Chapter 31:

Darcy and Mr. Bingley looked at the Bennet carriage as it left the gates of Netherfield. Mr. Bingley was extremely confused by Jane's behavior. She had no interest in conversing with him that night as before. He looked at his friend.

Miss Bennet preferred Darcy's company today. But it was not the same as before. Even at Lucas Lodge, she never cared for his company. What has changed now?

He wondered.

Darcy looked at his friend at the same time and gauged his thoughts.

I very well know what has changed, Bingley. She heard about my wealth.

"You looked troubled. What is the matter?" he asked his friend, knowing very well, what was wrong.

"Nothing. I was just wondering.. forget it," Mr. Bingley replied.

They headed back into the house. Darcy did not want to discuss the topic with his friend.

Some lessons are hard to learn, Bingley. He thought. You will know her true colors soon.

Meanwhile, in Longbourn, Jane and Mrs. Bennet were in happy spirits.

"Oh! you looked lovely today my dear, Jane. I saw Mr. Darcy look at you keenly. I am certain he is taken by the complexion of your skin and your beauty."

"Oh! Do you think so, Mamma?"

"Of course I do. I am thrilled about the fine prospects of marrying him."

"But Mamma, I think Mr. Bingley likes me too."

"Oh! So what? I bet Mr. Darcy will waste no time proposing to you, knowing his friend competes."

Mary could not bear it any longer.

"I cannot believe you to be this cruel, Jane. You avoided Mr. Bingley all night, in his own house. Did you even think how he would have felt?"

"What did I ever do? All men want my attention these days. What matters is who I prefer for company."

"You did prefer 's company all this while."

"I did not prefer his company. He is boring. I like Mr. Darcy, I would rather spend more time with him."

"I am ashamed to be your sister."

"Enough," her mother yelled.

"Stop this nonsense, Mary. You remind me too much of her when you talk like this."

"You won't even say Lizzy's name, Mamma?"

"I won't. I don't want to talk about someone who ran away from home, who knows where? And God knows with whom?

"Stop it, Mamma! I will not bear you slander Lizzy like that."

"Shut up and go to your room. I have had enough. Oh! my poor nerves," her mother cried.

Mary ran up the stairs. She burst into tears as she fell into her bed.

Her mind was distressed beyond measure. On one hand, she was worried about Elizabeth's situation with Darcy and on the other, about Mr. Bingley.

She did not know why but ever since she had known her sister's intentions with Mr. Bingley she was most anxious about his welfare. She did not want Mr. Bingley to be trapped by Jane.

Now, she was concerned that Jane ignoring him for Darcy, would wound him beyond measure.

Day by day, she felt helpless to stay in Longbourn. She despised her parents. She could not forgive them for what they did to Elizabeth. All the suffering her sister had to endure in the past months, was only because of them. She hoped and prayed Elizabeth would be safe in Derbyshire.

In Grovnor Park, Elizabeth felt a sense of unrest. The children missed their grandmother and felt out of place in the new house.

"Miss Smith, are you unwell?" Mrs. the nanny asked her.

"No, not at all. I am perfectly well."

"I apologize I just felt you may be unwell. Maybe you miss Ashton Park."

"Honestly, I do. But we should be back soon, I hope."

"I hope it will be as planned. The children always spend Christmas at home."

Elizabeth knew it would be her first Christmas away from Longbourn. With the happenings in the past months, she knew that nothing was certain in life.

As much as she wanted to go back to Ashton Park, she was worried about meeting Darcy again. She understood from Georgiana that he had not yet returned.

How long can he be away from Pemberley? He cannot be away forever. I do not know if I could ever meet him again and act as if nothing happened. It would have been easy if I did not love him as much as I do.

She lay awake that night unable to sleep. It was close to midnight and she got up to check on the children. She often visited their room in the night to make certain they were all right. She peeped inside and found time to sleep. She did not want to disturb Mrs, … as slowly closed the door. As she was about to leave her room, she heard muffled voices down the corridor. She was in the family wing of the house and she did not know who was up at this hour.

By instinct, she walked in the direction of the voices. She saw the faint light of candles under one of the rooms. Elizabeth knew she was wandering into the family wing and wanted to turn and leave.

By the time she was contemplating, she reached the door of the room from which the voices were audible now.

"I cannot believe this Isabella. You are asking me for so much money, but you cannot tell me the reason," cried Mrs Hudson.

"Mamma, I need this money. Do not ask me for what? I am in trouble."

"What sort of trouble is that? Why can't you tell me? Is your husband demanding this? Why on earth would he? He has so much money."

"It's not him. Do not even think in that direction. Please Mamma, help me."

"I will not. You are never open with me. Why did you have to marry that man, with two children? I never forgave you for that. Now, you are asking me such a huge sum, without giving me a reason. Is that why you traveled here all of a sudden?"

"I cannot tell you at the moment. Everything will be solved if you give me the money. Please, Mamma, trust me."

"I cannot child. I regret giving you the liberty to decide everything about your life on your own. You tell me why you need the money, else, I have no other choice but to discuss this with your father."

"You will not mother. If you at all say one word about this to my husband or father, you will never see me again. I do not mean not visiting you. You will never see me live."

Elizabeth was stunned to hear the conversation between Lady Isabella and her mother. She quickly turned around and hurried back to her room.

Her was beating fast.

She shut her room door and stood panting. Her heart was beating fast. She knew she not have been there and heard the conversation between Lady Isabella and her mother.

So, she is in trouble. That is the reason why she wanted to come to Grovnor Park all of a sudden. Why does she need the money? Who is demanding money from her? What is stopping her from seeing help from Lord Ashton?

Elizabeth could not believe that Lady Isabella was in a situation, that she could not seek help from her husband as well.

She paced the room, not knowing what to make of the situation.

Maybe she borrowed money from someone and needs to pay it back. But why would she do so? She is married to Lord Ashton, so she would not need to borrow money.

Elizabeth did not know what to make of Lady Isabella's situation. She contemplated whether she could be lying to her mother.

But then, she remembered the strange happenings in Ashton Park.

Then it was not an illusion. Someone was there in the garden that night and maybe it was a letter blackmailing Lady Isabella that she had taken from under the rock.

Elizabeth knew that she must inform Lady Ashton of this. But she had no proof regarding anything.

She spent the rest of the night contemplating the situation.

The next morning, Elizabeth was anxious to meet Lady Isabella. During breakfast, she could sense the tension between the mother and daughter.

Lord Ashton seemed oblivious to the tension in the air.

"I hope you are not missing Ashton Park very much, Miss Smith."

"Not much, sir," Elizabeth replied.

"We should be back soon, in a couple of weeks, as planned," he said looking at his wife.

Lady Isabella did not reply.

Elizabeth could not read her mind.

"We have decided to accompany you on your return. Again, it is our pleasure to be able to spend Christmas at Ashton Park," Mr. Hudson said to his son-in-law.

"Oh! That is wonderful indeed."

"Papa! When did you decide to come with us?" Lady Isabella asked in shock.

"Why, my dear? Lord Ashton has been pressing us with this invitation since the day you set foot here. Your mother was undecided about the prospect, but last night, she agreed. You don't seem to be happy?" he replied with a hint of irritation.

"No, I am. I am glad you could accompany us," she said without emotion.

"I am certain we can be of some assistance to you," Lady Ashton said with a stern look at her daughter.

Elizabeth understood that Mrs Hudson wanted to keep a watch on her daughter and ensure her welfare.

In two weeks, we will leave. I wonder what is in store for me at Ashton Park. She thought.

A couple of days later, Darcy stood at the bookstore in the small village of Meryton.

He tried to be away from Netherfield as much as possible to escape Miss Bingley. Mr. Bingley was in a foul mood after the recent dinner party with the Bennet family.

The bookstore reminded him of Elizabeth. He smiled at the memory of her outburst at the Lambton bookstore.

He still could not believe the way he had teased her that day. He knew he could never do that to any other woman. After his mother's death, he had become rigid and hardly expressed his emotions.

His cousin Richard often pointed that out to him.

After meeting Elizabeth, he had felt a strange sense of liberation. He felt emotions that he had never felt before. She had made him angry and made him laugh, and most of all, she had pointed out his flaws as no one had ever done before.

His thoughts were interrupted when the shopkeeper asked him whether he was ready with his choice.

"I am. I will take these."

"Oh! Poetry, good choice indeed," the shopkeeper said. "We do not get many customers wanting to buy poetry these days.'

"Oh! Miss Lizzy used to. She was the one…" The shopkeeper's wife stopped abruptly, seeing her husband's stern look.

He was a close friend of Mr. Bennet, and he did not want the story of his daughter's disappearance to reach the ears of the wealthy gentleman from town.

Darcy was immediately piqued by what the woman said. The name he heard reminded him of Elizabeth.

Sometimes, he wondered if there was anything that could not remind him of her. He was engulfed by her thoughts every moment of the day. Sometimes, he did not want to keep those thoughts away. He thought it was the only thing left in his life. He replayed every conversation with her, every passing look, and every moment he had held her hand.

He had gotten used to the pain, the pain of knowing that she would never be his.

He collected the books and left for Netherfield. Mr. Bingley was waiting for him.

"Where were you, Darcy?" he asked.

"I was at the village. Why is something the matter?"

"I need your assistance. The steward is here and needs me to look into some accounts of the past."

Darcy and Mr. Bingley left for his study to attend to the business. They were interrupted by the arrival of Sir Lucas and a few other acquaintances.

Mr. Bingley was excited to see them.

"I apologize for intruding without prior notice, Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy. We wanted to invite you to the Meryton assembly this Friday. I hope you would be able to grace the evening with your presence."

"Ofcourse. We shall be delighted," Mr. Bingley said.

Seeing Darcy's skeptical look, Sir Lucas was worried.

"Mr. Darcy, it may not be as grand as your gatherings in town, but I shall assure you, you will not forget this evening."

"Of course, he will come. Will you not Darcy?" Mr. Bingley asked.

"Yes, sir. I will," Darcy said, not wanting to go.

But he did not want to offend Sir Lucas.

"Excellent, we will be honored by your presence."

Once the men left, Darcy looked at Bingley with irritation.

"You know I have no interest in these gatherings."

"I know, Darcy. But you must attend. How could we leave you behind? Come on man, I sense you want to head back soon. But look at me. I have no idea how to run this estate. I need you here."

"At some point in time, you will have to run it by yourself. You must be able to make these decisions on your accord, Bingley."

"I will. Please spare a few more weeks here with me."

Darcy did not want to. But he was skeptical about returning to town as well. He had to face Richard who read his mind like no other. Also, he knew that he would have to decide on returning to Pemberley the moment he reached town. He decided to stay as requested by Mr. Bingley.

In Longbourn, the household was buzzing with excitement for the Meryton assembly. Mrs. Bennet was very anxious for Jane to look her best.

"Oh! Mr. Bennet, I am certain Jane can secure him."

"I do not think so," Mr. Bennet replied dryly.

"Oh! Why would you say that?" his wife asked him with irritation.

"I don't know about that man. He seems to be too proud to even converse with me."

"Well, you are not Jane. No man can resist her beauty. He has ten thousand a year. Could you believe it? Oh! Our luck, Mr. Bennet. If she marries him, all our woes will be gone."

Mr. Bennet somehow detested Darcy right from the initial meeting. He was not confident as his wife.

He often wondered what happened to Elizabeth. He had given up searching for her. But in his heart, he was worried that she may come back someday and demand answers about her past.

Finally, the day arrived for the Meryton assembly.

Mary was not excited about it. It was the first assembly without Elizabeth.

She also felt anxious to meet both Darcy and Mr. Bingley. She hoped Darcy would return to Derbyshire soon.

At the assembly, people anticipated the arrival of Mr. Bingley and Darcy. Even though most of them knew Mr. Bingley. they were excited to see his wealthy friend.

The moment Darcy entered he could feel all eyes on him. He was used to the feeling.

Miss Bingley walked with an air of superiority beside him. Her only intention for the evening was to gain Darcy's attention. She had known him for a year and was irritated that he was indifferent towards her.

What more can he want from a woman? I am the sister of his best friend. I am wealthy. What is still stopping him from forming an attachment with me? She thought with irritation.

The moment she saw Jane, sitting with her sisters, something pricked her heart. She knew Jane was beautiful. She did not want to accept that she looked less attractive.

She held onto Darcy's arm and gave the Bennets a stern look. Once they mutually greeted each other, by instinct Mr. Bingley first addressed Mary.

"I hope you are doing well, Miss Mary," he said. He could not forget how Jane had insulted her that day.

"I am well, sir. Thank you," she replied with a blush.

He then looked at Jane. She was standing close to Darcy, listening to his conversation with Sir William.

Mr. Bingley found her behavior odd. She had always been by his side whenever they met. He felt that she was openly ignoring him.

He felt Mary's concerning gaze on him.

He looked at her, and the expression on her face was something unusual. It was a look of understanding and concern.

"Would you care to introduce me to anyone I may not know yet, Miss Mary?"

Mary looked at him as he extended his arm. She hesitated and took it. They walked into the gathering.

Darcy saw them and wondered if his friend finally found wisdom in a world filled with pretty faces and with mercenary intentions.

Mary's heart was beating fast as she walked along with Mr. Bingley. Why did he come and talk to me even before seeking out Jane? She wondered.

Mary introduced Mr. Bingley to a couple of young girls he had not met before.

"This is indeed a happy evening, Miss Mary. No wonder Sir William was so intent on us attending."

"Oh yes! We do look forward to the Meryton assembly every year. Although we have several balls during Christmas, this one is always a favorite amongst the villagers."

"What about you?" he asked.

"Well, I do not enjoy social gatherings much, sir, to be honest."

"Why not?"

"I do not know. I am happy at home with my music and books."

"You sound like Darcy. My friend seems the same way," Mr. Bingley said, looking in Darcy's direction. He was still in Sir William's company, entrapped between Jane and Miss Bingley on either side.

"But he did accompany you here."

"He did, with a lot of coaxing. Else, he may have spent the evening sitting in the library."

I know. Mary thought. From the very first introduction of Darcy, in Elizabeth's letters, she had described his love for reading.

"Miss Mary, if you are not otherwise engaged, would you do the honor of dancing with me?" Mr. Bingley asked her.

Mary looked at him with surprise.

"Which dance, sir?"

"The first one, of course."

"You want me to dance the first one with you?"

"Yes, are you engaged for that one?"

"No, but I did not think you would prefer to dance with me, I thought you may want to dance with my sis… I mean…", she hesitated to complete the sentence.

It suddenly struck Mr. Bingley how Mary felt.

"Miss Mary, please do not misconstrue my intentions. I genuinely want to dance the first dance with you. I may have preferred to dance with your sister on all the previous occasions, but I would be honored if you would dance with me now."

Mary stared at him, surprised by his open declaration.

"Will you?" he asked again.

"Of course," she said. His words were honest. She knew he was not replacing her just to irritate Jane. There were many other young women in the room he could have chosen to do so.

Mr. Bingley was happy when Mary agreed. He did not want her to misunderstand him. He realised ever since they were introduced, he had liked her.

Darcy, on the other hand, was tired of Sir William's conversations. He chose to stay engaged in the same to dodge Miss Bingley and Jane.

Miss Bingley and Jane had no choice but to leave to get refreshments as they were not getting attention from Darcy.

Mary was happy to see Mariah.

"It is so odd not to have Charlotte and Lizzy here."

"It is, Mariah. I still cannot believe everything that happened. It pains me to think I may never see Lizzy again."

"Why would you say that? She can visit Charlotte. You can go and see her."

"It's not that easy, Mariah. I do not want to risk Lizzy's situation in any way."

"I hope Mr. Darcy does not overhear anything about Lizzy's disappearance here."

"I am worried about that as well," Mary replied.

Jane and Miss Bingley were getting anxious by the minute. Darcy had not asked either of them to dance.

Lydia and Kitty have already secured their partners. With no intention of dancing, Darcy stood wondering what his friend was up to.

Just then, Mr. Bingley approached him.

"Don't tell me you are planning to stand and watch us dance, Darcy."

"That is what I intend to do."

"Well, you will not. I am certain you can dance one or two dances at least."

"I do not know anyone here."

"Of course you do. You do know my sister and the Bennet girls as well. Come on, don't make me find you a partner," he said and walked away.

Mr. Bingley passed by Jane and stopped.

"I hope you are doing well, Miss Bennet," he said to Jane.

"I am well, sir," she said in reply.

Mr. Bingley found her to be cold and aloof. She looked worried.

"Miss Bennet, the dancing is about to start. If you are not otherwise engaged would you dance with me? The first dance I have asked your sis…", he was not allowed to complete.

"I am sorry, sir. I am engaged for all the dances today," she said smiling.

Mr. Bingley did not know what to say.

"Ah! It is unfortunate indeed. Maybe next time," he said and walked away.

He knew for certain that she was lying. He did not know what was wrong suddenly.

In a few minutes, he overheard a conversation between Mrs Bennet and a few other women that gave him clarity on the situation.

"Oh! Mr. Darcy is so handsome and so rich. I am glad he is here this evening," Mrs Bennet said to her friends.

"He does not seem to be happy to be here. He has hardly spoken to anyone here except Sir William."

"Well, rich men can be shy. But, I am certain he will not be with Jane."

"Oh! Mrs Bennet, Jane is admired by all young men for certain. Perhaps Mr. Darcy is too late. We are aware of the partiality she has for Mr. Bingley."

"Oh! What nonsense. There is nothing of that sort. She was being courteous to Mr. Bingley, as he was new to society here. My dear Jane has such a kind heart. She is not partial to anyone. But as a mother, I know where her heart lies now," Mrs Bennet said with confidence.

Mr. Bingley quickly moved away. Everything made sense to him now.

She did not leave my side that day when she first met Darcy. I guess she was not aware of his wealth and status then. She must have heard about it of it before she came to Netherfield last time.

He felt angry at himself for not seeing her character. He had been blinded by her beauty.

This is what Darcy has been warning me every time. I never took him seriously. He could not believe how easily she switched from me to Darcy.

It was time for the first dance, and Mary stood nervously.

Mr. Bingley assisted her to the dance floor. He sensed she was nervous.

"Do not worry, Miss Mary, I will not embarrass you. I am a decent dancer."

Mary laughed.

"I do not doubt it, sir. I have seen you dance," she said, smiling.

Mr. Bingley looked at her keenly. She was the same person he had met a month ago. He had liked her then, and he liked her now. He realised what he felt for Jane was mere attraction, the feeling he had felt towards many pretty women in town.

For Mary, he realized it was different. He cared for her. That is why he had felt so pained the other day when Jane had insulted her.

"Is everything alright, sir?" Mary asked, looking at his worried face.

"Oh! Yes. I just realized my friend is still standing there without dancing."

Mary looked at Darcy and found him standing alone. She could not but stop imagining Elizabeth right next to him.

They deserve to be happy, but what can I even do? She thought with pain.

The dance ended. Mr. Bingley reached his friend.

"Are you still standing here alone?" Mr. Bingley asked.

"Yes, I am. I hope you enjoyed your dance."

"I did," Mr. Bingley replied, looking in Mary's direction.

Jane had danced with Mr. Fenton, having no other choice. She had waited till the last moment for Darcy to ask her. The same happened with Miss Bingley. She had danced with another gentleman, not wanting to sit out without a partner.

Mary was surprised by Darcy before the next set when he requested her to dance. He had not planned it thus, but he was standing next to Mary and Kitty. He saw one of the gentlemen lead Kitty for the next set. Mary stood alone.

Darcy never thought he would ask anyone for a dance. He wanted to keep the memory of dancing with Elizabeth forever.

But he did not know why, he walked up to Mary, and asked if she would dance with him.

Mary was shocked. She did not know what to say, and the music had already started.

She agreed and accompanied him onto the dance floor. Jane and Miss Bingley looked at them and fumed. Mrs Bennet could not believe her eyes.

Mary found it difficult to dance with Darcy. There were too many emotions inside her, she was scared she would just blurt out the secret to him.

Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth is my sister. She loves you deeply as well. She wanted to say. But she was wise enough to know that it was not that simple.

Darcy found Mary to be shy. She was trying hard to keep up with the pace of the dance.

"Miss Mary, I hope I am not going fast. Are you comfortable with the pace?" he asked out of concern.

"I am all right, sir. I am not used to dancing that much," she said.

"Oh! I see. If you are not comfortable, I understand. I could lead you bac to your friends."

"Oh, no! I did not mean it that way. I rarely get asked for a dance. So, I never really mastered the steps."

Darcy looked at her earnestly. There was something in her eyes he could not read. Her eyes expressed distress. He could not make sense of it.

"I suggest you get used to it. I did enjoy your dance with my friend."

Mary blushed.

"Thank you, sir," she said.

"Are you liking Hertfordshire?" she asked.

"I am."

Mary was silent.

"I will be leaving as soon though," he added.

"You will head to Derbyshire?"

"I will eventually," Darcy said.

"I have never left Longbourn much, except to visit our uncle in town. I do not know the feeling of being away from home for a long time."

"It is no easy, Miss Mary. I miss my sister and Eli…" Darcy bit his lip.

He had no idea how he said that to Mary.

"I mean, I miss my sister. I would be happy to be in her company."

He noticed the shock on Mary's face.

"I am glad you will head back soon, for your sister's sake. I know the feeling very well, sir. Sometimes you never realise how much you love them, until they leave you," she said with pain.

Darcy could not understand what she meant. He knew her sisters were not married, and all stayed in Longbourn. He could not understand whom she referred to.

Jane saw them both and fumed inside.

How could he dance with her? I wonder what enticed him, her preachings? How could she agree to dance with him when she knows I am set on marrying him?

Miss Bingley's thoughts were no different.

Mr. Darcy must be out of his mind to ask her to dance. Why did he do that? She wondered.

Once the dance ended, Darcy led Mary back to her party. He needed some fresh air and ventured out to the balcony.

Darcy did not know why, but he felt something was amiss with Mary. It was the same feeling he had felt when he met Elizabeth.

He did not know how he almost said Elizabeth's name to her. He had no idea how he could have slipped up so easily to a stranger.

The balcony was dimly lit and had a terrace leading to the lower level. Darcy saw a few men standing on the terrace. They were oblivious to his presence.

Darcy overheard the conversation amongst them.

"I cannot believe the Bennet family. They act as if nothing happened."

"Well, according to them, nothing did. She just left to stay with her uncle in town."

"I don't believe it."

"Well, half the village doesn't believe it as well."

"The servants in Longbourn say something happened after that relative visited them."

"Oh! I forgot his name. Who was that?"

"The parson, Mr. Collins. He was a clown."

"Maybe this will stay a mystery forever. Only if she returns, we may know the truth."

The topic drifted elsewhere, and Darcy could not believe his ears.

He was well acquainted with Mr. Collins from his yearly visits to Rosings.

What he overheard made no sense to him.

Who are they referring to? How is Mr. Collins associated with the Bennet family?

He was intrigued by the matter.

The evening ended with different emotions for everyone. Mr. Bingley was ashamed to have fallen so blindly for someone like Jane. Miss Bingley and Jane were enraged that their hopes with Darcy were not materalizing. Mrs. Bennet was vexed that Darcy had not spent time with her favorite daughter. Mary was still sad about Darcy's situation with Elizabeth.

But, Darcy had only one thought.

I wonder what the mystery is with the Bennet family.