Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting


Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
icons by fire_icons, inishmaan and gsd82

To Love Unselfishly
Mr. Darcy Faces his Ghosts :

A tale in three parts by Renée, Roya and Lisa L


Part Three: The Third Spirit
by Lisa L

No sooner had Darcy relaxed back into his bed than an unmistakable chill filled the room as if all the windows in the townhouse had been thrown open. It pervaded every space and every corner of the chamber, suffusing tension and trepidation past the curtains of the bed to reach the man himself. Darcy could not but recognize the reason for it and with nowhere to flee, he was quickly surrounded by its effects. He was not a man prone to fear but this was too much even for him and, under the heavy layers of bedclothes, he began to tremble. But he was determined to face that which awaited him so, with a hesitant hand, he reached for the curtain and pulled it back.

The room was unlit and even the fire in the hearth had died. Darcy cast a wary eye about the familiar objects in his chamber and there, in their midst, he saw an ethereal presence. It was darker than the night, concealed from head to toe by a robe that ebbed into the shadows. Only an outstretched hand cast in his direction distinguished the entity. It loomed by the mantle with an ominous silence that struck a chord deep within Darcy. Again, he tried to conquer the fear that rose in him by asking, "Are you the spirit I await?"

No answer was forthcoming. The spirit continued to gesture to him, a beckoning from the otherworld that promised he was about to be shewn that which would prove to be even more ruthless than all he had already seen. Darcy intuition told him he was meant to follow, so he slipped from the warmth of his bed and shivered.

The ghostly presence towered over him and Darcy's eyes travelled upwards, still unable to identify any of the real form or features of the image. Drawing himself up to his full height, he addressed the muted figure once again. "Take me where you will. I am prepared to face the error of my ways, though fraught with pain they may be. I know they ought not to be repelled. I hope to amend my transgressions and be a better man."

He received no reply and urged the mysterious spirit, "Take me now, for morning will soon be upon us."

Through the gloom, from the lofty height of the ceiling or possibly beyond, there came a sudden commotion that shattered the grave atmosphere in the room. An imperious voice declared, "I will have my say in the matter!" Darcy jumped aside to avoid a piece of furniture that plummeted downwards and landed unceremoniously upon the spirit, his spirit, the one from whose teachings he expected to receive great benefit. The spectre lay in a heap upon the carpet, catatonic and insensible, under the legs of a bulky chair. Reduced to nothing more than an inert pile of black cloth, it began to sink into the floor and soon dissipated until it disappeared entirely.

So intent was he upon the departure of the spirit that Darcy had paid no attention to the chair or its occupant. Indeed, it made a crashing entrance with a visitor who wasted no time in proclaiming her presence.

His name echoed with authority through the room. "Fitzwilliam Darcy!"

He identified the voice to the person. Aunt Catherine! His cousin had been correct. Although he was likely referring to the spirit that his aunt had just eradicated, no one who was even remotely acquainted with Lady Catherine de Bourgh would argue that her company could be severe. He peered closer to see her through the darkness.

"I will not be ignored!" she resounded.

What he had already seen tonight plagued him and left him duelling with truths about his selfish nature. Truth be told, Darcy was nearly done in and he wondered if he was up to the additional challenge of her company.

"Darcy!" She sounded as if she had fallen into a well. "Answer me! I will show you the future and I will not be kept waiting!"

He turned away from the sound of her voice and ran his fingers through his hair. The future! The results of mine actions. No doubt it was a proposition fraught with dismal consequences.

The illusion of resting safely in his bed, merely putting all from the night down to the effects of too much pudding momentarily tempted him to crawl back into it. Perhaps if I do, she will leave and I may summon the sinister spectre back. Darcy believed that any company, even that of the silent giant, to be favoured over his aunt's. But he abhorred the idea of evasion, and it was only dallied over in principle, for he sincerely wished to amend his ways and knew he must see what the future held. One thing however was perfectly clear. If his aunt was to be the one to reveal all to him, journeying to the future was going to be the worst nightmare imaginable.

He eventually sought her out but the spot where her chair had been was empty. "Madam?"

She summoned him again with the same authority that made her footmen quake. "Nephew! Come with me, for the future awaits us."

The voice was from above. He craned his neck back and spotted her. She was hovering in her favourite chair, a transparent figure shrouded in a dressing gown that billowed in a non-existent wind. Her nightcap was pulled down low but the tentacles of her long hair were suspended about her, their movement reminding him of a lulling tide on the shore. If it were possible, she was more formidable now that in all her finery back at Rosings.

"Madam, please say it is not so. You cannot be my escort. I would prefer the spirit that you eliminated with your chair."

"You dare to question me?" Lady Catherine produced a fan and emphasized her meaning by gesticulating pointedly with it.

"No, of course not, but news of your demise escaped me."

"Impertinent, disrespectful man! We are off!" The hereafter had not altered her character. His Lady's demeanour was as ever.

"Do you know where we are to go?"

"Of course! That tongue-tied oaf isn't the only one who can reveal your future."

"But will you show me all the spectre was to?"

His aunt avoided his gaze, "I will not waste time with any more of your foolish questions."

"Madam, I insist you answer me or I will not be a willing participant."

"But it is nothing more than an exercise in futility. Only one place is of any categorical importance to us, er, you."

"Madam!"

"Oh, very well, but it is all so vexing!" she grumbled before she persisted, "Make haste! Make haste! For there will be much to see." He reached for his dressing gown but was told, "There is no time," and Darcy was whisked away before he could protest his discomfort or the inappropriate state of his dress.

~ * ~

Darcy knew not where his aunt had taken him. He stood now in the corner of a well-appointed drawing room, tugging with modesty at his nightshirt, whilst his aunt floated next to him. The comfortable surroundings could not keep his curiosity from being overshadowed by a sense of foreboding, and he waited for something to happen.

The doors opened to Bingley. He entered the room and probed the hallway whence he had come before he shut himself away. The gentleman's mood was difficult for Darcy to discern, for he was alone and, no doubt, not inclined to be his jovial self to an empty room. He strode across the floor, his goal being the decanter next to Darcy and poured himself a drink, savouring a sip or two before he lowered his glass. The weight of the country's war strategy might have been on his shoulders so serious was he. Darcy studied his dear friend and detected traces of a disposition that he had never before witnessed upon the gentleman. The hollows in his cheeks and the grey tone of his skin underscored his strained expression. This was unexpected and Darcy's inquisitiveness was piqued. He could not imagine what would have turned Bingley's buoyant outlook into one of obvious woe.

He turned to his aunt by his side, but to his astonishment, she had vanished, only to reappear at her regal best in the centre of the room as if she were holding court. It went without saying that his aunt had a proclivity for presiding over any event, be it large or small. He called out to her, "What troubles him so?" Only a stony glance was returned. The answer came soon enough.

The handles on the double doors rattled and opened and in came company for Mr. Bingley in the form of two ladies. One was his sister, Miss Bingley. Unaltered in both conduct and impression, she was linked arm in arm with a woman of whom Darcy was not familiar. His attention turned to her and, he concluded she owned looks that once might have been pleasing but were now fading from excess. She already carried upon her figure the weight of a woman much older than her years and the cosmetic devices available to one of her standing had been utilized in a vain attempt to retain her youthful appearance. The women prattled away and the familiarity of their discourse could not leave their friendship in question. With heads together, they were deep in conversation and the fussy feather arrangements in their hair bobbed and swayed in harmony with their gestures.

Bingley did not turn around upon their entry. He had another way of acknowledging their arrival. The imperceptible flinch that appeared on his face would have gone unnoticed by others not so near. But it did not escape Darcy's keen study of the man. The cooing and oohing and aahing from the other side of the room had a direct effect on Bingley. His mouth set in a firmer line and his hand tightened around his glass.

Miss Bingley's companion addressed him. "My dearest Mr. Bingley! Whatever are you doing locked away in here all alone? One would think you were hiding from the world." There was more disdain to her question than any concern for the gentleman's wellbeing.

"Indeed, Brother!" his sister chimed in. "All alone and partaking of spirits! We might begin to worry for your health!" The ladies exchanged a conspiratorial look.

"Put the drink down, dear, and wait until supper." Mrs. Bingley readjusted the expensive French lace that trimmed her sleeve.

Bingley was still facing the wall. Darcy saw him close his eyes and take a deep breath. He sat down his glass and, fixing a smile upon his face, turned and addressed the ladies.

"Mrs. Bingley! Caroline! I found myself temporarily without judgement, no doubt from the exclusion of your company. You have saved me. I thank you." He finished with a gallant bow and immediately went to them, taking up his wife's hand and placing a kiss upon it. "And how was your day? Did you ladies manage to do all the shopping that was required?"

With Darcy's understanding that the lady was Bingley's wife, he paused, for she was strangely similar to Miss Jane Bennet and if he were to be honest, she was a poor second, without the pleasing nuances that made that particular lady superior.

"Silly man!" His wife giggled, "You know very well that shopping is an thankless task that never finishes. When the afternoon draws late, we can do no more than suspend our pursuits until it is again respectable for unescorted ladies to be about."

"I take it then, you will need the carriage tomorrow."

Darcy watched the ladies sit, side by side, and could not but think of peas snuggled in a pod.

"Only in the morning. We will need the remainder of the day to prepare for tomorrow night."

"Yes Charles, we only need to have our final fittings and collect our gowns. You may have the carriage when we return." To Darcy's great relief, it seemed he had evaded Miss Bingley's plans for him and his townhouse. It appeared that she had remained unmarried and under her generous brother's protection.

"Very good, then I shall plan on the club in the afternoon."

"Brooks? Oh no! I think it best that you stay home tomorrow afternoon, Mr. Bingley. We need not waste time hunting you down when you are late."

"But, I have not been there for some time," Bingley objected.

"And we would like to keep it that way." The ladies nodded in agreement, sending their headpieces dancing merrily.

"I am looking forward to passing the afternoon with some acquaintances."

"You know what happens when you get together with all those men. You lose complete track of the time doing whatever it is you do and you do not come home. You cannot be late tomorrow night."

"Indeed,we cannot," Miss Bingley added for emphasis.

"Why not?" His query cut through the air. Bingley's annoyance, always carefully under rein, had slipped from his grasp.

"As if you did not know, you foolish man," his wife explained. "Royalty will be there and we must arrive first."

From the confused expression that crossed Bingley's face, Darcy could see he had no idea. His suspicions told him this might well be a regular occurrence for his friend. "Royalty?! Do not tell me that I have to spend the evening with that twit of a Prince! I have no desire to waste a perfectly good night in such company."

Clearly shocked, they exclaimed in unison, "Charles!" and looked about to see if he had been overheard by the servants.

At this Darcy chuckled, for Bingley had expressed the very sentiments he would have. His aunt tapped her fan on the arm of her chair and narrowed her eyes as she appraised him. "We are not amused," she said and Darcy regained his decorous guise.

Miss Bingley seemed to take great offence at Bingley's remark. "Really brother, it is the night of the season. We can only be thankful to have been placed on the invitation list. It is a rather restricted affair."

"An honour I would rather forego."

His wife took no notice of her husband. "Oh yes, Sister, an exclusion would have been our societal death."

Bingley was adamant, "But a much more enjoyable evening can be spent at home."

Mrs. Bingley had decided to end this line of discussion by her husband once and for all. "Now, Mr. Bingley," she lectured, with the patronizing patience she would give a small child, "I know you must be teasing us, for you are aware of the significance of such an inclusion. Of course, we are going, and we will enjoy ourselves." With that she turned to Caroline and re-engaged her in a private conversation.

Darcy was shaking his head, a mild reaction to his strong disapproval of all he was witness to. His good friend was being treated most abominably. Bingley had returned to his drink, finished what was in the glass and poured himself another. Then he turned back and walked towards the ladies. There was a defiant edge to his actions but in fact, it was nothing more than an impotent gesture. His drinking had escaped the ladies' concern, as had Bingley. He might as well have been invisible, like Darcy. He was fully ignored for some time until important business was raised. They returned to an earlier issue and broached a subject that, when Darcy listened, understood it to have run its course many times before.

His wife began with a dramatic look at his glass before she launched into her pitch, "Mr. Bingley, of course if we had two carriages then this nonsense about sharing might be discarded once and for all."

"Charles, have you seen the new acquisition that the Farnsworths made? A fine equipage!"

Bingley struggled to keep his voice steady. "As I have stated many times before, we are only three and one carriage is adequate for our needs. I am not of a mind to make such an acquisition."

"A handsome piece," Mrs. Bingley concurred with her sister's sentiment, "with etched windows and sterling silver trim. It made quite an impact when pulling up under the portico of Sir Henry and Lady Daphne's residence. And the stares, Caroline, you should have seen the envious looks from the guests!"

Bingley tried to impose his opinions on the matter again, "I have no intention of wasting my money merely to make an impression on others."

"Do tell, Sister, when we purchase ours, we shall have the interior fitted out in whichever colour scheme suits us at the moment." The ladies tittered at this, for their world revolved around such trivialities and any chance to triumph was a giddy opportunity indeed.

"And the exterior too, why Lady Whitworth travels exclusively in a yellow one!"

The ladies were engulfed in their ruminations and paid no heed to the head of the house. Darcy was appalled to note that Bingley's veto and further objection, as well as the gentleman, had been slighted.

"There would be room to seat six comfortably. Why, Louisa and Gilroy could travel with us as well! Long journeys need not be a cumbersome affair."

Mention of a long journey, an event that forced one to ride in confined quarters with ones travelling companions for hours on end, had Bingley back at the decanter.

"Oh Heavens, yes! And when my mother visits, there will be no need to hire another carriage, we can all ride together in the larger one when travel to Bath or Brighton."

Darcy deduced that Bingley cared not for his mother-in-law. At mention of the lady, his eyes rolled up to the ceiling and his glass was refilled yet again.

Suddenly, his aunt's chair slid across the room as if it were mounted on wheels, straight through Bingley and one of his fine sofas. She abruptly stopped, but not before Darcy hastened out of her path, recalling the lethal nature of the object. "We are away!" she proclaimed.

"But I want to see what happens next. It is time for Bingley to set down these women as they so rightfully deserve."

"It is not necessary to see anymore. Your friend Bingley will do nothing of the sort."

"Surely not! I cannot conceive that Bingley would allow such behaviour from his wife and his sister. Are you saying he has no voice in his own household? That he is nothing more than purse strings to untie when funds are required? It cannot be borne." And, yet as he said it, Darcy knew that the diffidence in Bingley would have been his defeat amongst the united force of these two women. Whereas, he was ashamed to admit, Miss Bennet would have nurtured his unassuming nature and given him confidence and support.

"In this household, it is always the same. It is as you see it and forever will be."

"This was my doing. I knew he would not rely on his own judgement regarding Miss Bennet. I am the cause of this."

"Yes! And you are to be congratulated. He has aligned himself with an excellent family and his heirs will be influential in society. He is indeed fortunate to have a friend in you. Now, let us waste no more time here!" And with that, Darcy was away into the dark void he assumed was the night, as his dear friend Bingley was left in a household void of respect, contentment or love, to be manipulated and used very ill by those who should have been the ones most eager to nourish him.

~*~

Darcy knew he must act on what he had been shewn, but there was no time to mull over the exact course he would take to correct the ramifications of his past actions and avoid the predicament that awaited Bingley in the future. It would have to wait, for no sooner had he left Bingley's sitting room than he was in another environment that was indeed foreign in more ways than one. Large plastered pillars formed the wall of a room, beyond that was a balcony that overlooked an immense tropical garden. The cry of the mynahs, attacking the scarlet, finger-like blooms of the coral trees, filled the air with their shrill call and made its way into the house. Grey peafowl grazed the lawn for a last meal before they were off to roost for the night. From the ground, a purple mist shimmered upwards and breathed colour into the sunset.

Darcy drew his attention from the vivid scene out of doors and to the room. It was vast and airy. There were striking archways, potted palms, rattan and European furniture, and brilliant silk rugs dotting the floor. One dark-skinned man was closing the shuttered doors and windows, his cotton tunic flourishing in time with his nimble motions as he progressed from one set to the next, while another servant, a boy, was lighting the lanterns in the room. Soon the space, dotted with soft wavering light, was secured for the night.

Just as the last of the balcony doors was being shut, a woman had slipped in. She was dressed in an austere gown that was ill suited for the sultry climate. An unopened letter fluttered in her hand as she moved to a deep chair and requested the reading lamp next to it be lit.

Darcy was perplexed. "Where are we? I do not know this woman!" He could not fathom why they should not have stayed at his friend's place instead of coming to see a stranger.

"Do you not?" was all his aunt would say as she sat suspended in a high corner of the ceiling, looking down upon him with her bare feet dangling free.

With a creased brow he again turned his attention to the woman. Darcy studied her more carefully and when he determined the lady's identity, his disposition softened. Miss Jane Bennet!

She had not been easy to recognize. Darcy knew her from the flush of her youth, when she radiated the wellbeing of one who was deprived of nothing in mind, body or spirit. But she had altered so that he could not easily know who she was. Her physical features overshadowed all else. Her healthy figure had all but vanished. She was exceedingly thin, so that the clothes she wore hung about her. No longer articles of delight to spend hours of deliberation on, they served no other purpose than to protect her modesty. The warm shade of her hair had turned to a dreary brown and, void of adornments, it was pulled up in a severe style. She possessed the grace in her carriage that Darcy had always admired, but gone was the bounce in her step that spoke of a joy for life. All traces of the serene beauty that she had been were gone. In her place was a woman old before her time.

Possibly more telling than her physical appearance was the remoteness she articulated without a word. It could be understood by anyone whose gaze rested upon her melancholic face. The truth of her present state had forced Darcy to look away. He began to pace.

"Miss Bennet, shall I have the boy bring you tea?" The inflection in the servant's voice reminded him of an exotic song.

The contrast was heard in her empty answer, devoid of animation. It was lifeless and sounded uninterested in the tea or anything else. "Thank you, Banduu, yes."

She still held the letter but did not single it out for attention until the door had closed behind the servant. Once she was safely alone, she pulled a pair of spectacles from the pocket in her skirt, put them on and took it up. It was held under the dim lamplight and she read without any hint of emotion. Many times, she seemed to be re-reading the same passages. At one point she let her hand fall to her lap and gazed out to the empty room, looking at nothing.

Sadness surrounded her.

Darcy continued to pace, to pause, to look at Miss Bennet, and began the sequence again. He had always esteemed her. She had been a lovely woman, in character as well as appearance. His advice to Bingley had been with his friend's best interest at heart. He had never detected any partiality in Miss Bennet towards Bingley. Many times since the afternoon at Hunsford he had thought of Elizabeth's scathing rebuttal and dismissed it. "Do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?"

Perhaps forever. Darcy was witnessing the tangible outcome of Elizabeth's prediction.

Even after he had fled Hunsford and regained some measure of rationality, the possibility of his folly did not seize him. Until the wrongness of his actions were shewn to him this very night, his conscious had not motivated him to act and he had remained silent on the matter with never an attempt to correct the issue with his friend. Brimming with bitterness, not only had he sent Bingley down a lonely road that bound him for life with the women he observed, Miss Jane Bennet had been destined to her own form of emptiness

Forever.

The woman was in decline. There was little left of the Jane Bennet that Bingley had fallen in love with. Her youth had prematurely passed her by and she was destined to live a lonely life of work and solitude, for no one knew better than Darcy, who had employed many such women over the years, what someone in her position could expect of the future.

She was a spinster.

Darcy tried to swallow his uneasiness, for his aunt had not yet announced their departure. Evidently, there was more to see. He returned his attention to the figure engrossed in her letter forcing himself to look upon the result of his lofty disregard.

His aunt descended from the ceiling, slowly making her way to the floor, fanning herself with vigour, and inspected the quality of the rug under her chair. "I would prefer to see this rug positioned over by the bed," she decided.

Taking no notice of her penchant to dictate over such domestic matters, Darcy asked, "Aunt Catherine? Surely this cannot be the fate of a woman who was once so alive. It is as if she has died already, and yet she has many years ahead of her."

"Possibly not, Nephew." Her bare foot swept back and forth across the rug. She was distracted by the quality of the silk.

Darcy could not hide his distress. "Could you be more precise, Madam?"

She looked up to him, "Sometimes the spirit can defeat the body with more success than age or illness."

"Are you saying...?" He could not finish his thought. It was not only his aunt's words, but also the combination of Miss Jane Bennet's situation and the prediction of what was to come that made him slump his shoulders with hopelessness. But his mind was at work and quite suddenly he recovered, "I can bring her home. Let me speak to her."

"It is impossible."

"Surely, you can do it."

"I cannot. Miss Bennet is where her destiny lies. It is beyond me to change it."

Darcy began to shout while his aunt continued to fan and Miss Bennet continued to read. "But, my interference brought this on. I should have said nothing to Bingley. More than that, I should have interceded when Elizabeth laid the responsibility, that is, when I learned of Miss Bennet's true feelings for him." Darcy paused, finding the next words caught somewhere in his throat. "I was wrong. I was upset with Miss Elizabeth. I did not see the truth of her words because I was blinded by my pride. And it has all come to this." Darcy thought of his father and said dismally, "It will follow me to eternity."

"Do not blame yourself. Miss Bennet is in a position to help herself if only she would."

"Explain yourself," Darcy said tersely.

"You dare to address me like a common stable hand?" She adjusted her nightcap as if it were a crown.

He amended his statement, "My apologies, Madam. Please, will you explain what you meant?"

"She works for a very influential family. Highly placed, in all the right circles. Miss Bennet has the benefit of contact with many such people. She has had more than one opportunity to, if I may be indiscreet, to better her position by forming an intimate alliance."

His shock was evident. "Are you suggesting she become some man's mistress for personal gain?"

"Good God, Darcy! You speak of such matters as if you had never been privy to them."

"What I know of such matters is my business alone, Madam. But I cannot condone a respectable woman like Miss Bennet entering into such an arrangement."

"After a few years, she could easily have enough money to return home. Perhaps the right gentleman would have her follow him back to England, if she were proficient enough with her duties."

"I will remind you that you are speaking of a gentleman's daughter. I will not hear of such a suggestion."

"As you say, the choice is ultimately hers. In not taking up an offer, she has chosen her fate."

In the midst of his gloom, Darcy brightened with another idea. "Take me to Longbourn."

"I most certainly will not!"

He confronted his aunt, "But my cousin shewed me that Elizabeth doubted a renewal of my offer. If she will have me, I can right these wrongs at the same time."

She banged her fan on the arm of her chair and cried, "Enough! Your cousin had no business getting involved in any of this. He will only make things worse than they are. He tries my patience exceedingly, as do you. I will hear no more talk of that young woman in such a way."

Miss Bennet interrupted them. She had come to a distressing section of her letter and knowing she was alone, cried out in a painful release. The sound pervaded through room, besieging Darcy with her agony. He went to her side. Tears were mixed with anguished babble until she was simply reduced to whimpering. The letter was crumpled in her hand. She seemed to have forgotten its existence as she began to weep more freely.

Darcy was at a loss. He was unable to even communicate with her. He tried to see the contents of the letter but it was hidden from him. Abruptly, Miss Bennet stood up and had Darcy fully been himself, she would have knocked him in the chin. As it was, her shoulder passed through his head as she scurried to the bed across the room. Pushing the netting aside, she flung herself across the top and sobbed. At last, with one muffled word, Darcy heard the reason for her suffering. "Charles!" The pain in her voice slashed Darcy as keenly as sabre in the hand of a master.

In her distress, she had dropped the letter and he went over to read it. The relevant section was at the bottom on the page. As he read, Darcy deduced that Elizabeth had written to her:

"...and dearest sister, I fear to tell you this but know that if I do not, I shall forever feel that there is something between us, and that I could never allow, for we are closer than most and shall always be so. Dear Jane, Mr. Bingley has married. Please, know that if it were in my power to be with you upon hearing this that I would do anything for it to be so. Oh! How I hate to write those lines to you. Hate, yes! For it should be you dearest Jane, to have the privilege of calling herself Mrs. Bingley. Cry Jane! Let your heart mourn and think of me sitting next to you, holding your hand and giving you comfort. I was shocked when I received this news from Charlotte, who hears of him through Mr. Darcy when he visits Rosings. And, I will speak of Mr. Darcy once more, and then never again, for I have news of him as well. Charlotte writes that he..."

He could read no more. The lines continued on where the paper folded and he was unable to grasp the letter to turn it over. Now he was pulled several directions. What of Miss Elizabeth's circumstances? What news does she have of me? But the moment belonged to Miss Bennet and Darcy watched her shed tears of anguish over Bingley.

Quite unexpectedly, his aunt pronounced, "Let us be off!"

"I cannot leave her here."

"There is nothing you can do for her."

"No, Miss Bennet cannot live like this. I must help her." Darcy stood his ground and dared his aunt to contradict him. He had forgotten the predicament he was in.

"It is as I said, she is a foolish woman who has chosen her fate. It is none of your concern." And, in the midst of another protest, Darcy evaporated into a black void.

~*~

The crackle and pop of the fire dominated the hall. It was a big old place with unpolished granite that spanned the breadth of the wall and a hearth with an open grate that climbed higher than Darcy when he wore his bicorn hat. The heat that emanated from within filled the room. The place was from another era, as the overhead black beams and ceiling, both darkened from smoke, testified. It was impossible to tell how old it was from just one room, but with a glimpse beyond the central point where Darcy stood, one could see aged wooden doors with heavy ironworks and a cobbled floor that shined from generations of wear. The furnishings were modern, although not new, and carpets and heavy draperies lent warmth to what was someone's home. A ticking clock, an opened book, and a intricately cut glass vase, reflecting the flames, filled with late blooms from the nearby fields, all spoke of a cosy, affable environment.

The room was well lit and welcoming and empty. Not a soul was there.

Darcy turned to his aunt. She had placed her chair by the hearth, obtaining the best vantage of the room as she hovered just above the floor. The lace that edged her nightcap had been turned up and she had settled back, tapping her fan in her hand and waiting. His instincts were chilled as an ominous current surged through him. He sounded more uncertain than confident when he asked, "Where are we now?"

He was ignored. From what he had seen already, Darcy was in no mood for further surprises. The worst was anticipated and intelligence was preferred. Making an effort to gather his resilience against rising apprehension, he insisted, "Madam, I not only want to know where we are but also the purpose of this visit."

"You are the one who holds such importance with seeing all that was to be shewn by that Goliath of a ghost. I see no valid purpose in being here. Perhaps we should just leave." His aunt continued to tap her fan against her palm. And would volunteer nothing more. She only watched Darcy.

The gentleman was annoyed with his aunt. He stared blankly into the fire. It seemed there was something of a battle of wills here. He was not used to having his wishes disregarded. More than that, with all that he had seen tonight, Darcy was emotionally drained. His temper was very near breaking point from her obstinate disposition. "Aunt Catherine! Did you---?"

But at that moment, light footsteps fell outside the room, growing louder and signalling someone's approach. His eyes darted back and forth from the doorway to his aunt, who was smirking with the confidence of one who holds the best cards at whist.

Darcy forgot about his aunt when Elizabeth walked into the room. His concentration fastened onto her and he grew circumspect. His first thought was optimistic. Finally, I've been brought to Elizabeth. It was usurped by dread with the reminder he was witnessing the future and from what experience had taught him this night, he could not expect any good to come from seeing her.

At once his thoughts took in several observations. She was easy in her surroundings, moving about as if she belonged there. The supply of firewood was perused, the time on the clock was checked against the timepiece pinned to her dress, and a stool was moved from the foot of one chair to another. Simple tasks that left Darcy mesmerized. As she moved he appraised her figure. And all else about her. He could find no fault. The future appeared to have been forgiving to her.

More footsteps advanced in their direction, these were weighty and slow. Without seeing to whom they belonged, Darcy's heart began to beat wildly. The sound told him a man approached. He was not the only one to listen. His aunt was watching the scene with a keen eye. Elizabeth had turned in expectation towards the doorway.

They all watched when the figure appeared. The man had striking streaks of grey in his hair, bushy brows and a moustache to match. He was wearing traditional homespun tweeds that heralded a specific region of the Kingdom. Darcy seized at the hope that he might be a favoured uncle or the father of an acquaintance.

The strapping man stood, framed by the doorway, examining Elizabeth while she accepted his scrutiny. His thumb and index finger smoothed his moustache over and over as he probed her with his eyes. Darcy did not like the overt manner in which he was looking at her. He could only hope Elizabeth was not under his employ, for his open appraisal was completely out of order. Darcy found his instinct to protect her surfaced, as did his wariness of the man. He was jarred by an even more revolting thought. Heaven forbid that he is not her husband. Anyone but her husband.

Elizabeth shewed no discomfort at the intense gaze upon her. She remained as polite as ever. "Mr. Burns, will you not join me? The fire has chased away the damp and cold that hung in the air."

All was lost for Darcy when he spoke. In a thick Scottish accent, he addressed Elizabeth, "But of course, my dear! And with me comes my praise. What a delight tonight's meal was, simply could not have been better---! I must compliment you once again on your skills in running the household." He moved to her and placed a kiss on her cheek.

Darcy's eyes grew wide with indignation whilst Elizabeth's eyes lowered with modesty as Burns bestowed his affection. "Thank you," came a quite reply.

The gentleman took a seat along a cracked leather sofa and nodded when Elizabeth motioned to the spirits. When she served him, he took hold of her hand. "Please, sit by me."

She smiled her acquiescence and sat with a respectable space between them. Thus began a mundane conversation about the village, the running of the distillery, and the urgent need to find a new scullery maid. In an impulsive move, Darcy moved behind the sofa and bent down so that his face was level with theirs.

"Darcy! I insist on knowing, what do you hope to accomplish there?"

"I wish to examine Miss Elizabeth more closely."

"Examine at your leisure," she sanctioned, "but perhaps it is best to keep in mind that Miss Elizabeth Bennet no longer exists. She is Mrs. Burns."

His aunt seemed to take more than a little pleasure in stating this fact. Darcy glared at her. "And who was the bloody idiot to have introduced her to such a man?"

"Watch your language, Nephew!" she decreed.

Barely concealing his anger, Darcy began again, "Do you know how she met this man?"

"I am happy to say, I had my part in it all." This announcement saw Darcy balk. "Mr. Burns was a friend of Mr. Collins' father. When Miss Elizabeth Bennet last visited Mrs. Collins, as a maiden of course, I saw to it that Collins invited Mr. Burns. There was sufficient room at Hunsford after the renovations. It was spring. There were no other guests at Rosings to offer any distractions. The rest, as the saying goes, is history." Lady Catherine bestowed her most benevolent smile upon her nephew, pleased to have the opportunity to relate yet another example of her generosity to those less fortunate.

Darcy strode to his aunt and prepared to address her in a manner by which she would no doubt take great offence, but as if she read it in his eyes, she grabbed hold of her nightcap and let her chair whoosh her across the room to avoid him.

He followed her movement until Elizabeth came into his view, when his eyes fixed upon her again. He could not accept this. She could never be Mrs. Burns to him. To think of her in any other way but as an innocent tore at his heart. He took up his spot behind them and watched the woman for whom he longed as she dutifully listened to her husband.

With his drink finished, Burns set his glass down and took up his wife's hands. "Thank you for settling in so well, Elizabeth." Darcy flinched when he heard her name spoken with such familiarity. "You are a clever lass and have amazed me with what you have learned in such a short time. I am proud of you."

"Thank you, Mr. Burns." Darcy searched her face for expressions that he remembered. Something that might rekindle a fond memory of time he had spent with her. But in that sense, she had altered. There was no evidence of the pert wit and quick repartee that he knew her to own. She was as proper and ladylike as she always had been, but her unique personality had been packed away like an old ball gown banished to the attic. From his adjacent vantage point, Darcy looked into her fine eyes. They no longer sparkled back.

Much to Darcy's irritation, Burns did not relinquish Elizabeth's hands. He drew them up and pressed his moustache and, although Darcy could not be absolutely certain, most probably his lips too, back and forth against each of them. Finally, his barrage subsided and he said, "I have some correspondence to attend to. It will be no more than a half an hour."

"And I would like to finish a letter to Jane, Mr. Burns."

"What is it I have asked you?" she was mildly scolded. "Please, Elizabeth."

"I'm sorry, Archibald." There was another gentle reprimand from Burns. Darcy saw her look into his eyes and amend it to, "Archie."

As if the sound of his name from her lips gave him the courage to continue, he asked, "May I, that is, would you think me imprudent to come to you again tonight? You are not tiring of me?" With his confidence bolstered, Burns was bold enough to wrap an arm around her waist and pull her to him. It was an easy effort for the big man and he held her firmly against him.

This is beyond belief! His address is offensive and before mine eyes he molests her. Darcy's mind was full. And mostly it was with who was taking Elizabeth, literally, in a familiar and intimate way. I cannot tolerate it. He shouted in Burns' face, "Yes! She would mind! She would think it rude and brazen. She does not want you in her bed!" When he said it, the words mortally wounded him. With his affection for Elizabeth pouring from him, the entire episode was too much. She will bear no man's children unless they are mine. To emphasize his point, he tried to bang his fist on the back of the sofa. It merely passed right through.

It wounded him so that Darcy knew not if he could continue to watch and listen. But he did, for Darcy could not tear himself away from the woman he loved. Neither of them paid him any heed. Pursuing his quest for later in the evening, Burns asked again, "May I, my dearest, loveliest Elizabeth?"

Lady Catherine fanned. She was engrossed.

"Of course, Archie, if you wish." Elizabeth sputtered with some surprise.

Darcy groaned. He was repulsed. "No Elizabeth, no! Pray, tell Archie to keep his hands and lips and everything else to himself! For God's sake, you are my dearest, loveliest Elizabeth."

Burns' amorous inclinations were set upon his wife. He stroked her hair away from her face and said, "Ah, you cannot know how it pleases me to hear your consent. I cannot but believe that you have begun to look forward to our times together as much as I do."

It was then that Darcy turned a menacing eye upon his aunt, "You! This is all your fault!"

Although Lady Catherine was floating in midair, she stood firmly on her ground. "Is it, Darcy? I would think the blame rested firmly with another." With that, she flicked her fan shut.

"I did not have Burns invited to Hunsford."

"And I did not lose my good sense and all responsibility by pursuing someone whose family was so entirely inconsequential. She is a nothing and can never be anything more."

"You never were in danger of being sullied, Madam. It was Miss Elizabeth Bennet who refused me. I would have her now still despite her connections and without a pound or penny to bring to the marriage."

"You are nothing but a lovesick fool." The overbearing tone for which Lady Catherine was known crept into her voice. "Did you think I did not know? I know everything that occurs in Kent, especially at Hunsford and Rosings! You are a fortunate man that she was so foolish. It was Miss Elizabeth Bennet who saved you."

With this, Darcy grew pensive. It was not with the brooding, taciturn disposition that he was known to possess. All that he had been shewn by his visitors this night was turned over in his mind. He withdrew into himself. His browed creased and his face darkened. When at last he spoke, it reflected upon his true worthiness. He had professed his desire to learn and change, and it had come to pass. "But she was not foolish. She was wise. For who would want to marry a man who could think only of himself and his situation. She saw in me my shortcomings and would not have me regardless of what material comforts I could give her. She had integrity."

He glanced over just in time to see a startled gasp escape from Elizabeth as Burns dipped his head against her bare neckline. It was her husband's adieu, a promise of more when they retired. Darcy's contemplation swiftly transformed into blind fury. He roared, "God help me, if she had the good sense to refuse me, why did she accept him?"

"Life's circumstances can do much to bring about moral and philosophical changes." Lady Catherine explanation was a hollow, detached offering that she would use in an attempt to persuade her nephew that she lacked any understanding of the whole affair.

Darcy saw this as nothing more than another tiresome illustration of his aunt's gerrymandering "You had Burns brought to Hunsford as an obstacle. You did everything within your power to insure that I could never make Miss Elizabeth another offer of my hand. You are nothing but a meddling busybody with too much time on her hands. You, Madam, are a snob. Admit it!"

Lady Catherine would admit nothing of the sort.

While they had been arguing, Burns had risen and Darcy watched his retreat. Elizabeth moved to the writing desk across the room from the fire. She picked up a tartan shawl on the way and placed it over her shoulders before she sat and took up her writing pen. Darcy followed, walking through a table instead of around it and stepped behind her. Without conscious thought, he tried to place his hands upon her shoulders. They passed through her as if she were not there. At that exact moment, Elizabeth raised her head and looked over her shoulder as if to gaze up at him. Setting her pen aside, she crossed her arms and hugged her shawl closer about her.

"Elizabeth, I am here." In his voice was all the weariness of a man facing defeat by his own hand. He was caught in a web of despondency, shadowed by regret and haunted by the error of his ways.

She took up her pen again and began to write at length and one sentiment particularly made him recoil with guilt:

"...and my dearest Jane, regardless of your protests I will raise the subject about your situation with Mr. Burns. I can rejoice in knowing that my circumstances will allow me to help you. But I feel it would be sensible to allow the passage of some time. The marriage is so fresh and our relationship has yet to have time to develop. I cannot have him believe that my only means for accepting him was simply to gain his generosity on behalf of my family. And I will not believe it myself. I have come to him with a dedication in my heart to be a good wife. Already Mr. Burns has given his consent to let Mama stay with us, although she proved too weak for the journey just now, therefore he kindly arranged for her care in Meryton. He has offered his opinion regarding Lydia without any solicitation and made it quiet clear that while he holds no prejudice against me for her misdeeds, there will be no help for her from this quarter. But please, Jane, know that I think of you every day, every hour and when the time is right, I will speak to him about you."

Elizabeth paused at this point and dug through her pocket to get her handkerchief. Darcy leaned very close, very near the spot where he had seen Burns take liberties. Her eyes were moist. She dabbed at them and, when she was once again collected, she wrote a passage that reacquainted him with her lines:

"... Dear Jane, Mr. Bingley has married. Please, know that if it were in my power to be with you upon hearing this that I would do anything for it to be so. Oh! How I hate to write those lines to you. Hate, yes! For it should be you dearest Jane, to have the privilege of calling herself Mrs. Bingley. Cry Jane! Let your heart mourn and think of me sitting next to you, holding your hand and giving you comfort. I was shocked when I received this news from Charlotte, who hears of him through Mr. Darcy when he visits Rosings."

As she wrote, he saw a few tears begin to fall from her eyes. They rolled languorously down her cheeks. Darcy responded spontaneously. He reached out to brush her sadness away and brought only more to himself with the reminder that he was in no position to offer her comfort. It was pointless, for his hand dried not a tear, but he continued to try to wipe them away and with each stroke at her cheek, along the same spot, she would flick the back of her free hand.

" And, I will speak of Mr. Darcy once more, and then never again, for I have news of him as well. Charlotte writes that he too has married. He chose his wife from the social rank that would befit a man of his stature and there can be no question of her impeccable connections. His wife is the former..."

Her tears increased and with it, came hiccups. Elizabeth had to stop and compose herself before she could continue. At this moment Darcy would have given anything to know exactly why she wept. He feared her sorrow had many fronts. He firmly believed some of her distress had to be over her own situation. There was no argument that she was settled in a warm home with a man whose admiration was astounding but for whom she held no treasured regard. The irreparable damage between Charles and her sister would be another source of regret as would her sister's decline in exile in India. If the future had not entirely hardened her feelings for him perhaps those sentiments might also be weighing upon her. On this, Darcy lingered, letting longed-for possibilities play out. Abruptly, he went back and reread the line about another sister. No further explanation was required for Darcy to guess correctly what had been Miss Lydia's fate. Were it possible, his heart hardened even more against his boyhood friend.

Before Elizabeth could resume her task, Burns stuck his head in the room. Calling from the doorway he said, "Dearest, I am finished."

As Darcy could see, she was not, but she made no protest. After a last attempt to dry her eyes, Elizabeth folded her correspondence in half and tucked it in the back of a cubby-hole in the desk. She adjusted her shawl and, as Darcy was so close, he saw firsthand the despair etched upon her features. It was fleeting and might not have been there at all so quickly was it concealed. In an instant, she rose to meet her husband. He took her arm and placed it through his and all that was left for Darcy was two pairs of retreating footsteps on the cobbled floor.

Darcy was broken. A morose cloud hung over him. Awash with misery, he temporarily forgot all else but his wretched pain at witnessing Elizabeth married to another man. Knowing that she was safe, respected, and in no want of material necessities in the future did nothing to ease his sorrow. Moreover, he knew there was only one place to lay the blame for this outcome, despite his accusations to his aunt. All he wanted to do was leave.

His aunt waited for him to look in her direction. He did with an admission that was much too late. "I could not see beyond my selfish and overbearing nature to please a woman truly worthy of being pleased."

"Pull yourself together, Nephew! Your despair is wasted on her. She has achieved a match that single ladies aspire to attain. She will be taken care of. You can rest easy."

"I cannot fathom she accepted that man." But she need never be in a position to. It was with this thought that Darcy remembered his power to change this and all else his aunt had shewn him. The future as he had seen it this night need never come to pass.

Aunt Catherine was only too happy to repeat what she had earlier said. "Life's circumstances can do much to bring about moral and philosophical changes."

"Madam, you are all that is insensitive. But then, I can expect no more from one who would cast aside her own sister."

Lady Catherine's ghostly pale face registered all the indignation she felt. She puffed up taller than freshly baked soufflé. "Silence! I will not abide such scurrilous remarks. How dare you make mention of Henrietta. You know not of what you speak. I will hear not a word about her."

"Then hear this and do not mistake me. I love Elizabeth."

"You are too late, Darcy."

"I think not," he said to the empty doorway. And then everything went black.

~*~

"Get off of me, Nephew!" His aunt pushed Darcy up from her lap, where he had landed after an awkward tumble when they hastened away. She adjusted her cap and glared at him.

"My apologies." He began a graceful bow, a comical sight in nothing more than his nightshirt, until he remembered how grieved and distressed he was with her. Looking around, he was thankful that she had brought him back home. He needed the solace of familiar surroundings as he mapped out his imminent strategy.

They had returned to his study. He saw his desk and the neat pile of correspondence he had meant to work through. His eyes narrowed when he saw the curtain rise with the current. Evidently, while he had been gone, someone had opened the window. Darcy wondered what simpleton would do such a thing when the idea was to keep the winter air out. He went over and reached to close it. His hand would not grip the frame. The only thing he grasped was a fistful of air. It was then he knew that while he may be in his study, there was still more to see.

When he turned back to the room Lady Catherine was beaming down at him from her chair. She had propped it above the fireplace so the back legs were resting on the mantle. It teetered precariously as she swung her legs back and forth. "Are you not happy to be back home?"

He frowned at her. "I am exhausted and beaten. I cannot envision what else there may be to show me. Is it my own unhappiness? I need no education from that quarter. It would be a forgone conclusion."

She emphasized her remarks by jabbing her fan in his direction. "Watch and listen Nephew! I humoured you by showing you all that you requested, though I may say that it was of little consequence. However, what I will see here is of the utmost importance and all you need to know to improve your life. I demand that you attend to it with the gravity it is due." She was stern in her address to Darcy. But she tempered her tone and indicated with her fan a space by the hearth below her, "Come here."

Darcy walked round the easy chair and stopped. Before him was his own image and it was not in one of the gilt mirrors hanging upon the papered walls. In the easy chair he sat, slumped over, with his head lolling to one side. Strewn on the floor were a jacket and vest; hanging on the arm of another chair was his cravat. Darcy noted his motionless self required a shave and a hairbrush and doubtlessly, some gargle. He was asleep, or so it seemed to Darcy, until he saw the tumbler on the floor and its contents splashed across the rug. Darcy was disgusted. He did not approve of drunkenness and knew that he would need to drink a vast quantity to end up in the condition he was seeing now. There were few reasons he could fathom to allow himself such a liberty. With a sudden fear, he looked up to his aunt and appealed, "Has something happened to Georgiana?"

"Of course not." They turned to the door, for a servant had knocked and cracked it open. Upon seeing the state of the master, the door quickly shut with a bang.

The Darcy in the chair sat up, "What? Who's there?" He looked about, rubbed his eyes and roused himself. He searched around and found his empty glass on the floor. This appeared not to deter him. The crumpled man stood and went unsteadily to the table where the brandy was kept. In no time another full snifter was in his hand. As Darcy watched himself with frank censure, he mourned the obvious loss of his self-respect.

Swirling his brandy, and sloshing a goodly portion onto the already soiled rug, the inebriated man gazed vacantly into the hearth. No fire was lit, although there was a fine arrangement of wood waiting until it was required. Both Darcy and Lady Catherine watched as he simply stood there staring at nothing.

Darcy wanted to know why he was drowning himself in the drink. When it was evident that his aunt would volunteer no insight, he asked, "Are you going to tell me why I am so despondent?"

"I will tell you this. You have much to learn about being a good husband."

"Oh Lord!" Darcy remembered the letter Elizabeth wrote. I am married. With some panic he looked to his aunt, "I do not wish to see any more." His aunt let out something like a cackle, in her younger years it might have been a flowery titter. He wondered if it was not the first time he had ever heard her laugh.

"Be quiet! It is not for you to decide. What you will be shewn is important to me."

Another knock at the door stopped their banter and in came Rowland. The drunken master looked up and squinted his eyes in the direction of his man. No doubt he was nothing more than a bleary form. "Ah, Rowland! It is good of you to come."

"Sir, are you ready to retire?"

"Must I? Can I not stay here a while longer? The fire would be lovely if only someone would light it."

"Sir, it is July, a fire is not required," he explained to his master. "But, sir, did you forget that Mrs. Darcy is waiting? I drew your bath but the water has grown cold. Shall I call to the kitchen for more?"

The countenance of Darcy was telling. He stood, glass in his hand and a grouchy look on his face, as he appeared to sway in a breeze. "No! I shall not require a bath tonight." He fell silent and his man simply waited for further instruction.

It seemed to come with a great deal of reluctance. "Send word to Mrs. Darcy that I will be up shortly." With that, he gave his man a look that told him to quit the room.

When he was once again alone, he finished his drink. He tossed the fine crystal up and down in his hand and quite unexpectedly, he hurled it into the hearth. The crash brought a servant to the door. She cracked it open long enough to spot her master but appeared not at all eager to enter and offer assistance. She withdrew as quickly as she had appeared, but not before Darcy had sensed her presence. He grimaced, knowing there was more of the same gossip to share below stairs.

In fact, he did require some help. This night, Darcy stood too close as he released his frustration and the explosion of glass had sent a tiny sliver flying up to cut his cheek. A trickle of blood was running down his face but he seemed to know not that he was injured.

They watched as he went to his desk. Digging through a brass urn, he became irritated when he could not find what he wanted. His solution was to dump the entire contents on the floor whereby he dropped to his hands and knees to search through a mish-mash of items. Eventually, he located his object, a key. He was in the perfect spot to unlock the bottom drawer of the desk, which he did. From the very back a letter was pulled out and, after he leaned back against the side of desk, he unfolded it and began to read.

"What are you waiting for?" Lady Catherine prodded, "Go and read it! You have much to answer for!"

A reluctant Darcy went over and stood above himself. It was a feeling more odd than he could imagine. He looked down at his shaky hands holding the letter and saw the sweat glisten on his brow. He could not but think how bad he would feel in the morning and was glad he was not himself.

It seemed the letter was a quick note in reply to some information that had been requested. It was simple and to the point.

Dear Mr. Darcy,

I have received information about the woman for whom you are searching. As you are aware, she no longer resides with her family at Longbourn, Hertfordshire, but has married and moved north to ________shire. Her husband is Archibald Lawrence William Burns, and she is known as Elizabeth Victoria Burns.

Your remittance of the agreed fee in a timely manner is most appreciated.

Yours,

It was signed and dated and the page was frayed along the edges from constant handling.

"Darcy!" Lady Catherine bellowed.

"What?" he snapped back.

Her accusation reverberated through the room. "How could you search for Miss Bennet when you are married? Answer me."

Darcy knew not what to say. He grimaced and gave an answer he did not want to believe, "Perhaps it is not a happy union?"

He ducked, afraid her fan was about to come flying in his direction. "That, my boy, is blasphemy! You and Anne were promised to each at Anne's cradle. It was meant to be!"

Darcy swallowed as the reason for the behaviour he had just witnessed became more apparent. He nearly coughed out her name, "Anne?"

"Of course! You could never have married anyone else! And yet you bring the memory of that woman, that nothing, that insolent, disagreeable, unpedigreed country upstart into this house. How could you?" His aunt was on an offensive pursuit.

"Well, I really do not know!" Although Darcy could well imagine. He had never held anything more than an ordinary regard towards Anne. Even that was hard pressed, he could not recall exchanging more than a few words at any one time with his cousin and considered her not as anything more than a passing acquaintance. It was rather difficult to believe she was his wife. Indeed, it was inconceivable.

And it was depressing. Too horrible to consider. Married to Anne! Darcy was lost as to how he was able to even fulfil all of his duties as a husband. He restated his desire to leave. But as it was, the full purpose of this night had not yet been achieved.

A clatter at the brandy decanter drew his attention back to the shaky gentleman. He tried to pour another drink; this time with one hand as he still grasped the letter, but gave up when more landed on the highly polished wood than in his glass. The task was abandoned and he blurted out to the room without company, companionship or love, "Elizabeth! I need one more chance. All would be different."

Darcy suspected this exclamation was possibly more emotional than any that might have ever expressed to his wife. He listened to similar sentiments that were repeated as the letter was tenderly held, almost as if it were a substitute for Elizabeth whereby he might receive at least ephemeral joy from its proximity. With the greatest care, the letter was folded and put it back in the drawer and all the odds and ends replaced in the urn. He made for the door without looking back, pulling roughly on it when it would not open and beginning a treacherous trip down the hallway and up the stairs.

"Take heed!" his aunt advised and Darcy was away and at once in a room he had not had set foot in for years. It was not necessary to tell him where he was. Knowledge that he had been brought to his mother's chamber brought nothing but unease to him.

He looked about but his aunt was nowhere to be found.

"Nephew!" He had neglected to look above the bed. In point of fact, Darcy had been trying very hard to avoid that piece of furniture altogether. Under the circumstances it would seem wise. It loomed large and dominated the room. But look he must and there, over the canopy and so close to the ceiling that she had to duck her head, was his aunt. Her eyes indicated to the bed under her and she asked, "Who do you think waits below?"

Darcy made a decision. He was ready to wake up now. He made his preference known.

"Oh no, not just yet, Nephew. This is your fate and you will see it all."

He made another crack at stopping the proceedings. "I find it highly inappropriate for you to be here. I must ask you to leave."

"I will leave when I wish to and not a moment before! My duty, to you, to Anne, and to our family is above all else." Lady Catherine looked down her aristocratic nose at him.

The timing was perfect for his aunt. The chamber door swung open and crashed against the wall. A wobbly Darcy came in and looked about to get his bearings. After he pushed the door shut, he tugged at his shirt and pulled it from his breeches. The fine linen was freed to hang loose around his torso and the low neckline displayed a broad heaving chest.

An unassuming voice from behind the canopy called out, "Fitzwilliam?"

Rubbing his head at an impending headache, he said, "Yes, I apologize, I was detained." He was about to attempt to undo his breeches when he looked down at his boots, which were required to be removed first. One slid off easily enough but it was more difficult to remove the other. His foot was stuck fast. As he gave it a good yank, his balance was lost and he fell flat on his back. An ungentlemanlike exclamation followed as he got up and tossed the boot away.

"Are you well?"

By this point, as Darcy watched himself pause and considered the question, the answer was known to him. Of course I am not well! And the reasons, the knowledge behind his malaise was a double-edged , for it all was so intricately interwoven with everything he had seen in the past, the present and the future. But more immediately, he could well understand that the gentleman divesting himself of his remaining clothes was very much unwell.

He also knew why he was here. How could I not? After all he knew himself better than anyone. Heirs. They had to be only reason he married. Illegitimate ones would serve no purpose. One at a time, as he saw himself fumble with each button on his breeches, he thought, in this particular circumstance, how unfortunate it was what had to be done to produce one. Darcy envisioned just how he might accomplish such an act. At first he could think of nothing, but he let his hunger and another's likeness combine to create the only option he knew would work.

He watched from across the room as the unsteady Darcy let the fabric slid down his legs. He stepped out of the breeches and as he did, Darcy knew what he was imagining. Another woman before him, this one with fine eyes and an engaging smile. Elizabeth! She was in a lucent gown that vanished when he reached out to her. She pulled his shirt over his head and her ebony curls surrounded them. I love you. Her hand came up to his face and touched where the glass had cut him. I am yours. There was a tender kiss before he led her to the bed and parted the curtains and they fell back onto the plush layers of the bedcovers.

Darcy stood at the end of the bed, his face peeking through a gap in the curtain. A growing revulsion had flourished as he had watched this unfold. He jerked his head away just as Elizabeth's name was murmured. He missed seeing his arms wrap around Anne but he heard his whisper, "I love you. I am yours."

"Darcy!" Lady Catherine bellowed.

Although he was grateful for the interruption, he did not respond. His senses no longer were under any regulation and he could not trust his voice. She continued to shout his name and when he still would not answer her, his aunt flew down to him and addressed him severely. "I have seen enough of your despicable behaviour."

"As have I, Madam." The powerful images had shaken him. He had only just thought of his poor cousin and what she must be experiencing in such a marriage. No one profited from this union.

"Have you nothing else to say?"

"No, Madam, but rest assured my mind is full of ideas. I need only to wake up so I might act upon them." Darcy was earnest in his statement. He would stop at nothing to insure that the future had no resemblance to anything he had been shewn this night.

"Pray Nephew, I hope, for your sake, that one of them is a resolution about your standing as a husband. Your behaviour will not be endured."

"Indeed, it is."

True to her selfish nature, Lady Catherine could only see one problem in the future they had witnessed tonight. The suffering of others did not move her, for she had never been able to judge by any measure other than by her patronizing outlook. Her pride, her arrogance and even her vanity all served to shape her opinion, which in her world was all that mattered. "Then can I expect you to return to the present and go forward without committing any of these wrongdoings against my daughter, for that was my only reason to brave the winter's night and come to you?"

"Indeed, Madam, that is the impetus for all I shall endeavour to correct."

"You were always a smart child Fitzwilliam, I am glad you have seen the error of your ways."

"I can unequivocally state that none of what you have shewn me here will occur."

"As it should be. You will marry Anne and give her all the respect that is her due. In doing so, your marriage will unite the superior bloodlines of our families." He could not see the point in correcting her misconceptions of his meaning and merely returned her stern look with one of his own.

With that, she opened her fan and waved it about as her chair rose straight up and she disappeared through the ceiling. And Darcy was transported away from all the unhappiness that he had seen in the future. He was returned to his chamber and put into bed, where he slept a dreamless sleep.

~*~

Darcy awoke on Christmas morning with a purpose.

With his glimpse into the past, his father had overturned his wish for his son to meanly compare others in terms of sense and worth. From beyond the grave, he had offered a valuable lesson. It combined ill-placed superiority, the over-emphasis upon one's station and the ultimate joy in life, genuine love. It reeked of misplaced pride in his father and mirrored the same in his son. His cousin, the brandy-swilling soldier, had not minced words. He had thrown his false pride in his right in his face knowing it was the only way Darcy would ever acknowledge it. When the Colonel had shewn him the present, Darcy was left facing the consequences of his former interference, or the lack of it, in the lives of others. He had been absurd and impertinent at their expense.

But it was the future, not just his alone, but that of those he esteemed and cared for, which had underscored for Darcy the sum of his misdeeds. All he had witnessed, all he had been taught, all that had changed within him was fresh on his mind. He would act without delay, for it was within his power to change what was to come.

There was no hesitation in the course he chose. There was only action.

First and foremost, came the confession and apology to Bingley. It was with some trepidation that, to his dearest friend, Darcy humbled himself. And, it was with relief that the good-natured disposition Bingley owned proved him to be a generous man. Darcy was released from the guilt he suffered. In the midst of the forgiveness of transgressions and the renewal of loyalties, came further disclosures that led the men to act in agreement. Plans were changed, express letters were written in haste, servants were sent hustling with preparations and sisters were woken up prematurely. One was delighted at a request to dress for a trip to Hertfordshire, another was altogether put out at a request to depart without delay and the third was left to blissful slumber. Within the hour, Darcy, Bingley and Miss Darcy were seated in Darcy's comfortable transport, covered in blankets, diverting for one quick stop before they left the city, while Miss Bingley was appalled to find herself in a hired carriage making for a single room at The Promenade Hotel and Mrs. Hurst, oblivious to all, was just rising and considering taking tea.

With the distance closing upon Longbourn, expectations could only rise for the occupants in the carriage. But, with the turn into the estate at last in sight, each had his or her reason to feel all the anxiety of their hope.

As the carriage came to a stop, those inside the manor easily identified its owner. They came hastening out to greet the unexpected visitors. All the Bennets, save one, lined up with growing curiosity and watched as the step was placed on the ground and the carriage door was opened.

Miss Jane Bennet was first heard to quietly exclaim when Bingley descended. It sent the lady's mother into a convulsion of fussing, her sisters into subdued observation of the proceedings and her father into giving generous thanks to the higher power that had just intervened.

While Bingley offered his bows and salutations, it was Darcy who was next seen alighting from the carriage. Before he made his way to the assembled party, he handed down a young woman whose features held a striking resemblance to his own. While introductions were made, there was one particular woman standing slightly off by herself, who captivated Darcy. His attentions could not be diverted although the lady graciously appeared not to notice.

He tore himself away from her to return to the carriage and speak to someone inside. And after he handed the young lady down, Darcy stepped back to his sister's side to keep the homecoming between the family and watched as Miss Lydia rushed into the collective embrace of her relations. Details of her experiences at Wickham's hand could wait, as could any retaliation that would be exacted. This was a time for shared celebration at the return of a loved one. Tears could not be avoided, but it was during this poignant reunion that Darcy and Elizabeth shared their first intimate moment.

She was removed from the uproar although her attention was upon her family when she diverted her gaze and looked to the ground. Her rosy cheeks were stained with tears and she was biting her lower lip as struggled to remain composed. Darcy's eyes were locked upon her and he willed her to look up. Elizabeth studied the gravel as if she were seeing it for the first time until she lifted only her eyes. All at once, they questioned, thanked and welcomed the gentleman with their sparkle. With that one look, Darcy knew that her feelings now were different from what they had been when last they were together.

But he would take nothing for granted. He stood by what he had been shewn, believing the value of all he had learned and standing confident about the better man he had become. It was left for him to demonstrate to her that he had changed and that he wished to be deemed worthy in her eyes. He would prove to her that he had learned to love unselfishly.

So, with their first private exchange, Darcy had a gift for Elizabeth, something she had never before seen. He gave her a smile. It was fleeting but the message was unmistakeable. And with it, they both had hope in their hearts.

The End Of It

Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet went on to marry in a ceremony with Jane Bennet and Charles Bingley. No two happier couples could be found in His Majesty's kingdom. Darcy was never again visited by the spirits of that fateful Christmas Eve of 1812. No mention was ever made of his experiences to anyone in his acquaintance, not even his beloved wife, although she understood that her husband had gone through some painful soul searching before he had arrived that Christmas afternoon at Longbourn. Indeed, for all purposes, it would have seemed that the specifics of that night had been forgotten, lost in a dusty corner of his mind.

It was a typical autumn day and the Darcys were houseguests at Rosings, invited by their cousin Anne, to whom all had been inherited upon the death of her mother. The hospitality of their cousin also included a visit from some of their relations with whom contact had been nonexistent not so very long ago. As was right and wished for by all, the cousins of Darcy's generation, the children of Henrietta now grown with children of their own, had been eagerly welcomed back into the family. It had brought mutual joy to all and Darcy wanted to imagine that the chains of guilt that burdened his father had fallen away or quite possibly, been passed on to his departed aunt.

It was a fine afternoon, and Darcy and Elizabeth walked arm in arm through an avenue of trees. Their children darted in and out between the towering giants whist their governess quizzed them on the fauna in the park. Darcy called out the most correct answers and won an extra helping of plum pudding to partake of before bed. No sooner was the gate of Hunsford Parsonage in sight than Mr. Collins came limping out, relying heavily on his cane. Charlotte could be seen behind him, making a last minute adjustment to her youngest daughter's hair. Formalities and greetings began while the children disappeared to do those things only children can appreciate. The afternoon was passed in cordial, if somewhat stiff, company for the adults. When the opportunity arose, Darcy excused himself, happy to take up the task of seeing how their governess was faring with the extended brood, for in addition to her offspring, Mrs. Collin had exercised her duties and invited others; there were the children of Darcy's cousins and some suitable village children to also spending the afternoon at the Parsonage. He found them all under the shade of the elms and slowed his approach. It was story time and, as he was quite familiar with the tale being told, knew the ending was upon them.

When it was done, he made his presence known. It began with his youngest, "Papa, will you tell a story? Yours are ever so good." A story was begged for from the master of Pemberley, for the great man had made a reputation for himself amongst his children as a weaver of fantastic tales. The afternoon waned and there was time for only one more. When he agreed, the children settled about his feet and he began to speak. Soon they were lost in a tale that had them leaning forward in anticipation of what was to come next. Large eyes stared and mouths hung open. It was a tale of three spirits and lessons to be learned.

Long after the children had been fed and put to bed, Mr. and Mrs. Darcy sat in one of the great rooms of Rosings. They shared a private conversation, which was how they both preferred to spend time before bed. Elizabeth poured tea and the afternoon was discussed. As just the right amount of sugar was added to her husband's cup, mention was made of the children from the neighbourhood. Darcy spoke of a young boy called Dickens who was fascinated with his tale.

"Indeed, he was a plucky fellow." Darcy told Elizabeth as he took his first sip.

"Very much like the storyteller, I should imagine."

His wife was promised her comeuppance as soon as they retired and then he made his point. "When I was done, he thanked me and suggested some additions that might improve the story and its ending!"

"And? Were they good?"

"I prefer my ending," he said, and with that, Darcy put down his cup and liberated Elizabeth of hers so he might entertain her in another way entirely.

Finis


Authors love feedback. You can express your appreciation for "To Love Unselfishly" here