is particularly becoming to the darkness of your eyes..." His voice trailed away, and she glanced up, surprised. His countenance immediately hardened again. "As I was saying, your appearance and manners suggest you are a lady; but all other evidence, especially your behavior towards me this morning, indicates the contrary. Tell me and be honest. Who are you, and why are you here?"
Elizabeth took a deep breath. "My name is Elizabeth Darcy," she said firmly. He moved suddenly, and she put up a hand to still him. "It sounds mad, I know, but I beg you to listen -- there is no harm in hearing me out." He retired. "My name is Elizabeth Darcy, and I have been married to Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley Estate for one year." Today. One year today, her brain completed, but she ignored it and kept her voice steady. "You are not him, as you well know, though you are also Fitzwilliam Darcy. I do not know how to explain this, quite... apparently, sir, there are two Pemberleys existing parallel to one another. In one I am married to Fitzwilliam Darcy; in the other, this one, you have never heard of me. This morning I crossed between the two."
Mr. Darcy was standing, and his look of horror, astonishment and anger was such as she'd never seen on Fitzwilliam's face... Not true, her mind amended. He looked like that after you refused him at Rosings. "You expect me to credit this -- "
"Wait!" she cried. "Let me finish." She schooled her voice to calm. "It happened this morning, during my daily walk, when I ventured into the maze in the garden. Upon reaching the center circle, I experienced an intense dizziness, as if I were falling; and when I left the maze, I was not in my Pemberley, but yours. I then entered the house, mistook you for my husband, and the rest you know." She held up her hand again. "I cannot explain it, sir, and so I ask you not to ask me to try. I thank you for your hospitality this evening, and I intend to return through the maze as soon as it is light."
He too had schooled his voice, but barely. "You expect me to credit this -- this -- utter nonsense?" he said through clenched teeth. "These double Pemberleys and random mazes? I was in the maze last month and experienced no such thing."
"Perhaps not, sir," she replied. "I've been through the maze a hundred times on my side and never had this happen before. And yet it's true."
"A hundred times," he repeated sarcastically. "You know the route by heart. Left, right, left-left-right -- "
"Three more rights, two lefts, a long right, a left, and a right," Elizabeth completed. He was silent. "I do indeed know it by heart, as I know all of Pemberley by heart. I live here, Mr. Darcy, on the other side of the maze. You may test me as you wish." His complexion paled; she recognized this as a sign of his displeasure, and said nothing more. The silence grew.
Finally he spoke, steadily, but with such an underlying fury as she had never heard Fitzwilliam use. "How much does he expect you to get? Five hundred?"
"I beg your pardon?" Elizabeth said.
"Five hundred pounds? A thousand? What figure did he give you?" He stalked away from the table. "Five thousand, perhaps? Was that it? Hasn't he already taken enough from me?" He swung back; his eyes were blazing. "I can see it now. He feeds you the information; you present yourself as my wife, pregnant with my child, knowing all about Pemberley. You'll keep quiet for a certain sum, you tell me. Then he gets one half and you get the other. Isn't that the way it's supposed to go, Mrs. Darcy?"
"NO!" Elizabeth stood up. "I have no idea what you're talking about, and I have already told you the truth, Mr. Darcy!"
"I'm talking about George Wickham, madame, a man you probably know better than you claim to know me. Hasn't he set this up? How does he wish to torture me this time?"
Elizabeth instantly stilled. She remembered her long talks with Fitzwilliam about Wickham, how her husband had often felt dull and sullen compared to his rival's shiny charm -- how even his father had seemed to prefer Wickham over himself. Fitzwilliam admitted he knew deep down that no such preferment existed, but the wounds existed nonetheless; and she thought she recognized the pain in her husband's voice in Mr. Darcy's burning anger.
"Mr. Darcy," she said gently, "I know of Mr. Wickham through his long connection with my husband's family and my own, and I know he is the worst kind of villain -- though it pains me to speak so of my brother-in-law." His countenance smoothed slightly. "I am not involved in any such business as you allege; and if I were, would I trouble to concoct such an elaborate story as I first presented, or to learn the way through the Pemberley maze? No, sir, the case is as I told you; and I ask only that you give me a night's lodging, until I can return through the maze to my Pemberley tomorrow morning. You anticipated the necessity of my stay here, though for different reasons; and you may accompany me to the maze in the morning, if you choose, and see me off your grounds. I plan to rise about seven." She extended a hand. "I mean no harm to you or your house, Mr. Darcy, and desire only to return to my own."
His fury was almost completely gone, replaced by a watchful hesitation. "I do not accept your earlier story--" he began.
"It is of little importance, as I will be gone tomorrow."
"But I do accept that you intend me no harm, and I apologize for my accusations." He took her hand and bowed over it. She inclined her head, and he stepped away. "Is there a name I can call you for the time being?" he asked. "Something besides Mrs. Darcy?"
"Mrs. Bennet, perhaps," she answered. "My maiden name."
"Until the morning then, Mrs. Bennet." He bowed again and abruptly left the room; and Elizabeth collapsed into the chair to finish her dinner.
Elizabeth rose earlier than she had intended; her bed loomed far too big and empty without her husband in it, and sleep had come fitfully, if at all. Consequently, she was dressed by six-thirty and in the Pemberley hall by six-forty-five; and only a nagging politeness kept her waiting for her host when she would rather be hurrying across the grounds to the maze.
Mr. Darcy appeared promptly at seven, however, and they made their way outside. There was a brief awkwardness when he turned for the front door and she started for her familiar side entrance; but she acceded gracefully and followed him into the chill air.
A light snow had fallen overnight and crunched steadily beneath their feet. Neither spoke at all during the walk: she was joyfully contemplating her return to her husband and home; he was thinking of the horse and carriage waiting to take her to Lambton as soon as this exercise was finished. But the exercise must be played out, and upon their reaching the hedgerow maze, he dutifully asked her if she needed any further accompaniment.
"I don't think so," Elizabeth replied, "but I do thank you for your excellent hospitality tonight and this morning. I will tell your kind behavior to Mr. Darcy, who will be gratified to know he treated me so well." She curtseyed; he bowed, both bemused and amused by her steadfast faith in her fantasy. "Good-bye," she said, and turned into the maze.
He would give her five minutes before pursuing her inside, he decided -- more than enough time for her to find her way to the center and have nothing happen, or more likely, to get lost and require his assistance. He would be sorry to see her go, he thought with surprise; she had been an interesting if disturbing diversion on a cold December night. After thirty seconds, he was alarmed to hear a very loud and unladylike "Blast!" issuing from within, followed by what sounded like someone attacking the hedge; and she appeared a minute later, red-faced and scratched, to inform him that the path leading to the center had grown over during the course of the night.
"Of course, madame," he said, quickly setting out to show her the correct path. Obviously she had made a wrong turn somewhere, and he would simply guide her to the center, guide her back out, then up to the house and into the carriage... left, right, left...
"What do you mean 'of course'?" Elizabeth retorted as she ran after him. "You expect your maze to come to a dead end?"
Left right, right, right...
Right into a faceful of hedge. Mr. Darcy reeled backwards. Where had that come from?
"I told you," she said quietly.
"This shouldn't be here," he muttered. Obviously he had made a wrong turn someplace; he hadn't been out to the maze in weeks. He went back to the beginning and ran it again, this time avoiding the faceful of hedge, but still confronted with the same overgrown wall. It was the same height and thickness as the rest of the bushes -- no, thicker: no rising sunlight showed through its prickly depths. And this was the right path; it had to be.
He swore, then remembered Elizabeth was standing behind him.
"I apologize for that," he said without turning around, still searching the hedgewall for clues to the mysterious growth. No, these roots were firm and old... he heard a sniffle, then a sob, and spun to face his guest.
"I apologize again, Mrs. Bennet," he repeated hesitantly.
She looked up at him, her eyes filled with both tears and fury. "My life and my husband are on the other side of these bushes," she ground out, "and you think I'm upset about your language?"
Mr. Darcy stiffened. "Madame, your insistence on -- that story in the face of the evidence is, I must say, a little incredible. This unexplainable growth proves that you could not have come through the maze to Pemberley, and I would greatly appreciate it if you would tell me the truth. I will help you as much as I can," he finished, not ungently.
"I insist on my story because it is the truth!" Elizabeth cried passionately. "Can't this 'unexplainable growth' prove my story by showing that something strange, unusual, equally unexplainable is going on? I would greatly appreciate it if you would accept that and deal with it, rather than planning to pack me off in a carriage as soon as we return to the house!"
He opened his mouth, then closed it again. They glared at each other for some moments. "I shall not 'pack you off,' as you put it," he said finally. "And I do admit that something strange is happening. But I do not want to discuss it here in the cold. Come -- Mrs. Reynolds will have breakfast." He extended his arm to her.
She brushed by it without a word and stalked ahead of him to the house.
Elizabeth was not fifty yards from the house when she heard her name called by a voice that wasn't Fitzwilliam Darcy's. She looked about her in amazement, and spied a man in gardener's clothes advancing towards her eagerly.
"Miss Bennet! Miss Bennet!" he cried.
It was an undergardener, Mr. Joseph Padgett. He had no reason to recognize her. She stood perfectly still.
"Why, Miss Bennet!" he grinned, panting slightly. "Thought it was you! What brings you back to Pemberley, ma'am?"
Elizabeth shook her head in confusion. "I'm sorry -- you know me?"
The smile faded. "Aye, of course, Miss -- or is Missus?" he said, somewhat more stiffly. "You're Miss Bennet that was -- you came here with your aunt and uncle, and I showed you about the park, last summer that was. July."
I was here, at this Pemberley? Then I must be here elsewhere ... Good God. She staggered slightly, and he immediately extended a solicitous arm. "You all right, Miss Bennet, ma'am? Will you come into the house?"
"No, no thank you, Mr. Padgett. I feel quite well." The smile leapt back to his face at her use of his name. She grasped for information. "Were we -- were we here long?"
"Only for the morning, ma'am, once about the Park as the house was closed." He examined her closely. "Are you certain you feel fine, Miss Bennet?"
"Yes, sir." She took a deep breath and tried to effect girlishness. "Was I just engaged then, Mr. Padgett? It was so long ago! And so much has happened since that I cannot remember when I was engaged. Do you recall, Mr. Padgett?"
He cast her a doubtful look. "No ma'am. 'Twas no talk of it around me. You have a sister, now?" Elizabeth nodded emphatically. "Well, might have been some engagement for her -- her young man seemed to know Mr. Darcy of the house. But you--"
Jane and Bingley! At least one thing is right! And I was not engaged to Wickham a year and a half ago. Pray God I continued in that state. "Oh, la! That's right!" she said breathlessly. Padgett would talk in the servants' quarters and in town: she must set the right story about her appearance. "My Mr. -- Kenton came to Longbourn not a month after our return, and it's been quite whirlwind -- almost shocking! He has cousins in Lambton, we're visiting for Christmas. We'll be married a year in February." She flashed her ring and a smile at him.
"Congratulations, ma'am," he murmured, looking distinctly uncomfortable. "I'd best--"
"Mrs. Bennet!" Fitzwilliam Darcy charged up the grade. "Mrs. Bennet, we must--" He stopped short when he saw the gardener. "Good morning, Padgett."
"Mr. Darcy, sir." He tipped his head.
"Padgett and I were just discussing the beauties of Pemberley, which I first experienced a year and a half ago," Elizabeth said quickly.
Padgett beamed. "Aye, as I was telling Missus Kenton, 'tis quite a different place in the--"
"Hold on, hold on. You know her?"
"Aye, sir. This is Missus Kenton, Miss Bennet that was. She walked about sometime last summer -- not that she was traveling alone, sir," he said hastily, at the darkening expression in his master's eyes. "Her aunt and uncle were with her, then was. And now, ma'am, your husband's about the grounds?"
"Yes, Mrs. Kenton," Darcy said dryly. "Where is your husband, pray?"
Elizabeth looked at him steadily. "I believe he's down investigating the maze."
He blanched. "Will you come in and take refreshment, madame?"
"I will, thank you." She laid her hand on his arm. "A pleasure seeing you again, Mr. Padgett."
"Anyway I can be of service, ma'am." He swept a grand bow; Mr. Darcy shot him a look, and he straightened quickly.
"So you know the gardening staff as well."
"I did come to Pemberley in the summer of 1812 with my aunt and uncle, and Mr. Padgett did show us about the park, and Mrs. Reynolds about the house. But as you say the house was closed, apparently we -- I mean, Elizabeth Bennet and her aunt and uncle -- did not see it here."
"There are now two of you. Wonderful. Mrs. Kenton?"
"I could not be Mrs. Bennet when I was already established as Miss Bennet."
"So you now have a husband somewhere that you shall be expected to produce."
"Isn't that what you think is going on anyway, still?" She pulled away. "That I will attempt to extort money and disappear? You may hope for the disappearing part, sir -- I do as well, as long as it's back to my own Pemberley!"
"Still, this story! Mrs. Bennet -- Kenton--" He stopped abruptly and covered his face with his hands.
"You can hardly expect me to come up with another one in so short a time." Her words were harsh, but inside Elizabeth softened. Any Mr. Darcy in anguish was difficult to bear.
"I do not know what I think," he said quietly, dropping his hands. "And as we must discuss the matter, I wish to do so over breakfast." He did not again offer his arm, but turned and walked to the house; and Elizabeth followed, knowing this was the calm before the storm.
They ate breakfast in silence. After James had cleared the last of the dishes, Mr. Darcy rose.
"Will you join me in the study, madame?"
"Of course." Elizabeth stood up. He did not change position.
"I thought you might lead the way there," he said derisively.
The first test. "Of course," she repeated. "Your private study or the public chamber?"
"The public chamber."
"Very well." She left the breakfast room without waiting to see if he would follow, and arrived at the requested destination a few moments later.
"Well done," he said as he opened the door for her.
The room was exactly like the one at her Pemberley: walls lined by books, a heavy wooden desk with a ledger open upon it, uncomfortable chairs with red velvet upholstery. Here Mr. Darcy contracted his estate business and received tenants; its dark and serious atmosphere made it one of her least favorite rooms in the house, and Elizabeth did not think what was about to happen would be likely to alter that opinion. She chose the most padded of the uncomfortable chairs and sank into it with a sigh. Darcy paced a few steps in front of her.
"So, Mrs. Bennet," he began.
"Kenton," she corrected.
"Mrs. Kenton. Your real name is Elizabeth Darcy, née Bennet." She nodded. "You have been married to Fitzwilliam Darcy for one year. Where did you meet him?"
"He came with Charles Bingley to Hertfordshire soon after that gentleman let Netherfield."
"I have not yet been to Netherfield."
She spoke quietly. "As we have already seen, sir, events can be distinctly different in our separate universes."
He nodded and continued pacing. "That was in the autumn of 1811. You and Mr. Darcy certainly had a lengthy engagement."
"You assume, then, that we fell in love quickly?" Elizabeth lifted an eyebrow.
"I cannot imagine what impediment there would have been to the relationship."
She thought about that long, tumultuous year and slowly smiled. "No, you probably couldn't -- but suffice it to say that Mr. Darcy and I were not engaged until October of 1812."
His turn for the raised eyebrow. "So you have known him well for over fourteen months, and been mistress of Pemberley for a year."
"We shall cover topics, then, that are more than a year old. Where did I -- your husband -- meet Charles Bingley?"
The examination commences, she thought. "You were roommates at Eton."
"Where did we attend college?"
"Cambridge -- you, Charles, and George Wickham."
His eyes narrowed. "Ah, yes. What do you know of Mr. Wickham?"
Elizabeth took a deep breath. "He is the son of your father's late steward and was promised a living in Mr. Darcy's will. After leaving Cambridge, he chose not to take orders and accepted three thousand pounds in lieu of the position. Later he requested the living and you quite rightly refused."
"And then?" He had not moved during her recitation.
"Your sister Georgiana was in the care of a Mrs. Younge at Ramsgate in the summer of 1811," she said slowly. "When the establishment was arranged, you were not aware that a prior connection existed between Wickham and the lady. He convinced Georgiana to believe herself in love--"
"That is enough," Mr. Darcy cut her off. He began to pace again. "My sister. How old is she?"
"She will be eighteen on December 30."
"Where does she live?"
"Why, at Pemberley," Elizabeth said, surprised. He muttered something. "Mr. Darcy, I believe you would feel better if you were seated."
He sat in another of the uncomfortable chairs. "What were my parents' names?"
"George Darcy and Anne Fitzwilliam."
He hesitated. "Are they yet living in your world?"
"Your father died in 1807, and your mother four years before that."
"April 1803," he murmured. "How long has my family held these lands?"
"Queen Elizabeth granted them to Philip Darcy in 1589 for distinguished service against the Spanish."
The inquisition continued. They covered the architecture of the house, the arrangement of the gardens, the tenants and their children, the village of Lambton, his house in London, his house by the shore. Several servants were brought in for her identification; when she did not recognize one, it was discovered that he had been at Pemberley for only three months, out of her assigned time range. Elizabeth was able to name all the members of Ellen's family, her age and birthday, and her favorite color -- information the maid insisted she had not shared with the visitor.
"This is impossible," Mr. Darcy said fiercely after Ellen left the room. He sprang up from the chair and began to pace again. "You have nothing to identify you beyond your own testimony, no papers, no jewelry--" She started, glanced down and up again, and opened her mouth to speak. He spun around abruptly. "And you have said nothing of me, to whom you were presumably married. A year of wedded bliss -- you ought to know something that no other woman -- person -- on earth could know." He glared at her. "Have you any answer?"
She looked straight at him and spoke with equal control. "You have a scar two inches long on your inner left thigh."
He stood perfectly still.
"And here." Elizabeth extended her left hand; the polished gold of her wedding band caught and held the light. She kept her voice steady over the sudden lump of tears in her throat. "Given by Philip Darcy to Mary Osborne in 1584; Nicholas Darcy to Lucy Maysfield in 1609; George Darcy to Anne Fitzwilliam in 1783 ... and Fitzwilliam Darcy to Elizabeth Bennet, December 12, 1812."
He took her hand and stared blindly at the ring, then dropped it and turned away. "It is impossible..." he breathed again. She heard the defeat in his voice, but did not rejoice at it.
"No, it is just possible," she said gently.
Mr. Darcy walked to the window and gazed across the grounds. Neither moved for some moments. "You will want to stay here until the maze opens," he said finally, without turning around. "If the maze opens."
"It will open." Even if I have to take a hacksaw to it.
"Until then," he continued as if she had not spoken, "I ask you to stay in your rooms. I will send Ellen Ingram to attend you -- I wish to minimize your contact with the staff as much as possible. A married lady without a husband staying at Pemberley--" He broke off. "Is this acceptable?"
"Yes, Mr. Darcy."
"I am finding this very difficult, Mrs. Bennet," he said, looking at her at last. "I have never had a wife before."
"You do not have one now." The words came out more sharply than Elizabeth had intended.
He stiffened. "No, I do not. And I shall have to address you henceforth as Mrs. Kenton, I believe." He bowed. "Good morning, Mrs. Kenton."
"One question in return for your many," she said as she pushed herself out of the chair. "Where is Georgiana?"
"In London," he replied in a low, cold voice.
"Thank you." She was relieved by his words, if not his tone. "Good morning, Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth curtsied, and she went up the stairs to her chamber.
Part VII -- A
Elizabeth spent the rest of the day in her chamber; Ellen brought her both lunch and an early dinner. She sent the maid to the library for a book ("It's the third stack on your left, the second shelf from the bottom, and the fifth book to the right. Really. Just trust me on this") and played Patience for some time, but there was no cure for it: accustomed to constant activity as the mistress of Pemberley, by twilight she was thoroughly bored.
"I'll just slip out and see if the maze has opened," she said to herself.
It was easy to leave the house: most of the staff had either retired for the evening or were busy preparing Mr. Darcy's dinner, and she doubted they would have stopped a madwoman anyway. The cold air invigorated her after a day inside, and she walked quickly across the grounds to the maze.
Left, right, left left right, right, right ... right, and then hedge blocked the path to her left. She was able to turn one more corner! The barrier had moved!
She smiled. If it opened a path every ten hours, she would return to Fitzwilliam in -- fifty hours. Two days. She could manage the patience for that.
The child kicked again. It hurt, but Elizabeth rejoiced in the movement. She laid her hands on her stomach. "We'll be home soon, little one," she said softly. "I promise, soon."
Her inner clock woke her at seven the next morning. Fitzwilliam is missing was her first coherent thought, then, after she remembered her whereabouts, One more turn of the maze is open. She pulled on her gown -- I only have to wear this for two more days -- and hurried down the stairs and outside.
Left, right, right, right, right -- and it stopped. The same place. Nothing had changed from the night before.
Except her hopes, dashed again.
Perhaps it is a path every twenty-four hours...
She ran out to the maze at seven, hoping madly. It still ended after the four right turns. She had just time to straighten her dress when she returned: Mr. Darcy had requested the honor of her presence at dinner.
"Good evening, madame."
"Good evening, Mr. Darcy." Each made their courtesies and seated themselves at the table.
She told him of her morning's discovery over the first course. He made no comment on it. "I have been thinking about your situation, Mrs. Kenton," he said, and laughed shortly. "In fact, little else has occupied me these two days. My first question is -- according to Mr. Padgett, you were here last summer with your aunt and uncle. How can there be two of you?"
"I imagine, sir, that when you checked the safe to see if your mother's ring was missing, you found it there?" He nodded shamefacedly. "As there are two rings, so there are two Elizabeth Bennets -- only one of them is now a Darcy." She rubbed her wedding band with her thumb and thought painfully of Fitzwilliam.
"Your husband, in your world," he said. Elizabeth started. "He will miss you?"
"I should hope so," she snapped, then sighed. "I'm sorry, Mr. Darcy. I do not know all the rules of this situation. I may not even be missing at my own Pemberley. Perhaps a third Elizabeth Bennet is carrying on in my place. If I am gone -- Mr. Darcy's wife and unborn child --" She swallowed her sudden tears. "I think he will miss me very much."
"I do not doubt it." They sat in silence as James entered with the second course. After he left, Mr. Darcy spoke almost shyly. "The other morning, when you came in the house ... you were coming to tell your husband the child had moved. I presume, then, it is all right?"
"We are both well," Elizabeth assured him.
"Good." He reverted to business mode. "My second question, then -- your arrival at Pemberley was accompanied by feelings of intense dizziness. Perhaps if your dizziness was re-induced, you would be returned to your world?"
"Are you so eager to be rid of me?"
"I did not mean--"
"I was only teasing. No, I believe the event is more dependent on the place where it occurs than the dizziness itself -- and the only place I have yet seen it occur is the center of the maze. Besides, I've already fainted once; I do not wish to repeat the experience."
"I understand." They ate in silence. James brought in crême bruleé for dessert. Finally Mr. Darcy spoke again. "Is there anything lacking in your accommodations, madame?"
My own bed. My own room. My husband. "Only something to do, sir. I am not used to so much leisure -- or to being confined in one room."
"There is little I can do about it." His eyes were hard.
"Mr. Darcy, Pemberley servants are neither saintly nor stupid. If James and Padgett between them have not already thoroughly enlightened the staff about every nuance of my appearance and behavior, with numerous interesting conjectures about my occupation here besides, I should be very much surprised."
"You do not include Ellen?"
"Ellen is my personal maid at home; I have met few people I trust so completely."
"You have no such claim on her here."
"Then very well: she has added the small detail that I believe myself mistress of Pemberley, and am therefore slightly mad. With such rumors conspiring against us--"
"I do not need to give you the opportunity to generate more."
"Or, you may disregard them and give me freedom. The grounds, the library, and Georgiana's music room. That is all I ask. I will be much happier, and it will cost you nothing but more pride." Elizabeth smiled a little. "You will be hard pressed to regulate my movements anyway -- my husband never can."
She met his gaze unblinkingly. At last he shut his eyes and gave in. "The grounds and the library. The music room is closed."
"All right. Thank you." She remembered something she'd wanted him to confirm. "Your friend Mr. Bingley is married. Do you know the name of his new wife?"
"Jane something, I believe. I was not at the wedding--"
"You missed the wedding of your closest friend?"
"Business of the most serious kind kept me away, madame." He frowned. "Besides, the lady was of little connection and less consequence. The match was regarded as beneath him."
"And you have not met her?" Elizabeth asked, controlling her tone.
"The wedding was in February of last year. There has never been an opportune time for me to go into Hertfordshire."
"Ellen said that Mr. Bingley has an estate thirty miles from here."
"She has not been there often -- I understand she prefers to stay near her family in Hertfordshire, though his sister reports them atrocious."
"Are the Bingleys in Town frequently?"
"No; as I said earlier, she is not known as a woman of fashion." He looked across at her. "You take a lively interest in their concerns. Is your Mrs. Bingley a close friend?"
"More than that," Elizabeth said sweetly. "She is my sister."
He sat back. "Jane Bennet."
"Yes, Mr. Darcy. I too am a woman of little connections, less consequence, no fashion, and an atrocious family." She smiled, again sweetly. "Caroline Bingley despises us there as well."
"I apologize, Mrs. Kenton."
"And you loved me despite it." She had not meant to say it aloud, and she felt the tears -- the blasted tears -- rising again.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Kenton." He extended his napkin towards her.
She took it. "I assure you, sir, I do not normally cry this much," Elizabeth sobbed. "But my condition and my circumstances conspire against me."
"Mrs. Kenton--" His tone was as gentle as one her husband might use. She looked up. "Be equally assured, it is forgiven, if you will forgive me."
"Then all debts are canceled." Her smile this time was tremulous, but she held it. He smiled back.
"Very well." He hesitated. "I would be interested, madame, if it would not be too much of an imposition, in hearing the story of your and Mr. Darcy's engagement -- especially of the considerable delay between the establishment of your acquaintance and your formal relationship."
Elizabeth nodded. "I would be pleased to oblige, sir, but it is a long tale and already a late night. Another time?"
"I have dinner with the vicar in Lambton tomorrow, but the next night is clear."
"I hope not to be here then, but if I am, the story is yours." She rose. "Good night, Mr. Darcy."
"Good night, Mrs. Kenton."
She stopped at the door. "Oh -- one thing more. Are you celebrating Christmas in Town with Georgiana?"
"I am celebrating Christmas at Pemberley. Why do you ask?"
She gestured to the hall beyond. "You lack decorations. At home we have holly twined about the banister and pine branches in the corners."
"I shall not require greenery to complete my holiday." His tone brooked no further argument.
"Good night, Mrs. Kenton."
"Good night, Mr. Darcy."
The next two days passed slowly for Elizabeth. The library provided many familiar pleasures, but she could bear only so many hours sitting still; and fearing a cold, she limited her walks outside to twice-daily checks on the maze. Nothing there changed except the level of the snow: they received three inches one night and two more the next morning. She gritted her teeth and walked through the wind, but everything remained the same.
She found herself looking forward to dinner with Mr. Darcy. Upon her third morning in the house, he had had several gowns of his mother's presented for her inspection. She chose the most suitable of these, a rich cranberry velvet, and Ellen quickly made it over to suit Elizabeth's enlarged shape. She planned to wear her new dress that evening; it was not every day she was called upon as a storyteller.
"Mrs. Kenton," Mr. Darcy said upon her entrance into the dining room. "You look very well this evening."
"Thank you, sir." She curtseyed; he waved the footman away and pulled out her chair himself.
"I take it there have been no new developments with the maze?"
"None, Mr. Darcy. Except it is colder to walk in."
"With snow, madame, that is to be expected." Both were smiling. Elizabeth felt the pull of the familiar: a winter's evening, the gold-and-green banquet room, dinner with Mr. Darcy, laughing, teasing, discussing the events of their respective days...
"I trust your dinner with the vicar went smoothly?"
"You are familiar with Mr. Farebrother?"
"Of course. He is a kind and decent man who does much good for the people of Lambton."
"I quite agree. The Reverend reports that Christmas donations for the poor are greatly decreased this year."
"No doubt the result of the low harvest."
He looked surprised. "You follow such things?"
The spell snapped. Elizabeth did not only follow the agriculture reports: she had ridden out with Fitzwilliam to look over the crops and organized rations for the tenants who suffered most. Her husband would have known that -- and of course, this man was not her husband. "Pemberley House alone is not my home, Mr. Darcy; its fields and people are also my responsibilities. I would hardly think myself a good mistress if I were not aware of their conditions."
He raised an eyebrow. "You feel strongly about Pemberley, madame."
"I have been happier here than I have been anywhere else." Her voice was soft.
"Yes." He sat back. James entered with the first course. "Have you seen much that is different between your Pemberley and mine?"
She thought for a moment. "I must base the comparison of the house on what it was when I arrived--"
"Have you instituted changes then?" His manner was warm, and Elizabeth answered with enthusiasm. The house, the grounds and the orchards occupied the remainder of their dinner conversation: he discovered her pleasure for the outdoors; she saw anew Mr. Darcy's passion for his estate; and each found that though much was different, much remained the same.
The clock struck nine; they both started, then laughed. Their dessert bowls had not yet been cleared away. "There must have been some point of deviation at which my world became yours," he said, continuing their conversation.
"I beg your pardon -- at which my world became yours." She grinned at him.
He returned the expression. "Perhaps in the telling of your story, the point shall appear. If you are not too fatigued?"
"Not at all."
"Let us adjourn to the library, then."
The fire leaped merrily in the grate; two armchairs faced each other in a cozy arrangement nearby. He helped her into one of them and settled into the other himself. A servant entered with a tea cart; Elizabeth naturally poured out, added two squeezes of lemon and a lump of sugar to one cup, and handed it to Mr. Darcy.
He looked amused. "Thank you."
She dropped a lemon slice into her own tea and stirred it thoughtfully. "This may not be an easy story to tell considering our present circumstances, but I shall make the attempt as best I can." She took a sip and smiled. "Once upon a time--"
"You are making this a fairy tale?" He smiled back rather doubtfully.
"Sir, I beg you not to interrupt the storyteller," she replied seriously, then ruined it by laughing. "Yes, I'm making it a fairy tale. Ahem. Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess named Elizabeth Bennet living in Hertfordshire. Elizabeth had one elder sister, Jane, and three younger sisters, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia. She also had a father, whose estate was unfortunately entailed, and a mother, whose chief goal in life was to see her five daughters married, and married well.
"You may imagine her delight, then, when a young prince named Charles Bingley came into the county and was soon reputed to have five thousand a year. And he brought with him a greater prince -- greater by virtue of five thousand a year more -- one Fitzwilliam Darcy, of Derbyshire. But while the manners of our first prince, Mr. Bingley, could only please and flatter, the second prince, Mr. Darcy, said little and was liked less. I am afraid our princess especially despised him, for a certain overheard remark about her not being handsome enough to tempt one of such highbred blood."
"Did I really do such a thing?" He looked half-horrified, half vastly entertained.
"The prince did, certainly. But don't worry, he redeems himself later. Now, a certain toad--"
"Please wait a moment. This is in the autumn of 1811?"
"October and November."
"And Mr. Darcy remained in Hertfordshire the entire period?"
"I am sure if he left I would have heard of it."
"Odd." He leaned back in his seat. "Pray, madame, continue."
"I mentioned a toad, didn't I? We are not there yet. While Prince Darcy slighted the Princess Elizabeth, his friend formed a considerably more cordial acquaintance with her sister Jane; and after several evenings in company together, the latter lady was invited to dinner at Netherfield." Elizabeth sketched the events of that unpleasant week. She managed to refrain from casting Caroline and Louisa Bingley as evil stepsisters, but she couldn't resist another introduction.
"And now we meet a talking toad by the name of William Collins." Mr. Darcy looked alarmed. "I see you know the man," she said with a sinking feeling. Had she gone too far?
"I could not help knowing him. He presented himself to me repeatedly upon my last visit to Rosings." He smiled slowly. "Your comparison is not badly drawn."
She breathed a sigh of relief. "This is the story of how he was not transformed into a prince." She described his letter, his arrival, and his disastrous proposal, and coaxed a full-fledged laugh from Mr. Darcy by the end of the recital.
As Elizabeth poured, she suddenly remembered an event she had forgotten -- one that would figure largely into her later narrative. She set the teapot down heavily. "I ask your pardon, Mr. Darcy. A good storyteller should not fail to introduce her characters at the appointed time, and I have made a rather serious omission."
"You are forgiven, madame." He was still smiling.
"Soon after the arrival of the toad who was not transformed into a prince, the princess met a prince who would eventually be revealed as a toad." She endeavored to keep her voice light. "Mr. Wickham."
"Mr. Wickham." His countenance, once warm, seemed to be cut from stone; his tone echoed its flat coldness. Not prince into toad, but prince into Beast. "In Hertfordshire."
"When was this again?"
"He arrived in the second week of November 1811, and stayed through the next April, excepting a leave at Christmas."
"November to April. Yes." He rose restlessly and stared into the fire. "Pray go on with your story, Mrs. Kenton."
"My sisters and I met him on a walk through town. He had just joined the regulars--"
"He was working? I find that difficult to believe."
"--and was soon a favorite among both the men of the regiment and the ladies of Meryton, being all that was familiar, charming and insincere." Mr. Darcy whipped around at 'the ladies of Meryton,' but he said nothing, only watching her with burning eyes. Elizabeth found it difficult to continue. "The princess--" Somehow her fairy-tale conceit no longer seemed amusing. "I must number myself among his admirers then, not the less for his frequent complaints -- I believed them then exposures -- of the haughtiness of Mr. Darcy."
"I would not have thought you were that kind of woman." His voice was low and furious, and the words stung.
"I did not know, Mr. Darcy--"
"How could you not know?" he flung at her. "Did he have no prior acquaintances who could have enlightened you about his situation? Coming where I was, harassing me--" He broke off and paced the room. "Really, Mrs. Kenton, a woman of your perception and intelligence, to stoop to such a level and then protest ignorance--"
"Mr. Darcy!" she cried.
"Had he removed the ring? Did he never mention his wife in London? Did he once mention Georgiana?"
Elizabeth's heart stopped. "What did you say?"
He glared at her. "His wife, Georgiana. Was she forgotten as soon as he entered the county?"
"Your sister." Her heart resumed; but it now seemed to pump horror instead of blood, filling her veins, paralyzing her movement. "Georgiana Darcy."
"Yes, my sister. Who else could make Wickham your brother-in-law?" he said acidly.
"My sister." Her voice was soft as she fitted the pieces together. "Where is Georgiana?" "She's not here, ma'am, nor will she be." "In London." "What do you know of Mr. Wickham?" "Hasn't he already taken enough from me? How does he wish to torture me this time?"
Darcy did not hear her answer. "You told me the prologue to your story the other day. Georgiana Darcy goes to Ramsgate in the care of a Mrs. Younge and is persuaded to believe herself in love. She marries him, he claims her thirty thousand pounds, gets her with child and disappears." He swung around. "You say to Meryton, where he charmed you and everyone else. How long did it take you to find out? Or did you ever? Surely when you married me I told you everything!"
"Is Georgiana all right?"
The question brought him up short. "She is well," he said finally. "She lost the baby that first April... I attended her lying-in instead of Mr. Bingley's wedding. She was not meant to be a mother so young. He arrived in town drunk over his new son, only to learn the child had died. She has since had another who lived, a daughter." His face hardened again. "This is no fairy tale, Mrs. Kenton."
"I believe we have found the point of divergence, Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth said steadily. "August 1811, when your sister was deceived into an elopement, and my husband's sister was narrowly saved from the same fate."
He did not change expression.
"He went into Kent a day early; he was not expected, and Georgiana told him everything. Mrs. Younge was dismissed, Mr. Wickham left to his own devices -- nothing was exposed, to maintain Miss Darcy's good name. Several months later Wickham entered Hertfordshire and made my acquaintance. He was not then married."
Darcy leaned against a bookshelf. "How came he then to be your brother-in-law?"
"It was the next August when he eloped with my youngest sister Lydia." Mr. Darcy put his hand over his eyes. "He had no intention of marrying her; her good name and ours would have been ruined forever -- but for a Mr. Darcy, who paid Wickham's debts, arranged my sister's living, and in general saved our family."
But for the crackle of the fire, the room was silent. "I was with Bingley in town before I went to Ramsgate; he spoke of taking a house in Hertfordshire, and I enjoyed debating the deficiencies of the idea -- I stayed two days longer than my appointed visit, in order to continue the discussion." His voice was soft with sadness. "I had him nearly convinced when I left; he later changed his mind... but I could not bear to go into the county, when, if I had only left the argument against it earlier, so much might have been avoided."
"It was not your fault." Elizabeth was gentle but insistent.
"Your Mr. Darcy arrived in time -- your hero rescued the princess. I was late." She could make no reply. "I am glad to know one Miss Darcy is safe."
The clock struck in the hall, twelve round crystal notes. His face twisted.
"It is midnight, Cinderella. You had better run along."
Elizabeth stood too quickly and staggered. He held out an arm: she clutched it, and suddenly she was leaning against his chest, against him, their faces inches apart, his eyes dark, cold, sad. She pushed away.
"Good night, Mr. Darcy," she gasped, and fled up the stairs to her room.