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Horizon of Hope

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Mr Darcy's nausea increased with every step he took into one of London's numerous slums one desolate afternoon in the late summer of 1812.

The subtly perfumed handkerchief he held in front of his sensitive nose helped but very little against the well nigh unbearable mixed stench of urine, excrement and vomit, of illness and death, of thin beer and mouldering food.

But it was not only poor Mr Darcy's nose that suffered. His eyes did not particularly feast either on the dark, narrow alleys filled with shoeless, unwashed children begging for a farthing. He had to witness exhausted women, all skin and bones, hanging out some ragged clothes to dry. Mothers were nursing a babe, at the same time loudly reprimanding the rest of their abundant offspring. Intoxicated men leaned impassively against the doorpost, holding either a half-empty bottle of gin or a crust of bread in their dirty hands. Famished dogs were savaging for food between the litter indifferently thrown in the streets by its inhabitants, and vendors pushed their carts filled with obscure goods to try to earn a bob or two elsewhere.

The pawing, even in intimate places, of slovenly trollops offering him their services, laughing at him, shewing him their prematurely decayed teeth, made him physically ill. The foul language they shouted after him, when he made it clear he did not have the intention of being drawn in by their arts and allurements, shocked him deeply.

Mr Darcy inspected his pockets to insure his timepiece and purse were still there. After all, it was a truth universally acknowledged that prostitutes were wont to pluck a man in more than one way...

It was the first time Mr Darcy had set foot in this part of London, and, even though he was not afraid -- his man carried a gun --, he was not amused either, far from it. He was disgusted by the fact that poverty could have such an ugly face. It grieved him that the government of London did not behave more affably towards the poor, and did so little to relieve the acute needs of its less privileged citizens.

The horrid odours, the noise, the filth and the atrocious penury made him yearn for the fresh air of the virgin forests of Derbyshire. Never in his life had he so badly craved a dive into the pure, limpid, crystal clear water of the pond in Pemberley Park.

And more than ever he longed to tenderly hold against him the innocent maiden he had enclosed forever in his heart, now a little over eight months ago.

The thought of Miss Bennet made his perilous quest in this rough area of London a little more tolerable. Unconsciously he whispered her name, and an expression of heart-felt delight diffused over his handsome face. He was certain that he could make her the happiest of women, as she could make him the happiest of men... if only she would have him. And if, by a fortunate turn of fate, such happiness were to be bestowed upon him, he had the firm intention to shew her his undying love, in all manners imaginable, for the rest of his days.

Mr Darcy had known young women in the past. A pretty face had tempted him on more than one occasion. Indeed, he had been sensitive to the seductive hints the young ladies of his acquaintance were wont to send in his direction with and from behind their fans. However, that was before he had been given perforce the responsibility of the family estate after his father's untimely death. Soon after, he became sick of civility, of deference, of officious attention...

Astonished, and not a little annoyed, he often wondered why the mothers and daughters with whom he was forced to put up occasionally during the season so utterly and completely underestimated his intelligence. Unconsciously shaking his head, Mr Darcy could not help but conclude that the ways of the young women of his sphere, encouraged by their mothers, were hardly any different from the methods used by the prostitutes who solicited him today.

Even though Mrs Bennet was as mercenary as all other mothers he knew, her daughter Elizabeth was different. He did not only consider her one of the handsomest young women of his acquaintance, but admired her even more for the liveliness of her mind, her honesty and her loyalty. She did not care about his riches, his possessions, or his station... Had he not learned that the hard way, that fatal spring in Hunsford? Her blunt refusal of his hand had taught him a lesson in humbleness indeed.

"...had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner." Those words had haunted him for months. He, Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy, gentleman, shuddered at the memory.

Instead of developing a thorough dislike for the young lady, that most unfortunate event had made his passion for her grow to unimaginable heights. Rather than forgetting her, Mr Darcy did not wish to rid her from his mind... not one day, not one hour, not one minute... And thus, she followed him wherever he went. As his guardian angel, she seemed to watch every step he made... gently speaking to him, advising him, correcting him... Indeed, she had improved his mind and soul by extensive censuring...

He hoped she had observed at Pemberley how well her reproofs had been attended to.

There was no denying it, he loved and admired Miss Elizabeth Bennet. He could not look at other women without finding a blemish, and when comparing them with the object of his regard, he found each and every one of them frightfully lacking.

Taking in his surroundings, Mr Darcy sighed. He fervently hoped hecould return to his beloved estate on the shortest notice... and would it not be a lovely prospect if he were to do so in Miss Elizabeth Bennet's company? No, if that were to happen, she would be Mrs Elizabeth Darcy. They would travel as husband and wife. Happy thought indeed...

However, this happy thought roughly awakened him from his musings, and a deep frown suddenly creased his dark brow. For goodness sake, old boy, stop it. Do not get carried away, do not tempt fate! he scolded himself. Your encounter with Miss Elizabeth at Pemberley was encouraging, perhaps even a good omen, but whatever outcome will result from this mission only the future can tell.

Mr Darcy realised as well that he had to focus on the mission at hand. The thoughts about Miss Elizabeth were far too distracting. A distraction that could cost him dearly considering the many dangers a neighbourhood such as this entailed, despite his armed man.

~ * ~

You must understand, dear readers, that Mr Darcy was on an important mission. Nay, important was too weak a term to describe how he felt about it. He was convinced that this self-imposed task was decisive for the future happiness of the young woman he loved so dearly, whose good opinion he desired so desperately...

After having witnessed the heartbreaking despair of his fair acquaintance at the inn at Lambton, he had felt fully responsible for the grief inflicted upon the Bennet family. At that very moment he had firmly resolved to do everything in his power to rescue Miss Lydia, and subsequently the family, from scandal and ruin. He was determined to make the best of the situation that naïve, selfish, foolish girl was in, due to that ravenous, perverted, useless man, the notorious George Wickham. He did it for Elizabeth, for her happiness alone, and it was imperative that he succeed.

Naïve, selfish, foolish... he pondered. Was Miss Lydia in fact so different from Georgiana? They were both young and, naturally, highly susceptible to the seductive charms of a smooth flatterer. They were both desperate to experience the rush of young love and be treated as the adults they considered themselves to be...

He shuddered at the thought of what could have happened to his dear sister if he had not paid her an unexpected visit. Visions of seduction, elopement, the theft of her inheritance and eventual abandonment in an area such as he visited at this very moment... How utterly close his poor sister had been to the miserable state of being a fallen woman.

He knew Wickham well enough to presume that he would leave Miss Lydia as soon as a better bargain presented itself. He could only pray he was not too late, and that he could make Wickham marry her. He knew it would cost him a lot, but that was the least of his worries.

Lost in his musings, Mr Darcy approached the lodgings owned by a woman whom he was loath to become re-acquainted with, but whose co-operation he sorely needed. He was on his way to Mrs. Younge, the former companion of his sister, and the very woman who had made common cause with Wickham in his attempt to abduct her.

~ * ~

Taking a deep breath, Mr Darcy gestured at his man to knock on the door, quite unwilling to touch anything himself belonging to the woman he was about to meet.

He immediately recognised the piercing voice that invited him to enter. A voice that was all too familiar to him. Upon entering the small, dark poorly furnished room, he saw her sitting at a table, mending a garment.

The encounter would be indelibly imprinted on Mr Darcy's mind. The impertinence and hostility of the woman was beyond description. Startled at first at the sight of him, she almost immediately dared mock him, laugh at him to be thwarted again by Mr Wickham, who had informed her about his suspicions concerning a certain young lady from Hertfordshire. With an ugly grin on her face, she told him that no riches in the world could ever best the charms of a Mr Wickham, if the owner of it all was a proud, disagreeable, unpleasant sort of a man...

After shamelessly having diddled him out of a pretty sum, Mrs Younge eventually informed him about their whereabouts. They had both been taken into custody: First Mr Wickham for gambling debts and unpaid accounts and, soon after, Miss Lydia as well, for theft.

Feigning compassion, Mrs Younge explained that the poor creature did not have much of a choice. She had been abandoned penniless by her lover, and did not have the means to buy food or pay her rent.

Just when Mr Darcy started to wonder why Miss Lydia had not sought contact with her family in Cheapside, Mrs Younge added that the foolish girl, against her better judgement, kept on believing her lover would return to her, and marry her, and presumed his arrest was nothing but a stupid mistake.

When Mrs Younge commenced insinuating that Miss Lydia might be enceinte, Mr Darcy was barely able to hide his horror. Inwardly he prayed she was telling him this only to chagrin him more.

In a flash it occurred to him how very fortunate his sister had been indeed to be spared the shame and misfortunes Miss Lydia had to bear now. He had no knowledge of what exactly Mr Wickham had done to Georgiana. He simply refused to think about the possibility he had taken Georgiana to his bed. It was too painful, too horrid for him to even think that this despicable creature might have touched her in that way, might have robbed her of her maidenhead...

Miss Lydia's situation was much worse than he could ever have imagined. Fixed in astonishment, he suddenly grew a little faint, and, before the ghastly woman in front of him would notice his indisposition, he sank into the nearest chair.

Meanwhile, Mrs Younge continued her account, and Mr Darcy learned that Miss Lydia had made the most of her situation, despite her lack of money and connections. However, one afternoon she was caught in flagrante delicto stealing some fruits, and brought to Newgate gaol to be tried soon in the Old Bailey. And that was all she knew.

When he had taken his leave, Mrs Younge's diabolical laughter echoed in his ears. Deeply grieved, he realised again what a wretched, wretched mistake he had made not having exposed Wickham's actions to the world. His protectiveness towards his sister, and, if he was honest with himself, his fear of a scandal would now cost him dearly. Because of his failure, of his mistaken pride, the woman he held most dear in the world and her family had to suffer the scandal of a daughter fallen prey to a man without conscience, without scruples. A daughter who, however minor her offence, would probably be punished outrageously in comparison to her crime, and be deported to the New World.

Wickham's revenge on him was complete after all. And, for a moment, Mr Darcy was at a loss as to how to proceed. He decided to return home, to think things over and muster up the courage to visit the gaol in the morn, where he, undoubtedly, would have to bribe his way in to speak to Miss Lydia.

~ * ~

Sitting in one of the comfortable armchairs of his townhouse library, Mr Darcy stared into his glass of brandy, contemplating the events of the day. He was practical enough to know that, the way things were, his hopes to ever call his wife the one person for whom he devoted himself to this cause had faded to nothing.

He could have forced Wickham to marry Miss Lydia if only he had found them before the watches had... But he knew he could do very little for either of them now. His heart shrank at the thought that the poor girl, this gentleman's daughter, had been locked up in a cold, damp cell with many others, deprived of daylight, decent food, fresh water or medication...

The least he could do was provide her with the best criminal lawyer possible. And, before the trial, he would see if there was anything to be done to relieve her from the terrible fate she was experiencing at present.

...The day had been long and difficult for Mr Darcy. His exhaustion combined with two glasses of excellent brandy on an empty stomach made his eyes grow heavy eventually. Not capable of fighting sleep any longer, he soon peacefully rested in Morpheus's arms. His hand hanging over the armrest of his chair fell open, and the empty glass that held it fell, with a muffled flop, onto the thick Persian carpet...

~ * ~

... Deeply inhaling the fresh sea air, Mr Darcy smiled contentedly. He was standing on the fore deck of the frigate that brought him and his family to New South Wales, and, but a minute ago, the captain had informed him that the coast was in sight.

It had been a long and difficult journey with illnesses, pirates, heavy storms and high seas, lack of fresh food and water... But they had survived. How anxious they were to disembark, and acquaint themselves with their new country, the country where they were to be re-united with the youngest Bennet daughter.

Violently in love, Mr Darcy observed with fond adoration his wife of but a month, the former Miss Elizabeth Bennet, who was cheerfully chatting with his sister Georgiana. Mr Bennet was quietly reading a book, while his wife and daughters were discussing ribbons and bonnets.

Contemplating the horizon, Mr Darcy reckoned their new life at such a great distance from good old England would be extremely difficult. In that virgin territory where hardly anything had come to development as yet, life would be rough, with dangers lurking everywhere. However, he had his loved ones with him, and that was all that mattered. Together they could overcome all obstacles.

After all, those were nothing compared to the difficulties the Bennet family had had to endure in the confined society of their Hertfordshire neighbourhood. After Miss Lydia had been tried and convicted to be deported to New South Wales, they had been shunned by their friends who, with malicious delight, had seized every opportunity to expose the family to ridicule. Their nightmare had come to an end, and Elizabeth was his, now and forever.

The thought, moreover, to have seized the opportunity, however involuntarily, to build up something entirely new, with his two bare hands, instead of but securing the continuation of that what was bequeathed to him thanks to the hard work of his ancestors, filled him with joy...

~ * ~

A confused Mr Darcy suddenly sat up straight in his chair. A knock on the library door had cruelly awakened him from a most unusual dream. He could remember but fragments, and those fragments did not make sense, not in the very least.

Almost immediately the terrible circumstances of young Lydia, and subsequently all persons involved, including himself, came back to him. Still, ... and that was most peculiar, despite the well-nigh hopeless situation, his melancholy had vanished... He felt as if a new hope, a new energy had overflowed his body... A smile curled his lips. He did not know how and when, but somehow he was certain, absolutely certain that a favourable conclusion to this atrocious occurrence was within reach...

The End

or... the beginning of a new adventure? Only the future will tell, dear readers.

Copyright held by Renée O, 2007.

Authors love feedback. You can express your appreciation for Renée's short story here

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Rudeness Repined: Once again Elizabeth is not inclined to dance...

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"Pray Miss Bennet, do not you feel a great inclination to seize such an opportunity of dancing a reel?"

Upon hearing Mr. Darcy's rather unexpected question, Elizabeth looked up from her book somewhat confused, but composed herself almost immediately and replied with cold civility: "I thank you no, Mr. Darcy, a reel is tolerable, I suppose, but not alluring enough to tempt me."

Elizabeth expressed this rather pert opinion a little louder and sharper than she intended and was overheard by the other persons in the room. Each and every one of them had a reaction of some sort.

Mr. Bingley was awakened abruptly from a daydream about an angel and, looking up from his game of patience, cast a puzzled glance towards his friend and the angel's sister. He wished to say something, but knew not what and so remained silent, awaiting coming events.

Mr. Hurst, for his part, made an unexpected movement when Elizabeth's voice penetrated his fogged brain and fell off the couch bewildered, shouting: "You prefer a quadrille to a reel? That is rather singular!" And when the entire party watched him in astonishment, he sheepishly looked about the room, shrugged and crawled back on the couch to continue his state of unconsciousness.

As for Miss Bingley, she hit a wrong key on the pianoforte, which provoked her to softly hiss to her sister: "Do not you think that Miss Eliza has an unfortunate manner of address and expression, Louisa? And the abominable tone of her voice! Not to mention her lack of a certain something in her air."

"Indeed I do, my dear," replied Mrs. Hurst, who could not help but fully agree and emphasized her accord with squinted eyes and shaking head, her jewellery jingling rather like the bells of a group of Swiss cows.

Somewhat taken aback, Mr. Darcy, who did not shew his feelings as a general rule, could not hide the expression in his eyes of disappointment, anger and, perhaps, if one took a closer look, sadness. However, there was nothing for him to do but accept the lady's blunt refusal and resume his previous occupation: reading the book he had left on his chair near the fireplace. So, after a swift bow, he returned to his former location and the rest of the party continued with their momentarily interrupted activities.

Staring unseeing at the open page of his book, Mr. Darcy found that the words printed on it danced before his eyes and that their meaning escaped him entirely. His gaze wandered in the direction of the young lady who was indeed more on his mind than he liked. He could not understand her refusal yet again. Her riposte in response to his request sounded somehow familiar, but Darcy could not fix on the moment or the spot where he had heard it before! Her wrath appeared genuine and yet she had a mischievous look in her eyes. Mr. Darcy thought her manner most impertinent. Worse still, he liked it. It was enthralling, refreshing; especially after the tiresome flattery of Miss Bingley. Admittedly, Miss Elizabeth was not without her charms. Apart from her fine eyes, framed with remarkable lashes, her figure was pleasing and light. As Darcy mused thusly, his imagination roamed how might her slender frame look were I to remove that pretty red gown and unpinned her hair so it were to hang loose on her shoulders?

However, when he commenced meditating on the very great pleasure which the thought of touching the silky skin of her breasts with his lips could bestow, he began to feel quite uncomfortable, mentally as well as physically. Discreetly covering the evidence of his discomfort with his book, he acknowledged that he had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her, and were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he indeed should be in some danger. Forcing himself to concentrate for quite a length of time on the ladies of his acquaintance such as cousin Anne or Miss Bingley who most certainly failed to incite any sinful thought in him, he managed to put his body and mind to rest and renewed his focus on his book.

Elizabeth, for her part, had indeed wished to give offence and to shew him a little taste of his own proud and ill-mannered behaviour. She was quite put out when she felt neither triumph, nor even the slightest pleasure by her refusal to dance with him. Revenge may have been her object, but she felt anything but satisfaction! Nay, upon noticing the somewhat sad expression in his eyes, she could not rejoice in her success. On the contrary, it had given her a feeling of embarrassment and guilt, which puzzled her exceedingly. Apart from that, she realised that she had not been entirely honest either. This renunciation of her usual frankness and openness to employ such mean arts to give the gentleman a taste of his own medicine made her feel quite uncomfortable. Even though she had promised never to dance with Mr. Darcy after his abominable slight at the Meryton assembly, she would have liked to dance the reel, as much as she would have liked to have danced the jig at Sir Lucas's party: she loved to dance, any dance, any time, any place! And she had seen with her own eyes at the said Assembly, that Mr. Darcy's dancing skills made him a much more desirable partner than any other in the vicinity of Meryton. Truth be told, the cheerful music Miss Bingley was playing on the pianoforte had made her long to dance; however, she dissembled in favour of affronting Mr. Darcy.

Thus, Elizabeth comprehended that the deprivation she had imposed upon herself a second time felt to her as unpleasant as the humiliation Mr. Darcy most likely had experienced after she refused him. This is not to be borne! She thundered inwardly, Teasing, teasing man! There is no other in the world who infuriates me like Mr. Darcy does. Oh my, what am I saying? Why would I care? He must not have such an effect on me! I will no doubt have other opportunities to dance in the future with more agreeable partners, so upon the whole, I have no cause to repine. Or have I? Astonished at the direction her bewildering, disordered thoughts were taking her, Elizabeth could no longer concentrate on her book and unwittingly cast a glance in the direction of the gentleman who so vexed and confused her. When she saw him looking back at her with his usual inscrutable expression, she promptly lowered her eyes and felt a furious flush crawl up from her neckline to her cheeks.

Embarrassed, she decided to retire and check on Jane before going to bed. She bade the Netherfield party good night and hastily quitted the room. After having checked on her sister Jane, who appeared to be sleeping restfully, Elizabeth went to her own chamber. She slowly undressed, washed, cleaned her teeth, brushed and plaited her hair, all the while thinking of Mr. Darcy's dark eyes that had looked so, so... different somehow. Elizabeth tossed and turned in her bed and scolded herself for having behaved so uncivilly. She wondered whether she ought to apologise to Mr. Darcy or not. While attempting to deal with the painful tumult of her mind, she waited in vain to reach the realm of sweet dreams and oblivion.

How differently fared Mr. Darcy! He had retired as well in the meantime, weary of Miss Bingley's unwarranted 'bons-mots' and was pleasantly dreaming about a pair of hands -- his -- unpinning the dark curly hair of a fair and accomplished lady of his acquaintance whilst her red evening gown and petticoats dropped in a heap to the floor. And thus, with a smile on his face, Mr. Darcy slept the sleep of the not so innocent, whilst our poor, inwardly torn heroine lay awake for hours and awoke the next morning to the same thoughts and meditations which had at length closed her eyes.

Elizabeth opened her eyes when a ray of sunshine entered the room through a chink in the curtains and tickled her nose. She stretched her body as far as she could, yawned powerfully, and finally heaved a deep sigh. Though she did not feel rested, she decided to get up without delay and quickly performed her toilette. She determined to apologise to Mr. Darcy as soon as an appropriate opportunity occurred. But she first took a stroll about the gardens before breakfast, since she was not yet willing to join the rest of the party who, excepting Mr. Bingley, did not even attempt to hide their contempt for her. She longed to return home, to the people amongst whom she could be completely herself, and where no one -- apart from Mama -- made her feel conscious about her looks or attire. She found that she truly missed her family, and she most fervently hoped and prayed for a quick recovery of her dear sister.

While walking in the direction of the small stream at the south end of the park, Elizabeth was followed by one of Mr. Bingley's Great Danes that had taken a liking to her as the only person who condescended to play with them. Picking up a branch from the grass, Elizabeth enjoyed throwing it away for the dog to retrieve and drop at her feet. She picked it up once again and started to run while looking over her shoulder, challenging the dog that, barking and wagging its tail for joy, ran behind her. Failing to notice a thick branch on the ground, Elizabeth stumbled and... was caught by the very man who had occupied her thoughts for such a large part of the night.

"Mr. Darcy!"

"Miss Bennet!"

"Mr. Darcy, I beg your pardon. I...I... I was playing with the dog and, and well... I did not see you, sir."

"Indeed you did not, Miss Bennet, you were looking over your shoulder so you could not see me, even if you wanted to." Mr. Darcy replied smiling, still holding her by her arms, not yet willing to let her go.

However, when she looked down at his hands, he could not but withdraw them and impulsively -- a term that was not really synonymous with Mr. Darcy's character -- he asked her, much to her surprise, if he could accompany her on her stroll.

For a while they walked on in complete silence, both seemingly deep in thought. Elizabeth searched for the right moment and words for her apology, whilst Mr. Darcy cast hidden glances at the young woman at his side, enjoying her rosy cheeks, bright eyes, and alluring red lips, desperately trying to think of some sort of intelligent conversation that would advance her good opinion of him instead of inciting her scorn. But, alas, he could not think of one single subject and thus, he remained silent, hoping for her to begin. I wish she would give me some encouragement, but she seems so grave and silent He sighed. Discreetly he inhaled her delicious, natural scent that was so infinitely more pleasant to his senses than the expensive, yet suffocating perfumes Miss Bingley was wont to use so abundantly, leaving traces of it behind her wherever she went. It always put him very much in mind of a cat in heat leaving its mark. The nearness of the very person who had consumed his dreams the night before inextricably led him back to thoughts of the passionate activities within those dreams. His sweet dream had allowed him to thoroughly explore every forbidden and, perhaps less forbidden, spot on her body while her soft hands stroked his, her lips speaking endearments in his ear in between kisses, which varied from soft and tender to passionate. His body tingled whilst thinking of the part of his dream in which their tongues invaded each other's mouths until they both became wild with desire. He closed his eyes for a moment, took a deep breath and mused Good Lord, I am much more attracted to her than I like. Even though I do not wish it, she must leave, the sooner, the better.

"Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth's clear, lilting voice awoke him from his reverie and he stopped walking to listen to what she had to say, blushing furiously for having such thoughts about the innocent young woman walking next to him.

"I fear I owe you an apology, sir."

"I do not understand, Miss Bennet. Why would you owe me an apology?"

"You must allow me to apologise for my rather unladylike behaviour of last night. It is inexcusable, I know, but I meant to be rude and uncivil by refusing to dance with you because of something impolitic you said in the past. However, I do not think that what I did was just. If I am to be completely honest, I love to dance and a reel is as appealing to me as any dance I know. Pray, accept my apology, Mr. Darcy." Elizabeth concluded.

Good heavens, I remember now. That is why her refusal sounded so familiar. She must have overheard my comments to Bingley at the Meryton assembly. There is no doubt about it. What am I to do? Ask her to be more specific, or act as I do not comprehend her meaning? Even though disguise of every sort is my abhorrence, I believe it is better, under the circumstances, to not go into detail about my ill temper of that infamous evening. Darcy pondered and said. "Miss Bennet, upon my word, I am not sure to what you are referring, and I do not believe that there is any need to apologise. However, since you insist I most happily accept it on one condition."

"Which is, Mr. Darcy?" Elizabeth asked, more than a little curious.

"That the next time I ask you to dance, you will not refuse me."

"Mr. Darcy, I promise you I will not," replied Elizabeth laughing, offering her hand to shake in agreement.

And while Mr. Darcy happily took hers in his and shook it, he said: "Miss Bennet, if you are not otherwise engaged, I would be very happy if you would do me the honour of dancing with me."

"I fail to understand, Mr. Darcy, what do you mean? I do not believe there is a ball planned shortly, is there?" replied Elizabeth confused.

"No, indeed not Miss Bennet, but I feel a great inclination to seize this opportunity and dance with you here and now, before you change your mind."

"Mr. Darcy! Are you making sport of me?"

"I would not dare, Miss Bennet, I have never been more serious in my life. Pray, accept my request and dance with me?" replied he, smiling mischievously.

Slightly embarrassed, but wishing to be true to her word and rather pleasantly surprised as well by Mr. Darcy's entirely unexpected playfulness, Elizabeth, silently acquiesced. With her hand in his, she followed him to the centre of the avenue, where they took their position opposite one another. Looking deeply into each other's eyes, he began and was soon joined by her in humming Mr. Beveridge's Maggot to accompany their early morning dance. By the harmonious look and sound of it -- and, dear reader, you ought not doubt your narrator in this matter -- it held a promise for a mutual understanding in the near future...

Ah, do you wish to know, for propriety's sake of course, whether they were observed or not? One person indeed did witness this interaction between our beloved hero and heroine - Miss Caroline Bingley. She followed the entire scene from her bedroom window and was most seriously displeased, as you might imagine. The very sight of a country upstart like Miss Eliza, who had practically nothing to recommend herself but a tolerable set of teeth, attempting to draw in her Mr. Darcy with her arts and allurements made her feel quite ill. Immediately her envious brain initiated stratagems to 'save' Mr. Darcy from his undoubtedly temporary infatuation and shew him what a truly accomplished lady was all about.

Thick-witted or incurably optimistic, the choice is yours, dear reader, but Miss Bingley was convinced that her turn would come, once they had Netherfield to themselves again.

Finis

A Waiting-woman's Woes

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"Obstinate, headstrong girl! The impertinence, nay, shamelessness... the presumption to think that my nephew, the son of my dear sister, the fiancé of my daughter, could possibly take an interest in a girl with little beauty and no breeding... Who was reared in an unpolished society, who grew up without a governess... Whose mother neglected her education... Who does not draw and refuses to practice the pianoforte as she should... And who can but 'boast' of a silly mother and a dissolute, immoral sister... Indeed, she has very little to recommend her... Refusing to oblige me...How dare she... Insufferable ...!"

Grumbling and groaning, fuming and foaming, sizzling and sputtering... In a state of utter agitation, Lady Catherine De Bourgh of Rosings Park stumbled indecorously into the carriage, assisted by her waiting-woman, Rose Carlisle. It was very easy for Rose to see that the lady was most seriously displeased, and that her indignation concerned Miss Elizabeth Bennet who took leave without saying a word. She sighed. When her mistress was angry, however futile the cause, it was best to get out of harm's way until the storm blew over. She had learned that in her years of serving her ladyship. However, within the confined dimensions of a carriage, despite the relative spaciousness and comfort of this particular one, there was no escaping her ladyship's fury. Indeed, Rose was not looking forward to the journey home. She knew the journey would give her little pleasure, but 50 miles of pain. She felt a familiar headache and dearly wished to be alone in the carriage a little longer.

She had been very well pleased with the few moments she had to herself, having the opportunity to recover from this mysterious journey to Hertfordshire and to prepare for the return. Whilst her ladyship was away, Rose had looked through the window of the carriage and basked in the warmth of an autumn sun, enjoying the changing colours of the leaves and the last blooming roses in the mansion's small, but tastefully arranged park. Closing her eyes, she had inhaled the delicious autumn scent and listened to the cheerful twitter of the birds. Whilst enjoying the colours and the sounds of the park, she had wondered what business her ladyship could have had with Mr. Collins's pretty cousin, she who had visited Rosings last spring. She imagined it might have something to do with the whispers she had heard, which Lady Catherine had chosen not to hear. Rose was still surprised that it had escaped her ladyship's notice that Mr. Darcy had been very attentive to Miss Bennet during his visit to Rosings. She smiled to herself at the thought.

It was not long before the peaceful atmosphere in which Rose had mused away had been rudely disturbed by Lady Catherine's voice. Rose had watched as her mistress emerged from a grove at the edge of the lawn, preceded by Miss Bennet. She could not but notice that her ladyship was in an uproar. Judging by her posture, the young woman was agitated as well. Rose frowned. She had the distinct impression that she was not listening, even though Lady Catherine had not finished speaking. As Lady Catherine appeared forced to quicken her step considerably to keep pace with her younger companion, Rose dearly hoped that her ladyship would not lose her footing. If she should fall, the disaster would be complete, considering her already disturbed state of mind. With some trepidation, Rose watched her ladyship's bonnet wiggling dangerously on her head; she could imagine it had been loosened by violent movements if Lady Catherine indeed was giving one of her corrective speeches to the unfortunate Miss Bennet. Rose shuddered and prayed for her ladyship's sake and her own that no more would happen to further displease her.

The soft breeze carried unflattering exclamations in the direction of the carriage, over the chirping of the birds and the rustling of poplars surrounding the park: polluted... unfeeling... selfish... ruin... contempt... . As Rose could catch but a few snatches, the context escaped her entirely. Rose sighed. Hearing her ladyship's shrill voice echoing in her mind, she braced herself for the tedious monologue that was sure to occupy their time all the way back to Kent. The enjoyable few moments she had spent on her own were definitely over.

Lady Catherine sat, re-arranging her pelisse and gown and re-adjusting her bonnet. Rose looked across and asked: "Pray, Lady Catherine, might I enquire what the young woman did to deserve your ladyship's wrath?"

"Rose, let me be rightly understood: you are not to speak unless you are spoken to. You ought to know that by now. I will not be interrupted by your impertinent and familiar manners." Lady Catherine stressed her rebuke by impatiently stamping her cane on the carriage's floor.

"Forgive me, ma'am."

Apart from a barely noticeable shrug, Rose had been forced to learn to hide her real feelings, and had accepted that she was little more than a piece of furniture to her mistress, despite the fact that she was well-educated and from an excellent, though impoverished family. The only civility Rose had ever received was Lady Catherine's use of her given name rather than that of her predecessor, as was customary among the very rich and important. In that regard, she could not accuse her of inattention. Nevertheless, her ladyship's condescending manners were notorious.

When first she had begun her employment, she had feared her ladyship's insults and humiliations more than anything, and her courage had faltered with every attempt to frighten her. With time, her trepidation had changed into annoyance and even anger, but now, after many years in service, Rose's feelings towards her trying mistress could best be described as a mélange of forbearance, amusement, indifference and pity. The particular circumstances of each situation determined which of these feelings predominated. Frequently, she pitied Lady Catherine for being so blind by her own presumption of greatness, for those excessive feelings of superiority, dictatorial manners, and her firm belief in her own goodness, intelligence and talents. On the other hand, Rose could not help but be diverted by the follies, nonsense, whims and inconsistencies that resulted from this same want of self-knowledge. She could safely say that she had yet to meet anyone who was as poor a listener or who accepted criticism as little as her mistress. Those around her usually obliged her, for various reasons of their own; her servants and tenants played up to her out of fear; her daughter and her peers either ignored her or agreed with what she said from sheer indifference.

Again rapping the ceiling of the carriage to urge the coachman, Lady Catherine cast her waiting-woman an irritated glance. "Very well, since you insist on having your share in the conversation, I will tell you of my business here. You will recall of course that a report of a most alarming nature reached me two days ago."

"Indeed I do, Milady." Rose replied, sensing that the servant's gossip about Mr. Darcy's partiality for Miss Bennet might not be far from the truth. She could only suppose that Miss Bennet had somehow frustrated Lady Catherine's plans to marry her daughter to her rich, tall and excessively handsome nephew.

Lady Catherine looked at Rose, her eyes spitting fire: "Listen, and hear me in silence."

Rose nodded in acquiescence, promising herself she would not utter a word again.

"My daughter and Mr. Darcy are formed for each other. While in their cradles their union was planned. And no country upstart, without money or connections, who is too ambitious for her own good, shall thwart the plan of my late sister and myself. What have you to say to that?"

Rose's irritation with her ladyship's degrading manner of address began to grow. Although she had asked Rose for a response, she was not truly interested in any opinion but her own. Therefore, Rose murmured only a barely audible 'Oh dear'.

Seemingly satisfied by this reply, Lady Catherine continued, "She is the most ungrateful, unfeeling and selfish girl I have ever known. Not to mention her conceit; she dared compare her utterly insignificant father with my nephew. Ha! Listen to me! She had the audacity to claim herself to be my nephew's equal! Who is she to so bluntly refuse to oblige me? She should have complied; she should have promised me that she would never accept any marriage proposals from him. It is intolerable. Do not you think so too, Rose?"

Rose raised one eyebrow, and confined herself to a vague nod. She said nothing, as commanded.

"Perhaps she has compromised him already; thrown all her assets into the fray and lured him into her trap." She cast her travelling companion a glance that spoke of disgust and abhorrence. "Did not you notice her impertinent, flirtatious banter with the two gentlemen? No sense of honour at all. Her want of decorum is atrocious! The perverseness of it all! Is this to be borne? No, this is not to be borne...! A gentleman's daughter, ha!"

Rose was appalled by her mistress's accusations and had great difficulty containing herself. She could not believe that Miss Bennet would act so dishonourably. The servants at Rosings Park or Hunsford Parsonage had naught but good to say of her, she had seemed determined to be a well-mannered girl. No, as far as Rose was concerned, Miss Bennet did possess all the good qualities of a gentleman's daughter, and none of her ladyship's conceit.

"But her father is a gentleman, is he not, Lady Catherine?"

"Silence, Rose. Did not I tell you to hear me out without speaking?"

Lady Catherine shook her head and heaved her hands in disbelief, looking at her waiting-woman with reproach.

"Her father is a gentleman, I grant you, but the mother's family is in trade! She and her connections will disturb the sanctity of Pemberley. Nay, I will not tolerate it. She must be a fortune hunter, I am sure of it. Listen. Do you know what she dared to say, when I told her that any alliance between her and Darcy would be a disgrace, that her name would never be mentioned?"

Rose moved her head from left to right.

"You will not believe your ears, Rose. She said that the wife of Mr. Darcy must have such extraordinary sources of happiness necessarily attached to her situation that, upon the whole, she would have no cause to repine. Those were her exact words Rose, those were her exact words! I repeat, a fortune hunter. That is what she is." Lady Catherine appeared to spit out the words in utter revulsion.

Indeed, Rose did not believe her ears. What a daring girl! How very appropriate, what she had said. Rose cheered inwardly and could but feel the highest respect for Miss Bennet's courageous behaviour. No wonder her mistress's anger and displeasure was beyond description. After all, it was the first time in Rose's memory that Lady Catherine had a worthy opponent; an opponent, moreover, who possessed everything her own daughter did not; intelligence, beauty, liveliness and health... Miss Bennet lacked only wealth. As far as Rose was concerned, it would be much to Mr. Darcy's credit if he did cherish tender feelings for Miss Bennet, for she was truly a young lady of character.

Rose awakened from her reverie and said in the friendliest voice she could produce, having donned a serious look: "Your ladyship's memory is admirable."

"Aye, it is Rose, I thank you. I will make good use of it today when I visit my nephew in London. I will give him a full report. I must, I shall warn him against this girl's artful behaviour. He must promise me never to enter into an engagement with her, no matter her charms. He must and he will promise. This insolent girl shall not draw him in. Depend upon it, I will carry my point, or my name is not Catherine Georgiana Rebecca De Bourgh."

Lady Catherine feared a cold more than anything, and would not allow any windows to be opened. Thus, the atmosphere in the carriage became quite oppressive and the smell of stale perfume -- mingled in the meantime with the odour of heated bodies -- was even more unpleasant than usual. Their fans were of little use and they were obliged to wipe the perspiration from their hands and foreheads with handkerchiefs. However, to Rose's great delight Lady Catherine, exhausted by the recent event and its emotional aftermath, was on the verge of dosing off and Rose knew that speech would soon give way to snoring. And, indeed, the last, barely audible words that Rose could distinguish were 'not to be trifled with... arts'... 'allurements'... Rose heaved a sigh of relief. Her mistress was asleep. At least it would be relatively quiet in the carriage now, and that would make the inconveniences of the journey a little more bearable.

Enjoying the friendly Hertfordshire landscape passing outside her window, Rose imagined the reaction of her mistress if, despite her objections, an engagement were to be announced. She was uncertain whether to dread or to look forward to one. In all frankness, she could not help entertaining a certain malicious pleasure at the thought that perhaps, in the near future, all Lady Catherine's hopes would be shattered by a young lady whose condition in life was undoubtedly far beneath her ladyship's, but whose innate refinement was unquestionably considerably superior.

Finis

My vignette 'A Nocturnal Encounter' is not exactly new. It used to be chapter 4, part 2, of my WIP 'The Grand Tour', a story I am currently revising and hope to post again in the near future. Initially, I started this this WIP, in 2003, as a what-if, in which Elizabeth and Darcy reach an understanding much sooner, namely in Hunsford, the very day after the disastrous first proposal.

This part of the old story tells the events during the night following the day in which the couple exchanged a chaste kiss in Mr. and Mrs. Collins' garden... As it shows some similarity with the - IMHO - very romantic and poignant second proposal scene in the new P&P movie, I edited it to share it with you

A nocturnal encounter
[PG13/R]

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Till whatsoever star that guides my moving,
Points on me graciously with fair aspect,
And puts apparel on my tottered loving,
To show me worthy of thy sweet respect

That night Elizabeth could not sleep. She tossed and turned, tried to read a few pages, stepped out of bed, walked up and down the room and finally seated herself in front of the vanity to take a close look at herself by the light of the moon and the last burning candle. Who would ever have thought that to be possible; Mr. Darcy and I exchanging a kiss! A kiss in Mr. Collins' garden of all places! she thought amused. Unwittingly, she touched her lips with her fingers, where she could still sense the soft touch of his. She could not help imagining how it would feel like if he would touch other parts of her body. Elizabeth smiled. She knew very well there was more to love between a man and a woman than a kiss like the one they had shared. While looking at her reflection in the mirror, she remembered her terror when she had her menses for the first time. The sight of the blood, the ache in her belly... she truly believed at the time that she was seriously ill and, alarmed, she had turned to mama. It had been one of those rare occasions that mama had been genuinely kind to her. Apparently, she had reached womanhood even before Jane and that fact had confused her mother, who had much difficulty in telling her why she bled and, subsequently, how children were actually conceived. Quite unwilling to answer to all her questions she had advised her to search for more information in her father's library to satisfy her inquisitive mind. The illustrated volumes she had found there broadened her theoretical knowledge and had taught her in a way what to expect in the marital bed. Indeed, there is more to love than sharing kisses. Elizabeth softly whispered to her reflection. She had thought about the physical act between a man and a woman often enough, in a rational sort of way. But, now, for the first time in her life, she wondered with a feeling of longing, with anticipation and curiosity how it would be to experience it herself with the man she loved.

While musing over Mr. Darcy's feelings for her and vice versa, Elizabeth unconsciously started to untie the ribbon of her nightgown. She slowly lowered the left sleeve and then the right until she was naked to her waist. While watching her exposed breasts fixedly, she cupped them with her hands and started caressing them softly. The sight of her touching herself made her heart pound faster. Almost of its own volition, her hands wandered from her chest to her belly and beyond. Timidly exploring the more intimate, sensitive parts of her body, a hitherto unknown need awoke in her. She could not explain the unfamiliar warmth rushing through her, but she was seized by a fervent, overpowering wish to be hold in a certain man's arms and to lose herself in his embrace completely. She longed for his lips on hers and his hands exploring all the forbidden places of her body. In her mind, she heard his voice whispering endearments, saw his eyes filled with passion...

Becoming aware of the intimacies she was indulging in, she suddenly felt mortified. Her cheeks heated with embarrassment, slightly panting, she felt as if Mr. Darcy had caught her instead of her own reflection and quickly put the sleeves in their place, moving her face away from the mirror.

The new feelings overwhelmed and confused her; her attraction to Mr. Darcy seemed so strong, so powerful! She could not fathom that sensations of this kind could arise in such a short lapse of time. The fact that she did not have herself in control completely, that she had become vulnerable, emotionally dependent in a sense, confused her as much as it gave her pleasure. Mr. Darcy rouses the strangest feelings in me. Teasing, teasing man! Elizabeth pondered. Is it true what they say, that hate is close to love? Am I in love?

Elizabeth was too restless to stay in her room and decided to surreptitiously slip outside and stroll in the moonlight. She put on her slippers, wrapped a woollen stole around her shoulders, quietly went downstairs, quitted the house and walked in the direction of the grove. It was a clear night with full moon, so that Elizabeth had no trouble at all finding her way.

Elizabeth enjoyed the serene silence of the night; not a sound was to be heard but the distant bark of a dog, the howling of an owl and the soft rustling of the tree leaves. The pale light of the full moon made the trees look like strange creatures in a fairy tale world. Elizabeth looked up at the sky and detected the North Star and the Great Bear. Her awareness of the universe gave her a joyous feeling of belonging, of being alive. While looking up, admiring the star-spangled sky, she spread out her arms and holding in each hand a tip of her stole, she started turning around like a little girl until her head felt light with dizziness. I feel happy! she said to herself, giggling.

As Elizabeth continued her stroll, she suddenly saw a man looming up from the dark when passing a turn in the path, not more than a few yards away from her. She flinched. As the moon was behind him, she could not see his face, but she knew by his stature and manner of walking that the man in question was none other than Mr. Darcy. This is too embarrassing, my attire! He must have heard me laughing, he must have seen how childishly I behaved! She thought, shaken.

At the same moment that Elizabeth noticed Mr. Darcy, he perceived her and stopped short. The enchanting, intoxicating sight of her took his breath away. As the moon shone upon her, he could see her quite clearly. And how beautiful she looked in the pale moonlight dressed in but a stole and a light coloured, almost translucent night-gown, with her hair in a loose braid hanging down her right shoulder.

"Miss Bennet?"

"Mr. Darcy!" Elizabeth cried. "I did not expect to see you at this time of the night, sir, otherwise I would not have dreamt of coming here!" Elizabeth cried, wrapping the stole tightly around her.

"Pray, do not make yourself uneasy, I did not plan it so myself. I could not sleep and needed some fresh air. I presume this goes for you as well." Mr. Darcy replied in a friendly tone. And after a moment in which they looked at each other in silence, he continued, "Miss Elizabeth, despite the untimely hour, and our umm... informal state of dress, would you care to stay for a while and allow me to tell you what I so wish to say to you?" Mr. Darcy nervously fidgeted with his signet ring and avoided Elizabeth's eyes. He was well aware of the fact that he was but a few moments away from either the hope of a blissful future with her or the misery of one without her. He realised that all depended on his method whether she would welcome his request... or not.

When he saw her affirmative nod and the expectant look in her eyes, his courage rose. Taking her right hand in his, he said, "Elizabeth, my dearest wish is that you have changed your opinion of me in such a manner, that you could permit me to...," here he stopped. No, I cannot propose as yet, I must show her first that I can attend her reproofs, that I am worthy of her love and esteem.

"Permit you to what, Mr. Darcy?"

"to... umm... to court you when I return to Hertfordshire. Pray, tell me, dearest Elizabeth, am I overconfident if I tell you that the events of today taught me to hope as I did not allow myself to hope after my abominable behaviour of yesterday evening?"

Elizabeth was speechless and turned her head away as to hide the poignancy she felt. A wave of shame overwhelmed her and she wondered why exactly her opinion of the man had been so poisoned. A great man like Mr. Darcy humbly asking my permission to court me, regardless of my relations, regardless of what his family might think or do. Indeed, he has no improper pride, he is perfectly amiable. She thought.

But what about Jane? Suddenly, Elizabeth became aware of the fact that she had not thought of her sister's troubles for hours and feelings of guilt weighed down on her. How could I possibly account for my actions towards her by allowing a man to court me who caused her unhappiness? How unforgivably selfish I am wishing to act in a manner, which will constitute my own happiness alone! she chastised herself. However, there was another voice in her head that made her look at her quandary in a different manner: Unforgivably selfish? Was Mr. Darcy the actual cause of Jane's unhappiness? What about Mr. Bingley himself? What about his responsibility? After all, it was he who has trusted another person's judgement more than his own! Indeed, Mr. Darcy confirmed in his letter that it had been quite easy to convince Mr. Bingley of the imprudence of the match. Why had it been so easy to convince him? Did Mr. Bingley have doubts about Jane's feelings as well or did not he trust his own? So, should not one blame Mr. Bingley for Jane's... or both... of their unhappiness? Besides, did not you accept Mr. Darcy's motivation as being understandable and honourable from his point of view?

As these thoughts raced through her head, Mr. Darcy observed that something was troubling Elizabeth and he looked at her with anxiety. Fearful that she would reject him again, he ventured, "Miss Bennet, is something the matter?"

The sound of his voice awakened her from her ruminations and noticing the concern in his eyes, Elizabeth resolved to follow her feelings.

"Mr. Darcy, I cannot deny my feelings have undergone so material a change in such a short time, that I scarcely comprehend it myself. Since this morning, my sentiments for you are so different, in fact, they are quite the opposite of what they were yesterday evening and the wish I cherished since is that you would, despite my dreadful behaviour, not have lost your regard for me. Therefore, I cannot but welcome your request and I wholeheartedly give you my consent to court me."

Her answer was sufficient inducement for Mr. Darcy to finally ask that which he intended to in truth. Thus, with a feigned remorseful look in his eyes, he spoke "Elizabeth, although disguise of every sort is my abhorrence, I did something that is beneath me: I concealed the truth from you. I did not tell you what my dearest wish was at all."

"Whatever do you mean, Mr. Darcy?" Elizabeth asked, puzzled.

"To own the truth, my love, my dearest Elizabeth," Mr. Darcy spoke while stroking her hand he was still holding in his, "the wish I truly wanted to express was that you could now accept the offer of my affections and that you would be willing to let me accompany you as your husband on a journey to every destination imaginable of your choosing for the duration of our lives."

Now Elizabeth was moved beyond description. He had not asked her to become his wife; he had asked her to accept him as her husband. This subtle, feeling proposal, so utterly and completely in contrast with his first one, almost brought tears to her eyes. However, she collected herself and in her own arch manner, whilst having a mischievous look in her expressive eyes, she answered, "Mr. Darcy, I am relieved."

"Relieved, Elizabeth?" Mr. Darcy asked confused.

"Indeed, sir, relieved. Since we are quite alone here, on Lady Catherine's estate of all places, at this hour of the night and rather improperly attired, we indeed find ourselves in a most compromising situation; a circumstance that might cost me my reputation as a respectable woman. I cannot express how happy I am that you saved me from the huge scandal I could have had on my hands."

Chuckling over her words, an overjoyed Mr. Darcy cupped Elizabeth's face with his hands, bent over to her and, while whispering endearments, he started to press soft kisses on her eyes, nose, chin and on the corners of her mouth, finally pressing his lips against hers. Elizabeth shyly leaned her hands against his chest and abandoned herself in his embrace. She let herself float on the exciting and intense sensations that rushed through her body. His kisses felt so wonderful and when Mr. Darcy started stroking her lips with his tongue, Elizabeth's lips, by their own volition, parted and she offered Mr. Darcy entrance to the warmth of her mouth. He slipped his tongue into her mouth and slowly started to move it around hers. Timidly, Elizabeth started kissing him back and the feelings of arousal caused by the exhilarating feeling of his mouth on hers, the movements of his tongue and his hands caressing her wherever he could, made her moan. Her vocalised approval of his actions paradoxically roused Mr. Darcy from his own whirl of excitement and passion, panting heavily, he pulled his mouth away from hers, holding her tightly against him. While stroking the back of her head as it leaned against his chest, Mr. Darcy then spoke as sensibly and warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do.

"Dearest, loveliest Elizabeth, you are so beautiful, so perfect, your lips, your mouth taste so sweet, I so love the liveliness of your mind, your honesty, your wit, I love you. I am so grateful, so happy. I thank you, I thank you. Good God, I did not have the right to kiss you in this way, will you forgive me?"

"There is nothing to forgive, my dear Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth softly replied and, with an impish smile on her lips, she added, "but there will be, if you do not kiss me again like you just did."

Finis

1) From Shakespeare's sonnet XXVI (26)

Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mrs. Collins Take a Stroll:
About Buzzing Bees and Busy Bodies

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Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam are on the verge of leaving Rosings Park for London and they call on the parsonage to bid the Hunsford party farewell. To Mr. Darcy's great relief Elizabeth is not there and he takes his leave as soon as propriety allows. The Colonel insists on waiting for her and, to kill the time, he proposes to take a stroll about the garden. Since Lady Catherine expects Mr. Collins to show her the sermon for next Sunday's service that very afternoon and Maria Lucas wishes to write a letter to her parents, they prefer to remain inside to apply themselves to their respective occupations. However, Charlotte is most willing to oblige and accompanies the colonel on his stroll.

~ * ~

Whilst enjoying their stroll about Mr. and Mrs. Collins's garden, Colonel Fitzwilliam, who was perfectly ignorant as far as botany is concerned, expressed his wish to know more on the garden's treasures and infected by his genuine interest and enthusiasm, Charlotte delighted in answering all his questions. She taught him the names of the great variety of flowers, ferns and shrubs and explained the various fruits and vegetables in the kitchen garden that her husband grew with so much devotion.

"Pray, Mrs. Collins, would you be willing to enlighten me on the art of keeping bees? Your beehives intrigue me exceedingly. I hardly know anything about these fierce little creatures except that they can sting and produce honey. Oh, and I would very much like to have a look at Mr. Collins's orchids in the greenhouse he told me about. Would that be possible?" Asked the Colonel in his well-known agreeable and easy manner.

"By all means, Colonel Fitzwilliam, but we must protect ourselves against these useful buzzing little beasts first. Even though they are not aggressive, we should not take the risk to be stung. Pray, allow me to go and fetch the bee-keeper's hoods."

Oh my, what in the world is happening to me? Charlotte pondered confused Since I have made the acquaintance of the Colonel but a few weeks ago, every time he opens his mouth and looks at me with those dazzling bright blue eyes, my heart jolts, my stomach shrinks into a tight, tense ball, and I could not even start describing what I feel in the nether parts of my body as this feeling - a rather pleasant one, I dare say - is completely new to me! Besides, when he addresses me, the strangest answers come to my mind and I do not seem to be able to control them!

As she helped the Colonel arrange the veil of his hood, Charlotte noticed that her hands were trembling a little and she felt a flush rising up from her neck to her face when he looked into her eyes through their mutual veils.

Did he wink whilst I was arranging his hood? No, that is impossible! I dearly hope he will not see my flushed cheeks

"Colonel Fitzwilliam, our bees produce a delicious kind of honey that I would love to feed to you... What am I saying! umm, I mean, of which Mr. Collins and I would very much like to offer you a jar." Charlotte hastily and nervously corrected herself.

"You are very kind, Mrs. Collins. I am most anxious to taste your sweetness... umm I mean, your undoubtedly delicious, sweet honey... erm, yes," the Colonel blushed.

Damnation, what is going on here? He mused. Mrs. Collins definitely has a strange effect on me. Quite involuntarily I winked at her, and now this slip of the tongue! And did not she have one too? Feed me honey? Hmmm, what an enticing idea! A little honey on both our tongues and slip away.... - Stop it man! You are dealing with a married woman here. - Indeed I am, but the poor woman! She is married to a toad! - She is, old boy, but that does not alter the fact that she is a respectable, married woman. Pray, keep your thoughts in check and your imagination under good regulation!

Upon their arrival at the beehives, Charlotte started her explanations and raising her voice in order to make herself audible above the noise of the buzzing bees, she said: "Colonel Fitzwilliam, Mr. Collins keeps the Apis Mellifica, the common honeybee, like most beekeepers do. The bees live in colonies and each colony is a family unit, as it were, comprising of a single egg laying female, the queen, and her sterile daughters, the workers. The drones, the males, are reared only at the time of the year when their presence is required for umm... mating purposes," Charlotte concluded colouring, all of a sudden wishing she was a queen bee surrounded by handsome drone soldiers with drawn sabres. What am I thinking! - Charlotte unconsciously shook her head, utterly surprised about her bizarre, uncontrollable thoughts.

"Mrs. Collins, in which period of the year is the presence of the drones required?" asked the Colonel, looking at Mrs. Collins and indecorously imagining his companion being in need of his presence for mating purposes.

"In the summer, Colonel Fitzwilliam, but there are several flows in a year. When the weather is mild the queen can start laying eggs from January." A furiously blushing Charlotte answered, who imagined the Colonel as the impregnator of one of her eggs.

"The interesting thing is," She hastily continued, desperately attempting to stow away her shocking thoughts, "That a colony is remarkably well organized and the tasks between the workers clearly divided. There is a very strict hierarchy." Oh, this is just like me Charlotte thought, Well-organized! How very unromantic. I hope this does not sound too tedious to the Colonel. But why would I wish him to have a different opinion of me? Indeed, this is all very confusing and vexing.

"The information you provide me with is fascinating, to be sure, Mrs. Collins. As a matter of fact, the structure and population of a beehive reminds me of the army: a well-organized, hierarchical organization where everybody knows his place and duties. I like that, I have a profound dislike of disorderly situations maybe that is why you are so appealing to me erm... after all, I am not a military man for nothing," Colonel Fitzwilliam archly replied, casting her the friendliest of glances, which coaxed a sigh of contentment from Charlotte.

"Indeed, Sir. Well, I should add, that the fate of the strongest drones is rather sad. But ten of the vital drones are allowed to... umm ma... mate with the queen high up in the air during which she receives millions and millions of... umm sp... sp... sperm cells that last all her life. However, the price they have to pay for this... umm 'honour' is high: after having... umm impreg... impregnated the queen bee they die." Charlotte stammered, furiously blushing and failing completely in her attempt to appear unaffected by revealing this perfectly normal phenomenon of nature.

"Mrs. Collins, I cannot tell you how happy I am to be a human being and not a drone!" cried the Colonel laughing, immediately sensing that he might have made a rather daring, if not unsuitable observation in the presence of a woman. Watching her eyes furtively, the Colonel saw that she had lowered them and coloured, which he could easily see through her veil. However, he was certain to perceive a faint, arch smile on her lips.

This is getting out of hand. I must restrain myself. But how lovely she looks, how becoming those flushed cheeks! I wonder if the colouring continues down to her brea... hem! I believe it is high time now to stop talking about the mating of bees, and concentrate instead on the relatively innocent subject of flowers, even though orchids remind me of the female org... hem! Enough is enough, man!

The Colonel cleared his throat and asked in a somewhat strangled voice: "Mrs. Collins, thank you so much for this gripping intelligence. So far I did not know anything about the lives of bees, and was rather unaware of how miraculously nature is organized. Would you care to show me the greenhouse now? I am most anxious to admire your orga... umm orchids." Having just made yet another slip of the tongue, the Colonel pulled out a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the pearls of sweat off his forehead, taking a deep breath.

"By all means, Colonel Fitzwilliam, please follow me," replied Charlotte, taking off the hood when they were out of reach of the bees. She was a little embarrassed at the Colonel's faux pas, even though she was not even certain if she had heard him rightly.

As the Colonel followed her example, they walked in the direction of the greenhouse. Upon their arrival in the small warm, humid glass building at the south side of the parsonage, Charlotte all of a sudden felt a little faint. Presumably this was not the result of the extremely warm and moist air in the greenhouse, but of the Colonel's nearness and the whirlwind of emotions he incited in her. And so Charlotte informed him that she had to sit down for a while so as not to pass out. I could do with Mrs. Bennet's smelling salts for once Charlotte mused slightly amused, fanning herself with her hands.

"Mrs. Collins, are you unwell? Can I get you something? A glass of wine perhaps? You really look very ill." The Colonel asked with genuine concern, seating himself next to her and taking her hand between both his.

"No, not at all, Colonel Fitzwilliam, there is nothing the matter with me. I am a little tired, that is all," Charlotte replied looking at her hand in his.

Subtly withdrawing his hands, the Colonel started talking about his mother's greenhouse and how she would admire Mr. Collins's orchids. As she listened to his pleasant, soft and melodious voice Charlotte's eyes grew heavy and, to the Colonel's delight - as well as his embarrassment, she slowly dozed off, her head falling aside against his shoulder...

~ * ~

Come with me, Charlotte, my love, let us take a stroll through the grove, it is such a beautiful day. You really should go out more, the exercise would do you good. Pray, take my hand and let me lead you."

Charlotte accepted the hand that was outstretched to her and in the direction of the woods she went with the handsome soldier in his impeccable, smart uniform, his sabre inserted in its shining sheath.

It was a very hot day and the whole world seemed at rest. Nature did not feel like wasting its energy and there was no sound to be heard but the soft, melodious voice of her companion whispering endearments, their footsteps on the path and the buzzing of the bees above the flowerbeds.

"I will show you places where you have never been before my Charlotte, my love, my angel, my honey-sweet treasure."

Am I dreaming? Charlotte wondered. "I feel like floating and nobody ever talked to me so romantically. I can almost taste the sweetness of the words on my tongue. This cannot be, I am not romantic, I never was, I cannot dream dreams like this. It is impossible. Besides, I cannot dream that I am dreaming!" Charlotte's confusion was complete.

However, the voice continued speaking words of love and passion.

"Charlotte, my queen bee, let me be your favourite drone. I want to fly up in the sky with you, where you will accept my seed. Let me be your worker too and feed you royal jelly," The soldier spoke whilst pressing soft kisses on her mouth. "Come, sit with me and let us create our own hive," he continued, whilst spreading out a blanket with a honeycomb pattern on the deliciously fragrant moss under an oak tree.

Pulling her on his lap, Charlotte could feel his erect manhood against her hip and the rush that went through her intimate parts provoked a moan of enjoyment from her lips. When the soldier started to kiss her again she groaned and arched her body even closer to his. "Take me handsome soldier," she whispered, "Show me that there is more to breeding than a profusely sweating repellent man who talks but nonsense, who paws me with his clammy hands and spills his seed in me whilst almost suffocating me with his bad breath. Touch me, kiss me, mate with me," Charlotte whispered, her breasts rising with every intake of her breath, drops of perspiration appearing on her forehead.

"We will not mate, my fairy queen, let us not animalise our imminent joining. I will love you as you have never been loved before and take you to heights of pleasure you would never have dreamt existed," Replied the handsome soldier, whereupon he gently laid her on her back and started kissing her softly on the lips before opening her mouth with his tongue. After tenderly stroking and kneading her breasts, his hand lowered to her ankles to lift her skirts and petticoats till her most intimate parts were exposed. This sight incited the soldier to exclaim, with a catch in his voice from sheer wonderment and delight, that he had never seen such a beautiful orchid in his life. "Allow me to taste your nectar," He said and commenced kissing and tasting her folds. Charlotte almost screamed with pleasure. "Oh, this is heavenly, soldier," She moaned, "Pray, do not tarry! I want you to draw your sabre and insert it in my womanliness now..." And with trembling hands she opened his breeches to free his masculinity in all its erect glory.

And then the soldier gently entered her body, whilst thoroughly tasting the inside of her mouth. When he started to move inside of her and his movements gradually became faster, Charlotte's moaning grew louder and louder. And when she found her release for the first time in her life, she could not help screaming with delight: "Oh, my, dear soldier, this must be one of the forbidden carnal pleasures my husband endlessly whines about in his utterly soporifically dull sermons! I never comprehended of what he was speaking, but now I know, I am so happy, I thank you!"

~ * ~

The sounds of obvious enjoyment that Mrs. Collins made in her sleep, and the wild movements of her head that accompanied them aroused the Colonel to such an extent that the magnitude of his member made his breeches feel extremely uncomfortable. When the pressure became well nigh unbearable, he heard someone open the door to the greenhouse and a voice calling:

"Mrs. Coooooolllllins, oh, Mrs. Cooooolllllins! My dear, precious wife, my orchid, are you here?"

The nausea the Colonel felt by hearing Mr. Collins' utter his 'endearments' in his well-known obsequious manner, had one advantage, in that it made his organ shrink back to normal proportions, and to his great relief his breeches did not bother him anymore. Thus he could move again and immediately awakened Mrs. Collins.

"Pray, Mrs. Collins, wake up, wake up...! Your husband has arrived. Mrs. Collins, I beg of you!" The Colonel whispered in her ear.

"No, let me sleep on, my handsome, virile soldier, I must not awaken from this dream, I am not ready to give up this state of bliss as yet," replied Charlotte whispering while cuddling up against him even further, stroking his chest with her hand.

"But you must! Mr. Collins is looking for you!" The colonel said, desperately attempting to keep his voice down.

And when reality finally dawned on Charlotte, she opened her eyes and looked straight in the frightened face of the Colonel. "Wh... what happened? I... I must have fallen asleep," Charlotte said utterly embarrassed, feeling the body of the Colonel against hers and vividly remembering parts of her dream, as well as the sensations it had provoked.

And, as if she were stung by a bee, Charlotte jumped to her feet, straightened her skirts and cap and, together with the Colonel, slowly walked towards her husband.

"Ah, Husband. I trust you finished your sermon in a satisfactory manner?" Charlotte managed to utter, followed by the Colonel who hastily said: "Mr. Collins, your wife was unwell and had to sit for a moment. What beautiful orchids you grow here, I am most impressed. Pray, accept my compliments."

"You are very kind, sir, I thank you." Mr. Collins said in his notoriously servile manner but with a rather suspicious look in his sly eyes, since he had not expected his wife to take Colonel Fitzwilliam to such a secluded part of the garden.

Collecting himself, he continued with an insincere smile on his face: "I am most grateful, dear sir, for the beneficence you bestowed on my wife. I trust Mrs. Collins did not take too much of your precious time?"

"Not at all, Mr. Collins, I dare say too little, as a matter of fact due to a most unwished-for visitor in the greenhouse. Your wife is very proficient in the art of lov... gardening and I could have listened to her exclama... explanations all day," the Colonel regretfully replied, frustratingly pondering when -- and how -- he could possibly fulfil his own unsatisfied, urgent need...

Finis
[2003]

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