As she threw a retrospective glance over the whole of their acquaintance, so full of contradictions and varieties, [Elizabeth] sighed at the perverseness of those feelings which would now have promoted its continuance, and would formerly have rejoiced in its termination.

- Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 46

On the third morning of their stay at Lambton, Elizabeth and her uncle and aunt set off for a walk through Lambton. They walked very slowly, and though she enjoyed her aunt's pleasure at old, familiar sights and recollections, she found herself growing a little impatient.

They had not gone very far when Mrs Gardiner happened across an old friend of hers, a Mrs Williams. After the obligatory meetings, Elizabeth asked and received leave to visit the nearby shop, Mortimer's.

'Mr Mortimer is a very pleasant, obliging man,' Mrs Williams said in her clear piping voice. This turned out to be the case; it was a neat, prosperous place, and the proprietor diffidently asked if he could be of service. She turned a bright smile on him.

'I hope so. I have four sisters and I need gifts for them all.'

He gave a soft, whispery sort of chuckle, and guided her to where an array of beautiful ribbons were kept. 'Smith has some pretty, inexpensive jewellery,' he added.

She was absorbed in her examination of the ribbons for some five minutes, quite oblivious to the silent customer who was himself turning different ribbons over in his fingers; only the elegant hands, familiar from more scrutiny than she would care to admit, finally alerted her to his presence.

Elizabeth started and dropped her selection. 'Mr Darcy!'

'Miss Bennet.' He managed to retrieve the ribbons and execute a polite bow at the same time. She was not certain how he managed it, but after all she had long been convinced that contradictory behaviour was perfectly natural to him. 'I hope you have been enjoying your walk?'

'Yes, very much,' she said absently. After hours of reflection, she had discovered something that had never before crossed her mind - that whatever her feelings were or might become, she liked him. Despite everything she liked being near him and she liked talking to him and she liked the way he listened to everything she said with the closest attention, as if preparing to pass it down with all the éclat of a proverb. The old fascinated dislike had not vanished but rather transmuted into interest of a friendlier nature. Determined to conquer the awkward, near-impassable gulf between them, she said in a lively tone, 'Are you considering some frivolous accoutrements, sir? If I may offer my opinion, red is a garish colour on most people; I should not attempt it were I you.'

He stared at the scarlet ribbons in his hand, then his lips twitched. 'Thank you for the advice, Miss Bennet. Do you have any suggestions -- for my sister?'

'I am very fond of yellow,' she said, smiling. 'It is a wonderfully cheerful colour. But not for Miss Darcy. She has such remarkably fine eyes, I think something bolder -- green or blue, or perhaps violet -- would suit her best.' She selected several of those colours and deposited them in his hand with a flourish.

Darcy was silent for a moment, then coloured, coughed, and said in a rather choked voice, 'Thank you.'

They made their purchases and walked out as Darcy haltingly inquired after her aunt and uncle.

'Oh, they are just outside, Mrs Gardiner was talking to an -- ' She stopped, looking around. The Gardiners were both gone, though Mrs Williams remained.

'Oh, Miss Bennet!' she cried, 'dearest Meg asked me to tell you that she and Mr Gardiner have . . . have . . .' She stared at Elizabeth's companion. 'Why, Mr Darcy, sir!'

'Good morning, Mrs Williams,' he replied. Elizabeth was amused to see a dozen transformations take place, each quite small, nearly insignificant and the general effect quite dramatic. He straightened to his full height, his complexion recovered its customary pallor, his usual sedateness conquered his expression, and unconsciously, it seemed, a note of quiet authority entered his voice. It was salutary, she thought, to remember that however out of his element in a ballroom, however uneasy with her he might be, this was his true, natural self.

'You were telling Miss Bennet where her aunt and uncle have gone?' Darcy was saying.

'Oh! yes, yes, of course, sir. She told me to tell you, miss, that she was a little faint and your uncle took her home. What a gentleman he is, ma'am!'

Elizabeth smiled. 'Thank you, Mrs Williams.'

'May I escort you ho -- to the inn?' Darcy inquired hurriedly, reverting to the half-awkward, half-eager suitor she had almost grown accustomed to. Six months could pass and nothing happen; three days, and whatever did happen, certainly it was impossible that anything could be the same.

'Yes, thank you,' she said, with a smile. He seemed to recover himself to a degree, and carried his side of the conversation with poise if not élan.

When Darcy and Elizabeth returned to the inn, the latter was for a moment discomposed. How would it appear to them? Would it be enough to justify enquiry? Despite her open and unaffected manners she had always been intensely private, she had no desire to explain the tangled web that was her perverse and contrary relationship with Darcy. Yet she wanted to know their opinion of him, she wanted - she wanted them to approve of him as much as the reverse.

'Will you come in, sir?' she enquired, her tone gentler than it had ever been with him.

To her astonishment, he politely declined. 'My guests will undoubtedly be wondering where I have gone,' he explained; 'please give my regards to your aunt and uncle.'

'Of course,' she said, suddenly horrified at the idea that her vanity might have led her astray again, that she might have completely misread his attentions. She extended her hand without knowing quite what she did; to her relief and disappointment, he merely pressed it with his own and took his leave. Elizabeth stared after him, aware as she had never been of his tall, upright figure; but he never looked back.

After a moment she recollected herself, colouring very deeply as she walked into their rooms. Mr Gardiner could not be seen, but Mrs Gardiner was lying on a sofa, looking pale and faint. Everything else fled her mind and she sprang forward, crying with more feeling than politeness, 'Good God! what is the matter? My dear aunt, you are -- excuse me, but you are very ill. Is there nothing you could take? A glass of wine;--shall I get you one? Where is my uncle?'

Mrs Gardiner laughed weakly. 'Lizzy, do not distress yourself, I am not ill. In fact this is an encouraging sign.'

Elizabeth stared a moment, then all the pieces fell together - the shortened trip, Mrs Gardiner so easily exhausted at Pemberley, her faintness today. 'Aunt, are you - '

'Margaret, here is your, er, this,' Mr Gardiner said with perfectly good cheer as he walked in. 'Ah, Lizzy, there you are. I thought I heard your voice downstairs. Did you find someone interesting to talk to?'

'I . . .' She flushed a bright red, and dropped her eyes. 'I, er, Mr Darcy was good enough to accompany me back to the inn.'

The Gardiners, excellent people that they were, did nothing to betray the curiosity they undoubtedly felt.

'I see,' said her uncle.

Mrs Gardiner sat up, some colour entering her pallid cheeks, and with her husband's support made her way to a chair, beginning to eat the decidedly odd meal before her. 'That was very kind of him,' she said mildly.

Elizabeth managed to smile. 'Yes, it was.'

'I like your Mr Darcy a great deal, Lizzy,' Mr Gardiner said with his usual forthright frankness.

'Oh, do you?' Without caring to examine the feeling too deeply, she was pleased at her uncle's approbation.

'He seems a very clever, sensible sort of man, - and confident enough not to be distressed by the existence of other clever, sensible people, which is less common than one might suppose.'

'Yes, I - I always noticed that.' Elizabeth belatedly realised what he had said. 'He is not mine, sir.'

'Very lord of the manor, but that is to be expected,' Mr Gardiner continued.

'Really?' Elizabeth looked up at him. 'I did not notice that at all.'

'A bit understated, of course, but there is a very definite sort of gravitas in his manner - not at all unnatural or affected, mind you, though perhaps a little unwieldy in so young a man.'

'He is much younger than I expected,' Mrs Gardiner added. 'Do you know his age, Lizzy? I cannot think him thirty.'

'No; six- or seven-and-twenty, I should think. He did say, once, that his sister is over ten years his junior, and I know Miss Darcy is sixteen.'

'Sixteen! I should not have guessed it. She has a very womanly appearance, does she not?'

Despite her eagerness for their approval - no, she reminded herself, their opinions - Elizabeth was quite glad to hear the conversation changed. Mrs Gardiner remained unwell for most of the day, and her niece retreated to her own room early that evening.

Her head was full of him when she went to bed, but she did not toss and turn as she had the night before. Instead she slept almost from the moment her head hit the pillow.

Elizabeth knew perfectly well that Mr Bingley and his relations were only part of a larger party, but even so she was startled to find seven or eight unfamiliar people when they arrived at Pemberley. Mr Darcy performed a long list of introductions from where he stood by his sister, and Elizabeth surmised that the company entirely consisted of a few friends and assorted hangers-on of the Miss Bingley variety.

Elizabeth found herself near Lord Annesley and his sisters (some wealthy cousins of Mrs Annesley's), Mr Willoughby, a poor relation of Darcy's, or at least what passed for poor among this lot, and Miss Darcy. Darcy himself was almost as far from her as could be imagined, which at least spared her a degree of anxiety - yet she found herself more disappointed than anything, and when she thought the others inattentive she often stole glances at him. Once or twice he looked in her direction, but no more, and in general he seemed in high spirits and talked with more animation than she had ever before thought him capable of.

'I understand you are from Hertfordshire, Miss Bennet?' Mr Willoughby inquired. He was about forty and very handsome, though with his warm dark colouring and easy charm not at all like his cousins.

'Yes, I am. My father's estate is there, about twenty miles from London.'

'A very convenient distance,' he observed. 'I could not imagine living much further from town than that.'

'No, I daresay not,' Lord Annesley said dryly, 'though Miss Darcy might not be in perfect agreement with you - is it not so, Miss Darcy?'

She looked horrified at being spoken to. 'I . . . I am very fond of Pemberley,' she managed. One of Lord Annesley's sisters took pity on her and said,

'Who could not be? I defy anyone to find it less than a piece of perfection - though it is so very far from town.'

Mr Willoughby laughed. 'I would never dream of defying such a claim, Lady Isabel. I have never seen a place for which nature has done more - and where man has had the good taste not to interfere!'

'I thought very nearly the same thing when I first saw it, though that was only four days ago,' Elizabeth replied.

'Should you care to always live near town, Miss Bennet?' another of Lord Annesley's sisters inquired.

'No,' Elizabeth said instantly, then blushed, not daring to meet Miss Darcy's mild green eyes, and said, 'That is, I have no great attachment to the city, except in that it allows me to spend time with my aunt and uncle.'

'They seem a charming couple,' Mr Willoughby said. 'Their house is on Gracechurch-street, I believe?'

'Yes,' said Elizabeth. She glanced towards Darcy. He was standing, his arms folded, and for a moment turned his head aside, looking utterly exasperated before he regained his countenance. Somehow the crack in his relentless good breeding was more endearing than anything else had been, and the sheer familiarity of it inspired a rush of affection, not because he was good or admirable or noble, though he was, but because he was him.

To her horror, he chose to glance up at her from across the room right then; his expression turned quizzical but a half-unconscious smile pulled at the corners of his mouth even as he turned back to his own companions. Elizabeth came back to herself with a start, and very much hoped her brief preoccupation had gone unnoticed. The others seemed involved in a conversation, except for Miss Darcy and Lady Sophia Annesley. The former's thoughts were as undetectable as ever, but the latter smiled at her with a hint of mischief.

'Miss Bennet, will you not take a turn about the room with me? It is very refreshing.'

Elizabeth's eyes danced as she remembered a similar application, and by the sudden elevation of her nose, so did Miss Bingley. 'Thank you, your ladyship,' she said, and joined her. It was in fact pleasant to stretch her legs after sitting so long. She was beginning to determine not to fix her eyes on Darcy when her companion said,

'Forgive me, Miss Bennet, but have you known the Darcys long?'

'Miss Darcy I have known scarcely four days,' Elizabeth replied, amused by the other's clear curiosity and complete lack of penitence, 'but Mr Darcy and I have been acquainted since last October. Mr Bingley rented an estate very near my father's.'

'Oh, Mr Bingley. That explains it,' said the lady. At Elizabeth's look she added, 'We do not really move in the same circles, except when Mr Darcy brings him along, of course.'

Elizabeth glanced at Bingley, who was being his usual amiable, agreeable self. 'It is a very singular friendship.'

'Oh yes; surely two more dissimilar men never existed. My brother simply detests the whole lot of them, though he is great friends with Mr Darcy. He is frightfully proud.' She directed an affectionate smile in Lord Annesley's direction.

'You are very fond of your brother, Lady Sophia?'

'I am. He is a very fine man, flaws and all. Why, if he had not written to Mr Darcy, I can hardly think where poor Jane would have gone!'

Elizabeth's mind instantly leapt to her own Jane. Why were there no letters? She bit her lip. 'Miss Bennet? Are you quite well?'

'Oh - yes, of course. I was only reminded of my sister Jane. I have yet to hear from her.'

'Perhaps she has fallen violently in love with somebody. There is no one like a lover for a dilatory correspondent.'

Elizabeth smiled, but with Mr Bingley in the corner of her eye said quietly, 'I do not think so.'

Elizabeth and Sophia's conversation had moved to more cheerful subjects, and both young ladies were well on their way to being very pleased with themselves and each other when a manservant came for Mr Darcy. He excused himself, but after a very few minutes, both Elizabeth and the Gardiners were sent for.

Whatever irritation she might have felt at the peremptory command vanished when Darcy said, 'These arrived for you, Miss Bennet; your maid sent the post on.'

Sarah, of course, knew perfectly well of Elizabeth's anxiety over Jane. 'Oh, thank you!' she cried, eagerly accepting the letters. Jane was instantly forgiven her delinquency; the first had been misdirected. The Gardiners and Darcy both took their leave of her, and Elizabeth began reading the instant their backs were turned. However the latter had just passed the doorway when she gave a very different sort of cry.

Darcy instantly whirled about and was at her side. 'Miss Bennet? what is the matter? I beg your pardon, but you are very ill. Is there nothing you could take, to give you present relief? A glass of wine?'

The similarity to the earlier scene at the inn struck her, but there was no happy cause to explain this away. 'No, I thank you,' she said, attempting to regain her composure. 'Where is my uncle? I must speak to him!' She tried to rise, but her legs trembled beneath her, and she would have undoubtedly fallen but for Darcy, who sprang up and supported her entire frame, his arm against her waist in utter disregard for the proprieties he usually deemed of such importance.

'Miss Bennet, you cannot go yourself - Lucy!' A passing maid stared at them in utter astonishment. 'Fetch Mr and Mrs Gardiner, they were returning to the saloon. Hurry!'

She scurried away and Darcy helped Elizabeth to a chair, which she sank onto gratefully, looking miserably ill. 'Forgive me, but is there anything I may do for you? You cannot be well, - '

'No, sir, I am, I am quite well. I am only distressed by some dreadful news which I have just received from Longbourn.' She burst into tears as she alluded to it.

Darcy murmured something indistinct. Elizabeth's spirits had never been so depressed in her life, and after a moment of incoherent thought, she blurted out, 'Jane says - it is such dreadful news. It cannot be concealed from anyone. My youngest sister has left all her friends - has eloped; - has thrown herself into the power of - of Mr Wickham.' She could heard him catch his breath, and did not dare meet his gaze, certain of the censure she would find there. 'They are gone off together from Brighton. You know him too well to doubt the rest. She has no money, no connections, nothing that can tempt him to - she is lost forever.'

He was absolutely motionless at her side, his breathing harsh and loud in the silent room.

'When I consider that I could have prevented it! - I who knew what he was.'

'Lizzy?' Mrs Gardiner, her husband just behind her, hurried towards her. 'Lizzy, what is it? Are you unwell?'

'No, no - ' She finally dared to look at Darcy, kneeling beside her, and was astonished to see undisguised compassion in his eyes. Without quite knowing what she did, she grasped his wrist and said, 'Lydia and Wickham left Brighton together on Sunday night, and were traced almost to London, but not beyond; they are certainly not gone to Scotland.'

'Scotland?' Mr Gardiner exclaimed. 'And what has been done, what has been attempted, to recover her?'

Elizabeth felt Darcy's skin icy beneath her fingers, and flinched back, wrapping her arms about herself. 'My father is gone to London,' she said numbly, 'and Jane has written to beg your immediate assistance, and we shall be off, I hope, in half an hour. But nothing can be done; I know very well that nothing can be done. How is such a man to be worked on? How are they even to be discovered? I have not the smallest hope. It is every way horrible!'

They all seemed to agree upon this point. Darcy retreated some distance away, walking up and down the room with an expression quite beyond even his usual gravity. Elizabeth immediately understood it. Whatever his feelings had been, whatever his affection for her, nothing could withstand this. Perhaps, even if it had been any other man - but Wickham! The decision, which her fancy had told her was solely her own, was taken out of her hands; his objections at Hunsford must be increased twentyfold, his own judgment more devastatingly accurate than even he had guessed. What man of the merest respectability would have anything to do with them now? She had no fear of it spreading further through his means, but what did that signify? She would rather anybody know than him. What it meant she was not certain, but she knew with absolutely certainty that she could have loved him.

Mr Gardiner, his brow contracted, seemed entirely caught up in his niece's feelings, but Mrs Gardiner, though embracing a tearful Elizabeth, could not keep herself from staring at their host. Darcy hastily collected himself, speaking in a tone of mingled compassion and restraint. 'I am afraid you have been long desiring my absence, nor have I anything to plead in excuse of my stay, but real, though unavailing, concern. Would to heaven that anything could be either said or done on my part, that might offer consolation to such distress! -But I will not torment you with vain wishes, which may seem purposely to ask for your thanks. I shall tell the others that urgent business calls us home immediately.'

'Oh, yes. Be so kind as to apologise for us to Miss Darcy - conceal the unhappy truth as long as it is possible. - I know it cannot be long.'

'You may depend upon my secrecy.' He hesitated, then added, 'I am very sorry, and I hope there may be a happier conclusion to this affair than there seems, at present, reason to hope.' With one serious, parting look, he went away.

Elizabeth turned her face away, into her aunt's shoulder, and broke into fierce and renewed sobs.